Twenty years since 9/11

In edited extracts from an article first published in the September 2011 edition of Socialism Today No.151, PETER TAAFFE assesses the consequences of the 9/11 attacks, a defining moment in a changing world situation.

The bloody terrorist outrages of 11 September 2001 in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington were one of the defining moments in recent history. The deaths of thousands of people allowed capitalist reaction – led by George W Bush and the now discredited British prime minister of the time, Tony Blair – the excuse to initiate a new era of terrible imperialist war and foster the poisonous fumes of ethnic division and racism, directed particularly against those of the Islamic faith. This resulted in a colossal number of deaths and destruction which inflicted further untold misery and suffering on millions of working people and the poor, particularly in the neo-colonial world.

The Socialist Party, at the time and since, unequivocally condemned al-Qa’ida, which was behind these attacks, describing its methods as those “of small groups employing mass terrorism”. At the same time, we gave not a shadow of support to Bush or Blair and the cacophony of the capitalist media calling for a worldwide ‘war against terrorism’. In reality, they used 9/11 to justify state terror against defenceless and innocent people throughout the world, symbolised by the torture chambers of Guantánamo Bay and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

However, this political standpoint was not shared even by some socialist groups, who were equivocal and refused to condemn the 9/11 attacks. This was a profoundly mistaken approach which risked alienating a majority of working-class people who were repelled by the carnage in New York and Washington. Moreover, this opened up the possibility of driving them into the arms of Bush and Blair in the war preparations for invading Afghanistan and later Iraq.

Historically, Marxism has always opposed terroristic methods. In Russia, Marxism was compelled from the outset to oppose these methods in the struggle against the Tsar’s brutal, dictatorial regime. Marxists counterposed the mass struggles of the working class which, by linking up with the peasants, particularly the poor rural masses, was the only force that could lead a successful struggle against Tsarism. Not the assassination of even the most repressive government ministers but mass action, the general strike, a mass uprising to overthrow dictatorial regimes, could lay the basis for lasting success.

Leon Trotsky compared terrorism to capitalist liberalism, but with bombs. This seems strange to us today. It is inconceivable, for instance, that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Britain and deputy prime minister, would be associated with terroristic methods! But Trotsky’s idea remains valid. Liberals believe that the removal of this or that minister or even a government can introduce fundamental change. The terrorist has the same approach but with violent methods. The replacement of a minister or government is insufficient to bring about real social change. Would the removal of the present government in Britain, for instance, and the coming to power of Ed Miliband and his New Labour party fundamentally change the situation? Merely to pose the question is to answer it. Because a Miliband government would be rooted within the framework of capitalism there would be no dramatic change, particularly in the social conditions of the mass of the people.

Al-Qa’ida, however, was an entirely different kind of terrorist outfit. Despite the attempts of some left groups to prettify the image of Islamic terrorists, al-Qa’ida was rooted in the doctrines of Wahhabism, a medieval version of Sunni Islam and the dominant creed of the theocratic regime of Saudi Arabia. In the past, terrorist groups which based themselves, at least in theory, on furthering the social interests of the masses, engaged in the assassination of particular reactionary figures, governments, etc. The origins of al-Qa’ida, with its messianic non-class opposition to the ‘infidel’ and the ‘great Satan’, the USA, meant that it was indiscriminate in employing mass terror. Not only did it attack the US and its allies, it also struck down innocent workers and the poor. This was evident on 9/11 but also in its other terrorist acts before and since.

The informed correspondent of The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, pointed out: “One vicious aspect of al-Qa’ida activities is under-reported in the western media: it has always killed more Shia Muslims than it did Americans. The group was sectarian before it was nationalist. The Shia were seen as heretics as worthy of death as an American or British soldier. Again and again its suicide bombers would target Shia day labourers as they waited for work in public squares in the early morning in Baghdad, or massive bombs would be detonated as Shia worshippers left their mosques”.

Embracing mass struggle

Moreover, in the magnificent revolutions of the past year in the Middle East and North Africa, beginning with Tunisia then Egypt, al-Qa’ida was of little or no consequence. As we predicted – against many left-wing groups, like the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, which adapted to organisations based upon right-wing political Islam and exaggerated their importance – youth and workers rejected the failed terrorist model and embraced the methods of mass struggle. Mass occupations of the public squares, strikes and demonstrations were the political weapons for the Tunisian and Egyptian masses to overthrow Ben Ali and Mubarak.

