by Jonathan Todd
It is over 170 years since Karl Marx published On the Jewish Question, which rebutted the argument of fellow Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer that Jews could only achieve political emancipation by relinquishing their particular religious consciousness. While individuals can be spiritually and politically free in the secular state, Marx prefigured his later critiques of capitalism by arguing that economic inequality would constrain freedom in such a state.
Jews are again questioning their place in European society, as are UK Muslim leaders, outraged after Eric Pickles asked followers of Islam to “prove their identity”. Whether or not that makes a Charlie of Pickles is debatable. But the Pope seems not to be. “One cannot provoke,” he claimed last week, “one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”
The ancient questions are back. About the relationship between faith and citizenship that the young Marx addressed in On the Jewish Question. But a concept – alienation – that Marx later developed also seems relevant. I’m not a Marxist but I’ve found myself thinking about alienation after the killings at Charlie Hebdo and in the kosher supermarket. Nor am I a massive fan of Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP, but since the atrocity, I’ve also been impressed by his reaction.
In my fusion of Hannan and Marx, I like to feel that I’ve done better than Jamie Bartlett’s characterisation of much of the Charlie Hebdo reaction, as, conveniently, meaning precisely whatever we were thinking already. But in a sense, I am only revisiting the point I made on Uncut after the London riots of 2011: Can we really only look deep enough into our hearts as to bleat about the same old hobby horses?
Looking into my heart, I find a positive reception for Hannan’s point that “we should no more accept the self-justification (of the Islamist killers) at face value than we did the narcissistic ramblings of Seung-Hui Cho or Anders Breivik”. These narcissists convinced themselves that they are at the vanguard of some epochal change. But that, of course, doesn’t make it so. And, as Hannan argues, “the more we use the language of existential struggle and civilizational war, the more thrilling we make jihadism seem”.
“For a certain kind of culturally-alienated European Muslim,” Sameer Rahim observes in January’s Prospect, “the absolute certainty of the jihadi worldview offers a haven”. The alienated seek meaning. Jihadism provides this. The seductive sense that what they are engaged in is a matter of supreme importance is deepened by the language Hannan highlights.
Instead, Hannan advises, “let’s mock their underpants bombs and shoe bombs and pitiable street slang and attempts to set fire to glass and steel airports by driving into them”. Four Lions should be compulsory viewing. “And when we’ve finished laughing,” Hannan concludes, “let’s remind them that we offer something better”. It often feels that the west is going through an unprecedented crisis of confidence. I’d like to hope, though, that our offer of something better remains self-evident. Whether it would be so to culturally-alienated European Muslims is, however, less clear.
Marx’s underestimation of the adaptability of capitalism is perhaps the central reason why his prophecies did not come to pass. It is not simply – as Eduard Bernstein the Marxist revisionist famously first observed – that capitalism, when aligned with the right policies, is an engine for improving working class conditions, avoiding the immiseration and class conflict that Marx anticipated. It is its immense capacity to innovate, meeting and creating new wants and needs, which undermined Marx’s expectations, giving capitalism greater durability than he allowed.
But this innovation now includes easy access to extremist propaganda and – via cheap air travel and the internet – extremists themselves. When combined with lawless zones in the Islamic world and alienation in the west, these innovations generate conflict and instability. From sources that would have blindsided Marx and which suggest considerable challenge to Hannan’s project of showing them something better.
Amid hackneyed phrases like one nation (a national project in which we all have a part) and inclusive capitalism (an economy that works for all) we must unearth the substance of something better. In other words, we must prove Marx right that being a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian is no bar to democratic citizenship but wrong that such citizenship will necessarily be plagued by alienation outside of communism, even when the sources of alienation are more diffuse than Marx comprehended.
As this prescription is rehash of classic social democracy, I must plead guilty to succumbing to the Bartlett fallacy. In the end, maybe all we can be is ourselves. That the fools and fanatics of Islamic extremism are so certain of themselves would be no surprise to Bertrand Russell. But equally, that famous Russell quote also saw wiser people as being full of doubts. Which, while not making ourselves prisoners of sacred cows, social democrats must have the confidence to overcome if we are to offer something better.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut