Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent etc. This is equally true when we just don’t know the facts we need to digest. I know a little about Charlie Hebdo. After Ireland and the UK, I know the media and intellectual and political climate in France better than anywhere else. But, still, I know very little.
Although to be honest, I think what Charlie Hebdo did or didn’t do isn’t really that important. Regardless of what they said, yesterday was indefensible. Even if Charlie Hebdo were racist islamophobe fascists, it would be indefensible.
But, I think something can be said more broadly about liberal republicanism that might be pertinent here.
The fact that this happened in France seems somehow relevant. We hear repeated in commentary how France is the home of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, indeed it is the official motto of the French Republic. In a widely circulated blog on the events yesterday, Joan Cole states the French “invented” the rights of man and the values associated with it. And we hear both within and outside France continuous discourse on the centrality of laïcité (i.e. state secularism) for French politics.
But it is important to remind ourselves that the French revolution was not accomplished. And its promise remains unfulfilled. Indeed socialism emerged in the 19th century from the two coterminous developments: the increasing predominance of waged workers within the population and the intellectual realisation that ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” were not achievable under existing property relations.
As Michael Ellman said, a major tragedy of the twentieth century is that socialism came to be seen as the rival to the “bourgeois revolution” rather than its ultimate heir.
For socialists it should be important to not only defend, but to pursue more vigorously, liberal republican ideals.
But we should not imagine that these ideals can simply be defended.
So Channel 4’s John Snow is extremely wrong when he writes “Paris: brutal clash of civilisations: Europe’s belief in freedom of expression vs those for whom death is a weapon in defending their beliefs.”https://twitter.com/jonsnowC4/status/552804891920711680
“Europe” does not “believe” in freedom of expression.
It has been noted that a number of the journalists killed yesterday started working together around the satirical libertarian socialist journal “L’Enragé” which was published in 1968. (The first issue and a lovely English translation is here: https://libcom.org/files/lenrage_journal_scans.pdf )
It is worth considering what happened to the other radicals then and in the subsequent years when the prevalent order in “Europe” was last threatened.
Perhaps the largest group coming out of 1968 in France was the ‘Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionaire’ who were organised around their newspaper ‘Rouge’. They were banned. Then their former members formed the ‘Ligue Communiste’. So, they were banned.
Or in Germany, not only was the Communist Party completely banned, but from 1972 all applicants for public sector employment (teachers, train drivers, gardeners etc.) were screened because “political extremists” were banned from public employment. Hundreds upon hundreds were denied or lost their employment. And later support for “crimes against the constitution” were banned. (This included advocating revolution). More recently, in 1991, one of the largest far left groups (Marxistische Gruppe) in Germany dissolved itself as a response to a fear of reprisals against its members.
Or in Ireland, we had “Section 31” in 1971 which banned broadcast of “any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes, encourages or advocates the attaining of any particular objectives by violent means”.
Beyond that, more recently and more trivially, in the Netherlands, in 2011 two men were arrested and fined for wearing 1312 on their t-shirt, which stands for ACAB, which stands for All Cops Are Bastards. And two years prior to that a man was arrested and fined for wearing a t-shirt with “Corrupt” superimposed over the Dutch police logo.
And more tragically, the “Allies” in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq bombed Al Jazeera bureaus. And in 1999 NATO bombed the Serbian TV headquarters killing 16 on the basis that is was the “ministry of lies”.
This list is already too long. It is only a glimpse of “Europe’s belief in freedom of expression”. There are simply too many major infringements on freedom of expression in Europe by “Europe” to mention more than a few.
It might be objected: “So what? These infringements on liberty might be real, but this was still an attack on freedom of speech and we should stand against that.”
The attack was certainly an attack on Charlie Hebdo because of what they said. But surely an attack on freedom of speech must either be (a) a call for a legal restriction on freedom of speech or (b) a form of intimidation that encourages self-censorship for fear of reprisal. This attack is clearly not the former. But it clearly is the latter. However, this is somewhat more nebulous. Indeed it is hard to imagine that the level of “self-censorship for fear of reprisal” in response to this attack will be larger than “self-censorship for fear of reprisal” caused by “Pantigate”. (This was where the Irish state broadcaster apologised and paid compensation to a Catholic advocacy group that opposes gay marriage on the basis that they had been ‘falsely’ accused of being homophobes.)
The atrociousness of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity lies in the violence involved and the motivation behind it, not because it poses any major threat to freedom of speech.
So if there is no threat, what is the point of defending it? When we are called to stand against the attacks and defend freedom of speech, who are we who would stand and what is it we would defend?
Here the answer is clearer. We would be the West defending the West.
But the west is not republicanism, it is not the legacy of the French revolution and it is not freedom. It only contains this legacy and this potential. But neither this legacy nor the hope of freedom are French. They are global and universal.
Those of us who do claim this legacy should reject these false ideas of ‘the west versus its opponents’. Republicanism, democracy and freedom are the opponents of ‘the West’ as it is today. Instead of defending what we do not have, we should continue to hold fast to our ideals and aspirations and should continue to work for their realisation and for a society in which they are realisable
Oisin Gilmore is a mate. More pertinently he is an Irish economist, based in the Netherlands, whose been involved in the socialist movement for longer than he cares to remember.