Just over a week ago, I published a series of antireligious images from the early Bolshevik journal Bezbozhnik u stanka along with an article by Leon Trotsky from 1925 on the subject of atheistic propaganda. In it, he praised “the satirical journal Godless, where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists…Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” Many of the images are every bit as offensive as the ones printed by the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were recently the target of a brutal assault by reactionary Islamists. Eleven were killed that day, executioner-style. Several hostages at a printing house and a kosher market in Paris were murdered along with the gunmen in the standoff a few days later.
There was obviously no way of knowing this tragedy would take place when I uploaded the aforementioned post. Like everyone else, I followed the drama that unfolded and watched with dismay the flailing attempts by various leftists to spin the story to fit their own preexisting narratives. Richard Seymour’s article over at Jacobin, which largely framed subsequent debate, was exemplary in this respect. While he condemned violence against civilians, he nevertheless felt it necessary to add that “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that [they] are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” Appended to this was the condescending suggestion: “If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with Edward Said’s Orientalism as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia.”
Islamophobia has been Seymour’s main concern for some time now. Other issues occasionally show up, such as austerity and intersectionality, but these are few and far between. Wasn’t always so: back in 2004 you could still find him defending revolutionary universalism against the idiocy of left-liberal multiculturalism. Take this entry, “Jihad Chic,” from 2004 (back when Seymour was just a poor man’s Christopher Hitchens). Anyway, going from his description of Charlie Hebdo above — i.e., “frankly a racist publication” — one could easily get the mistaken impression that it’s some latter-day Der Stürmer. Surprisingly, Seymour seems totally oblivious to the context in which this imagery appears. His old buddy Sebastian Budgen, on whom he relies for most of his gossip about the French Left, came much closer to getting this right:
There is a silly debate about whether Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” publication or not. Clearly not, in the sense of its origins lying in a left-wing, post-′68, highly transgressive vulgarity and its opposition to the far Right. It is part of the mental furniture of much of the French Left, radical included (think of a mash-up between Private Eye, Viz, Oz, Ben Elton, and The Young Ones), and most people will have affectionate memories of it prior to the 2000s. Charb himself illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Beginners books not so long ago.
Not just that, either. Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. (There is cruel irony in the fact that she’s now cynically using their memory for political gain). Regardless, Seymour’s brief characterization is highly misleading. Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair. One comrade even went so far as to compare the victims of the attack to “Nazbols.”
Bob from Brockley posted a response to Seymour written by Contested Terrain on his blog. The rest of Seymour’s argument is boilerplate; Contested Terrain parries its thrusts with relative ease. Seymour, he contends, “portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors.” This weakness is compounded by an overall reticence to entertain that it might have origins in Islamist ideology. “In [Seymour’s] account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.” He’s since posted a rejoinder to the criticisms he’s received, which more or less states that he thought some things went without saying.
Far worse than this, however, was a piece by Asghar Bukhari, which circulated widely among leftists looking for empty internet hard talk to affirm. Bukhari’s rant is filled with lazy generalizations such as the following: “White people don’t like to admit it, but those cartoons upheld their prejudice, their racism, their political supremacy.” He dismisses “freedom of expression” and “freedom of speech” as just meaningless phrases bandied about by bigots in the West. Of course, Bukhari showed slightly more appreciation for the principle of free speech back in 2001, when he was writing checks to the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. “You may feel like you are on your own,” wrote Bukhari, “but rest assured many people are with you in your fight for the Truth.” He reassured Irving that many have “suffered like you in trying to expose certain falsehoods perpetrated by the Jews.”
Perhaps more disturbing was the fact that self-identified Marxists were taking this man’s opinions on the terror attacks in Paris seriously, when just six years or so ago he himself was encouraging young Muslims to join holy jihad. “Muslims who fight against the occupation of their lands,” Bukhari wrote back in 2008, “are ‘Mujahideen’ and are blessed by Allah. And any Muslim who fights and dies against Israel and dies is a martyr who will be granted paradise.” It’s not as if these statements are secret, either, or difficult to find out. Another of his articles posted on Medium closes with an approving quotation from none other than Bin Laden. Why are Marxists at all surprised, then, when liberals accuse them of being soft on religious extremism or antisemitism if their actions seem to confirm their worst suspicions? For the most part, I don’t think socialists today are hardened antisemites or supporters of jihad, but they are far too tolerant of those who are.
