Monthly Archives: September 2014

In place of a review (I): Deciphering Casaubon

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The first shell landed at 3pm precisely. Casaubon was at his desk, working on the manuscript, and was aware of the ground rocking to one side and back beneath his feet. A second explosion shook the wall to his left and detached a shelf covered in papers. It and they fell, and the room was temporarily covered in a fine dust. A lesser man might have attempted to estimate the distance of the shell’s landing from his present position, or have distinguished from the sounds of the shells the nature of the artillery from which they had been fired. Casaubon being utterly above such trifles was aware only of the threat they represented to his own person.

Being a man of (he modestly accepted) no little courage, Casaubon settled on the first plan that came to him. He would insist that Charles, the department’s Boy, and in charge of the Department’s administrative affairs for the past two decades, announce that Casaubon’s early evening lecture was cancelled.

With a firm step and real purpose, Casaubon walked towards the plastic telephone situated at the back of the room. He lifted the receiver; the wire had been cut.

Opening the door and looking out into the corridor, Casaubon noted that Grace, the department’s Secretary, had also absented herself. Where he would expect to encounter noise, there was silence. Someone must have warned the others.

Shrunken, Casaubon retreated to his room and to his desk. The shelling appeared to have stopped, only to be replaced by the sound of small arms fire which, most troublingly, was getting progressively closer. He had by now realised that however this ordeal would end, it was unlikely to pass quickly

Casaubon founding himself staring at the other – right – side of his room, where he had placed a decade ago his certificate from the Royal Society, awarded for his service to the Philosophy of Warfare.

The document was printed on heavy, embossed paper. Among the many features which endeared it to Casaubon  was the precise language of the dedication. An unwise academic at another University, on making Casaubon aware of the proposed content of the award, had foolishly suggested that he should be honoured for his services to History. Casaubon  had cut him dead at three consecutive conferences, and allowed it to be known to the unfortunate man’s successor within the Society that he would accept this modest honour only if all reference to History was excised.

Casaubon was a committed champion of his position within the academic hierarchy: the most distinguished contemporary theorist of the idea of military combat.

Lesser figures liked to imagine that Thucydides that been interested in a particular conflict, had busied himself with a certain war. Casaubon  had demonstrated that they were wrong, that Thucydides was writing rather about War in general, all wars, had never felt a need to descend from the abstract to the concrete, and was just as correct and absolutely true if one swapped sixth century Syria for fifth century Sparta, Algeria for Athens, or the middle ages for the ancient world.

The gunfire was getting closer.

Greatness, Casaubon had earned by a series of studies which had proved that Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was a total analysis of all conflict, a complete and perfect system of analysis, marked by no significant ambiguities or contradictions: a circle as perfect as a pure zero.

The present manuscript was intended not merely to preserve the name of Casaubon for the indefinite future but also to do something to lift the cloud that hung over the Department.

Casaubon had advertised the book’s intended arrival in an attempt to rally his supporters during a recent, ill-tempered, staff meeting called to discuss the defection of the majority of the University’s postgraduate students. In his present state of personal magnanimity even he would acknowledge the pleasure it had given him to use the book to cast scorn at any number of his critics.

He walked to the wall and carefully removed the certificate.

When they found him, he was on the floor of his room, tears dripping from his face. The certificate was still clutched to his chest.

Race and Class joined from the beginning

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A review of Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Macmillan, 2014, £26.99)

When activists on the left have talked or written about race and class, we have most commonly adopted an imaginary scheme in which there were two groups of people, the workers, and a black or migrant community, whether of Cardiff in 1919, the East End in 1936, Southall in 1979, Bradford in the early 1980s, or wherever else today. Many of us have enthused in those moments when the two groups have seen that they had the same enemies and the same interests. But in so doing we have treated race and class as two parallel streams, sometimes bearing together, sometimes pulling apart. When we have thought of the members of the working class we have assumed them to be white, just as we have assumed them to be male, straight, and not disabled. And when historians have written about race or class, they too have written about them separately, with race at the edges of EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, and class present but pushed away from the centre of Rozina Visram’s Asians in Britain or Peter Fryer’s Staying Power.

Satnam Virdee’s book tells the history of the working class and the radical left in Britain through the past two centuries, focussing on the workers and their allies, and showing how their socialism, and their class projects, had a continuous racial content. His book begins at the end of the Napoleonic wars, showing the centrality to Peterloo-era London radicalism of Robert Wedderburn, the child and grand-child of black slaves, and a champion of the link between English poor and the victims of the slave trade. Wedderburn is thus the first of a series of figures, Virdee’s “racialised outsiders”, whose experiences and background made them alive to the complex situation of the British working-class, right at the heart of an empire based on the oppression and murder of countless black people, and who used the support of the left, repeatedly, to travel from the margins to the centre of working-class campaigns.

The English working class which gave birth to Chartism, Virdee shows, was a class composed in part of hundreds of thousands of recent Irish migrants. Feargus O’Connor, the champion of physical force Chartism spoke to his mixed Catholic and Protestant, English and Irish audiences of the scabs and sores suffered by the Irish poor, and warned them that their fate would be the same unless they rose.

With the decay of Chartism and in the forty years of defeats that followed, Virdee accepts, Orange and anti-Catholic campaigns struck roots within the class (there were countervailing tendencies among the London Chartists, and in the North East, where Joseph Cowan was able to sustain a mass following); only to be pushed back again with the unemployed agitation of the early 1880s and New Unionism. Among the cadres of the latter were a series of racialised outsiders, among the best known of which were the second generation Irish and Jewish immigrants Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, who opposed among their contemporaries’ anti-Catholic and then anti-Jewish racism.

To insist that the left and the working class had racial identities is not (for a second) to assume that the left or the working class were consistent champions of equality. Among the less attractive figures of Virdee’s narrative are individuals such as HM Hyndman (the intellectual leader of Britain’s first socialist party, the SDF), who slipped easily into a language of British imperialism and anti-Chinese and anti-Jewish racism. Virdee points to the opposition to Hyndman within the SDF’s East End branches and Jewish members. He could perhaps have taken the point further: the latter were ultimately to defeat Hyndman, who was deposed as leader, and the anti-Hyndman majority of the SDF (by now renamed the British Socialist Party) formed the core of the Communist Party of Great Britain on its foundation in 1919-1920.

Ben Tillett appears twice in Virdee’s text: as one of the Irish Catholic migrants who were in the leadership of the 1889 dock strike, later as an opponent of Jewish migration to the East End. There were several similar episodes in Tillett’s later career, including admiration for the proto-fascist Bottomley and the actual fascist Mosley. (Havelock Wilson, leader of the Seamen’s union, had a similar trajectory) Yet, the same background and experiences (the SDF, the dock strike) also shaped Will Thorne who writes in his memoir about the unbearable working conditions in the Beckton Gas Works, which he went on to organise, “These incidents made me understand the full significance of the term ‘wage slave’”, a sentence which suggests that Wedderburn’s sixty-year old arguments for the similarity of slavery and industrial work had not been entirely forgotten.

Virdee’s account of the 1919 riots shows the role of Manny Shinwell, normally presented as one of the ILP and then Labour’s left heroes, as a key instigator of the racist riots in Glasgow. But, he insists, into the 1920s, such ideas were pushed back thanks in part to the work of early Communists such as Rajani and Clemens Palme Dutt, Shapurji Saklatvala, Zelda Kahan and Arthur Macmanus (Saklatvala, later Britain’s first Communist MP deserves rather more credit for this than Dutt who was not in Britain between 1924 and 1936).

A key moment for Virdee was the decay of a certain way of doing race at the end of the postwar boom. This began with the dockers’ march for Powell; in the middle of what was supposed to the revolutionary year of 1968 it was quite apparent than even one of the best organised and most militant sections of the working class was willing to support overt racism. The generation who experienced Powellism with the greatest shock (Widgery, Fenn) were – as Virdee documents – later central to the later success of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and the winning of an argument for equality within the political left.

There is another book to be written which would take further Virdee’s approach, in which class is seen still through the individual biographies of many hundreds of left-wing activists, further down, into the values and behaviour of the people who sat at the back of the hall during union, left or tenants meetings. And in that total history there is, I think, a little more to be said about gender – whether of the women who led the Glasgow rent strike and achieved for 70 years the partial nationalisation of Britain’s housing stock (arguably the most successful single campaign in the long history of the British working class), or of the men and women whose relationships fuelled in turn the mid-twentieth century anxieties about miscegenation which appear as a consistent, recurring theme of racist campaigns from 1919 to 1979.

That said, the point where Virdee is gloriously right is to break apart the starting assumption that there was ever something as simple as “class” from which race was absent. It is for this reason that his book deserves the widest reading. There has been a lot of talk about intersectionality on the left in the last year; Virdee relocates the first meeting point of race and class from outside to within the class and shows that race, racism and anti-racism were present within the British working class from its first making.

You Are The #IndyRef

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355Below, my immediate thoughts on the referendum, posted on the Review 31 website. The point I try to argue is that we are in a midway stage within a very long, slow cycle of working class structual de- and re-composition. The Yes vote benefited from a breakdown of certain old ways of doing class, and points to some new ones, but they are not yet so entrenched so that the yes side was simply able to shrug off a determined counter-offensive. The “You” of the title is aimed at the majority of my readers – like me, non-Scots, but located in societies at an essentially similar conjuncture. Friends have suggested certain bridgeheads which could be added to my list (jobs and regions dependent on oil, banking). Finally, when I quote Macintyre on the need for a party, I mean “party” in the way he did – an organisation of hundreds of thousands of people

The temptation, in the short period immediately following the referendum, will be to be focus on the final breadth of the No victory and to assume that the result was always a forgone conclusion. The Yes vote began the poll with the support of 35% of Scots, during the campaign it had to increase this figure by 15%. Reaching 45%, it achieved two-thirds of the swing it needed for victory.

Among the wealthy and those who identify most strongly with them, there is clearly a feeling of resentment that their representatives were obliged to make concessions to the independence campaign, in order to placate those key groups of voters – workers, women, the young – who in the penultimate week of the campaign appeared to be swinging decisively from No to Yes. It will be said in public by Tory MPs, and privately, by the classes of people they represent, that the concessions were unnecessary, and any promises can now be withdrawn. We should expect threats of Tory rebellions against any legislation for devolution. There will be plans to draw those rebels off, by (for example) mixing up devolution with steps to reduce the powers of Scottish MPs in Westminster. Trident will remain as will the detention centre at Dungavel. It is most likely that the issue of independence will not sink away but will be revived, starting with the general election next year.

Why did Yes lose? Yes had a narrow majority among men; No had a bigger majority among women. For about 30 years in Britain, the right in all its forms has been better at aiming propaganda at women than the left. The left has had no counterpart of the success of the Daily Mail in working a message of women’s subordination into a total analysis of every aspect of politics and daily life, and of selling this message – targeted and superficially attractive, but disempowering – to millions of readers.

More here.

And mine is worth reading alongside Pete Cannell’s piece here.

History with the struggle left back in

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Three links which may be of interest to readers: First, many thanks to Shiraz Socialist for publishing Mick Rice’s obituary for Vic Collard, one of the Birmingham AEU shop stewards and IS members whose greatest moment came in 1972 when they were instrumental in calling the picket of Saltley Gates which effectively handed victory to the National Union of Miners in their strike of that year.

“Vic and I were both members of the AEU District Committee when the successful mass picket of Saltley Gates took place during the miners’ strike of 1972. It now seems almost unbelievable that ordinary workers could mobilise in tens of thousands to down tools right at the same time and set out to walk en masse to close the gates. This, the greatest act of solidarity of Birmingham’s working people, came about because of organisation and leadership. The AEU District President, Arthur Harper, the Convenor of British Leyland’s Tractors and Transmissions plant at Washwood Heath was a member of the International Socialists. Arthur Harper was a militant trade unionist. He was no socialist theoretician but he knew that trade unionism wasn’t enough on its own to change society. Arthur prided himself on being good at tactics. He was once instructed by the AEU Executive to end a strike and tell his members to go back to work. He did precisely as instructed and then said “As your Convenor, I’ve done what I’ve been instructed to do by the union – but as your mate I’m telling you, that you would be stupid to accept the union’s advice!””

“When Arthur Scargill came to the District Committee to ask for help, Arthur Harper knew what to do. A meeting of all the Shop Stewards was summoned for the following evening and over 300 of them agreed to pull out their members in the morning and march on Saltley! The remarkable thing is they had the confidence to know that they could do it”.

Rice also explains the haste with which IS lost these supporters – Cliff having fallen into the trap (as he sometimes did) of looking for a get-rich-quick scheme:

“At one time we had 31 AEU members in Birmingham who were also members of the International Socialists. I remember one comrade, a teacher, was involved in some School / Business Liaison meeting with a Personnel Officer from Lucas’s. He asked in an innocent a way as possible whether the company had any problems with subversives. The Personnel Officer replied that Lucas’s had IS like some people had mice! I think that Victor was rather proud of that for he was undoubtedly the “éminence grise” of the AEU group.”

“Unfortunately, a left-winger called Laurie Smith, who was a member of the Socialist Labour League, did extremely well in an AEU Executive election. In fact he was subsequently elected to a National Officer post. Laurie Smith was a long standing union activist in London and a Toolmaker. Toolmakers were the backbone of the AEU and, in my view, Laurie’s vote was largely due to support from fellow toolmakers as they were often regarded as “craft chauvinists” who referred to semi-skilled workers as “Tom Nods”.”

“The IS leadership (in the process of becoming the SWP) thought otherwise. Laurie’s vote indicated that the workers were moving to the left and ditching Labour. The IS /SWP needed to field candidates to all AEU positions to win the thousands that were moving leftwards. They called a snap meeting at the IS national conference to change the line. The AEU group in Birmingham could not go along with this triumphalism and we were systematically expelled for our failure to comply with the requirements of democratic centralism. We were characterised as “trade union routinists” by the central committee as the organisation went to rank and file extremes. I remember Tony Cliff extolling the virtues of workers who had not been tainted by trade union tradition. Shop Stewards and especially Senior Shop Stewards were the new trade union bureaucrats.” More (much more) here.

(And worth reading alongside Jim Higgins’ version of the same events here and here, and Ian Birchall’s reply here in Revolutionary History 7/1 pp 200-3, which frustratingly has never been placed online, although you get a flavour of it here.)

Second, Jeff Sparrow, the editor of Overland magazine and author of Communism: A Love Story has returned to the subject of one of the main characters of that book, Lesbia Harford, and has written a short review rescuing her from the latest editor of her poems, who in order to “explain” them to a fresh audience presented Harford as a poet of the intimate and the domestic, and in so doing appears to have replicated any number of subtle, sexist clichés. Harford – syndicalist, Bolshevik, and an archly-modernist poet – least of all deserves this treatment. Anyone who thinks that Harford’s friends – plebeian, comic and insurrectionary – “were grimly revolutionary” deserves (as Sparrow gives them) a metaphorical kicking. I also think Sparrow is right to criticise a second, shallow reading in which Harford’s intense and erotic relationships with other women enable her to pigeonholed as a precursor of today’s LGBT / Queer politics. The Edwardian period was not the 1950s; Australia was not Britain. And I’ve seen other women of the same generation (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) subject to a similar, well-meaning but misplaced reading. Here.

Finally (at the top) – for today above all days – my fictional cousin Renton’s “other” speech from Trainspotting.

To anyone who could possibly still be undecided: Choose Life

In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles

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pp02 It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When David Cameron vetoed the original, proposed three-question referendum (“Yes”, “No”, “Devo Max”), he suggested that the No camp’s inevitable victory would defer to the indefinite future not merely any possibility of independence, but any prospect of the future devolution of powers to Scotland. As he told the world’s press, “Scotland’s two governments have come together to deliver a referendum which will be legal, fair and decisive”. Should Yes win narrowly, you can expect to read a great deal about how “decisive” means “interim”, “temporary”, and “requiring confirmation in a second vote”.

Among the advocates of No can of course be found many defenders of the existing economic and political status quo; what is more surprising has been the willingness of many even on the left to misread the mood that underlies Yes’ so far success. If you look hard enough in the very darkest corners of the internet, you will find those arguing that a No vote represents the principle of internationalism which is always – by definition – preferable to mere nationalism.

The argument is not persuasive, either in general, or looking at this particular Yes campaign. Most of the worst international conflicts of the last 10 years have been capable of justification in international terms, whether that “internationalism” was of former Trotskyists now looking to back Bush, Lebanese Shia fighting for neighbouring Baathist police state, or British teenagers making atrocity propaganda in the name of a pan-national Islamism temporarily rooted somewhere between the artificial borders imposed on the Middle East after 1918.

Indeed a particular feature of the Scottish referendum has been the willingness of the most nationalist voices to eschew, quite voluntarily, the traditionally language of what theorists of nationalism call “palingenesis” (ie appeals to national identity as a factor which when given primacy over class is the means to achieve national rebirth).

The vote has had no ethnic undertone: everyone living in Scotland – British, Scottish or whatever else – has been enfranchised, while those able to claim a Scottishness based on ten generations of proved ancestry (but no present residence) have been told, most politely, to keep out.

