The emergence of so-called “lone wolf attacks” purportedly inspired or directed by Daesh have become a new source of political anxiety within the Western security establishment. These attacks should also be of concern to and condemned by the anti-imperialist Left. First, contrary to its right-wing caricature, it is not a movement of unthinking ideologues and apologists for terror but human beings whose primary goal is the creation of the social conditions for human self-realization everywhere. Second, and following from the first, when the tactics of random terror are identified with anti-imperialist politics, they threaten its wider legitimacy. In order to protect that legitimacy and extend it more widely, these tactics must be criticized from the left in the name of a mass democratic and internationalist alternative to both imperialism and the terrorist response it engenders.
Human beings cannot think when they are afraid. By instilling fear, random terrorist attacks on civilian targets undermine the ability and desire of people in the West to think about the depth historical causes of terrorism. A more or less blind compliance with the military-security apparatus agenda follows. This agenda treats terrorism as an irrational phenomenon whose causes lie in the psychological pathology and demoniac immorality of the perpetrators. No doubt there are psychotics and demons amongst the ranks of Daesh. But the question must be asked: how did they get so angry in the first place? The answer is not to be found in their individual family or life-history but in the history of Western imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Africa. The point is not that this history can explain any attack in particular, but rather that it contains the general causes of the emergence of anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East of which Daesh is a distorted expression.
Disagree? Let us review very briefly the origins of Al Qaeda and Daesh. Al Qaeda was largely the creation of the Cold War struggle between American and Soviet imperialism, armed by the United States to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Having successfully driven the Soviets out, they turned their forces against America in a classic case of what Chalmers Johnson called “blowback.” Daesh developed out of al Qaeda in Iraq; its leader Baghdadi radicalized in an American prison camp after the Second Gulf War, which was itself an attempt to use the toppling of Saddam Hussein to rebuild a compliant and supine Middle East. Psychotics attack anywhere at random in response to their own delusions. But there are no examples of terrorist violence not claimed in the name of a specific, identifiable, political grievance that is not delusional, even if the hopes for success by these means might be. Individual practitioners may or may not be violently psychotic; the politically important point is that the underlying causes of the emergence of a movement that allow those people to give expression to their revenge fantasies are evident, comprehensible, and explicable in historically clear and politically rational terms.
To say that the emergence of a terrorist movement is explicable in politically rational terms does not mean that the means adopted are rational or justified. On the contrary, they are self-undermining and in contradiction to the underlying human values that legitimate democratic resistance to imperialism. And that is why the anti-imperialist left should be concerned, politically, with criticizing these attacks: they make even more difficult the already herculean task of transforming global politics in the direction of self-determination for the people of the world and away from their subordination to capital and the military and political power that protects it.
This problem has arisen before. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s a wave of leftist terror attacks was perpetrated across Europe and North America in the (misguided) hope that they would create the conditions for working class revolution. The thought was that the state would have to become more and more repressive in response to the attacks, thus teaching workers its true nature, disabusing them of social democratic illusions that the state could be their ally, and thus causing them to become revolutionary. The state did become more repressive, but the workers were not moved to revolution. The terrorist cells were dismantled and the activists either jailed or killed.
One of the most succinct and incisive critiques of this wave of kidnappings, shootings, and bombings was an article written by Herbert Marcuse in 1977: “Murder is not a Political Weapon.” In response to the attacks by the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang in then West Germany, Marcuse posed two questions: 1) did the attacks weaken capitalism; and 2) were they required by revolutionary morality. To both questions Marcuse answered in the negative. The same two questions could be asked today about the terrorist response to Western imperialism. The same negative answers hold, and for the same reasons that Marcuse gave in 1977.
To the first point, rather than advance any progressive agenda, terrorists fatally compromise it. They alienate potential supporters and they must be conspiratorial and secretive, making the construction of a democratic mass movement impossible. Their only effect is to strengthen the repressive power of their enemies. Terrorism, Marcuse argued “strengthens its [the state’s] repressive potential without (and this is the decisive point) either engendering opposition to repression, or raising political consciousness.” In the contemporary context, terrorism not only does not engender opposition to repression or raise political consciousness, it engenders support for repression at home and more extreme military violence in the Middle East and Africa. As for political consciousness, far from raising it, it drives it down to the most crass atavism and xenophobic Islamophobia. The strength of right wing populism in Europe and America is at least partly attributable to 9/11 and subsequent attacks. The biggest victims of these politically degenerate movements have been the very people the terrorists are claiming to liberate: the Muslims of the Middle East and Africa.
Marcuse also argued that terrorism was contrary to “revolutionary morality.” While the term sounds out of place today, its underlying idea remains important. Socialist revolution was always justified in terms of freeing human life from the control of alienating, exploitative, and reified social powers so that instead of life being little more than service to money and its owners, it would become free self-realizing activity. Revolutionary morality was the set of values that follow from this steering principle. “Its goal– the liberated individual– must appear in the means to achieve this goal. Revolutionary morality demands… open struggle, not conspiracy and sneak attacks. An open struggle is a class struggle.” His point is that liberation cannot be achieved by violence alone, because a violent struggle requires military discipline, hierarchical structures, and leaders who command and followers who obey. Revolutionaries schooled in that mode of struggle will not become people capable of democratic governance, because the principle of democratic governance is collective self-determination through full and free debate, not doing what the leadership commands be done. As we can see with abundant clarity from the areas that Daesh rules, democratic self-determination is not their aim. Hence, on this score too, the terrorist response to Western imperialism fails the test.
It is difficult to see beneath the sectarianism and factionalism that typifies Middle Eastern politics today any sort of class struggle. Still when we look at the root cause of the chaos: Western military intervention, the class interests that have been imposed upon the peoples of the Middle East are clear enough. Western intervention in the Middle East is a direct function of its economic and strategic value. If there were nothing there but Bedouin communities and dates, it would lack all strategic value. Oil– and control over it- is the ultimate (but not sole) driver. Political struggles can generate their own immanent reasons for continuing once they have begun. Amongst the most important are the fear that apparent weakness will embolden enemies and the belief (fatal to gamblers) of thinking that past losses can be made good by more strenuous application of the same strategy.
The anti-imperialists of the Daesh strip claim to be resisting Western violence, but kill mostly Muslims. What damage they do inflict on the West is- while horrific from the human perspective- of no consequence from the standpoint of social stability. No Western country will be destroyed by one-off terrorist attacks. Those attacks will promote more and more hatred of Muslims as an undifferentiated and demonized group and thus more and more support for the very military violence the terrorists are claiming to fight against. Marcuse’s 1977 conclusion rings as true of Daesh as it did of the Red Army faction: “Their methods are not those of liberation.”