'Charlie Hebdo' solidarity protest in New York's Union Square. Photo by Pete Voelker 'Charlie Hebdo' solidarity protest in New York's Union Square. Photo by Pete Voelker

Liberal responses to the Paris killings are fuelling a cycle from which both the right and the terrorists will gain, argues John Rees

There can rarely have been a time when freedom of speech has been so widely proclaimed and so little understood. Of course everyone claims, and none more honestly than the left, to defend freedom of speech. But in fact, on closer examination, almost no one believes in unlimited free speech, certainly not those establishment voices most loudly proclaiming it right now.

The government do not believe, for instance, in free speech for ‘hate preachers’. Indeed they do not even believe that the due process of law should be applied to them. The government believes in deportation and trials with no jury. Previous governments interned Irish Republicans without trial and banned Gerry Adams from speaking on the BBC. Nor is the French government in favour of a woman’s right to express herself by wearing a burka, illegal in France. Nor does it support the right to protest in favour of Palestine, banned for a period last summer in France. Or the right of Muslims to pray in the street, now illegal in France. The Tory government here does not even believe that trade unions should be allowed the unfettered right to strike.

But neither does the left believe in the unlimited right to free speech. Many on the left do not believe that fascists have the right to free speech, for instance. This paradox points to the fact that the defence of freedom of speech has always to be accompanied by these questions: whose freedom of speech? To say what? In what context? And for what purpose?

This thought is embodied in the old rhetoricians device: when is it permissible to shout ‘Fire!’? To do so in the middle of Salisbury plain may be eccentric, but it is harmless. To do so in a house where there is a fire may save lives. To do so in a crowded cinema when there is no fire may cause  loss of life. The first two examples are defensible, the third should be impermissible.

A little historical context

Historical context is just as important. Freedom of speech (and printing and organisation, without which freedom of speech is neutered) effectively entered history in the English and French revolutions in, respectively, the17th and 18th centuries. Importantly, in the English Revolution, it was established to an important degree to achieve religious toleration (though not for Catholic supporters of Royalism). Freedom of speech were the watchwords of the oppressed and excluded, of the revolutionaries, against the aristocratic elite. It was established by the use of revolutionary force and the subsequent suppression of counter-revolution – not a fact being recalled by today’s advocates of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Those who claim that the revolution established unlimited freedom of speech and militant secularism simply don’t know their history. Articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen read:  ‘No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law’ and that the ‘free communication of ideas and opinions to be one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law’. So in fact the Declaration defended religious toleration and limited the abuse of freedom of speech by law.

Since their revolutionary point of origin in 1789 the new rulers of the modern world have used the slogan of freedom of speech but, in so far as they were able, denied it to the new class of the excluded, the working class, and the oppressed and to new generations of radicals.

That’s why there is no straight line of descent from the French Revolution to the French state today. Today’s French state is as much the product of the counter-revolution as of the revolution, of the crushing of the Paris Commune, of the filthy and continuing history of French colonialism, of the Dreyfus affair, of Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, of the barely democratic state of De Gaulle, and of modern persecution of Muslims. It is against all this that the French left has had to fight the ‘inheritors of the French revolution’ to defend the freedoms proclaimed in 1789.

So who in our world really stands in need of freedom of speech and who is abusing the slogan of freedom of speech in order to defend their own power and wealth? Who has power and who does not?

Certainly Europe’s Muslim communities are among the least powerful. They are, of course, some Muslims who are both white and wealthy. Some even have token positions in government. But the vast majority are poor, frequently the poorest, brown skinned and discriminated against.

The stock neo-racist argument is that Muslims cannot be victims of racism because Islam is a religion not an ethnic category. And many liberals go along with this, claiming they are critical of religious views not of a person’s race. But in fact religion acts as a proxy for race in this case since most Muslims in Europe are non-white. Of course, in other countries where the Muslims are in power and have the levers of the state in their hands it is a different matter. Coptic Christians are the oppressed minority in Egypt, Kurds in Turkey, and so on. In Sunni Saudi Arabia Shias are oppressed, just as, first Protestants then Catholics, were once discriminated against in England.

