Racism and anti-racism

Fighting the wrong fights

Eddie Ford replies to Jim Gilbert (Weekly Worker May 11)

In his letter, comrade Jim Gilbert criticises the "simplistic" and "inadequate" approach to racism expressed by Alan Fox in a recent article ('Hague's last refuge' Weekly Worker April 20).

If I understand him correctly, Fox argued that a racist is someone who is inherently hostile towards those with "dark skins" and/or has a world view which invests an obsessional and irrationalist significance to "skin coloration". That is, racist ideologies are premised on a hocus-pocus, (normally) pseudo-scientific, hierarchical division of the world into a handful of so-called 'races'. Good examples of those who advocate such doctrines are Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party, the Ku Klux Kan, the British National Party, the Nation of Islam, etc.

Comrade Gilbert thinks this is taking a too "narrowly defined" view of racism. Instead our more sophisticated comrade suggests "there are different racisms" which do not have to conform to "the particular kinds of racism" outlined above by Alan Fox. Racisms which are far more elastic in content than Alan Fox can ever imagine, lumbered as he is with "fixed" models such as "British Empire racism" and the "biological racists' stereotypical Northern European". Sounds damning.

Yet if we examine the 'non-simplistic' and alternative definitions of racism on offer, it becomes apparent that we are being led into a political and theoretical cul-de-sac by comrade Gilbert. Rather than concrete analysis and science, we get shadow chasing. Therefore one is forced at times to address the comrade's argumentation in a sometimes extrapolative rather than concrete 'nuts and bolts' manner.

From the outset the comrade is forced to concede - somewhat reluctantly, it seems - that "the policy of the British state is presently 'official anti-racism'". But the comrade adds an immediate leftist caveat - this bourgeois or official anti-racism is in fact designed purely to act as a "formal" counter to the old-style "British Empire racism". In other words, continues comrade Gilbert, the Blair government is only "formally" opposed to the 'biological racism' that "almost inevitably" treats people of "African, African-Caribbean or Asian origin" as members of an inferior 'race' - the colonial and ex-colonial Untermensch. This leads comrade Gilbert to observe that "for some time" now we have been exposed to "official condemnations of specific UK [?] forms of racism".

The implicit message of course from comrade Gilbert - as with most on the left - is that the British establishment's anti-racism is only a cunning ruse, a plan to deceive as to the government's true ideology and intentions. This leaves us still begging the obvious question - so where exactly do we find this supposed official-governmental racism as distinct from anything unwholesome that might be swishing around civil or non-official society?

Well, insists comrade Gilbert, British state racism does exist ... and it does not exist. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it.

According to comrade Gilbert, not that much has changed from the Britannia of yesteryear to the "formally" anti-racist UK state of today. The racist substance remains. Rather, what we see now is the rise of a new "racism" which is not "predicated primarily", if at all, on a "concern with skin colour". To assist those of us still living in the past, comrade Gilbert supplies us with a definition which states that "racism is chauvinism on the basis of perceptions of what constitutes race". If you strip away the slight tautological excess, what the comrade is really trying to say that is 'racism is just another form of chauvinism' or - perhaps more to the point - that 'chauvinism is just another form of racism'.

Armed with this 'insight' into the true nature of racism, comrade Gilbert then goes on to warn us how "the Blairites" are rapidly constructing "a new idea of a British 'race' incorporating the 'black British' and the 'Asian British'" - and we must surely add the Jews, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc to this list of 'approved' ethnic-groups or (if you are that way inclined) 'races'. After all, no one can seriously argue that anti-semitism or anti-Sinoism exists as a material force at any level of society, least of all the state-governmental one. One can too easily imagine the delight with which the bourgeoisie and the liberal anti-racist establishment in general would greet the appearance of a smiling (and preferably wealthy) Chinese face in the British cabinet. Only the paranoid or criminally naive could think otherwise.

It is quite puzzling as to who is being 'racist' to whom. Maybe those black British and the Asian British (now that they have been co-opted into the "British race") who support 'firm but fair' immigration controls are being racist ... against fellow Asians and blacks who want to enter and settle in the UK, some of whom may well be kith and kin. But this would quickly lead us to the nonsensical notion that racism had absolutely no connection whatsoever to ethnicity or "a concern with skin colour". Logic should therefore tell us, whatever "the Blairites" may be up to, its behaviour and policies are not motivated by racism.

