Reflections on the events in France

As I write these lines the drama in France has just been brought to a bloody climax ending in the death of the two men who killed the staff of Charlie Hebdo. This denouement was as inevitable as the ending of a Greek tragedy. There was no realistic prospect of any other. Three days of high drama that captured the attention of the world have ended with twenty dead, a further unknown number of wounded and a nation in a state of trauma.

Among the dead was one of two armed individuals who had taken hostages, including women and children, in a Jewish supermarket on Thursday, apparently in solidarity with the assassins of Charlie Hebdo. The latter, following a manhunt of vast proportions that mobilised the entire French police and part of the army, were finally trapped in a factory where, after a siege of eight hours, they fell under a hail of bullets. This was immediately followed by an assault on the supermarket during which one gunman and four hostages died. The fate of the gunman’s companion was unknown at the time of writing.

hebdo-not-afraidLike a heavy boulder thrown into a lake, the events in France continue to send shock waves that have spread all over Europe and beyond. They began on January 7th, when two armed gunmen burst into the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper known for its controversial satirical cartoons, and shot dead ten staff inside. Two police officers were also killed. These actions provoked a wave of anger and revulsion. They stand condemned for their brutality and as a deliberate attack on free speech.

As Marxists we condemn this unreservedly. But we will not join in the hypocritical chorus that is being orchestrated by people who have no right whatsoever to condemn murderous terrorism for which they themselves are responsible to a very significant extent.

charlie-hebdo-ralliesWhat defence was provided for the staff of Charlie Hebdo? It was well known that they were a prime target for attack. Their outspoken criticisms of Islam had already given rise to repeated threats and their office had alreadysuffered one firebomb attack in 2011. Yet in the fateful moment when their murderers walked up to the door, their sole “protection” consisted of two unarmed policemen, both of whom were shot dead, one of them on the ground where he lay wounded.

Whoever organised it, this was no random attack. The assassins appear to have had a very detailed knowledge both of the layout of the building and the exact day and hour when the editorial staff would be present. They reportedly called for the offending cartoonists by name before cutting them down with a Kalashnikov. Footage showed the assassins shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” as they left the building.

It was quickly revealed that the assassins were two brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, born in France of Algerian origins. Why were their identities revealed so soon? It turns out that they were well known to the French Intelligence Services. Chérif Kouachi was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2008 after being convicted of terrorism charges for helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s insurgency.

In May 2010, police arrested Chérif Kouachi, Djamel Beghal and a number of other associates on suspicion of terrorist activity. The prosecution emphasised that Beghal had played an influential role in the radicalisation of Kouachi, who was characterised as a “pupil” who had gravitated towards Beghal. Police raids at Kouachi’s home uncovered videos of speeches from members of al-Qaida. Kouachi’s internet browsing history revealed a number of Islamist and Jihadi related sites.

ebdo-suspectsIt was later revealed that the two men were also on a list of terrorist suspects in the USA. Yet despite this they were able to carry out their deadly plan with surprising ease. If the two men were fairly high level suspects, how could they arrive, armed to the teeth, at the door of a magazine that was known to be a prominent target for Jihadi terrorists. Who was in charge of surveillance? This raises many questions but so far there have been no answers.

President François Hollande declared three days of national mourning.Flags flew at half-mast, and a minute’s silence was observed across the country. The bells of Notre Dame tolled and even the lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished. The President swears by all that is holy that the murderers will be hunted down and brought to justice, and he orders a full mobilization of the forces of the state to defend public buildings, mosques and other potential targets.

However, all this is a little late for the unfortunate victims who were slaughtered like sheep last Wednesday. One wonders why all these measures were not taken earlier. In a speech in which he heaped posthumous praise on the dead journalists, a tearful President called them “heroes in the fight for free speech”. It is a pity that neither he nor his “servants” in the police and Intelligence services showed much regard for the safety of these heroes when they were alive.

Why did they do it?

What motivated these men to do such a thing? Chérif Kouachi said some time ago that he was outraged at the torture of Iraqi inmates at the US prison at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad. Now he appears in the role of a Jihadi executioner. That there is a causal link between the murders in Paris and foreign Jihad is hardly a secret. Many have been radicalised and trained in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

In the recent period Syria has become the main destination for would-be Jihadis from Europe. It seems that the largest contingent of European fighters in Syria comes from France, which is not surprising given its sizeable Muslim population. All this is clear. But who is responsible? It is conveniently forgotten that only a couple of years ago the West (France included) was presenting the Jihadis in Syria as “freedom fighters” conducting a heroic struggle against the tyrannical Assad regime. What is now called the IS received support, money and arms from the Americans, the British, the French as well as the Saudis and Qataris.

Now the same people are being denounced as barbarians and savages. Why? Because they beheaded a few western prisoners. But these same people have been slaughtering, beheading and crucifying in Syria for years. Were the “free” western media blind, deaf and dumb, that they did not know about these things? Or do freedom fighters become savages only because they behead the citizens of western democracies? It is enough to pose the question for the cynical hypocrisy and double standards of the imperialists to stand exposed in all its ugly nakedness.

Let us remind ourselves that Messrs Blair and Bush justified the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it was a “war on terror”. The declared aim was supposed to be to protect America and Europe against terrorist attack. Over a decade has passed since the invasion of Iraq, and the terrorist threat, instead of disappearing, is worse now than ever before.

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be directed against al Qaeda, but before the Americans marched into Baghdad, there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq. Now, thanks to the invasion and the chaos it has brought, Al Qaeda and other groups have a very firm foothold in Iraq, which they are in the process of transforming into a base from which they intend to organize terrorist attacks all over Europe and elsewhere.

Chérif Kouachi’s reference to Abu Ghraib is highly significant. According to Bush and Blair the invasion of Iraq was supposed to represent a victory for democracy over tyranny. Instead, one tyranny was replaced by an even worse tyranny. The foreign occupiers treated the Iraqis as a conquered people. They were arrested and held without trial in hell-holes like Abu Ghraib. In that notorious prison the Americans tortured, humiliated and murdered Iraqis. The images of these abominations carried out by the representatives of democratic, Christian, western civilization were seen all around the world and undoubtedly served to enrage many young Muslims some of whom were thus thrown into the arms of the Jihadis.

Nor can this be shrugged off as the actions of a small number of rogue Americans. The British were equally brutal in their treatment of detainees in Iraq. As for the Americans, it is now public knowledge that the CIA practiced torture on a massive scale. A truly marvellous advertisement for the blessings of western Democracy! It goes without saying that none of this can justify the brutal terrorist attack committed last Wednesday in Paris. But let us not forget that far greater atrocities have been perpetrated by imperialism in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. And they are still being carried on to this day.

In this way, imperialism has acted as the most efficient recruiting sergeant for the Jihadi terrorists. The responsibility of imperialism does not end there. It is not generally realised that both the Taliban and Al Qaeda were organized, armed and financed by the Americans and their Pakistani and Saudi stooges for the purpose of fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Crimes of imperialism

The actions of imperialism have caused chaos and bloodshed everywhere: in Iraq, in Syria, in northern Nigeria, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all these countries massacres and atrocities a thousand times worse than the one perpetrated in Paris occur every day. They have become so common, so normal, that they are hardly reported in the western press any more. But by destabilising the Middle East and North Africa, the imperialists have created monsters and sooner or later their crimes in foreign lands were bound to come home to haunt them.

French imperialism originally remained aloof from the war in Iraq, pursuing its own game in the Middle East to the great annoyance of the Americans. But in recent years Paris has “come on board” and now aspires to usurp Britain’s “special relationship” with the USA – that is, to act as Washington’s pet poodle. It has enthusiastically joined the US-led coalition that is bombing ISIS positions in Iraq. It earlier backed the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, which has led to a chaotic situation in which different Jihadi groups have overrun large parts of the Saharan and Sub-Saharan region and are threatening the north of Nigeria. This has turned France, with the largest Muslim population in Europe (4-5 million), into a prime target for Jihadi terrorism.

Now at last the chickens have come home to roost, only these particular chickens’ plant bombs instead of eggs. The security services in France and across Europe, are facing a nightmare scenario. Having become experts in all the arts of death, killing and mayhem, the former “freedom fighters” (now known as “dangerous extremists”), are returning home, inflamed by the thirst for revenge and a hatred for everything western. They mingle with the population and remain unseen until they emerge, as they did in Paris last Wednesday, to give the people of Europe a little taste of life in modern-day Syria. As one French woman put it, “the Middle East has come to Europe”.

The chief of British Intelligence warned of a “heightened threat of terrorist attacks in Britain” and admitted fatalistically that it was “impossible to prevent every attack”. These words will be of no comfort to the ordinary people in France or Britain who bear no responsibility for the crimes of imperialism but who will be the main victims of the bloody terrorist attacks that inevitably flow from them. The terrorists will naturally choose “soft” targets involving civilian, not military targets. It is of course much easier to murder the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo than to blow up airliners or steer them into the Twin Towers.

A clash of cultures?

Western journalists like to see this ongoing conflict as a “clash of cultures”, that is, a clash between the values of democratic (Western) Enlightenment and obscurantist (Islamic) barbarism. This comforting thought serves them as a convenient justification for backing the weakening or even abolishing civil liberties at home (this is known as “defending Democracy”) and launching repeated military adventures abroad (known as “the war on Terror”). Strangely enough, the Jihadis see the conflict in exactly the same terms, except that they are right and the West is wrong.

The media expresses shock and horror at the savagery of the so-called Islamic State (IS) with its beheading of captives that it glorifies in sick and murderous videos and the carnage inflicted on Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Taliban. All this is attributed to Islamic fundamentalism. But religious fanaticism is not a monopoly of Islam. Do the Jewish settlers in Palestine not justify their atrocious provocations by quoting from religious texts?

And there are plenty of religious fanatics in Christianity whose crimes are far greater than those perpetrated by IS or the Taliban. It is said that Tony Blair and George W Bush sat down to pray together before ordering the bombing of Iraq and then retired to bed with a clear conscience. More than anybody else these two men (both devoted Christians, we are told) are responsible for the bloody morass in the Middle East.

The hired prostitutes of the media, day in and day out, faithfully repeat the message handed down from their masters (this is known as “freedom of the press”). The television and newspapers issue grim, incessant warnings of terrorist threats, real or imaginary. As a result society is gripped by fear that becomes a morbid obsession. In this context, the murders in Paris naturally lead to feelings of anger and outrage.

marine-le-penMarine Le Pen - leader of the right wing nationalist party Front NationalThe main beneficiaries will be the right wing, anti-immigration and racist parties like the Front National in France, the party of Wilders in Holland and Ukip in Britain. As an expression of the impasse of capitalism, anti-immigrant sentiment—especially the anti-Muslim kind— is spreading like a poisonous vapour across Europe. Brutal terrorist attacks like the one in Paris provide nourishment to this disease. Despite their seeming opposition, the right wing nationalists and the Islamists leaning on each other and they feed off each other. In fact, they are head and tail of the same reactionary coin.

The crisis of capitalism has pushed a layer of youth of Immigrant background towards the Islamists over the past period. The root cause has little to do with religion, but a lot to do with poverty, the lack of any perspective for the future and the general decay of society, aggravated by racist attacks and police thuggery. But the most decisive factor has been the complete failure of the Left and the trade unions to offer a way out to the disaffected youth. Even worse, the reformist leaders have all fallen in line with the right wing nationalists and have forgotten all about class politics. The fact that the leaders of the PCF are now calling for National Unity bears eloquent witness to this fact.

Capitalist decay and terrorism

We live in an age when capitalism is displaying all the symptoms of senile decay. No longer able to develop the productive forces as it did in the past, it has led humanity into a blind alley. The productive forces stagnate or decline. Millions are condemned to a life of poverty, hunger and despair, while the obscenely rich become ever richer. 85 billionaires possess more wealth than half the human race.

In its death agony, diseased capitalism threatens to drag all humanity down into the abyss. War follows war. The USA spends 640 billion each year on arms while millions lack food, clothing, and shelter or even clean water to drink. This criminal exploitative regime breeds wars, like the wars that have devastated Iraq and Afghanistan. It exacerbates national antagonisms and encourages racism, chauvinism and xenophobia. It is in this context that we must see the spread of terrorism as a global phenomenon that resembles a terrifying pandemic for which there is no known antidote.

Marxism explains that terrorism is a reflection of profound contradictions in society. In the late 19th century the Russian terrorists carried on a campaign of bombings and assassinations directed against the tsarist regime. Their methods were incorrect and counterproductive. But they were sincere revolutionaries who were prepared to die for their beliefs. These young idealists did not kill women and children. They selected their targets with great care, aiming their bullets and bombs exclusively against high tsarist officials, generals, police chiefs, notorious torturers and informers.

Often, after carrying out a terrorist action they would voluntarily hand themselves over to the police. They behaved like revolutionary saints. But although Lenin praised them for their courage, he always condemned the methods of individual terrorism as counterproductive and incompatible with the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. History showed that Lenin was right and the terrorists wrong.

In our own age as in tsarist Russia, terrorism is an expression of insoluble contradictions that have accumulated over decades. But modern terrorism has an entirely different character to that of the old People’s Will.

Terrorism today, like a gangrene that forms on an organism that is slowly dying, is not an expression of hope but of despair. It does not advance the revolutionary consciousness of the masses but retards it. It does not unite the toilers in their fight against their common exploiters but spreads division and hatred of the workers of one nationality, language or religion and those of different nationalities or beliefs. In short, it is not progressive but retrograde. It is not revolutionary but counterrevolutionary.

hollandePresident François HollandeThere is not a shred of progressive content in the monstrous terrorist actions of the Jihadis. Far from hurting imperialism, they help strengthen it. President François Hollande wasted no time in denouncing “a terrorist attack” of “extreme barbarity”. No doubt he will try to use it to boost public support for his military adventures in Syria and Africa – adventures that are aimed, not at defending the people of France or those countries, but only to increase the power of French imperialism in those areas.This intervention will provide the grounds for new and even more deadly terrorist attacks on French soil.  

These terrorist actions have played into the hands of the right wing and provided the most valuable aid to the anti-immigration and racist lobby. We have already seen big anti-Islamic demonstrations in Germany. The danger of an anti-Muslim backlash in France is only too real. Already there have been reports of racist attacks in parts of France. Three blank grenades were thrown at a mosque in the city of Le Mans, west of Paris.

There was also an explosion at a kebab shop near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone on Thursday morning. In the Port-la-Nouvelle district near Narbonne in southern France, several shots were fired in the direction of a Muslim prayer hall shortly after evening prayers. The hall was empty and fortunately there were no casualties. But it is only a matter of time before this pogrom atmosphere leads to injuries and death.

Meanwhile there was another incident in which two policemen were killed and a gunman, obviously linked to the Kouachi brothers, has taken hostages in a Jewish supermarket in Paris. All this will have also boosted Marine Le Pen’s populist National Front who lost no time in asking for a referendum on the death penalty. Many polls suggest she could get into the second round of voting in the 2017 presidential election. It will provide ammunition to every racist and anti-immigration party in Europe. In France the Muslim community now lives in the shadow of fear.

Marxism versus Opportunism

Some foolish individuals who for some reason call themselves Marxists have not understood the real reactionary nature of Islamist terrorism. They imagine that because Jihadis kill Americans that means they are “anti-imperialists”. Some have gone so far as to flirt with Islamist organizations and even try to make Marxism compatible with religious obscurantism. A good (or rather bad) example of this is the British SWP, an organization that behind a thin veneer of pseudo-Marxism was always characterised by a complete lack of principle and extreme opportunism.

The SWP began flirting with the Islamists and Jihadis during the period when US imperialism launched its counterrevolutionary assault on the progressive regime that emerged from the Afghan Revolution in 1978. To this end, Washington mobilized all the most reactionary forces in Afghan society: the feudal landowners, tribal chiefs, moneylenders and, in particular, the Mullahs. These counterrevolutionary gangsters were armed and trained by the CIA and Pakistani Military Intelligence (ISI) and generously funded by the reactionary Saudi monarchy. Yet the SWP completely swallowed the line of the bourgeois media that they were “freedom fighters”. That was a betrayal of the most elementary principles of socialism and the anti-imperialist struggle.

Subsequently the SWP backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and continued to back it until it was overthrown by the movement of the Egyptian masses in the summer of 2013. This capitulation to Islamism, which can be seen in other groups on the Left, cannot be justified on the grounds of the struggle against racism. It is our duty to defend Muslims against racist attacks. But it is not at all our duty to blur the difference between Marxism and religious obscurantism, and least of all to foster illusions in reactionary Islamist outfits as “anti-imperialist” movements.

The fact that a Jihadi group may be opposed to imperialism does not necessarily mean that it is progressive. One can be opposed to imperialism for all sorts of reasons. The German fascists in the 1920s participated in the struggle against the French occupation of the Ruhr under the banner of German nationalism and independence.  Did that turn them into a progressive force?

There is nothing new about all this. Lenin expressed himself very clearly on the subject in his Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Question for The Second Congress of the Communist International. We quote the relevant paragraphs:

“11) With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

“first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;

“second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

“third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.” (My emphasis, AW)

One might think that all this was perfectly clear. Yet in attempting to ingratiate himself with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, SWP ideologist Chris Harman actually wrote a book with the title The prophet and the proletariat that tries to prettify radical Islamism. Here we really plumb the depths of opportunist degeneration. The SWP makes a small mistake: confusing revolution with counterrevolution. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones.

No to “national unity”!

In a televised address on January 7th, the French President, Francois Hollande, called for national unity and designated January 8th a day of national mourning. He declared that “the entire republic was threatened” by the attack, but vowed that “liberty will always be stronger than barbarity”. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, called the shootings an “abject act” and an “attack on our democracy”. Thus all the parties of the Establishment agree to sink their differences in order to combat “extremism” and defend democracy under the banner of “National Unity”.

