Capitalism & Terrorism
Paranoia & Hypocrisy in the Age of Imperialism
The following is an edited version of a talk given in Toronto by Josh Decker on 23 October 2004.
Capital, as Karl Marx observed, came into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 31). Yet Marxists recognize that the overthrow of feudalism represented an enormous leap forward for humanity: capitalism vastly accelerated the development of science and technology, increased labor productivity exponentially and opened up vast new possibilities for the expression of human individuality. That these contributions were limited and deformed by the straitjacket of private property should not blind us to capitalism’s immensely progressive character in relation to all previous class societies.
The French Revolution of 1789, the decisive event that established the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie over the feudal aristocracy, pitted a dynamic new form of social organization against a decrepit old one. In place of feudal absolutism, the rising capitalist class established what Marx termed the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” The new social order was consolidated through the infamous Reign of Terror associated with Maximilien Robespierre. Contemporary bourgeois academics, who tend to view the Jacobin “Terror” as an unfortunate excess, generally prefer to ignore the role that violence played in establishing capitalist supremacy. For them, the development of human civilization is a gradual, evolutionary process that would be entirely peaceful if not for the activities of subversives, fanatics and other “evil-doers.” But the Terror of the French Revolution, like all important events, must be seen in its historical context, as Mark Twain observed in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak?”
The cumulative violence of the old order was infinitely greater than that of Robespierre and his associates. The Jacobin Terror was historically justified because it helped secure a new, progressive social order. Likewise, for ordinary Russians the violence of the “Red Terror” employed by the Bolsheviks to defend the October Revolution against the Whites and their imperialist backers, was nothing compared to the horrors of life under the Czarist autocracy. Leon Trotsky, who, after Lenin, was the central leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote at the time:
“The State terror of a revolutionary class can be condemned ‘morally’ only by a man who, as a principle, rejects (in words) every form of violence whatsoever—consequently, every war and every rising. For this one has to be merely and simply a hypocritical Quaker.”
— Terrorism & Communism
Revolutionaries judge everything, including the use of “violence,” not on the basis of abstract moral categories, but rather by its consequences for social development. By this criterion, the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 were not progressive; they were profoundly reactionary acts. Most of those killed were ordinary working people. We shed no tears for the military cadres in the Pentagon who died that day, but the mass murder of three thousand innocent civilians in the twin towers and aboard the four commercial airliners was a heinous, anti-working class crime.
Nine days after the attacks, in an address to a joint session of Congress, George W. Bush took advantage of Americans’ fear and sense of vulnerability to launch his cynical “war on terror.” The Commander-in-Chief of the military apparatus that deliberately exterminated hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to “shock and awe” the Japanese into submission and intimidate the Soviets, proposed to launch a war—on behalf of the entire “civilized world”—against “terrorism.” It was reminiscent of Ariel Sharon—the butcher of Sabra and Shatila—talking about eradicating “terrorist nests” in Palestinian communities in Gaza.
The U.S. “war on terror” is intended to terrorize other countries, in the first instance the so-called rogue states, into submitting to the dictates of American imperialism. Peter Ustinov once aptly observed that “terrorists” are people who have bombs but no air force to deliver them. Those officially designated “terrorists” tend to be the retailers—the wholesalers are the U.S. and other major imperialist powers (supported, in their own duplicitous, “peace-loving” ways, by weaker imperialists like Denmark and Canada).
Origins of Al Qaeda
The connection between wholesalers and retailers in the terror business is perfectly illustrated by Al Qaeda. We should not forget how Osama bin Laden and other leading cadres of Al Qaeda got their start—they were trained and equipped by the CIA to fight a jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. (This is the same period in which the United States and Britain were providing Saddam Hussein with his infamous “weapons of mass destruction” to use during his war with Iran).
