Lessons From History: Herbert Marcuse: “Murder is not a Political Weapon”

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.”

Windsor Spaces II: Ford City Parkette

This essay is the second in an occasional series of unambivalent notes of appreciation for some Windsor spaces that I like because they make me feel like I live in a city. (You can read the first essay, on Atkinson Park, here).

The guide books (are there guidebooks about Windsor?) won’t know about these spots,
so if you ever visit, seek them out and see what you think.
The second installment of the series takes readers to the heart of the Drouillard Road neighbourhood, the Ford City Parkette (Corner of Drouillard and Whelpton).


At the centre, la machine infernale touches the human hand and says, “it will be ok, follow where I lead,” which turned out to be oblivion, unemployment.  It arranges the workers in circular space around its structure, their strong hands gripping its appendages, the cables or hoses that feed it snake up and away from them, but have not been anchored to any ceiling.  Instead, the sculptor let them extend into space and disappear, a true deus ex machina fed by transcendent forces. A terrifying mechanism frozen in bronze, an  alien spaceship before everything became too clean and cgi; the workers masked and goggled and aproned  to protect themselves from its heat or its blasts; faces covered save one, whose handsome beard and attentive eyes testify:  we are still human beings.


At the street’s edge, still, human beings.  Two fellows talk theology while I sip water in the heat-heavy sun, sweating through my atheist society t-shirt, thinking:  “There is a difference between politics that (like the church across the street from which the disputants must have come) wants to save people by transforming them, and human respect that demands that those same people be left to be who they are.  Some people take a sedimentary rock approach to the afflicted and the addicted, seeing a neighbourhood like this as the bottom of an immense pile of shells and bones that gets crushed under its own weight into limestone; the people just fossilized remains waiting for a saviour to rescue them.”

But the people are, if anything, abundantly alive: laughing, some might say maniacally, but I will say exuberantly, debating, shuffling about in slippers and shower cap looking for a light, walking a giantly terrifying dog, and some, just sitting, forlorn perhaps.  (But is that wrong?  Not everything is funny).


In one of his “Questionnaires”  Max Frisch asks:  “Are you afraid of the poor?” and then immediately after:   “Why not?” (Sketchbook 1966-1971, pp.207-208).  He gives voice to every middle class person`s anxiety:  “If we do not do something, they will steal our shit.”  But if you talk to people you discover that they don’t want your shit, only the resources that they are entitled to so that they can shape their own reality ….


… the way the sculptor Mark Williams, (who was also a Ford journeyman) sculpted the extraordinary piece (the finest public art in the city by far) out of his own experience.  His figures are not those of a Raphael (who was celebrated for paintings that made people appear “more real than they are”).  Still less are they the cardboard heroes of socialist realism.  His exquisitely detailed workers appear to be just what they are:  workers- with hard hands and wrinkled clothes, trying to control a mechanism that would ultimately control them.

And this concrete and scraggy grass and faux-wood covered corner park is what remains.  Perhaps it is not worth the historic losses, but there are no scales to weigh the cost of the losses of the past against the gains of the future.  Some lose, and badly, and that is real, while others gain, and handsomely, and that is real.  Art does not change that reality, but it can at least say:  we were here, think about what that means.

Here, There, History

So it is a great space to sit and think about what that means, at the beginning (or the end, depending on whether you come from the north or the south) of this hardy historical neighbourhood.  It is a gathering place, not a dying place, and a sitting and probably a drinking place (and how is that wrong); a corner parkette not unlike the one’s you find everywhere in Manhattan (if you stop looking up and shopping for a moment you will see them, little anchors for the micro-neighbourhoods that make up and make great that immense metropolis so, so far culturally, from here).  But difference makes it worth being here when you are here and there when you are there.  The new and hip is generic and without place, the true and the real are contoured and shaped by their historical grounding in historical-material space.

Peter Singer Loses His Grip

In an obscure article translated by Walter Kaufmann, (“Who Thinks Abstractly”) Hegel responds to charges that philosophy is a form of “abstract” thinking.  His response is to demonstrate that it is not philosophers who think abstractly, but the general public when they cast around for simplistic explanations for complex problems.  To think abstractly is not to think in terms of general principles or universal causes, but rather to ignore both in favour of surface explanations that pick out (abstract) an empirical feature of a situation and posit it as the cause.  Hegel gives the example of a murderer. For the abstract thinker, a murderer is nothing more that a person who murders.  The complex history of events and experiences that combined to produce the murderer are ignored.  Thus, abstract thought is unhistorical:  it cannot explain how a given situation came to be or how it could be changed.   Moreover, it is not interested in how things came to be; it is happy with its surface explanations.