In the end, the only example of racism that comrade Gilbert can concretely come up with is the virulent and vile anti-asylum-seeker sentiment that undoubtedly exists in sunny Dover. At long last comrade Gilbert has found his British state racism and its unfortunate victims - Roma/gypsy refugees. We are told the "the racism" which is "exercised" against the Roma refugees by the Blair government is "palpable". Even more sinister, thinks comrade Gilbert, is the fact that the Blair government (and presumably its black British and Asian British members and backers) are virtually indistinguishable from "Dover thugs". Apparently both Blairites and NFers "see Roma as lesser" human beings, as people "without the benefits and rights of being a British subject" - the newly arrived Roma refugees have the tragic misfortune not to be members of comrade Gilbert's multi-racial "British race".

Therefore the New Labour government is a raving racist one, for all its "formal" or "official" anti-racism. Hurrah. Dogma vindicated. Politics back to normal again. Keep on fighting the good fight.

This is all sloppy and dogmatic nonsense which stretches the definition of racism to breaking point. Almost everyone and everything is racist - just as Haider is Hitler and Hitler was Haider. Racism and hence anti-racism become near meaningless terms. Such confusion objectively disarms the working class in front of the national myths and chauvinism of the reinvented, post-World War II/holocaust - crucially post-Berlin Wall - 'colour-blind' bourgeoisie, which has with near brilliant success almost made anti-racism/fascism its own. As a consequence proletarian anti-racism has been eclipsed or made virtually irrelevant. Bourgeois hegemony rules supreme - for the moment.

Take a cool look at official Britain. Last year's Macpherson report was and is a striking testament to the bourgeoisie's view that racism is a mortal threat to the British Way Of Life. Jack Straw never ceases to boast about the amount of anti-racist legislation his government has passed, or about the number of racists who have been arrested, charged or imprisoned. Straw also loves to hint at the even more draconian legislation to come in order to excite like Pavlov's dog the liberal-authoritarian anti-racists - such as the crime of 'holocaust denial', abolition of 'double jeopardy' (so as to nobble the Daily Mail-named killers of Stephen Lawrence), the criminalisation of 'racist remarks' made in private, and so on.

As for the forthcoming Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, that will require all public/state bodies - including the police of course - to set 'race targets' and "employ people from all sections of the community", as The Independent put it (May 17). If more proof of anti-racist intent were needed, the European parliament last week voted by a substantial majority to introduce a so-called 'race directive' under article 13 of the 1997 Amsterdam treaty, which the Blair government signed up to just weeks after its general election landslide. A key feature of this 'race directive' will be the reversal of the burden of proof in civil race discrimination cases "once the complainant has clearly established facts from which a court or tribunal can presume discrimination". Translated from the legalese - if accused of a 'race crime' you are guilty until proved innocent. Richard Howitt, the Labour MEP, described the 'race directive' as "the biggest breakthrough in British race relations for a quarter of a century" - legislation which "sends the strongest signal to Jörg Haider, David Irving and every thug who commits a racist crime on Britain's streets". The amended bill will also incorporate a new definition of "indirect discrimination", which will beef up the struggle against the "unwitting racism" identified by Macpherson and which has since become the ideological-bureaucratic mantra of the state and liberal anti-racists.

It is also not irrelevant here to mention Macpherson's justly famous definition of a "racial incident" as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other partner" - thus giving the green light for the bourgeoisie and its state to declare a war on 'race crime'. Last week the Metropolitan Police, almost in a spirit of pride, announced to a great fanfare that in the 12 months up to April of this year the number of recorded 'race hate' crimes in London had - all too predictably - doubled (23,346 or 63 "racial incidents" a day), with a Met spokesperson declaring that these statistics demonstrate "a growth in community confidence" in the police and state bodies in general.

