Yesterday I learned that George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has recently come under fire for a stupid joke he sent out on Twitter a couple of days ago. On Christmas Eve, he tweeted: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” Immediately Ciccariello-Maher began receiving angry replies and death threats. Soon the right-wing news digest Breitbart picked up the story, which then led to further outcry around the web. Drexel responded the next day by issuing a statement that condemned the “inflammatory tweet,” calling it “utterly reprehensible” while assuring readers that the school “takes this matter very seriously.”
Needless to say, this is an outrageous effort by a major conservative outlet to muzzle a minor left-wing academic. By whipping up public indignation, this gang of online reactionaries hopes to exert enough institutional pressure to threaten Ciccariello-Maher’s livelihood. This comes only a few weeks after the unveiling of Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist, a neo-McCarthyite initiative that purports to monitor “professors who advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” by compiling a dossier of their “subversive” activities. Were Drexel to punish or otherwise discipline Ciccariello-Maher, it would set an alarming precedent. Extramural political speech ought to be protected.
Cynthia Walker has drawn up a petition in support of the embattled professor, which I encourage everyone to sign. I’ve added my own signature to it, along with seven thousand or so who have done likewise, despite some lingering doubts about the efficacy of such measures. (Maybe other people had more exciting civics classes than I did, but I never much saw the point of writing concerned letters or fervent entreaties. Just takes a second, though, so it’s not really a hassle). Regardless of what one may think of him, it’s not as if he deserves to lose his job over this petty shit.
Selective solidarity after Charlie Hebdo
Unfortunately, the Left of late has been rather remiss in defending principles like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. Principles it once championed, moreover, even when these fell under the heading of “bourgeois right.” Joshua Clover had a piece in The Nation last year entitled (Trotsky was right, it seems, when in 1940 he deplored Speechbros, Concern Trolls, and the Free-Speech Fraud.”“The Reptile Breed of The Nation.”) Back in 2014, Freddie DeBoer wondered aloud: “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Corey Robin answered DeBoer with a decisive “no” in an article for Jacobin.
One flashpoint for issues of free speech in recent years has been the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Verso even released a list of recommended readings from its catalogue back in January 2015 on the theme of “free speech and Islamophobia.” Leigh Philips, replying to Richard Seymour’s same-day denunciation of the murdered cartoonists as a bunch of elitist Islamophobes, highlighted the “worrying trend on the Left to dismiss freedom of expression as part of the colonialist project, to repudiate free speech as a meaningless elite piety.” Against this riposte, Seymour incredulously asked: “This isn’t really about free speech, is it?” He claimed that Philips was
all puffed up and macho when it comes to pissing on Muslims with racist invective in the name of “free speech,” but strangely pious, humorless, and censorious when some people decline to go along with the spectacle of “Je Suis Charlie.” For free speech, but mainly up in arms about the way it affects white people and is threatened by brown people.
Following the murders in Paris, Ciccariello-Maher was another outspoken critic of Charlie Hebdo. “Yeah, but for real though… Fuck Charlie Hebdo,” he tweeted just hours after they were gunned down. Nevertheless, I do not hesitate to extend to him the solidarity he readily withheld from others. Even if that means I must uphold his right to go on pseudo-woke diatribes about the supposed “dangers” of mandatory vaccines. Or even though his free speech includes farfetched conspiracy theories about how the San Bernardino shootings were a “false flag” orchestrated by three white mean wearing military fatigues, intending to foment hatred of Muslims.
Still, Ciccariello-Maher’s subsequent clarification of his satirical tweet is rather good, actually, so I’ll repost an excerpt: “For those who haven’t bothered to do their research, ‘white genocide’ is an imaginary concept invented by white supremacists to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies (and most recently, against a tweet by State Farm Insurance). ‘White genocide’ is a figment of the racist imagination that should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.” Ciccariello-Maher is right about the origins of the concept in the paranoid delusions of racists.
Bolivarianism, posturing, and “post-gangsta hip-hop”
However, it probably didn’t help that he had previously explained that what he meant by “white genocide” was that “when whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” And here I was thinking that CLR James’ whole argument toward the end of The Black Jacobins was that the final massacre of remaining French whites in Haiti was a catastrophe for its entire population, rendering the country wholly dependent on British expertise. Not that Ciccariello-Maher ever read it, of course, just like he’s never read the Manifesto. James wrote that
[t]he massacre of the whites was a tragedy; not for the whites. For the old slave owners, those who burnt a little powder in the arse of a negro, who buried him alive for insects to eat, who were well treated by Toussaint, and who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruelties again; for them there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink. The tragedy was for the blacks and the mulattoes. It was not policy but revenge, and revenge has no place in politics. The whites were no longer to be feared, and such purposeless massacres degrade and brutalize a population, especially one which was just beginning as a nation and had had so bitter a past. The people did not want it — all they wanted was freedom. and independence seemed to promise that. Christophe and other generals strongly disapproved. Had the British and the Americans thrown their weight on the side of humanity, Dessalines might have been curbed. As it was, Haiti suffered terribly from the resulting isolation. Whites were banished from Haiti for generations, and the unfortunate country, ruined economically, its population lacking in culture, had its inevitable difficulties doubled by this massacre. That the new nation survived at all is forever to its credit, for if the Haitians thought that imperialism was finished with them, they were sorely mistaken.
