Monthly Archives: August 2022

If the kids were united…


Some thoughts on Michael Richmond and Alex Charnley, ‘Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics’ (published by Pluto next month)

As a former Pluto author, I was lucky enough to be sent an advance electronic copy of the book. Here are some thoughts, in the place of a review…

The subject of Richmond and Charnley’s book is the way in which identity politics has been used to advance conservative goals. The most obvious way in which that happens is through confrontation, as when an insurgent street movements emerges (for examples Black Lives Matter) and conservative politicians demand the arrest of its leaders, and portray the movement as a threat to “the people”. But it also happens through co-option. The book is being published, after all, as we near a Conservative leadership campaign in which the two main candidates are a black man and a white Comprehensive-school-educated woman.

The book’s recurring method is to begin with some of the most urgent political controversies of the time, including the idea that Britain or America are “white” countries, and that this is a virtuous state, embodied in our historic buildings, parks and statue; that the free speech of the majority is under attack by a new woke radicalism; that a moderate feminism which the state could accept had been placed by a new and illegitimate form of intersectional feminism which repeatedly supports the wrong kinds of women (black women, trans women), etc.

The authors challenge the conservative narrative of the present, argue for the rightness of a politics in which the demands of the oppressed are recognised. Then, in their signature move, they read back into history for precursors to the arguments of today, showing how the political radicals of the past in Britain and American responded to similar controversies.

The most interesting parts of the book are the historical sections, which include detailed treatments of William Wilberforce. Contrary to his conservative depiction as a Great Briton figure who single-handedly (but inexplicably) abolished British slavery, Richmond and Charnley show that he was at the extreme moderate edge of an international mass movement which began with the revolts of the slave themselves.

They respond to the conservative toleration of a limited, white, feminism, by pointing to the insights of the Combahee River Collective and then tracing those back to an emergent black feminism in the US in the 1860s and 1870s, showing the role played by the likes of Harriet Tubman (after whose successful anti-slave rider the CRC were named), Sojourner Truth, etc. They retell the stories of the Bryant and May matchgirl strikes and of the suffragettes as of cautionary episodes, showing the possibility that even a socialist feminism might become a device of middle-class pity or a means towards a renewed conservative imperialism.

Subsequent chapters apply a similar militant and intersectional approach towards such episodes as the first British anti-alien laws, the support of the main socialist groups and of the trade unions for them, and the resistance to antisemitism by Jewish radicals. An important section deals with the use of anti-Chinese racism in the late nineteenth century United States. (Had the authors only extended that discussion back to the British colonies of Australia and South Africa, they would no doubt have shown that all intellectual elements of today’s “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory were alive and well in Edwardian England). There are rich and detailed sections on race riots in Britain in 1919 and lynchings in post-war America.

What Richmond and Charnley are writing is a kind of historical sociology, with each of those two elements in balance, in which the battles fought by revolutionaries in the early socialist movement are revisited, and the people central to thsoe fights (Eleanor Marx, the SDF rank and file, Jewish and Chinese radicals, etc) are treated as our contemporaries.

Books which make that imaginative link between the recent past and the present are rare. Far more common is either pure sociology in which the historical figures are, as it were, minor characters. Our pure history which may be influenced by deep political sympathies, save that those require to be kept out of view. A list of all the writers who have tried to write such theoretically-informed socialist history in Britain over the last 40 years, it would be limited to: the final works written by EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and Brian Manning; some of the collections published by Stuart Hall’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham; and Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. The fact that two relatively young authors (Richmond and Charnley are former editors of Occupied Times) are putting themselves beside such contemporaries shows a real ambition on their part.

Richmond and Charnley argue that division is a feature of radical history; there was never a good time, whether the 1970s, 1950s or 1890s, when heroic white male workers all agreed on acheiving socialism and black people or women or anyone else were willing to wait patiently for them. (And nor, presumably, if there had been such a time would it have been “good”). They argue that race, gender, etc are constitutive of lived experience and therefore of class. They speak of a kind of “Revolutionary Time,” in which movements of the oppressed are winning.

I don’t see their book as the “last word” in either history or politics (nor do the authors present it as that). We are in one of those moments of rapid historical change where new conflicts are emerging, with different balances of forces, and inside which the mass movements do not yet exist which can overcome the fractures of the author’s title. Until the breakthroughs start coming, any theory will be partial.

So rather than end by stating any disagreements with the authors, I’d rather conclude by posing a set of question to the readers – of which I do no doubt there will be many – who will devour Richmond and Charnley’s book, be excited by it, and feel a sense of liberation at the knowledge that there are others before them who faced similar antagonists.

First, if race and gender etc are, as they write, capable constituting class; how can they (or disability, sexuality, etc) constitute a reactionary reading of class, which informs conservative or far-right opinions? Or, to rephrase the question, is there anything at the level of society which makes working class or black or female conservatism recur?

Second, is there anything we can learn from those past generations who had to deal with phenomena such as Fabian eugenicists, veterans movements, etc? Which reactionary social movements can leftists ignore and which require to be fought without concession?

Third, previous generations in the past believed there was a simple, unique category of lived experience such that you could realistically expected most people who had shared it to draw socialist conclusions. Is there today any integrated analysis which enables us to say that one or another experience whether of oppression, exploitation, or anything else is likely to produce revolutionary conclusions? And, if so, what?