From my own experience this is not a country which has been shaken to its foundations by "a staggering, unprecedented rise in racial attacks," as Kevin Toolis unabashedly stated in The Guardian (May 20). Neither does it appear to be, as Trevor Phillips claims in the May 21 edition of The Observer, a society whose public institutions have been "ethnically cleansed" of black and Asian people - a forbidding land where "swathes of the British people have become disappeared persons". (This is the very same Trevor Phillips, remember, who had no moral compunction whatsoever in playing the official anti-racist race card and refused to be the "racist" Ken Livingstone's running-mate, yet jumped like a kangaroo on speed when the bearded honky from Bloomsbury made the same appeal.)

The inclusivist Blair project - and therefore the whole gamut of official or politically correct anti-racism - aims to unite as loyal and equal ethnic supplicants the black British, Asian British, or indeed those "Roma who have been established in Britain over centuries", such as those named after the "Smiths" or "Coopers" (not uncommon British surnames, I would dare to suggest), against all outsiders - which naturally includes racists, fascists, neo-Nazis, 'Hitlers' like Saddam Hussein and Slobadan Milosevic and all those who may question the liberal, multi-culturalist, anti-racist values of official Britain. Roma refugees and asylum-seekers in general count as a de facto 'threat' by sheer virtue of the fact that they - so the establishment fears or imagines - have the potential to upset the fabric of this painstakingly re-articulated British national identity - because they do not speak English, are banned from legally working and are poor. National chauvinist - yes. Racist? - no.

In which case what is the point of pretending that there is no element of bourgeois anti-racism even within the anti-asylum-seeker rhetoric of New Labour and the Tories at its most tub-thumping and unpleasant best? If too many foreigners 'flood' into the UK then it only stands to reason that everyone gets a smaller share of the pie. Which means that the hardworking black British and Asian British (as well as the 'British British') get less because of the resources being allocated to refugees/asylum-seekers, many of whom, as we know, are making 'bogus' applications or are 'mere' economic migrants. Inevitable result - resentments grow, tensions build up. How can this be conducive to good 'race relations' - ie, the smooth and harmonious maintenance of bourgeois social-political relations within the boundaries of the UK state?

I suspect that comrade Gilbert has not much of a real answer to this common sense logic, trapped as he currently is in the faintly other-worldly 'racist UK state' paradigm - which of course stems from the dogmatic self-assertion of the left that capitalism and hence all bourgeois state apparatuses (like the ANC government in South African) are inherently racist. This debilitating ideology leaves the left and the working class stuck in a hole where the only option seems to be frenetic digging. You can stick to a splendidly consistent but semi-demented political line like the Spartacist League or its wayward International Bolshevik Tendency/Marxist Bulletin replicant, who refuse to even countenance the idea that the bourgeoisie and its state can appropriate and develop its own anti-racism - so when the Weekly Worker disputes the absurd liberal category of 'institutionalised racism' you promptly denounce the CPGB for being 'to the right of Macpherson'. This option makes the left look bizarre and ridiculous.

Second variation - saner but far less consistent - is to uncritically cheer on the 'institutionally racist' bourgeois state when it proposes or passes anti-racist/discriminatory legislation, proclaim wildly that the 'government has moved to the left' and then endeavour to out-Macpherson Macpherson. This of course is the majority left position of Socialist Worker, The Socialist, Socialist Outlook, etc. There is also a left minority - like the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - who seem genuinely unable to make up their mind as to whether the UK bourgeois state is institutionally racist or anti-racist.

Either way, independent working class politics ends up the loser. We become a mere 'left' or 'moral' appendage to official society and sooner or later we feel unable to resist its tender anti-racist embrace. We are all aware of the pecuniary advantage to be gained from entering the race relations industry. Anti-racist jobbery is the enemy of socialism, not its friend.

None of what I say is to remotely suggest that you cannot find racism - of whatever strength or vehemence - in every section of British society; least of all to imply that in the future racism could not become an important factor in British politics. Far from it. I am merely arguing that socialists and communists should assess things as they actually are, not as we think they ought to be for the sake of ideological dogma.

Our anti-racism stems first and foremost from a commitment to proletarian internationalism, not out of a knee-jerk deference to the politically correct values of liberal anti-racism.

Don Preston