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In a widely-shared post about the Charlie Hebdo murders, Juan Cole explains Al-Queda’s strategy by analogy to a tactic allegedly used by Communists in the early twentieth century.
Al-Queda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievances against discrimination.
The tactic is similar to one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörglasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks—who would later be Stalinists—the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital.
Cole’s main point is a good and honorable one. Any racist backlash or repression directed against French Muslims as a result of the Hebdo murders will not only be wrong in itself but play into the hands of Al-Queda. Doubtless, the great majority of well-intentioned liberals and leftists who have shared the post on social media in recent days meant only to endorse that warning. Even some radicals more sensitive than Cole to the distinction between Bolshevism and Stalinism (and considerably more sympathetic to the original Bolsheviks) might regard any tendency to nit-pick Cole’s account of this bit of arcane left history as pointless at best, a dangerous distraction at worst—fiddling about red-baiting while Paris burns.
In reality, Cole’s benevolent liberal conclusion may matter less than the crude anti-Communist slander with which he frames it. For one thing, while the threat of racist backlash and Islamophobic repression is very real, there is likely to be little if any overlap in the Venn Diagram of Juan Cole readers and angry Islamaphobes. Cole’s anti-Communist sermon, however, may resonate with his reader (as Popper resonated with Cole) long after the Charlie Hebdo murders recede from public focus.
As a philosophy professor, I have a professional interest in Karl Popper. Early in my career as a graduate student, Popper was one of my intellectual heroes. (In my defense, I got over it.) Suffice to say that anyone who’s read The Open Society and Its Enemies should know enough about the depths of Popper’s bile on this particular subject to realize that trusting Popper’s account of the activities of communist revolutionaries is approximately analogous to relying on an account of the history of abolitionism written by a Confederate general.
As it happens, though, Cole hasn’t even accurately remembered his Popper. Here’s Popper’s account of his Hörglasse epiphany, from his autobiography Unended Quest:
For a time, I was suspicious of the communists, mainly because of what my friend Arndt had told me about them. But in the spring of 1919 I, together with a few friends, was converted by their propaganda. For about two or three months, I regarded myself as a communist.
I was soon to be disenchanted. The incident that turned me away from communism, and soon led me away from Marxism altogether, was one of the most important incidents in my life. It happened shortly before my seventeenth birthday. In Vienna, shooting broke out by unarmed young socialists who, instigated by the communists, tried to help some communists to escape who were under arrest in the central police station in Vienna. Several young socialist and communist workers were killed. I was horrified and shocked by the brutality of the police, but also by myself. For I felt that as a Marxist I bore part of the responsibility for the tragedy—at least in principle. Marxist theory demands that the class struggle be intensified, in order to speed up the coming of socialism.
This is a far cry from an accusation of a “false flag” operation. Indeed, even if Popper and Cole were entirely right in their cynical reading of the motives of the communists, such an operation would have been bizarrely redundant in a time and place where the ruling class was in full panic over the possibility of the Russian Revolution spreading westward and there was more than enough real violence and repression to go around. Popper is making a simpler (and cruder) point, blaming communist “instigators” for the violence of the police. To be sure, Popper is willing to direct at least some of his outrage at the actual perpetrators of the bloodshed, but his teenage self bore “part of the responsibility” simply for sharing the theoretical commitments of the “instigators.”
This is a harsh and demanding theory of responsibility. I suspect neither Cole nor many of his readers would be willing to apply it across the board. Were Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights “instigators” responsible for the dogs and fire hoses turned against their movement? Closer to the present, Juan Cole strongly supported US intervention on the side of the rebels in Libya. As a supporter of the rebels, would he accept partial responsibility for the atrocities committed against them by Gadaffi?
All problems of logic aside, the sermon preached by Popper (and, in an exaggerated form, by Cole) tells liberals what they want to hear. “Extremism” per se is dangerous, and social change can be divorced from violence by limiting resistance to the quiet pursuit of incremental reform within the framework of liberal democracy.
This is a comforting message, but one that fits awkwardly with real history. Where Cole breezily says the Bolsheviks “became” Stalinists, what actually happened was one of the most bitter faction fights in the history of any movement. In the Soviet Union, far from simply “becoming” Stalinists, the Old Guard of the Bolshevik Party was physically massacred in the Purges.
The most prominent loser of that faction fight, Leon Trotsky, argued in a famous series of essays in the late 20s and early 30s the communists and the social democrats needed to form a United Front to stop the Nazi militias on the streets of Germany. What he was recommending was precisely the sort of street-fighting joint action by socialist and communist workers that so horrified Karl Popper in 1919. Would Trotsky’s preferred course of action have prevented the rise of the Third Reich? It’s impossible to be certain, but we do know that the social democrats’ strategy of relying on liberal democracy to save itself was tragically unsuccessful. Not so many years after Hörglasse, the left-wing parties chided by Karl Popper for being willing to take extra-parliamentary action were systematically murdered by Adolf Hitler. It seems unlikely that more passive trust in the ability of the system to self-correct would have saved them.
Juan Cole is right about Al-Queda, but his simplistic anti-Communist parable is badly misguided.
Ben Burgis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University.