Rolling back multiculturalism

Of course multiculturalism is not to 'blame' for the London bombings, as reactionaries like Norman Tebbit suggest. But communists also condemn Tony Blair's plans for more religious schools and increased separation along ethnic and religious lines - instead arguing for voluntary and democratic assimilation from below, says Eddie Ford

Following the London bombings, and then the video confession of one of the suicide bombers - the Leeds-born Mohammad Sidique Khan - there has been a round of soul-searching. What was it that formed and created the mindset of the bombers? Why do they seem to hate British society, and its people, so much? Quite inevitably, as part of the hunt for explanations, attention has focused on the ideology and practice of multiculturalism. For some - especially on the right - multiculturalism is partly or primarily responsible for the 7/7 atrocity and hence it needs to be 'rolled back' in order to prevent another such outrage occurring. This has certainly being the view of Lord Norman Tebbit, who in 1990 formulated his notorious 'cricket test' - which entailed testing the 'Britishness' of the UK's Asian and black population by the degree to which they supported the England cricket team as opposed to the team representing the 'mother' country from which their parents originated. From this, Tebbit argued that if you do not have a 'critical mass' of black and Asian British supporting the English team, then you have trouble coming. Unsurprisingly, Tebbit feels that recent events have justified his prognosis. Proudly donning his 'I told you so' t-shirt, Tebbit embarked on a blitzkrieg tour of various media outlets. As part of these interviews, Tebbit proclaimed that, "had my comments been acted on, those attacks would have been less likely", because "if a community was looking back at where it had come from, instead of looking forward with the people to whom they had come, then there is going to be a problem sooner or later". Tebbit went on to condemn multiculturalism for "undermining British society", claiming that London is "sinking into the same abyss that Londonderry and Belfast sank" - and boldly stated that "a multicultural society is an impossibility", as a society is "defined by its culture" and not "by its race". All in all, then, for Tebbit, the logic of multiculturalism is eminently predictable: "If you have two cultures in one society then you have two societies - if you have two societies in the same place then you are going to have problems, like the kind we saw on July 7." It is worth noting that our ardent Thatcherite peer also seems to subscribe to what you could call the 'Robert Kilroy-Silk' school of history, arguing that "the muslim religion is so unreformed since it was created that nowhere in the muslim world has there been any real advance in science, or art or literature, or technology in the last 500 years" (http://www.epolitix.com/EN/Interviews). Here, of course, we have a slightly revamped version of the ahistorical 'clash of civilisation' thesis, which assigns a predeterminately enlightening or progressive role to imperialism and global capitalism. But if you prefer a more straightforward, no-nonsense anti-multiculturalist viewpoint, then you will not do much better than Jedd Babbin in The American Spectator, who informs us that Britain "has come up against the fruits of multiculturalism - a bunch of folks who want to kill us, no matter how sincerely or often the Brits apologise - and will use every means to resist the repeal of the multiculturalist absurdities that now prevent Britain from protecting its national security from imported menaces" (www.spectator.org/dsp_arti-cle.asp?art_id=8553). Surely then, given the impeccably rightwing credentials of those launching the latest assault on the nostrums of multiculturalism, communists will be the first to leap to its defence - after all, is not multiculturalism just another word for anti-racism, and therefore communists must also be committed multiculturalists? Of course, if you are a member of the Socialist Workers Party this is a simple non-question - all that is required is a loud 'yes!', since 'party' ideology affirms that the experience of multiculturalism has been "overwhelmingly positive" (Socialist Worker December 21 2001), as it "means the desire to live in a society rich with cultures and people from across the world" (April 17 2004). Presumably, given this SWP definition, if you are not a multiculturalist, then you must be some sort of dreadful reactionary bore. As Mark Seddon, all-round decent chap and editor of Tribune, put it, "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" (The Guardian April 13 2004). Naturally, many others, whether they consciously identify themselves with the left or not, would endorse such sentiments. Where would you rather want to live - London or Port Stanley with its 1,989 'Anglo-Saxon' inhabitants? Put like that ... In this way, the debate around multiculturalism by 'progressives' often becomes a proprietorial scrap over 'authenticity' and who can claim to be the most 'holier than thou'. Obviously, many defenders of multiculturalism - especially when they hear the drone of the Chingford bovver boy - are reacting with a sincere and in many respects understandable disdain or disgust at the narrow-mindedness of the rightwing critics. However, that does not mean that multiculturalism is an inherently progressive phenomenon. Indeed, what the latest fuss really demonstrates is that multiculturalism - just like anti-racism itself - is an essentially contested category or ideology, being constantly reshaped and defined by the ebb and flow of class struggle. But, then again, scientific socialism would not be scientific, or even necessary, if it did not aim to go beyond the mere surface appearance of things. Otherwise, the art of politics would be reduced to just a matter of enthusiastically, and perhaps uncritically, embracing whatever appears to be progressive or emancipatory at a given point in time. Accordingly, communists have long questioned multiculturalist orthodoxies - centrally, its call to 'celebrate difference'. In fact, communists go further and maintain that the ideology of multiculturalism has been divisive and anti-integrationalist, acting to erode class politics and class identity. If anything, multiculturalist doctrine aims to herd individuals and peoples into their pre-defined, officially designated 'culture' - which becomes more of a fixed entity standing guard over you than a joyous instrument with which to explore and develop your humanity and creative individuality. More concretely, ever since the late 1970s - if not earlier - we have witnessed the establishment's effective 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 grant handouts (ie, community centre politics) gave the council bosses a powerful weapon - and bulwark - against the development of working class politics and organisation. Over the years, councils steadily excelled at manufacturing, then ruling over, rival supplicant groups, each defined on the basis of so-called ethnicity or 'culture'. This tick-box anti-racism of the establishment 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. Given this reality, it is no wonder that the local government bosses, and their backers in Whitehall, were all too happy to promote the virtues of 'diversity' and 'difference' - as evinced by the 2000 government-sponsored inquiry headed by Lord Parekh, The future of multi-ethnic Britain, which talked approvingly of Britain becoming "a community of communities". Here was a recipe for sectarian and communalist division if ever there was one, and further proof that multiculturalism is a collective punishment for our failure to make revolution. With regards to the London bombers, Tebbit is, of course, correct to observe that society is "defined by its culture" and not "by its race". So the real question becomes - whose "culture", and which class, is to prevail in society? We all know where the likes of Lord Tebbit stand on this. The "culture" that he would like all of us - not just migrant workers and their children - to 'integrate' or 'assimilate' into is one that revolves around the supposed "core" British values of bard, queen and country. In other words, Tebbit and his co-thinkers want migrant workers to 'assimilate' the values of official/establishment Britain, with its national myths and inventions. The Patels, Khans and Hussains are meant to join the Smiths, Evanses and Campbells in celebrating Winston Churchill's finest hour and Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar - a victory for the British ruling class must surely be a victory for us all. Such national chauvinist inculcation is, of course, what lies behind the Blair government's plans for compulsory, US-style citizenship ceremonies, rituals and oaths. We communists, on the other hand, fight for internationalim - which by definition involves the struggle for assimilation and change. But the assimilation and change we are fighting for are democratic and voluntary, originating from below, not from above. We might speak the same language as Tebbit ... and we certainly stand by the right of all migrants to learn English. But we also want to change the British population by drawing on all that is progressive and democratic from around the world. That brings forward the merger of the world's people. Hence our steadfast opposition to multiculturalism, a doctrine and governmental policy inseparable from the bureaucratic-institutional anti-racism of the state - which makes the national flag, not class and humanism, the only point of unity. Logically, this means that communists adamantly reject faith and denomination-based schools - obvious sources of separatism and communalism. Grotesquely though, this does not appear to bother the Blairites, who continue to aggressively push faith schools - whether people want them or not - in the specious name of 'promoting excellence', arguing 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. We can only concur with the remarks made by Salman Rushdie on the BBC's Today programme (August 30), where he attacked Blair's plans to create more of the same. In the words of Rushdie, the prime minister's belief that "more religion is going to solve the problem" was not only wrong, but was "seriously out of step with the country" - referring to an ICM/Guardian survey last week which found that 64% opposed state funding for faith schools. Rushdie also waded into so-called 'community leaders', especially those in the Muslim Council of Britain, saying they were not representative of the majority of muslims in the UK - "It is important to see that for most people of muslim belief in this country, they have a range of political and social interests which have nothing to do with being religious," he said. Indeed, continued Rushdie, the self-appointed 'community leaders' are "a joke, because no one follows them". Yes, communists think Rushdie is quite right - muslims are not somehow pre-programmed to religious devotionalism or fanaticism. It is perfectly possibly to win them over to the communist programme of democracy and secularism - including those who at present might seem more likely to attempt to blow themselves up on the London underground. As we have previously commented, the actions of the suicide bombers, including those who failed to carry out their mission, is an extreme manifestation of desperation and of a terrible longing to escape alienation. In their yearning for a better world, they turned to the utopian programme of jihad, with its promises of a glorious revival of Mohammed's values of justice and community (umma), and of a happy and secure global future, governed by a divinely appointed elect. So, whatever else you can say about the perpetrators of 7/7, they had emphatically rejected the false gods of mammon, state power, monarchs and national flags - including, it is safe to assume, 'heroes' like Horatio Nelson, the duke of Wellington, general Charles Gordon of Khartoum and Winston Churchill. So, yes, insofar as multiculturalism has generated ghettoisation and alienation - the reactionary rantings of the Tebbitites notwithstanding - it has to take its share of the blame for 7/7. Eddie Ford