The referendum consultation insists, quite counter to ordinary nationalist discourse: “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated … Much of what Scotland will be like the day after independence will be similar to the day before: people will go to work, pensions and benefits will be collected, children will go out to play and life will be as normal.”

What has held the Yes campaign together has been rather two things:

First, an idea that the adoption of neo-liberal politics in 1979-82 was a choice, and something which can ultimately be overturned. The most effective messages in the Yes campaign’s support have been those which have used London as a short-hand for a society indefinitely in hock to the banks. And the least effective politics of the No campaign have been those strident appeals which have said “voting No will be bad for your pensions” or the pound, when the mood of a key contingent of swing Yes voters (ie people who have voted SSP or Labour in the past) is precisely their rejection of “business as usual”.

In a year where the non-fiction booklists in most countries have been dominated by a book warning of the emergence of new kinds of economic relationships where the rich are able to increase their power exponentially, simply because the system over-rewards the fact of ownership – the Yes campaign has mined a rich seam of goodwill for any politics which confronts the status quo credibly with any suggestions at all of redistribution.

Second, the idea that voting is a meaningful act. A key moment in the second debate was Salmond’s effective use of the language of  what he called “a mandate” – ie if people in Scotland vote for independence with the pound, then they will get independence with the pound, simply because their vote will have more authority than the refusals of a cadre of English politicians, for even though the latter may claim the support of the banks and the newspapers, there will be no referendum down South, and by definition a politician equipped with democratic support must overcome one without

The surprising feature of the Yes campaign has been its ability to thrive on the contemporary politics of resistance. It is a gamble in the face of the neo-liberal dogma that there is no alternative, there is no point voting, and any party which stands up to business will inevitably be crushed…

All over the world, these dynamics are turning people against politics – save in a very few places (Scotland, Spain) where a political movement responds to the attrition of democracy by insisting on democracy with ever greater force.

None of this is to invite anyone to suspend the scepticism which our conjuncture dictates. An independent SNP government would cut not raise corporation taxes; there are many supporters of independence (Souter, and now possibly Murdoch) who see a chance to increase their power in what would inevitably be some sort of rearrangement of the present bargain between social labour (ie both wages and benefits) and an independent Scottish ruling class.

Ninety years ago, faced with a different mood of left nationalist revival, an Irish Marxist James Connolly once called on his supporters to keep hold of their guns: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”

In an epoch where access to media, supporters’ lists and meeting rooms counts for rather more than it once did, something like the same advice might hold true. If there is a Yes vote, do celebrate, but do not forget for a second to keep organising.

Anti-fascism without fascists: how should the left organise against UKIP?

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In spring this year, some different fragments of the British left, with former comrades of mine to the fore, launched “Stand up to UKIP” (SUTU) promising to turn against UKIP the strategies which were said to have been decisive to the recent defeat of British fascism. SUTU is a strange campaign: formed to challenge a solely electoral party, its website says very little about the coming by-election in Clacton, which has generated more publicity for UKIP than anything for months, but focuses instead on the coming UKIP conference, outside which SUTU promises to hold a protest. 

With the electoral defeat of the British National Party in 2010, there is no longer any far-right group in Britain capable of operating meaningfully in both elections and on the streets.

The demise of the BNP gives every impression of being fatal. The number of its elected councillors has dropped from 58 in 2009 to just 2 today (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/why-has-bnp-collapsed). Its declared membership has fallen from around 12,600 in 2009 to just 4,097 by 2012 (https://pefonline.electoralcommission.org.uk/Search/SearchIntro.aspx). In UKIP it faces an electoral rival which is well-financed, has support from important sections of the mainstream press, and shows every signs of being sufficiently durable so that the BNP should expect to be shut out for a generation. In the future, when individuals from fascist backgrounds win elections, they will almost certainly not be members of the British National Party.

Moreover, the British National Party has not been supplanted by an organisation with any discernible roots in fascism. The present conjuncture would be different if the English Defence League was not also in a seemingly irreversible decline. The EDL had among its membership a number of individuals who had come from the BNP, most notably its leader Tommy Robinson. In its few attempts to formulate an independent statement of its aims, the EDL attempted a fusion of militant English nationalism based on a nostalgic invocation of the separate interests of the white working class with surprising details from the history of the left (a clue is the author’s name in ‘Billy Blake’, Coming Down the Road (London: VHC Publishing, 2011). This combination was at least arguably comparable to similar attempts by different interwar groups.

