Fighting for assimilation

Are anti-racists automatically also multiculturalists? Eddie Ford thinks not

Communists are anti-racists. Then again, so are Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy and Michael Howard. So are we subscribing to a bourgeois ideology then? No, of course not. But what this shows is that anti-racism - like democracy itself - is an essentially contested category or ideology. Scientific socialism would not be scientific if it did not aim to go beyond the mere surface appearance of things.

This brings us to the long simmering debate over multiculturalism. Does it automatically follow that anti-racists are also multiculturalists? Is multiculturalism just another word for anti-racism? For our Socialist Workers Party comrades, for instance, the answer is obvious - since the experience of multiculturalism has been “overwhelmingly positive” (Socialist Worker December 21 2001). The editor of Tribune, Mark Seddon, echoes this view in a recent letter to The Guardian: “The opposite of multiculturalism is the monoculturalism that defined Britain in the 1950s, much as it probably still does in places like the Falklands or the white suburbs of Australia” (April 13). Many others, whether on the left or not, would endorse such pro-multiculturalists sentiments.

However, we communists argue that multiculturalism - like the institutionalised anti-racism of the state - is a fundamentally bourgeois ideology, the theory and practice of which acts as a rival to our internationalism. Yet this in no way means that we are insensitive to the definitional complexities and political-cultural nuances that surround the multicultural debate.

The current round of soul-searching was sparked off by an interview that appeared two weeks ago in The Times (April 3) with Trevor Phillips, the “race relations chief” - to use the argot of the rightwing press. In this interview, the current chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality appears to have done something of a volte-face by severely criticising, if not renouncing, multiculturalism. Hitherto the Caribbean-born Phillips had been regarded as one of its leading advocates.

He told The Times that multiculturalism was out of date because it encouraged “separateness” between communities - it was now urgent to “assert a core of Britishness” because we find ourselves in “a different world from the 1960s and 1970s”. He added that multiculturalism stood for the wrong things: “What we should be talking about now is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are some shared values.”

Interestingly, and topically, Phillips focused on the situation of young muslims in the UK, claiming that they were being “indoctrinated by extremists” who told them they would never be part of British society, because of their colour and religion. Phillips stressed: “The first thing we must do is call them British again and again and again. Tell them they are British muslims and we accept them.”

Minor mayhem erupted when this interview appeared. On the one hand, howls of outrage that a major liberalistic shibboleth had been slain. On the other, the likes of Norman Tebbit and the half-mad Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail welcomed Phillips’s ‘conversion’. A sinner repents! So Phillips attempted to clarify his position in a follow-up interview for the same newspaper, where he says: “It is important to differentiate the idea of a multicultural society, which is a fact of life in Britain, from multiculturalism” (original emphasis, April 10).

One way to respond to Phillips’s argumentation is just to damn him as a reactionary and apostate - or worse. Thus Simon Woolley, the coordinator of Operation Black Watch, fumed: “Trevor’s remark’s have opened the floodgates to bigotry. Many people think being African, Caribbean or muslim is incompatible with being British.” We can see that comrade Dave Osler was not too impressed by Trevor Phillips’s comments either (see opposite).

But for communists and socialists there is a kernel of truth to Phillips’s words. The ideology of multiculturalism has been divisive and anti-integrationalist, acting to erode class politics and class identity. Since the late 1970s, if not earlier, we have witnessed the establishment’s racialisation of local government, acting under the guise of official anti-racism or ‘political correctness’. Concretely, the burgeoning corrupt culture of anti-racist jobbery and ‘regeneration’ grant handouts (fancy a community centre - with maybe some nice full-time posts?) gave the council bosses a weapon against the working class. Councils have ruled over rival supplicant groups, each defined on the basis of so-called ethnicity. This tick-box anti-racism ensured that our class was split-up into white British, Irish, Asian, Asian-British, West Indian, Jewish, Bengali (northern and southern of course), Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali, etc - and near endless sub-divisions thereof. Unsurprisingly, the local government bosses - and their backers in Whitehall - were all too happy to promote the virtues of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’, as this effectively put the kibosh on the development of class consciousness and class unity.

The ideologues of multiculturalism provided a handy philosophical well from which the government could draw upon when needed. One of the best - and perhaps notorious - examples was the 2000 government-sponsored inquiry headed by Lord Parekh and published under the good auspices of the Runnymede Trust, The future of multi-ethnic Britain (Trevor Phillips was one of the report’s signatories). Here we see the doctrine of multiculturalism at its most extreme and damaging. This large report was stuffed with phrases about Britain becoming “a community of communities” and, at the very least, it was a recipe for communalist and separatist division and disintegration.

Somewhat predictably, upon publication The future of multi-ethnic Britain was essentially applauded by the SWP - the only problem with it, as far as our comrades were concerned, was that it ‘did not go far enough’. Sound familiar? Yes, this was almost exactly the same way it greeted the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence - by attempting to out-Macpherson Macpherson. Our comrades, like many others on the left, did not have the theory or courage to develop an independent proletarian critique of the establishment’s bourgeois anti-racism, as this would have meant confronting and confounding one of the SWP’s central dogmas - that the bourgeois state, or capitalism, is inherently racist.