In 1978, when the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in Kabul, it immediately began distributing land to the peasants, reduced debt payments for the poor, and lowered the bride price. The PDPA also encouraged girls to go to school. The semi-feudal landowners, moneylenders and reactionary Muslim clerics considered this a threat to their traditional way of life and, aided by the CIA, began to organize an insurgency. In December 1979 the Soviet Union countered by sending its army into Afghanistan to back the left-nationalist government.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser at the time, later admitted that the U.S. had been actively supporting resistance by the clerics and landholders for months before the Soviets’ intervention:
“[I]t was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention….
“That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap.…”
— Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998
The U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping 100,000 radical Islamic mujahedin whose leaders were among those who, in the 1970s, had been throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women at Kabul University. Ronald Reagan praised the Afghan reactionaries as “freedom fighters” and called them the “moral equivalent” of America’s founding fathers.
Marxists had a side in Afghanistan. We called for the military victory of the Soviet Army and the PDPA over the mujahedin, and would have welcomed the extension of the Soviet collectivized property system to Afghanistan. But in 1989, in a prelude to the August 1991 destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state, the Kremlin bureaucracy gave up and pulled out of Afghanistan.
After the Soviet retreat, the U.S. lost interest and a bloody war erupted among competing mujahedin factions that was eventually won by the Pakistani-backed Taliban in 1996. The United States welcomed the victory of the Taliban as a stabilizing factor in a region that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had assumed renewed importance due to the discovery of huge oil and natural gas deposits in the lands bordering the Caspian Sea. (The U.S. was particularly interested in the possibility of building a pipeline from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan to Pakistan. This route would bypass both Iran, a country designated by the U.S. as part of the “axis of evil,” and Russia, which opposes American expansion in the region.) The fact that the Taliban was a brutally repressive, misogynist theocracy was a matter of complete indifference to the apostles of liberty and freedom—Washington’s only problem with the new Afghan government was that it was not sufficiently pliable. So plans were being laid long before 9/11 for installing a friendlier regime in Kabul. The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 provided a perfect pretext for removing the Taliban and establishing a string of military bases across formerly Soviet Central Asia—all in the name of fighting “terror.” The real reason was to undercut Russian and Chinese influence and insert the American military into the region.
The Russians have been waging a reactionary war for more than a decade to crush the attempt by the Chechen people to win their independence. The U.S. has been happy to see the Russian military bogged down in a protracted guerrilla conflict in Chechnya and has been reluctant to include the Chechens as targets in the global “war on terror.” Even after the horrific massacre of Russian school children in Beslan on 1 September , the corporate media in the U.S. refused to endorse the Kremlin’s brutal campaign against the Chechen resistance. The New York Times wrote that “despair and anger at Russians” drove Chechens to suicide attacks and observed:
“Mr. Putin is also responsible for Russia’s stubborn refusal to deal with the political dimensions of Chechen separatism, as if punishing military offensives, puppet governments and fraudulent elections could somehow make the problem go away.”
— New York Times, 14 September 2004
Yet, like the rest of the American media, the Times “stubbornly refuses” to take a similarly broadminded approach to the question of why so many Iraqis are prepared to sacrifice their lives to deliver blows to American forces occupying their land. The transparently stupid assertions by President Bush that “the terrorists” hate America because of its freedom and democracy explain nothing. A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-colonel, Robert Bowman, offered a far more plausible explanation when he noted that the United States is:
“…the target of terrorists because, in much of the world, our government stands for dictatorship, bondage and human exploitation. We are the target of terrorists because we are hated. And we are hated because our government has done hateful things.”
— National Catholic Reporter, 2 October 1998
The United States and every other imperialist power does violent and “hateful things” to the oppressed masses of the world because a social system that condemns half the world’s population to life on less than $2 a day for the benefit of a tiny handful of billionaires can only be maintained by constant, massive brutality.
Within two months of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, more civilians were killed than perished in New York on 11 September. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed by the “coalition of the willing” since March 2003 when the U.S. blitzkrieg was launched with an aerial bombardment designed to “shock and awe,” i.e., terrorize, the population. Some 200,000 Iraqis were killed by the imperialists in the 1991 Gulf War. And more than a million Iraqis, many of them children, died during the 1990s as a result of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on behalf of the U.S.-led imperialist coalition.
Last spring when four American mercenaries were killed in Falluja, the U.S. responded by attacking the city and killing 600 civilians. During the past few weeks U.S. aircraft have been relentlessly bombing residential neighborhoods in Falluja, as a prelude to the long-awaited assault. There is barely a pretense of winning hearts and minds—the clear intent is to terrify the population into submission. But it is not working. As one young Iraqi told the New York Times (14 September 2004): “When the Americans fire back, they don’t hit the people who are attacking them, only the civilians. This is why Iraqis hate the Americans so much. This is why we love the mujahedeen.” The horrors of imperialist terrorism have been highlighted by recent reports of torture, rape and murder of prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities. In waging its “war on terror” the Bush administration decided to suspend the Geneva Convention for any prisoners it chose to designate as “unlawful combatants,” including those held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, so that they could be routinely subjected to what the New York Times decorously refers to as “brutal interrogation techniques,” i.e., torture. At a U.S. Senate hearing last month General Paul Kern revealed that as many as 100 people detained by the American military in Iraq have not been officially recorded, to avoid the risk of embarrassing investigations into their torture or execution (Washington Post, 10 September 2004).
Imperialist rule has always been characterized by brutal repression. The French and American imperialists butchered two million Vietnamese workers and peasants in a long, losing counterrevolutionary war. At least half a million people were slaughtered in 1965 in a CIA-supported coup in Indonesia. Tens of thousands were killed in Chile under Augusto Pinochet, whose military dictatorship was backed by the U.S. During the 1980s, the CIA’s “contra” terrorists in Nicaragua murdered thousands of people, many of them schoolteachers and healthcare workers, in an attempt to undermine the left-nationalist Sandinista regime. Of course, none of this qualifies as “terrorism” in the capitalist media.
A few months ago the Bush administration ordered three anti-communist Cubans with long-standing ties to the CIA to be admitted to the U.S. They had been convicted in Panama of planning to detonate 33 pounds of explosives to kill Fidel Castro, along with dozens of university students, when he visited in 2000. These terrorists are welcome in the United States.
In fact the U.S. “war on terror” provides employment for many terrorists. A good example is Ayad Allawi, the long-time CIA asset appointed by the U.S. as Iraqi “prime minister” last June, who Bush has praised as a “strong leader” in the fight against international terrorism. In the 1970s, Allawi ran a Mukhabarat death squad for Saddam Hussein. During the 1990s, while on the CIA payroll, he helped organize several bombings in Iraq, including one that killed several schoolchildren.
Bush’s chief ally in the “war on terror” is British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the 1920s, in an attempt to put down a popular uprising in Iraq, British airplanes dropped poisonous mustard gas in civilian areas. Eighty-odd years later, Blair sought to rationalize the invasion of Iraq by feigning outrage that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons “against his own people.” Blair also neglected to mention that Britain and the U.S. had supplied the weapons in the first place.
Canada officially sat out the Iraq war, though Canadian military planners and 31 soldiers participated alongside British and American troops. Three Canadian warships with 1,300 sailors were in the Persian Gulf helping to protect American aircraft carriers. Canada’s most important contribution was sending 3,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to free up American troops for Iraq. U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci, commenting on the Liberal government’s refusal to officially endorse the assault, pointed out: “Ironically, the Canadians indirectly provide more support for us in Iraq than most of those 46 countries that are fully supporting us” (Globe and Mail, 31 March 2003). Canada is what we call a “jackal” imperialist—it tags along behind the big predators and picks up the scraps they leave behind.
