‘To be or not to be’ isn’t the question - Roland Simon

‘To be or not to be’ isn’t the question - Roland Simon

January 2015 article by Roland Simon, of Théorie Communiste, on the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

There was the one with the working class Frenchman, baguette and beret, cigarette in his mouth, looking all sad as he hears from Georges Marchais the leader of the French Communist Party that there isn’t going to be a dictatorship of the proletariat after all. And the one with a Vietnamese guy on a bike saying ‘Today peace, tomorrow go to work in the factory!’, or the one about the tragic incident of the ‘tragic party’ which left one man dead (Charles De Gaulle)1, and the strip ‘The Complicated Life of George the Murderer’. For people of my generation, it wasn’t without a twinge of pain that we heard about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Of course, Charlie isn’t what it used to be, but they did l’Enragé in 68, so….

Those people in the street on 11th January were not four million ‘useful idiots’. They weren’t calling for a military operation and the deployment of 10,000 soldiers on the ‘national territory’ (announced by the government on 12th January). As soon as the afternoon of 7th January, the day of the killing at the Charlie Hebdo editors office, the citizen demonstrations for the ‘values of the republic’ and ‘freedom of expression’ against ‘barbarity’ and the ‘Je suis Charlie’ appeared spontaneously. There was no need for the state to ‘appeal’ to the people nor for the propaganda steamrolling that followed anyway. The state jumped on the bandwagon, not without some missteps like organizing the demonstrations under the protection of a cartel of political parties. On 11th Jan the politicians were actually quite reserved, as they received on a platter this dish, half poisoned by the no longer straightforwardly national contemporary form of the state.

Of course they will use this opportunity to criminalize any kind of revolt or opposition, to reinforce and legitimize repression, to drum up support for their external wars which will now be unquestionably ‘justified’. But the flights of fancy about ‘national unity’ and ‘Jaurès’ or the (less convincing) ‘international union’ of western countries against the ‘postcolonial’ world are not only completely inadequate to everyone except radical rhetoricians, with a whole array of pretentious denunciations of things that they don’t want to and don’t analyse, instead reiterating some eternal truths of the revolutionary canon. Calling the demonstration on 11th Jan a manipulation and propaganda is too easy and too comfortable. Even if that were what it had been, we would still have to explain how that manipulation worked, but it is not that simple. It is a lot worse – the mobilization on 11th Jan 2015 was outstandingly appropriate to this moment2.

This didn’t come like a bolt out of the blue. In every country in Europe whether it's the politics of the left (Front de Gauche, Podemos, Syriza) or the right (no need to list them all) national citizenship has become the ideology that responds to the crisis as an ‘injustice of the distribution of wealth’. This national citizenship is based on a discourse that challenges the legitimacy of the state which is now denationalized and held responsible for the injustice. When the demonstrators applaud the cops passing in riot vans, it’s a fantasy of momentarily finding back the paternalist state of before liberal globalisation, whatever the diverse dangers and insecurities, real and imaginary, that threaten their lives may be.

It’s these dangers and insecurities that the myth of national citizenship as a protection (from Republic to Nation) fleetingly congeals together. A real nation-state that forms a real identity of national citizens, because it offers some protections, exactly the social form that went up in smoke since the 1970s. But national citizenship has never been innocent – neither in its origins or its implications. It is formed in opposition to the Other that threatens it, and requires the suppression of that threat. Today Islamism, tomorrow (or today at the same time) class struggle or womens struggle. Four million people get together and the most astonishing thing is the emptiness of the discourse. There is nothing to say; nothing to do, except ‘Je suis Republicain’, nothing to understand except ‘we are one nation’, nothing else to do except to conjur up a huge representation of the Republic, menaced by anonymous black crows that nobody has any problem recognizing.

