The sound of apologetics

James Mallory assesses the response to the events of September 11 from the SWP

There can be little doubt that last week?s barbaric terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have left an indelible mark on the political and ideological landscape of the world - most significantly on America itself. Two totems of the United States world hegemony - one financial/commercial; the other military - subjected to devastating aerial attack. Images of the collapsing WTC were quickly put to use by Bush as a recruiting agent for a ?war on terrorism? and  for ?civilisation?

Unsurprisingly there was no backing for the terrorist action amongst our allies. Only those on the wacky fringes of the left found something to celebrate.

Illustrating that there is a significant degree of common ground,  the Socialist Alliance was able to produce a statement which reflects the broad area of agreement amongst the constituent organisations and leading individuals. However, the coverage of events by the left did also reveal areas of disagreement - some of nuance, some which reveal more fundamental differences.

In some ways the reaction of the Socialist Workers Party typified left comment on the issue. For Socialist Worker, ?The tragic scenes in New York and Washington are the bitter fruits of policies of the US state? (September 15). But, when it comes to the question of the terrorists themselves, the SWP, while they ?abhor violence and oppose indiscriminate bombings of civilians?, carefully avoid explicit condemnation of those who attacked the WTC. This weasel formulation sows its own confusion. In the same article we discover that in fact the comrades, correctly, ?do not deny the working class and the oppressed the right to use violence [which they supposedly ?abhor? - JM] against their oppressors?.

The SWP was the only principal organisation of the Socialist Alliance not to explicitly condemn the terrorist actions. And so, as is so often the case with the SWP, it is what is not being said that is most significant. While some will no doubt insist that the question of using the word ?condemn? is a mere semantic quibble, this would be to miss the point. For the SWP Osama bin Laden, like Saddam Hussein and even the Ayatollah Khomeini, are ?anti-imperialist? and therefore progressive. To condemn them is almost to side with imperialism. The comrades therefore explicitly opposed the inclusion of the term in the Socialist Alliance statement on the grounds that it was ?going too far?. Thankfully they failed to keep it out.

The surfacing of tension within Nottingham Socialist Alliance on the SA Press Group discussion list has provided another example of the significance of the word ?condemn? and the SWP?s desire to avoid using it at all costs. This has been part of the reason why the SWP has dragged its feet over joint work in a local anti-war campaign. Comrade Pete Radcliff of the Alliance for Workers? Liberty, SA general election candidate for Nottingham East, expressed his concern about the SWP refusal to respond to a request to participate in such activity. In reply comrade John Shemeld (SWP) stated there were ?gigantic cracks? in the Socialist Alliance. He would prefer not to ?get involved? with discussing points such as the following description in Workers? Liberty of the US suicide bombers: ?Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement as much as the US government is. In fact, more so? (SA Press Group, September 17).

So, what does comrade Shemeld find so difficult to ?discuss? about the quoted passage from Workers? Liberty? Certainly, as comrade Radcliff pointed out, the ?gigantic cracks? were between those who ?have found it necessary to make clear our condemnation of the WTC attacks? and by implication those who have kept silent. Comrade Shemeld, in refusing to discuss the notion that the bombers are ?enemies for the working class and labour movement as much as the US government?, in reality refuses to discuss the content of the terrorists? political programme. Political differences are buried in the name of building a ?broad church? anti-war movement, in which islamic reactionaries will presumably be more than welcome. It was this kind of opportunism that meant that the SWP was quite prepared to march uncritically alongside Slav chauvinists against the Nato bombing of Serbia.

The refusal to discuss the political programme of the bombers leads the SWP to reduce the question merely to one of opposition to acts of individual terrorism - as though members of bin Laden?s Al Qa?eda should be viewed as comrades adopting mistaken tactics. But this discussion permeates the entire coverage of Socialist Worker. Thus the ?What socialists think? column reprinted Leon Trotsky?s views: ?The most important psychological source of terrorism is always the feeling of revenge seeking an outlet.? Trotsky accurately prophesised the feelings of the Arab masses. However, the jihad of bin Laden is revenge not just on the ruling class, but on society as a whole. More to the point, Marxists oppose not just the act of individual terrorism, as Socialist Worker says, but, in the case of the WTC assailants, the political programme that lies behind the act as well.

Comrade Shemeld is not the only SWP comrade who is apparently finding discussion vexatious. In Hackney proposals for a full debate were defeated by the SWP in favour of a 30-minute slot. That an issue of such fundamental importance should be allocated just half an hour shows a profoundly worrying attitude. The SWP continues to believe that unthinking ?activity? is the best antidote to divisions within the Socialist Alliance.

The AWL?s criticism of the SWP has been instructive in illustrating the danger that, if you ?bend the stick? too far, it snaps. For the AWL the New York attacks were ?in scale ... in the same league as some of the worst imperialist atrocities? and ?in cold-bloodedness? in excess of ?some of its models? (SA Press Group, September 13). The irony here is that the comrades reason in precisely the same way as their professed opponents. They introduce a value judgement based on the relative weight of various atrocities. SWP thinking merely reverses the equation, saying that the imperialists are ?relatively? worse than terrorists. Marxists do not judge acts of violence by chalking up the numbers of casualties on a scoreboard.