Still, if there’s anything leftish commentators on Charlie Hebdo generally got right, it’s their warning against the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash in France and throughout Europe. Already several mosques have been defaced, a kebob store has been firebombed, and ordinary immigrants have been harassed. Clearly, the fear of nationalist reprisals against Muslims is far from baseless. Marxists ought to condemn revanchist French chauvinism as well as Islamist murderers. Especially since the vast majority of Muslims living in France (and throughout the world) have not only have condemned the terrorists, but are quite frequently its worst victims. Indeed, people have too soon forgotten the barbaric massacre of over a hundred schoolchildren by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan. Or the ongoing violence being carried out by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where the number of fatalities in the last year now exceeds two thousand. The situation in countries where Muslims are a minority is simply less direct. Juan Cole has rightly noted that “Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”
Obviously it is inflammatory and insensitive for white Europeans to insult immigrant populations, telling them that their cultural and religious background is stupid. Nor can one pretend that it’s not racist to depict Arabs, North Africans, and other ethnic minorities using crude cartoon physiognomies that could’ve come straight out of nineteenth-century caricatures of “the Races of Man.” But it’s the assumption that “brown” people need the crutch of religion and the comfort it provides — that they’re simply too naïve or inherently irrational to accept the bleak godless universe we inhabit, as specks of dust on a spinning rock blasted through outer space — that seems to me truly racist. Kenan Malik, a British Marxist who I don’t think can be easily dismissed as just another “white” person, makes precisely this point on his blog Pandaemonium:
Hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a “racist institution” and that the cartoonists, if not deserving what they got, had nevertheless brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam. What is really racist is the idea only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or demolish its pretensions or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is “racist” or “Islamophobic” to mock the Prophet Mohammad, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that left-wing “anti-racism” joins hands with right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry.
By focusing exclusively on right-wing nationalist parties that have stolen the mantle of secularism and bourgeois liberties from the Left, self-identified radicals seem oblivious to the way their rhetoric mirrors previous forms of right-wing reaction. “Muslims are right to be angry,” declared Bill Donohue, spokesman for the Catholic League in the US. “[We cannot] tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.” This response could well have come from the pen of Richard Seymour, or any number of leftists in the aftermath of the shootings. It shouldn’t have come to this, they’ll concede, but Charlie Hebdo probably shouldn’t have been offending people’s religious sensibilities in the first place. Donohue is adamant: “Those who work at this newspaper have a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of public figures, and this is especially true of their depictions of religious figures. For example, they have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms. They have also shown Muhammad in pornographic poses…Had [Charbonnier] not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.”
Where does this leave Marxists, then, on the topic of civil liberties under bourgeois society? Liberal platitudes though they may seem, whose meaning has been eroded through hypocritical and selective application (think of how the right to protest has been curtailed over the course of the “war on terror,” or the all-seeing surveillance state violating privacy rights), these are hardly irrelevant to radical political practice. Communists can and must fight to preserve freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. The working class has an interest in being able to publish whatever or meet wherever the fuck it wants, especially should it someday become militant again. And as Marx himself stated in his early debates on the freedom of the press, this also includes religion: “When religion becomes a political factor, a subject-matter of politics, it hardly needs to be said that the newspapers not only may, but must discuss political questions” (MECW 1, pg. 198). Marxists cannot abandon the critique of religious ideology to the Right, even if it correctly rejects alliances with right-wing secularists and nationalist demagogues like Le Pen. It is one thing to warn against Islamophobic policies and racist attitudes on the part of the European public, which are real and dangerous forces to contend with. But it is quite another to imply that any criticism of certain religions is off limits or “politically incorrect.” Libertarian pinheads cannot be permitted to monopolize atheist discourse.
Universalist anticlericalism has long been part of the French revolutionary tradition, from Robespierre’s Culte de l’Être suprême to Hébertist atheism and beyond. Often this has come at the same time as fighting for minority rights. So, for example, the Jacobins made France the first nation to extend full citizenship to the Jews, while at the same time confiscating synagogues and Jewish religious paraphernalia, nationalizing their assets between 1793-1794. This was carried out at the same time as Church lands were being seized in the name of the Republic, obviously on a much larger scale (since its holdings were so vast). Leftists today might consider the Jacobin club “Judaeophobic” persecuting the Jewish religion, even though this came alongside every other religion. And yet in many ways they were the most progressive toward Jews. Insofar as Bolshevism consciously inherited the legacy of Jacobinism, promoting militant godlessness in keeping with Lenin’s brand of materialism, it combats every kind of ideological phantasm. “The Workers’ party ought…to [express] its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” Marx spelled out in his Critique of the Gotha Program, from 1875.
Je ne suis pas Charlie. Au contraire: je suis Bezbozhnik.