‘To Impose the Will of the United States’
The pretext for the attack on Afghanistan was that it was harboring terrorists. In a desperate attempt to ward off an imminent American assault, the Taliban offered to expel bin Laden and his cronies, but the U.S. wasn’t interested. Al Qaeda was never the issue. The war on Afghanistan was part of a larger strategic military plan for control of Central Asia and the Middle East.
In its September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the U.S. Department of Defense referred to the importance of “access to key markets and strategic resources,” and noted:
“U.S. forces must maintain the capability at the direction of the President to impose the will of the United States and its coalition partners on any adversaries including states or non-state entities. Such a decisive defeat could include changing the regime of an adversary state or occupation of foreign territory until U.S. strategic objectives are met.”
It’s no coincidence that most of the countries targeted in the supposed “war on terror” are either sitting on important oil deposits or are strategically located in relation to them. Iraq, which possesses the world’s second-largest oil reserves, is right next door to Saudi Arabia which has the largest. Iran, on Iraq’s other flank, also possesses important oil and gas deposits. In a speech delivered on the first anniversary of the criminal assault on Iraq, Bush claimed that the “ultimate ambition” of “the terrorists” was “to control the peoples of the Middle East” and “blackmail the rest of the world with weapons of mass terror.” That’s U.S. foreign policy in a nutshell.
Under the Bush Doctrine, the United States claims the right to preemptively attack any country which might possess “weapons of mass destruction” which could fall into the hands of terrorists at some point in the future. That of course was the excuse for invading Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. is planning nuclear first strikes on “rogue states.” In 2002, according to a leaked Pentagon document, there were seven countries on that list: China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Libya (Daily Mirror [London], 11 March 2002). Cuba, too, is in grave danger. The only reason it is not on the to-be-nuked list is because of its proximity to Florida. The imperialists are anxious to uproot the system of collectivized property and restore capitalism in China, Cuba and North Korea. While revolutionaries advocate the overthrow of the ruling Stalinist bureaucracies through workers’ political revolution, we also stand for the unconditional defense of these states against both internal counterrevolution and imperialist aggression—and we defend their right to possess nuclear arms.
The War at Home
The “war on terror” is fought on two fronts. In addition to extending U.S. military power globally, it also serves as a tool for strengthening the position of the American ruling class at home by hobbling domestic political resistance, particularly from the left and labor movement. The social basis of capitalist profit is the exploitation of living labor in the process of material production. Without the socially necessary, productive activity of the working class, capitalist society would not function. Any imperialist power that seeks to dominate the planet must first ensure the subservience of its own proletariat.
The color-coded “war on terror” uses a time-honored mechanism for getting the oppressed to identify with their oppressors: fear of an external danger. Today in North America, particularly in the U.S., there is a concerted campaign to promote a level of fear, bordering on paranoia, that has resulted in widespread acquiescence to a whole range of repressive measures that many Americans would not normally tolerate. The elaborate security checks, fink lines, data mining of credit cards, library and health records, the “orange” and “red” alerts, are all accepted because of the supposed danger of terrorist attacks.
Do you know how many people were killed by terrorist attacks in the United States in 2002? In 2003? This year? No one. And yet the avalanche of anti-democratic legislation continues, all under the guise of protecting American “freedom.” Marxists have no illusions in the capitalists’ commitment to democracy, and we remember that the right to free speech, freedom of assembly, the right of habeas corpus and all other democratic rights were won through hard social struggle. They must be jealously guarded against infringement by the ruling class.
At a Senate hearing in December 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft openly attacked those who dared to complain about the assault on civil liberties: “Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends” (CNN.com, 7 December 2001).
The supposed “war on terror” has meant attacks on organized labor, immigrants and minorities (especially Muslims, South Asians and Arabs). Since September 2001, more than 5,000 foreign nationals have been arbitrarily detained by the U.S. Justice Department as “suspected terrorists.” Of those 5,000 only one has been convicted by a jury of anything related to terrorism. And last month, a federal judge in Detroit threw out that conviction citing a lack of evidence and gross prosecutorial misconduct.
