Anti-racism as a straitjacket
Boris Johnson's government boasts of its anti-racism, the UN boasts of its anti-racism, the SWP boasts of its anti-racism. Paul Demarty detects more than a whiff of popular frontism
Anti-racism seems to unite almost everyone nowadays. On March 31 the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities proudly announced that family structure and social class had a bigger impact than race on how people’s lives turn out.
Ten days before, on March 21, we saw the celebration - if that is the word - of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
For a little over 50 years, the United Nations has marked the occasion (hence it is probably better known as ‘UN anti-racism day’). For a little over five, it has become an annual obsession for the Socialist Workers Party. Last week, a breathless Socialist Worker report recounted demonstrations across Europe, with vox pops from Poland, Germany, Greece and elsewhere.1 But this will not be the first its members have heard of the matter. Mailouts for the SWP’s Stand Up To Racism front have featured the day of action heavily. The agenda for SUTR’s event was for everyone to ‘take the knee’ at 1pm, and then to tune into an online rally to listen to a roll-call of worthies, from Diane Abbott, Peter Hain and Frances O’Grady to the famously woke former Everton goalkeeper, Neville Southall. SWP central committee member Weyman Bennett snuck onto the bill - though, of course, he was billed as coming from SUTR.
In case Josephine Bloggs in Hackney SWP did not get the message, she could take direct instructions from the internal Party notes:
The events of the last few days have made the [day of action] even more important. The shocking scenes at Clapham Common where the police attacked those gathering to mark the death of Sarah Everard came as the new policing bill makes its way through parliament. The bill clearly targets the BLM movement and anti-racist protestors and comes as yet another attempt to roll back the gains of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.2
The SWP is a very particular case of modern left anti-racism, in that it states plainly what have discreetly become the prevailing political assumptions across the board. Against the background of a do-gooding UN ‘day of action’, meanwhile, those assumptions - from a far-left point of view, at any rate - are revealed as deeply problematic.
It is worth looking briefly at the history of this event. It was inaugurated in 1966 by the UN general assembly. At the time, the UN was broadly divided along cold war lines, between US and Soviet allies, and additionally the so-called ‘non-aligned movement’ of developing nations, which leaned towards the Soviet sphere on many issues. March 21 was chosen as a day of action to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the apartheid regime gunned down those responding to a demonstration called by the Pan-African Congress. At the time - and, indeed, until the end of the cold war - the west supported apartheid as a necessary ‘bulwark against communism’. The world day of action is thus, in origin, an ephemeral rebuke, by a coalition of the Soviet- and non-aligned countries of the time, of the US world order and the crimes it discreetly ignored.
The UN is still very occasionally used for this kind of purpose, as with recent general assembly votes on Israel-Palestine - an issue that is the source of much vexation concerning the UN Human Rights Council, which successive US administrations have denounced because it dares to suggest that Israel’s collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians might fall within its remit. As usual, the complaint is that the UNHRC ‘unfairly singles out’ Israel for such criticism, when in fact the US and its cronies ‘unfairly single out’ Israel for such specious defences against accusations of crimes against humanity.
Even if the supporters of an oppressed population manage to make use of these institutions, such gains tend to have a definite shelf-life. So the rest of the story of UN anti-racism day hinges on developments in the countries it aimed to embarrass.
For its part, the United States was dominated by what has come to be called ‘realism’ in foreign policy. It pursued an advantageous division of spheres of influence, while attempting to defuse the nuclear issue, especially after the near miss over Cuba. It was callously indifferent to the behaviour of its client regimes and, while politicians in Washington may have been a little embarrassed about the baroque inhumanity of South African apartheid, this did not cause any serious breach in policy.
That began to change under Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski: cold war strategy shifted from the containment to the rollback of ‘communism’. Suddenly Washington started to talk ‘human rights’ language and, while this newfound piety did not prevent the US from committing and abetting dreadful crimes around the world, support for openly racist political regimes became a bit of a liability. When South Africa was defeated in its Angolan intervention, the usefulness of the regime was thrown into doubt; and, when the Soviet bloc finally collapsed in 1989-91, it was entirely superannuated.
The decline and fall of apartheid was one part of the story. For countries like Britain, there was an important related phenomenon: decolonisation. Racism was an important part of the legitimating ideology of empire; but that empire was on its last legs already before Sharpeville. Britain, like France and other decolonising powers, attempted to retain influence and close links with its former holdings. In time it accepted large numbers of migrant workers from what was now the Commonwealth. The integration over time of these large ethnic minorities was difficult, and indeed continues to be difficult. Concessions were in the end necessary, simply to avoid endless ‘race riots’, and part of that consisted of purging the old imperial racism from large sections of the state apparatus - though it persists, especially in the home office. In its place, the state began to proclaim its anti-racist virtues. Victory in World War II was recast as a victory for British liberty and tolerance over genocidal racism. Racists, in official discourse, were lower than vermin; they now needed to preface their opinions with ‘I’m not a racist, but …’
Over time, then, the subversive sting of the day of action was lost, until we meet its present incarnation as a peacock-show for establishment worthies to ‘bravely’ denounce racist prejudices.