The nation only mobilizes people and becomes a theme of combat if it is constiututed as under threat; but the threats can only be conceived in the terms the nation itself imposes: its values and its ‘true’ nature. The citizen is an abstraction from the concrete individual in their relations of production; of class, race and gender. However, it is not an abstraction free from determinations. Equality between citizens presupposes a shared history and culture. There is no citizenship without an identity, without being able to say ‘us’ and ‘them’. Saying ‘us’ and ‘them’ is not the exclusive domain of the Front National, the sausage eaters and red wine drinkers. You can say it through the reassuring secular smile of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘womens rights’. But no matter what, you say it in the language of the state. ‘We confront the questions of immigration and of Islam; we cannot carry on doing what we’re doing with immigration. When not linked to terrorism it still creates problems of integration and divided communities’ (Sarkozy). It is just a short a step from that benevolent secular smile to Sarkozy.

A good citizen needs to be just as careful as their universality is questionable. ‘Take off the veil then’ says the Leftist who fights for women’s rights, making the domination of women into something that belonged to some backwards cultures and which over here we are doing away with. Because the citizen is from ‘over here’. And it is because he is from ‘over here’ that he is universal. The Jews in the demonstration are right to ask themselves – if there had only been the hostage at the Kosher supermarket and not the murders at Charlie Hebdo on wednesday, would there have been such an explosion of Republicanism? Obviously not (c.f. Toulouse): national citizenship, the universal, is not threatened when one particular kills another particular, even if all particulars are not subsumed under the universal in the same way.

Either for long-term historical or contemporary social or polticial reasons, a particular can have a positivity by which they are not only a particular, but also belong to the universal.3 ‘Without the Jews, France would not be France’ (Manuel Valls). The particular remains particular. It is not, as it could be, effaced in the universal, but it nevertheless belongs to the sphere of the universal. The particular is a determination of the universal even if it is not effaced in it. The last time a president of France went into the street to demonstrate was Mitterand after the desecration of the Carpentras Jewish cemetery, never after an attack on a mosque, or even a military cemetery. For all sorts of social, political, economic, cultural and historic reasons, all particularities are not equal. Their relation to the universal varies; from inclusion that does not efface the particular, to distrust or hostility. At certain times, some particularities are constructed by the universal as harmful and pernicious – the Jews gave the tragic proof.

Whatever their discourses, the very existence of these demonstrations and the invitation to ’emancipation within the republic’ mean that things are absolutely not ‘equal’ for our ‘muslim citizens’ (this phrase says it all). The individual does not have the same relation to the universal. It is formulated negatively; it exists only in and as itself; it is part of the Others. Or to be a bit more concrete, even if we cannot reduce the demonstrations from Thursday 8th to Sunday 11th entirely to the frightened and hostile construction of muslims (and ‘Arabs’) in France as strange and foreign, neither can we understand the scale of these demonstrations without taking this into account.4 ‘No more playing innocent’ we hear the big republicans saying more and more ‘these terrorirsts come from your country so it’s time you clean up after yourself’. After the attacks of Wednesday 7th and Friday 9th anti-Arab/muslim acts are multiplying, but let’s also look at the other side of the coin: the open, humanist position (and save ourselves the comfort of the humanist condemnation of racism and ‘Islamophobia’).

The humanist demand to accept the ‘Other’ presupposes that there is an ‘Other’, its construction as ‘Other’ and therefore the hierarchy in relation to the ‘One’ who has the power to say who is the ‘Other’. There is a whole social organization, pre-existing any given individual, between ‘Us’ and the ‘Others’. To accept the ‘Other’ is an invitation extended to proper, legitimate society. At the origin of ‘The Ones’ and the ‘Others’ is simple brute power. The ‘One’ is the one with the power to distinguish.

