I have little humour to offer in the wake of the events of the last week. Neither the Paris or Beirut attacks nor the right-wing response by European states lends much to satire. If history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce – at the moment I feel we are still knee-deep in tragedy. The Paris and Beirut attacks were barbaric – a futile waste of life in the name of a corrupted and reactionary ideology. The French response, to bomb Raqqa – killing God knows how many civilians – was also barbaric, and all further acts of this nature must be opposed.
The forces of reaction closer to home are emboldened – they see the Paris attack as an early Christmas gift. Poland has already closed its borders to refugees. Cameron wants to bomb Syria – one unnamed Tory MP gleefully telling a BBC reporter, “We’re going to war.” Mosques are being firebombed across France. The press is using James Bond style rhetoric like “mastermind,” to describe the perpetrators. Hollande, after declaring war, is warning of the “threat of chemical and biological attacks” – obviously short on original scare-mongering sound-bites, he’s decided to lift one straight out of the Tony Blair handbook for mass-murder. (Interestingly, this time there is no need for a “sexed up dossier,” or suicidal UN weapons inspectors – the statement in itself is enough.) Reportedly in Germany, the far right has jumped to third place in opinion polls – Marine Le Pen and merry band of fascists will be rubbing their hands with glee. The French state has banned the mass climate demonstrations planned for the coming weeks – this is important. It is an assault not only on civil liberties, but on the demand for a viable future on this planet.
The responses on the left have been varied. There are those who denounce religion in general. Eamonn McCann writing in the Irish Times this week asked, “What phenomenal malignity could prompt such evil?” (Referring to massacres carried out by ISIS) He answers that it is religion – without giving any analysis of what he thinks religion is, or the conditions under which something like the ISIS ideology could emerge. He goes on to quote much from the Old Testament that promotes the slaughter of captured enemies, claims ISIS is an apocalyptic “end of days” cult and concludes explicitly that “The evil of IS is rooted in religion.”
This may be so. No one would argue that ISIS atrocities are anything but evil, or that they aren’t rooted in a religious ideology. But this is not enough. This doesn’t explain why Jews in Dublin do not carry out Moses’ instructions (that McCann references) regarding slaughtered enemies or the stoning of apostates, or why much Quakerism embraces radical politics. It does not explain why Northern Ireland is a hotbed of religious reaction or why McCann himself would give critical support to other Islamic forces – say Hamas or Hezbollah – that are most definitely “rooted in religion.” To understand ISIS we must understand the historical and material conditions that allowed their emergence. We cannot do this without acknowledging the role of the Western imperialism in the region over the last decades and the blatant sowing of sectarian divisions in Iraq by the US in order to divide and rule the population. We cannot understand ISIS without acknowledging the decline and repression of secular left-wing forces in the region – by both Baathist forces and Western imperial puppets. We cannot understand ISIS without acknowledging the support it is offered by both the Saudi regime and the Turkish state (a NATO member). To say that “IS is rooted in religion” is easy – but religion and religious zealotry are rooted in the material conditions of the place where it emerges.
There are those who are promoting various conspiracy theories. ISIS was created by the CIA. The Paris attacks where secretly planned by Mossad. The Syrian revolution itself was a Western plot (echoing Assad himself). Astonishingly, some are quoting Vlad Putin in order to support these claims – a man renowned world-wide for speaking truth to power and standing up to imperialism! While there is no doubt that Western (and Russian) powers are scrambling for influence and using the Syrian disaster as an opportunity to spread their imperialist tentacles even further, there is no need for conspiracy theories. The Syrian catastrophe is understandable, if difficult. Conspiracy theories merely serve to obfuscate the truth even further and usually result in some flavour of “left-wing” campism – mainly support for Assad or Putin. What is in fact happening now – further solidified by the Paris attacks – is what Kevin Ovenden calls “a consensus over how to coordinate their military operations in Syria.” The carve up of the spoils of Syria is being co-ordinated by both the Western powers and Russia and Iran. There is nothing anti-imperialist about the Russian state – it is just another great power playing God in the Middle East and bombing hospitals along the way. Nor is there anything conspiratorial about the CIA funding certain groups in Syria – they openly declare this.
