Sunday, September 10, 2006

Open letter to an SWP'er on "terrorism"

The mass-murder on September 11th 2001 was a turning point for me: not because of the atrocity itself (vile as it was) but because of the reaction of the SWP and SWP-inluenced "left". I am willing to concede that some of the reaction in the West may have been hypocritical - as though Western lives count for more than 'third world' lives. But, equally, there was a strong sense on sections of the "far-left" that because the victims were American, their lives didn't matter, either.The scarcely-concealed gloating, the disgusting "Bitter Fruits" headline of Socialist Worker (a publication I have never purchased since then)...and a prominant SWP'er trying to persuade a firefighter delegate at Birmingham Trades Council, to boycott fundraising for New York firefighters: I realised then , that the SWP and people like them were not just "misguided comrades", they were the enemy. But, being in the Socialist Alliance, I had to carry on working with them, much as it turned my guts. By 2004, I was involved in an extended e-mail bunfight (nothing changes, does it?) with an SWP'er, one John Game who I understand is some sort of academic at SOAS: gawd help his students. The man had clearly read much too much Foucault, and too little Marx, Engles, Lenin or Trotsky. Still 'an all, at least he'd read something, unlike most SWP'ers. Anyway, I got into a row with him on the Socialist Alliance e-mail list in 2004.

Game seemed to be attempting to deny that the term "terrorism" had any meaning and arguing that socialist shouldn't even use the term. In the aftermath of the Madrid bombings, I sent him the following missive. It's not great but I think it still stands up. I've tidied up the grammer and spelling a little bit, but otherwise it's as sent on 17 March 2004:


"I've been off the air for a day or so, and I see from my in-tray that the debate has moved on since your first reply to me, but I'd like to comment on what seem to me to be your main points...

"1/ Terrorism and 'terrorism'.

"The point about the quotes (what I somewhat misleadingly called 'scare quotes') is that they suggest either that the writer doesn't accept that there *is* a terrorist threat at all, or that they think it shouldn't be called "terrorist". I suspect that you fall into the second catagory, and I'll take that up next. But just for now, it's worth noting the (until recently) widely-held view that terrorism is somehow not real, that it's all been got up by the government as an excuse to attack civil liberties or a justification for war. This denial of reality is not unique to the 'left' - it's widely held by liberals (read the Guardian letters page or Michael "Repeat after me: 'there is no terrorist threat' Moore's latest book) and, indeed, Tories like Simon Jenkins. Read Jenkins' piece in the present issue of the Spectator, published on the same day as the Madrid bombings: 'Daily life offers many risks but that from terrorist attack is extemely slight'.

"I would like to think that the Madrid tragedy has finally demolished that argument, but it's amazing how impervious to fact and reason the deniars can be. It's an important matter because (as you seem to acknowledge from the glance I've so far taken of a later posting from yourself) if and when an attack happens in Britain, we need to have prepared our political response. Clearly, we can't do that if we refuse to believe that it could happen at all.

"2/ The Marxist tradition.

"As you say, the word 'terrorism' has a meaning within the Marxist tradition. It also has a meaning (or rather, meanings) in everyday parlance and meanings for people of different classes and different politics. I would put it to you that events like Madrid (and 9/11) meet any criteria for the meaning of the word. You seem to think otherwise, for reasons that I'm not quite clear about but that seem to involve the fact that western governments often use the term selectively and hypocritically.

"As you are probably aware, the Marxist who wrote extensively and authoritatively on the subject was our old friend Leon Trotsky. Two points strike me about Trotsky's writings on terrorism : firstly that he recognises that 'our class enemies', for all their hypocricy, are often right (or nearly right) about what constitutes terrorism:

"'However, when they reproach us with terrorism, they are trying - although not always consciously - to give the word a narrower, less indirect meaning. The damaging of machines by workers, for example, is terrorism in this strict sense of the word. The killing of an employer, a threat to set fire to a factory or a death threat to its owner, an assasination attempt, with revolver in hand, against a government minister - all these are terrorist acts in the full and authentic sense'.

"Secondly (I think): that throughout his writings on the subject, Trotsky is invariably referring to acts carried out by progressive individuals and groups against the class enemy. The perpetrators are, to paraphrase him, 'misguided comrades'.

"In his famous, and very moving, article 'For Grynszpan', Trotsky is outspokenly sympathetic towards the young Jew who shot a Nazi official in 1938, calling him (Grynszpan) 'the precious flower of mankind'. Indeed (argues Trotsky) it is only our sympathy and unequivocal solidarity with the young comrade that gives us the right to criticise him: 'All our emotions and sympathies are with the self-sacrificing avengers even though they are unable to discover the correct road'.

"Can you imagine Trotsky writing anything similar about the perpetrators of 9/11 or Madrid? Is there any meaningful comparison? I should have thought that to ask the question is to answer it. The kind of terrorism that Trotsky (and all classical Marxists) criticised - assasination of individual Tsarist and military officials, capitalists and (later) Nazis, by revolutionary socialists and democrats, had neither means nor ends in common with al-Qaeda-type attacks.

"The murder of hundreds (on 9/11, thousands) of civilians, most of them workers, is not 'individual terrorism' in the sense that Trotsky used the term. It is more properly compared to the atrocities of imperialism. And the political and social goals for which Islamic fundamentalists fight (in so far as we can deduce them) can be fairly compared with classic European fascism.

