What Socialists Say About Terrorism

THE SOCIALIST has been forthright in its condemnation of those who attacked the World Trade Centre (WTC) and Pentagon. We described their methods as those of “small groups employing mass terrorism”.
At the same time, we have not given any support to George Bush or Tony Blair, who call for a ‘war against terrorism’, yet support state terror against defenceless and innocent people in the neo-colonial world.
PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party General Secretary, develops further the question of terrorism and socialist attitudes towards it.

What Socialists Say About Terrorism

HISTORICALLY, MARXISM has always opposed terrorist methods. In 1938 Leon Trotsky stated: “All Marxists in Russia began in the historic fight against terrorism”.

Under the 1,000 years old Tsarist dictatorship in Russia, terrorist methods such as the assassination of ministers could hold sway over a layer of young people, intellectuals, individual workers and peasants so long as the organised working-class movement had not yet fully appeared on the political scene.

The 1905 Russian Revolution, with the entry onto the scene of the masses, particularly the working class, pushed these methods into the background.

But the revolution’s defeat in 1907 once more saw the rise of terroristic methods.

This was a reaction to the murder, torture and imprisonment by the Tsarist state machine. Even then, the Bolsheviks implacably opposed terroristic methods.

Trotsky compared individual terrorism to “liberals with bombs”. This appears strange to us today. Yet a liberal believes that a fundamental change can be secured by partial measures; that the replacement of a minister or even a government is sufficient to bring about change.

Similarly, terrorists believe that by the assassination or bombing of an individual representative of imperialism or capitalism, or even a group, this system can be ‘destabilised’ or even defeated.

Mass action

However, the capitalists will always find sufficient replacements for those removed by the actions of terrorists.

This is why socialists and Marxists counterpose to these methods mass action, mass meetings, demonstrations and strikes, including the general strike, to defeat the bosses and abolish capitalism.

Consequently, the activity of socialists and Marxists, and the workers’ movement in general, is to help to make working class people conscious of their immense latent power. They are the strongest potential force in society, and Marxists emphasise that mass action is the key to social and political change.

The terrorists, notwithstanding their intentions, actually lower the consciousness of the working class in its own strength and ability to fight. They reinforce the idea that working class people are passive in the face of the power of imperialism and capitalism. They must wait for the ‘great liberator’, small conspiratorial groups, to act for them in the struggle for emancipation.

For the Palestinian people in the past, guerrillas based outside the country, in the rest of the Arab world and internationally, were seen as their future liberators. However, the 1980s’ defeat in the Lebanon and the evacuation of the Palestinian fighters following the Israeli occupation of that country dashed this hope.

This led to a feeling amongst the Palestinians on the West Bank, in Gaza and within Israel itself that ‘we must do it ourselves’. This in turn led to the first intifada, and the more recent and bloody second intifada.

This movement essentially is a mass movement with an armed wing. It is true that groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have wrongly resorted to the method of the ‘suicide bomber’ against Israeli forces. When employed in Israel it has struck down ordinary Israelis.

These methods, we understand, are born out of the terrible suffering of the Palestinians as well as the closing off by the Israeli state of other legitimate means of struggle and protest.

However, it has been counter-productive, both in terms of the increased killings and suffering of the Palestinian masses and the excuse this gives to the Israeli ruling class to carry through further repression.


IN THE past, even though their methods were wrong, the terrorists were often cast in a heroic mould.

They were prepared to sacrifice their lives by eliminating individual representatives of capitalism – the army general, the minister, the chief of police, etc. – without killing the innocent.

This ‘terrorism’ – although ultimately it emanates from, and is nourished by social, national, religious or ethnic oppression, is qualitatively different in character. Even in the 1970s and the 1980s, when terrorism was prominent, there was a tendency for those who used terror – although not all terrorist groups – to do so indiscriminately.

The car bomb, the planting of bombs in buildings, the suicide bomber, often resulted in the death, not just of the ‘oppressors’ or their state forces, the symbols of their rule, etc., but of innocents too. But the US attacks took terrorism onto a qualitatively different level. Its aim was to terrorise a whole population for ideologically inchoate, messianic principles.

Marxists criticise terrorism because it is counterproductive to its professed aims of weakening ‘the enemy’, in the case of the US attacks, US imperialism. On the contrary, it is invariably used to strengthen the rule of capital, to reinforce its state power and hence its ability to pursue ‘state terrorism’.

The capitalists have the excuse to attack or encroach upon civil and democratic liberties. Most of all, these methods tend to drive the working class into the arms, politically, of the bosses and their representatives.

Witness the attempts of the Bush administration, with the cover provided by the bloodletting, to attack civil liberties – proposals to hold legal immigrants indefinitely, increased powers for wire tapping, etc., the militarisation of US society, armed guards on planes, the presence on troops on the streets and the mobilisation of reservists.

US Congress

The fact that there is growing resistance to the attempts to hastily push through these measures in the US Congress by the Bush administration is testimony to the American people’s determination not to be panicked into accepting patently anti-democratic measures under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’.

But Bush enjoys the highest ratings of any president in history, 92%, compared to 50% prior to 11 September. The attacks have achieved the seemingly impossible: to make Bush – a “corporation disguised as a human being” – popular, at least temporarily.

Furthermore, US capitalism has managed to bring under its ‘coalition’ umbrella forces hostile to US imperialism until recently, e.g. Iran, Hezbollah in the Lebanon, etc. This itself is an indication of the effect in scale and the character of the terrorist attacks in the US.

It was of a different order to anything that we saw in the past. In Northern Ireland, for instance, in 30 years of the Troubles, about half the number were killed as perished in the attacks on one day in the US. In one US firm, 1,500 children lost a parent.

Therefore, it is an understatement to describe this as ‘individual terrorism’, aimed at one specific target. These were the actions of a small conspiratorial group, allegedly bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organisation, or those allied to it, which perpetrated an act of mass terror, not just against the 6,000 that were killed but against the US population as a whole.

Capitalist hypocrisy

THERE ARE some socialists who refuse to ‘condemn’ the US terrorist outrage.

One such organisation is the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. A circular to Socialist Alliance members from two leading SWP members, stated: “We do not believe that the use of the word ‘condemn’ is appropriate in relation to the tragic events in the US.

“Clearly we do not support the attacks on working class people and it should go without saying that we oppose the strategy of individual terrorism. But the language of ‘condemnation’ is that which is always required of socialists and national liberation movements by the media and the ruling class. It would have been better to avoid it for this reason…

“There are lines to draw here – we believe the Socialist Alliance should be part of an unstinting and principled opposition to US and Western imperialism and the further mass murder Bush and Blair intend to unleash on the world”.

It is nonsense to argue that condemnation of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will strengthen Blair and Bush. On the contrary, not to do so can drive infuriated workers into the arms of the capitalists.

The Socialist has made it absolutely clear that our criticisms of the actions in the US are entirely different in content and character to the hypocritical speeches of Bush and Blair when they attack ‘terrorism’.

They, and their predecessors, have pursued mass terrorism, against the Iraqi people and the Serbs. They have been complicit and silent when Israel invaded the Lebanon in 1982 with the death of 17,500 people.

Moreover, Blair and Bush do not say a word about the 30,000 who were slaughtered because of the murderous gangs of Nicaraguan contras who were supported and financed by US imperialism. Nor do they have any comment about the 120,000 killed in Algeria – many of them victims of the state terror of the Algerian government.

We unreservedly condemn the organised, systematic state terrorism of the capitalists. But this does not release us as socialists from a duty also to criticise and implacably oppose the actions of terrorist groups which play into the hands of the ruling class.

Socialist Party

This the Socialist Party in England and Wales has consistently done, and particularly our sister party in Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, the SWP and other alleged ‘Marxist’ organisations have not done this. Indeed, they have sometimes been uncritical cheerleaders for the methods and policies of terrorist groups.

