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Sep 26 2013

‘Freethought’ has always been a left tradition

The atheist far right’s beloved sweetheart Pat Condell, chief vilifier at large of Muslims, migrants, and ‘carpet-chewing PC fanatics’, knows no appeasement, quiescence or apparent joy – nor knows he, as his recent swipe at this network showed us, much at all.

Honoured to be slandered as racist‘, Condell tweeted this week, by ‘the ludicrously named Freethought Blogs’, in his words ‘the North Korea of free thought‘. ’Being hated by people like this makes it all worthwhile.’

You’re welcome, Pat. And it isn’t slander, is it, if you think your image benefits? (It isn’t anyway, of course. Slander, to offer one of Spider-Man‘s underused lines, is spoken. In print, it’s libel – and how he thinks a court could rule on whether or not his views are racist, I don’t know. Like the English Defence League mind you, on whom he bundles fulsome praise, people with dark skin sometimes like him, which settles it of course.)

Objections to Freethought‘s place in our masthead are among the laziest, glibbest soundbites our critics have, but more than that display a failure to grasp even the term’s most basic history. Freethought is not ‘free thought’ or uninhibited inquiry – to think so boasts the same green literalism as thinking a Friends’ Meeting House is a shared beach hut or that Scotch pancakes contain Scotch  - though even if it were, it’s silly and inane to assume one’s critics are automatons or say loose collective viewpoints mean dictatorship. Freethought is a specified tradition, European in the main, whose constituents have by and large been countercultural, radical and leftist, everything Condell and cohorts viscerally despise.

The Deutscher Freidenker-Verband, probably Europe’s major freethought organisation, claimed a membership of hundreds of thousands by the time of its proscription at the Nazis’ hands. A bulk of its support came from the Communist and Social Democratic parties, the former producing its final chair (prior to post-war revival) Max Sievers, the latter cofounded by the Marxist Wilhelm Liebknecht as was the DFV. The Kommunistische Partei was itself founded by Liebknecht’s middle son Karl and Rosa Luxemburg, together Weimar Germany’s most posthumously celebrated dissidents. Christopher Hitchens appraised Luxemburg as the ‘most brilliant’ of Marxist anti-Leninists, crediting the Social Democrats with prompting Bertrand Russell’s writing career beyond building an alternative and markedly more feminist society for its supporters, the historian Isaac Deutscher (another Jewish atheist, his politics very much like hers) as closer to Marx than anyone who followed, perhaps excepting Leon Trotsky.

Marx himself remains a sharper critic of religion than Condell could ever hope to be, as were a noted swathe of (free)thinkers informed by him before and beyond Sovietism. Millions of working Germans mobilised against 1920s church politics, leaving religious organisations after campaigns by left freethinker groups, including beside the DFV the Bund Sozialistischer Freidenker with its 20,000 members, the national Zentral-Verband der Proletarischen Freidenker and the International of Proletarian Freethinkers formed with siblings around the continent. (Such working class atheist constituencies have yet to form in the present movement. I eagerly await them.) In Italy, Antonio Gramsci – recognised now among the major atheist philosophers of interest – continued the socialist-atheist tradition there of Carlo Cafiero, the minutiae of whose anarcho-communism differed from Gramsci’s politics but who associated with Britain’s National Secular Society in its founding years.

Cafiero and Errico Malatesta, Italian anarchism’s prime progenitors, both had freethinking backgrounds and were devotees of Mikhail Bakunin, likewise an ardent atheist and anarchocollectivist whose theory treated faith much as Marx did (it was, no doubt, one of the few discursive areas where they’d have jovially agreed). His views reverberated similarly in the U.S. as praised by Emma Goldman, viewed now as a founder of American anarchism, communism, feminism and atheism. On the latter subject, as in my view on all others, she is infinitely quotable.

Freethought in Britain began even before all this, and there too it was led by anarchists – among them William Godwin, philosopher and radical. His daughter Mary, also an atheist, wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and married Percy Shelley, sent down from Oxford on publishing an atheist pamphlet, himself the author of Prometheus Unbound and a political dissident. Godwin’s own wife, philosopher Mary Wollstonecroft is remembered as founding modern feminism, translated according to Azar Nafisi (quoted at Pharyngula) by modern day Iranian women opposing Sharia – Iran, whose Worker-Communists are its major secularist faction, few more prominent among them than Mansoor Hekmat, influential among other spheres on Freethought Blogs writer Maryam Namazie. Wollstonecroft’s religious views’ details are disputed, but she was by no means a fervent believer, and her politics remain distinctly anticlerical.

