It may be that the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium are an expression of the difficulties facing “Islamic State” in the ground war in Iraq and Syria, but sudden murderous attacks on the population of the central countries of capitalism are fast becoming a fact of life, just as they have been for many years in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and numerous other countries caught up in today’s expanding war zone. In sum, the terrorists have “brought the war back home”, and even if Daesh is being militarily weakened in the area of its “Caliphate”, there are plenty of signs that the influence of this or similar groups is spreading to Africa and elsewhere. This is because the conditions which give rise to modern terrorism continue to ripen. Just as al-Qaida was pushed into the background as Enemy Number One by the rise of IS, so new gangs can emerge, and not necessarily Islamist: it looks as if the two most recent atrocities in Turkey were carried out by a wing or offshoot of the “Kurdish Workers’ Party”.
We live in a civilisation, the capitalist mode of production, which has long ceased to be a factor of progress for humanity, its most exalted ideals exposed as utterly degenerate and corrupt. As early as 1871, in the wake of the Paris Commune, Marx noted the cooperation of the great national rivals France and Prussia in crushing the uprising of the exploited, and predicted that in the future the call to “national war” would become no more than a hypocritical excuse for aggression and robbery, in the advanced capitalist zones at any rate. In 1915, in her Junius Pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg insisted that from now on, in a planet dominated by huge imperialist powers, national war was everywhere a mere cover for imperialist appetites. The world wars and super-power conflicts that dominated the 20th century proved her absolutely correct.
And since the collapse of the great power blocs at the end of the 80s, war, the most overt expression of capitalist competition and crisis, has become ever-more irrational and chaotic, a situation highlighted by the carnage in Syria, which is being reduced to rubble by a host of armies and militias which are both at war with each other and which vie for the support of the many imperialist vultures flying over the region – the US, Russia, France, Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia…
The irrational ideology of Islamic State is a clear product of this broader insanity. In the period of the blocs, opposition to the dominant imperialist powers tended to take on more classical forms of nationalism – the ideology of “national liberation” in which the aim was to develop new “independent” nation states, often with a sprinkling of “socialist” verbiage linked to the support of Russian or Chinese imperialism. In a period when not only blocs but national entities themselves are fragmenting, Islamic State’s pseudo-universalism has a wider appeal; but above all, in a period of history which constantly bears the threat of an end of history, of a collapse into barbarism under the weight of war and economic and ecological crisis, an ideology of the apocalypse, of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, becomes a real lure for the most marginalised and brutalised elements of bourgeois society. It is no accident that most of the personnel recruited for the attacks in France and Belgium come from the ranks of petty criminals who have taken the path of suicide and mass slaughter.
Terrorism and imperialist war
Terrorism has always been a weapon of despair, characteristically of layers in society who suffer the oppression of capitalist society but who have no future within it, of the “small bourgeois” ruined by the triumph of big capital. But 19th century terrorism was usually aimed at symbols of the old regime, at monarchs and other heads of state, and rarely targeted gatherings of ordinary citizens. Today’s terrorists seem to try to outdo each other in their cruelty. The Taliban faction which carried out the Easter attack on a park in Lahore claimed that it was “targeting Christians”. In reality it was targeting a children’s playground. Not just Christians but Christian children. And no matter to these gallant apostles that the majority of those killed were Muslims anyway. In Paris, people who like to listen to rock music, dance and have a drink were considered worthy of death in the IS communiqué lionising the attacks. But even these putrid “religious” justifications don’t stretch very far. Hitting a metro or an airport is aimed first and foremost in killing as many people as possible. This is because terrorism today is, overwhelmingly, no longer the expression of an oppressed, if non-revolutionary, class in its resistance against capitalism. It is an instrument of imperialist war, of a fight to the death between capitalist regimes.
It is sometimes claimed, in justification of suicide attacks by Palestinians in Israel for example, that the suicide belt is the poor man’s drone or dive bomber. This is true - or at least morally true - only if you recognise that the “poor man” recruited for the cause of Daesh or Hamas is not fighting for the poor but for a rival set of exploiters, whether a local proto-state or the bigger imperialist powers that arm them and cover them diplomatically or ideologically. And whether carried out by semi-independent groups like Daesh, or directly by the secret services of countries like Syria and Iran (as in the case of a number of attacks on European targets in the 1980s), terrorism has become a useful adjunct of foreign policy to any state or would-be state trying to carve out a niche on the world arena.
