How has the left reacted to the Paris slaughter? Peter Manson has been taking a look
As far as I know, every single leftwing organisation has condemned the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings, but, beyond that, the statements and declarations have varied enormously. I will start by examining the attitude of the left in France, before moving on to the main groups in Britain.
Where better to begin than with the ‘official communist’ Parti Communiste Français? - until very recently an organisation that enjoyed truly mass support. But its various statements demonstrate once again that it has now constituted itself as the left wing of the French establishment, although firmly in the anti-clerical camp within that ruling order. Its first statement was headlined: “We are Charlie. Defend the values of the republic.”1
On the eve of the officially organised demonstration on January 11, PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent called for the “greatest unity” and appealed to all French people: “Let’s march with dignity and clarity, in honour of all the victims.” The PCF expressed no reservations about the participation of French and international bourgeois leaders, concentrating on the “unity” of the masses who followed them. Laurent wrote: “All throughout the weekend already, the reaction of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens of all convictions and all confessions has been one of extreme dignity.”2
The PCF website also gave some space to Fabienne Haloui, the party’s anti-racism and equal rights spokesperson, who insisted that France’s cross-class unity must also incorporate minorities. Her unbelievably bland statement ended by painting a picture of “a politics that is human first of all, a politics that has a soul - one of red poppies and cherry trees, one of dreams and laughter, one of creativity, hope and happiness”.3 Let’s all drink to that!
Slightly less uncritical of the ‘national unity’ agenda was Gauche Révolutionnaire, the French section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International. Although the Socialist Party in England and Wales quoted the more militant-sounding phrases of the CWI’s French affiliate (see below), GR was enthusiastic in its support for the January 11 demonstrations, describing them as a “mobilisation without precedent”. The marches were “often calm and silent, but always fraternal,” it said. GR went on to claim: “What dominated the weekend’s big demonstrations was the refusal to fall into the trap set by the terrorists and racists” - in other words, the people were united, despite the attempts of both the jihadists and the far right to divide them.
Admittedly, “When we hear talk about ‘national unity’, there is always a danger,” continued the statement. After all, the ruling class makes use of such slogans to “reduce opposition to their policies”, while journalists and politicians want us to behave as though “the country is going to war”. But, thankfully, that was “the complete opposite of the sentiment dominating the marches”. It was a progressive form of ‘national unity’ apparently.
GR did, however, refer to those on the French left who wanted nothing to do with this sham: “Some preferred, in view of the participation of world leaders, to boycott the Paris demonstration ... This is understandable, but, for our part, we did not intend to abandon the streets to the manoeuvres of [prime minister Manuel] Valls and we preferred to be with the millions who were demonstrating their opposition to hatred and terrorism.”
The group concluded: “After the dramatic events of January 7 and 9, and this weekend’s mass mobilisation, with its majoritarian and fraternal character, we must not let things slide.” But at least the comrades warned that, in order to fight racism, “you can’t count on Hollande, Valls and Sarkozy!”4
One of the groups that did - correctly - stay away on January 11 was the Nouvel Parti Anticapitaliste, whose main statement was entitled: “After the vile attack on Charlie Hebdo, national unity is a trap.”5 The NPA noted that the mainstream parties “want to conceal their own responsibility for social and political degradation ... They are cultivating a racist, xenophobic climate ... In this way they seek to divide the popular classes, to make them submit to their politics, their social order - which generates the barbarism they claim to be fighting.”
Therefore, instead of trooping along behind the ‘world leaders’, the NPA put forward an alternative way of defending democratic rights: “... in our places of work and study, in our localities, we can discuss, gather together, demonstrate to build the necessary solidarity to let democracy and freedom live - in complete independence from reactionary forces and the government.”
