Sense and nonsense

Ian Donovan takes issue with some aspects of the Weekly Worker?s coverage of official anti-racism

Some of our recent propaganda on the question of ?multiculturalism? has been inept, and has the potential to do us political damage. Indeed, some of the flawed material we have put out is likely to repel, rather than attract, politically conscious non-whites, due to its simplistic analysis which appears to tar with the same brush all forms of ?multiculturalist? ideology, even though the term means very different things to different people, people who are on different sides of the class barricades in every significant struggle of workers and oppressed minorities.

The ?multicultural? innovations of the Blairites - a comparatively recent and selective appropriation of some of the ?anti-racist? practices and phraseology of the 1980s Bennite left, extracting all that was middle class and promoted ?anti-racist? careerism in that paradigm, while carefully shearing it of anything that aspired to improve the situation of oppressed minorities as part of the working class, and instead reworking it into an overtly bourgeois-liberal framework - are baldly equated by us with the conceptions held by the far left.

This equation is fatuous, in my view, and amounts to a gross oversimplification. We need a more nuanced, and concretised analysis of the various different strands of bourgeois, petty bourgeois and working class ideology around questions of ?race?, immigration and social/special oppression.

What does ?multiculturalism? mean? For the Blair government, of course, it means a form of ?cultural national autonomy? - eg, the promotion of ?difference? and the ?tolerance? of such ?differences?, even to the point of, in some cases, extending to the encouragement of exclusionist and separatist schools. The key to these developments is the recognition by the Blair government that struggles against racial/ethnic oppression in capitalist society are implicitly class issues, that have the potential to ignite struggle on a class basis against the capitalist system itself. What we have with the new refined official ideology is a means to short-circuit such developments, to promote the government as the defender of the interests of such minorities, to coopt the politically active elements among them into the overall neo-liberal project, and thereby neuter this potential for class struggle.

However, for many on the genuine left, ?multiculturalism? is a synonym for tolerance, and the creation of a multi-polar, varied but essentially open and united culture. In other words, ?multiculturalism? is seen by many leftist types as constituting the melding of the progressive elements of all cultures into one, variegated culture - a position that corresponds with the historic interests of the working class, being the ?cultural? framework in which a generalised (not just episodic) class unity becomes possible. So, in blindly attacking ?multiculturalism?, we appear to be attacking not the bourgeois project of ?cultural-national autonomy? and sporadic separatism, but the very project of progressive democratic assimilation itself. That is shooting ourselves in the foot.

I will return to the question of the perennial debate between Red Action/Anti-Fascist Action on one side, and the Socialist Workers Party/Anti-Nazi League on the other. In my view we should distance ourselves more decisively from the RA/Afa side of this debate. The reason I return to this is because I feel that comrades are still, despite contradictions, unduly influenced by the militant-sounding but ultimately retrograde perspective of the former. No matter how often comrades protest that this is not the case, this debate keeps resurfacing in the pages of the Weekly Worker, and it is perfectly obvious that RA/Afa see our comrades as a somewhat unreliable ally whom they seek to exert polemical pressure on, to pull into line, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. It is therefore worth addressing their positions from a generalised, theoretical standpoint also.

Of course, RA sometimes demagogically makes correct criticisms of the SWP/ANL?s popular-frontist blocs with liberals, bishops and the like. But the standpoint of their criticism is not progressive - on the contrary, it is in the service of an even worse political programme. Essentially, they prettify the bigotry of the least class-conscious ?indigenous? workers as being a form of class-consciousness. We should be clear - the mistaken consciousness of those who believe that immigrants and asylum-seekers are some sort of ?privileged? layer being foisted on them by the powers-that-be is not class consciousness.

It is a kind of pseudo-class-consciousness, and completely misdirected. It is akin to Bebel?s description of its equivalent in his day - ?radical? anti-semitism - as the ?socialism of fools?. Insofar as it takes on an organised form, it is akin to the support of some workers for ?radical? Tories in the past, or on a more alienated level in a situation of qualitatively greater social instability, to the kind of sentiment that animated the ?left? wing of the Nazi Party - the Strasserites.

Indeed, in general, we are clear that this kind of consciousness is reactionary - when it rears its head in the form of the kind of lynch mobs that seek to hunt down ?suspected paedophiles?, or the two kids convicted of the killing of James Bulger, we are rightly outspoken in condemning these reactionary outbursts of ?working class? lynch law. We have correctly criticised Red Action for tailing these kinds of movements. Yet when Red Action makes criticisms, from exactly the same standpoint, of the ?multiculturalist? ideology of the SWP and the like, and attacks them for raising ?provocative?, ?offensive? and ?finger-wagging? slogans in defence of refugees (?Refugees are welcome here?), some of our comrades concur and echo the (incorrect) criticism.

The ideology of RA/Afa, its ?physical force? tactics notwithstanding, systematically apologies for and identifies with this kind of pseudo-class-consciousness, and confuses it with genuine class- consciousness. From this strategic, ideological standpoint, notwithstanding its superficial advocacy of more militant tactics than the SWP, the thrust of RA/Afa?s critique is from the right. We should distance ourselves decisively from this critique.

