The word “terrorism” has an interesting history. In modern times it is a pejorative term, but it was originally a term used by a certain current among Russian radical intelligentsia to describe themselves. The “terrorists” were a political current that sought to overthrow the czar with isolated acts of violence designed to inspire a mass revolt.
The beliefs of the terrorists were that the overthrow of the existing order could be carried out by a small, isolated group. The isolated group would engage in extreme acts of violence which would be well publicized and seen by millions of people. The terrorists hoped they could generate fear among the rulers. In addition, the terrorists hoped they would they would garner support from the masses of people whose conditions drove them to long for some kind cathartic vengeance. With these isolated acts of violence the “terrorists” expected that they would be able to take power and impose their political vision on society.
The “terrorists” were not embraced by all of Russia’s radicals. A large percentage of the writings of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin were devoted to polemicizing with the “terrorists” and explaining how their methods differed from the revolutionary strategy of the Bolsheviks.
Terrorist Methods in the 21st Century
Though the terrorists were discredited in Russia and elsewhere, and their tactics were highly unsuccessful, the strategy and methods developed by them did not fade away. Through the 20th and 21st century, the terrorist’s method has been widely utilized. While the original self-described terrorists sought to impose some sort of egalitarian socialist vision with their violence, since the Russian revolution, terrorist methods have primarily been used by other political currents.
The terrorist strategy was embraced by the fascist movements of Europe and the United States. The fascists of the 20th century refined the art of symbolically picking out an individual and then brutally murdering in them in most painful and public way possible. This would terrify their political opponents and win admiration for the fascists among angry and alienated people. The KKK’s lynchings, the mass waves of repression in the aftermath of Hitler and Mussolini’s seizures of power — all followed the tactical methods of terrorism.
In the current period, the ISIS organization has adapted the terrorist strategy and method, maximizing their effectiveness with modern communications technology. The “Islamic State” beheads and burns people alive, recording their actions in well produced videos that circulate the internet. ISIS commits these horrific acts of torture and murder to terrify people enough into bowing before them and allowing them to somehow recreate the Islamic empire of Mohammed’s time.
In the process of horrifying and terrifying most of society, ISIS has garnered a significant amount of admiration, and not only among isolated, oppressed, and confused Muslims. The US media has taken note of the fact that a number of western young people from places like Minnesota, Australia, and Colorado have been attempting to join the sect of deranged murderers in black informs.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Why wouldn’t young people — raised on a steady diet of shoot-em-up action movies and told to “support our troops” who destroy innocent civilians with cruise missiles — come to admire a group like ISIS? If one’s ethical system is based on “might makes right” or “peace through superior firepower,” ISIS has a lot going for them.
The writer Ayn Rand, whose personal diaries were full of admiration for individuals like William Hickman who strangled his wife, would undoubtedly have swooned in admiration for ISIS. What other individuals have terrified the entire world, “written their own moral code” and refused to “conform” more than the “Islamic State”? ISIS is the incarnate ideal of the western free market-oriented right-wing, as its members slaughter without compassion and market their terrorist brand like high-tech entrepreneurs.
No one can deny that the United States had a role in the creation of ISIS. Not only was the somewhat stable society of Iraq cast into complete chaos and ruin by US invasion, but Syria has also been destabilized. The United States along with European and Gulf State allies have poured billions of dollars into efforts to overthrow the Syrian Arab Republic. In the name of “human rights,” while demonizing Syrian President Bashar Assad, every effort has been made to fund violent extremist organizations.
Many ISIS fighters are red-haired Chechens. For decades the United States has funded Sunni takfiris to destabilize the southern parts of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. These forces have now found their way to Syria.
The majority of social media activity supporting ISIS originates within Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, all governed by US-aligned regimes. Turkey, a US-aligned regime and NATO member, currently allows trucks to cross its border every day and deliver supplies to ISIS-controlled territories.
While declaring “God has commanded us never to attack Israel,” ISIS has unleashed its terrorism against the Syrian Arab Republic, the Shia community in Iraq, and the revolutionary movement for independence in Yemen. While the US was able to very quickly topple the government of Saddam Hussein, aside from a few demagogic speeches, very little has been done by the United States to defeat the ISIS terrorists. US leaders are happy to publicize ISIS atrocities in order to demonize Islam and justify drone strikes. But while doing so, the Pentagon brass are basically sitting back and allowing ISIS to fight their enemies for them. They hope that ISIS can topple Assad and reduce Syria to the same kind of chaos that has overtaken Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Unity to Achieve a Common Goal
When Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin debated the “terrorists” of the Russian intelligentsia about revolutionary methods, they put forward a tactical approach that was entirely opposite. While the terrorist sought to forge a small, isolated sect of dedicated bloodthirsty fanatics, the Bolsheviks sought to create a “united front.”
The Bolshevik organization began with a newspaper, Iskra (Spark). The newspaper circulated among all the best and brightest fighters for social justice in Russia, and called on them to form a “party of a new type.” The party of a new type included not just Vladimir Lenin, but Stalin, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and all kinds of brilliant, independent activists and leaders, who each had won the respect of thousands of workers and peasants from across the country.
