LEFT COLUMN: 14.09.2001
What we think
Against the barbarism of the New York massacre.
We fight for socialism
To use civilian planes, full of people, to attack buildings full of civilians, mostly ordinary workers, is a crime against humanity, whatever the supposed aims.
What cause could the hijackers have been serving when they massacre thousands of workers in New York? Not "anti-imperialism" in any rational sense - whatever anyone may pretend or imagine - but only rage against the modern world. Only on the basis of a dehumanised, backward-looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre.
Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement as much as the US government is. In fact, more so. Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, technology and culture which make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.
On the evidence available, the plane hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September were probably carried out by Islamic fundamentalists.
Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) "pan-Islamism":
"Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism".
Fascism recruits mass support from people who have been disappointed, ruined and oppressed, and often think they are combatting "finance capital"; that does not make it any the less vile. The same goes for Islamic fundamentalist militarism.
In its scale, the massacre is in the same league as some of the worst imperialist atrocities of history. The US bombing of Cambodia, in 1970, killed several tens of thousands; the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed 74,000 and 119,000 in the two cities in August 1945; the British and US firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, early in 1945, killed over 35,000 and about 80,000, respectively. At the time of day when the World Trade Centre was attacked, it usually has about 50,000 people in it.
In coldbloodedness, the New York massacre even exceeds its models. We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or assuage the bereaved. What we can do is understand the conditions which gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep a clear critical understanding of the way that the US and other governments will respond.
Since we do not know who carried out the massacre, we do not know exactly what conditions and experiences impelled the killers. On the likely guess that the killers were Islamic fundamentalists, however, the recent history of three areas of the world is crucial.
Some Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were among the very few people in the world who rejoiced at the massacre. The official Palestinian leadership condemned it strongly, but amid the despair and frustration of recent years radical Islamic-fundamentalist groups have gained ground among the Palestinians - groups to whose philosophies such massacres are not at all alien so long as they are directed against supposed "Zionists" or "imperialists", and who are likely to see any Jew as a "Zionist", any American as an "imperialist", and the two as almost interchangeable.
The Palestinians have been dispossessed, harassed, oppressed. In 1948 the Jewish community in what had been the British colony of Palestine declared independence. The surrounding Arab states invaded. Over 700,000 Palestinians, who naturally sided with the Arab armies, fled or were driven out by the Jews. The new state of Israel would not let them back in; the Arab states would not integrate them economically, or undertake negotiations with Israel which might get them a livable settlement. About 600,000 Jews fled or were driven out from the Arab states and into Israel over the following years.
The Arab states tantalised the Palestinians with promises that they, the Arab states, would soon "drive the Jews into the sea" and restore the Palestinians to their land. From those promises came only further catastrophes. After the 1967 war the Arab states - and the Palestinians - rejected negotiations to make the West Bank and Gaza some sort of Palestinian territory. Israel established, and continued, military rule there.
Slowly and painfully, the Palestinians developed a movement of their own. From 1988 they launched an uprising in their territories which Israel had seized in 1967, and began to propose a positive programme to take the peoples of the region forward - two states for the two nations, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. In the early 1990s the Israeli government started negotiating. But it has double-crossed the Palestinians again and again, combining general promises that the Palestinians can eventually have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza with a vigorous drive to construct Israeli settlements in those areas and assert a framework of Israeli control.
Two states for two nations - meaning, immediately, Israeli military withdrawal from the occupied territories, and an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel - is the only basis on which to begin to drain the poison.
We stand in solidarity with the national rights of the Palestinian people, but we cannot be content with declaring merely "solidarity with the Palestinians". We have no solidarity with Islamic fundamentalists, Palestinian or otherwise, who might carry out attacks like the one in New York, and have carried out smaller similar attacks on Jewish people in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Immediately, the New York massacre is not only a human disaster, but also a political disaster for the Palestinians. The backlash against an Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity which so much outstrips, in its ferocity and scale, the Israeli military's crimes in the occupied territories, will greatly reduce the pressure on Israel to reach a democratic settlement.
For some time the Israeli authorities have been discussing plans for "unilateral separation" between Israel and the Palestinians, meaning that they would fence off selected areas of the West Bank and Gaza to be left to Palestinian control, and enforce total Israeli control over the rest. This situation may give them the signal to do that. Socialists must reject the "politics of the last atrocity" and argue for Palestinian rights.
Iran, Islam and retaliation
Iran became a centre of Islamic fundamentalism after 1979, when the Islamic clerics there took power on the back of a huge popular revolution against the Shah's dictatorship and then quickly consolidated total control. The dislocations, the mesmerising promises and deceptions, of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the country; the fact that the Islamic clerics had been the only section of society able to organise autonomously under the Shah; and the failures of secular nationalism - those were the background. The clerics largely represented old social classes, like the bazaar merchants, threatened and displaced by the top-down capitalist reforms of the Shah: their regime is, to a significant extent, the revenge of the traditional ruling classes.
Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region's huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.
In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamicists became the ideologues of a landlord-led mass revolt.
In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR's Vietnam. The USSR's war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA's attempt to bomb Cambodia "back into the Stone Age", as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge government, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban.
The US government will respond to the New York massacre with bombing raids abroad and a clampdown at home. Its aim will be to make a show of retaliation and retribution. It will not and cannot mend the conditions which gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which the US government itself, capitalist and imperialist, has helped to shape. Probably ordinary working people who live in "terrorist" states will be the victims. The US-led sanctions against Iraq in recent years have killed tens of thousands of children while leaving Saddam Hussein's power and privilege intact.
Civil rights will come under attack both in the US and in other countries, including Britain. Britain already has the Prevention of Terrorism Act - rushed through a panicked Parliament as a "temporary" measure in 1974, after a pub bombing in Birmingham, but still on the law books - and new legislation aimed at supporters or sympathisers of dissident and allegedly terrorist groups. These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers. Repression may well, on the contrary, increase support for the most desperate and dehumanised groups.
Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. The basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic-fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs is wrong.
The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries where the Islamicists are powerful. In recent times Algeria has had more trade unionists murdered, as trade unionists, than any other country - many by their country's Islamic fundamentalists, though some also by the military regime which claims to fight the fundamentalists. The only way to defeat the Islamicists is by the action of the working class and the labour movement in such countries, aided by our solidarity.
Refugees seeking asylum in Britain do not in any way share blame for the New York massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments - regimes run by people like those who probably did the World Trade Centre massacre. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse "revenge".
And the "new anti-capitalist" mobilisations have nothing in common with the World Trade Centre attack, not even on their foolish anarchist fringe.
We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage and despair which must have motivated the New York attackers. We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitiveness, and a spirit of everything-for-profit.
The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us. Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.
That is the battle to which we must rededicate ourselves. That is the battle in the name of which we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights.