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. His argument, quoted here at length, runs as follows:

Where does “identity” fit into all this? It is common to address the subject in the terms of particularism, in contrast to the universalisms that form the basis for rival political projects such as socialism and liberalism. This would suggest that identity is bound to a specific culture or sub-culture, its political radius extending no wider than the boundaries of cultural form in which it is embedded. Even more scandalously from a certain perspective, the notion of identity seems to be bound to the bourgeois individual, the self-sufficient, self-sustaining Cartesian subject. Yet identity is a much more slippery concept than this would imply. It is not distinguished only by its affirmation of the culturally, or politically proximate, but also by the process of identification which involves the perception of, for example, shared interests. And interests are interesting things: they can be expansive, or narrow; inclusive, or aloof. Identity politics is a “politics of location,” certainly. But where one is situated in the social formation has consequences for how far one can see. I seem to recall from somewhere that it was Angela Davis who urged readers to imagine the capitalist system as a pyramid, with heterosexual white male capitalists at the top, and black, gay women prisoners at the bottom. Each struggle by those at the bottom would also lift those further up, such that the more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are. The marxist understanding of the working class as the “universal class” hinges partially on this strategic insight.

“Identity politics” is usually treated as an unwelcome narrowing of horizons, a reduction of the political field to competing particularist fiefdoms — the identitarianisation of politicsBut it is also possible to arrive at the same subject from the opposite direction — the politicisation of identity. The tendency of capitalism is to multiply the number of lines of antagonism. And if certain identities are goaded into being, or take on a politicised edge, because the system is attacking people then it is clear that “identity politics” is not a distraction, or an optional bonus. The fact is that “identities” have a material basis in the processes of capitalism. And just because they are constructed (from that material basis) doesn’t mean that they are simply voluntary responses to the life situation they arise in, which can be modified or dropped at will. Thus, it is not realistic to tell people — “you have the wrong identity; you should think of yourself as a worker instead.” To speak of capitalism is to speak of a system of unity in difference, a complex unity structured by antagonism. In any concrete capitalist formation, the forces that emerge to support oppositional and leftist struggles will usually be coming from some identity-position; and usually more than one identity-position, as the lines of antagonism intersect and the fields of politicisation overlap. As Judith Butler argued in her essay, “Merely Cultural,” the Left can respond to this in two ways. Either it can try to construct a unity which is based on the exclusions of what I might call, for convenience, a pre-1968 Left: a unity which suppresses or demotes gender, race, etc as being of secondary, derivative importance. But this will not work: the genie will not go back in the bottle, and all such efforts would result in would be a divided and more defeasible Left. Or it can try to construct a unity in difference, negotiating between identities, acknowledging them as starting points which give rise to certain forms of politicisation and which can potentially be the basis for accession to a universalist political project.

Note the figures whose authority Seymour invokes here: Angela Davis and Judith Butler. Earlier, he’d couched his argument in terms famously set forth by Marx and Lenin. Here he leans more on thought-figures culled from New Left and “post-political” Left perspectives. Davis’ Marxist credentials, it must be said, are considerably more impressive than Butler’s (or Seymour’s, for that matter). Still, since he doesn’t cite any source for the pyramid metaphor he attributes to Davis, however, it’s difficult to say how closely his retelling follows her own original formulation. All the same, just by going off of Seymour’s version one can still advance a couple criticisms.

First, let’s examine this assertion: “[T]he more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are.” Assuming that Seymour takes “more subaltern” to mean “more oppressed” (he gives “black, gay women prisoners” as an example), we might wonder whether this was truly the rationale that led Marx to name the proletariat as the universal class of modern society. What about the lumpenproletariat? Certainly they are “more oppressed” than wage-laborers, even if by definition they are not “more exploited.” Marx and Engels, far from considering the lumpenproletariat a revolutionary force in society, even in potentiareferred to them disparagingly as “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”

Not much of an endorsement, really. For Marx, the reason the proletariat was the “universal class” is because it is the only part of society necessary for the reproduction of capital. While wage labor and capital are indeed antithetical, they also invariably mediate one another. This does not mean that non-proletarian elements cannot take part in any revolution that would seek to overcome capital; they almost certainly would participate, even in crucial ways. But it does mean that the proletariat would lead such a revolution. It would be a democratic revolution, involving the whole “people,” but it would conduct its affairs under the aegis of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

So much for that. Regarding Judith Butler, the very fact that she is now held in such esteem on the Left is symptomatic of a broader development that’s taken place within politics over the last decade. Namely, it consists in the fact that Marxism has declared victory over its would-be usurpers — the (post-)ideological triumvirate of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and post-colonialism — only by capitulating to its so-called “radical” insights and demands.