True, the trigger for the Tunisian revolution was the self-immolation of the street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. But this individual act had nothing in common with the methods of indiscriminate mass terror of suicide bombers that marks out al-Qa’ida. Moreover, the conditions for revolution would have had to be prepared by the whole preceding period for an accidental trigger to set in motion a mass movement in Tunisia and Egypt, a feature of all real revolutions.

Where religion still retains a certain base and an attraction to the masses, particularly in the neo-colonial world, it partly arises from the conditions of dictatorship or in the underdeveloped economic character of some countries with a large agricultural population. In the Stalinist dictatorship in Poland before 1989, it was Catholicism through the churches which provided the means of organising resistance on the part of Polish workers. Therefore, the rising had a pronounced religious colouration. This did not lead them, however, to draw pro-capitalist conclusions, in the first instance, from their opposition to Stalinism. In 1980-81, the Solidarity movement, with mass committees and participation, represented at bottom the movement for political revolution to replace the undemocratic Stalinist state structures. At the same time, it sought to retain the elements of a planned economy, nationalisation, etc. In the Iranian revolution of 1979, we witnessed a form of ‘radical Islam’ which appealed to the working class and poor for a time. It cannot be excluded that such phenomena can rise again in the neo-colonial world.

In Egypt, initially, the masses were able to concentrate their forces in opposition to the Mubarak regime around the mosques and, to some extent, the underground independent trade unions. But the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organisation which was allowed to function in a semi-political fashion, and also as a charitable, social self-help organisation. Naturally, therefore, for some sections these are the organisations to which they first turned in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Egyptian dictatorship. While Islamist groups and parties exist in Tunisia they do not have, it seems, the same roots as in Egypt at this stage. Post-Gadaffi Libya, on the other hand, could see a fracturing of the country and the growth of Islamist groups. But it is not clear that this will be the dominant trend. In Egypt, despite the recent sizeable mobilisation of Islamists in Tahrir Square, they are by no means guaranteed to win an absolute majority even in the hastily organised early elections which would favour them. Moreover, it is not certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will remain a cohesive, unified force. There are splits, partly reflecting divisions of a class character. There is talk of at least four different political parties being formed from the Brotherhood.

At the same time, the forces opposed to right-wing political Islam, secularists as well as socialists, are finding an echo among newly politically aroused sections of the working class in Egypt, Tunisia and throughout the region. Even in Yemen, which is “widely assumed to have bought into the al-Qa’ida franchise” (The Guardian), the February uprising led to the creation of revolutionary committees where discussion raged about non-sectarian strategies for change. Everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa the initial impulse in the revolutions was for a non-sectarian approach with a clear direction towards class conclusions on the part of the masses. In the unspeakable social conditions in Yemen, a country of seven million people where one third of the population is deemed to be ‘food insecure’ and 10% are malnourished, it will take more than religion to satisfy the demands of the masses.

Liberated from the yoke of dictatorship, the masses of the region have poured onto the political arena and, as the example of Egypt shows, will be not silenced by the edicts of the discredited military elites. They will push on to advance their demands for drastically improved living conditions, democratic rights, trade union organisation, etc. The vital ingredient which is missing to guarantee success in the struggle is the existence of mass organisations, of powerful trade unions and independent working-class parties. But the convulsive movements experienced and even greater ones to come will be great teachers of the masses that only through their own independent banner will they be able to conquer a position where they can begin to realise their aspirations for jobs, shelter and tolerable living standards.

Al-Qa’ida’s dead end

One of the big impulses for the revolution – and the factor which allowed the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) to expect a movement to overthrow Mubarak which we outlined last year – was the worsening social conditions throughout the region, particularly the spectacular increase in mass unemployment. This in turn arose from the deepening of the world economic crisis of capitalism. This was accompanied by a deterioration in the food supply and the mass import of grain into the region that, historically, was the very cradle of civilisation and the foundation of human agriculture in the fertile arc between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Nothing could better illustrate the destructive character of modern landlordism and capitalism and their incapacity to deliver the basics of life to the workers and peasants throughout the region.

One thing is absolutely clear: al-Qa’ida and right-wing political Islam have nothing to offer in concrete terms either for the struggle or the realisation of the aims of the masses in this region. Not just in North Africa and the Middle East but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida’s methods represent a political dead-end. The assassination of Osama bin Laden in July was a non-event for the mass of Pakistanis. When he was murdered on the orders of US imperialism, his organisation was effectively already politically dead.

