Oppression and opportunism
Peter Manson looks at questions of race, sex and nation raised by SWP speakers at Marxism
As writers for this paper have frequently pointed out, the Socialist Workers Party’s bureaucratic-centralist practice is closely linked to its opportunism. The central committee must be free to embrace, and if need be to ditch, any passing cause, any populist sentiment, without fear of challenge from within its own ranks. However, while a section of the membership is starting to confidently assert its opposition to bureaucratic centralism, it appears unable to see the connection with SWP political methodology.
Take, for example, the question of oppression and, in particular, racism. Because the SWP wants to appear, for the benefit of the membership and possible recruits, the most militant, most uncompromising and most revolutionary opponent of racial oppression, it claims racism is constantly and continuously being promoted by the ruling class - and it falls to the ‘revolutionary party’ to expose this at every opportunity. But it has not yet dawned on the opposition that this is a sham: the ruling class has, quite evidently, largely abandoned attempts to divide the working class on the basis of ethnicity.
Ken Olende, in the session ‘Where does racism come from?’, reminded us of racism’s origins in slavery - before the 18th century the concept was virtually unthinkable. But, despite the fact that slavery is long since gone as a mode of production, “racism is not a thing of the past”, he said, because it is so “useful to divide us”. For the SWP, racism is virtually identical with anti-immigrant discrimination and propaganda. So, for example, Nigel Farage is a racist because he opposes immigration - end of story. And every SWPer, oppositionist or not, appears to go along with this. So there were statements from the floor such as “the ruling class are trying to push racism as far as they can”.
In my own contribution, I wondered why, if it is true that racism is such a unique and powerful device for dividing the lower orders, pre-capitalist ruling classes had not thought of employing it. And if it had originated in order to justify slavery, how does it work in slavery’s absence? Of course, these points are - or ought to be - academic, since it is clear to anyone who is able to look around them without dogmatic spectacles that the bourgeoisie is not “trying to push racism as far as they can”. Quite the opposite. The dominant ruling class ideology is clearly national chauvinism - and actually of a non-racist, indeed anti-racist, variety. I gave the example of the black BBC newsreader who just before the Wimbledon final told viewers at the end of the bulletin, “Let’s hope Andy Murray does it!” Yes, all of us, black and white, are with the Brit fighting for the country’s prestige - in fact that sentiment is such common currency that its expression is not held to be out of place on a ‘neutral’ ‘news’ bulletin.
The audience seemed genuinely shocked at my heresy. A young woman loudly admonished me for not realising that black deaths in custody occur far more frequently per head of population than those of other sections. A black comrade related the story of how her young daughter was shown three head-and-shoulder photographs at school and asked to guess which one was the criminal. Unhesitatingly she pointed to the black face. Apparently that is because photos of black suspects and black criminals are always being shown on TV news bulletins.
Comrade Olende did not feel the need to add anything to these ‘rebuttals’ - “The idea that racism is not a problem today [not quite what I said, Ken] - people have answered that”.
I was also able to intervene in Charlie Kimber’s session, ‘Immigration: the myths they use to divide us’. The SWP national secretary predicted that the 2015 general election would see an “orgy of reaction over immigration”, with politicians vying with each other to blame “immigrants, asylum-seekers and the black or brown person on your street” for all our problems.
I pointed out that no mainstream politician today attempts to blame the “black or brown person on your street”. If anyone were to act in such an overtly racist manner, they would immediately be sacked or demoted. The SWP, like just about the rest of the left, has failed to recognise the change in ruling class ideology, even though that change began to take place more than half a century ago. Whereas before the 1960s national chauvinism had been inextricably mixed with racism, following the end of British colonialism racism no longer fitted the bill.
What the ruling class now needed was an ideology that could incorporate the millions of Britons with dark skins - attempting to scapegoat such a large minority would provoke huge unrest. Today the establishment tries - with a good deal of success - to win both blacks and whites to the notion that we must all work together in Britain’s national interest, which is defined in opposition, to a greater or lesser degree, to the interests of other nations.
It is not even a question of trying to divide us along the lines of “those who were born here and those who weren’t”, as comrade Kimber claimed. What does he make of the official adulation of Olympic champion Mo Farah, who arrived in Britain from Somalia, unable to speak English, just over two decades ago? Does comrade Kimber think the ruling class is using this black athlete as a negative example for white youth?
Comrade Kimber seemed genuinely uncertain of the main point I was making - “I think he was saying that the ruling class has abandoned racism,” he remarked. You got it in one, Charlie! Describing this as “nonsense”, he asked: “Why is it that blacks and Asians get stopped and searched so much more than whites? Why is unemployment for blacks and Asians so much worse? We still live in a society of arrant racism.”
So does comrade Kimber think this appalling reality is deliberately driven by ruling class ideology? For example, are police officers instructed to target blacks disproportionally for stops and searches? If so, they must be doing so surreptitiously, as their official documents seem to show an attempt to do the opposite. Surely it is more a question of individual racist acts, combined with socioeconomic factors - blacks are disproportionally poor and working class, and these groups are more likely to be on the receiving end of police oppression.
You might ask, what does it matter if we use the wrong word? If we call anti-immigrant national chauvinism ‘racism’? It matters because it allows the ruling class to easily dismiss our opposition to their attempts to divide us. It is a straightforward matter to demonstrate that their actions are not racist. Why do they promote blacks and Asians to senior positions in their parties and throughout society? Why do they virtually unanimously advocate anti-racism? Not a very effective way of fomenting racial scapegoating, is it?
As I say, oppositionists have not even begun to expose and oppose SWP dogma on such questions - it was impossible to distinguish between the two camps in these sessions. And the poverty of SWP theory affecting both sides struck me particularly sharply in a session similar to that of comrade Kimber: ‘Who are the British?’, presented by Maxine Bowler.
Comrade Bowler set out to debunk the many myths about Britishness and ‘what makes us special’: the British cup of tea came from China, fish and chips was originally Jewish, the royal family are a load of foreigners … But, strangely enough, racism did not get a mention. An oversight?
The result of this was that speakers from the floor appeared at a loss. No-one was able to come in with the usual well-rehearsed anecdotes to back up the official line, and contributions were truly abysmal. A Scottish comrade objected to the whole presentation on the grounds that it should have been called ‘Who are the English?’ - didn’t comrade Bowler know that “we are not British”? He obviously prefers Scottish myths to British ones. And to think that she had finished her opening with the remark, “Our culture is the international culture of the working class.”
The question of racism also featured in another session with a linked theme: ‘Privilege theory: who benefits from oppression?’ Esme Choonara did a good job of rubbishing the claims of the ‘privilege theorists’, who allege that oppression always operates to the advantage of the non-oppressed - there is an extreme version that claims all white people are somehow oppressors, or even racists, just by virtue of their skin colour; that all men knowingly gain from the inferior status of women. That in turn means that the non-oppressed can never unite with the oppressed - after all, they benefit from that oppression.
But the SWP’s line is to turn this on its head and, equally absurdly, declare that the exact opposite is the case. In the words of comrade Choonara, “White people don’t benefit in any way from black oppression. Men don’t benefit from women’s oppression. Absolutely not.” The “racist values” that are “constantly pumped out by sections of the ruling class” mean that white workers lose out too, because “solidarity is broken”. That is all there is to it - individual whites and individual men never gain any advantage.
What about the thousands of skilled European workers who emigrated to South Africa at the instigation of the apartheid regime? Instead of struggling to pay the mortgage, they swapped their house for one twice as big in Cape Town or Durban, where black servants served them with cold drinks next to the swimming pool. What about the male worker who puts his feet up in front of the telly, while his wife rushes home from work to cook him his supper and do a bit of cleaning after a hard day in the factory?
How can someone so talented and capable as comrade Choonara come out with such garbage? It was a bit like comrade Kimber’s categorical statement in the earlier session, to the effect that immigration does not drive down wages. This was effectively answered by SWP member Jenny Sutton, who pointed out that any excess of labour-power, from whatever source, produces competition for jobs, which weakens workers’ opposition to downward pressure on their wages.
Comrade Kimber was forced to accept this, but he insisted that in general immigration does not drive down wages. In fact the net effect of migration to Britain has been to marginally increase pay, he claimed (he did not explain the mechanism allowing this to happen). Even if we accept that this is accurate, surely it is foolish to argue that rapid, mass migration can have no adverse repercussions for workers.
To say that is not to imply support for border controls (even of the ‘non-racist’ variety advocated by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain). The answer must be workers’ solidarity - as all SWP comrades know. But continually denying obvious truths - white workers never gain from racism, male workers never benefit from women’s oppression, immigration never drives down wages - is totally counterproductive. The case for solidarity is strong, but SWP falsehoods make it appear feeble.
Here is one aspect of the “International Socialist tradition” that oppositionists ought to start calling into question.