Anatomy of a controversy

Race, religion, and ideology
in contemporary debates on
the French communist Left

How to moralize with a sledgehammer

On the night of April 21, 2016, the windows of an anarchist library and bookshop in Paris were smashed with a sledgehammer. Above the broken glass, next to hollowed-out frames, one word had been spraypainted: RACIST. This was the third such attack to take place at the location in under a year. La Discordia opened its doors back in May 2015 to provide a space for discussion, theory, and debate. “Discord is profound disagreement,” reads La Discordia’s founding charter, “violent dissent which sets people against each other.” So it would seem to be living up to its stated mission, if repeated acts of vandalism are any indication. What’s odd about these incidents, though, is that La Discordia wasn’t targeted by right-wing thugs or fascists — the usual suspects whenever anarchists receive threats of this sort — but rather by other anarchists. It wasn’t the work of national-anarchists, either, but those professing a decolonial brand of anarchism. Yves Coleman, who serves as correspondent for the left communist periodical Insurgent Notes in France, characterized the hoodlums as “left identitarians [identitaires de gauche], social chauvinists, and assorted Third Worldists.” Magazin Redaktion, the German-language Turkish collective, wrote that “La Discordia and the friendly associated website non fides have lately been exposed to a certain hostility and multiple threats; among other things, the store was recently defaced… by fractions of the ‘antiauthoritarian’ scene [die Teilen der ‚antiautoritären’ Szene] with slogans calling it ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’.”

How does anybody know who carried out this act of petty property destruction? Clearly, the volunteers who run La Discordia suspect it was a crude attempt at intimidation. Nevertheless, protests and street demonstrations have occurred on an almost nightly basis in Paris, and throughout the country, since roughly the beginning of April. Up All Night [Nuit debout] debuted on March 31, to drum up public opposition to the hated loi du travail, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the library might have suffered incidental damage in the confusion. “Why is this happening right now, while we are all concentrated on what is going on in the streets?” asked the Discordians in their official statement on the matter. “Evidently because, for those who hold race and religion sacrosanct, it’s more important to defend these things than to combat capital and state. Again, no other sign of attack was to be seen in the neighborhood that night, neither banks nor churches nor the premises of political parties. Just an anarchist library.” Back in February, right after the initial attack, Dialectical Delinquents published a letter of solidarity with La Discordia:

Several months in the planning, a debate on “Islamophobia: A Conceptual and Political Racket” was finally held January 26. La Discordia wanted to confront a topic at the heart of the current struggles, conflating condemnation of racism with a defense of religion. Our joint conversations were interesting. More than sixty comrades came to the event — we promise to rent a larger venue next time, and with more chairs! — demonstrating that many feel the need for a revolutionary critique of religion. Every religion, including Islam, which others would like to palm off as the “religion of the oppressed”…

Upon arriving Tuesday afternoon, we saw that the storefront had been tagged during the night. Poorly-written, ill-thought-out epithets (“fascists,” “racists,” etc.) appeared next to circled As (thank you!) in black spray paint, along with a leaflet of demands. We were allegedly acting as a vehicle for “Islamophobic and racist theories” and “ideologies of power,” etc. A thought for the atheist “fascists,” the unbelievers who from Tehran to Saint-Denis are now treated as “Islamophobic” as much by fearsome powers as by this arriviste of the French academic petit bourgeois who knows only the racism of his own class, whose only practice over a decade is to leave illegible tags on anarchist libraries and organize conferences with religious authorities.

Dialectical Delinquents’ declaration of support was succeeded by a similarly sympathetic note from the editors of the anarchist street paper Paris Sous Tension, posted on Indymedia Nantes right after the first attack and updated in March after the second. “In striving to make sense of this gesture, committed by purported anarchists (as they claimed to be in the message they left), …we see that its only purpose is to empty anarchism of any anti-religious content,” they wrote. “The revolt against religious dogma… has always been a part of revolutionary criticism, here in Europe and the rest of the world, where a great many atheists, blasphemers, revolutionaries, ‘freethinkers,’ and simple nonconformists face ferocious repression on the part of divine spokespersons… We’d like to publicly express our support for the comrades at La Discordia against this imbecilic and gross manifestation of the… ‘convergence’ between politicians of the extreme left and reactionary Islamists.” Barely an hour had passed before angry commenters were accusing La Discordia and its sympathizers of “justifying and rationalizing Islamophobia.” Not long after, another threatened: “Come the revolution the monks of atheism [les religieux de l’atheisme] will be gunned down.” Yet the coup de grâce was delivered by somebody named “Patlotch,” who accused an old left communist internationalist [vieux sympathisant de la gauche communiste internationaliste] of Eurocentrism. About this Patlotch, we’ll hear more later. La Discordia vowed to continue cursing “the confused pseudo-radicals and theo-compatibles” [les pseudo-radicaux confus et théo-compatibles], reciting some of the lines to La père Duschesne, an anonymous ode to Hébert that the anarchist Ravachol sang on his way to the guillotine in 1892: “Cut the priests in two, bloody hell / Tear the churches to the ground, blood of God / And good Lord in the shit, bloody hell!” [«Coupe les curés en deux, Nom de Dieu / Fout les églises par terre, Sang Dieu / Et l’bon dieu dans la merde, Nom de Dieu!»]

