Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Terrorism: A socialist response

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The subject of terrorism is not a clean and easy one to deal with firstly there is the well known popular view that one individuals terrorist is anothers freedom fighter. (For example the East Timorese and the ANC in Sth Africa, the Taliban in Afghanistan who went from freedom fighters when fighting against the Soviets to terrorists when fighting against the US- in the eyes of Western powers).

Secondly terrorism has also meant different things to different people at different times.

As an example in pre-revolutionary Russia the assassination of high ranking officials who engaged in brutal behaviour was a popular pastime- those who engaged in this type of activity could be called heroic (even if deluded in their methods). Not so those modern day terrorists with indiscriminate killings of every day citizens.

Actions like those of September 11, Bali and Chechnya were unequivocally condemned by the Socialist Party and by the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). Marxists have always been opposed to terrorist methods.

Trotsky once explained that “The first reaction of youth was revenge, assassination of ministers and we told them. Not that is our revenge not the assassination of ministers but the assassination of Tsarism, the order of tyranny”.

In other words just the elimination of some of the ruling class was not sufficient. The aim of Marxists is the elimination of the class system itself.

Trotsky also compared individual terrorism to “liberals with bombs”. Liberals (small “L”) believe that a fundamental change can be secured by partial measures, terrorists believe that by the assassination or bombing of an individual representative or even a group of representatives of imperialism or capitalism the system can be destabilised or defeated. Even worse modern day terrorists believe that indiscriminate death and destruction will defeat or destabilise western imperialist powers like the US, Australia or Russia. Whereas such actions have the opposite effect.

Capitalists will always find replacements for those so removed by terrorists. It will also make useful martyrs of every day citizens killed by terrorists- writing repressive legislation to be used against workers and citizens in their own blood. This is why socialists and Marxists counter pose to these methods mass action, mass meetings, demonstrations and strikes – including the general strike to defeat the bosses and overthrow capitalism.

The activity of socialists and Marxists and the labour movement in general is to make the working class conscious of their immense latent power. The are the strongest potential force in society and mass action is the key to social and political change As an example millions of people around the world marched to protest against the planned invasion of Iraq, many of them would have been union members, this show of forced certainly rattled world leaders but was not enough to stop the invasion, if however the trade union movements around the world had organised industrial action in concert with these world wide demonstrations it could well have been a different story.

Bosses around the world would not want to have to pay directly for the invasion in lost productivity or want to have a union movement inspired to action. They especially would not one inspired to action because of political motives which might raise their class consciousness.

The terrorist lowers the consciousness of the working class in its own strength and ability to fight. They reinforce the idea that the working class are passive in the face of the power of capitalism, that they have to wait for some great liberator or small conspiratorial group to liberate them, ie for someone else to do it for them.

Marxists also criticise terrorism because it is counterproductive to its stated aims of weakening the enemy. On the contrary it is always used as an excuse to strengthen the role of the capitalists to reinforce their state power and hence their ability to pursue state terrorism. The capitalists have an excuse to attack civil and democratic rights for example the laws passed around the world after September 11 giving secret police like ASIO increased power.

No one should be fooled by the capitalist story that it is because of the death and destruction caused by terrorists that they enact this legislation. Far more death and destruction (injury) is visited upon working Australians every year in the workplace then has ever been caused to every day Australians by terrorists. But there is no criminal law against bosses for this and the civil law is minimal at best. (Imagine if some one suggested just fining the September 11 or Bali bombers!!)

These methods also tend to drive the working class politically into the arms of the bosses and their representatives for example increased support for Bush and Howard.

Socialist Party and the CWI condemn terrorist attacks however our condemnation is different to that of Bush, Blair and Howard they and their predecessors have pursued mass terrorism against the Iraqi people and others. The terrorist methods of a group of oppressed people have different causes, origins and intentions than those of the ruling class. Growth in inequalities of wealth and lack of political access to effect change leads to frustration which potentially lead to aggression violence and terrorism.

Unlike for example Alexander Downer and other representatives of the ruling class who just like to portray terrorists as “evil” and as purely ideologically driven and that to quote Downer “it misconceives the problem to think there are root causes like poverty or hopelessly entrenched political impasses”, Socialists understand that social phenomena like terrorists have causes which are embedded in the make up of the capitalist system itself- poverty, inequality, despair and war. Even if some of the leaders of terrorist groups are purely or mainly ideologically driven this does not explain the existence of their followers. Without the fuel of poverty and despair terrorists cannot spark flames of terror and destruction.

This understanding does not mean Socialists should not condemn the use of such methods. To not unequivocally condemn terrorist methods plays into the hands of capitalists who are trying to say that all opponents of capitalism are terrorists. The methods of terrorists and the working class are vastly different. The actions of an individual terrorist or even a small conspiratorial group do not have enduring social consequences that benefit the working class.

The actions of workers like strikes have social consequences – the growth of the union, strengthening the workers confidence in their own strength. A terrorist attack even a “successful ” one only causes short lived confusion in the capitalist state at best. If an official is killed or buildings destroyed they can be replaced, murdered citizens can be made into martyrs- capitalism and state oppression continues.

But the confusion that terrorism can possibly introduce to the ranks of working class and oppressed people can go much further. If all you need are guns and bombs why go to the effort of the class struggle, why have a political party, meetings, agitation, elections, etc. Terrorism is not an admissible Marxist method as it belittles the role of the masses in their own eyes , it suggests to them, that all they have to do is wait for some great avenger or saviour. Also far from inspiring people to action as some terrorists suggest it turns them away from political action for getting themselves organised and just increases repressive acts by the state.

By Gary Duffy


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