It need not take half a century of great world events for such a shift to happen. Indeed, we have seen it in microcosm in the case of people ‘taking the knee’. That began in American football, when Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, made the gesture during the singing of the national anthem, to widespread agitation. Donald Trump denounced him on Twitter; it soon became clear that Kaepernick had effectively rendered himself unemployable in the closed shop of the National Football League, dominated by bloviating reactionary owners. That was in 2016 - he has not thrown a pass in the professional game since.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, of course, the gesture became far more popular, and this time no attempt was made to punish players for indicating their anger at the routine police murders of black men in the US. As the movement found echoes elsewhere, so did the kneeling protest. In the English Premier League, it rapidly became de rigueur for both teams and match officials to take the knee before a match. While Kaepernick was blacklisted for his protest, it is easy to imagine an English footballer being blacklisted for refusing to participate in the gesture today.
It is not, on closer examination, the same gesture - quite. Kaepernick made his during the national anthem, after all. American sports fixtures are drenched in militaristic chauvinism to an extent quite unimaginable to Britons, except perhaps around remembrance day. (Indeed, a British parallel might be James McClean, a footballer from Catholic Derry, whose refusal to wear poppy-branded shirts in the English league has persistently caused controversy, though his career has not noticeably suffered for it). Kaepernick besmirched the national honour. English footballers take the knee in silence (indeed, at the moment, in completely empty stadiums). It thus becomes something like the classic minute’s-silence ritual: a patriotic ritual itself, in other words; a demonstration that - as commentators soberly tell the viewers at home - ‘there is no place for racism in football’ and, by extension, the country at large.
Of course, it is not wholly true of either. In the brief period when a few fans were let back into grounds, there were several incidents where players were booed for taking the knee, provoking a lot of solemn condemnation. Popular racism, in other words, continues; the paradox of recent years is that it seems to have gotten worse - at least in terms of racial hatred crimes reported to police - at the same time as the discourse of official society and the establishment has gotten ever more histrionically anti-racist. Such is the peculiarity of the situation: anti-racism and racism appear as hostile camps, but are held together in an unstable unity by the balance of forces in society at large.
For Marxists, this is a familiar sort of peculiarity, which - following the dialectical philosophical tradition - we call a contradiction, a unity of opposites. To see it, one does not need to be an expert on value-form theory or Hegel’s Phenomenology of spirit. One does, however, apparently need to be not an SWP member. The SWP’s approach to the question is to see the world divided into two hostile camps: ‘the racists’ and ‘anti-racists’. The racists are the bad guys, and conveniently include all the people to whose overthrow the SWP is, in theory, committed; the bosses, the cops, the state, and so on. The term ‘anti-racists’ - usually rendered without the definite article - in principle includes all who are prepared to undertake street (or labour) activism against racism. But in practice it serves as a screen onto which the SWP may project its own assessment of the needs of the day (dramatised by the obfuscation of Weyman Bennett’s party affiliation, for example).
In order to blur the line between itself and the movement, the SWP cannot offer any programmatic direction to the movement; for it, the division is not programmatic, but formal, between people prepared to take the struggle into the streets and the workplace, and those who seek redress in official political structures. Liberal anti-racists have no such scruples, however, and are perfectly happy to fight for their politics within parties and government structures and on the occasional demonstration or day of action. The result is the total paralysis of the SWP in the straitjacket of liberal anti-racism.
This outcome, in fact, applies across the board with SWP politics. It tails liberal greens on environmental issues, sections of liberal feminism on gender issues, and so on. But anti-racism is first among equals in recent years, primarily because, following the destruction of the group’s reputation - such as it was - in the wider movement by the ‘Comrade Delta’ rape scandal of 2013-14, opposing racism is an exceptionally safe way to be on the side of the angels. Why? Precisely because anti-racism is so much a part of the legitimating ideology of the bourgeoisie today, including in Britain; because it has been retconned into our national mythos (‘our finest hour’ in the fight against Hitler, and so on).
Hence the multiplication of political errors in relation to the state. The SWP used to abstain from calling for state bans on racists and fascists (though it would never rebuke its allies publicly when they frequently did so). Somewhere along the line, that idea has been lost, and the group, for example, welcomed the Greek state ban on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party - meaning that the latter was finally treated as the “criminal gang” it was. (The enforcers of this ban are presumably the Greek police, who are notoriously riddled with Golden Dawn sympathisers.)3
These errors are hardly limited to the SWP: almost all of us suffer from a reluctance to put anti-racism under the microscope - to consider it as a pole of a contradiction, rather than the superhero team which is our only hope against the supervillain. We do not want to gainsay accusations of racism, even when straightforwardly libellous ones fly all around us. We do not want to stand for apparently abstract values like freedom of speech or association when people are concretely being oppressed now. If we all too easily get sucked into culture-war politics on the side of the liberals - who have shown themselves entirely incapable of resisting the rise of popular racism and the worsening authoritarianism in high politics - we thereby do a disservice to the oppressed.
It should be noted that there is an even worse option available than SWP liberalism: to so despise the hypocrisy of liberal identity politics that we get sucked into the slipstream of the right; today this is mainly an internet clique phenomenon, but the error is quite old and goes back at least as far as Ferdinand Lassalle.
It is quite impossible to imagine an effective socialist politics that did not take racism and related questions seriously. Yet we cannot be satisfied with the prevailing variety of left anti-racism - the popular-frontist substitution of gesture for substance, of liberal sentiment for Marxist critique, and of statist slave morality for mass political organisation.
Party notes March 15.↩︎