Socialist Worker

Blame the system that creates terrorism

Terrorist attacks are often a brutal response to a brutal world, explains Simon Basketter—and the only way to end the violence is to transform the society that breeds it

Issue No. 2556

Floral tributes to those killed in the Manchester bombing

Floral tributes to those killed in the Manchester bombing

Cries of “Pure evil”, “evil losers”, “beyond evil” have been repeated by politicians and the press after the horrific Manchester bombing last week.

But we have to do more than simply genuflect to outraged cliches if we are to understand what happened.

It suits those at the top to argue that acts against civilians are essentially inexplicable.

To try and explain it, so the argument goes, is to justify and therefore support such acts.

But we need to get beyond the idea that people are simply bad.

Socialists abhor violence against civilians and oppose indiscriminate bombings of people.

Stop Britain’s wars to end terror, says Corbyn—while May offers only repression
Stop Britain’s wars to end terror, says Corbyn—while May offers only repression
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But for all their bluster politicians and their cheerleaders in the media have a different view.

They are quite happy to condone, carry out and applaud indiscriminate bombings, plane strikes from the air and wholesale murder.

One sort of terrorism—the brutal state terrorism of the biggest imperialist powers, the US and Britain—is justified.

No others are. Especially the terrorism of those who have suffered from the actions of the most powerful.

Socialists reject this hypocrisy.

Far from acknowledging the role that their policies have played in fuelling terrorism, politicians offer yet more of the actions that fuel it in the first place.

We are offered continued wars in the Middle East.

It is worth remembering that the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain was sold as a way of reducing the threat of terrorism. It did the opposite.

The calls for repression after the latest attacks are as predictable as they will be ineffective in “preventing” terrorism. In fact they are more likely to cause more of it.


A state of emergency was declared in France after terror attacks in Paris in 2015. This did not prevent 84 people being killed in a subsequent terror attack in Nice.

More than a decade of torture, rendition, repressive attacks on civil liberties and rafts of new laws has not stopped terrorist attacks.

But it has repressed and criminalised Muslims, and created a climate of fear and racism. It was the same in the 1970s and 1980s in response to Irish terrorism.

Suicide bombings are not some barbaric throwback to pre-modernity.

Armed cops put on the streets after the Westminster bombing did nothing to keep us safe

Armed cops put on the streets after the Westminster bombing did nothing to keep us safe (Pic: Neil Terry)

They are a horrible, distorted response to the very real horrors of imperialism and capitalism.

There is nothing Islamic, Muslim or even fundamentalist about suicide bombers. Suicide terror attacks have been carried out by Christians, Zen Buddhists and atheists.

As the US writer Mike Davis put it a decade ago, “Every laser-guided missile falling on an apartment house in southern Beirut or mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the centre of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles.”

Socialists don’t approve of terrorism. It is at best counterproductive.

But however brutal terrorism is, the devastation and death toll are still on a massively smaller scale than that routinely inflicted by the armed forces of “civilised” states.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote that we 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 are ready to shove millions of people into the hell of war.”

He wrote, “We understand only too clearly the inevitability of such convulsive acts of despair and vengeance.”

But the exploitation, oppression and injustices in society are a product of a worldwide economic system. They are products of capitalism, not of particular individuals within it—however brutal and obnoxious they might be.

So even acts of terrorism against the state 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.”

Terrorist attacks can introduce disarray into the ranks of the working class, particularly when ordinary people are on the receiving end.

The left should take no lectures on Northern Ireland from the Tories
The left should take no lectures on Northern Ireland from the Tories
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That can create a favourable atmosphere for the introduction of those measures of state repression.

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.

After a terrorist attack in London in 1867 by Irish republicans—then known as Fenians— that killed civilians the revolutionary Karl Marx wrote, “The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing.

“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and be driven into the arms of the of the government party.

“One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries.”


The revolutionary Frederick Engels replied, “It is the misfortune of all conspiracies that they lead to such stupidities, because ‘after all something must happen, after all something must be done’.”

It is worth noting that Marx and Engels fully backed the Fenian movement.

The civilian deaths in Clerkenwell were an accident. But many terrorist attacks, such as the one in Manchester, do deliberately target civilians.

Time and time again desperate young people on every continent at different times have come to believe a disastrous fantasy. That hurling back a portion of the system’s violence in some act aimed at innocent people would change things for the better.

They are always tragically wrong.

A Reaper drone carries Hellfire missiles over Afghanistan

A Reaper drone carries Hellfire missiles over Afghanistan (Pic: Neil Terry)

The oppressor possesses a military might unimaginably greater than anything the oppressed have at their disposal.

The oppressed cannot hope to inflict on the enemy the kind of material damage that will force the oppressor to back off.

All they can hope to do is inflict psychological damage by showing that the oppressed will stop at nothing to terrorise the oppressor country.

The aim is to inflict pain on the opposing society.

It derives from a position of weakness—of not being able to compete with the violence that the oppressor can dish out.

It is clean to kill people with drones and missiles—and a dirty suicide bomb will never compete.

There is also the hope that becoming a self-sacrificial killing machine will inspire others.

Elitist ideas of people’s values as acceptable targets comes from the dominant ideas in our society.

Our rulers do punish whole populations with war and repression. That is part of what leads to the politics of despair.

It is also the consequence of seeing the fight against injustice in non-class terms. It equates the rulers with the people.

It is just such a logic that thinks only a tiny group of dedicated fighters can avenge the wrongs in society.

That the mass of people is either corrupt or incapable of stirring into action—unless “exemplary” action is taken by the dedicated.


The greater the impotence of those caught in this spiral, the bigger the dream of brutal destruction—the better to make an impact.

In contrast our argument rests upon the fact that society is divided into classes with opposed interests.

That worthwhile struggle cannot be conducted by individuals or elite groups, but through the collective struggle of the mass of the working class and oppressed.

Against the despair and pessimism, as Trotsky put it, “Only a great revolutionary mass movement can free the oppressed, a movement that will leave no remnant of the entire structure of class exploitation, national oppression, and racial persecution.”

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