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Reviewed: Max Boot and Martin A Miller's books about warfare

Political violence, past and present.

Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
Max Boot
WW Norton, 576pp, £25

The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence
Martin A Miller
Cambridge University Press, 306pp, £18.99

Calling up an image of pervasive mistrust and violence reminiscent of the totalitarian states of the last century, a celebrated historian records how many people “became informers even on trivial matters, some openly, many secretly. Friends and relatives were as suspected as strangers, old stories as damaging as new. In the main square or at a dinner party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution. Everyone competed for priority in marking down the victim. Sometimes this was self-defence but mostly it was a sort of contagion.”

This sounds like a description of the frenzied denunciations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, an impression reinforced when Martin A Miller, who cites the passage, writes: “Denunciations were frequently followed by suicide, to avoid the public spectacle of a humiliating trial in which one’s entire family could be ostracised or exiled.” Yet the great historian was not writing about the 20th century. The passage comes from a chapter on the emperor Tiberius in The Annals of Imperial Rome by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c.56-117 AD), who entitled this chapter “The Reign of Terror”.

For Miller, Tacitus’s account illustrates a fundamental truth: political violence is per - ennial and any regime can become a vehicle for terror. We have come to think of terrorism as a type of insurgency in which disaffected groups operating beyond the control of any government use violence to attain their ends. In reality, it is states that have been the chief agents of terror:

 In any historical statistical investigation,  the results clearly show exponentially more victims of state political violence than the number of those wounded, tortured and killed by insurgent movements in all categories. During the 20th century alone, states were responsible, directly or indirectly, for over 179 million deaths, and this does not include the two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust and the atomic bombing casualties in Japan.

Following the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has been seen as an assault on democracy and liberal values. As Miller points out, history tells a different story: “Every kind of government (not every government), whether authoritarian or democratic, has been complicit in terrorising its own citizenry in various ways at some point in its history.”

During any discussion on the subject, someone is bound to say that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. With its flip relativism, it is a cliché that does nothing to explain why terrorism remains such a slippery concept. We may agree in thinking of terrorism as a type of political violence but that is where the consensus ends. Tiberius turned the state of Rome into an instrument of terror for a time but he was not a terrorist, if that means someone who practises terror as a method of unconventional warfare.

Yet lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have used terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare (such as Native American tribes in their resistance to settlers) and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy. Then again, there is a difference between states that have practiced terror at some time in their history and states whose very existence is based on terrorising their citizens.

Terror has served many kinds of goals and values, including some that are lauded as thoroughly progressive. As Miller astutely notes, “The watershed moment in which terrorism entered the politics of modern Europe was during the French Revolution when ordinary citizens claimed the right to govern.” When the Jacobin-controlled Committee of Public Safety inaugurated a selfproclaimed “Reign of Terror” in post-revolutionary France, it believed that terror was morally benign. As Robespierre put it: “Terror is merely justice, prompt, severe and inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue and results from the application of democracy to the most pressing needs of the country.” For his comrade-in-arms Saint-Just, terror was not just a defensive reaction against enemies of the revolution. It had to be applied throughout society: “You must punish not only traitors but the apathetic as well; you must punish whoever is passive in the republic . . .”

Punishment in the Reign of Terror was administered by the guillotine, a novel technique of decapitation devised and promoted by the medical reformer Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as being more humane than other methods of execution. Guillotin hoped capital punishment would eventually be abolished but the beheading machine he invented was used to end the lives of some 20,000 people during the year of the Terror (1792- 93). Mass-produced and distributed around the country, the new device was one of several techniques of large-scale killing that, in the years that followed, produced around 200,000 to 300,000 casualties (in a population of about 28 million) in the Vendée and elsewhere in France.

If the Jacobins viewed terror as a benign type of state violence, for a subsequent generation of revolutionaries, terror was a method of resistance against the violence of the state. In The Terrorist Struggle, an influential pamphlet that was introduced as evidence in the trial following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, a member of the radical group People’s Will argued that mass revolutionary movements should be replaced by small groups carrying out targeted killings of government officials.

Later, Lenin – who in August 1918 was himself badly injured in an attempted assassination by the Social Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan – argued against this view in favour of the Jacobin idea of state terror, which he implemented when in power. Yet Lenin was at one with his would-be assassin in regarding political violence as a purifying force that could create a society better than any that had hitherto existed.

