MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 20

International Socialist Review, November–December 2001


On terrorism:
What we think


From International Socialist Review, Issue 20, November–December 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


”Get on with the business of killing our enemies as quickly as we can, and as ruthlessly as we must.”

This was not a pronouncement by Osama bin Laden, but by Sen. John McCain in an article which ran in the Wall Street Journal exhorting the White House to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

McCain’s language and logic is identical to that used in the Vietnam War: “We cannot allow the Taliban safe refuge among the civilian population. We must destroy them, wherever they hide. That will surely increase the terrible danger facing noncombatants, a regrettable but necessary fact of war.”

So, in its war against terrorism, a leading and respectable member of congress proposes that indiscriminate killing of civilians in the pursuit of a political and military goal is fully justified.

The McCains of Washington are basically saying: terror conducted by “our” side is acceptable, but “their” terror is evil and morally bankrupt.

The grounds upon which the U.S. fights and justifies this war is therefore the purest hypocrisy.

“The ruling class forces its ends upon society,” wrote Russian revolutionary Trotsky, “and habituates it to considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality.”

Thus the U.S. labels as terrorism only those terrorist acts which contradict its own interests. When terrorism suits its interests, it is no longer terrorism. It pours indignant scorn upon the perpetrators of September 11 and the al Qaeda network, but calls extreme right-wing contra death squads in Nicaragua “freedom fighters,” as it once called Osama bin Laden and his Afghan fighters when they were fighting the Russians.

According to their morality, the bombing of the two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 were horrible atrocities, but the cruise missile strikes that destroyed Sudan’s capacity to manufacture needed antibiotics was justified.

The real practical difference between U.S. violence and the terrorism it decries is that its own terror is far more devastating than any that could be unleashed by the most far-flung network.

The revolutionary socialist movement has consistently opposed the methods of individual terrorism. “Social Democracy,” wrote Trotsky, “has 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 honor or the monarch’s prestige – are ready to shove millions of people into the hell of war.”

As socialists, we must first point out the hypocrisy of Bush and his like, who think nothing of blockading Iraq and starving millions of Iraqi children or bombing thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and driving millions of them into refugee camps where they will freeze and starve, and then rant about how “evil” must be stopped.

Israel plays the same game. It denounces as “terrorism” all acts of resistance against its occupation of Palestinian land, and justifies its own systematic program of bulldozing, bombings and assassinations in the West Bank and Gaza as fighting “terrorism.”

We therefore make a distinction between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. “A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains,” wrote Trotsky, “and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality.”

We cannot share in Israeli leaders’ tears over the death of a right-wing extremist. Our attitude toward those who assassinated Rechavam Ze’evi, the former general, Tourism minister and leader of a far-right party that advocated the forced removal of all Arabs from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, is one of sympathy. Their actions were motivated by a desire to see an end to Israel’s terrorist occupation of Palestinian land.

That does not mean that Marxists advocate individual acts of terror as an effective means of ending oppression. Socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class, not the actions of small minorities. Therefore the methods appropriate to fighting for workers’ power is the collective mass action of the working class, organized democratically. Mass action builds the solidarity and fighting confidence of workers, whereas terrorism weakens it.

“In our eyes,” Trotsky wrote, “individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.”

The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion 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 the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.

What, then, are we to make of the September 11 attacks? First of all, they were not terrorist acts even in the sense described by Trotsky above – misguided efforts by the oppressed to strike a blow against their oppressor. The targets were apparently chosen to kill massive numbers of innocent people. If the perpetrators were motivated by a hatred of U.S. policy in the Middle East (and this hasn’t been proven), the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks did not even target those responsible for America’s foreign policy. They targeted thousands of ordinary workers, immigrants and Muslims, many of whom are also victims of the corporate and military policy of the U.S. government. Moreover, rather than striking a blow against U.S. policies abroad, the attacks have strengthened them by handing Bush and Co. the green light to crack down on dissent at home and pursue their military agenda abroad unhindered. In this sense, September 11 was a profoundly reactionary act. The methods employed on September 11 were methods more common to Colombian fascist paramilitaries or right wing Cuban terrorists that the CIA trains and the U.S. “harbors.”

But the horror of September 11 is no justification for the state-sponsored terrorism of the United States. The key issue today is the mass terror raining down in the form of “bunker busters” and cluster bombs over Afghanistan that are adding to the list of widows and orphans of September 11. We must stand against that terror, and with the people of Afghanistan who deserve the right to determine their own future.

Last updated on 8 August 2022