Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

The politics of terror

Spanish Shockwaves

The Spanish demonstrators ensured that the events in Madrid resulted in a political defeat for their pro-war government, providing a warning for warmongering governments everywhere, argues Alex Callinicos

Anti-war demonstrators on Spaon

Yet again rumours of the 'end of history' have proved to be exaggerated. Within the space of a few days the divided reactions to a terrorist atrocity brought down the government of a leading European state, one of the main partners in Donald Rumsfeld's 'coalition of the willing'.

The Spanish events have a twofold significance. In the first place they confirm that Iraq remains the dominant issue in world politics. For months now Tony Blair has been proclaiming that it is 'time to move on', a chant that has been taken up by the mass of mediocrities inhabiting Labour's back benches, desperate to hang on to their seats and perhaps then to ascend to the mighty post of parliamentary undersecretary for work and pensions.

Anti-war mobilisations

Even many to the left of New Labour echo this call. On the right wing of the anti-capitalist movement, Bernard Cassen of Attac France has openly dismissed anti-war activity as a distraction. He even pointed to the contrast between the scale of the anti-war mobilisations in Spain a year ago and the electoral survival of the Popular Party (PP) government as evidence that opposition to the war in Iraq had produced no political radicalisation. He will have to eat his words now.

Many activists further to the left than Cassen drew the conclusion, when Baghdad fell, that the anti-war movement was finished. In much of continental Europe anti-war activity drastically fell off. This conclusion was resisted by the Stop the War Coalition in Britain, as well as by many activists and intellectuals in the Third World. Thus at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, Arundhati Roy, the Thailand-based coalition Focus on the Global South, and the South Korean socialist group All Together were prominent in highlighting the significance of Iraq.

This stance in part reflected a theoretical understanding of imperialism--the recognition that capitalism is inextricably interwoven with the system of states and the inequalities in political and military power that constitute this system. In other words, resisting the economic logic of capitalism can't be separated from opposing the efforts of leading capitalist states to use their military power to defend the present, grossly unequal, global distribution of resources.

But those of us who continued to insist, 'It's the war, stupid,' also understood the significance of Iraq. The military conquest and occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain have made that country the test bed for the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century. In other words it is here that the Bush administration's effort to use its military power to entrench the dominance of US capitalism and of the neoliberal economic model that is so fiercely promoted by Washington will be tested, with luck, to destruction, between the twin fires of the Iraqi resistance and the global anti-war movement.

The Spanish events confirmed what a wild card Iraq is--how it can suddenly re-emerge as an issue, dividing the world's ruling classes and mobilising popular opposition to their policies. No wonder the pundits are so cross with the Spanish people. The day after the election Newsnight was dominated by Michael Portillo and Tim Garton Ash denouncing the Spanish for having 'capitulated to terrorism'--as if Spanish voters had not shown the good sense to realise, as even the Joint Intelligence Committee told Tony Blair in February last year, that invading Iraq would increase the probability of terrorist attacks.

But Spain has a second lesson for us. It wasn't inevitable that the bombings should have brought the PP down. The Spanish government made a determined effort to spin the attacks to their electoral advantage. Not only did they insist that Eta was responsible but they filled the state TV channels with pap rather than hard news. Evidently this rebounded against them, infuriating many people.

But the PP's manipulation also motivated many activists to get out onto the streets. After all, Spain saw the biggest anti-war demonstrations of all on 15 February 2003. Some of those who had helped to organise them or who had been transformed into activists by the anti-war mobilisations of last spring began to demonstrate on the night before the election in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities.

These protests--forbidden by Spanish electoral law--drew in thousands. Through their example and the messages that spread out from them by text or phone or e-mail these demonstrations probably helped to motivate many working class people (who might otherwise have sat the election out) to turn up and vote against the PP.

This is how history is made. It is a caricature of Marxism that attributes to it a view of history as a blind, objective process. Of course, profound structural contradictions do develop in the depths of the mode of production. But these contradictions only outline possibilities--they don't predetermine outcomes. It is how human beings collectively and individually respond to structural pressures that determines what actually happens. The Spanish demonstrators played a part in turning the terrorist atrocities into a political defeat for the warmongering governments there.

