Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A History of Assassination (2017)

From the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey reminds us that this particular form of political violence is still very much in use. Both states and those without states (‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’) believe this tactic still to be useful in furthering their political agendas. Perhaps a brief historical perspective on the phenomenon could help us decide whether they are correct in their continuing belief of its efficacy.
We begin with what is still, probably, the most infamous example of this form of homicide in western Europe’s history – the assassination of Julius Caesar. Fearful of losing their power as a class in Rome a gang of patricians including Brutus and Cassius decided to end the meteoric political career of Julius Caesar. Under the banner of ‘saving the republic’ from a tyrant they stabbed him to death en-masse on the senate floor. Subsequently they were hunted down by Caesar’s hatchet man Mark Anthony who himself was obliged to commit suicide by Caesar’s nephew, later his adopted son, Augustus. Rome was then in the power of such successive madmen as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. This particular assassination, then, was an unmitigated failure and Rome became a totalitarian state dominated for centuries by megalomaniacs. Could they have been successful? Historically Rome followed many other cultures in evolving from some form of a republic into a monarchy and it would appear that they were defying economic and political necessity which, in the end, defines historical progression. Ironically, because of the assassination and the subsequent power achieved by his descendants, Caesar’s name was taken by the all of the rulers of Rome, and in its form of Czar and Kaiser together with the medieval title of ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ has been used ever since to designate political absolutism.
The term ‘assassin’ originated in Persia and later Syria and was used as a pejorative to describe a murderous Ismaili sect active in the middle ages. During the crusades the Franks encountered them and brought back the term to describe the similar internecine phenomenon in the West. The word may well have been used to describe our next victim of political murder in 1170 –Thomas Becket. Henry II of England had expected his friend to be an ally in the struggle for power with Rome when he made Becket archbishop of Canterbury. However this was not to be as Becket defended the autonomy of the church fiercely against his king’s political machinations. Upon hearing one of Henry’s most ferocious condemnations of his old friend four of his knights took it upon themselves to murder the ‘troublesome priest’. Henry maintained that he was shocked by the killing and did penance as did Beckett’s assassins who, ironically, ended up as crusaders attempting to find redemption for their sins. Thomas Becket was pronounced a martyr and canonised only two years after his death – giving valuable propaganda to the Pope and thus strengthening his power in England; yet another example of the failure of assassination to achieve the desired political aims.
It would appear that John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of American president Abraham Lincoln was motivated primarily by revenge. As a supporter of the Confederacy he was outraged by Lincoln’s support of voting rights for blacks and swore vengeance. Although the fifteenth amendment of 1870 did guarantee these rights it was repealed in 1894, something that would have delighted Booth.  To the shame of the USA black people had to wait until 1965 before they again had the legal right to a vote in every State in the Union. Booth’s act, then, had no impact on the course of US history. Karl Marx, on behalf of the First International, had sent Lincoln a letter of congratulation on his re-election just before the assassination and was sincerely saddened by his death. No doubt this event featured in his fierce debate with Michael Bakunin and the anarchist element within the International who supported assassination as a valid political strategy. Marx won the debate but lost the International which split along an Anarchist/Socialist fault line. Since that time no socialist has seriously believed that assassination can change anything politically but it has remained something of an anarchist fantasy.
No historical assessment of assassination would be complete without a mention of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in 1914. The decaying Austrian empire took advantage of this event to rattle its rusty sabre one last time. In doing so it provided the catalyst that sparked the First World War in which all of the European powers vied for supremacy. Princip was motivated by his knowledge that the Austrians sought to prevent the pan Slavic nation that he so desired and as part of the ‘Black Hand’ group he conspired to assassinate the Archduke. It could be argued that this event did contribute to the creation of Yugoslavia after the war in 1918. However the religious and cultural tensions within the peoples of that region led to its dissolution in 1991. A look at the ebb and flow of national borders in Europe during the twentieth century makes it obvious that nation states composed of federations of different ethnic and religious communities are often unstable and exist only courtesy of the strength or otherwise of the political illusions used to manipulate the populations by ruling classes. Princip’s anachronistic politics, and those who shared them, ensured the eventual doom of his dream.
In my own lifetime it was the assassination of President Kennedy that caused the most outrage. I remember, as a child, the sense of shock in my parents as they watched the drama unfold on TV. Without commenting on the numerous conspiracy theories that surround this event, it does seem possible it was more than the just act of one isolated ‘lone gunman’ in the shape of Lee Harvey Oswald. We will never be entirely sure of his motives as he was himself murdered soon after the killing of the President; it may have been revenge for the aborted invasion of Cuba or merely an act on behalf of what he saw as an ideological struggle between the USSR and the USA. We do know that it made no difference to the momentum of US militarism and imperialism across the globe.
We also know that none of the above acts of violence made any significant difference to the course of history; and that they will continue to be politically irrelevant. Only the ideologically naive believe that individuals hold immense power and that to annihilate these people would change anything in the lives of the majority. In contrast if we can convince the majority of the illusion of this belief, in both the legitimacy of attempting to allocate power to single individuals and the possibility that they can wield it successfully, then we can assassinate one of the causes of political murder.          