As Miller explains in his admirably lucid and comprehensive analysis, elements of these two conceptions are blended in Islamist terrorism today. An academic historian specialising in Russian revolutionary movements, he shows how medieval religious defences of tyrannicide evolved into secular justifications of political violence in modern European nationalism, fascism and communism. As he notes, some of these conceptions have resurfaced among Islamists. The cali - phate envisioned by al-Qaeda sounds like a medieval revival but it “would have to involve many governmental institutions carrying out Islamic policies, including the repressive security apparatus so familiar to the modern secular state it was designed to replace”.

It is not just the repressive apparatus of modern western states that Islamists have found themselves emulating. The Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a widely influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, propagated a vision of the positive role of political violence in creating a new, semi-anarchic and harmonious society that owed more to Bakunin and Lenin than to medieval Islamic theology. Dreaming of returning to theocracy, Islamist ideologues and their followers are more modern and more secular than they – or their western opponents – care to admit.

Like the anti-colonial movements that came before them, Islamist movements are in many ways creations of the modern west that they so adamantly oppose. They have a far larger mass following than anarchist and Bolshevik movements ever did. Yet here, again, the west has been formative. Today’s violent jihadism has complex origins but probably none is as important as the war that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Entering the country in 1979 on Christmas Eve, Soviet forces aimed to prop up the communist regime that had seized power a year before and whose modernising policies had alienated much of the population. The effect was to trigger a holy war in which the jihadists had the backing not only of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia but also the US.

As the former editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal Max Boot writes in Invisible Armies, “In the 1980s American aid went to many hard-line Islamists who would one day become America’s enemies . . . This was a particularly notable but hardly unique example of ‘blowback’.” When the Soviets finally admitted defeat and withdrew in 1989, it was only after they had waged a campaign of terror that killed more than a million Afghans, forced five million to flee the country and internally displaced another two million. The eventual result was rule by the Taliban, orphans of war who in 1996 entered Kabul and imposed a fundamentalist regime without precedent in Afghan history.

Nearly all of the world’s wars, Boot notes, are now of the irregular, unconventional kind that defeated the Soviets. He sees Soviet defeat and the long conflict that followed as illustrating “the power of the weak” – the inability of powerful states to defeat guerrilla fighters. Given Boot’s earlier views, this is an interesting judgement. Writing in 2001 in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, he argued, in an essay entitled “The Case for American Empire”, that the only effective response to terrorism was for the US to “embrace its imperial role”. “Ambitious goals such as regime change,” he declared, “are also the most realistic.”

Recognisably hubristic at the time, triumphalism of this kind is absent from the current volume, a cool and balanced account ranging from prehistory through ancient China to the Ku Klux Klan – “one of the largest and most successful terrorist organisations in history”– to Hezbollah, Hamas and Chechnya. Unlike Miller, Boot chooses to exclude state terror from his account, while at times discussing terrorism and guerrilla warfare as if they were one and the same. Both moves are questionable but Boot makes an important point when he notes that irregular warfare was the norm for almost all of human history. A by-product of the modern state, industrial-style conventional war between professional armies of the sort that dominated the first half of the last century has become rare as nuclear weapons have made such wars more dangerous and states have lost their monopoly of violence in many parts of the world.

What Boot fails to do is explore how western policies have fuelled the rise of unconventional warfare. In practice, regime change has resulted in the creation of a succession of ungoverned spaces. First in Iraq and then Libya, western intervention has toppled tyrants only to create a weak or failed state in which Islamist parties and militias are the most powerful forces. The jihadist advance in Mali and Algeria is a knock-on effect of the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi that he himself predicted. “Free Benghazi” is now unsafe for citizens of the countries that toppled the tyrant. One might think that this would chasten supporters of regime change but the itch to intervene seems irresistible and, in Syria, the problem is not Islamist blowback but the west’s active support for the Islamist insurgents. Almost certainly, the result will be a longer, bloodier war, possibly spreading throughout the region, in which Syria becomes one more failed state or else a hostile fundamentalist regime.

Happily, we hear little these days of the absurd “war on terror”. Policies, however, have changed much less than rhetoric and the delusion still prevails that terrorism is an evil peculiar to anarchic networks and rogue states. Amorphous and continuously shifting shape, it is a permanent but not unmanageable threat to which the most effective response is better intelligence and security. Incessant military intervention only shows how far our leaders are from grasping the intractable realities of human conflict.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone