On Wednesday, June 14, Americans received the jarring news that a US Congressman had been shot down during practice for a bipartisan baseball charity event. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) remains critically wounded. The gunman, who perished in the shootout with police officers, has been identified as James T. Hodgkinson of suburban small-town Illinois. A nation chronically desensitized to images of sensational and senseless violence stopped its morning routine to observe the disturbing development of a mass shooting—something ordinarily reserved for children’s schools, “inner-city” crime, and faraway war zones—bringing down a senior Capitol Hill politician.
Many were dismayed by the violence itself rather than the particular individual affected. Scalise is a leading figure in the widely reviled right wing of the Republican Party. After a scandal erupted in 2014 around his presence as an honored speaker at the 2002 convention of David Duke’s white nationalist group, “EURO,” he issued an “apology,” explaining that he was unaware of the organization's racist nature. Earlier in his political career, he billed himself as “like David Duke without the baggage,” to Louisiana political reporter Stephanie Grace.
In a world of imperialist militarism, artificial deprivation of healthcare and housing, daily acts of police brutality and violence against women, Scalise and the American ruling class are objectively far more violent and terroristic than his would-be killer. While condemning acts of individual terrorism, even against someone as unsympathetic as Scalise, our solidarity is on the side of the mass victims of terrorism. For example: the civilians massacred by the Islamic State in the sectarian warfare set off and fueled by Bush and Obama; the concert-goers and pedestrians in Manchester and London, attacked by the Frankenstein monsters of Western imperialism; and the Portlanders whose throats were cut by an abusive racist.
Precisely for this reason, we must emphasize the class division in society between the exploited and the exploiters, as well as the fact that violence and terrorism are the spawn of a system of war and imperialism. For their part, the right wing and the establishment are working to smear socialism with the charge of terrorism, a cynically hypocritical maneuver in contrast to their unruffled attitude towards far-right terrorists like Sean Urbanski and James Harris Jackson.
The capitalist ruling class routinely uses state terror, such as police repression and Predator drone missiles, to defend their interests, while individuals turn to this tactic out of desperation. In the epoch of declining capitalism, terrorism has given bleak outlet to expressions of alienation and murderous chauvinism, especially in places like the Middle East, where Islamic fundamentalism has been animated as an agent of counterrevolution and imperialism in the region. By contrast, the working class, the only class that can end the violence and crises inherent in capitalism, has a social outlook of solidarity and united struggle. Its methods are not individualistic, but collective: mass strikes, occupations, and demonstrations. In fact, terrorism is fundamentally alien and poisonous to the workers’ struggle; it serves to embolden state repression and the ruling class while it sidelines and disorients the masses.
The shooter, James Hodgkinson, was a dispossessed small businessman squeezed by the post-2007 economic crisis. Ironically, Scalise and other right-populists base themselves on demagogic appeals to the same desperate petty bourgeois elements, encouraging them to swing to the right—towards chauvinism and against organized labor. The petty bourgeois are right-populism's natural base as they occupy a necessarily unstable and untenable position in society, caught between the struggle of labor and capital and regularly driven to ruin by capitalist crises they cannot understand or resolve. Reactionary charlatans like Scalise can harness their frustration to defend the same system responsible for it.
However, the “small capitalist” middle class is not automatically on the side of the monopoly capitalist ruling class. A confident appeal from a fighting working class leadership can win them over and offer a genuine way out of the crisis. This was the case for Hodgkinson last year, when he energetically dedicated himself to Bernie Sanders’s reformist socialist campaign. But betrayal is inherent in reformism, as was evident in Sanders’ capitulation to the DNC, and reformist betrayal without a revolutionary alternative is a dangerous impasse. It appears Hodgkinson fell into demoralization and isolation, eventually making the short-sighted, individualistic, and genuinely stupid kind of decision that middle-class activists inevitably make without the guidance of an inspiring labor movement.
Chickens come home to roost and poison pollutes everyone’s water. The same unstable petty-bourgeois outlook and individualism Scalise thrives on turned on him with fifty rounds of gunfire from a most unexpected source—“Main Street” Middle America. It is worth adding that while Hodgkinson is neither right-wing nor an enforcer for the ruling class, he does share at least one telltale sign with many other terrorists—a record of domestic violence. Scalise, of course, voted against the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
Dog-eat-dog individualism and violence is the status quo of capitalist life, and we are living in a period of international crisis, war, revolution, and counterrevolution. The rotten politics of Scalise feed off the poisonous actions of Hodgkinson, and vice versa. To oppose both, we must fight capitalism with a mass socialist movement and party of the working class.