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Je suis Bezbozhnik

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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.”

Der Stürmer, Sonderausgabe 1934

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.

«Крокодил», №04, 1928 год «Крокодил», №10, 1922 год

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.”

«Крокодил», №13, 1922 год

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.

33 thoughts on “Je suis Bezbozhnik

  1. Very well done. There’s only one thing I disagree with here that you’ve pointed to: the attempted abolition of religion by Jacobins and Bolsheviks. This approach is mistaken. Otherwise, I’m in complete agreement.

  2. I too think this is a superb piece save for the fact that it contains the very vice it mocks: the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving.

    He is notorious for forming his own opinion about an historical event based on the documentary record? It is absurd to defend free speech and then ridicule someone for holding an unorthodox and unpopular opinion.

    I understand that Irving is a right-winger. If so then I shall not defend HIM, but he went into the Nazi archives, did unbelievably exhaustive research, and reported that he found nothing that supported the idea that the Nazis were engaged in Judeocide, and found quite a good deal of material which contradicted the charge. If somebody isn’t free to state that, then it is absurd to speak of free speech.

    According to irving, even at that point he didn’t become a disbeliever. It was only when the alleged gas chambers were tested by the world’s leading expert on execution by gas who concluded that there was zero chance that that building could have functioned as execution cells that he became a denier.(If one goes to Auschwitz the plaques now say “simulated” gas chambers because of Fred Leuchter’s work.)

    Why do we believe the Judeocide story? Because the victorious bourgeois/Stalinist coalition says it’s true? That’s not nearly good enough. The Holosaga won lots of money for Stalin with which to rebuild/industrialize. The Hololobby ginned up enough support for Zionism that Western capital got its beachhead in the oil-rich ME. How convenient for winners.

    According to the Holocult’s own numbers, the vest majority of the Jews of France were left in place while about a quarter were deported to the camps. As Lefties we should be asking which Jews were killed and why? (And which gentiles, of course.) The Nazis could have killed them all, but didn’t. But of course we can’t pose that question because we will be accused of being Holocaust deniers.

    As for me i believe neither Irving nor the Holocult, i just keep an open mind. “But nobody would lie about something like that…” Well, some did: http://saveourcola.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/hollywood-and-propaganda/

    • Personally, I think David Irving should be free to spout his theories about the holocaust. At the same time, the moment somebody denies what took place in the camps in the face of so much eyewitness testimony, including from concentration camp managers and staff, I get up and leave the room. You might say that this is where the limits of enlightenment are reached.

    • Marxists need not care about free speech, much less for those of adversaries like Irving. Satire understood in the right way has a social purpose.

      It is strange to equate satire of religious fabrications with a campaign to seek to deny mass murder of real people. I would rather defend a smart strategy of censorship for Irving and for the ‘open-minded’ cretins following him.

    • Yes, not against freedom of speech, but certainly against the use made of it to incite hatred against people.

      It’s ok for me if somebody ridicules communism, Islam, status-seeking through consumerism or what have you. Yet it’s not ok if somebody targets people on welfare, muslims, or even rich people personally. That can be censored without problem. So, for this case it might be permissible to ridicule some aspects as to how the Holocaust is used by contemporary society, but to ridicule or deny the victims I would really welcome censorship.

      Freedom can be used to oppress people, see for example the many tv programmes humiliating people on benefits in Europe. In a proper socialist society that would be impermissible.

      Btw, there was quite some satire within even later Soviet society of bureaucratism and the like. The take on labour in the opening sequence of the Office Romance movie is a good example! Carnival Night also springs to mind, I’m sure there are many others.

      • And who ensures the censors do not abuse their power? Silencing others is what dictators do—liberators let them speak.

        Progress requires debate, even when it’s messy. Here’s my favorite Karl Marx quote on the free press: “”You cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!”

    • Yes, no doubt we could mostly agree in practice. Yet I find your opposition of dictators to liberators too schematic. Also, freedom can easily be used as a tool for social oppression, creating its own antinomies.

      • That there’s some room between dictators and liberators, I’ll happily grant. But freedom cannot be oppressive. If freedom is withheld from some people, then it’s not freedom–the “freedom” of the slaver is only oppression.

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  4. Anyone who cannot distinghuish between actual racism and hostility towards religion should not be part of the Left. Edward Said was a bourgeois liberal and it shows. So are all those bleating about “islamophobia”.

