Does our government view socialists as terrorists?

The right says no, but government documents suggest otherwise.

Proud Boy marching in DC the morning of the January 6 Capitol riots. [Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Government documents circulating in the discourse over the past two weeks have provoked some arguments over whether socialists, as a matter of policy, are being treated as terrorists. The right insists that we technically are not. But if we look at the arguments at hand, I think the political question is much less clear.

Two controversies

On Tuesday, Ken Klippenstein at The Intercept reported that

A Navy counterterrorism training document obtained exclusively by The Intercept appears to conflate socialists with terrorists and lists the left-wing ideology alongside “neo-nazis.”

Specifically, Klippenstein references a quiz that asks “Anarchists, socialists, and neo-nazis represent which terrorist ideological category?”

This story by Klippenstein follows a similar item that emerged the week before when the Biden Administration released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. At issue is a passage, quoted in full, that begins on page eight:

Another key component of the threat comes from anti–government or anti–authority violent extremists. This significant component of today’s threat includes self–proclaimed “militias” and militia violent extremists who take steps to violently resist government authority or facilitate the overthrow of the U.S. Government based on perceived overreach; anarchist violent extremists, who violently oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions, which they perceive as harmful to society; sovereign citizen violent extremists, who believe they are immune from government authority and laws; or any other individual or group who engages in violence – or incites imminent violence – in opposition to legislative, regulatory, or other actions taken by the government. Other domestic terrorists may be motivated to violence by single–issue ideologies related to abortion–, animal rights–, environmental–, or involuntary celibate–violent extremism, as well as other grievances – or a combination of ideological influences. In some cases, individuals may develop their own idiosyncratic justifications for violence that defy ready categorization. [emphasis added]

In response to the NSCT, however, a Monday article in Newsweek argued that

Despite the claims that the strategy would apply to anyone who believes in anti-capitalism, the report makes it clear that people would only be included as [domestic violent extremists] if they intended harm to others.

Then, two days later, Zaid Jilani and Shant Mesrobian criticized Klippenstein’s reporting with the same argument:

what the material is actually conveying (which can be confirmed in Chapter 2 of the document) is that those who commit terror in the name of any political ideology — be it anarchism, neo-nazism, or socialism — simply fall under the category of “political terrorists.”

Parsing the texts

The Zaid-Shant defense has a kind of superficial plausibility to it, but if we read closely I don’t think it survives very much scrutiny. For one thing, they argue that the material merely names anti-capitalist doctrines to illustrate the point that terrorism “in the name of any political ideology” (emphasis theirs) is still terrorism, insisting that it is fair to list socialism because “socialism has in fact been one of many political ideologies espoused by individuals and groups who have planned or committed violent terrorist acts in the U.S.”

But this defense is at odds with the actual text that they reference — Chapter 2 of an Obama-era anti-terrorism publication — which, in its “general overview of terrorism,” claims that

Common ideological categories include…Socialist. A movement advocating state, public, or common worker (e.g., through cooperatives) ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and a society characterized by equal access to resources for all individuals with an egalitarian method of compensation. [emphasis added]

The document also singles out communists and anarchists, but the crucial point here is that Zaid and Shant have misrepresented their source. This publication is not listing anti-capitalist groups as examples of “any political ideology”, it is listing them as examples of “common” ones. What we are supposed to conclude, by the very grammar of this passage, is that among the ideological tendencies advanced by terrorists, these anti-capitalist doctrines are found more frequently than others.

Klippenstein has noted that Zaid and Shant are actually referencing a different document than he does, and argued that they each need to be read on their own terms. But even if we (inexplicably) reject that argument, it remains the case that Zaid and Shant are misrepresenting their evidence, which is particularly damning since their criticism leans so heavily upon a lawyerly parsing of the texts.

Singled out

This discrepancy should draw our attention to a more important political point. On one hand we have a recurring defense, raised by everyone from Zaid and Shant to Newsweek, that these documents are merely naming anti-capitalists as potential terrorists in the same sense that everyone is a potential terrorist. But if we read more closely, we find that these documents often present them as common examples.

And this is true not only literally — it’s true also true when we read between the lines. Why do documents such as those published by Obama and Biden consistently single out anti-capitalist groups as potential terrorists without mentioning groups that are committed to capitalism? Logically, if these were just ideologically neutral listings of potential terrorists, you would expect capitalists to be named just as frequently. And yet that’s clearly not what is happening.

As far as I can tell, there are three potential answers we could expect by Zaid and Shant:

  1. That anticapitalism is in fact a more common cause of terrorism than capitalism;

  2. That this pattern of singling out anticapitalism and failing to mention capitalism as potential source of terrorism is completely meaningless, having nothing to do with the establishment’s enduring committment to the latter and opposition to the former; or

  3. Convenient silence.

Since (1) is conventional wisdom among pundits this would be the easiest argument for them to make — that is, it would be, if Shant and Zaid did not just argue that the appearance of socialism in these documents is meaningless. (2) would be a funnier argument for them to try since we are not just talking about isolated texts but an ongoing historical pattern of inclusion and omission. The most likely response, I think, is (3), for obvious reasons.