Their anti-racism and ours

While of course dictionary definitions only take us so far, here are two offerings from the ninth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary:

"race n. 1: each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics. 2: a tribe, nation, etc, regarded as of a distinct ethnic stock. 3: the fact or concept of division into races (discrimination based on race). 4: a genus, species, breed, or variety of animals, plants, or micro-organisms. 5: a group of persons, animals, or plants connected by common descent. 6: any great division of living creatures (the feathered race, the four-footed race). 7: descent; kindred (of noble race; separate in language and race). 8: a class of persons, etc, with some common feature (the race of poets). [French from Italian razza, of unknown origin]"

"racism n. 1a: a belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudice based on this. b: antagonism towards, or discrimination against, other races, esp. as a result of this. 2: the theory that human abilities, etc are determined by race."

Interestingly, these dictionary definitions not only do not relate race or racism primarily to skin colour: this specific factor is not even mentioned. In comparison with this, colour-sensitive comrade Don Preston (Weekly Worker May 25) accepts a greatly narrowed definition of racism, and thus of anti-racism, akin to that of the British state and government: opposing only racism based on skin colour, particularly when darker than that of the majority of the population. Full stop.

The narrow anti-racists imagine they can berate those of us using a truer designation of what constitutes racism. The British government is anti-racist to the extent of its own definition. But, in order to avoid further distortion of my words, I must make clear several things that this official definition cannot mean for our purposes. It does not mean: (a) that we have to accept the government's own, narrow definition; (b) that the government might not expand its anti-racist definition; or (c) that the government cannot be racist outside of its current, narrowly defined anti-racism. This is only logical, surely. If a white person opposes racism toward African-Caribbean persons, but is racist toward Asians, is he or she not a racist? It all depends on how you define your anti-racism, of course, and indeed what you see as racism. Like being a bit pregnant, I suppose. This is where we appear to differ at the moment. It is exactly the restriction of the government's narrow anti-racism that leads me to call it 'formal anti-racism', not because its supporters do not believe themselves sincerely anti-racist within the limited definition they use, but precisely because its partial nature means it cannot be fully anti-racist. Thus, it is at least arguable that all those who espouse a narrow anti-racism are only 'formal anti-racists'.

Sloppy and dogmatic assertions by Don notwithstanding, racism in fact encompasses any view of humankind wherein there is not one human race, but various human 'races'. It is part of the make-up of some 'anti-racists' and 'anti-racisms'. Racial division of humans, stepping outside the fact that we are all of one race, is itself racism. As soon as states, groups, or individuals start acting as if humanity were divided into 'races', then that is racism; actions proceeding from this division are hardly going to be neutral, after all, but based on ideas of racial superiority, explicitly or implicitly. New Labour's anti-racism is anyway only concerned with skin-colour racism internal (as they see it) to the UK, certainly not with racism toward the external 'other'. That is another squaring of the circle that the Blairites are attempting as part of their revamping of the UK state, creating New Labour Britons and an associated chauvinism and xenophobia. But the state's actions toward asylum-seekers have elements of racism, just as they have elements of being anti-worker.

Unless comrades are suggesting that xenophobia and chauvinism expressed beyond UK borders cannot by definition be racism, we have an area for discussion. Draw your Venn diagrams as you will, racism- chauvinism and xenophobia are bedfellows.

Clearly those comrades who have now written down their ideas on racism have the laudable ambition of debunking one of the left's mistaken 'rules': that the British state by definition is always racist.

But this has led to bending the stick too far. Leaving aside their petulant and immature manner, in a small way I do mind that Don raises Aunt Sally after Aunt Sally, as this has the unfortunate effect that they cloud the issues through accidentally or deliberately misrepresenting what my original letter said (Weekly Worker May 11).

But what is far more important generally is that comrades fail to see the wood for the trees. In fact, little of Don's article actually applies to anything I wrote, published or unpublished. Although it hardly should need reiterating, I am not advocating treading a path covered in the left's dog shit: but neither will an insular, UK-centred way of looking at the question do. Merely asserting that our anti-racism is one based on proletarian principles seems at present only a marginal differentiation from the state's present anti-racism. Merely criticising the SWP for simplistically trying to go one better than the UK state on this question is inadequate for our purposes as revolutionaries. We know that the state's anti-racism has been applied in a way that is divisive, setting worker against worker on the basis of 'community' for limited state disbursements, at the workplace, and so on. Proletarian anti-racism must tackle this disguised racist approach too.

The dialectic of the situation is that racism is opposed and used by the state, depending on circumstances; these two positions are not necessarily expressed at different times either, but in different contexts. The state can get away with this precisely because of mistaken views such as these comrade Preston expresses, bone-headedly seeing the government as unequivocally anti-racist in all circumstances just because it is anti-racist on the present narrow basis. Present Blairite policy is anti-racist, formally and legally, within its jurisdiction.

Recently, however, government representatives were instructed to tell the east European media, in a proactive move to staunch the flow on the spot, as it were, that refugees were not welcome on these shores and that strong measures were being taken against them as illegal entrants. Roma and other potential refugees have thus been given an unmistakable message by this New Labour 'anti-racist' government: you are amongst the 'other' who are undesirable purely because of your origin - for which read 'race'.

You could not have a clearer indication of the 'anti-racist at home, racist abroad' approach of the UK state. Why do comrades find this truth so hard to accept?

Jim Gilbert