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.

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