Charting regression

The steady decline of
Richard Seymour

Left unity

Skimming over the report on the Left Unity conference blogger Richard Seymour just wrote up for The North Star, I was again saddened to see just how far he’s slid in the direction of intersectionality and identity politics these days. Yes, these subjects have been on my mind rather a lot lately. No matter, we’ll press on anyway.

Returning to Seymour’s article. Overall a pretty dry, matter-of-fact account. Though still able on occasion to summon up flashes of his former glory — that peculiar blend of verve, tenacity, and biting wit for which he was known — these were increasingly interspersed, used to punctuate dull platitudes and sterile tepidities. Want proof? Just listen to this morbid little anecdote:

[T]he signal sent by this conference is clear: the culture of the Left is changing and feminism [what Seymour means by this is unclear] is winning the argument. At one point as the vote tallies were announced, and as if to dramatise the urgent relevance of “intersectionality,” a man griped from the floor: “what about class politics?”
……A woman nearby rose in heroic fury, and demanded: “Who said that?”
……“Who said that!?”
……“What about class?” the luckless man reiterated, to jeers and a few desperate, scattered hand claps.
……“Right. I’m a woman, and I’m working class — how about that?” she snapped. Exuberant applause.

How edifying. Almost Aesopian in its didacticism. You can see the setup from the start. First there’s the stuffy, old-fashioned male dogmatist insisting on the centrality of class struggle. Then there’s the defiant, sturdy работница rising to challenge him. On what basis could he reasonably object? The mere fact of her existence seems to refute his concerns. Nevermind that this is a caricature, that class identity is no more legitimate as grounds for a politics than gender or any other identity.

It doesn’t end there, though. Wrapping the piece up, Seymour struggles to muster enough enthusiasm to bestow on Left Unity his supposedly reluctant, hard-won stamp of approval:

Left Unity does have some advantages. Its veterans have had the chance to learn from the errors of the past. It is not reliant on some great personality, nor is it an undemocratic lash-up of the extant far left. It puts the politics of women, LGBTQ, and black people front and centre. There appears to be no appetite for inscrutable dogma. And it seems to be genuinely prepared for the long haul: the slow, patient work of building its presence in communities, trade unions, and social movements. That gives us a chance, to put it no more strongly than that. And I don’t like admitting this. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

And to think that I actually believed “positive thinking” was on its way out.

Identity politics

What’s weird is that such sentiments could scarcely have been anticipated reading his writings from a few years ago. Of course, this hasn’t come completely out of the blue. Seymour has done much in the meantime to pave the way for this shift of view. Take his valiant effort to smuggle identity politics into Marxism through the back door, appealing to the vague authority of “cultural materialism” à la Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. In a post from November 30, 2011 entitled “Cultural Materialism and Identity Politics,” Seymour thus rhetorically asked:

[I]s it…possible to have a materialist politics of identity? Is it even advisable to try? To answer the first question is to think through the meaning of Marx’s concept of the social formation as a unity in difference; to answer the second is to explicate Lenin’s thinking in saying that the person who waits for the “pure” revolution will never live to see it.

Lenin certainly didn’t have postmodern identity politics in mind when he penned that famous line. (If memory serves, he was writing about national autonomy). Still, let’s hold off on this criticism for now and see where Seymour is going with this. Predictably, he answers both questions posed at the outset in the affirmative. Continue reading