What Sort of Unity?


The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in the US will be much wider than anyone could have imagined. Now that the shattering impact of these events is beginning to seep into people’s minds, the far-ranging implications for the world economy, the class struggle, national and international politics and world relations are becoming more and more clear. We explained on numerous occasions that we have entered the most unstable period in history since World War II – a period of wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. We predicted that economically, politically and socially, the world would be turned upside down. But nothing could have prepared us for the suddenness and trauma of these events. The dramatic crashes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center not only destroyed lives, material wealth, and symbols of imperialist power, they also dealt a severe psychological blow to the US working and ruling classes. So while the reaction of the American public has been to universally condemn these attacks, the question on everyone’s mind is what next?

The vulnerability and fragility of the entire capitalist system was dramatically revealed. No longer does the US ruling class have a feeling of invincibility. Like the sinking of the Titanic, the realization that the “unsinkable” has been dangerously and relatively easily wounded has thrown the capitalist class into fear and confusion. No longer can they appease the working masses by saying that “those things don’t happen in America – America is different from the rest of the world.” The reality of the world today – a world of “horror without end” as Lenin described life under capitalism – has come to the very heart of capitalism itself.

Even more significantly, the sleeping giant of the American working class has now been awakened to social and political awareness. At the moment they are enraged, grieving, and in shock. They are reaching out for solutions that are familiar to them – military aggression, religion, abstract “unity” and so on. And they are looking for guidance from their national “leaders”. But these capitalist leaders can offer no real solution to the problems facing the working class. In fact it was their policies and money which created the conditions for the rise of terrorism and these horrific events in the first place. But sooner or later the masses will turn towards the only ideas which can offer a lasting solution – the ideas of Marxism and socialism. In the meantime we must use these events to explain our ideas and perspectives. We must keep our heads and analyze events from a class standpoint.

The thundering cries for war and revenge are one of the most visible effects of the attacks. Overnight, the country has been gripped by war fever and nationalist hysteria. Sales of American flags have gone through the roof, and there is hardly a fast food store or church without a variant of “God Bless America” displayed. Religious invocation has also reached unheard of levels as people look for answers in a world apparently gone mad. To hear the politicians and news anchors, one would not imagine that there is a separation of Church and State in this country. The calls for national unity are nearly universal and all the superficial political differences between the Republicans and Democrats have been drowned out by the beating of the drums of war. Arabs and many other American citizens and recent immigrants have been targeted for attack based on their appearance or religion. A few mosques have been vandalized and many Arab children are afraid to go to school. But in light of the scale of these events, there is a surprising sense of calm and appeals to reason among broad layers of society. Not everyone is bloodthirsty – many see this as only the beginning of an endless cycle of violence which will just be perpetuated if the US reacts with more violence.

George W. Bush would have us believe that the USA is a “peace loving” nation. But a brief look at the tens of thousands of US troops stationed around the world, the massive arms export industry, the various trade embargoes and sanctions, the harsh austerity measures imposed on the world’s poorest nations by the US-dominated World Bank, IMF, NATFA, WTO, and the recent bombings of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Afghanistan shows just how “peaceful” US imperialism is! The foreign and economic policy of the US ruling class has resulted in the death and degradation of millions of humans around the world. But this has absolutely nothing to do with the workers of the USA. It is therefore vital that we are clear as to what GW Bush means by “national unity”. What he is calling for is for the working class to subordinate itself to the interests of the ruling class. This is always the situation under capitalism, but in times of crisis, war, and revolution, the importance of keeping the millions of newly conscious workers “on the side” of the bosses takes on even greater importance. Especially when the very “leaders” who are supposed to be protecting “our nation” have proven completely inept at doing so, the spontaneous outrage of the working class must be channeled into “safe” means – against an external enemy.

So what exactly is the target of this outrage on behalf of the working class ? To be sure they are horrified and frustrated at the loss of life and property, and rightly so. They are also saddened at the unnecessary deaths of fellow workers and inspired by the heroism of the NYC firefighters and others. But ultimately they are enraged at the fact that these things can and do happen. The recent events are qualitatively different from what occurred after the Oklahoma City bombing. This has paralyzed and galvanized the entire country to a degree never seen since World War II. And although the immediate reaction of many has been to rally around the flag in the interests of “national unity”, what they really strive for is the unity of humanity and an end to these terrible events. The fundamental effect of the attacks has been to give workers a shocking wake up call as to the cruelties of this world. Millions of people in the US now know what it feels like to live in uncertainty and fear – and they don’t like it. They have been awakened to the fact that they cannot simply ignore the outside world – the problems of the rest of the world are also the problems of the American working class. And it is precisely the lack of stability of life under capitalism which will force millions of people to take their lives and futures into their own hands.

For many years now, the masses of workers have had their heads down. They have been worried about the problems of everyday life – bills, jobs, family, healthcare, education, and so on. But events of the past week have had an effect on their consciousness similar to that of throwing a bucket of ice water on someone dozing in the sunshine on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Things are fundamentally different now for millions of people. Whether on television or in the bars, in the churches or in the schools, working people are suddenly acutely aware that there is more to life than that. An event like this violently shakes people out of their day to day patterns of life; overnight it sweeps away many of the mental cobwebs of routinism and forces them to take a long hard look at the real world around them. It signifies a dramatic change in their outlook on life.

Trotsky described the outbreak of WWI in his autobiography My Life:

“Buchanan, the former British ambassador to St. Petersburg, speaks with exaltation in his memoirs of ‘those wonderful early August days’ when ‘Russia seemed to have been completely transformed.’ There is similar exaltation in the memoirs of other statesmen, although they may not embody the self-satisfied fatuity of the ruling classes with the completeness of Buchanan. All the European capitals were having equally ‘wonderful’ days in August. They were all entirely ‘transformed’ for the business of mutual extermination…

” . . . The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course what can seem worse to [the average worker] than ‘normal’ conditions?

“I strode along the main streets of the familiar Vienna and watched a most amazing crowd fill the fashionable Ring, a crowd in which hopes had been awakened. But wasn’t a small part of these hopes already being realized? Would it have been possible at any other time for porters, laundresses, shoemakers, apprentices and youngsters from the suburbs to feel themselves masters of the situation in the Ring? War affects everybody, and those who are oppressed and deceived by life consequently feel that they are on an equal footing with the rich and powerful. It may seem a paradox, but in the moods of the Viennese crowd that was demonstrating the glory of the Hapsburg arms I detected something familiar to me from the October days of 1905, in St. Petersburg. No wonder that in history war has often been the mother of revolution.

” . . . Like revolution, war forces life, from top to bottom, away from the beaten track. But revolution directs its blows against the established power. War, on the contrary, at first strengthens the state power which, in the chaos engendered by war, appears to be the only firm support and then undermines it…”

We are completely opposed to having any illusions in “national unity” in the bourgeois sense. The interests of the ruling class and of the working class are diametrically opposed. But a very important result of these calls for national unity is the following – the average working person actually believes that he or she is in fact as important or vital to the situation as any other person in society. Working people are standing up tall for the perhaps first time and feel a part of a community. Strangers engage in discussions with each other, and thousands of people get to have their point of view heard on television. Thousands participate in the grueling work of searching for survivors while millions of others around the country help support that effort. And while they still look to their “leaders” for guidance, they begin in actual practice to feel the strength and power of their united activity in the interest of the common good. They must make lightning quick decisions and collectively find the most safe and efficient ways of getting things organized. Even some of the hated NY police officers lose their character as repressors and are seen individually as just another worker in the bucket brigades. The need for class distinctions as well as leaders and enforcers standing above the rest of society melts away in practice. The whole community comes together to ensure there is enough food, clothing, water, and even shoes for the rescue and clean up effort. Many people worried about riots or vandalism when the attacks first occurred, but in practice the working class remained calm and on a small scale made itself the master of the situation. American workers have always had a pioneering, “can-do” spirit, and these revived experiences of empowerment will not be soon forgotten and will be important in the future.