And on top of the domestic discrimination and poverty Muslims in Europe have seen their relatives and friends, their co-religionists and fellow nationals murdered in industrial quantities by Western military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and others places. And those are just the countries most affected by the war on terror, never mind the longer and even bloodier history of Western colonialism. And while the killing goes on, the religion of these very same people is then blamed as the cause of conflicts in which they are the most numerous victims.

And how could anyone in these communities have the power to answer Rupert Murdoch’s recent statement that all Muslims are to blame for the ‘cancer’ of terrorism? What global news network can they set in motion to reply? The truth is that ‘freedom of speech’ is not a level playing field, it is much more available to the state and the rich than to the poor and the oppressed.

Liberals never seem to get this. They never seem to see that all abstract equal rights are undermined by economic and social inequality. As Anatole France put it: ‘In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread’.

And so this is how we should evaluate claims to be serving freedom of speech: are those claiming this right acting to magnify the voice of the voiceless…or to serve those who wish to keep them silent? Charlie Hebdo’s racist caricatures of Muslims, no matter what they thought they were doing, served those who wish to keep the oppressed marginalised.

In response to the killings at Charlie Hebdo some on the left have gone on to cross the line between absolute condemnation of the killings to support the content of the magazine, arguing that they are part of the secularist traditions in France.

But this secularist Laicite view, although it may have its roots in the bourgeois revolutions’ opposition to religion, has a completely other meaning in modern France. It is part of the ideology that seeks to suppress religious belief among Muslims and other immigrants. It serves to bind the population ideologically to the French state.

But, reply some on the left, especially would-be Marxists, we are atheists and, like the liberal secularists, enemies of religion. Nothing could be a cruder caricature of Marxism. It is true that a Marxist, like Laplace when asked by Napoleon why he did not have a place for God in his system, can reply ‘I have no need for that hypothesis.’ But that is only the start of the problem because Marxists are materialists before we are atheists. We understand that religion will not be abolished by rationalist argument or secularist rants against religion, a la Richard Dawkins.

Marx and religion

For Marx religious belief was a reaction to oppression and alienation:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’.

For this reason, as James Meadway has argued, there will be no moment of secularist conversion before the revolution after which the masses go marching forward to victory. It was for precisely this illusion that Marx attacked the Young Hegelians. The revolution, and every struggle before it, will be made by a workers from many different faiths and none.

But, if this is true, then we must ask another even more concrete question, one that never seems to occur to the abstract ‘Marxist’ secularists: which religious groups, under which circumstances, can be drawn into progressive politics and which religious groups stand for reactionary politics?

A moment’s thought reveals that a more sophisticated analysis is needed than mere secularism in order to answer this question. At different times in different conditions religions can play different roles politically. Puritanism was a revolutionary force in the English revolution of the 17th century, but not today. Even the same religion can play different roles in different conditions. Catholic Liberation theology has recently played a progressive role in Latin America, but the Catholic church is a reactionary force in Italy. In Ireland that Catholic Church in general has been a reactionary force, but Catholicism has long been associated with Irish Republicanism.

This kind of differentiation needs to be applied to Muslims. The Saudi regime is entirely reactionary, and one of the key resources for both the ideology and organisation of the Islamic State. It is also a long standing ally of the Western governments. The Islamic State is a reactionary counter-revolutionary force which has risen to prominence because of the failure of both the war on terror and the Arab revolutions.

But the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe have nothing to do with this ideology. For most Muslims in the West their religion generally stresses peace and social justice. They are overwhelmingly poor and working class. Even many Muslim small business people are poor, running concerns that depend on the custom of the working class Muslims in the areas where they operate. And they have been open to involvement in progressive movements, especially the anti-war movement. Of course, where the left turns its back on them in the name of rejecting religion, other forces, from the political establishment through to the extreme Islamicists, will gain a hearing.