Each of these two letters of solidarity echoes the event description for «Islamophobie: du racket conceptuel au racket politique», from the talk in January. “Numerous so-called ‘revolutionaries’ seek to reappropriate the concept [of Islamophobia], and thereby develop a blindness to the authoritarian and pacifying role played by every religion,” the promotional post states. “Islam is wrongly defended as the religion of the oppressed (as Irish Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism were before it). Behind this lurks the idea that relations of domination become emancipatory when borne by those who are supposedly oppressed. Religion remains a major obstacle to those looking to radically transform the world, however, and so criticism is necessary now more than ever. For there are no ‘religions of the oppressed,’ only religions that oppress.” Who would actually try to claim Islam is anywhere the “religion of the oppressed,” much less on a global scale? At first this sounds like a straw-man. Mahmoud Senadji of the Parti des Indigènes de la République wrote an essay in 2009 on Iran and Foucault in which he asserted Islam alone had the capacity to serve as a medium for revolution, “Islam being the religion of the oppressed” [l’islam étant la religion des opprimés]. (The Indigènes are big fans of Kevin Anderson’s book Marx at the Margins, which is admittedly quite good, but the reason they like it is that it seems to validate their own preexisting views. Or rather, it presents a reading of Marx more amenable to their politics. How surprised they’d be if they ever took a look at the study Anderson wrote along with Janet Afary in 2005, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seduction of Islamism).

Religion of the oppressed

Senadji was merely repeating what the PIR’s spokeswoman Houria Bouteldja had already argued on the French television program Ce soir (ou jamais!) in February 2007, during the debate over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. On that occasion, she remarked that “Islam is the religion of the oppressed” [l’islam est la religion des opprimés]. Eight years later, after eleven of Charlie Hebdo’s office staffers were murdered for their satiric portrayal of the religious leader, Bouteldja would devote an entire article to the sacred of the “wretched of the earth” and its desecration: “It took an attack of terrifying determination — the brutal death of twenty people — to understand the materiality and political dimension of the defiled sacred… the gaping wound of our violated dignity…” To fight Islamophobia, she continued, it is imperative “to defend the space of the sacred.” As I indicated in my notes on the polemic by Grim and Pinot-Noir, though, it is much more important to defend members of a religious minority against state persecution than to defend articles of faith against blasphemy. Grim and Pinot-Noir are on point when they stress in their piece that the blanket ascription of “Muslim origin” to anyone and everyone hailing from Maghreb is enough for North African atheists’ blood to boil. Zineb el-Rhazoui’s impassioned response to Olivier Cyran over allegations of “racism” leveled at Charlie Hebdo provides ample evidence of this fact. “We ‘Islamophobes’ of the Muslim ‘race’… think liberation requires that we throw off the yoke of state religion,” wrote el-Rhazoui in 2013. “You think an Arab who spits on Islam [must simply be] alienated, an alibi, a house Arab…” Bouteldja has been known to slander her opponents as such, especially those with darker skin than she has, all the while praising Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for refusing to be a “house Negro” [un nègre domestique].

“Criticizing Charlie Hebdo for mocking the prophet makes sense,” observes Olivier Tonneau, a stalwart of the old secular tradition in French republicanism. “But what about the Tunisian Jabbeur Mejri, condemned to seven and a half years in prison for daring to post such caricatures on his Facebook page? What of Yemisi Ilesanmi’s powerful indictment of religions in general? Her article is insulting to Muhammad, and Jesus to boot. Is it only acceptable if it comes from a Nigerian woman, who can make justificatory claims about belonging to a marginalized group? Must we shield Islam from the attacks of the white ruling class only, or also from those born into that culture who regard it not as the religion of the oppressed, but as an oppressive religion?” Tonneau comes from a more academic background than the post-situs and communisateurs who frequent La Discordia, but considers himself “a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and in the UK.” Furthermore, like the Discordians and their allies, he picks up on the tendency for the Left to ignore laïciste voices within “the Muslim community” which challenge the narrative that it constitutes a monolithic bloc. Voices like Boualem Sansal, Fethi Benslama, Soufiane Zitouni, and Saif Rahman… none of whom fit with the stereotype of immigrants from predominantly Muslim regions as downtrodden and devout. “Siding spontaneously with the architects of the ‘Muslim community’,” explains Tonneau, “the Left falls prey to its perennial weakness: i.e., its propensity to gather all victims under one idealized heading.” (Note that none of the figures mentioned by Tonneau advocate military interventions in the name of human rights, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been known to do; nor even launch Hekmatist screeds, like Maryam Namazie did in her inflammatory 2015 diatribe “Siding with the Oppressor: The Pro-Islamist Left.”)