However, the danger of terrorism and terroristic ideas attracting alienated sections of society, including young people and even some working-class youth, is not restricted to the neo-colonial world. As the example of the Red Brigades in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s showed, if the working class and its organisations fail to seize the initiative for change, desperate people can seek the short cut of terrorism. The conditions facing the working class today, particularly the youth, are immeasurably worse. It is therefore necessary to examine and counter terroristic methods from a Marxist point of view in order to avert many potentially good socialist forces going down this cul-de-sac.

The attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon ten years ago was the most spectacular terrorist act in history. It was also, from the standpoint of al-Qa’ida, the most ‘cost-effective’, at a price of less than $500,000 to stage, a mere bagatelle for the scion of the rich Saudi Arabian bin Laden family. At the same time, it humiliated the seemingly all-powerful and multi-billion dollar financed security apparatus of US imperialism. But al-Qa’ida has failed in the decade which has elapsed to realise its aims in defeating American imperialism and the regimes that support it in the ‘land of Islam’, the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, it enabled imperialism to mobilise through the so-called ‘war on terror’ and all the reactionary implications that flowed from this.

It allowed imperialism, particularly the US, to strengthen its military prowess, which then mobilised for militarily intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq with bloody consequences for the masses there and everywhere. Robert Harris commented: “The smoke from the twin towers still lingers over the planet. It feels as if we live in a darker, more paranoid, less optimistic era than we did in the 1990s when the cold war was over and the ‘clash of civilisations’ had yet to begin. America has never fully recovered: nor has the west”. (Sunday Times, 14 August 2011)

Imperialist hubris

But the world balance of forces which was decisively weighted in favour of American imperialism has undergone a profound change. US imperialism was initially strengthened by 9/11 as its representatives arrogantly asserted its dominance. In 2001, it was still the main economic and military power on the globe. Its ambition to achieve ‘military full spectrum dominance’ was implemented in the wake of 9/11. Subsequently, the US spent almost as much as the rest of the world put together on fiendish weapons, including those of mass destruction.

This was accompanied by the facile doctrine of the ‘war against terror’. Then US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that this would last for at least 50 years! It has not lasted for ten years, as we predicted, utterly discredited even among the bourgeois. Nevertheless, under this umbrella a massive assault was launched on the democratic rights of people in the US and elsewhere.

The capitalist media debased themselves even more than usual in lining up behind the Bush regime. This laid the basis for imperialist intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq under the hypocritical heading of ‘liberal military intervention’. The US right had dreamed of reversing the ‘Vietnam syndrome’, and were given the opportunity by 9/11. This is one further aspect of the reactionary implications of terrorism: it strengthens the hand of the state in repressing and undermining democratic rights, including those of the working class and the labour movement. Even the recent, largely spontaneous riots in Britain have been used by the government to move the political pendulum to the right with increased threats of repression.

Well in advance of the wars that took place, the CWI indicated that both Afghanistan and Iraq were likely to be invaded. However, we countered the inevitable fears and disappointment, if not bleak pessimism, which pervaded the labour movement in particular. Soon after the attacks of 9/11 we wrote: “September 11, as we have seen, has clearly opened up a new phase for the world and for capitalism. Despite the boasts of Bush and his junior partners, such as Blair, this does not mean a successful, triumphalist period for imperialism. The ‘victories’ which have been gained are shot through with contradictions. Certainly the US colossus bestrides the world like at no other time in history. But at the same time it has built into its foundations all the explosive material of world capitalism”. (Post 9/11, Can US Imperialism Be Challenged? – September 2002)

US imperialism has indeed experienced massive changes which have left all the doctrines of Bush and his neo-conservative supporters in the dust. Who now can speak of a US president playing the role of a modern ‘Caesar’, as was the case after 9/11? Barack Obama was a bystander, incapable of intervening in the first stages of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Only with the assistance of the counter-revolutionary theocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere, alongside NATO’s Libyan intervention, has US imperialism managed to gain a very tentative handle on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Syria, it has only been after a protracted period of upheaval that Obama felt able to intervene against Bashar al-Assad with the threat of economic sanctions if he does not vacate the scene. As with all the pro-capitalist forces in the region, however, Obama is terrified of what would follow if Assad is overthrown. This does not seem to be posed immediately, with Assad’s regime still retaining a basis of support in key areas, such as Damascus and Aleppo.

