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A Stimulating Overview of Terrorism

Terrorism and Other Themes: Politics, Principles and Practice by Robi Chakravarti


A Stimulating Overview of Terrorism

Hiren Gohain

his stimulating collection of essays with a rather drab title, originally published in journals like the Economic & Political Weekly offers intel lectual fare marked by wide erudition, varied interests, a critical standpoint and lucidity. They range over subjects as varied as Karl Marx’s career in journalism, uses of Max Weber’s ideas to purposes he had not foreseen, Asia’s women leaders and silen cing of dissent on west Asia in America. Nine out of the 17 essays deal with American themes, a matter of some significance against the contemporary background. However the overall impression is not very satisfactory, as the author allows unnecessary academicism to cloud his clear and fresh insights.

In his preface the author calls these essays forays into “academic journalism”, by which he means “articles of cogent theoretical value for non-academic journals”. The word “theoretical” here is overstretched, as the author makes no systematic efforts to develop new theoretical

Terrorism and Other Themes: Politics, Principles and Practice by Robi Chakravarti; Seagull, Kolkata, 2006; pp 138, Rs 325.

concepts though existing ones are sometimes shown as inadequate. But they provide much useful and interesting information relevant for formulation of new concepts. This reviewer would have preferred to call them “academic essays”. By writing for non-academic journals and a popular if educated audience the author rescues an aspect of social and political pheno mena lost in unavailing simulation of rigo rous scientific procedures in humanities, which leads to a delusive search for impersonal structures without human agentia lity. There is also an appeal to the reader as an ideological being endowed with emotions and passions but concerned for truth and justice. He does not presume a rational automaton as a reader but does not go in for tub-thumping either. After all right from Samuel Johnson to Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein there have been essayists combining weighty erudition with friendly rhetoric engaging the educated reader.

By and large the author seems to speak from a broadly left point of view, though he assumes too readily that with the collapse of the socialist camp communism has been consigned to the godown of lost

causes. But he detests and excoriates imperialist thuggery and hypocrisy, while wary of the term imperialism, and expresses passionate concern for the downtrodden and the oppressed of the earth.

Insights on America

The essays with American themes are significant for one reason. For many decades Indian studies of American society and culture have been either marked by a reductive radical perspective that takes no account of vigorous critical and dissenting voices in American intellectual life (as evident from the number of acclaimed works mentioned in this book that rejects the rosy official view of things) or by a kind of naive surrender to the spell of concepts trotted out by familar “American studies”

– type of research. The author writes with knowledge and insight about American society and politics at a time when Indians are uncritically guzzling both American consumer gadgets and fancy American ideas. His warnings should alert us to the dangers of this passivity.

February 23, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly



What is baffling is the author’s evident reluctance to reveal his ideological standpoint explicitly and the tendency to raise unnecessary hurdles to such an avowal. For example, in his highly informative essay ‘Infrastructure of Democracy, the US Example’ he provides information that would stop short any uncritical champion of American democracy. To cite a few examples, the legal limitations on franchise that survived until 1970, and the non-legal ones that still persist (pp 70-71), the list of 24 democratic countries in which the US stands last but one in regard to voter participation in elections (p 70), the large numerical presence of millionaires in the American senate (p 71), the semifascist consensus that prevails in American politics that prevents any socialist from getting elected to American legislatures (p 74), and the extensive influence exercised legitimately by mercenary lobb yists (pp 75-76).

These facts lead to the inescapable conclusion that the flaws of American democracy can be traced to a specific historical form of capitalism. Instead the author ends the essay by tabulating a number of critical approaches that from different points of view critique American democracy radical, liberal and conservative, jolting the reader to a halt. But if the conservative critique swears by the Constitution and rules out other criteria, that is in itself evidently a ruling-class, mechanism to pre-empt debate.

Ignoring Imperialism

In US and west Asia; Silencing Dissent, to pick another example at random, the author exposes the widespread and systematic influence of Jewish lobbyists on policymaking and the media of contemporary America, and the use of terror by Israel and pro-American Arab regimes to silence critics and dissidents speaking against the injustice to Palestinians. This is explained as a result of demographic preponderance of Jews in certain areas, their financial clout, and their influence on the media. Contrariwise Palestinians are seen as poor in resource mobilisation and less sophisticated in their use of terror-tactics. The author then quotes Bertrand De Jouvenal to the effect that

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political problems are not so much solved as settled, and that success in settlement

comes through bargaining, pressure or
superior force, and/or invocation of
principles (p 110).

Without a clear indication of principles, our author goes on, any settlement will be perceived as unjust and will invite violent reaction. In concrete terms, however, “principles” (whether lubricated by persuasion or force) here can only mean abolition or reform of colonial or imperialist relations, but the author gives those terms a wide berth. If only abstract principles of justice are invoked, unequal or unjust decisions might follow, as has happened so often in the case of Palestinians.