Here endeth the lesson, Condell and friends. Bakunin, Cafiero, Deutscher, Godwin, Goldman, Gramsci, Hekmat, Liebknecht, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Malatesta, Marx, Namazie, Shelley, Shelley, Sievers, Wollstonecroft: these names and others like them trace the freethought name’s historic lineage, always intersectional. We, not you, are its inheritors; you, cursing atheism’s so called loony left, need surrender it to us and not vice versa.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Raging Bee

    If we’re the North Korea of free thought, does that mean the Chinese army is going to kill him (and the rest of the Slymepit while they’re at it) for attacking us?

  2. 2
    SallyStrange

    I have nothing to add except “BOO-YAH!”

    I think a gif of Jon Stewart making that “BOOM!” gesture would be appropriate. But I haven’t the time to track one down right now. So just imagine it.

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    You’re welcome

  4. 4
    Al Dente

    Thanks for this, Alex. Now we know Condell has even more reason to hate us. We not only despise his Islamophobia but we’re not right-wingers.

  5. 5
    SallyStrange

    THANK YOU CROMMUNIST!

  6. 6
    Edward Gemmer

    Freethought is a tradition of the left. Being on the left does not mean you are engaging in freethought. A critic that points out that Pharyngula delights in pooping all over logic and reason and delights in dogma and appeals to emotion is engaging in perfectly valid criticism.

  7. 7
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Ed, you’re pooping all over logic and reason, as is Condell. (See, I can make claims, too.)

    No one ever made the argument you just summarized there, so whatevs. Also, Condell didn’t make the points you claim. Further, none of the rightists, sexists, and racists ever seem to be able to make a cogent argument for their views, so I don’t know where y’all think you’re getting on the logic boat.

    Ancillary question: Does constantly burning all that straw provide an efficient source of heat that can be converted to useful work, or is it just to keep you warm?

  8. 8
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Ancillary question: Does constantly burning all that straw provide an efficient source of heat that can be converted to useful work, or is it just to keep you warm?

    @7 F [is for failure to emerge]: Are you suggesting he is a perpetual energy fallacy machine? :)

  9. 9
    =8)-DX

    @CaitieCat #8

    We’ll all die some day.

    @Alex Gabriel #OP

    Wonderful put-down of Condell. Pity my local communist party is essentially an old guard of totalitarian, censorship-loving assholes, the last vomit of the previous regime. The socialists aren’t much better, leaving scant voting possibilities.

  10. 10
    Edward Gemmer

    F,

    No one ever made the argument you just summarized there, so whatevs.

    Well that seems to be the argument.

    (1) Pat Condell says FreeThought Blogs basically shouldn’t be called FreeThoughtBlogs
    (2) Gabriel says “yes we should” and cites lots of examples of leftists and atheists who developed freethought

    What I don’t like about the argument is that it seems to make freethought about being leftists instead of about being secular, logical, and reasoned. While I would like to believe one would eventually draw leftists conclusion by engaging in freethought, it is not automatic and certainly not something that some group owns. On the contrary, the goal should be to encourage more people to use freethought, not argue about who gets to use it.

    Further, none of the rightists, sexists, and racists ever seem to be able to make a cogent argument for their views, so I don’t know where y’all think you’re getting on the logic boat

    That seems to be quite general, and I doubt it is true. No right wing person ever made a logical argument?

    Does constantly burning all that straw provide an efficient source of heat that can be converted to useful work, or is it just to keep you warm?

    The nights are getting colder and I hate to turn on the heater.

  11. 11
    SallyStrange

    What I don’t like about the argument is that it seems to make freethought about being leftists instead of about being secular, logical, and reasoned.

    It’s about both.

    While I would like to believe one would eventually draw leftists conclusion by engaging in freethought,

    I don’t believe that you would actually like to believe this.

    it is not automatic

    Nobody said it was.

    and certainly not something that some group owns.

    Nobody said that either.

    On the contrary, the goal should be to encourage more people to use freethought, not argue about who gets to use it.

    Nobody made any claims about who “gets” to use the term freethought. People can use it however the fuck they want, whenever the fuck they want. People can also criticize other people for using the term inaccurately and without knowledge of its etymology or its historical context. That’s what is happening here.

  12. 12
    culuriel

    I used to watch Pat Condell until I realized he’s less about exposing ignorance to correct social wrongs, and more about putting down anyone and everyone he thinks is beneath him.