The “party of a new type” had a method called democratic centralism in order to coordinate its activities and make decisions. Democratic centralism meant that the organization, eventually called the Bolsheviks, would have extensive debate and discussion about methods, strategy, and tactics in order to reach a decision. However, once a decision was made, all members of the organization would be obligated to carry it out in unison, despite whatever disagreements they may have.
For the Bolsheviks, democratic centralism was a necessity. The Central Committee that eventually formed contained many unique, brilliant, free-thinking, independent, and skilled revolutionary leaders. Democratic centralism made sure that all of them had the ability to argue for their position, but then ensured that the organization would be united its concrete activities. It was the only way to keep such a broad organization of radicals and rebels together.
The willingness to compromise and negotiate spread even beyond the Bolsheviks’ internal ranks. The Bolsheviks did not take power in 1917 by recruiting people to enact their egalitarian vision of a secular socialist society. The Bolsheviks took power in 1917 because many people who strongly disagreed with them went out to fight and die in order to bring them into power.
The demands that enabled the Bolsheviks to seize power in the October Revolution were expressed in the slogan “Peace, Land, and Bread.” Russian peasants, workers, middle class people, and others supported the Bolsheviks because they were the only ones who would end Russia’s unpopular involvement in the First World War, take action to stop the mass starvation caused by the war crisis, and enact land reform in the countryside. No other party was willing to offer these things. Based on that, the people of Russia decided to give this huge organization of dedicated revolutionaries a chance at running the country.
The “united front” that Bolsheviks used to take power was based on people coming together despite huge differences. It was based on the Bolsheviks’ organizational strength and ability to bring very diverse forces of people together in order to achieve a common goal.
A Very Broad Coalition
Currently in Syria, there is an amazing alliance that is coming together to smash the ISIS terrorists. The US media isn’t reporting on it, but in recent battles, there have been combined attacks on ISIS bases by Syrian Baathists, Hezbollah Islamists, and Russian nationalists.
The unity of forces in Syria spreads even further beyond that. Near the Turkish borders in Syria, open Marxist-Leninist militias directed by the Syrian Communist Party are fighting to defeat ISIS. The Kurdish nationalist movement has a significant armed presence. Religious militias have been formed to protect historically Christian areas. The People’s Republic of China is now openly discussing sending its troops to fight ISIS as well.
In response to ISIS’ campaign of isolated terrorist killing, one of the broadest united fronts in the history of the world has been formed. Meanwhile, the US-supported “moderate Syrian rebels” who seek to overthrow the Syrian government are nowhere to be seen. The Al-Nusra Front, supposedly opposed to both ISIS and Assad, continues to receive funding from the Gulf State allies of the United States, though its vision for Syria is almost identical to ISIS, and its strength is dwindling.
What do the Christians, Islamic revolutionaries, communists, Baath Arab socialists, and Russian nationalists have in common? If one looks at their analysis of the world and their historical development, the answer is “not much.” However, if one looks at their vision and program at the current moment, especially in relation to economics, these forces are almost identical.
All the forces that are on the ground in Syria, fighting against ISIS in alliance with the Syrian government, denounce capitalism. They oppose the economic order where banking institutions in the United States and Western Europe dominate the world economy. All these forces call for an economy that functions in the interests of the people, and they reject neoliberalism. They call for corporate power to be restrained and controlled by governments, not the other way around. They call for international trade to be conducted on a non-predatory basis, and for an emphasis on construction in order to raise the global living standards.
All the forces in the anti-ISIS coalition have popular support among their respective populations. All these forces have a record of acting as populists, fighting against rich and powerful people on behalf of ordinary people.
The Global Revolution Against Terrorism
The battle that is currently taking place against ISIS in Syria is a battle between two vaguely defined economic visions and ethical systems.
ISIS, with its supporters from the US-aligned regimes in the Middle East, its horrific acts of publicized violence, and its goal of restoring the past, is really the armed detachment of western capitalism and imperialism.
Though the ISIS fighters do not know it, just like the Israeli settlers, they are only another tool in Wall Street’s toolbox. They are living and breathing cruise missiles that can be hurled at those who would resist the decaying global economic order. They may falsely believe that they are Muslims, but those who direct them worship no God other than money. Their ugly kidnappings and executions are done to perpetuate the dominance of global capitalism.
In opposition to them is a diverse coalition of forces that represent popular power. The united front that has formed is made up of common people, standing arm-in-arm to defend themselves and their communities from economic devastation and repression.
The forces who are aligned against ISIS do not have a unifying ideology, worldview, or perspective. But they all can agree, like many revolutionaries in past times, that all human beings have basic inalienable rights. These inalienable rights are not limited simply to freedom of religion, and freedom of speech and the press. These inalienable rights also include the right to jobs, housing, medical care, and a decent life.
These forces may not agree about much, but they all agree that morality exists. They all recognize the eternal truth that the love of money is not “the motor of the world,” but that it is, in reality, the root of all evil.
As people study the world, seeking to discover deep political truths about justice, revolution, terrorism, and democracy, they should be closely studying the unfolding events in Syria. The answers that so many have been seeking will be found in this unfolding conflict, which is expanding to many different parts of the world.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.