But Assad’s demise could lead to a ‘disorderly’ disintegration of the country and its fracturing along ethnic and religious lines. This could have immediate repercussions, with Israel, for instance, acting to secure its position if upheavals in Syria affect territories it controls, such as the Golan Heights. Turkey is even threatening military intervention to preserve ‘stability’. This means it will act if it deems it likely that the Kurdish population of Syria, free from Assad’s control, could reinforce the opposition of the Kurds in Turkey to the Erdoğan government. In this situation, the intervention of US imperialism largely takes the form of words. This led The Independent journalist Robert Fisk to comment: “Obama roars. World trembles. If only”.

Imperialism’s terrible legacy

This underlines the fact that US imperialism, while still an economic and military giant, no longer possesses the power to impose its will worldwide as appeared to be the case in the aftermath of 9/11. It is hemmed in by its economic weaknesses, symbolised by the yawning budget deficit, which is partly a consequence of the imperialist rampages in Afghanistan and Iraq. A colossal $3 trillion has been squandered in the catastrophe of US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the equivalent of about one fifth of the total annual GDP of the US. Much worse is the murderous toll: at least 600,000 innocent Iraqi civilians perished, as well as the troops of the ‘coalition of the willing’, who died in unwinnable wars in those countries.

And what is the balance sheet of these interventions? The Taliban remains undefeated. Even worse, its poisonous influence as a consequence of the war in Afghanistan compounds the situation of the Pakistani masses, already mired in deepening poverty and the sheer despair which pervades the major areas and cities of that country.

The Afghan puppet of Britain and the US, Hamid Karzai – ‘the mayor of Kabul’ – is increasingly besieged and could be overthrown if imperialist support and bayonets are withdrawn, as is likely to be the case. The recent assassinations of his brother and other pillars of the regime indicate how the Taliban are able to penetrate the very heart of the capital and just how fragile is the present Afghani state. Moreover, imperialism is engaged in negotiations with the Taliban – likened by David Cameron, British prime minister, to the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland. This underlines what we have said from the outset: the war is unwinnable.

In effect, imperialism is about to ‘declare victory and withdraw’, probably using the screen of a ‘coalition’ government involving the Taliban, or sections of them, and some remnants of the present regime. At the same time, it may well continue to pour resources into building up the so-called ‘Afghan army’ while maintaining military bases in the area. A similar scenario exists for Iraq. Again as we predicted, a terrible legacy has been bequeathed to the Iraqi people by US and British imperialist military intervention. US forces are preparing to ‘withdraw’, having helped to lay waste Iraq and not solving – in effect, reinforcing – all the problems of poverty, the breakdown of basic services and utilities and, above all, ethnic and sectarian divisions.

Nevertheless, in the splendid, primarily workers’, movement this year of all ethnic groups, the Iraqi working class is beginning to re-emerge from the catastrophe. This development also reinforces our arguments against imperialist intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein. There were some allegedly on the left – particularly Iraqi exiles – who argued that only outside military intervention could remove Saddam. We pointed to the potential of the Iraqi working class but our arguments were dismissed with claims that ‘the Iraqi people are in chains, incapable of taking action themselves’, and ‘the impulse to remove Saddam must come from outside’. Many looked to the bitterest opponents of the working class, the capitalists and imperialists, to do the job which only an independent movement of the working class is capable of fulfilling.

Our arguments were borne out in the magnificent independent movements of the masses which rose and split the army in Egypt and Tunisia. Moreover, the development of the working class and its independent organisations, even in poverty-stricken societies such as Afghanistan and Iraq, will proceed in the next period. The trend towards non-sectarian movements in all the upheavals we have witnessed can also develop on a regional scale. No country, even the strongest, is viable by itself, particularly from an economic point of view. Only by combining the resources of the peoples in a socialist confederation, with full autonomy and democratic rights for all the nationalities and ethnic groups, including the recognition of language rights and of religious minorities, can the peoples of this region emerge from the nightmare which already confronts them on the basis of capitalism.

A unipolar world no longer

In the immediate period after 9/11, US imperialism was able to impose its will, within limits, because there were no rival powers within touching distance. During the cold war, the only rival to US imperialism was Stalinist Russia. Its astonishing economic collapse, following the demise of the ‘Soviet Union’ and the remnants of the Stalinist planned economy, has enfeebled this former economic and political giant.