Ditto with multiculturalism and Lord Parekh’s report. The bourgeoisie cannot really be multiculturalists - can they? In the SWP thought-world, if members of the bourgeoisie or ruling class say that they are pro-multiculturalists then either they are lying bastards or - at best - they can only be half-hearted about it. Hence comrade Hassan Mahamdallie wrote in Socialist Worker: “Those attacking [The future of multi-ethnic Britain] are exactly the same people who attacked the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence scandal …. The report says that there is a ‘multicultural drift’ in society in general. It means by this that on a day to day basis people of different ‘ethnic’ groups tend to mix together. The report says state institutions should speed up this process through legislation and positive declarations of multiculturalism.

“There are two faults with this argument. Firstly, the way in which black and white have integrated with one another has not been due to a ‘drift’. It has been the result of battles that have taken place largely at the base of society …. Secondly, the report looks to the very institutions that are part of the problem for the solution to racism. It asks the government to declare itself ‘anti-racist’. Yet this is a government that has passed anti-immigration controls that have boosted racism. Studies have shown for decades that major employers discriminate against black workers, yet only a handful a year are taken to court. The idea that the police can be reformed by a top-down approach of the ‘carrot and the stick’ will not work. For 40 years and more black organisations have been saying that the police are racist to the core, yet the police are still allowed to get away with racist stop and searches, and black deaths in custody” (October 21 2000).

As the above passage clearly reveals, the SWP’s comrade Mahamdallie just assumes that multiculturalism is a progressive ideology that acts to integrate the white and black working class.

It is worthwhile examining the recent comments of Tariq Modood, professor of sociology at Bristol University, who was also a signatory to the Parekh report. Professor Modood suggested that Phillips “was in danger of arguing for assimilation rather than integration” (see The Times April 10). Unfortunately, this is a very common, though erroneous, viewpoint - that is, the counterpoising of integrationalism and assimila-tionalism. But for communists the idea that we are faced with a dichotomous choice between the two concepts is arrant nonsense. Indeed, it is surely the case that there can be no real integration without assimilation and - cardinally - the actual fight for assimilation. Thus the real debate that needs to be had is around what sort of assimilation we fight for, not whether assimilation is desirable. Obviously, for us communists the assimilation we are fighting for one is one that is democratic and voluntary - which originates from below and not from above.

That, of course, is what brings us directly into conflict with the parched and pinched vision outlined by Trevor Phillips - not to mention Norman Tebbit and unbalanced Daily Mail hacks. Phillips’s “core” British values seem to revolve around the bard, queen and country. In other words, Phillips and his co-thinkers want migrant workers to ‘assimilate’ the values of official/establishment Britain, with its boundless national myths and inventions. There is no room here for our proletarian, progressive Britain - held together by the universal bond of class commonality. (Which is not to say that it would not be excellent indeed if workers of Somali, Bengali or Bulgarian origin were reading - and enjoying - William Shakespeare, or Milton, in the original English.)

This message is not new, of course. In this context, the 69-page Cantle report published in the wake of the so-called ‘race riots’ that erupted two years ago in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham takes on some importance. Being also a semi-inchoate bourgeois critique of multiculturalism, in many ways this document supplied the template for the ‘new patriotism’ of Phillips and others. Just like him, the report’s intended crusade was to impart a new feeling of national belonging - we all need to learn to love the monarchy and the benevolent UK state. The document declared that “a meaningful concept of ‘citizenship’ needs establishing and championing” - which is to be “based on a few common principles that are shared and observed by all sections of the community”. Suggestions for “common elements of nationhood” include respect for the law, support for women’s rights, respect for religious differences, etc.

Notoriously, the report went on to demand that “immigrants should adopt norms of British life and speak better English”. That logic led directly to Cantle’s prime recommendation - that a ‘loyalty test’ was required, which should take the form of a clear “statement of allegiance” (or a US-style “oath of allegiance”) to the UK state. In order to get your British passport, you will need to demonstrate “a clear primary loyalty to this nation”. As we know, the establishment has now introduced this “statement of allegiance”, which two months ago saw no other than prince Charles himself preside over the UK’s very first - and gruesome - citizenship ceremony.

Communists treat such nationalistic rituals and ceremonies with contempt. We also utterly reject the ‘cure’ offered up by pro-multiculturalist die-hards like Madelaine Bunting, who writes: “But the way forward is unlikely to be the ‘integration’ recently called for by Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. It smacks too much of assimilation. What British muslims need is more of their own schools, better-resourced mosques and community organisations and British-educated imans” (my emphasis The Guardian April 12).

We need this like we need a hole in the head. The pernicious separatism advocated by Bunting is certainly in tune though with the Blairite line of recent years, which has been to push faith schools in the name of ‘promoting excellence’ - the argument being that it is wrong to deny parents of non-christian religions the opportunity to send their children to a faith school in the state system. Bizarrely, the very same people have also been heard to say that to expand the number of denominational and faith-based institutions is somehow to ‘promote inclusiveness’ - talk about having your multiculturalist cake and eating it.

But we communists say away with all faith-based schools and colleges. Just look at the British-Asian youth in the northern towns and cities - the object of so much concern in the Cantle report and in the Trevor Phillips’s Times interview. With their broad and distinctive accents, they sound, and are, as British as Yorkshire pudding and Coronation Street. We now have new ways to be British and Asian. That is surely something to be celebrated, not condemned or reversed.

Communists eagerly look forward to the voluntary and democratic merging of all the peoples, nationalities and cultures of the world.