Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Decentism and defectors, lumpen and otherwise

This post is a contribution to a number of inter-related debates that are currently exercising the blogetariat: David Edgar's response to David Mamet's desertion from "brain-dead liberalism", Marko Attila Hoare's claim that the defining axis in politics today is West v anti-West not left v right, and the premature announcement of the demise of the Euston Manifesto.

On the on-going debate, more recent key texts include: Shuggy's attack on Marko's use of the word lumpen, Marko's ironic mea culpa, Shuggy's rejoinder, Waterloo Sunset's mano-a-mano with Marko, Martin M's oblique comments on all of this and Alan Johnson's spirited defence of the Euston legacy.

Here, I mainly want to write about the David Edgar essay on defectors from the left. Being something of a defector myself, I was very prepared to get irritated. However, the piece was actually quite thoughtful and interesting. There are four things things I wanted to take issue with.

I. The anti-Stalinist legacy

First, and least important, Edgar appears shockingly ignorant of the existence of a "decent" anti-Stalinist left prior to 1956. I mean, I can't expect him to be familiar with the likes of CLR James and Victor Serge, but we can expect him to have heard of Leon Trotsky and certainly George Orwell. In fact, long before the "Kronstadt moment" (I think he's lifted that phrase from anti-Stalinist Daniel Bell, who started out in an anarchist milieu, who famously said his Kronstadt moment was Kronstadt), there were leftists who opposed Leninist authoritarianis, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Britain's own Sylvia Pankhurst.

This seems trivial and pedantic, but its significance is that the equasion of leftism with Leninism works in two, dangerous ways: it allows Stalinists to portray any dissident leftists (e.g. Orwell) as evil renegades, and it allows the right to dismiss leftism in general.

II. Islam versus Islamism

Second, there is the vexed question of Islam versus Islamism. Edgar is right to note that there is a slippage amongst some of the defectors and decentists between these: Martin Amis was a bit sweeping, Nick Cohen can be, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks all Islam is irredeemable. But most of the "defectors" are pretty clear on the difference. Certainly Ed Hussein is clear.

And even if they weren't, it wouldn't excuse Edgar's slippage.
'Cohen is careful to point out that "Islamism has Islamic roots", and, clearly, the group that he dubs the "far right" goes beyond the adherents of Jamaat-e-Islami. It's also a group that - defined in the old-fashioned way as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - remains at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. As Trevor Phillips pointed out in his "sleepwalking into segregation" speech, made after 7/7, a Pakistani man with identical qualifications to a white man is still going to earn £300,000 less in his lifetime.'
In fact, Asians defined as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is an entirely different thing from either Islam or Islamism, and to claim otherwise is disingenuous. Are Saudi residents in the UK at the bottom of the heap? Are Turkish Cypriots even? Some Islamic states are amongst the richest in the world. And Islamist politics has stronger roots among rich Muslims than poor Muslims.

III. The politics of alliance

The third thing, which follows directly from this, is about the politics of alliance. Edgar compellingly makes the case for the left to make alliances, even unsavoury ones, with the oppressed. He cites the Civil Rights movement, when white and Jewish Northern middle class leftists joined forces with Southern blacks who were led by Christians, and he cites the Black Power moment, when white radicals allied with Black Power people, dispite the latter's dodgy sexual politics.

This claim, though, is problematic in three ways. First, it glosses over the tensions and critiques that went on in those alliances. Within the Black Power movement, there were different positions: on the one side were people like Huey Newton, who were moving towards more empancipatory sexual politics, and on the other side were the likes of Eldridge Cleaver (mentioned in Edgar's article as a defector) who had very brutal sexual politics. And the white radicals who worked with the Black Power movement had different positions on this. Some, like the posturing ideologues of Ramparts magazine (such as David Horowitz, another defector), were slavishly uncritical of Cleaver and his bullshit. Others, such as Jean Genet, pushed away at the contradictions within the Black Power movement. There are many white liberals and radicals nowadays, like George Galloway and Madeleine Bunting, who decry any criticism of Islamist sexual politics as orientalist and Islamophobic; they are the David Horowitzs of today.

Second, Edgar's "left" is a white, metropolitan left. In fact, weren't Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael as authentically part of the left as the whities at Ramparts were? And today is there not a viable mass left in the Islamic world, which cautions against alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood - forces like the Iraq Freedom Congress or the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan?

Third, there is the crucial question about what issues one makes unsavoury alliances about. In the fight against racism, I believe it is correct for anti-racists to work closely with the targets of racism, including those who might have unpleasant politics. But the groups from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani populations in the UK who are actively fighting racism are not the Muslim Association of Britain, but groups like the Southall Black Sisters, the Monitoring Group, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism and the Newham Monitoring Project - groups who also caution against an alliance with Islamism. If the SWP was making close alliances with these groups, instead of with the Muslim Association of Britain, then I'd take Edgar's point more seriously.

Fighting an unjust war might also be a cause worth making alliances for too. But here, the Stop the War movement has not just made a tactical alliance with Islamists, they have allowed them to set the agenda. Hence the yoking together of protest against the Iraq war with causes like the Israeli occupation, defending the Iranian regime, and solidarity with Hezbollah. Here a naive 'anti-imperialism' has been used as an alibi for antisemitic conspiracy theories.

At any rate, forming a political party with Islamists goes way beyond mere strategic alliances...

IV. Pathologising defection

The fourth thing is simple. It may be the case that there are certain pathologies of defection, which Edgar analyses very well, with a play-wright's understanding of character. But this does not necessarily make defection wrong - any more than the undeniable fact of pathologies of leftism makes leftism wrong (as people like David Horowitz would have us believe). As Tom Freeman notes,
Edgar says that he’s “interested in the politics of defection”, although he seems to be more fascinated by the psychology of defection (or rather, the psychology of changing your mind when political cliques of some sort are involved).
V. And...

A final point: why are so many playwrights called David?

Other bloggers have written about this too:
  • Paulie, making some excellent points.
  • Peter Risdon, in an eloquent and highly recommended post.
  • Norman G, who sums up exactly my position with concision.
  • Andrew Anthony, one of the "defectors", whose defection was the spur for the Fat Man post that started the whole Burke/Paine blog spat. Anthony cogently makes the case that if him and Ed Hussein are "defectors" then so are Danny Cohn-Bendit and Todd Gitlin, who Edgar sees as keeping the true faith.
  • Oliver Kamm, who points out lots of Edgar's foolish mistakes (in his usual bludgeoningly clever way), and uses the example of the great Sidney Hook to show that defection from the authoritarian left need not mean defection from the left as such.
  • David T, who points out more of Edgar's dishonesties.


Sean Zhong said...

Hello! I am your blog’s new visitor from the Far East.

You’ve got a nice blog and it is insightful of you to make many critical analyses.

The Contentious Centrist said...

What a dense post and such stamina! Matza must be a bracing nutrient for you, Bob!

I'm mainly watching from the sidelines since I have not been nursed on Marxist theory and such so I have no idea what it feels like to be weaned away from it. But it is difficult not notice who is debating in good faith and who is just indulging in tantrums. And those who make the good arguments are usually those who don't need all that overflowing sarcasm to help their case.

Incognito said...

brilliant post Bob... not that i was ever that far left.. but i did creep further right as I aged..

thought it was terribly brave of mamet to write that piece, considering how liberal our industry.