But this new awareness has not yet reached the point of class consciousness. At this stage the working class identifies itself more than ever with the ruling class and with the capitalist system it represents. This is a decisive answer to the defenders and supporters of individual terrorism as a method of political struggle. Far from inspiring the working class to fight for its emancipation from wage slavery it has driven the proletariat into the arms of the bourgeoisie. It has also snuffed out much of the sympathy US workers may have felt for those in whose name these acts were committed. While the capitalists’ grip on the situation is not as firm as it was just a week ago, the workers are nowhere near even posing the question of taking political and economic control over their lives into their own hands. The lines between the classes have been blurred in people’s minds, and instead of seeing “capitalists vs. workers”, they see the situation as one of “us vs. them”, with “them” being a shadowy, unknown foreign and domestic enemy. These attacks will give the ruling class an excuse to increase its repression here and abroad; will retard the rising tide of independent trade union and working class political activity; will allow them to raid social security and increase funding for the intelligence services and the military, and worse. The trade union bureaucrats will rally around the bosses and call off strike actions in the name of national unity, and the recession will be blamed on terrorism instead of the system itself.

The attacks also make a mockery of the claims of the anarchists who imagine that fighting a few cops or smashing the windows of McDonald’s will somehow make a dent on the capitalist system. These attacks were a massive physical attack on the property and police of the capitalists, and yet the supposedly “irrelevant” state apparatus is now reinforcing itself as we explained above. The mobilizations of the National Guard are not so much to provide security, but to re-instill confidence in and reverence for the repressive arm of the capitalists, and to accustom Americans to having troops on the streets. It took three years of blood sweat and tears on behalf of the working class to build the WTC, and only moments to destroy – not to mention the thousands of lives that were lost. This is the result of “direct action” on a massive scale! We do not want to destroy these magnificent buildings, created by human ingenuity and labor! We do not want to smash the windows of one or even one thousand McDonald’s – but to place the entire multinational corporation and the entire economy under the democratic control of the workers who do all the productive work in society.! That is the ultimate in direct action!

The grim events of last week only confirm our perspective that we have entered a period of crisis and instability on a world scale. Since as long ago as WWI, the capitalist class has been unfit to rule in the name of the rest of humanity. All it can guarantee is war, poverty, hunger, ignorance, racism, and violence for 90% of the world’s population. Now more than ever we must maintain our conviction that socialism is the only way forward. Marx explained that human society had two choices facing it – socialism or barbarism. We have often used the appalling conditions in Afghanistan to illustrate what we mean by barbarism. Now that barbaric reality has shown its face in the heart of the most powerful country on earth.

In many ways, the recent turn of events will make the task of explaining the ideas of Marxism to the masses of workers more difficult. But we must always maintain a clear class position when explaining these events to the ones and twos who can already see through the hypocrisy of the ruling class. The ongoing crisis will only sharpen and accelerate the process of capitalist decline in the coming period. While there is no “final crisis” of capitalism – it will continue to exist on the bones of the working class until it is replaced by the mass action of the workers themselves – the economic blow of these attacks has sent the entire system reeling. The already weakened economy was abruptly put under tremendous additional strain. While it will certainly stabilize at a certain point, it can only do so by further squeezing and exploiting the world working class. This, combined with the uncertain future and unpredictable nature of war and retaliation will inevitably lead to a questioning of the system itself at a certain stage. We will have many opportunities to explain the Marxist position on terrorism, on the need for independent working class political action to fight against militarism, imperialism, and the restrictions on civil liberties here at home, on the real reasons for the economic crisis, and so on. But we must consistently emphasize the need for working class unity here and internationally. No faith in the capitalist class and its representatives!

The consequences of last week’s attack will be far and wide, and we can only begin to appreciate the effects it will have on a world scale. It is still impossible to say at this point whether it will lead to an all out war, how deeply it will affect the world economy, its lasting effects on the class struggle, the anti-globalization movement, civil liberties, military spending, and so on. Over the coming weeks, months, and years we will have to follow and analyze these events carefully. But most importantly we must build the forces of genuine Marxism in the US and internationally. The need to provide a clear socialist alternative to capitalist barbarism is more urgent than ever!

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