Léon de Mattis, known to readers of English for several pieces that have been translated in Sic“Communist Measures,” “Reflections on Call,” “What is Communization?” — has also added his name to the list of La Discordia’s supporters. He advises communists not to get suckered into picking sides between the right and left wings of capital, especially when the terms of the debate have been set by the likes of Manuel Valls, Emmanuel Todd, and Edwy Plenel. Mattis does comment on the Indigènes’ claim that Islam is “the religion of the oppressed,” all the same. “To say that Islam is the religion of the dominated [la religion des dominés] is a pure lie,” he writes. “Political Islam, in its conservative and reactionary components as in its extremist form, would have us believe that the bourgeoisies of Muslim countries and proletarian immigrants in the West share common interests. It’s the return of that anti-imperialist creed, of which we know the sad result. At present, political Islam plays the role nationalist ideologies did in the period of decolonization: enlist the working class into the service of capitalists in their war against other capitalists.” Junge Linke already dissected Islamism as “heir to and rival of frustrated Arab nationalism,” a judgment also made by Theorie Communiste (a group closer to Mattis). For them, “the bankruptcy of the Arab nationalist framework and delegitimization of the state are the wellspring of the Islamic renaissance. Now the ‘wretched of the earth’ whom many expected would dismantle the ‘Western’ capitalist system came to express their suffering through the communal form of religious revolt.” Roland Simon, addressing the issue in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, quipped that Marxists could spare themselves “the comfort of the humanist condemnation of racism and ‘Islamophobia’.” Others have pointed out that “after each terrorist act committed by jihadists in Europe, adding to their long list of atrocities in Africa and the Middle East, anti-Islamophobes mainly worry it may lead to fresh outbreaks of ‘Islamophobia’ and repressive measures. Not without good reason. So instead they assign sole responsibility to Western imperialism.” Easy as that.

Grim and Pinot-Noir denounce the ideology of “anti-Islamophobia” on similar grounds, since “for [France’s] worthy anti-Islamophobes the Muslim faith must be treated with exceptional benevolence, as ‘the religion of the oppressed’.” Deferential treatment of this sort, besides being extremely patronizing, tends to reproduce the worst inanities of standpoint epistemology. For some interpreters of the Islamophobic ideology, “[the] concrete manifestations of epistemic Islamophobia in the work of classical theories… of Western-centric patriarchal social science such as Karl Marx or Max Weber” can be overcome only by adopting a decolonial standpoint. Slogans from the nineteenth century, like Auguste Blanqui’s celebrated anarchist catchphrase “Neither god, nor master!”, are “Islamophobic” in the twenty-first. Or so decrees Bouteldja: “[‘Neither god, nor master!’] may have been relevant in the past when the Church was in power but is ridiculous today… Islam is not a state-sponsored religion but rather the religion of the new proletariat, the subordinate classes, and the poorest of the poor.” Likewise, Marx’s mantra is much too Eurocentric and old-fashioned for her tastes: “I’m against the idea that — whatever your ethnic group, nationality, origin, culture, or sex — religion means oppression, and that to be emancipated one must fight against religion. There are societies that don’t need the separation of Church and State, for which religion isn’t a problem. Religion is not the opium of the people.” Another spokesperson for the PIR updates it with the correction: “Modernity is the opium of the people” [La modernité est l’opium du peuple]. Quartiers Libres relays an article by Nicolas Pasadena in which he cautions against repeating passé revolutionary phrases.

