Friday, January 22, 2016

From Bob's archive: on defectors from the left

I don't have time to blog right now, but I wanted to keep the place alive so I thought I'd follow my normal habit of fetching something up from the archive to fill the space. We're up to April 2008, when George Galloway was the Respect MP in Bethnal Green and Bow and Hamas had taken control of Gaza. 

It struck me how much we've moved on in some ways: the SWP and Galloway have been in steep decline,  but with Corbyn's ascendency the far left has edged from margins to mainstream; the alliance with Islamism is a far less significant feature of the British far left; the increasingly discredited Stop the War have if anything swung towards secularism and taken up the Bush/Blair-style War on Terror narrative on the Middle East, hysterically blaming Sunni fanaticism for all the evils of the region while celebrating the allegedly secular dictator Assad. 

In other ways, it remains disturbingly relevant. While Corbyn has energised many on the further left, others on the centre- or decent left are tearing up their Labour party cards and abandoning their left-wing identity. Nick Cohen's What's Left has had a new lease of life, and Nick has taken the final step out of the left. The term "Regressive Left", to indicate the indecent Verkrappt features of the mainstream left, is trending among today's defectors. Others are holding on in, and even calling for realignment

I've edited the old post a bit here, to trim some of the more ephemeral stuff and bring out the relevance's today, and added a brand new ending. The original is intact here.

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.

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. However, there are four things things I wanted to take issue with.

I. Leftism ≠ Stalinism
First, and least important, Edgar appears shockingly ignorant of the existence of a "decent" anti-Stalinist left prior to 1956. He seems to think the only alternatives to celebrating the radical and progressive achievements of the 20th century (even when they come in Stalinist uniform), becoming conservative or abandoning politics. 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" (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 authoritarianism, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Britain's own Sylvia Pankhurst.

This might seem trivial and pedantic, but its significance is in the dangerous effect of the equation of leftism with Leninism. This is two-fold: it allows Stalinists to portray any dissident leftists (e.g. Orwell) as evil renegades for the true cause, and it allows the right to dismiss leftists in general as Stalinist nutters.

II. Islam ≠ Islamism

Weirdly, Edgar lumps defectors from Islamism (Ed Husain) along with defectors from the left (Christopher Hitchens), and he attacks the decentists attempts to "brand fundamentalist Islam as brown fascism", which he says is tantamount to "abandon[ing] an impoverished, beleaguered and demonised community" to racist assault. There's lots of problems with what he's saying here. To start with, Hitchens don't call Islamism "brown fascism"; when they talk about a "brown-green alliance" the brown stands for the classical far right and the green for Islamism. By raising the idea of "brown fascism", Edgar is highlighting the ethnic identity of Muslims rather than the political ideology of Islamism.

Entwined with this is the vexed question of Islam versus Islamism. Edgar is right to note that there is a slippage in the language of some of the defectors and decentists between the two terms: 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.

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, British 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. Islamist politics is a movement more of rich Muslims than of "impoverished and beleaguered" Muslims. Defending Muslims from racism can never be an excuse for tolerating far right Islamist ideology.

III. Alliance ≠ capitulation
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 - in this case, with the Islamist 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, despite 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 historical alliances. Within the Black Power movement, for example, there were different positions: on the one side were people like Huey Newton, who were moving towards more emancipatory 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 - we need more Jean Genets.

Second, Edgar's "left", here, 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 similarly today there a viable mass left in the Islamic world, which cautions against alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood: forces such as the Iraq Freedom Congress or the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan - or, more recently, the Syrian democratic movement. In Britain, too, there has been a black left as long as there has been black presence, most recently represented by groups like Southall Black Sisters. It is with them that the white left should be making alliances first.

Third, there is the crucial question about which issues one makes unsavoury alliances. In the fight against racism, yes, I believe it is correct for anti-racists to work closely with the targets of racism, including those who might have unpleasant politics. However, 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 Islamists 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 Hamas and 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. Respect and its successor Tower Hamlets First - which far leftists in TUSC still support - are not strategic alliances against racism or war, but attempts to reshape the whole political agenda.

IV. Pathologising defection ≠ fighting the good fight

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 existence 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). 
The psychology of defection may be of all-consuming interest to those who have been through it or are contemplating it. But it is the politics that should concern us. Mindless loyalty to the identity of leftism is literally insane. Loyalty to the values - the values of internationalism, of solidarity and equality and humanity, of fight against inequality, discrimination and lack of opportunity - is what matters. For some, that means giving up the identity label of leftism; for others it means staying and fighting.

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