Sadly, it is not only the general public that thinks abstractly in this sense.  Philosophers are, contra Hegel, often guilty as well.  A recent case in point is the ever-controversial Peter Singer.  In a story reported in the Jakarta Chronicle, he is quoted as saying that if smart young people want to save the world, then they should become investment bankers.  No worries about their obscenely high salaries, “if they are able to live modestly and give a lot away, they can save many lives.” Well perhaps, but what about the lives they ruin by providing the funds for “investments”  that destroy landscapes, indigenous ways of life, public goods and services; their collusion with autocrats against unions, social movements, and indigenous cultures; their blind infatuation with money above all else?

Singer’s error is to abstract the issue of charitable giving from the more complex reality of what is valued in the global economy and what is selected for investment.  For Singer it is simply a matter of what you do with your money once you have it, not how you get your money in the first place, or the overarching economic system that determines the relative pay scales of different occupations.

Singer’s argument is analogous to claiming that if you want to save lives then you should stock up on poison and its antidote, administer the poison to people, and then the antidote, just before they die.  At the very least, that is a pretty roundabout way of saving lives.

The worst aspect of the argument is that it leads to the morally odious conclusion that those who make money speculating on currencies, stripping public services by privatizing them, working with governments to drive down wages and eliminate benefits, raid pension plans and condemn the young to a life of precarious servitude actually do more good (if they give away some of the income that they derive from destroying lives) than poorly paid workers:  nurses, support care workers, teachers in most of the world, whose labour is actually and directly life-serving.

I am not a long-standing critic of Peter Singer’s work.  His contribution to animal ethics is path-breaking, his commitment to life-protective universal global ethical principles is one I share (although not his utilitarian interpretation of that ethic).  I think he has been unfairly criticized by disabled rights activists who have interpreted thought experiments designed to sensitize us to the suffering of animals as hateful attacks on the disabled.  But I have long worried that his focus on charity as the means of solving the problems of poverty and oppression was politically incoherent, and the comment quoted above seems to bear my concern out.(See for example Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, p. 195).

The first problem with charity is that it operates in a political, economic, and social vacuum.  As I argued above, it fails to ask how the money that the charitable donor deigns to redistribute was acquired.  The second problem is that it smacks of noblesse oblige:  the fortunate (usually, white Western) donor, media in tow, appears in the midst of the huddled masses of the Global South and distributes manna.  Bellies are fed for a day, but true freedom from poverty- freedom that can only come from collective struggle against the private ownership of life-resources and their exploitation for money-value that accumulates in private (and mostly Western) hands- is impeded. Real freedom from poverty requires the expropriation of the investment banks and turning them to the truly democratic and life-serving purposes of investment in universally accessible public infrastructure and goods.

In other places (One World, for example) Singer has sounded a more critical tone towards global capitalism, but he has always pulled back from calling for collective action in support of an alternative value system in favour of abstract calls for charity.  Individualistic solutions to social problems, ethics in abstraction from social philosophy, and structural analysis of the global economy result, in this case, in an obscene inversion of values:  the destroyers of life appear as its servants, its real servants, the mostly indigenous poor of the world, appear as helpless beggars awaiting salvation.

Perhaps Singer would rejoin that not every business venture is life-destructive. If every one were, then capitalism would have long ago killed off the species.  Fair enough.  But it is obvious that all investments in capitalism are contradictory (and many are outright destructive of indigenous lives and life-ways).  Every investment depends on the exploitation and alienation of labour, and the overwhelming direction of economic “development” in the past forty years has been against collective protections for working people and in favour of privatization and precarity.  Investment banks line up the funds for all of these projects.

Perhaps he would further rejoin that need is immediate and social transformation is a long-term project, if it is even possible.  Again, there is some truth here. However, it is a practical truth that any number of politicians or UN bureaucrats or Western do-gooders can make. The world does not need philosophers to state the obvious.  If there is any public value at all to philosophy it is that it stands somewhat above the day to day fray, not so that it can ponder the heavens “in abstraction”  from real life, but so that the deep underlying principles that regulate everyday life can be made the object of reflection and criticism to the extent warranted by the state of peoples lives.  Philosophy that panders to the given in the way that Singer does in this case contradicts its vocation-  which in many other respects Singer has upheld to the highest degree-  to make the hard, the non-obvious, argument that takes us beyond where we are now to a place it would be better for all to be.