To say that I left Richmond and Charnley’s book without having clear answers to those questions is not a rebuke. No-one else has found answers to them either. They are, in any event some of the big political questions of our time. And it is to the authors’ great credit that they made this reader believe that those questions were capable of being answered.

There are some things worse even than decline


Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in two volumes in 1918 and 1923, was one of those books of ideas which seem to have been read by almost everyone in postwar Europe. Warning of the decline of Europe and of his native Germany, unless that country abandoned democracy for what Spengler termed “Caesarism”, a movement which he in the book’s second edition associated with Mussolini’s dictatorship in Italy, Spengler’s fans included unsurprisingly any number of fellow post-democrats from Heidegger to Mosley.

But the 100,000 or so sale of his book also took into to the hands of admiring philosophers (Wittgenstein) and mythologists (Joseph Campbell). Arriving from Trinidad in England in 1932, the novelist, political activist, and future historian of slave revolt and Caribbean cricket, CLR James immersed himself in two big books, Spengler’s The Decline, and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution: “What Spengler did for me was to illustrate pattern and development in different types of society. it took me away from the individual and the battles with the kind of things that I have learned in conventional history.”

Of the 1932-3 (“Bodyline”) Ashes series, during which English bowlers sought to intimidate Australian bowlers into giving up their wickets through fast deliveries aimed at their bodies, James wrote that it was the ideas of Spengler taking a form on the sporting field: “it was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket”.

Style matters. Spengler’s history was rich in ideas. He believed that the story of humanity could be told through eight major civilisations, each lasting for a thousand years: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican, Classical, Arabian and European. Each had been characterised by cycles of emergence, youth, ageing and collapse. For each, decline took the form of the dominance of the cities over the countryside, and the accumulation of wealth, and popular calls for democracy. The last was, for Spengler, a particular insult. Why should the ordinary people, who were so obviously inferior, be permitted to rule?

Ben Lewis, a researcher at the University of Leeds, has written an intellectual biography of Spengler based on a close reading of The Decline, alongside Spengler’s other works from 1918-33, during which that former schoolteacher and wartime invalid became an intellectual luminary, was invited to speak throughout Europe, and sought to influence activists and political leaders at all points on Germany’s heterogeneous far-right.

A number of themes emerge from Lewis’s book. The first is that Germany was, like Europe and America today, a society in which tens of thousands of conservatives had abandoned democracy without necessarily having a clear alternative future in mind. People today know the end-point: fascism and Hitler. But the way to that destination was paved by countless others who were either not fascists or despised the Nazis.

Spengler advocated for what he called “Prussian socialism”, by which he appears to have meant that a Prussian King would rule Germany, a Prussian aristocracy dominate her army and her economy, and that everyone else would live in a situation of poverty, but equal poverty in relation to these rulers glorified by their traditions, and their embodiment of the past. Those politics brought him into conflict with Hitler’s forward-looking reactionaries.

So, in relation to the question which dominates the English-language discussion of Spengler (“Was her a fascist?”) the short and unrevealing answer is surely that No, he was not a fascist, rather the harbinger of the Nazis. He was a different kind of non-democrat.

Ben Lewis, whose previous studies have dealt with figures from the German-speaking left (Kautsky, Zetkin, the attempts by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to address German Communists), is intrigued by Spengler’s serious attempts to win allies with the German SPD, especially in his first volume which was published in 1918, when it seemed that all of German society was turning to the left. Spengler read the socialist press and sought to win allies by playing up the constructive, patriotic role played by the socialists’ 1914 vote for war credits.

Like any number of writers down the ages, Spengler had the fantasy of converting his literary success into influence. He wanted a relationship with party leaders in which they would provide the numbers and he would sketch out the strategy. In 1923, that meant the reactionary right. After 1930, he had no choice but to relate to the Nazis.

Spengler’s best links were to two groups of people immediately besides the Nazi inner core. The first were Prussian generals, the likes of Kurt von Schleicher, the last Chancellor before Hitler. The second were Nazi dissidents, such as Gregor Strasser the recently dismissed former leader of the NSDAP party organisation in North Germany.

After 1933, Spengler met with Hitler. The meeting was a success, and Hitler promised the writer a second meeting. In print, Spengler argued that the party needed a second revolution to crush the organisation’s unruly plebeian mass base and restore its politics to what it should be, a party of militant conservatives. In the 1934 Night of the Long Knives, Hitler did indeed destroy the institutional basis for the party’s working-class members (the SA). However he also killed Schleicher and Strasser, Spengler’s closest remaining allies. For the remaining two years of his life, Spengler neither published any further books, nor made any further attempt to influence from behind the scenes. The second meeting with Hitler never took place.

Britain in 2022 is in something like our own Weimar moment, with many conservatives rapidly giving up on democracy, preferring the fantasy that somehow an all-wise autocratic ruler would be better placed to rule in the chaotic circumstances of our time, characterised as they are by war, disease, and the inability of the economic to deliver increased living standards in an age of climate breakdown. Before Niall Ferguson, Peter Hitchens, or Douglas Murray – and more successful than any of them – was Spengler. Our legal system is being retrofitted around the gamble that, this time around, you can make a transition away from democracy without causing mass suffering.

However the Spengler that emerges from Lewis’s closely-argued and persuasive book is in equal parts a mystic, a self-publicist, a keen-eyed critic of liberal humbug, a romantic and a fool, who in helping to persuade millions of people to choose the paths of blood and iron, protected nothing of the past he was trying to save.