A similar theme features in the statement of Lutte Ouvrière: “Don’t let our class enemies set workers one against the other.” LO also labels the call for national unity “a trap for the workers”. While it spares nothing in its condemnation of the Charlie killers - “These are not only enemies of freedom of expression: they are enemies of freedom tout court and, by the same token, class enemies” - it rejects the “sacred union” out of hand: “Just as the American government exploited the emotion of September 11 2001 to make war on Afghanistan and then Iraq, Hollande hopes to profit from such emotion to justify intervention in Mali, in the Central African Republic and in Iraq. In the name of the war on terror they want to legitimise in advance future military adventures.”
It concludes: “On Sunday, millions of people demonstrated for freedom and tolerance. But what do we hear from Hollande, from Valls, from Sarkozy? That we need more security measures, that we need to toughen the rules against immigration.”6
The attitude of elements within the British left is interesting not only for what they say, but sometimes for differences of emphasis, compared to their French co-thinkers. Take the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Britain. While the Star’s January 12 headline read “France united”, the front-page article below continued: “However, their march for decency was hijacked by a rogue’s gallery of ‘world leaders’ - perpetrators of imperialist wars, colonial occupiers, feudal despots and serial jailers of inconvenient journalists.” This was, as I have pointed out, a fact that the PCF downplayed considerably.
However, the January 9 editorial was totally in line with the PCF’s ‘national unity’ position, when it stated: “We fully support National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet in her call for supporters of civil liberties to ‘stand together with governments to condemn this act and defend the right of all journalists to do their job without fear of threats, intimidation and murder’.” Yes, the Star was actually urging us to “stand together with governments” - including that of David Cameron, presumably - to defend free speech. Just as they do in places like Saudi Arabia.
The editorial did warn against fresh imperialist interventions. While “Isis barbarians” had to be opposed, “western countries, whose sole interest is control over oil resources, are the last powers to take a leading role in this. It must be the responsibility of local people, with any external support coming under the aegis of the United Nations.” Previous imperialist interventions “under the aegis of the United Nations” have been purely humanitarian, of course.
It goes without saying that the Socialist Workers Party was not so naive: “We should not be fooled into backing a war against Muslims masquerading as a fight for free speech,” read its statement. However, while it noted that “Almost everyone will recognise that the attacks are wrong and completely unacceptable”, it could not help implying that, in a way, Charlie Hebdo had it coming, for it “has become a specialist in presenting provocative and racist attacks on Islam”. The comrades immediately added: “That does not justify the killings”, but they insisted that this fact was “essential background”.7
As Paul Demarty points out (see p5), Charlie Hebdo has always been anti-racist. Its targets have prominently included religious leaders and religious bigots, including those of Islam, but it is simply inane to dub the result racism. However, if the SWP statement was bad enough, that of Workers Power was appalling. While it “condemned without equivocation” the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it claimed that “by publishing racist caricatures of Muslims or Africans, the magazine reinforced, even legitimised, the wave of Islamophobia developing not only in France, but across Europe.”
What are these “racist caricatures”? WP is, I presume, referring to cartoons where the object of ridicule happens to be black - similar accusations of racism are sometimes made in South Africa by black nationalists within the African National Congress when ANC leaders are caricatured in newspaper cartoons. Only white leaders can be caricatured, it seems (a notion that is in itself racist, of course). And for Workers Power, as with the SWP, anti-Islamic satire inevitably merges seamlessly into racism.
But at least WP attempts to set Charlie Hebdo’s anti-clericalism in context:
In France, secularism and satirising religious ideas and authorities have a long tradition rooted in the great revolutionary movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, the target was the still tremendously powerful Catholic church, which backed the counterrevolutionary forces opposed to the republic. Defence of that tradition has become a central plank of the ideology of the French bourgeoisie, a fundamental part of its claim to represent modernity and civilisation. However, to equate attacks on the religion of the old ruling class with attacks on the religion of oppressed minorities is to side with the oppressors.8
So what is WP saying? It is only legitimate to attack those religions that are upheld by the ruling class in a given state? So in France workers should only criticise Catholicism and never Islam, while in Iran or Saudi Arabia the opposite applies? It is true that the ruling class is our prime target, but that does not delegitimise criticism of religions not associated with a particular establishment.