The EDL too has lost all energy: it has no membership figures, it does not stand in elections, and even the “demo calendar” it used to publish on its website is no more. Wikipedia gives the following estimate of EDL assemblies: 9 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 24 in 2011, 12 in 2012, 5 in 2013, and exactly none in 2014 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_Defence_League_demonstrations). Yes, the Wikipedia page is an arbitrary source, and a number of early EDL marches are missing from the list, but the largest EDL assembly was three years ago at Luton (3000 people); the last time that the EDL turned out more than one tenth of its peak numbers (i.e. more than 300 people) was over a year ago, on 8 September 2013 at Tower Hamlets.

So should anti-fascists transfer their energy – and tactics – to UKIP? Should we see combating UKIP as one of our principal strategic priorities, something to which we devote people and resources, to the exclusion of (for example) campaigning against the Coalition government? Should we say – as we would of the BNP – that every UKIP candidate who is allowed an unchallenged platform, represents a temporary defeat for our movement? Should we offer UKIP, as we would the BNP, physical resistance?

The normal way in which an “anti-fascist” approach to UKIP is defended is by the argument that UKIP is pulling politics to the right.

I don’t think this is enough. In the actual context of a universal revulsion with the Thatcher-Major governments of the 1980s and 1990s, when the mainstream if politics was moving rapidly to the left (as shown for example, by the enormous 25-point poll lead Labour had stormed into within months of the 1992 election) it is arguable that Tony Blair’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 1994 pulled politics to the right. He used his enormous authority as Prime Minister in waiting, to argue against traditional social democratic policies of redistribution, nationalisation, etc, beginning with his immediate attack on Clause IV. Yet Blair was not targeted as a “fascist” or proxy fascist, and rightly not.

Moreover, UKIP is pulling politics to the right from a position as an outsider party. Part of the way in which people experience contemporary politics is as an unreal show, in which the same faces, supposedly representing different viewpoints but in fact disagreeing about nothing of significance, recur again and again. By the mere election of new people, UKIP promises to shake the snow globe of the existing order; opposition to UKIP, no matter how well handled gives the impression of trying to protect the old.

Now UKIP’s external status is of course contradictory. From the point of view of its policies, the class background of its leading figures its access to funds and even to press support, it is of course no outsider at all.

When anti-fascists fought the National Front or the BNP, there was the same risk of being perceived as the establishment’s shield, but the danger was significantly mitigated by what you might call the fractal nature of fascism. The BNP might bring new people into politics but behind them there were usually familiar figures from the long history of British fascism, people with criminal records for attacks on their opponents, the skinheads protecting the suits. Opposition to these local bullies, as to Tyndall or Griffin nationally, could connect with a local audience. UKIP, being a different sort of party, its national leaders are themselves an eclectic mix; and locally, its supporters often do not replicate UKIP as a whole.

(In fact, taking this point further, anti-fascist electoralism has worked best too when we could apply something like the same logic in reverse: when the people canvassing were involved in local unions or tenant campaigns or struggles to defend particular services, and were already locally known, so that they were bringing the credibility they had established in class campaigns into electoral politics, rather than being perceived as yet another set of outsiders).

While it was certainly arguable that the fascism of the 1970s was “spearheading” the country’s move to authoritarianism (i.e. the NF’s electoral defeat at the hands of Thatcher came at the cost of the partial absorption of NF ideas into state policy on immigration, the family, etc), there is no meaningful sense in which UKIP is any more at the forefront of a national lurch toward sexism, racism, militarism or towards any meaningful attack on the political left.

Anti-fascism places an exclusion zone around fascist politics, by arguing that they are unique and distinctive and particularly bad. It says, to a greater or lesser extent: we are all good people, save for those few who are not. In the coming Clacton bye-election, those canvassing against UKIP will be pressured by the logic of their situation to call for a Conservative vote as the only party who could keep them out. And yet, nowhere on the present British left can you find anyone with the confidence to argue this openly and support canvassing for the Tories as the last defence against the threat of Douglas Carswell (who was, after all, a Conservative until recently). Even my former comrades while promising to call for votes against Carswell (“Stand Up to UKIP will be campaigning locally against Carswell”; http://standuptoukip.org/clacton-dont-be-used-by-ukip/), will not say directly for who they will be urging people to vote: an uninspiring Labour candidate, an eco (rather than a social) Green…

50,000 people were deported from Britain in 2013 (http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/deportations-removals-and-voluntary-departures-uk), this figure is twice as many as in 2004, you cannot blame Carswell for any of these broken families. The mass impoverisation of welfare recipients through the bedroom tax, welfare caps, and attacks on the disabled, was pioneered by Cameron and Clegg as a conscious attempt to shift the blame for the 2008 bankers crisis – other than in the limited sense that he too is a banker, Farage was marginal to that process. UKIP cannot be blamed for Coalition policies to set up lecturers, doctors and (from next year) landlords as immigration police: these policies come from the Coalition, and predate UKIP’s recent rise.

For about 35 years, the dominant approach within important parts of the socialist left towards fascism has been what is known as No Platform. Loosely translated, it goes something like as follows.

Fascism is a unique political doctrine in that on the two occasions when recognisable fascist parties have held power they have actively rejected the parts of modernity which all other political traditions have respected. IE They have suppressed political democracy even in countries where there was a long history of democracy. And they have waged both war and genocide even in the heartlands of capitalism. Any recognisably fascist political party, granted sufficient power, carries the risk that it would do the same. That is what exactly fascism is for. Therefore while, for example, free speech is a cardinal principle of ordinary democratic behaviour, it must bend to the overriding need to defeat fascism, since free speech for fascists carries the seed of the risk of their victory.

Here is Lindsey German, a veteran of the Anti-Nazi League, justifying No Platform in the 1980s: “The experience of fascism in Germany and other countries before the war demonstrated that fascists could not be treated as simply another political party. They would use democratic channels to build their support, and then suppress all forms of political opposition – not simply left wing organisations, but trade unions, campaigning groups and so on.” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/german/1986/04/noplatform.html)

This idea is also expressed, by a previous generation, in the historian Edward Thompson’s memoir for his brother Frank, a British army officer who served alongside Bulgarian partisans, was captured by pro-fascists, and executed in 1944. EP Thompson publishes a letter Frank sent home to his family, in which the young soldier recalled the anti-fascists who had died in 1936 in Spain. He said that the conflict between England and Hitler was essentially the same struggle. In his words, “Those of us who came after” (i.e. the generation who died in 1939-45) “were merely adopting an idea, that they proved, that freedom and fascism can’t live in the same world, and that the free man, one he realises this, will always win” (http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/antifascism.html).

What happens though when the far-right party is not fascist, contains no recognisable fascists in its leadership, and carries no threat to the right of minorities to organise?

Anti-fascism is an imperative of left-wing politics: a call that caused the volunteers in Spain to give up jobs, homes and ultimately their lives. Opposition to UKIP may be defensible, useful and positive if done effectively, but it is not an urgent cause of the same moral stature.

Imagine Frank Thompson, ten years older, and having morphed seamlessly into the perhaps surprising role of career British officer, had been sent by the British government to fight Colonel Nasser “the new Hitler on the Nile”. I don’t doubt that he would have revolted against Eden’s logic and insisted that Nasser was no Nazi.

The Lindsey German piece I have quoted continues, “racists and sexists should not go unchallenged … But the way we challenge again has to be sensitive and not just a blanket ban.”

I am not suggesting that campaigning against UKIP is by definition wrong – I can imagine areas where it should be a local priority, indeed in some places the local priority. A genuine campaign against Farage, where he is standing Kent, makes a lot of sense to me, not least because such is his media profile that he will dominate the local contest – in a way that UKIP is unlikely to in the majority of its target seats. I would campaign against UKIP locally, temporarily and tactically – whereas I would campaign against the BNP, nationally, consistently and strategically.

And where people campaign against UKIP, I would hope that their tactics can have the effect not of cordoning off UKIP as an unhealthy aberration within the benign ecology which is British parliamentary politics; but of linking up activists’ dislike of them to their allies and to all Tories beyond. I would make the Rees-Moggs of the world (UKIP’s allies) as much of a target as the Carswells.

If no platform is an exceptional measure justifiable only because of the extreme risk fascism poses, then logically similar tactics – eg trying to prevent a UKIP speaker from addressing an audience at all lose their legitimacy when they are stretched beyond their original target. Applying no platform to non-fascists is like turning on a fire sprinkler in a lecture hall where there is no fire: strange, ineffective, and incomprehensible to your audience.