This doesn’t mean that acts of terrorism aren’t also used by the more respectable states: the secret services of democratic countries like the USA and Britain, not leaving out Israel of course, have a long tradition of targeted assassinations and even false flag operations in the guise of overtly terrorist factions. But returning to the comparison between the suicide belt and the sophisticated fighter-bomber, it’s true that the model for the terrorists is less the clever liquidation of this or that troublesome individual by the CIA or Mossad, and more the awesome destructive power of the cannons and aircraft of established armies, of weapons that can pulverise entire cities in a matter of days. The logic of imperialist war is the systematic massacre of entire populations – and this is something which has accelerated visibly over the last hundred years, with its progress from World War One, fought primarily between armies in the field, to the vast numbers of civilians carpet bombed or exterminated in death camps during World War Two, and on to the potential World War Three with its threat of the annihilation of the whole human race (a threat which has not at all disappeared in the new phase of chaotic militarism).
“Your armies kill our children with your planes, so we give you a taste of your own medicine, we kill your children with our suicide bombs”. This is the oft-heard justification of the terrorists on their pre- or post-atrocity videos. And again this shows how faithfully they follow the ideology of imperialism. Far from addressing their anger at the real perpetrators of war and barbarism, the small class of exploiters and their state systems, their hatred is directed at entire populations of entire regions of the world, all of whom become legitimate targets, and they thus play their part in reinforcing the false unity between exploiter and exploited which keeps the whole rotten system creaking on. And this attitude of demonising entire swathes of humanity is fully consistent with the dehumanising of particular groups who can then be subject to pogroms and terrorist bombings in the areas where you operate most commonly: Shia heretics, Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Kurds, Turks….
This ideology of revenge and hatred is echoed most clearly in the discourse of the right wing in Europe and America, who (while keeping their options open about blaming the Jews for the world’s ills) tend today to see all Muslims or Islam itself as the real threat to peace and security, and who brand every refugee from the war-torn zones as a potential terrorist mole, thus justifying the most ruthless measures of expulsion and repression against them. This kind of scapegoating is another means of papering over the real class antagonisms in this society: capitalism is in a deep, irresolvable economic crisis, but don’t investigate how capitalism functions to the benefit of the few and the misery of the many, blame it all on a part of the many, thus preventing the many from ever uniting against the few. It’s a very old trick, but the rise of populism in Europe and America reminds us never to underestimate it.
The democratic state is not our friend
But the spread of terrorism, of radical Islamism and its Islamophobic and populist mirror images should not blind us to another very important truth: in the countries of the capitalist centre, the main force safeguarding the system is the democratic state. And just as the democratic state is not averse to using terrorist methods, directly or indirectly, in its foreign policy, so it will use every terrorist attack to strengthen all its powers of social control and political repression. In Belgium, in the days after the Brussels attacks, the police powers of the state were dramatically reinforced: a new law was set in motion, increasing the possibility of raids and telephone-tapping, and introducing a closer following of “dubious” financial funding. As always, there was a very obvious presence of the police and army on the streets. Lessons were learned from the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, which initially gave rise to spontaneous gatherings expressing anger and indignation, requiring a major effort of media and politicians to make sure all this was contained in the framework of national unity. This time there were clear calls by the police for people to stay at home. In sum, trust the democratic state, the only force that can protect us from this horrible menace. The media, meanwhile, urged the population to get used to the new daily ambiance of fear. Of course there was much debate about the apparent incompetence of the Belgian security services which ignored a number of clues prior to the attacks. But the net result of the investigations into such failings will be to find ways of improving surveillance and supervision of the whole population.
Increasing the powers of the police state may help this or that ruling class in the incessant war between bourgeois factions and nations, but it will also be used against the population and the working class in particular in any future social explosions provoked by the crisis of the system, just as laws against terrorist groups who “hold democracy in contempt” can be used against authentically revolutionary political groups who put in question the whole capitalist system, including its democratic fireguards. But above all, just as the Islamist or nationalist ideology of the terrorists serves to bury the real class conflicts in every country, so the call for national unity behind the democratic state serves to prevent the exploited and the oppressed in any country from recognising that their only future lies in solidarity with their class brothers and sisters across the planet, and in the common struggle against a putrifying capitalist order.