Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

An Enlightened Response to Ian Birchall. 2006.

with 4 comments

What next? had an important debate on secularism in the first decade of the century.

It continues to attract attention.

Ian Birchall on secularism

This article, written in 2005 by the British socialist Ian Birchall, is an excellent summary of a Marxist approach to religion and secularism, highly relevant to the discussions that have been taking place in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings. –PG” Socialist Worker (US)

 Because of the republication of Ian Birchall’s article (itself a response to my article, In Defence of Militant Secularism) on the US Socialist Worker site (International Socialist Organization) the reply is presented here, unchanged, in order to give a complete view of the debate.

The Reply was published in the last ever issue of What Next? It only appeared in an on-line edition.

An Enlightened Response to Ian Birchall. 2006.

In ‘So What is Secularism?’ (What Next No 30) Ian Birchall takes me to task for a defence of secularism. He begins by questioning the use of polemical style, races through a picture of the Enlightenment, offers an interpretations of the history of French laïcité and the Marxist approach to religion. Birchall compares the stands of those opposed to the veil to those socialists who refused to support Dreyfus, and defends, with some gusto, the political project of his party, the SWP, and Respect. Some of his points are well-taken (those concreting the abstraction of many of my formulae).

Other judgements, however, are extremely contentious. Birchall fails to grapple with the nature of political secularism, its philosophical roots, the account of the French secular education system is hopelessly skewed, and his belief that Respect is “secularism in practice”, is wholly misguided.

Birchall’s portrait of the Enlightenment resembles Aghion’s farce Le Libertin (on Diderot) more than a serious historical review. Voltaire, it is true, is praised for his involvement in the case of La Barre (one could add, the Lally affair, the Sirvin affair, and, above all, the Calas affair – all victims of ecclesiastical intolerance). But apparently the kept servants and was reluctant to let his acid scepticism spread to them. Bad, bad Voltaire!

He and Diderot are single out for vacillations towards organised despotism. Marx is cited to show that their combat against organised religion ignored the need to change social conditions (by the way, didn’t Marx have some dubious relations with his servant Helene?). All this may well be true. Yet the complex network of ideas emanating from the Lumières contributed to a directly political fight amongst the masses. They’re the origin of the concept of human rights, from the early feminist Olympe de Gouges, to Tom Paine. In any case, the values of the Enlightenment, which I advocated, were rather broader: the cloister summarised by Kant’s What is Enlightenment ?(1784). That is, the freedom from the command to obey, “Have courage to use your own understanding/”. It is precisely this that is threatened by a renewed acceptance of religious authority and which needs defending.

The picture of the French tradition is of laïcité is less summary, though no less lop-sided. Birchall present a functionalist explanation of the growth of mass secular education, endowing students with the cultural capital of republicanism in order to bolster the nation. The relentless clash, for the whole of the 19thc century, between the Catholic Church and

republicans over the control and content of schooling is left unmentioned. Yet this was the crucial point: the right of the Clergy to oversee all aspects of educational life.

The socialists (an approximate translation of laïc, which includes the notion of freedom from church control as well as from religion) included Catholic ‘Gallicans’ opposed to Rome’s power, progressive Christians (against the Erastian fusion of church and state), deists (in Voltaire’s tradition) and free-thinkers, atheists and socialists. (See Georges Weill, Histoire de idée laïque en France au XlX siècle. Hachette 2004).

It’s not hard to trace a very different picture of the line-up in this battle to Birchall’s. Amongst the latter were the most fervent supporters of Dreyfus, such as the most important figure of French socialism, Jean Jaurès. Their nationalist opponents for example, Maurice Barrès, explicitly attacked secular rationalist education, in Les Déracinés (1897) blaming it for France’s military weakness. That Jules Ferry, with whom the famous 1905 Separation of Church and State is most associated, supported colonialism as well as secular education can be acknowledged. But that hardly means he backed secularism because he favoured imperial expansion.

The push and pull in France over secularism has endured to the present day. From the mass Catholic demonstrations in the early 1980s to protest at planes to brig their state-aided private schools under public supervision, to the contrary mass mobilisation at a project to extend religious educations; right in the early 1990s, this is a live issue. It is within the teachers’ unions that support for laïcité is staunchest. Some allied groups, such as La Libre Pensée, consider the present system already far too complicit with faith institutions. This is surely right, and one needs seriously to consider the institutional framework of a schooling system which excludes so many and fails to tackle inequality (ethnic as well as class), and a host of other social issues which socialists would consider priorities.