Perhaps the pair, Grim and Pinot-Noir, is thus intuitively correct in rejecting anti-Islamophobic politics, along with Simon and Mattis, insofar as politics organized around the prefix “anti-” usually latch onto one element of existing society and direct it against another element regarded as even less bearable. After all, it was Bernard Lyon — a comrade of Simon and Mattis — who authored “We Are Not ‘Anti-’.” The left communist Gilles Dauvé, channeling Bordiga, likewise dismisses anti-fascism as “the worst [political] product of fascism…” He rejects anti-imperialist politics along the same lines: “I’m against imperialism, be it French, British, US, or Chinese. But I’m not an ‘anti-imperialist,’ since that is a political position which supports national liberation movements in opposition to imperialist powers. I’m against fascism, be it Hitler or Le Pen. But I’m not an ‘anti-fascist,’ since this is a political position which regards fascism as an enemy to be destroyed at all costs and sides with bourgeois democrats as a ‘lesser evil,’ postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.” Meanwhile, Adolph Reed has disparagingly described anti-racism as “vague politics about an nearly indescribable thing.” Looking back at the closing paragraph in the critique by Pinot-Noir and Grim, one sees they arrive at an identical conclusion: “Racism cannot be fought by anti-racism but by class struggle.”

Islamophobia and its discontents

All the same, I’d like to remind everyone of the outstanding essay by Yasmine Kateb, Malika Amaouche, and Léa Nicolas-Teboul from June 2015, “Toward a Materialist Approach to the Racial Question: A Response to the Indigènes de la République.” In calling attention to this impressive rebuttal, which I consider somewhat subtler and more sophisticated than the “anti-Islamophobia” piece, it would be foolish to flatly counterpose the two. French colleagues inform me that there has already been some tension between the authors of these texts, mostly over questions of methodology. On the surface this is surprising, because they otherwise seem to agree on many issues. Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul warn against taking a view that prioritizes one form of oppression over the other. “We observe mounting Islamophobia and.antisemitism..These two are a pair: in a context where societal segregation is increasing, and the logic of all-against-all spins out of control, we must work to think of these things in conjunction and reject any competition between different racial oppressions; but also to examine Islamophobia and antisemitism together in all their specificity.” Grim and Pinot-Noir, by contrast, seem to think that even mentioning race or nation as a factor in history (Bordiga) already concedes too much ground to the decolonial theoreticians they are critiquing. Mattis comes down more on the side of the trio Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul than the duo Grim and Pinot-Noir. But he reiterates his support for La Discordia, the latter’s milieu, in light of the recent attack:

Religion is not a divine phenomenon, but a social and political phenomenon. It must therefore be analyzed as such. For terrestrial appetites, religion adduces the justification of celestial necessities. As politics, it cannot be anything other than the self-justifying discourse of power. Criticism of religion is the condition of all criticism [Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right]. Such considerations are still far from being shared, given that La Discordia was attacked during the night. Whatever our divergences, in terms of ideas as well as methods, I am in this case on the same side as the Discordians. Those who wish to denounce discrimination by defending religion, meanwhile, unfailingly align with the camp of gods and masters.

Writing from an American perspective, I must admit it’s somewhat jarring to see the concept of “Islamophobia” so hotly contested by French Marxists and anarchists. Accustomed to discussions within the Anglophone Left, where it enjoys such widespread acceptance, the controversy is difficult to grasp. Ever since Runnymede Trust’s 1997 report on Islamophobia: A Challenge to Us All, and especially after the September 11 attacks in New York, socialists and antiwar activists have, for the most part, embraced its use. Particularly the British SWP, but also its ISO cousin in the United States, stresses its centrality and importance. Hassan Mahamdallie matter-of-factly states in the International Socialist Journal that “Islamophobia has become the predominant form of racism in Europe today.” Though Muslims are not conceived as a separate biological race, or even a distinct ethnic group, Islamophobic ideology effectively operates in an ostensibly racist manner. Daniel Lopez summarizes this neatly in a piece for the Australian publication Red Flag: “No, Islam is not a race. Yes, you are still a racist.” Voices of dissent have been few and far between. Rumy Hasan, a Brummie socialist and vocal critic of Israel, resigned the SWP in disgust following a 2002 campaign during which.the.Trotskyist.sect cynically tried to “hide the atheism at the core of leftist politics,” chronicling his e-mail exchanges with the Birmingham branch for a short article entitled “‘Islamophobia’ and Electoral Pacts with Muslim Groups” (2003). Kenan Malik took a different tack in his 2005 provocation “The ‘Islamophobia’ Myth,” arguing on the basis of statistical data that the backlash predicted by the SWP against Muslims had largely failed to materialize. Malik does acknowledge that criticism of Islam as a religion at times can shade into Islamophobia, but he worries that “hatred and abuse of Muslims is being exaggerated to silence critics of Islam.”

In France, indeed across the European mainland, there’s decidedly less consensus on the issue. Quibbling over etymology is seldom a good look, though, so Claude Guillon’s complaints about the suffix “-phobia” rather miss the point. “Fear” may or may not accurately describe the feeling aroused by the presence of the phobic object. Perhaps “anger,” “annoyance,” “uneasiness,” or “revulsion” would be more accurate. But this is precisely what homophobes often try to say when confronted about their intolerant behavior or rhetoric. “We don’t ‘fear’ homosexuals,” they’ll insist. “Just don’t like them.” Mauvaise foi aside, it’s harder to demonstrate that Islamophobia is a form of racism — instead of, say, a form of religious persecution. Undoubtedly, there is a way in which cultural traits are assigned to certain surplus populations that appears vaguely “racializing.” Still, the groups and individuals implied by Islamophobic sentiment can vary a great deal depending on where it’s taking place. Historically the implicit object of such sentiment would be either Moroccans or Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, and “Pakis” in Britain. Now with ongoing instability in Syria and Iraq, a huge influx of refugees and migrants has led to crisis in Europe, so specificities have given way to generalized anxiety. This time it’s focused mostly on Arabs. Gruppe Soziale Kämpfe has recommended the phrase “anti-Muslim racism” Islamophobia, along with Coleman and a few others concerned about the latter’s ambiguities. Considering PEGIDA stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” the word “Islamophobia” seems fairly apt. Xenophobia is likely behind much of this, however, so Grim and Pinot-Noir are not altogether wrong to suggest that the culturalist pretext relied upon by parties like PEGIDA, Front Nationale, and Bloc Identitaire masks a more banal underlying paranoia. Despite their fulmination against Sharia law and terrorism, “these groups are nothing but a lot of racists clamoring for immigrants to go home.”

Karl Kautsky noted toward the beginning of his famous inquiry Are the Jews a Race? (1921) that the “motto” of modern antisemitism was as follows: “On the Jew’s faith I do not look; his race is what I cannot brook” [Was der Jude glaubt, ist einerlei; in der Rasse liegt die Schweinerei]. In this respect, at least, the parallels many draw between twenty-first century Islamophobia and nineteenth century antisemitism do not hold up. Biological racism may have gone “out of style” with the end of Nazism, as Lopez says, but there’s been a mild resurgence of the sociological variety in the guise of so-called “race realism.” Racist judgments are made against Muslims based on appearance (skin color, phenotypically “Arab” facial features, or modes of customary dress), noticeable accent or foreign language overheard (Farsi, Turkish, Arabic), and culturally distinctive names (Ahmed, Muhammad, Aziz). As many commentators have pointed out, mistakes frequently occur: Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims, or Hebrew is mistaken for Arabic, etc. Nothing like a “blood quantum” or system of racial classification, however; this much has changed. Étienne Balibar distinguishes “an internal racism directed against a population regarded as a ‘minority’ within the national space” from “an external racism considered as an extreme sort of xenophobia.” Jews in the Pale of Settlement, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and blacks in the Jim Crow South would fall under the first, while colonial subjects and immigrants would fall under the second. The Jews a century ago were largely seen as representing the threat of modernity, too, whereas the Muslims of today are largely seen as representing a threat to modernity. Perhaps it is more plausible to compare mobile or temporarily displaced populations flowing from the Middle East to the Ostjuden pouring into Western Europe back in the interwar years who, as Joseph Roth recorded, were viewed as more religious and culturally backward than their westjüdische, assimilated counterparts. Many Western Jews even saw them as a liability, prone to giving Jews a bad name. Wolfgang Gedeon of the right-wing nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland apparently has noticed this as well:

Just as Islam was the external enemy, so Talmudic ghetto-Jews [i.e., from the East] were the internal enemy of the Christian West… As the political power-center shifted from Europe to the US in the twentieth century, Judaism in its secular Zionist form has come to be a crucial influence on and decisive power factor in Western politics. Now the former internal spiritual enemy of the West has become a dominant power factor, while the former external enemy of the West, Islam, has overrun its borders through mass migration and penetrated Western societies in a variety of ways.

Coleman, whatever misgivings he may share with Grim/Pinot-Noir about the term “Islamophobia,” nevertheless agrees with the trio Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul that Muslim immigrants and minorities throughout Europe are increasingly vulnerable to state and civic violence. He, too, suggests that this might be linked to renewed antipathy toward the Jews. Not just from jihadists — like Amedy Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, Mehdi Nemmouche, or Mohamed Merah — but from professional politicians like Gedeon or Alain Soral, who blame the Jews for multiculturalism and are more than willing to exploit popular ressentiment in order to achieve the aims of their parties. A huge amount of information is amassed in Coleman’s 2015 study of “Antisemitism and Anti-Muslim Racism in Europe,” both of which are shown to be precipitously on the rise. Research conducted over the course of the last ten years confirms this trend. David Chazan has provided an account of the numbers in France, while London also reports a dramatic uptick. There is at least one major difference when it comes to the primary sources of violence perpetrated against Muslims and Jews: “While radical Muslims find ready scapegoats in the Jews, …the democratic state finds an excellent scapegoat in radical Muslims, by stretching the definition of extremism so wide that it could encompass not only thousands of Muslims but all those who find themselves politically at odds with ‘British values’ by opposing its wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or anyone who dares to reveal parliamentary democracy as a hollow fraud.” Pinot-Noir and Grim themselves clarify that “racism does undeniably exist,” and accept that “rejection of poor ‘Muslim’ immigrants is one of its contemporary manifestations.” Guillon, in his otherwise parodic “And ‘God’ Created ‘Islamophobia’…,” is also emphatic on this score. “Let us be understood: it is legitimate and important to condemn any sort of racism — including when it dons the mask of, or is nourished by a real, ‘fear of Islam’.” Kateb & co. are better at grounding Islamophobia in political economy, as part of a racialized division of labor, but unlike Grim/Pinot-Noir take the racial aspect of Islamophobic ideology quite seriously.

Völkisch anticapitalism

Despite their disagreements, the authors of these two pieces — on anti-Islamophobia and the materialist approach to race — have far each other than with decolonial demagogues like Bouteldja. Norman Ajari of the PIR declared the “response” of Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul to the indigènes in Vacarme merely.proves.“the bankruptcy.[la faillite] of abstract materialism.” Borrowing categories from “the post-Marxist philosophical current around Moishe Postone,” Ajari contends, the trio forces Bouteldja’s thought into the “Procrustean bed of Wertkritik,” finding her guilty of structural antisemitism. Returning the favor, he convicts Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul of moderate Zionism, as apologists for Israel’s ongoing colonial project. Oddly, Ajari then recommends the various “penetrating analyses” of antisemitism carried out by such luminaries as Hannah Arendt (!), Jean-Paul Sartre (whom the PIR elsewhere calls to be shot, «fusillez Sartre!»), and Jean Améry (who famously argued that postwar anti-Zionism had become “the respectable antisemitism”) as an alternative/antidote to Wertkritik. Mistrust of Wertkritik, while to a certain extent understandable, is endemic in these circles. For decolonial theorists and their fellow travelers, the whole discourse takes on a sinister aspect. It seems mere conceptual cleverness, verbal jugglery designed to stake out a position of permanently besieged victimhood, or to distract from emergent contemporary prejudices like Islamophobia. “Structural antisemitism” does often function, in arguments about Israel, as a means of insulating the self-styled Jewish state from criticisms and well-founded objections.

Postone is not the only one to have theorized antisemitism in this fashion, however: that is, as a distorted form of anticapitalism. He draws heavily on the wartime writings of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, especially their chapter “Elements of Antisemitism” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in formulating his own thoughts on the matter;.Ajari.apparently.overlooks this influence. Werner Bonefeld, Robert Kurz, and Roswitha Scholz have since taken up this line of criticism. And while I agree the concept is sometimes irresponsibly invoked or too broadly applied, this hardly invalidates the original theory. Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian intellectual, has even“anti-Western.version.of.structural.antisemitism” [strukturális antiszemitizmus Nyugat-ellenes változata] has gained a foothold in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East of late. The worldview of the PIR, although based in France, almost constitutes a case study in this phenomenon. Sadri Khiari, one of its founding members, heaps scorn upon the “universalist internationalism” of the Left, which “standardizes everything.” Bouteldja balks at “gay universalism.” Ramón Grosfoguel, a major source of inspiration for the group, implores decolonial thinkers to abandon the “abstract universalism” that animates European philosophy “from Descartes to Marx” (!!!). “Just like the Occidental philosophers who preceded him,” writes Grosfoguel, “Marx participates in the epistemic racism in which there only exists a single epistemology that has access to universality: the Western tradition.” Khiari and Bouteldja together demand, in a jointly-written tract, that “white anti-racists” respect “the right of indigenous people to say no to the Right as well as to the Left, and to work alongside all anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles — including armed Palestinian resistance — even if some of these draw more upon their own cultural resources, for example Islam, than universalist references of the Left.”