We recognise that the terrorist methods of a group from an oppressed people have different causes and origins and intentions than those of the ruling class.

Even a capitalist writer such as Daniel Warner from the Institute of International Studies in Geneva wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Terrorism has causes. Growth in inequalities of wealth and lack of political access lead to frustration, which potentially leads to aggression, violence and terrorism. The greater the levels of frustration, the greater the levels of violence. The higher the levels of repression, the higher the levels of reaction.”

He added: “But what is terrorism? It is the activity of the dispossessed, the voiceless, in a radically asymmetrical distribution of power”.

In other words, it is in the social, national and the religious situation, that we must look for the causes of terrorism. It is true that the origins of the al-Qaeda organisation are different from other terrorist organisations.

Bin Laden himself is from a rich Saudi family, which came originally from the south of the country on the borders of Yemen. Others, part of the al-Qaeda network who have been identified as hijackers, came from middle class families, and even from the elite, in Egypt and other Arab countries.

They seem such a contrast to many of the impoverished Palestinian young people who have blown themselves up in attacks on Israel and have little formal education. The Tamil Tigers suicide soldiers and bombers came, in the main, from the most oppressed Tamil layers.

But this is not the first time in history when suicide bombers, some from a privileged background, have killed themselves in the act of inflicting a blow on ‘the enemy’. In the 19th century this was often the preferred method of those struggling against national oppression. There is also, of course, the example of the Kamikaze suicide bombers from Japan.

Workers’ struggle

The causes, the immediate trigger for such methods can seem to be obscure but are rooted ultimately in the objective conditions of a country or region.

The age-old oppression by imperialism is keenly felt by all layers of the Arab world, including those in the middle class, upper middle class and even those coming from a capitalist background.

The barbaric treatment of the Palestinian masses by the Israeli ruling class, with the silence and therefore connivance, of the Bush regime – which backs Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year – enormously inflamed Arab public opinion in the run-up to 11 September.

Despite the apparently privileged background and lifestyle of the hijackers, this mood in the Arab world could not fail to communicate itself to them as it has done to Arab intellectuals as a whole. Therefore, the actions of the hijackers, notwithstanding the right-wing obscurantist programme of bin Laden, is ultimately grounded in the feeling of intense oppression of the Arab people as a whole.

Consequently, US imperialism’s ‘war against terrorism’ cannot succeed in the long run so long as the conditions which have bred terrorism remain. The fact that these methods are used is also a reflection of the weakness of Marxism and the organised working-class movement.

This is partly because of the dramatic shift to the right of the ex-social democrats who head the ex-workers’ organisations. And one of our main tasks is to help build new workers’ parties internationally.

It is necessary to understand the causes of terrorism. But in no way does this mean that socialists and Marxists should take a shadow of responsibility for the methods which they use, which ultimately play into the hands of the capitalists.

The Socialist Party and its supporters are not pacifists. We will defend the democratic rights of the working class – the right to strike, freedom of assembly, a free press, etc. – no matter from what quarter it comes – with all legitimate political means at our disposal.

In the event of the capitalists seeking to take these away by force – as they did in Chile in the early 70s (supported by US Secretary of State Kissinger) – we would be prepared to fight to defend such rights.

The worldwide ‘war against terrorism’ of Bush, Blair, etc. will undoubtedly seek to paint all opponents of capitalism – the anti-globalisation/anti-capitalist activists – also as ‘terrorists’.

They will attempt to equate terroristic methods with working-class organisations’ right to defend themselves from the attacks of the capitalists, including state attacks, neo-fascist and right-wing attacks, etc.

No matter how well intentioned, equivocation in condemning terrorist methods will play into the hands of the capitalists.

The Socialist Party opposes the false methods of those who perpetrated the New York outrage and counterpose to this the ideas of mass struggle, of education, propaganda and agitation, to rid the world of capitalism and terrorism by fighting for and establishing socialism.