A demonstration has been called on Sunday 11, which Hollande, when asked by Marine Le Pen if the National Front would be allowed to participate in, stressed that this was a demonstration of “all French”.

The Establishment’s only solution to the problems of society is repression, repression and yet more repression. The self-styled democratic parliamentarians – the “Left” as well as the Right – immediately fall over themselves in their haste to introduce more laws that restrict the rights of the citizen and undermine democracy in the name of defending democracy. The present deafening chorus of “defend the freedom of expression” will be followed, as night follows day, with new laws that restrict the freedom of expression and many other freedoms, not just (and not mainly) for crazed Jihadis, but for the French people in general and the French working class in particular.

The parties and political leaders who now dress themselves in the tricolour flag and sing hymns to “national unity” are the same ones who have presided over unemployment, cuts and austerity. The ones who shout loudest about democracy are the same ones who are responsible for a continuous reduction of democratic rights. As for the defence of speech, that too is questionable. The previous government outlawed women wearing Burka. Last summer during the massacre in Gaza it banned Palestine solidarity demonstrations. As for the Freedom of press, that must remain a fiction as long as the press is owned and controlled by a handful of wealthy proprietors.

To its shame the leaders of the Communist Party have openly come out in favour of this reactionary slogan. That is an indication of just how far they have departed from the genuine ideas of Communism and Leninism. What unity can there be between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited? What unity can there be between the working class and cynical, self-serving politicians like Sarkozy and Hollande? The idea of unity between the working class and the bourgeoisie is like the unity between the horse and the man who sits on its back and digs his spurs into its sides.

If we are to win the confidence of the Muslims, the immigrants and the dispossessed and alienated layers of society, what is necessary is not “National Unity” but precisely the opposite: to break finally and completely with a rotten and discredited Establishment that has rightly earned the hatred and distrust of these layers. Not demonstrations of a false Unity but the mobilization of the working class under the banner of class independence for a radical transformation of society.

Here is where the problem lies. The leaders of the official labour movement do not offer any perspective of change. They have long ago abandoned any perspective of socialism. They have no trust in the working class, and then they express their astonishment that the working class has no trust in them. In particular the youth, which must carry the full weight of the crisis and has no jobs and no prospects for the future, feel alienated from the existing political parties – not just in France but everywhere.

It is the elementary duty of the workers’ movement to fight the poison of racism and take the necessary measures to defend the Muslim community against so-called revenge attacks. In order to do this, the workers must depend only on their own forces. No reliance whatsoever can be placed on the bourgeois state, its police and its laws. Above all, there must be no support for the false and treacherous slogan of “National Unity” – the most empty of all empty formulas.  

If the leaders of the French Socialist Party were real socialists there would be no problem. If the leaders of the French Communist Party were real communists there would be no problem. They would give the dispossessed and alienated youth something to fight for, a real goal, a purpose in life. But since they place their respectability above all else; since they cling with all their might to the capitalist system, embracing the market, even when it is collapsing about their ears, and since they take delight in marching down the Champs Elyseé arm in arm with the political representatives of the bankers and capitalists, they can offer nothing.

Is it any wonder then that the desperation and alienation of the youth sometimes finds other, more destructive outlets?  The French workers must not allow themselves to be stampeded by the present wave of emotion into supporting laws that tomorrow will be turned against them. Today the television and press points an accusing finger at Islamist extremists as the enemies of France. Tomorrow, when workers strike and demonstrate to defend their jobs, wages and rights, the same mass media will point an accusing finger at them, describing the unions as “the enemy within”.  

la lutte continueFor the rulers of society terrorism (even the threat of it) can act as a useful way of disorienting the masses and drawing their attention away from the real problems they face. The hatred of the bankers and the rich is transferred to a mysterious and terrifying “enemy without”. This also suits the interests of the police and army (these are known as the “Forces of Order”). Ever since the fall of the USSR they have been deprived of the old bogey of the “threat of Communism”. An alternative had to be found to justify the vast sums spent annually on arms (this is known as “Defence”) and the increasing powers of the state (this is known as “Security”). It has been found in the shape of Islam.

The present wave of emotion can temporarily serve to confuse and blind the masses, but it will not last. French capitalism is facing a deep economic, social and political crisis. The working class will soon turn their attention to the most urgent problems. They looked to the Socialist Party to solve them and have been bitterly disappointed. The attempt by Hollande to win back support by waving the French flag will not succeed. The stage will be set for bitter class battles in France. Only a policy of class independence and the struggle for a revolutionary transformation of society can lead to victory.

London, Friday 9 January 2015