There are sections of the left who, since the Paris attacks, have demonstrated their absolute political incompetence. One only has to look at social-media. The barrage of sanctimonious sermonizing from some leftists about others putting the French tricolor on their profile pictures serves nothing but the inflation of their own (online) egos. People mourning and expressing solidarity with those affected by the attacks by changing their pictures – however flawed – is not something we should denounce. This is not radical politics. “I leftist, know better than you, stupid prole.” Others are visibly gloating at the fact that people don’t remember the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961 – how dare they not know about this! This way lies madness. This is not the “patient explaining” that Lenin advised. This is the worst kind of infantile and contemptible smugness. Some sections of the left are building for themselves a hall of mirrors, where they can smirk and snigger at the reflection of their own irrelevance as the world burns around them.
What is to be done?
Some are asking the question, “How do we defeat ISIS?” In the wake of Paris, this is the wrong question, and merely plays into the hands of imperialism. “We” can no more “defeat” ISIS than we could “defeat” the Soviet Union or the fruitless terrorism it sponsored. Unless we plan to organise an international brigade to Syria to fight ISIS on the ground then it is thoroughly pointless to talk about “defeating ISIS” in any practical sense of the term. But we must also be quite clear that imperialist intervention in the conflict will neither defeat ISIS – it will only serve to replicate the conditions under which they emerged and also, disastrously, could give them an anti-imperialist hue, increasing their popular support even further. The imperialist states “fighting ISIS” are not doing so for the benefit of the people of Syria, or French civilians. They are merely feathering their own nests in competition for power in a redrawn Middle East. It will be international capital that benefits from this conflict – no one else. The question for us is not about defeating ISIS, it is rather what we can do and in that, what we should do as radicals.
What we need now is solidarity – and internationalism. This may seem like abstract, nebulous fluff. But in times of political crisis – which an event of this magnitude surely is – we must return to these first principles in order to give us a solid foundation for action. This means uncritical and uncompromising solidarity with those who were killed and maimed in the Paris and Beirut attacks. They are our dead – innocents killed in an act of sickening barbarism. It means taking a principled stand against the thoroughly reactionary ISIS and support for those progressive forces actually confronting them on the ground – the Kurdish fighters. Solidarity means standing with those who will suffer the inevitable backlash – the victims of Western and Russian bombs in Syria and beyond, and the racism that is already being unleashed against Muslims and refugees across Europe. We must stand against the enemy at home – our own states that have been war-mongering for centuries and want to make a buck, and spread their international influence on the back of the further murder of innocents. The immediate tasks at home are:
1. – The principled opposition to further imperialist adventures in the region – No more war – this will require a rejuvenated and energized anti-war movement.
2. – Opposition to the racist backlash and solidarity with and defence of those on the receiving end of it.
Although the coming fight is a mainly defensive one – preventing war and opposing racism – there is the inherent potential in such a fight for truly transformative politics. The future may look bleak, but it is the role of those on the left to look for the nucleus of possibility in the present and transform it into a utopia building movement – this task has never been more important or urgent.
Walter Benjamin wrote of the “Angel of History:” :
“His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm”
Instead of the opportunism of standing with “liberal democracy” against cartoon Jihadist villains, or the voluntarism of individual terrorism or the “dropping out” of society, we must tease open the radical potential in the present to unleash the historical striving for freedom that has been crushed so many times in the past. It is our job to build a history bomb. The unending catastrophe of capitalist “progress” has created misery and destruction in its wake – a rubble heap of blood, flesh and horror – as well as now threatening the very basis of life on Earth through environmental destruction. When we watch the news, see the bombings in Paris, the destruction in Syria or Palestine or the latest climate-change related catastrophe, it is easy to despair. The dominant forces in the world seem all powerful – the possibility of radical change impossible. But it is only through struggle itself that the radical possibility is made manifest. So we must fight – not out of dreams of an imaginary utopian future, but out of the burning fire of vengeance for all the still-born revolutions and struggles of the past. And rather than falling into geo-political camps, liberal apology or voluntarist nihilism, we should take as our starting point a very simple phrase – solidarity with oppressed people everywhere. This modest idea has the potential to change the world. And it has never been more relevant than today – we’re faced with a choice – socialism or barbarism.