That world situation and the unipolar position of the US following 9/11 no longer exists, particularly given the rise of China, which resting on its new economic power, increasingly challenges US imperialism even in the military, diplomatic and geopolitical spheres. This was dramatically demonstrated recently with the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, clearly meant for use in the Pacific, in particular, as a counter to the still dominant US navy. At the same time, it launched its own stealth bomber and its warplanes chased US reconnaissance aircraft out of Chinese airspace between China and Taiwan.

Unlike ten years ago, it has been brought home to the strategists of US capitalism that it can no longer pursue its policy of ‘guns and butter’. In the 1990s, the US share of world defence spending appeared to be steady and sustainable. This was largely because the US share of global GDP was roughly unchanged over the decade. In the first decade of this century, however, the US share declined and its huge defence burden is no longer sustainable. But, because of the enormously wasteful interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, its share of world defence spending actually increased from 36% to 42%. This now compels Obama’s administration to outline cuts in defence expenditure of an estimated $800 billion.

Predictably, this has provoked the ire of the military-industrial complex and its representatives in Congress who are quite prepared for savage cuts in social expenditure to maintain their illusions of US imperial grandeur. But, given the weakening of the economic foundations of US capitalism, it cannot sustain this without even greater attacks on the living standards of the working and middle classes. This will mean that the US, while being frustrated on the international plane, will also experience within its own borders the same outbreak of ferocious class struggle – with specifically American characteristics of speed and determination by the working class – as has Europe recently.

Therefore, rather than the triumphalist new era of strengthening and burgeoning capitalism, which its strategists fully expected following 9/11, exactly the opposite is the case ten years later. Torn by contradictions, facing its greatest crisis economically since the 1930s, capitalism in the US and globally faces an impasse. Capitalism is already a failed system. The recent World Bank Development Report estimates that a quarter of the world’s population now lives in countries grievously damaged by cycles of political and criminal violence. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times calmly stated: “The political and the criminal are closely connected”.

Capitalists’ crumbling confidence

One of the worst consequences of 9/11 was that it allowed capitalism, particularly the far-right, to stigmatise all Muslims as open or concealed supporters of al-Qa’ida terrorism, which was not and is not the case. As with the conflict in Northern Ireland, when completely innocent people were arrested and jailed, so Muslims have been arrested and imprisoned. Divisions and suspicions, which already existed between those from an immigrant background and other workers, have widened. This has been reinforced by Cameron with his criticism of ‘multiculturalism’, a barely concealed attack on immigrants. Capitalist politicians in Europe – including Angela Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France – play the same tune.

Yet, in the aftermath of the recent riots in Britain and the mowing down of three Asian youth in Birmingham, a ‘multicultural’ approach was adopted by Asian, black and white people. This was largely due to the magnificent initiative of the father of one of the dead young men. This provided an opportunity for the labour movement to step in and give this instinctive coming together a class expression. This happened in Northern Ireland in 1969 when shop stewards in Belfast took the initiative to form ‘peace committees’ of Protestant and Catholic workers. Unfortunately, the labour movement did not act accordingly in Birmingham and religious organisations were allowed to step in. Only a class approach emphasising the interests of all workers, can sustain the mood and movement.

Unless a new workers’ and socialist road is opened up, the poisonous influence of the far-right can grow, sometimes resulting in maniacs, such as Anders Breivik in Norway, seeking to murder innocent people in the name of an alleged ‘war against Islam’. This creature was just a mirror image in employing the same fascistic methods as the right-wing political Islam typified by al-Qa’ida.

Humankind is being plunged into worsening conditions, environmental disaster, and the destruction of all the hopes of the future by shattering the prospects of young people. If not consciously as yet, the mass of the working class and poor are instinctively, by their actions, rejecting the system. They have not yet managed to overcome the legacy of the last 20 to 30 years of neo-liberal capitalism and its ideological campaign to bolster its system. But, socially, the masses worldwide are swinging towards the left. Politics will inevitably catch up with the mood, unless capitalism can find a way out of its present impasse. Even the stewards of this system, in governments, parliaments, think-tanks – the modern monasteries of capitalism – hold out little hope of their system being rescued soon. This is furnishing the basis for dramatic and convulsive revolutionary upheavals, which will enormously widen the audience for socialist and Marxist ideas, and mass parties which will be built on this foundation.

The real lesson of 9/11 is that neither imperialism nor its mirror image, Islamic terrorism – or any form of terrorism – offer any way forward for the working class and humankind. It is the liberating and democratic ideas of socialism which point the way to the future.