It is not surprising, there, that with this background that a swift response came against an Islamist inspired campaign to promote the veil in public educational institutions (and, notably, secular segregation). Apparently Birchall is unaware of the nature of Islamism: from moderate and conservative wins, to the most radical the different strands are untied in their opposition to secularism in any shape and form. All these shades of politics rest on the weight of a revealed truth: a book, whose authority is beyond doubt, grounded on Islam. One does not have to be an advocate of Michel Onfray’s ‘aetheology’ to see there is a serious problem here.

It is one thin to accept the multicultural argument that religious figures will always be present in public life (obviously the case), and that some may be progressive, other not. It is quite another to incorporate the demands of religiously inspired political groups into the foundations of public bodies.

Birchall considers that those who wish to prevent schools (the target of the ban on all ostentatious religious symbols) from being a battleground for those who wish to impose their ‘pure’ style of dress are comparable to those French ouvrièrists like Jules Guesde, who refused to defend Dreyfus. As I have indicated, humanist socialists, like Jaurès, assassinated

for his opposition tot he Great War, were strong supporters of secularism. It would traduce their memory to imagine them defending any form of theological code, whether in schools or outside. Birchall further considers any ‘state ban’ on the veil anathema, though it is hard to see how any regulation affecting the education system could be anything other than a mater of the state.

Finally, Birchall claims that voting figures that respect is not a communalist or religiously based party. Post-Big brother, it may seem cruel to talk of its leader these days, though as a laughing-stock his career is progressing well. Still, George Galloway has repeatedly stated that his organisation is the ‘party of Muslims’, and he himself their representative. True he has wider allies. Notably the curious figures who signed to petition to free Tariq Aziz. Perhaps it’s indicative of his trajectory that one of them was a person I cited myself to demonstrate a convergence between Respect’s stand and the culturalist far-right: Alain de Benoist.


Written by Andrew Coates

January 29, 2015 at 1:52 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Living in a country where there is no separation of Church and state (Greece) i think some on the British left underestimate the cultural/ideological influence of in this case the Orthodox chruch in society. It is theoretically possible to opt out of religious education for example in schools, for example.

    One of the origins of this “sin” is that in order to facilitate alliances with various communities (in anti-racist or anti-war work for example) they accomodate more reactionary aspects of the dominant culture and in fact give them theoretical cover, e.g. the retreat on faith schools.Without wanting to exonerate the school system of the bourgeois state and its specific role, it offers socialists a much better terrain to intervene.

    There is also a tendency to ignore class diefferntiations in immigrant communisties, and in fact apply a reverse colonialism (find the boss=communisty leader=small businessmen/religious leader and do a deal with him in order to mobilise teh communisty, rather than address working class, in Greece’s case, Somalis directly). In fact a lot of immigrant communities in greece suffer from the fact that their so-called eladers ahve direct links to the embassies and business/political interests of their adopted and former countries and attempt to prevent any positive radicalization in the communities, link up with the local labour movement etc.


    January 30, 2015 at 1:19 pm

  2. Thanks for that Zach.

    The issue of the separation of Church and State is doubtless one of those things we tend to look at in British terms, which are, from what you say, misleading.

    Andrew Coates

    January 31, 2015 at 11:56 am

  3. I forgot to say that it is theoretically you can opt out of religious education. In practice it is much more difficult.

    The Orthodox church has also a great deal of economic power and through ist front charities has enternched its influence in society by undertaking welfare activities that during the crisis have been rolled back by the state. And at teh same time spread an even more reactionary form of religious ideology that has contributed to the strengthening of conservative ideas amongst some sections of the population.

    In fact not only the archbishop but also at least 4-5 bishops are public figures of considerable weight, whose (normally very right wing views) are widely reported and exert a certain influence.

    In schools the priests have a regular presence and many children are encouraged to look to them as their spiritual advisors (o pmevmatikos).

    My comrades and i jokingly refer to our country as the Iran of Europe!


    January 31, 2015 at 10:01 pm

  4. This does not come out of the blue for me Zach.

    I come from Bounds Green in North London, part of the area, which is centred on Haringey, sometimes known as ‘Little Cyprus’.

    One thing I remember from my primary school is how strict the Greeks were with their daughters.

    Andrew Coates

    February 1, 2015 at 12:43 pm

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