ON REVOLUTIONARY VIOLENCE:
INITIATED BY THE LEFT, OR BY ARMED ISLAMISTS
Terrorism in the name of Islam has dominated the news for at least fifteen years now. We’ve had 9/11 , 7/7  and with the events in Paris we now have 7/1 and 9/1 . (This article refers to the recent murder by self-styled Islamists, Cherif and Said Kouachi, of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and two police officers on 7th January, and Amedy Coulibali’s murder of four French Jews in a supermarket on 9th January 2015, and his murder of a police woman.)
It’s a mistake to treat this as a specifically Islamic phenomenon. I’ve explained in a book chapter the deeper roots of ‘Islamic’ political violence in modern European revolutionary praxis. Here I provide some further evidence of leftist revolutionary violence in Italy in the 1970s, and reflect on the parallels with Islamicist violence today.
In the mid 1970s and early 1980s I gave an enormous amount of thought and energy to a small British revolutionary socialist, feminist, internationalist and anti-racist organisation called Big Flame. We supported (with very muted, private criticism) the Irish Republican Army which bombed and killed in England and the north of Ireland throughout the 1970s. (I’ll discuss this in another post.)
We were much more perturbed by the armed violence that erupted in Italy at the end of the 1970s. Because we were politically inspired in the early 1970s by Italian revolutionary marxists (mainly in Lotta Continua, also Potere Operaio) we took a close interest in the degeneration of the mass movement in Italy that resulted in the rise to prominence of the Red Brigades towards the end of the 1970s.
1979 Italy in Crisis
Armed ‘terrorism’ … The politics of despair [headline in Big Flame newspaper]
In the introduction to an interview in the Big Flame newspaper (July 1979) with two Italian autonomists (translated from the French daily Liberation) the Big Flame editorial team stated:
‘As the economic and political crisis gets worse, the Italian revolutionary movement is being more and more squeezed between the anti-working class policies of the Communist Party and the terrorism of the Red Brigades. In this extremely difficult situation, many comrades are looking for personal solutions (eg drugs, Zen), others are turning to individual acts of violence, the ‘diffuse guerrilla warfare’ the interview refers to. By publishing this article [the interview] we do not in any way want to endorse the points of view put forward in it. In fact, we feel politically closer to those groups like Proletarian Democracy that are “swimming against the current”’.
In the reprint from Liberation, the interviewees explain that the Red Brigades’ strategy is ‘to bring about a social and political crisis that leads to civil war’. They say ‘comrades are turning to violence out of despair’ as the left social movement is forced into crisis by the ‘type of violence that the state poses on the streets’. (Their own organisation, Lotta Continua, dissolved in 1976, though they regret that now.)
Acknowledging the despair, they have no qualms about their decision to ‘take direct action, [to] shoot the fascist, the local boss, the police who are always on our backs, the landlord’. Their rationale is not to be political vanguards (like the Red Brigades claimed to be). They are simply taking action ‘for themselves and no-one else’, as ‘part of our way of life’. They continue: ’It’s a form of rebellion in relation to society which is brought about by being marginalised in a system as inhuman as capitalism’.
Asked if these developments frighten them, the response, is again, reflexive: ‘It’s the fruits of our defeats. Sure it frightens me, but I would be even more frightened if there was nothing . . . It was when we were optimistic that we suffered our worst defeats. Now we live with pessimism. It’s safer.’
[Source: Big Flame’s monthly newspaper, issue no.76, July 1979, page 10]
Thinking about armed Islamism
While reading about Italian violence in 1979 in relation to the murders in Paris in January 2015, it’s worth thinking about the similarities and the differences. We can ask ourselves about the situation of those who kill to ‘avenge the Prophet’ (as one of the Kouachi brothers shouted as they left the Charlie Hebdo office). Their reference point is the Prophet Mohammed, while the autonomists might have revered the prophet Marx. It’s not such a cheap point to consider the similarities in the method of organising, and in the need for a prime leader, of the atheist and the religious revolutionaries. The fundamentalists’ call for total social change in the name of God is not so very different from total social change in the name of Communism. Both promise paradise on earth, both organise continuously, both require complete loyalty, both provide a idealised family-type experience.
The Kouachis and Coulibali and their associates might have thought they were engaging in what the Italians called the ‘strategy of tension’. The fantasy on the left and the right in Europe that exemplary acts of violence will boost civil unrest, leading to a civil war in which they emerge triumphant has a long history. It is current on the extreme right today. In an interview with a far right activist in a recent TV documentary: “I welcome the prospect of a civil war in England” said one of them, as his incipiently violent group approached a gathering of leftists (‘Angry, white and proud’, Channel 4, 14.01.15).
Italian violence was a response to a particular reading of the condition of the radical movements and the government’s response. The Kouachis too would seem also to be responding to a critical situation in the worldwide struggle by revolutionary Islamists to establish the ummah. The Italians interviewed above were open about their sense of defeat of their movement and the effectiveness of State and fascist violence against them. The Red Brigades appeared to be more optimistic: that they could provoke a civil war in which their side would win.
Given the advances of IS in the Middle East and Boko Haram in north Africa, the Kouachi-Coulibaly group might have been been persuaded that their movement was in the ascendant. They might have been killing in a spirit of optimism, unlike the autonomists in the interview above, but perhaps like the Red Brigades’ militants. There certainly is a big contrast between the Islamist fantasy that their death in combat for their cause will result in everlasting life in heaven, and the mere hope that your comrades will remember you. “We’re not afraid to die” said the British Angry Brigade in one of their communiques (in Anarchy magazine, 1972). That’s quite different from the Islamists’ “We welcome death”.
It seems equally possible that the violent Islamists, like the Italian autonomists, are in despair. Perhaps they have noticed that the number of Muslims who support them in the West is very small, but lack of popular support was the same for most of us left revolutionaries in the 1970s and we didn’t despair – we could always see inspiring signs of ‘the fightback’. But when, from the late 1970s onwards, the force of the state was really strongly exerted on us, and its legal and policing techniques for demobilising mass actions began to work, many of us did lose our optimism.
It is arguable that the extraordinary force used against militant, political Islam (it started before 2001, but from then on it has been continuous, and often indiscriminate) has generated despair. One of the Chérif Kouachi spent time in prison and under investigation, while his older brother Saïd took himself to Yemen for training, perhaps in response to the treatment of his brother (Angelique Chrysalis, Guardian 12.1.15).
Prison seems to have radicalised Chérif Kouachi, and Saïd’s arms and ideological training must have given him some courage. But how strong can you really feel as an Islamist jihadi today? Its army in and near Syria is only effective because of its Saddam-trained generals and captured American weapons; in Afghanistan its army is weak; Boko Haram seems to survive mainly because of the internal disputes among the Nigerian military and politicians. None could sustain a serious assault by united opposing forces. With their Western supporters they do pose a threat that inspires terror, and in their fantasy they might imagine they are winners. We should never underestimate the powerful work of our unconscious, particularly when it is boosted by ‘heroic’ images circulated every minute in social media. (After drafting this I read Slavo Zizek’s argument that the Parisian killers were ‘fragile’ in their belief, and sensed themselves to be ‘inferior’. I think Zizek has a good point here.) At least the Italian autonomists were a little more self-knowing, a little more in control of their fantasy lives.
One dimension of revolutionary violence of the left, the right and in its religious forms is the performance of masculinity. All the religious perpetrators of armed assault are male, and only rarely are the suicide bombers female. There is a fantasy in operation here of the omnipotent male overcoming all his opponents in a blood showdown. (This is gruesomely entangled among the Islamists with the prospects of virgins in paradise.)
But all these components of violence can change. Accounts such as Ed Hussain’s of turning back from the strategy advocated by Hizb ’ut Tahrir, which is preparing for the violent struggle to establish the caliphate, indicate that despair, or a fantastical optimism, is not the inevitable result of engagement with violent jihad. (A completely different account of drawing back from violence comes from the Danish ex-jihadi Morten Storm – even he found his way back from the dark side in both their jihadi and US/European secret service forms.)
Many of us in the European and North American far left who flirted with or engaged in revolutionary violence, changed our minds and our political practice. We can be reasonably hopeful that a similar process is going on among the Islamists. I think it will involve closer engagement with how most people live, feel and think; finding loving partners and perhaps having children; developing ethics, compassion and empathy; and much more reading, understanding and dialogue.