The influence of the Jewish lobby on American policies would have been insignificant without this imperialist dimension. The author attributes Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel to electoral compulsions. But at that time even Stalin had recognised Israel. It was actually the use of Israel as a forward post of the imperialist American state that has made the difference. Here again the facade of

February 23, 2008


academic detachment obscures the socioeconomic ground realities the author suggests with a battery of facts. The subsequent rise and triumph of Hamas in the Gaza strip actually follows from its militant anti-imperialism, which hides its many sins from the eyes of ordinary Palestinians who are by and large secular, whereas the PLO has lost its influence by appearing to succumb to US arm-twisting.

This is sad, conside ring that the author offers some prescient insights, such as the growing worldwide influence of American political discourse (pp 30-33), and some hard-hitting exposures of Machiavellian violence and treachery by America and her allies in service of their imperialist interests and ambitions (pp 87-91), and he could hardly have done so without a sound grasp of real sources of American power. An essay like ‘Marx as a Journalist’, again, throws welcome light on a neglected aspect of Marx’s career, though he does not go on to link it up with his ideological development.

In a panoramic view of our tumultuous times, ‘From Bastille to Tienanmen Square’, the author sums up the progress of two seminal ideas broadcast all over the world by the French revolution, liberty and equality. Regimes dedicated to each have witnessed unforeseen consequences that have in the author’s view made a mockery of the original ideas. In the form of communism the quest for equality has all but lost its way, and Marxist ideologues are quarrelling over the reasons for the catastrophe (p 62). The working class has joined with zeal the Solidarity movement in Poland, which has an anti-communist thrust. Since then Solidarity has buried communism in Poland and gone on to celebrate liberty (p 67). But the author is unsparing in making up a list of the glaring flaws of “democracy” peddled in the mass media of bourgeois countries, and exposing the fictions covering up much depravity and greed.

The author’s diagnosis seems to be a reduction of all ideologies to abstract paradigms which are then shown to be compromised and blown off track by problems of implementation in unforeseen circumstances of actual life. For example nationalism, once endorsed by Lenin was later abandoned as incompatible with socialism (p 64). Such quibbles appear rather superficial when compared to the author’s accounts of present trends in American society and international capital. After all, Marx himself had famously refused to lay down a blueprint for socialism and in his Critique of the Gotha Programme pointed out how well-meaning socialist programmes betrayed genuine socialist principles and were thus foredoomed to bring about opposite results. Thus it is arguable that both in the Soviet Union and in Maoist China the formulation of socialist policies had been defective and unlikely to succeed, though the present reviewer disclaims expertise in the matter. However, it seems an indispensable condition for the health and vigour of the party that democratic dissent is permitted and honoured, and not hounded as a Trojan horse.

As for the most ambitious essay in the collection, the one on terrorism, it provides useful historical overview but fails

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February 23, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


to illuminate the obscure nature of contemporary terrorism. The author establishes that throughout history and in a variety of contexts terror has been used by different political forces as a tactical weapon, both by states and rebellious elements. Even Lenin, it may be pointed out, was not averse to selective use of terror though he condemned Blanquism. Cotemporary terrorism boils down to terror perpetrated by various Islamic militant groups in rebellion against “pro-American” or pro-western states as well as the great satan of Islamist demonology, America.

America’s Frankenstein

But the supreme irony of the situation, not much noted in American political discourse, is that this Frankenstein had been spawned and nurtured by imperialist western powers in their desperate offensive against the Soviet Union. At that time they were not bothered that Islamic salvoes were directed not only against socia lism but also against modernity itself. Liberal women reporters sent glowing reports about the Mujahideen’s jihad from the Afghan front. It was imperialism that had turned Islamist terrorism into such a menace, very much like robots gone berserk in science-fiction. Ethnic terrorists are less united internationally and they still seek UN support from time to time, and the UN can be made by imperialism to dance to its tune. Ethnic terrorists so bothersome to developing nation states do not disturb Pax Americana.

The author pursues certain red-herrings in this essay, for example, the targeting of non-combatants/civilians by terrorists and the smaller scale of destruction in acts of terrorists compared to wars waged by warmongering states, but then finds out that the latter also have killed civilians in hundreds of thousands, and the scale of destruction in terrorist attacks could be quite considerable.

It thus appears to be the case that the author has been prevented from carrying his explorations to their logical conclusion by some obscure mental blocks. But before ending on this note of dissatisfaction I must reiterate that this slim volume offers much that is stimulating and rewarding on contemporary politics and history.


February 23, 2008

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