The distinction is the practical, empirical, everyday existence of the universality of the citizen. If we forget about the hot air of ‘true universalism’,5 the west can legitimately seize the monopoly on universal values, if needs be with F16s and Dassault Rafales. The universality is an ideological artifact proper to the capitalist mode of production, the abstraction of labour and the value of the citizen. This mode of production is the only universal, with universalist ideological practices conditional on the individual corresponding to its criteria of universality, that is not to be a women or to bear any cultural, ethnic, racial, familial or religious links that threaten the nation-state. The state is a nation-state because it is a capitalist state, it does not recognize an intermediary in its relation to the individual; no intermediary communities or competing identities within itself. It identifies any element that interferes with its criteria of universal homogeneity as a foreign body, specific and therefore harmful communities. There are no more mediations between power and the individual. Without the middle term of the nation-state and its political structure, we start again with the crude explanation of homogenization through the development of capital value, from which point we can explain anything and everything in an undifferentiated whole. If only the state is supposed to represent the individual abstracted of their determinations that is the citizen, the ’emancipated’ individual, the only guarantee of their ’emancipation’ is that they belong to and are integrated in the national collectivity represented by the state.

“Religion is a prior, unstable and incomplete form of the universality of the state. It is prior and unstable because when it becomes the dominant ideology under which social practices and relations of production operate, it reveals and claims that the abstract universality of the state is not in the state itself, that it is not ‘religion realised’" - Karl Marx, The Jewish Question

“The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as qualities of civil society. Where the political state has attained its true development, man – not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life – leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. The relation of the political state to civil society is just as spiritual as the relations of heaven to earth. (…) The democratic state, the real state, does not need religion for its political completion. On the contrary, it can disregard religion because in it the human basis of religion is realized profanely. - ibid.

“There was something of the sacred about it” - Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet

“The French people have made communion” - Rama Yada

Four million French people in the street, and 97% in the polls renewed their allegiance to ‘the true state’, and asked nicely to the Other to do likewise, if they hadn’t already. In pity and charity, they asked the Others to emancipate themselves. In France such emancipation in the name of the universal is a historic fund of the old left. Given that martyrs at Charlie Hebdo were also of the old left, everything turns out for the best in the best of possible worlds of universal values to defend. The ‘muslims of France’ (male and female)6 had to speak up to denounce ‘barbarity’, the say that ‘that is not the true Islam’ and to ‘be present in the demonstration’. So they went, and the Imam that had been invited agreed to get on the television platform and do and say everything right.

But what was there of day-to-day humiliation, rejected job applications, dirty looks in bars? It wasn’t the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and their long histories that made the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, it was France. ‘The perpetrators of that dreadful crime were French citizens, they went to secular, republican, school, that of Jules Ferry. It is down to France to show that it is not an ‘incubator’ for terrorism, and not to the Muslims, Jews, Christians or asians to prove themselves’ (letter to Le Monde). Another reader adds: ‘Those jihadists grew up in our cities, went to our schools and learnt hatred in our prisons’. Mass unemployment, the segmentation of the labour market to the point of racialization and the police treatment of poor areas have shown for a long time that the dominant class knows that it has nothing to distribute, nothing to offer, except the incorporation of the ‘muslim youth’ into ‘French republican Islam’, as an old foreign minister put it. Only a Cohn-Bendit could come up with ‘we need to invest in the banlieues’ and to propose ‘a national sports foundation that supports local sports trainers’. Malek Boutih is more direct: ‘If there is a potential danger, those areas will have to be cleaned up’, proposing that certain areas in the banlieue ‘would be temporarily taken into protection by the state’.

If, as Gilles Kepel says, there is a ‘jihadist centre of attraction hostile to the French constitution’, and if they know exactly where to strike to make it hurt, there is no need to go to Sahel, Yemen or Iraq to find out where the jihadists come from. These ‘holy madmen’ are not our enemies because they are barbarians (our democratic nations and their drones have no need to envy the barbarity of the Islamic state), they are our enemies because their aim is to harden and thicken the fractures in the exploited class which are already bad enough. We do not hope for a unity of the proletariat (division is inherent to wage labour, and the unity of the proletariat can only be its abolition), but neither to rigidify the existing fractures further under a cultural and religious order that essentialises them. The ‘young proletarians of the banlieues’ are no more immunized than anyone else against the ideological mutation of class conflicts (and between sections of the exploited class) into cultural ones. Especially given that in the international context, calling yourself a Muslim gives an image of perfect confrontation.

