Tilting at windmills

Racism or national chauvinsim?

Tom Ball’s article, ‘Prejudice or racism’, was very instructive as an example of much of the left’s blind but false insistence on the existence of ‘institutionalised racism’ at the heart of the British state (Weekly Worker January 8).

It was aptly titled, for you could not wish to for a better expression of prejudice. It reminded me of the method of turn-of-the-century social researchers, who, guided by the ‘certainty’ of the ‘inferiority’ of blacks, set out to explain away facts that demonstrated the contrary. These were portrayed as ‘exceptions’ which proved the rule.

And so it is with comrade Ball, who is just as convinced of the ‘fact’ of British state racism. Confident that all sensible leftists share his prejudice, he does not think it necessary to offer even a shred of evidence to back up the assumption upon which his argument is based. His only attempt at ‘proof’ is the assertion that the British state often behaves unpleasantly to outsiders, such as the Czech and Slovak Romany asylum-seekers.

Comrade Ball correctly states that British imperialism adopted an ideology of racism to justify its colonialist expansion: “The ‘superior’ English ‘race’ ... conquered ‘inferior’ peoples.” But then he makes his first logical leap: “This state has not changed its spots, nor will it ever do so.” Why on earth not, comrade?

At the end of the 20th century does imperialism still rely primarily on armed occupation to enforce its exploitation of the whole planet? On the contrary, with only a few exceptions its past conquests have been decolonised. So why should imperialism perpetuate the myth of racial superiority when the occasion for its use has long since disappeared? Not that comrade Ball is claiming that today’s imagined official racism assumes superior and inferior races. It apparently attempts to provoke racial divisions amongst the working class upon some other, undefined, basis.

In my previous article (‘Fight oppression not prejudice’ Weekly Worker November 20 1997) I tried to show that the modern state’s main task in times of relative class peace is to ensure social stability. Thus in Britain it actively promotes multi-racial harmony through a whole range of measures. It encourages the notion that ethnic diversity ought to be the norm of a civilised society: indeed it is positively desirable. That is why anti-racism is taught in schools, why local councils and most big companies prominently display their anti-racist policies and credentials, why television in particular - the most popular and powerful of all the mass media - constantly and consistently pushes the same theme.

Comrade Ball has taken note of my arguments. Yes, he too has observed all this. Instead of simply ignoring these obvious manifestations of the ‘racist’ state’s official anti-racism, as most on the left prefer to do, he attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Rather than seriously re-examine the false basis of his prejudice, he develops an elaborate, not to say fantastic, conspiracy theory.

You see, the state is “happy to encourage itself to be portrayed, superficially and wrongly, as ‘anti-racist’ ... Let us not be fooled by appearances.” Comrade Ball assures us that racism continues to be secretly “nurtured” by the state (strange there are so few manifestations of this). Cleverly however, the bourgeoisie realises that its use could be “a dangerous tactic”, but “limiting it by means of ‘anti-racist’ legislation maintains a degree of control over it”. This requires “nice judgements” of course. Still, if they get it right, “British state ‘anti-racism’ can be switched on or off as desired”.

Believe it or not, those cunning bourgeois have even worked out that they need to “maintain a reservoir of racism, to be topped up as and when necessary, consequent on the depth of crisis and proximity to a revolutionary situation”. Presumably, since there have been no examples whatsoever of state-inspired racist propaganda for a generation or more, the reservoir has been at a sufficiently high level for the past couple of decades or so.

In Tom’s fantasy-world bourgeois strategists are certainly much more far-sighted than any on planet Earth. Comrade Ball is convinced that the ruling class is carefully preparing for counterrevolution. But today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘death of communism’, which establishment politician, which apologist commentator, has an inkling that capital will ever again be threatened by the organised working class - let alone considers it necessary to make active counterrevolutionary preparations? They are characterised by an arrogant and unmovable belief in the permanence of their system.

Searching for authoritative confirmation of his prejudice, Tom turns hopefully to Jack Conrad’s Draft programme for the CPGB. He quotes the following extract: “The capitalist state in Britain has an official ideology of anti-racism. That in no way contradicts the national chauvinist consensus which champions British imperialism’s interests against foreign rivals and sets worker against worker.” But then comrade Ball threads in his own interpretation: “And,” he adds seamlessly, “in no way does this thin veneer ... conceal the underlying reality of the British state’s racist essence.”

Comrade Conrad can speak for himself of course. But it is a fact that his Draft programme was based on conclusions reached after lengthy discussions within the Party. In fact the majority did not share Tom’s view. National chauvinism was not viewed as a corollary of racism, but was actually seen as something quantitatively different. The quotation actually means what it says: the state’s ideology is not racist; it is national chauvinist.

Racism, as described by many on the left, is viewed as a device for provoking internal divisions. But comrade Conrad’s phrase that national chauvinism “sets worker against worker” should be understood in the context of “foreign rivals”. National chauvinism provokes external, internationaldivisions amongst our class.

Comrade Ball has overlooked a key word. The bourgeoisie strives to cohere the entire population around its “national chauvinist consensus”. It aims to win ideological hegemony over every section of society - every class, every ethnic group. It eschews racism not because it believes in polite and agreeable behaviour, but because a divided population would be antithetical to its present aims of consolidating national unity directed against outsiders.

There are numerous examples of this. A recent one concerns the BBC football commentator, John Motson, who naively confessed to finding it difficult on occasions to quickly identify black players. This caused an outrage and the hapless Motson was completely taken aback by the vehemence of those rushing to condemn him. Whatever you think of his comments, the reaction to them gives the lie to the myth of widespread and officially sanctioned racism.

While the slightest hint of discriminatory language or action based on race or ethnicity is officially frowned upon and usually forcefully condemned, when it comes to expressions of patriotism, of discrimination in favour of Britain and against outsiders, that is considered to be not only desirable, but completely natural. White workers are never encouraged to think of themselves as having separate and distinct interests as opposed to black workers. Yet standing up for Britain, for ‘our’ interests, is the officially promoted orthodoxy.

This ideology does not usually portray the British as being superior to other nations. That is unnecessary. It insists only that ‘we’ have a common interest, directed of course against all other countries. Just as employers continually strive to instil in their employees the notion that workers, managers, directors and shareholders all ought to collaborate for the good of the company and their mutual benefit, so British capital seeks to forge a similar ‘unity’ in the interests of the ‘nation’.

This ideology is so powerful and all-pervading that it even affects the thinking of the left. No self-respecting leftist would want to be viewed in any other way than as a committed anti-racist who believes in the equality and solidarity of all. Yet the left and self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations embrace such ideas as import and immigration controls, the hope of making social advances in ‘our’ own country without reference to elsewhere: in short national socialism.

That is why attacks on the ‘racist’ state are misdirected. The bourgeoisie is only too happy to condemn and attempt to prevent manifestations of racist discrimination within its shores. But there is no common ground whatsoever over genuine internationalism. For the ruling class Britain’s ‘national interests’ must always come first.

It is true that racism still exists at every level of society. But to admit that does not imply that it is officially sponsored. Not only is the left’s obsession with tilting at racist windmills misconceived.

It also dovetails - conveniently for the bourgeoisie - with the state’s genuinely vicious and oppressive chauvinism.

Alan Fox