  5. I wish Seymour to come to Turkey and discuss Islamofobia with any liberal, leftist or communist here, he will get his ass kicked literally, what a joke.

  6. Seymour is an arse and only worth making fun of and baiting.

    But on the serious issues you raise have no easy answers since (1) It is clear the Charlie is not going to back down (with the sales figures today this is even less probable). (2) Charlie’s satire is part of the same anti-clerical tradition as Le Canard enchaîné – so they are part of a wider culture of secularism (Cabu designed for both), (3) if they were really concerned about attacking racism why did they not attack Minute or Présent – the former of which has published genuinely racist material and (4) A lot of us find Charlie warm and funny. (5) The killers were racist reactionaries.

    Cabu was one of the most deeply loved people in France. I have laughed with his cartoons for nearly forty years,

    I – and on the evidence millions of others – feel his death, and those of the other cartoonists, not to mention all the victims, like a wound in my heart.

  7. I think Marxists who dismiss free speech show a real lack of self-awareness. If certain forms of speech can be censored on the grounds that they are socially harmful, is there not a good chance that the speech of the far-left will fall victim to such censorship? “Look what these people’s ideas have led to – Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. They shouldn’t be allowed to advocate communist revolution lest that happen again.”

  8. If people like Seymour are ”soft on radical Islam” it is generally a response to too much of the ”Left” being soft on liberal Imperialism.

  9. Also, isn’t it rather obvious that Marx himself had a certain contempt for Left Hegelian anti-religious mania? Bolshevik anti-clerical crusades seem more understandable within the context of hyperreligious semi-feudal society. ”Sticking it” to religion in the modern West doesn’t even have the justification of being transgressive as it would have in the days of Feuerbach or Trotsky. It is masturbatory.

    • Marx’s objection to Left Hegelian atheism was that it was idealist, and thought the problem of religion could be resolved at the level of ideas. Preaching atheism to the masses pure and simple leaves the real basis of religious ideology untouched. Engels, for his part, thought the 18th-century French materialists — from d’Holbach to Bayle, to Voltaire and de la Mettrie — did a better job at dispelling religious fantasy than anything written by Feuerbach, Strauss, or Bauer, and urged the workers of the Paris Commune to reprint these older tracts. In any case, Marx was emphatic throughout his that “criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism.” And thus it’s no surprise that Marx thought the Gotha Program’s allowance for “freedom of conscience” too bourgeois, since the point is to free the conscience from the witchery of religion entirely. This was in 1875, so hardly a mere youthful idea he later abandoned.

      Regarding its transgressive character, I think the 1968 generation of French radicals place far too much emphasis on “transgression” and “subversion” (which really end up having very little meaning outside of aesthetics). But quite clearly Charlie Hebdo did still manage to get under people’s skin. Not just Muslims, either: Catholic leaders have spoken out since the attacks saying that the material published in the magazine should not be tolerated, that its depictions of homosexuality, of pedophilia within the priesthood, etc., ought not be allowed to continue.

  10. A funny thing about Seymour’s contributions – and I don’t know if this is subconscious projection on his part, or if he’s simply oblivious to it – is that his own USP within the intersectionality market is pretty much identical to Charlie’s. It’s all about being the loudest, fiercest and angriest, the least compromising, the boldest and most cavalier disregarder of nuance. A highly polarised and emotive debate such as this forces him to defend his brand by ascending to ever-greater heights of spittle-flecked fundamentalism, while also providing an opportunity to burnish it. It’s actually fairly sad and unpleasant to see someone’s political psyche disintegrate before your eyes. There’s not even a scintilla of schadenfreude to be had.

    • Frankly, I don’t think ”nuance” is doing the Left any favors. With ”nuance” being essentially code for ”concessions to liberal ideology.” Even if Seymour was wrong, he would still be interesting which is far more than I can say about most in the public Left.

  11. I know this is a cheap comment, but what’s the betting Seymour’s indistinguishable from mainstream liberals within 5 years? His rightward trajectory from Marxism to “intersectionality” over the last decade has been depressing but predictable.

    • Do you have anything to actually back up the idea that Seymour ”abandoned” Marxism? Frankly, I don’t trust Ross Wolfe or anyone associated with outfits like Platypus (which is to say, the Right of the Left) to make that distinction.

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