And we should not blindly denounce ?divisive? multiculturalism - this sounds as if we are denouncing leftist ?multiculturalists? such as the SWP for being ?divisive? by offending the sensibilities of those whose consciousness is that of this ?socialism of fools?. Despite many supportable elements, some of our coverage of this question gives credence to this. Thus, according to Robert Grace, ?The SWP?s acceptance of the state?s ?institutional racism? leads to fundamental mistakes and a soft underbelly when it comes to tackling the negative consequences of multiculturalism - not least white working class alienation. In the face of [Sir Herman Ouseley?s report on ?race relations? in Bradford], the SWP is disarmed. Rather than focus on the divisive effects of the multicultural project on working class communities, the SWP implies that the state?s anti-racism does not go far enough or is being deliberately sabotaged? (Weekly Worker July 19).

This clearly implies that the SWP?s propaganda is partly to blame for provoking ?white working class alienation? - for being too militant in their denunciation of state ?racism?. This is completely wrong, both in principle, and in terms of missing the complexities of the situation itself. Firstly, a crucial common element in the racial clashes in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford was the cops? transparent manipulation of ?crime? statistics to present a false picture of racial attacks being mainly perpetrated by Asians upon whites. A complete perversion of the truth, carried out by unreconstructed followers of the late James Anderton - resistance within the ranks of the cops to the Blairite ?anti-racist? makeover is as rife within some, particularly provincial, police forces as resistance to the Patten proposals is within the ranks of the RUC.

It is perfectly obvious that the cops have acted quite consciously as provocateurs of racial violence in this situation in defence of the old ?culture of policing?. The ?white working class alienation? being talked about here hardly being a product of Blair?s multicultural project, but rather of the concerted efforts in terms of propaganda by the cops to promote a paranoia among whites in pursuit of their own caste interests.

The use by such cops of a perversion of the recommendations of Macpherson, systematically reporting ordinary street crimes committed often by minority youth on the receiving end of discriminatory levels of unemployment and poverty - street robbery, etc - as ?racially motivated? and thus producing a false picture of reality, illustrates how nothing, not even the holiest policies and pronouncements of the incumbent government, are immune to being mangled for other purposes. In many ways, the revolts on the streets of Bradford, Oldham and Burnley were revolts by Asians against this kind of scapegoating and abuse of the Asian population, the intervention of the BNP being of an opportunist character - trying to ride on the back of the situation that had been created by the cops.

The SWP is guilty of many rigidities - including being unable to explain why, if the government and the cops are equally and inherently ?racist?, there should be tensions between them; and yet why, when the government is confronted with the breakdown of ?law and order? provoked by the actions of the cops, it is forced by class interest regardless to side with the cops in suppressing the uprisings. While no doubt behind the scenes continuing to press for its ?anti-racist? agenda, which is ultimately aimed at strengthening support in society as a whole for the cops and thereby making them a more effective defender of the rule of capital. However, we should attack the SWP in the correct way, for these rigidities, and not echo rightist denunciations of them for ?alienating? those who have already been seduced by bigotry.

It is not in the interests of the working class for socialists to temporise, or conciliate, the kind of pseudo-class-consciousness that periodically comes to the surface in the more backward sections of the class, in events such as Paulsgrove, or more recently the polarisation around asylum-seekers in Sighthill, Glasgow. Such events are usually, of course, underlain by economic grievances and as socialists we should actively take up those grievances - but in no sense should we conciliate the consciousness of those who express bigotry. We want to clash with - and in that sense ?offend? and ?alienate? - this kind of consciousness. Such a clash with the views of a reactionary-minded section of the class is necessary to destroy this consciousness and replace it with genuine class consciousness, which sees itself as the defender of all the oppressed.

Indeed, if such things are done simultaneously, there is every reason to believe that such working class communities can be won to a militant defence of refugees - witness the very positive activity of Scottish Socialist Party comrades on August 25 in Sighthill, who played a major role in leading a 350-strong ?unity march? of refugees and ?indigenous? working class Sighthill residents under the banner, ?Sighthill united. Against poverty, against racism, asylum-seekers welcome?. This modest but significant initiative struck a real blow against bigotry - and certainly undermines in its principled demands the perverse view that such slogans express ?contempt? for the working class.

Instead of making ham-fisted attacks on ?divisive multiculturalism?, it would be better to attack the Blairites? ideology, which, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to a new kind of segregation. We need to clearly distinguish between the advocates of such schemes and those who superficially share some of the same terminology, but have egalitarian-integrationist, not ?meritocratic?, anti-working-class and cynically manipulative and divisive, aims. There is a massive gulf between the two, though it is true that the particular theoretical rigidity of the SWP?s position, that bourgeois-imperialist-nationalist ideology is necessarily determined by considerations of ?race?, disarms them against elements of the more refined forms of bourgeois ideology that are often manifested today.

We should criticise these aspects of their politics, while at the same time making it clear that in doing so we are seeking a more consistent expression of their own best impulses: ie, a defence of the historic interests of the oppressed, firmly grounded in the historically evolved social and political situation.