The Longue Durée of the Far Right

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dreyfus

Thoughts on N. Davidson et al., The Longue Durée of the Far-Right (London: Routledge, 2015)

The most exciting idea in the book, and the one with which I will engage, is the analogy contained its title. The title alludes to the French Annales school and a way of thinking about history which is well expressed by Ferdinand Braudel’s extraordinary book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II

Braudel’s story of the Mediterranean is organised around a distinction between three sorts of time, each of which he addresses at equal length: in the first section of his book, the time of people in relationship to their environment, as he calls it, “a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetitions, ever-recurring cycles … almost timeless history”

In his second section, he turns to social history, the history of economic states, and civilisations. In his third and final section, he writes on the scale of traditional history, the history of events

Now, writing about the far-right has undoubtedly suffered from an over-focus on the history of events at the expense of longer history (the longue durée). The shortness of the timescale structures the story that is written

To give an example: in 2002, I was living in the North East of England, where the British National Party was hoping to win council seats in England. I met a journalist, a left-winger, whose job was to report on the election for the national press. His newspaper ran a piece saying that the BNP was on the verge of a breakthrough – locally and nationally. After he had left, he sent me a short, kind note thanking me and other anti-fascists who he had interviewed. “I wish I could come back next year, and report the good news of the BNP being held, pushed back. But of course that would not make a story that we could publish”

He had an idea of the far-right as a perennial outsider, newsworthy only when it seemed on the verge of entering the mainstream.

You could imagine a historian of the future trying to analyse the BNP’s growth only from the snapshot-reports about its success in the mainstream press; every report would say that the BNP was growing (and yet it never achieved such a breakthrough as to become significantly larger than it always had been). Such a historian could tell that it was growing not from the content of the reports, but only from their frequency (it was only when this story became weekly or daily news that the BNP was actually in a condition of ascent).

What is true of people who write for newspapers is also true of people who write books. There is an enormous and ultimately unsatisfying literature of books which have been published over the past 30 years whose message could be simplified down to “watch out: the FN, or the FPO, or the BNP (or whoever) are coming”

Just to speak of the longue durée is already to raise the possibility of a richer way of thinking about these movements – a history which recognises their troughs as well as their peaks, the work of their opponents, the economic and social cycles that sustain or limit them

That said, there are at least two specific conceptions of the longue durée raised in the book, one of which makes me cautious, while the other I find more interesting

First, a caution: at times, at least some of the contributors write as if the longue durée is expressed in what one of the editors terms a “persistence” between the far-right of early twentieth century France and the far-right of today

France is a key case because it has both the most successful far-right party of contemporary Europe (the FN) and because it had a vibrant far-right milieu expressed in Boulangism and the Dreyfus affair (see image, above), which has immensely well mined by historians such as Ze’ev Sternhell. It is superficially a strong case of continuity; whereas if you were to start in Britain, a heroic effort would be needed to find in Edwardian politics a neat precursor to, say, Nigel Farage.

But the notion of a persistence in French or European politics between 1914 and 2014 is a sociologist’s not a historian’s comparison, which is polite way of saying simply that I distrust it.

The people of 100 years ago who seem superficially to be the predecessors of Le Pen (Peguy, Barres, Maurras…) were writers who for the most part supported Catholicism, the return of the monarchy, and the defence of the army. They were, in other words, the militant champions of conservative politics, not the harbringers of an independent politics with a hostile relationship to the existing state.

In English terms, they were not Robert Kilroy-Silk or even Douglas Carswell, rather they were noisy followers of Boris Johnson.

(And who, if you look to the Britain of 1914 for continuity was a premature Nigel Farage?)

Second, in Neil Davidson’s chapter of the book, there is a slightly more diffuse and therefore actually more compelling, use of the longue durée focussed on the key question of whether capital needed either the historic or the contemporary far-right.

Among the points he makes are these

• That some aspects of far-right politics are counterproductive to the needs of capital
• That fascism performed services for the interwar capitalist class without being a movement of capitalist or reducible to these aspects of its programme
• That, there is a wide span between the far-right groups, both within and between countries
• That within the contemporary far right there is a key distinction between parties that aim to challenge the democratic regime as such, and those that do not
• That in the contemporary world capitalism does not need, nor the far right offer, to crush the working class
• That a unifying factor within the contemporary far right is extreme social conservatism – always involving fear of immigration, but potentially with other sources; and that

His key point is that the crises of 1929 and 2008 belong to different periods in the history of capitalism, and that the movements which emerge from them are consequently different (eg in terms of the salience within their programmes of opposition to capitalism and plans for smashing the working class) in terms of their ambitions, programme, etc

Which seems just about right to me.