Anti-racism and ‘useful idiots’
The SWP remains trapped in its old bad habits - and never have they been more obviously counterproductive, reckons Paul Demarty
As we shudder into what must be the most bizarre election in Britain for some time - the objective being to select members to sit in the European parliament for some period of time lasting not less than zero days and not more than five years - our thoughts turn to comrades on the left, and how they might pick their way through this one.In some cases, the particular layout of burning political issues has effectively reduced people to paralysis - there is nothing wrong in principle, as the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has decided to do, with boycotting an election, but we are rather taken aback by it in this instance. It seems to reflect the uncomfortable reality that the actual political options available to ‘red’ Brexiteers like the CPB are effectively zilch. They have always wanted to give Brexit a different political content than the one it was destined to have; surely it would be tactically more astute to try to provide such an option themselves, rather than nihilistically condemning the whole affair.
But we will have to leave that one to them, and take a closer look at the Socialist Workers Party’s response. There is, on the face of it, little new about it - old wine in new skins, you might say. Yet we are in more interesting times, so far as British high politics goes, than we have been for a good while; and it is from this vantage point, rather than that of five, 10 or 15 years ago, that the comrades seem so impoverished.
A look at last week’s Socialist Worker, to be sure, would leave the proverbial Martian who had landed at an SWP paper sale outside a local tube station with nearly no idea that there was an election even happening. It is no surprise at all to find the country’s most protest-obsessed socialist organisation in orgasmic rapture over the Extinction Rebellion protests, which, of course, have involved great courage and imagination. They are certainly a meatier morsel than the editors of Socialist Worker have been able to feed their readers for a time.
There is another reason for this enthusiasm, this time around. The moral force of these protestors feeds in part on the very much greater significance, in the grand scheme of things, of mass extinction and melting ice caps than the Brexit fiasco. As we have had cause to note recently,1 the SWP has good reason to want to stay off what is also a touchy subject for it. Like the CPB, the SWP is holding to its historic Euroscepticism, in a situation where the right utterly dominates ‘their’ side, and is likely to marshal Brexiteer sentiment into a great chauvinist tide in the Euro elections.
So far as the SWP is prepared to touch the elections, it does so only indirectly, through its Stand Up to Racism front. Thus we read in its internal Party Notes circular to members (this time around from Amy Leather):
Nominations for the European elections have opened. These elections can open up the opportunity for the far right to build and cash in on the anger over the Brexit crisis. Nigel Farage is leading his new Brexit Party into the elections, while Ukip has said it will run candidates in every region across Britain … There are also rumours that Tommy Robinson may stand somewhere. We shouldn’t forget that in some places only 9% of the vote is needed to win a seat.
SWP comrades are urged to participate in SUTR’s campaign to “keep racism out of the elections”, and directed towards a flyer, notable for its exclusive focus on the UK Independence Party.2 Various reasons are provided for why one really ought not to vote for the kippers. This runs from leader Gerard Batten’s fruity opinions about Islam, through the baleful shadow of Mr Yaxley-Lennon and other unsavoury associates. The only mention of Farage is rather polite:
Even former Ukip leader Nigel Farage left the party because he says it is becoming ‘the new British National Party’. The BNP was a Nazi group that achieved significant electoral success in the 2000s.
The conclusion is obvious:
Ukip is trying to build the type of far-right party, aligned to a violent street movement, that we’ve seen growing across Europe. It thinks it can make an electoral breakthrough like its far-right friends on elsewhere [sic].
Alongside Ukip other far-right groups like For Britain and Britain First may also be standing. These people want to divide our communities and scapegoat migrants, refugees and Muslims for all our problems. We have to stop them. Let’s celebrate our unity and our multicultural society. Use your vote to stop Ukip!
There are several remarkable things about this dismal leaflet. The first is how unremarkable it is - the leaflet is almost a duplicate of the sort of material we would have to wade through in the glory days of the BNP. Then, the headline would be ‘Don’t vote Nazi’, as opposed to ‘Don’t vote Ukip’ (but the passing reference to the BNP’s supposed ‘Nazism’ gives us that nostalgic feeling). Also formally identical is the list of ne’er-do-wells associated with the target group, and the vapid exhortations about not letting racists “divide our communities” and defending the joys of “multicultural society”. (There is, moreover, an unusual level of desperation even as regards the ne’er-do-wells; Leather’s Party Notes make great play of Carl Benjamin, one of these snowflake-baiting pillocks who talk a lot on YouTube about how feminism is a Marxist conspiracy against video games. He is standing for Ukip in the west country, and we wish him the success he deserves, but - how to put this? - we are hardly quivering in fear of a thousand-year Reich with him at the helm.)