The U.S. government has drawn up secret, arbitrary “no-fly” lists of Muslims, leftists, peace activists and other suspected “dissidents” who are not allowed aboard airplanes in the U.S. This is pure political harassment. The workers’ movement has a vital interest in fighting all such attacks on democratic rights because an attack on any minority is an attack on all the oppressed and exploited. That is clear if you look at the scope of the Patriot Act, which defines “domestic terrorism” as acts that “appear to be intended” to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” The law was deliberately formulated so that it could be interpreted as applicable to picket lines, strikes or demonstrations. Proposals are floating around the U.S. Congress to ban unions for anyone deemed essential to “homeland security” (Washington Post, 27 September 2004), a category the government would like to expand to include longshore and other unionized workers. This is a proposal for government-organized union busting, under the guise of a “war on terror.” The increasingly authoritarian climate in the U.S. was evident during the Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer, both of which featured massive cop intimidation, police pens, preventative arrests and other preemptive measures to suppress dissent. The FBI recently seized internet servers which host various Indymedia websites on the grounds that in the course of exposing police brutality by undercover cops in Europe, “personal information” had been revealed. In Italy, Indymedia is currently being investigated for supposed links to “terrorism.” And here in Toronto people remember [police chief] Julian Fantino’s denunciation of OCAP [Ontario Coalition Against Poverty] as a “terrorist” group after the police riot at Queen’s Park in June 2000.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Canadian government passed its own draconian “Anti-Terrorism Act” (Bill C-36) which defines terrorism as an act (or omission) “compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or refrain from doing any act.” Like the U.S. Patriot Act, this law defines terrorism broadly enough to include almost anything. It is an enabling act for police repression.
Only Socialist Revolution Can End Capitalist Terror!
Marxists adamantly oppose attacks on innocent civilians—whether office workers in New York, pizzeria patrons in Jerusalem or schoolchildren in Russia. We are opposed to violence directed against the working class and the oppressed, and to all acts that undermine the struggle for a better future. But Marxists are not pacifists. We do not oppose the use of force in principle. Pacifism is the ideology the oppressors recommend for their victims. It is, in Trotsky’s phrase, a “debilitating narcotic” for the proletariat.
The capitalist media and politicians sometimes refer to the blows struck against the imperialist occupation by the Iraqi resistance as “terrorist attacks.” There is no question that, as in Afghanistan, most of those actively resisting the imperialist occupation embrace extremely reactionary and virulently anti-working class ideologies. But that does not change the fact that the peoples of Iraq have a right to determine their own future free of coercion by foreign invaders and their puppets. In Iraq today the issue is not one of democracy versus dictatorship. It is a question of whether or not the U.S./British imperialist “coalition” will be able to re-impose colonial rule.
The “war on terror” is essentially a marketing device designed by the American ruling class to promote its campaign for global supremacy. It is used both to justify military adventures abroad and vicious repression at home. Under capitalist rule things are rarely called by their right names: exploitation is fair exchange, war is peace and occupation is liberation. The so-called war on terror is no exception. It is, in reality, a war of terror.
The only way to put an end to this system of chronic violence and brutality—which condemns some 40,000 children to starve to death every day—is through proletarian socialist revolution. The capitalists and their ideologues insist that “there is no alternative” to the tyranny of the market, but that is a lie. For the vast majority of humanity, capitalism is terrorism.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 proved that with revolutionary leadership ordinary working people have the capacity to rise up and smash capitalism. The working class was victorious in October 1917 because of the existence of a revolutionary socialist organization – the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. Our job as socialists is to lay the political foundation for a mass-based, revolutionary workers’ party capable of leading a successful struggle to expropriate the expropriators and open the road to a new world order in which human need, and not corporate profit, is the highest priority.