Socialist Party under attack (1986)

From the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

It's not much fun being lumped together with Alcoholics Anonymous, the Society of the New Church, the Catholic Apostolics, Recovery inc. and Neurotics Nomine. But that's what's happened to the Socialist Party in a recent book. Ideological Groups: Similarities of Structure and Organisation by R. Kenneth Jones (Gower. Aldershot. 1984) claims that the Socialist Party is like those other groups in being "sectarian", that is in exhibiting certain characteristics which cut its members off from the outside world and make them hostile towards it.

Some of the author's information, he tells us, is from an unpublished study of the Socialist Party by a fellow sociologist called Peter Rollings. In addition he visited the Party's head office in London looking at methods of organisation and interviewing members. Finally he read a sample (quite a small one by the looks of it) of Socialist Party literature. So he made an effort to get to know about the party. But was it enough? Well, whether it is or not, something went badly wrong somewhere, because his picture of the organisation is a travesty.

For a start a lot of the small details about Party organisation are wrong. It's not true, for example, that "branches have their secretaries on the Executive Committee and the Conference" or "that membership in each of these branches will not amount to thirty at the most". It's not true either that the Party is or ever was "reconciled to a policy of non-recruitment”. On the contrary it's never stopped recruiting and the influx, especially in recent years, of many new young members is causing it to grow and to make an impact far out of proportion to its numbers. As for the sociologist's analysis of party members' occupations, it brought one of the biggest smiles of the year. According to Jones, we are mainly "skilled workers and in particular building workers" with "little evidence of any young intellectual element drawn from the universities" and we are "more likely to be primary school teachers with a non-university background". Anyone who is a member of. or closely associated with the Socialist Party will be smiling too because they'll know that the membership comes from an extraordinary diversity of backgrounds, educations and occupations and none predominates. In other words just about anyone can understand and want socialism — an encouraging thing for the spread of socialist ideas.

The impression is that mistakes like these have come mainly from Rollings. He says at one point that Rollings' work, done in the sixties. is. “still as accurate today as it was 17 years ago", whereas if the bits he quotes directly from Rolling are anything to go by that work was inaccurate then and still is today. But not all the mistakes can come from Rollings. The interviews he quotes with Party members are his own original material and they too give a false impression. They make the average Party member an elitist, a dogmatist and a person who never thinks to question the ideas of the Party. They also make it seem that members are likely to be in the Party for personal therapeutic reasons. Apart from the fact that we don't know how many members Jones has interviewed and how selective he's been in quoting from his interviews, no person with a good knowledge of the party will agree that this picture accords with their experience of the outlook and attitudes of the membership as a whole. As an old long-dead member used to say with a touch of exaggeration, on the subject of our questioning our own ideas: "Do we have to disagree with one another on absolutely everything?".

Is Jones therefore deliberately out to distort? What has probably happened is that he's approached the party with a fixed idea. That idea, of the party's "sectarianism", was perhaps in the first place transmitted to him by Rollings but at any rate it fitted in with the theory which he was trying to prove and which is the main thesis of his whole book — that non-religious or anti-religious groups can and do share certain characteristics with religious groups. This theory may or may not be valid — it probably is — but the Socialist Party doesn't provide an example of it and Jones shouldn't have given in to the academic's temptation of making the evidence fit the theory.