Let the historians decide.

“This was a special day, because ‘our days of national celebration are almost always days of combat” - Jean-Noël Jeanneney.

“The first day of international democracy” - Michel Winock

Pascal Ory thought that that demonstration of unity where union or community7 allegiances came second says a lot about the state of our society ‘to not march with an organization and to come with 10,000 different slogans, as we saw on sunday, is the sign of extremely advanced individualism. What we saw was absolutely a mass demonstration, but one that united mostly very individualist people’.

We could suggest that Pascal Ory hasn’t seen many demonstrations recently, where it is more and more rare to march ‘one step behind the organizations’, but anyway, for this once Ory is right. There was a mass of isolated individuals, i.e. a mass of citizens who could only watch as their community passes in front of them in the form of 50 heads of state. Whatever the individual people thought and whatever doubts they have about that national citizenship given the state as it currently is, what we saw was our abstract citizenship passing (even if not on horseback as it did in Hegel’s day), and the people as citizens renewing their ceremony of hommage to it. They could have not.8

“In history, euphoria is often fleeting, and moments of joy rarely followed by joyful days after” - Michel Winock.

Joyful or not, the present conjuncture of class struggles (the predominance of relations of distribution over relations of production, injustices of distribution which are blamed on the denationalized state, racialized division of the proletariat, the ‘real people’ against the elites, and interclassism) means that beyond a sudden event that deflates quickly, the days after will be played out in the contradictory game between the concrete individual in their social relations of production, and the citizen, its necessary abstraction.9


  • 1. Harakiri was finally closed down for its coverage of the death of former president, Charles de Gaulle, whose passing saturated the mainstream media and eclipsed the deaths of more than 140 young people who had been killed after a nightclub burnt down just outside Grenoble. Hara-Kiri’s headline read: “Tragic dance in Colombey [de Gaulle’s hometown]: one death.”
  • 2. For a more complete analysis of the current situation within which this demonstration plays out see Théorie Communiste, Where are we in the crisis? [French versions on the dndf and théorie communiste websites]
  • 3. See Hegel, The Philosphical Propaedeutic, ch. Doctrine of the concept, paragraphs 2-10.
  • 4. For social and economic reasons for this construction, see Théorie Communiste No.18. M. Le Pen et la fin de l’identité ouvrière. Since writing that text in 2002 we have changed our conception from ‘negative’ (the disappearance of the workers identity) to ‘positive’, an identity constructed in the determinations and social forms of appearance of the crisis (c.f. also ‘Where are we in the crisis?’ even if that text is criticable, especially on the basis of the strict opposition between relations of production and relations of distribution that it relies on
  • 5. Communism will be the interaction of single individuals who are not subsumed in any community; in that much even the name ‘communism’ as a social state is problematic.
  • 6. It seems like the ‘nice arab girl’, a media figure of the 2000’s, has disappeared.
  • 7. As for the leaving community identities ‘in the background’, this is untrue: see the massive absence (if you can say that) of the ‘muslim community’, who given the circumstances could only have been seen as stage props.
  • 8. The equation of citizen (as such) with the state is currently very unstable, because the concrete individual undermines the citizen and the state no longer exists as the corollary of the citizen and civil society.
  • 9. This is on the level of ideology where the game of hide-and-seek between relations of production and relations of distribution could play out (c.f. despite its shortcomings, ‘Where are we in the crisis?’)


Aug 30 2016 20:54
For people of my generation, it wasn’t without a twinge of pain that we heard about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Of course, Charlie isn’t what it used to be, but they did 'l’Enragé' in 68, so….

Here's an issue of L’Enragé - https://libcom.org/library/lenrag%C3%A9-no-1