After Charlie Hebdo, we need confident social democrats

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

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7 Responses to “After Charlie Hebdo, we need confident social democrats”

  1. John P Reid says:

    The amount of islamic sympathisers , using other stories to denounce Charlie Hedbo, is unreal like Lee Jasper, the National front compared Christiane Taubara to a monkey and mocking the French NF Charlie Drew a pcture of her as a monkey, clearly knocking them,not being racist,but others have been ignoring this too criticise Charlie Hedbo, and keep repeating the slur that Islam is a race, drawing in other past stories about racism in South Africa and censorship there is the same as censoring those who criticise Jesuis Charlie, saying tat campaign is racist, I’ve never heard so much rubbish, they’re even calling Charlie white middle class liberals

  2. John.P Reid says:

    Re:Dan Hannan as a labour supporter I agree with him

  3. Dave Roberts. says:

    An interesting if confused piece, at least initially. I assumed that you were going to pick out some words of wisdom the sage of Trier to prove something or other but no. It’s worth remembering that Marx called Jews ” The smeariest of races”.

    What Hannan says is good and sums up one of the ways of dealing with both Islamist terrorists and the loony left and Guardianistas who attempt to justify them along the lines of ” we had it coming for imperialism, colonialism, slavery” and whatever else they can drag in.

    What is emerging is a growing intransigence on the part of the west to both the terrorists and their apologists. If the west is so bad why are huge chunks of the population of the world trying to get in to Europe and the USA?

    I feel that we are at the end of the ethnic minority identity politics that began in the seventies and continued until the demise of the Commission for Racial Equality when the powers that be decided that, in part at least, the rise of the BNP could be attributed to the demands of self appointed and very highly paid ethnic minority leaders.

    This process was hastened by the ending of Ken Livingstone’s rule in London which cut off funds for a number, almost all in fact, of the professional race complainers. The Stop the War coalition and related businesses are a shadow of their former selves and only a few Guardian commentators like Seamus Milne are still flogging the same old product of western culpability for just about everything with fewer and fewer customers.

    It is wrong I think to see all of this in terms of left and right and increasingly those labels are meaningless. What we can see from reality and experience is that Marxism failed and is now being seen as a massive human tragedy that murdered millions and blighted the lives of millions more.

    I am not sure what point or points that John P Reid is trying to make but I will pick up on one reference, that of the latest diatribe by Lee Jasper on

    On the one hand the man is clearly unhinged yet the garbage he is spouting was, until very recently, the stock in trade of sections of the left and was taught by the kind of sociology lecturer at a former polytechnic come uni who was a member of the SWP. Not any more.

    The west will win because we offer a better solution and because we are capable of change and most people throughout the world realise that.

  4. Dave Roberts. says:

    Actually, John P Reid, I always thought Dan Hannan was a Tory MEP but maybe I’ve got something wrong there!

  5. Tafia says:

    Dave Roberts, I think you are misunderstanding what John Reid is saying. He is saying that he (John Reid) whi is a Labour supporter, agrees with him (Dan Hannan)

  6. Dave Roberts. says:

    Tafia. The problem with John Reid is the way he formulates things which sometimes makes it difficult to understand what he means.

  7. Dave Roberts. says:

    If people haven’t worked it out the Operation Black Vote site is Self pitying rubbish but worth a look as John Reid referred to it. Does anyone know where the Sharpton meeting is taking place?

    It’ll be interesting to see who turns up to hear a man who started an anti semitic race riot in New York in the week we remember the Holocaust.

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