The second remarkable thing is that the comrades seem to be watching a different contest altogether from the rest of us. If you asked a random person in the street what the pre-eminent far-right participant in this election was, you would get a lot of mentions of the grinning man himself, Nigel Farage. Sure, he has made great play of ‘coalition building’ this time around, and so we find George Galloway in his camp, and also the clique of limp provocateurs formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party; but the bedrock of his support will come from the right of the Tory Party. Opinion polls suggest that Farage will attract 25%-30% of the vote, compared to 3%-5% for Ukip; it is the latter and the Tories whose votes have declined, as the Brexit Party’s have soared.
The SWP is not exactly unaware of this. An op-ed by Alex Callinicos in the April 22 issue of Socialist Worker decries Farage’s shiny new recruits. Comrade Alex is certainly under no illusions as to what the real point of the exercise is:
Farage says he isn’t after a protest vote this time. He wants to reconstitute mainstream politics to include a strong party of the far right comparable to the Lega in Italy, the Rassemblement National in France or Fidesz in Hungary. As with these parties, anti-migrant racism is central to the project. But to fully exploit the opportunity offered by the Brexit crisis Farage must appeal as broadly as possible.
He concludes, quite correctly:
No-one should be fooled by Farage’s soft, inclusive rhetoric about democracy. The Brexit Party is about building a much stronger far right in Britain. No genuine socialist should be hoodwinked into becoming one of Farage’s useful idiots.3
Yet, so far as SUTR is concerned, Farage seems almost not to exist; and, as a cursory reading of Party Notes shows, it is SUTR that is going to keep SWP members busy, where the election is concerned. (Indeed, if you look closely, Callinicos does not call for any active opposition to Farage’s party - just for the left not to support it).
The absurdity of this line consists above all in the fact that it makes SWP members into - alas! - “Farage’s useful idiots”. As Callinicos points out, Farage is making a show of taking distance from the far right. As the SUTR leaflet points out, he has done this in part by moving away from the Batten-Robinson incarnation of Ukip. So, if an oh-so-saintly anti-racist group like SUTR runs around denouncing Ukip as racists and borderline fascists, ask yourself: where do those votes go? The answer is plain as day - and it has a winning grin.
This was ever the problem with anti-fascism and anti-racism in the SWP style. If you take a concrete election, and pick out a specific contestant, and declare that they are “not a normal political party” and simply tell people ‘Don’t vote Ukip’ or ‘Don’t vote BNP’, you must implicitly endorse all the others as ‘normal political parties’. This is especially bizarre in the case of the Brexit Party - there are few things normal about it, barring its being reactionary and thus all too drearily typical of the age. But it was always an abdication of duty; for it enlisted purported ‘revolutionary socialists’ in the work of burnishing the credentials of the parties of the state.
The success of this strategy in combatting the far right may be measured by the absurdity of the current situation, where the main detachment of the far right (at any rate, the far right outside the Conservative Party) must simply be ignored in order to sustain the ‘broadest possible coalition’ of anti-racists. While such a coalition may profitably exclude Farage without incident, it cannot exclude all those mainstream bourgeois politicians who are happy to address a SUTR rally, but believe that the fight against racism must include ‘listening’ to people’s ‘legitimate concerns about mass migration’ …
There is one direct contradiction here, which is that - for the SWP - these sorts of nods to ‘legitimate concerns’ are as such racist. The more profound problem, however, is that these phenomena are self-reinforcing: the use of this cynical demagoguery by bourgeois politicians combines with the inevitable failure to deliver on promises to limit migration, and the result is that popular alienation from politics becomes fused with anti-migrant sentiment. Farage understands this, as do many similar types in Europe and around the world. Playing patsy for ‘normal’ politicians assists the far right, for the far right feeds on the ‘normal’ hypocrisy in relation to its ‘legitimate concerns’.
Breaking the cycle, however, demands more than anti-racism; and, in fact, demands more than the arithmetical sum of anti-racism plus the Extinction Rebellion, plus the innumerable other occasions of spirited protests whose encouragement forms the backbone of SWP political strategy. It requires a total political alternative capable of grasping all these things together. No doubt, as the vote looms, the SWP will recommend a critical vote for Labour (in England and Wales at least) with a few lines of scholastic argument (probably about what a strong Labour showing will mean for the number and size of street demonstrations); meanwhile, all the actual energy will be focused on the chimera of ‘keeping racism out’.
The exact reverse is needed. However, so wedded is the SWP to its strategy of cheerleading single-issue protest movements that we despair of the lesson being learned in time for Farage’s triumph.
‘Whatever happened to the
Lexit lads?’ Weekly Worker April 11.↩