July 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
It has become a commonplace to declare that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ But has violence ever been an effective political tool and, if so, is it still? The American ruling class has declared ‘war on terrorism’ in an attempt to legitimise their own use of political violence around the world. But both the US and their enemies are indulging in an identical activity. The question therefore arises as to whether humankind’s political problems are ever resolved through military conflict.
It is possible to trace the history of warfare back to the origins of private property in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant some 5,500 years ago. The initial raising of armies to defend the agricultural surplus from raiding nomads soon became used to attack other city-states. The once elected warlords evolved into permanent kings whose main role became the protection of their class’s power and wealth. The first imperial regimes emerged together with those who struggled against such oppressive empires. Those who opposed any established power regimes have been demonised by their enemies ever since. It is these ‘resistance’ movements who have used political violence (terrorism) in an attempt to destroy and replace existing (usually) imperial regimes. We will not discuss the historical logic of the violence between states but this is where the seeds of internal political conflict are invariably sown. That the subsequent ‘terrorists’ are almost always armed and trained by a state is well documented and such regimes show staggering hypocrisy by demonising their own students when they turn on their teachers. History has given a very mixed reception (usually dependant on their success) to these heroes or criminals: Spartacists, Thugees, Dog Soldiers, Boxers, Mau-Mau, Assassins – the list is endless. Since violence was used to impose political regimes, many have concluded that it is only through such conflict that they can be destroyed. Before we attempt to analyse whether history backs up this logic let us take a detour to try and understand why our culture is so immersed in the cult of the warrior and the belief that violence can resolve human problems.
Ever since Homer’s tales of the heroic deeds of the Greeks at Troy western culture has been saturated with a military ethos. We cannot imagine Malory, Shakespeare, Cervantes or Fenimore Cooper without Lancelot, Macbeth, Don Quixote or Hawkeye. Such is the central place it occupies in our story-telling that we can hardly conceive of drama itself without a conflict of some kind within the narrative. As we have seen, the very origins of private property produced a warrior elite who subsequently became a ruling aristocracy and it this class who were the patrons of the creators of culture. Given the moral dualism of Christianity it was not difficult for the rulers to characterise their opposing city, or later, nation states as evil. War became described as a struggle between good and evil – the relevant designations were, of course, dependent on which side you were on. After six millennia of warfare the idea that it still represents a way to resolve problems is still an insidious part of our culture – not because it has proven to be so but because the ruling classes need us to believe in it. As evidence for this, let us consider the outcome of the longest and most bloody conflict of the last century between two of Europe’s ruling classes – Britain and Germany.
It is still a matter of great debate who actually started the war of 1914-18; some say it was provoked by France to recover territory lost during the Franco-Prussian conflict whilst others believe it an inevitable consequence of Germany’s need for an empire. What is not disputable is that the opposing economic interests of the ruling classes concerned were vital in their decision to go to war. They utilised the martial cultural traditions of their nations to convince the populations to slaughter each other. History shows that nothing was resolved by the allied ‘victory’ of 1918 because, as a consequence of the imposed terms of the German surrender, the whole thing erupted again in 1939. Again millions died, but did the fighting end with the defeat of Nazism? The Russian Empire was formed out of the division of Europe after 1945, as was much of the ‘third world’ where they and the U.S. fought out the ‘cold war’. Even today we still endure the consequences of the two world wars where the victors redrew the world map according to their interests – Palestine, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Chechnya, etc. All we can be say about the direct result of war is that the ruling class of one nation state replaces another. Clearly this is not why those who fought the war did so, thus we can say with some legitimacy that war has not resolved the problems it was (at least in propaganda terms) supposed to. Can we also make this claim for the results of terrorist campaigns?
Many leaders of movements for ‘national liberation’ (terrorists) have subsequently become part of the ruling class they once fought. Israel, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Northern Ireland and many others now enjoy the fruits of their murderous campaigns. But what has become of the promises made during the struggle? Most who killed and were killed did so in the belief that they were creating a better and more just society than the one they lived in. In cases such as Zimbabwe things seem to have become worse in some respects. The exploitation and murderous repression of the Palestinians has plunged Israel into a nightmare of endless violence. The Irish ruling class seem incapable of resolving their internecine power struggle . So again it would appear that violence has failed to deliver a better life to those who indulged in it and suffered from it. Why? One obvious reason is the inability of humankind to learn from its history. An understanding of history is far and away the most important component of any political consciousness. Before any course of political action is undertaken we must make an effort to understand how the world came to be the way it is. A motorcar cannot be repaired without some knowledge of how it works and no amount of moral outrage and violent action will resolve the problem. War and its bastard progeny we call terrorism, together with the regimes both have brought into the world, are the problem and not the solution.
Socialists have always opposed both violent struggles for ‘national liberation’ and the ‘legitimate’ wars fought between nation states. We see that causing more of it cannot lead to an end to the suffering in the world. War and all organised violence can only be stopped when it is rejected by those who alone must fight it. The ruling class and their media, political ideology, establishment history and all the other paraphernalia of the capitalist propaganda machine can never acknowledge this because to do so would illegitemise the origins of their own power. As to the other myth they peddle concerning mankind’s inherent violence, we can only look within ourselves for the answer. If you sincerely believe in the efficacy of violence to solve your own and the world’s problems then you simply deny the evidence of history.