All this is, of course, terrible news for Tony Blair. In all likelihood, he will never be able to 'move on' from Iraq. Opportunities will arise--let's hope for less terrible reasons than the Spanish bombings--to bring him down. To be ready for such events requires a theoretical understanding of the centrality of the war and the political determination and organisation needed to act effectively.

The Politics of Terror

'The Democratic Rebellion'

David Karvala reports from Barcelona on how the people overturned the government

Protesters take to the streets of Madrid
Protesters take to the streets of Madrid

Until Thursday 11 March everything pointed to another victory for the Popular Party (PP) led by Aznar's nondescript replacement, Mariano Rajoy, in the general elections due that Sunday. The reasons are complex. Essentially, despite the more than 90 percent opposition to the war across the Spanish population, the parliamentary opposition parties had failed to convince people that they represent a real alternative to the right. Then, at around 7.40am on 11 March, bombs exploded on four commuter trains entering Madrid. The initial radio reports spoke of a dozen casualties, but the figures rose rapidly--the latest count is of 202 deaths--making it clear that this was a tragedy of enormous proportions.

Denounced as lies

While firefighters, health workers and survivors were acting heroically to save lives, the PP rushed to squeeze every last vote out of the disaster. Government ministers issued statements affirming that Eta, the Basque nationalist guerrilla group, had carried out the bombing.

The hallmark of the right in the Spanish state has long been the rabid defence of the 'unity of Spain', denying the right of self determination--and often even their existence as nations--to Catalonia and the Basque country. In recent years this has led to a concerted programme of repression of the Basque nationalist left, banning political parties and other organisations, closing newspapers and imprisoning activists.

Had the PP been able to maintain the fiction of Eta responsibility until the elections, they would almost certainly have renewed their absolute majority. Thus statements from the Basque nationalist left denying Eta involvement were either ignored or denounced as lies, while the PP tried to cover up the mounting evidence of Islamist involvement. All Thursday and Friday the pro-government media pumped out the PP's version, and repeated Aznar's call for demonstrations in every city for the Friday evening, in solidarity with the victims, against terrorism and in favour of the constitution. This last point was directed against all those who question the present constitution as Spanish centralist and monarchist.

Nonetheless, all the parliamentary parties supported the call, and on the evening of Friday 12 March joined the 'march against violence' alongside the PP, the party of war. Even large parts of the anti-war movement--with some notable exceptions, such as the anti-war platform in Barcelona--felt they had to 'put aside political differences' and go along with the call. In the event, the demonstrations were as massive as expected: the official figure of 11 million was exaggerated, but many millions certainly did march.

What was unexpected was the contradictory nature of many of the marches. Far from parroting the official condemnations of Eta, many people chanted, 'We want to know who did it.' In the cities where the anti-war movement had been strongest, marches showed a notable presence of anti-war banners. The biggest shock was Barcelona, where the PP leaders had to abandon the demonstration under police escort. One of them complained, 'The insults weren't just from a small group of radicals--it was everybody. They looked at us with hate and called us murderers.'

By Saturday 13 March many understood that a major government cover-up was under way. The PP was desperate to avoid people making the link between the bombing and the war on Iraq, but the more its sharp-suited ministers appeared on TV, the less people believed them. Between internet access to the foreign press, sections of the mainstream media critical of the PP--the statewide network Cadena Ser explicitly denounced the PP's manipulation--and leaks from within the security forces, the truth trickled out.

And for the PP, what happened fulfilled their worst nightmares. On top of putting the blame for the attacks squarely on the government, there was widespread outrage among ordinary people that the government had lied to them. Left activists are perhaps resigned to this, but for people who only the day before had marched against Eta behind government ministers--and, in Madrid, behind Aznar, Berlusconi and Raffarin--the realisation that since early on Thursday the PP had been covering up reports by the security forces which showed an Islamist connection was truly shocking.

