Socialist Worker

Marxism and terrorism

Issue No. 1766

THE DEVASTATING attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US have seen politicians and press unite to denounce those responsible as 'evil terrorists' with no regard for 'the sanctity of human life'.

As Socialist Worker went to press on Tuesday the media were suggesting that the attacks were carried out by groups based in the Middle East. We did not know whether that was true. But whoever was responsible, socialists have a clear attitude. We abhor violence, and oppose indiscriminate bombings of civilians.

Politicians like US president George W Bush, Tony Blair and most of the media have a quite different attitude. They are all in fact quite happy to condone, carry out and cheer on indiscriminate bombings, plane strikes from the air and wholesale murder of civilians.

So in the last decade the US has bombed hospitals, factories and schools in Iraq, Serbia, Somalia and elsewhere, killing many, many thousands of innocent civilians. Tony Blair also sent British planes to bomb in Serbia and Kosovo, killing civilians and refugees.

The truth is that for politicians like Bush and Blair one sort of terrorism-the brutal state terrorism of the biggest imperialist powers, the US and Britain-is justified, but the terrorism of those who have suffered as a result is not. Socialists reject this hypocrisy and take an entirely different approach. Our stance is summed up in the writings of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky on terrorism.

Although written over 80 years ago, Trotsky's writings remain an invaluable guide. First of all Trotsky dealt brilliantly with the hypocrisy of our rulers. Socialists, he argued, have 'nothing in common with those bought and paid for moralists who, in response to any terrorist act, make solemn declarations about the 'absolute value' of human life.

'These are the same people who, on other occasions, in the name of other absolute values-for example, the nation's honour or the monarch's prestige-are ready to shove millions of people into the hell of war.' Trotsky also understood that terrorism arose because of the tyranny and oppression of our rulers. 'We understand only too clearly the inevitability of such convulsive acts of despair and vengeance,' he wrote.

But 'individual revenge does not satisfy us', said Trotsky. Moreover, as a political strategy for change, Marxists were 'irreconcilably opposed' to terrorism. A terrorist aims at particular individual government ministers or their armies, security forces or symbols of power.

But the exploitation socialists are fighting is not the product of an individual minister or even of particular governments. The exploitation, oppression and injustices in society are a product of a world economic system of capitalism, not of particular individuals within it, however brutal and obnoxious they might be.

'The capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves will always find new people,' wrote Trotsky.

That means acts of terrorism have very limited consequences. Trotsky put it like this: 'The smoke from the explosion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before-only police repression grows more savage and brazen.'

It follows that to rid the world of oppression and injustice requires not merely the assassination of particular ministers or the blowing up of military or other targets, but tearing up the roots of the capitalist system itself. The only force with the power to do that is the collective strength of the working class.

Trotsky wrote, 'A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences -the strengthening of the workers' self confidence, growth of the trade union and, not infrequently, even an improvement in production technology.'

By contrast the terrorist act takes place 'behind the backs of the masses'. Individual terrorists or terrorist groups do not even have to have the mass of people behind them to plant a bomb, stage an attack or assassinate the leaders of a state.

Rather, acts of terrorism represent a desperate attempt by a minority to substitute themselves for mass action. Sometimes terrorist groups do achieve a significant level of support. This was the case, for instance, with the Provisional IRA in the early 1980s around the campaign for the H-Block hunger strikers. And it is certainly true that Middle Eastern groups who have staged attacks in the US or Europe have found support among ordinary Palestinians and across the Middle East.

That support is easy to understand. Palestinians have been on the receiving end over the last year of continuous murderous assaults by Israel, backed to the hilt by the US. Even before the latest round of US-backed Israeli terror the Palestinians had suffered over half a century of forcible deportation, violence and murder at the hands of Israel and the US.

No wonder that, faced with that, some people feel desperate enough to lash out and strike back in any way they feel possible. But even when armed or terrorist groups win support, that mass backing is seen by the groups as a backdrop to the real struggle. That struggle remains the terrorist acts themselves. And those acts-the planning of an attack, the securing of weapons and the planting of the bomb, for example-are carried out in secret only by a tiny minority.

A terrorist assassination or bombing can also introduce deep disarray into the ranks of the working class, particularly when ordinary people are killed or injured. That can create a favourable atmosphere for the introduction of new measures of state repression. Moreover individual terrorism, says Trotsky, 'belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness'. Trotsky asked, 'If it is enough to arm oneself with a pistol in order to achieve one's goal, why the efforts of the class struggle? If a thimbleful of gunpowder and a little chunk of lead is enough to shoot the enemy through the neck, what need is there for a class organisation?'

So terrorism is not just a different method of struggle against oppression, but runs counter to the fight for socialism. As Trotsky put it, 'The revolvers of individual heroes instead of the people's cudgels and pitchforks, bombs instead of barricades-that is the real formula of terrorism.'

The sort of society socialists are fighting for is one where workers themselves take control and run society in their own interests. Such a society cannot be achieved by the actions of a tiny minority, but can only be forged through the mass activity of workers themselves.

Moreover it is through the process of revolutionary struggle that workers begin to throw off all the reactionary ideology of the capitalist system and become, as the socialist Karl Marx put it, 'fitted to found society anew'. Therefore the revolution itself is a crucial part of preparing workers with the confidence in their ability to run society and their lives.

Socialists do not deny the working class and the oppressed the right to use violence against their oppressors. We know that the ruling class will not give up all their power, wealth and privileges without a struggle. For socialists that struggle cannot be conducted by individuals or elite groups, but only through the collective struggle of the mass of the working class and oppressed.

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What We Think
Sat 15 Sep 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1766
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