WP claims: “We defend the freedom to criticise religion as vigorously as we denounce any such criticism which takes on racist overtones.” But it adds: “In fact, right across Europe, racists are sidestepping anti-racist laws by claiming they are just criticising Islam as a religion.” So, in reality, WP supports ruling class legislation outlawing religious criticism whenever such criticism can be confused, however foolishly, with racism.
Its statement concludes: “Across Europe, the left and the working class movement must stand shoulder to shoulder with Muslims against the racist, populist and fascist parties and prove that they will not be fooled by racism masquerading as defence of free speech and secularism.” Yes, it really is dubbing not just Charlie Hebdo, but the entire mass mobilisation with of support “racism”.
For its part, the Socialist Party in England and Wales steers well clear of such foolish accusations of racism, but its commitment to “strongly defend freedom of speech and publication, including the right to criticise and use satire and humour” is just as tenuous as WP’s. For the SPEW comrades add: “But this doesn’t mean we advocate there being no boundaries at all. Few people would support turning a blind eye to material that deliberately and consciously promotes rabid racism or sexism, for example.”
In other words, SPEW, like WP, supports censorship - only just not as it is currently applied:
However, who decides what is acceptable and what is not? We can’t trust ‘censorship’ bodies appointed by government institutions and politicians, when those governments are at present almost entirely composed of pro-capitalist, pro-austerity politicians. The boundaries of what is acceptable should be democratically decided, which in a socialist society would be by regularly elected representatives of ordinary people, subject to recall at any time.9
I for one would not “trust ‘censorship’ bodies” staffed by the likes of SPEW and WP comrades, whether or not they were “regularly elected”. While we too do not “advocate there being no boundaries at all” - no-one should have the right to maliciously cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema - we are totally opposed to bans on ‘offensive’ statements or assertions, however reactionary. We communists are used to our own views being labelled in that way.
By the way, SPEW, unlike its Gauche Révolutionnaire comrades, implied criticism of the January 11 mobilisation:
Mass demonstrations of opposition are crucial, as terror attacks like this one can serve to ratchet up division and polarisation and play into the hands of those who attack the interests of working class people. But quickly government ministers in France - whose policies in power have laid the basis for terrorist atrocities to occur - have moved to head the demonstrations, with president François Hollande even inviting David Cameron to attend Sunday’s event.
It quoted that part of GR’s statement which read: “Trade unions, and other labour movement organisations and associations should put out a call to rally and pay tribute to the victims of Charlie Hebdo on their own platform … A mass, unified, movement against racism, and against the policies that force millions into insecurity, must be built. It is on that basis that we must show support for the journalists and employees of Charlie Hebdo.”
And finally …
As you might expect, the position of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was of a totally different order. In its January 8 statement it failed to even mention either the role of imperialism or the mainstream drive to incorporate Muslims. On the one hand, there is the “European far right”, which is “a threat to Muslims”, and, on the other hand, there is “the Islamist clerical-fascist far right”, which is “the biggest threat to Muslims worldwide”. As I say, imperialism is not even considered when the AWL is weighing up threats.
The group focused primarily on the right to free expression, including “the right to offend religious sensibilities” (particularly if they are Islamic sensibilities, obviously). But it did usefully point out the falseness of accusations of Islamophobia levelled against Charlie Hebdo: “In its last issue before the attack, it ran a strip mocking French writer Michel Houellebecq and his alarmism about France becoming dominated by Islam.”10
Finally, let me end with the statement from Left Unity’s national secretary, Kate Hudson, which read in its entirety:
Our sympathy goes to the friends and family of those killed at Charlie Hebdo. This atrocity will have wider repercussions - already there are reports of a rise in racist attacks today in France. We stand against this attack, and against those who seek to use this terrible tragedy as an opportunity to stoke Islamophobia. The criminal actions of extremists of any sort must never be used as political capital to demonise entire communities.11
This is so bland that you wonder why comrade Hudson bothered. All the groups quoted above - not to mention most mainstream politicians - could nod in agreement.