Edgy posturing of this sort is nothing new for Ciccariello-Maher. But it’s just that: posturing. Watching white people accuse other white people of being white on social media is one of my favorite pastimes on the Left, and he’s among the worst offenders. This is a dude who somehow manages to keep a straight face while writing articles with titles like “Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes” and “Critique of Du Boisian Reason: Kanye West and the Fruitfulness of Double-Consciousness” (Kanye was last seen chilling with Trump, so apparently that “trajectory of radicalization” lauded in this ridiculous essay didn’t pan out).
George Ciccariello-Maher is that insufferable white guy who feels perfectly comfortable lecturing black Marxists such as Adolph Reed or Barbara Fields about white supremacy. One almost gets the sense from following his online persona over the years that he would unironically react to negative reviews of his new book, Decolonizing Dialectics, with Ali G’s bewildered refrain — “is it ’cause I is black?”
And so I hope readers will forgive me for not gushing over his “excellent work on Venezuela and political theory,” as Robin put it in a blog post. Ciccariello-Maher is a shameless shill for the Bolivarian regime in Venezuela. He supported Chavez’s repression of local anarchists a few years back and rationalized Maduro’s indiscriminate deportation of Colombian immigrants last summer. No one who supports petrol populism should be taken seriously by left communists, much less communisateurs, yet many of them do (perhaps on account of their shared love of riot porn). To be honest, I really hope he was on the take from the government in Caracas. Otherwise, why would he sell his word so cheap?
Marxism and freedom of speech
Despite all this, and leaving out any past beef, I resolutely oppose punitive action being taken toward Ciccariello-Maher by Drexel University. Or at least, to the extent any individual can. Robin, to his great credit, is one of the more consistent defenders of political liberties out there on the Left. Marxists cannot afford to be indifferent to questions of free speech. Although FD of Internationalist Perspective correctly notes that “Democracy Hides the Dictatorship of Capital,” he hastens to add that “[t]he struggle for freedom — the struggle for freedom of speech, the struggle to be able to think freely, the struggle for recognition — was always a demand of workers.”
Louis-Georges Schwartz, whose Deleuzeans of grandeur I’ve written about before, insists that “seeing [the George Ciccariello-Maher controversy] through the optics of free speech is just bourgeois ideology.” Yet Marx himself strongly advocated for basic civil rights in a famous series of articles “On the Freedom of the Press” (1842), polemicizing against Prussian censorship. He mercilessly mocked the reasoning of representatives from the urban estates: “Freedom of the press is a fine thing. But there are also bad persons, who misuse speech to tell lies and the brain to plot. Speech and thought would be fine things if only there were no bad persons to misuse them!”
It would be a mistake to dismiss this as an artifact of his youthful liberalism. Marx later decried the French government’s “shameless interference with the popular rights that had been gained in the March  revolution — right of assembly, freedom of speech, and of the press,” etc., etc. “With the defeat of the revolution of 1848-1849,” he lamented, “the party of the proletariat on the Continent lost use of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to associate, i.e. the legal instruments of party organization, which it had enjoyed for once during that short interval.” Secrecy would be adopted for the meantime, but clearly legality would have been preferable.
Karl Kautsky, prior to his renegacy in August 1914, maintained that freedom of speech and association “are of prime importance to the working class, they are vital conditions of existence without which the class cannot develop. These freedoms are light and air for the proletariat, and whoever restricts them, rejects them, or tries to divert the workers from the struggle to win them is among the worst enemies of the proletariat, whatever great love for the proletariat he may feel or feign.” Eddie Ford has written brilliantly in a tract on “Marx and Free Speech” about the urgent necessity of this fight.
Rosa Luxemburg, Kautsky’s staunchest critic within the SPD, agreed with him on this point: “Without general elections — without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the free battle of opinions — life in every public institution becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.” Vladimir Lenin, who at times clashed with Luxemburg and Kautsky over such issues as freedom of speech, echoed these same sentiments in his 1912 letter “Concerning the Workers’ Deputies to the Duma and Their Declaration”:
[We need] political liberty as badly as man needs air to breathe. Russia cannot live and develop unless there is freedom of the press, assembly, association, and strikes, and, more than to any other class, these liberties are indispensable to the proletariat, which the lack of rights typical of Russian reality binds hand and foot in the fight it must carry on for higher wages, shorter working hours and better living conditions. The oppression of capital, the high cost of living, unemployment in the towns and the impoverishment of the countryside make it all the more necessary for the workers to associate in unions and fight for their right to live, while lack of political liberty keeps the worker in the position of a slave or serf. The workers will stop at no sacrifice in their struggle for freedom, well knowing that only a radical change in all the political conditions of Russian life, only the fullest provision of the foundations and pillars of political liberty, can guarantee the freedom of their struggle against capital.
These days Lenin is usually portrayed as a tireless enemy of free speech, and especially freedom of the press. But this portrayal is usually based on emergency measures taken to shut down reactionary publishers spreading libelous material and misinformation amidst a brutal civil war. Robespierre and Dzerzhinsky were both strong critics of capital punishment, who wanted to see the death penalty abolished. Nevertheless, neither man would hesitate to use terror in order to safeguard the advances of the revolution, as a matter of expedience to ensure the survival of their respective governments. Mikhail Lifshitz wrote well on this issue in “Marx, Lenin, Hegel, and Goethe on Genius and Freedom of the Press.”