  13. 13
    atheist

    @Edward Gemmer – September 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm (UTC 1)

    While I would like to believe one would eventually draw leftists conclusion by engaging in freethought, it is not automatic and certainly not something that some group owns. On the contrary, the goal should be to encourage more people to use freethought, not argue about who gets to use it.

    It’s not so much that people will be pulled left through the use of “free thought”, it’s more that, to be honest, the people who are interested in “free thought” in the first place tend to be left wing. What do theocrats or libertarians gain by having people think about the world freely and critically? Absolutely nothing, and in fact free critical thought will tend to cause problems for them. Which is why they instead focus on dogmas: theocrats focus on their holy book, while libertarians focus on economics and certain aspects of the law.

  14. 14
    johngreg

    I do not agree that the history of Freethought is particularly meaningful to criticizing Condell’s comments, in particular in regard to his intended implication that FTB is a network of narrow-minded, ideological and dogmatic blogs.

    In general, while of some historical interest, I do not think there is much relevance overall in your post as an attempt to criticize Condell and support FTB. FTB, so far as I can tell, is not in anyway specifically based on, or acting under the direct influence of the founders of Freethought. It’s just a tag to imply something that does not really exist.

    Alex said:

    Godwin’s own wife, philosopher Mary Wollstonecroft is remembered as founding modern feminism…. Wollstonecroft’s religious views’ details are disputed, but she was by no means a fervent believer, and her politics remain distinctly anticlerical.

    Point of pedantry: Mary Wollstonecraft ( crAft, not crOft), c1759 – 1797, an eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, 1797 – 1851, an accomplished writer (author of Frankenstein). And while they both supported and wrote about women’s rights, to say either one of them is remembered as founding modern feminism is stretching it.

    To quote Wikipedia on Mary Wollstonecraft: Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.

    link to Mary Wollstonecraft: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft
    link to Mary Shelley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Shelley

    Here endeth the lesson.

  15. 15
    Edward Gemmer

    Sally,

    Nobody made any claims about who “gets” to use the term freethought. People can use it however the fuck they want, whenever the fuck they want. People can also criticize other people for using the term inaccurately and without knowledge of its etymology or its historical context. That’s what is happening here.

    I understand that, but I don’t think a valid case has been made that it has been used incorrectly.

    atheist,

    What do theocrats or libertarians gain by having people think about the world freely and critically?

    Quite a bit, actually. Bible studies can go on and on and on, and religious debate is pretty popular. Of course, all of that typically depends on some “facts” such as the Bible being true or Jesus rose from the dead or something similar. You can argue about anything given some certain set of values and facts. I think an issue we atheists have is identifying which facts and values we accept, which is why so many talks about intersectionality tend to fizzle into nothing.

  16. 16
    Maureen Brian

    On the contrary, Edward Gemmer, it is not difficult to to identify a handful of ideas upon which most atheists agree in principle. For instance …

    * the use of rational thought plus observation is the only way we are going to understand the universe plus understanding what’s going on is a good idea for practical purposes

    and

    * with no supreme being to pre-sort us either into god and bad or into a fixed-forever hierarchy, we must conduct ourselves on the assumption that all persons we meet are equals – not equal in every aspect but equal in their humanity, which is the bit that counts.

    There are others but those will do for now.

    People arrive where they are now by a variety of routes and, yes, many end up in the enclosure marked atheist-rationalist-vaguely-leftish. But this is not a religion – there are no formal steps to enlightenment, no learning to recite the whole Qu’ran in Arabic, no “right way” to become who you are. Therefore there is no point in arguing about any of it.

    We should save our fire for those who claim to be atheists and egalitarians but want to bring all their comfort blankets with them – the reassurance (Ha!) of neo-liberal economics, the confidence that any woman in the room is there to provide an infinite supply of sandwiches, the certainty of that legacy place at Yale. Whatever!

  17. 17
    SallyStrange

    I understand that, but I don’t think a valid case has been made that it has been used incorrectly.

    Then why didn’t you say that, instead of setting up those silly strawmen?

    Classic goalpost shifting from Gemmer.

  1. 18
    Please, please people: stop using the naive dictionary meaning of words in place of context » Pharyngula

    […] It’s not. It’s a word with a long history, a real meaning, and a greater substance than the poseurs know of. Alex Gabriel does a marvelous job scouring the ignoramuses on the meaning of freethought. […]

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