In Tamás’ interpretation, such perfunctory attitudes all belong to a völkisch anticapitalism not dissimilar to reactionary ideologies that developed in Europe over the course of the twentieth century. Like its pro-Western precursor, anti-Western folk politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall disdains the “universalist,” “internationalist,” and “cosmopolitan” qualities of civilized modernity. Only a century ago, Postone points out, the German Right saw “the global domination of capital [as] that of the Jews and Britain. Now the Left sees it as the domination of Israel and the United States.” Expanding on this point, Tamás maintains that today the impersonal regime of global economic abstraction is identified with the hegemonic West — or, to be more precise, the unholy trinity of the United States, Israel, and the European Union. He sees the leftish tendency to affirm the “global South” against the West, or strategically appeal to cultural essentialism against the effort to extend civil rights to women and various minorities, or support jihadism against “the Zionist entity” as the practical political result of the postmodern theoretical turn. “Postmodernism was the fashionable expression of this rejection of universalism and abstraction,” Tamás explained recently during an interview. “You cannot interfere with communities’ habits because the abstract criticism of habits and customs is intrinsically racist or whatnot.” This is weirdly reminiscent of some lines Loren Goldner wrote back in October 2001: “At international conferences Muslim and Hindu fundamentalist women brush off condemnations of their retrogressionist movements with quotes from Foucault or Derrida; popular science programs in Third World countries are savaged as ‘imperialist’ with similar quotations…[W]ith Western imperialism in mind, these latter-day relativists thought out their views. So they don’t have too much to say when confronted by barbaric atavisms from ‘subaltern’ cultures, whose first victims are those trapped in this or that parochial group by the very anti-universalism for which the postmodernists led the charge.” Magazin Redaktion once again is mistrustful of “the postmodern battle-cry of ‘Islamophobia’ [der postmoderne Kampfbegriff der ‚Islamophobie’].”

Vincent Présumey, the French Trotskyist and longtime comrade of Pierre Broué within the Lambertiste tendency, seemingly hits upon an analysis close to Tamás’ “anti-Western structural antisemitism.” He does so independently, however, without any knowledge of the latter’s work. Présumey remarks in an article on «La PIR-idéologie, vertébrée par l’antisémitisme» that the Indigènes’ vision of history is strikingly similar to the one elaborated by “Domenico Losurdo, a nostalgic for Stalin… and an ardent admirer of Chinese enlightened despotism.” Like Losurdo, the PIR critiques liberalism as a form of racist universalism, an ideology founded on universalized exclusion of non-whites from the rights afforded to propertied white citizens. From 1492 onward, say the group’s leaders, all the lofty universal ideals proclaimed by the West were just its own particular qualities imposed by force. “It took the advent of capitalist modernity and its outrageous narcissism to universalize historical processes (i.e., secularism, the Enlightenment, Cartesianism) that were located in Western Europe,” sez Bouteldja. “This specificity became universal through self-declaration backed by gunpowder and bayonets. Cold Enlightenment rationality leads us to the fanaticism of market and capitalist reason.” Enlightenment is just code for white Reason [la Raison blanche]. Goldner has definitively shown that “race,” as we know it, indeed originated during the Anglo-French Enlightenment. But this does not at all mean what Bouteldja and the PIR think it means:

The Enlightenment as such was neither racist nor an ideology relevant only to “white European males.” Nevertheless, it presents the following conundrum… On one hand, the Enlightenment was in the main indisputably universalist and egalitarian. It thus produced powerful weapons for attacking any doctrine of racial supremacy. On the other hand, the Enlightenment just as indisputably gave birth to the very concept of race. Some of its illustrious representatives believed whites were superior to all others. This problem cannot be solved by lining up Enlightenment figures according to their views on slavery and white supremacy. Adam Smith, better known as the theoretician of the free market and the capitalist division of labor, attacked both, whereas Hobbes and Locke justified slavery. Meanwhile, eminences like Thomas Jefferson — who favored abolition (however tepidly) and defended the French Revolution even during its Jacobin phase — firmly believed that blacks were inferior to whites.

Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is, further, is an extremely limited approach to the question, easily susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, seen in a world context, was not that some of its most distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both… Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth century Mediterranean slave pool, and no participating society — Christian or Muslim, European or African, Turkish or Arab, and so on — questioned it. Well into the seventeenth century, Western attacks on New World slavery only attempted to curb its excesses. Radical Protestant sects in North America (for example the Mennonites, then the Quakers) were well ahead of secular Enlightenment figures in calling for outright abolition, between 1688 and 1740, and a political movement for abolition, again with religious groups more preponderant than secular Enlightenment figures, only emerged in the Anglo-American context in the final quarter of the eighteenth century (i.e., just as the Enlightenment was culminating in the American and French Revolutions).