The Kouachi brothers who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo are a classic example of this. They were orphans, poor, and from an Algerian background (with all that means in terms of racism in France, explained brilliantly by Robert Fisk). They worked in low paid jobs and, one of them, dreamt of becoming a rapper. They were involved in crime and did prison time. Eventually they found, as many do, meaning in religion. The brutalities of Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war turned them into terrorists, the tools of a reactionary form of Islam.

The right (and the secularist Liberals) are keen to blame Islam for this. They mistake the form of expression with the cause. Most Muslims aren’t terrorists and do not support terrorists. But some do. Why?

Its rather like this: imagine a crowded, locked room. Imagine that someone outside the room is constantly increasing the temperature in the room. Some trapped in the room will faint before others. Some will panic. Some will remain calm. In our society the temperature rises because of racism, poverty and imperial war. Some lash out in reactionary ways, others do not. But the first fault lies with those ramping up the temperature. The second fault lies with those who condemn all those in the room rather than formulate a strategy to break out of the room.

Slavoj Zizek has, in part, captured this mutually re-enforcing dynamic between Islamic terrorism and liberalism:

‘Fundamentalism is a reaction – a false, mystifying, reaction, of course – against a real flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism…To think in response to the Paris killings means to drop the smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal and to accept that the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other’.

This is true…but only at the level of ideology. The material forces that embody these two ideologies are by no means equal. To the extent that Islamic extremism is the ideology of tiny numbers of Muslims in Europe it has nothing of the force of the entire media, educational and state apparatuses that sustain liberalism and the right. Even if we include entire states and non state actors in the Middle East, the Gulf states and ISIS, they are economically and militarily much weaker elements in the world system compared to the US state machine and its allies.

And Zizek’s solution is also only abstractly correct:

‘Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself – the only thing that can save its core values is a renewed Left. In order for this key legacy to survive, liberalism needs the brotherly help of the radical Left. THIS is the only way to defeat fundamentalism, to sweep the ground under its feet’…’What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s – those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.’

But if the left is to win this battle one thing that it has to do is construct an alternative form of radical politics with those in the Muslim community who reject racism, poverty and war. There is no sense that Zizek understands this. The only Muslims to which he refers are the extremists. Indeed what he has to say on this subject is imbued with just the liberal attitudes he denounces. He argues that our thinking should have ‘nothing whatsoever to do with the cheap relativisation of the crime (the mantra of “who are we in the West, perpetrators of terrible massacres in the Third World, to condemn such acts”). It has even less to do with the pathological fear of many Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of Islamophobia. For these false Leftists, any critique of Islam is denounced as an expression of Western Islamophobia.’

But denouncing those who point to the culpability of imperialism and the dangers of Islamophobia is actually the right liberal position (of Ian McEwan and David Aaronovitch) against left liberals, not a Marxist critique of both. Stuck with his abstractions Zizek fails to see that concretely, in the lives whose families and friends die there is indeed no equivalence between the numbers killed by terrorism and those who die from imperialist war. Neither is there any equivalence between the state and media sponsored wave of Islamophobia and opposition to Islamophobia.

There is too much reliance on idealist opposition of conceptual forms and too little Marxist materialist dialectic, let alone Marxist political activism, in Zizek’s analysis. This is no surprise. Zizek is after all merely a philosopher and not a political activist, whereas it is definitional of being a Marxist that one is both. In short Zizek merely counterposes ideally the revival of the left to the mutually re-enforcing failures of liberalism and terrorism. But he has no idea what practical alliances and forms of political activity are necessary in order to do this.

In fact, as we stand today, these are not difficult to see. The left must seek alliances with all those, including liberals and Muslims with whom we have differences of analysis, against racism, war and poverty. These must be active, practical movements, not talking shops. We must say clearly that the major forces that are raising the social temperature are the state, the corporations and the political elite. The Islamic extremists (and the far right) are a reactionary product of this crisis, a product which worsens the crisis, most of all for Muslims. We stand against both. But one of these enemies is much more powerful, and therefore more culpable, than the other. That enemy is the global capitalist system and its state apparatuses.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.