"Al-Qaeda and their followers are not misguided leftwingers or 'anti-imperialists' (in any prgressive sense) but fanatical reactionaries whose aim is the destruction of any and all forms of democracy, the labour movement and all the most prgressive aspects of modern society. There can be no backhanded support, sympathy or equivocation about these forces. And to build an anti-war movement upon any degree of evasion or ambiguity about them is to build on sand.

"3/ Condemnation

"I guess my (and the AWL's) attitude to condemnation pretty much follows from the above. As you rightly note, this is not primarily because of 'abstract moralism' (though I do think that a moral objection to 9/11 and Madrid is perfectly proper for Marxists), but a matter of political programme. We're in the business of telling workers where we stand on all aspects of day-to-day life, all matters of concern and interest to them. We are also in the business of indicating our picture of an alternative society and world - albeit of necessity a sketchy, broad-brush picture.

"That's why I disagree so strongly with your argument that there's no point in condemnation because others are doing it and we 'would (not) be adding much'. So if people are already saying something we agree with, we should stop saying it? Your argument is not even logical. But it's also not honest: the reason you and the SWP refuse to condemn is because you don't want to; because you think it's wrong to do so. And, privately, you wish that others weren't doing so. Your US comrades (more consistent and honest that the British SWP), said after 9/11: "Don't condemn, don't mourn". This stance has nothing to do with Marxism, but everything to do with western liberal self-hatred and relativism.

"Much the same applies to your strange argument that 'there is a common sense understanding that we are responsible for what our government does' ('common sense'? Whose 'common sense'?) and that therefore we can condemn 'our' government's actions (and the actions of its allies) but not al-Qaeda because we are not responsible for it. Again, this is gibberish, even in terms of formal logic: are you and I responsible (I presume you mean direct, personal responsibilty, rather than some sort of collective, historic, metaphysical 'responsibility') for fascism? For slavery? Or, come to it, for what Bush and Blair do? Does that influence whether or not we condemn them?

"No, your real argument reduces socialist politics to slogans designed to go down well with a particular 'market' - an advertising agency approach. Albeit an ad agency with an unusual target audience.

"As for your objecting to the suggestion that the SWP and some others inside the anti-war movement have 'illusions in the progressive politics of bin Laden': well, can't you see that if you if you refuse to condemn, then the question will inevitably arise. As a matter of fact, I don't think that the SWP leadership have illusions in bin Laden. Which makes their studied silence on the matter all the more cynical and contemptible. It's not even comparable with those socialists (and I most certainly don't mean the forerunners of the SWP!) in the 1970's who refused to condemn the Birmingham pub bombings, out of a sense of solidarity with the PIRA: at least that stance took some real courage in the face of overwhelming, and often physically violent, public opinion. At the moment there is no such hysteria surrounding al-Qaeda and bin Laden. In fact a certain grudging sympathy for Islamism seems to be de rigeur in Guardian-reading circles these days.

"4/ Western responsibility

"Actually, while writing that last section, it dawned on me that an awful lot of your argument comes down to the proposition that (in the words of 'Private Eye''s trendy vicar/bishop, "We are all guilty". All guilty, that is, of what the 'western powers' do (the quotes are simply to indicate that the terminology is yours, not mine). Therefore, morally and politically, we have no right to condemn what what the Islamist enemy of those powers does, even if we don't agree with what that Islamist enemy stands for in any positive sense whatsoever. Once again, pure relativism, laced with moralism, self-hatred and the old 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' riff. I'm sorry if that seems harsh, but I really cannot work out any other coherant explanation for what you are saying.

"You ask what I think is the connection between 'what the western powers do and horrible things that happen'. Well, I'm quite prepared to agree that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have inflamed the sensibilities of Muslims throughout the world, and have undoubtably recruited a lot of angry young men to bin Laden's cause. Those wars are probably the direct and immediate cause of this latest (ie: Madrid) attack. I am also willing to agree that US / British policy in the Middle East generally, and Israel / Palestine specifically, is the cause of much justified resentment and bitterness amongst Muslims and others throughout the world. Some of that anger is no doubt a factor in creating the environment in which al-Qaeda and its local offshoots can recruit and operate. But that's not all there is to it: remember, 9/11 happened before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and all the evidence suggests that bin Laden's primary grievance concerned the role of the Saudi royal family in allowing US forces on sacred land and had little or nothing to do with Isreal / Palestine. Anyway, what concievable 'solution' to Isreal / Palestine that socialists could put forward would satisfy bin Laden? Clearly not 'two states', as that would leave the 'Zionist entity' in place. And (for equally obvious reasons) not a single 'democratic secular state' as, in theory, is still advocated by the SWP.

"faceit, John: al-Qaedais driven by ideological hatred for all things 'western', including socialism, the labour movement, democracy, womens' equality, gay rights, etc; etc. It is not, primarily, driven by poverty, inequality or westrn aggression / exploitation of the 'third world'. If that was the cause, then why have not similar movements arisen in, say, Vietnam, ot anywhere in Africa except Muslim North Africa?

"There's a lot more I wanted to write in response to your mailing (in particular about the real democratic content of the KLA's demands and role), but that will have to wait for another day.

"Once again, apologies if the debate has, by now, moved on.


"Jim Denham."


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