In Présumey’s view, also influenced by Postone, the PIR fixates on two.dates:.1492,.Columbus’ to the New World; and 1948, the foundation of modern Israel. To these dates correspond a pair of villains: the white European devil, fresh off the boat from feudalism; and the Zionist Jew, newly “Europeanized and bleached [européanisés et blanchis], spreading the legend that antisemitism is still a reality.” Antisemitism appears somewhere “in the middle” for Bouteldja and the PIR, an historic aberration that is “in no way universal” and “limited in time and space.” (Historical phenomena are always limited in time and space. For, if something came into existence historically, it can also pass out of existence historically. Who could disagree?). Présumey explains that for Bouteldja all the world’s ills can be traced back to “French secularists [laïcards], US ‘neocons,’ the useful idiots of ‘global Zionism’ [sionisme mondial].” Citing a scathing review of Bouteldja’s book The Whites, the Jews, and Us [Les Blancs, les juifs, et nous] by Ivan Segré, one of three contributors to Reflections on Antisemitism (along with Eric Hazan and Alain Badiou), Présumey asserts that the real blind spot in the PIR’s vision of the world is capitalism understood as an impersonal mode of social domination. A sense of palpable dismay permeates Segré’s review — even injury [la blessure], as Présumey incisively comments — as he tries to reconstruct the logic behind the “break with modernity or Western civilization” proposed by Bouteldja and her co-thinkers. “Shoot Sartre, shoot Finkielkraut, shoot Postone,” Segré sighs with resignation, “all of them in the same bag, Marxist and anti-Marxist alike, indiscriminately.” Malik Tahar-Chaouch and Youssef Boussoumah of the PIR defend Bouteldja’s new Politics of Revolutionary Love by describing Segré as “an Israeli Camus” who doesn’t get it because he’s really a Zionist. 1492 was not just the year Columbus sailed to the West Indies, as Segré reminds us: it’s also the year the Sephardic Jews were driven out of Iberia, after enduring more than a century of slaughter.

Returning to the dispute between Ajari and Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul: Unsurprisingly, Ajari takes umbrage at the latter’s contention that “the history of colonialism proper is behind us.” In fact, he goes so far as to claim that things have only gotten worse since the great colonial powers relinquished administrative control over their former imperial holdings. Between privatization, mineral extraction, and foreign management of precious natural resources, multinational businesses and corporations are no longer protected by standing armies but by independent security firms and military contractors (mercenary rent-a-stormtroopers, more or less). North American, East Asian, and European countries have made out like bandits in South America, Africa, and the Middle East over the last fifty years, all while eliminating overhead costs of direct rule like bureaucracy and infrastructural investment. Whether or not things are actually worse in the present “neocolonialist” phase than in all previous phases of colonial history, I’ll leave for readers to decide. At any rate, on the basis of this assumption, Ajari thus jokes that Kateb, Amaouche, and Nicolas-Teboul pretend that “the expansion and intensification of colonialism really amounts to its demise.” He concludes that “the Third World, the global South is the Indigènes’ horizon. Most of the world today stands with it, as it points toward the future.” Grim and Pinot-Noir were not kidding when they called the PIR third-worldists. One is reminded of something Reed said to Doug Henwood about Michelle Alexander’s surprise bestseller, The New Jim Crow: “[D]isconnecting social practices analytically from the institutional arrangements in which they were embedded really cuts the historicity of the past and the present out of the picture.” Violence against blacks continues in the US, as anyone who’s been watching the news can see, but the institutional framework for this violence has changed. Likewise, antisemitism persists in a range of subtle ways, but it would be folly to claim a set of new Nuremberg Laws was about to enter the books.

6 thoughts on “Anatomy of a controversy

  1. I’ve come more and more to feel as though capitalism is much like a juggler taking on too many spinning plates at once. It is chaos, seemingly doomed to collapse, and yet as long as the plates spin it is preferable to their smashing against the ground.

  2. merci de votre intérêt pour ma personne et mes idées. Je vous ai répondu ici :

    pour l’essentiel, vous n’avez pas compris mon travail et largement déformé mes thèses sur le communisme décolonial. Il est donc sans intérêt d’en débattre sur la base de votre présentation et de vos critiques

    merci de votre compréhension


    Please excuse my bad English :

    Thank you for your interest in my person and my ideas. I answered you here:

    for the most part, you do not understand my work and largely distorted my theses on the decolonial communism. It is therefore irrelevant to discuss on the basis of your presentation and your criticism

    Thank you for your understanding


  3. Pingback: Communization with a human face | The Charnel-House

Leave a Reply