The government was lying

The PP's falsely blaming Eta had a fatal result on Saturday morning in Pamplona. A baker, a known left Basque nationalist, refused to allow a woman to stick an anti-Eta poster on his shop window. She went to get her husband, an off-duty policeman, who shot and killed the baker. Meanwhile, in Madrid on Saturday afternoon, people started to gather in front of the PP offices in a rally called via emails and mobile phone messages. The mobilisation, called under the slogan 'The government is lying to us--we want to know the truth before we vote', struck a chord with millions. Again, despite the pro-government media ignoring the protest, people across the Spanish state found out about it--Catalan TV, for example, widely watched across Catalonia and Valencia, gave it full coverage.

By Saturday evening the 'democratic rebellion' against the PP had begun. In Barcelona what would have been a token protest in the Ramblas, called at 7pm by autonomist activists, gradually turned into a massive spontaneous demonstration. By 9pm there were over 1,000 people marching up the Ramblas, banging pots and pans in an Argentina-style cacerolazo. We continued up through the richer parts of town, and people kept joining us. Bystanders clapped and cheered from roadside bars, while many on balconies joined in the cacerolazo. When we arrived at the PP head office, the block was already almost full. The press talk of seven or eight thousand people, late on the night of what was supposed to be the 'day of reflection'. By Spanish electoral laws, all campaigning ends on the Friday, leaving the Saturday to 'reflect' before voting on the Sunday. Rajoy's TV appearance at 10pm on Saturday, to condemn the protests as against electoral law, only sent more people onto the streets, condemning the PP as murderers, liars and 'sons of... Franco' as late as 4am.

The elections the following day were the execution of a sentence already dictated. The Socialist Party (PSOE) won 3 million more votes than in 2000, and a victory unimaginable only four days earlier. After eight years in power, the PP was humiliated by the very people it despises--the working people across the Spanish state.

Who was responsible for the rebellion? It's impossible to tell who started the protests in Madrid, but the atmosphere was such that once they had started they inspired people all over the country to copy them. It was irrelevant who actually took the first step in each place. In Burgos, for example, supporters of En lucha, the paper in the Spanish state linked to Socialist Review, gathered 15 people in front of the PP offices; by the end of the night they were 300. In Barcelona the autonomists acted as the spark, but their claims to have been the leadership of the rebellion--as well as the media's obsession with the supposed power of text messages--misses the point.

Over recent years there have been enormous protests against a succession of attacks by the PP--on education, on the environment, and above all the war--all of them met with lies and scorn by the PP. After the spring the anti-war movement died down. Many left activists, weighed down by pessimism, returned to old habits and to statements like, 'Here the people won't fight, it's not like...' (some of them say 'Britain'!). But the decline in struggle didn't mean that people were contented.

In the hours and days following the Madrid bombing there was a sudden awakening: we were back in last spring. Just as on 20 March 2003, people all over the country marched spontaneously, blocked roads and chanted against the war. If anything, now it was more bitter. The 202 dead workers and students in Madrid, many of them immigrants, brought home the real cost of Aznar's, Blair's and Bush's war. Millions of people showed that the right had made a fatal mistake in thinking it could simply lie to them and steal the elections; they also belied the left cliché that 'ordinary people' blindly believe what they see on TV.

Now the PSOE will form a government, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. They will face many demands for change, but the most immediate is, without doubt, for the fulfilment of their promise to withdraw the troops from Iraq.

The PSOE has already started to shift, giving more and more emphasis to its rider, 'unless the UN takes charge'. Meanwhile, incredibly, Zapatero announced he would increase troops in Afghanistan. On other issues, everything points to a rerun of the neoliberal policies of Blair, Schroeder, etc, while he seems set to clear the way for the approval of the pro-market and pro-war European constitution. Whether all that happens depends on the strength of the movement. The demonstrations of 20 March, calling for troops out whatever the UN says, were enormous in many cities across the Spanish state. As one anti-war activist said, 'We went onto the streets over the occupation against the PP. We'll keep our pots and pans handy in case we need to go out against Zapatero.'

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page