Without suggesting that Jones has done this at a conscious, calculating level, more evidence that this is what's happened can be seen in the way he finds, on the flimsiest of impressions, that the Socialist Party is one of those organisations that goes in for the "socialisation" of its members. They are in the business, according to the author of "managing the identity of their members with a relative totality which which permeates their social lives". If Jones looks a little more closely at the Socialist Party, he'll find that this, more than anything else he writes, is just daft. And as for Jones's suggestion of "the member being seeped in the ideology of the movement", the democratic structure of the SPGB means that there's no mechanism to do any "seeping". People join freely and participate as they themselves see fit. They're not subject to any kind of pressure. This isn't of course to say that when human beings have a common interest and get together to promote it in a group they don't form an emotional attachment to the group and that this doesn't happen in the Socialist Party. It does, just as it happens in darts clubs, writers' circles and Gingerbread groups. But so what? It doesn't exclude contact outside the group and. unless you can show it does, it's not fair to say there's anything "religious" or "sectarian" about it.

Perhaps at bottom Jones has doubts too because in his chapter on the Socialist Party he keeps repeating that we show features of "transcendental sects" and these repetitions suggest that he's not fully convinced himself. It's as though repeating it will somehow make it come true. Also, though his language is on the whole sociological jargon and the general tone pure condescension (it's good to know that "members certainly do not appear to be aggressive or misfits or in any way eccentric"), the terminology he uses to link the party with religious groups does not shrink from the emotive "priesthood of all believers", "moral elitism". "fundamental creedal devotion". Nor does he deny himself the old cheap "Small party for good boys” sneer. The fact that he needs to bolster his arguments in this way can't help making you think that somewhere deep down he himself recognises the fragility of his own case.

And if his analysis of the Socialist Party is anything to go by, it makes you wonder about the accuracy of his work on the other organisations. After all the Catholic Apostolic Church deserve to have the truth told about them just as much as anyone else. And how must they feel being lumped together with the Socialist Party of Great Britain?
Howard Moss

Editorial: The Proxy War in Syria (2017)

Editorial from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rather undiplomatically criticised key British ally, Saudi Arabia, for being amongst those 'puppeteering' in Syria, he blurted out the truth. What has been going on in Syria for the past five or so years has been much more than a civil war. Rival regional powers, as well as the West and Russia, have been intervening both directly and via groups on the ground which they finance and arm.

What started as a bid to spread the so-called Arab Spring to Syria, with the aim of transforming a secular classic dictatorship (one party state, secret police, torture chambers) into a secular political democracy (which would have been a welcome development) was soon hijacked by Islamists of one degree of extremism or another with a quite different agenda. They won the support of the Islamic states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and of Erdogan in Turkey who would like to turn his country into one too.

With Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey using Sunni Muslim groups as their puppets and Iran, which supports the Syrian government, using Shia Muslim ones as theirs, the conflict has taken on the appearance of being a religious one. Some commentators have suggested, much more plausibly, that the real issue, for these states at least, has been for control of territory through which an oil pipeline from the Gulf to a Mediterranean port could pass most directly.

For the West and Russia, it has been more a matter of geopolitics. The Syrian government, long controlled by a wing of the Arab Nationalist Baath party, has been sympathetic to Russia since the days of the Cold War, if only because during that period America kept trying to overthrow it. It even claimed to be 'socialist' but only in the sense of running a state-directed capitalist economy as in the former USSR, to which its dictatorial political system was similar too.

Although Syria was not specifically included in Bush's 'axis of evil' it was still regarded as a hostile state deserving regime change. Russia, even though the pretence of being socialist has (thankfully) been dropped, continued to support the regime, if only to maintain its naval base in the Mediterranean, an objective of the Russian state since the time of the Tsars. For the moment at least, Russia has proved more determined in the defence and pursuit of its interests than the West, and it looks as if the regime is not going to be changed.

These various clashes between rival capitalist interests have led to a minimum of at least 300,000 being killed, many more injured and much destruction as in the images from Aleppo. Millions more have been displaced both within Syria and as refugees living in misery in camps in Turkey and, if they didn't drown trying to get there, Greece.

As socialists, we place on record our abhorrence of this latest manifestation of the callous, sordid, and mercenary nature of the international capitalist system, while hoping that the fighting, the killing and the destruction stop immediately and unconditionally.