Moving on to intersectionality, then, we arrive at a short piece he wrote back in March on “The Point of Intersection.” This mini-article has, predictably, become popular amongst young ISOers and ex-SWPers eager to proffer proof that Cliffism can accommodate hip new ideas. Again, as with identity politics and the “subaltern,” Seymour framed his approach in terms of Gramsci. “The concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a way of posing a problem, not an ultimate theoretical solution,” he wrote. “And the problem it poses is, I think, a specific instance of the global problem addressed by Gramsci: that of achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.”

Ultimately, the theoretical justification Seymour provided for adopting intersectionality concerns epistemology. He explained that

like some of the most radical theory, the concept of “intersectionality” poses a profound epistemological challenge, a challenge to ways of knowing. If the feminist challenge to traditional forms of knowledge seeks to expose and counter its androcentric biases, intersectional feminism finds a plethora of other biases (class, ethnocentric, heterosexist, etc) converging on and intersecting with them. It’s not just a question of how a perceived “privilege” or set of privileges might bind one to the system, to its hierarchies and violence, but more profoundly of how one’s location in the social structure enables one to see, or prevents one from seeing.

Like any good Adornian — to say nothing of my piety toward Dietzgen or Sohn-Rethel — I am against epistemology (same goes for ontology). Whether structuralist or phenomenological, or some gross hybrid form thereof, attempts to translate “ways of knowing” into actionable or practicable politics tends to favor some form of crude determinism. Seymour cites all the right intersectional theorists along the way, like any good survey: Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins each receive passing nods.

A travel back in time

Forget all this. Let’s leave it behind. Time to travel back in time, less than a decade ago now but seemingly so far away.

Though it’s probably difficult by now to remember, here’s Seymour in one of his more perceptive moments back in 2004. An editorial decision in The Guardian irked him. They’d published the latest communiqué from Bin Laden in English translation:

If The Guardian wanted to send some of its reactionary opponents into a furore, it couldn’t have done much better than putting Osama Bin Laden’s latest speech in their comment pages. Apparently, Mark Steel was too much of a nutter for them, but this guy’s alright. Can we expect The Al Qaeda Reader next year? A hefty book of collected articles and speeches on the lies of the Zionist-Christian Crusaders and their morally degenerate lifestyles? Maybe a couple of fitness videos featuring Osama and his acolytes doing leg stretches while reciting the Prophets?

I suppose I’m asking the wrong question — what I should ask is why has a bumpkin billionaire with a few nuts loose and a monomaniac fixation with the Great Satan and its Zionist imp got the ears of anyone at all?

Wanna know the kicker? Someone did put out an Al Quaeda Reader the next year. Verso published Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden in 2005. Ironic that The Guardian would get so much flak from Seymour considering he’s now one of Verso’s posterboys. Anyway, let’s not get off track. Though Seymour remained within “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right,” here’s from the rest of his article titled “Jihad Chic”:

It was the vacancy of the international Left which allowed these piratical fuckwits [jihadists] to gain a foothold, first in the Middle East, then elsewhere. The dynamic is almost an exact replica of the process which saw the resurgence of the European far right. The mainstream left and right colluding in a sort of depoliticisation through the Nineties, the demonstrably baleful aspects of capitalism becoming even more obscene, the political process even more moribund than ever, centre-left governments concealing their failure behind a façade of identity politics, PC radicalism, and a multicultural discourse that is not only useless, but actually beneficial for the far right. Multiculturalism, promoting the politics of “difference” rather than universal human rights, can produce strange ideological effects.

How well Richard Seymour wrote nine years ago!

12 thoughts on “Charting regression

  1. Pingback: Charting regression: The decline of Richard Seymour | Research Material

  2. Who in the actually existing world would ever vote for this? If you are LGBT then mainstream politics is already doing important things for you. Why would you want to be interested in obscure ideas that would take you a lot of time to make your own? And if you stood up to ask about the one distinguishing feature that might attract you to a left-wing movement, that of class, you would be shouted down!

    Thanks, therefore, go to these obscurantists for ceding the impulses for class struggle of the masses to the extreme right, who certainly know how to exploit identitarian false consciousness to get serious power.

  3. Is all this dealing with the key issue? As with so many things, the consequences of defining A as distinct from B depends on whether we conceive of them as overlapping territories distinguished by identifiable anchor points, or discrete isomorphic entities with hardened boundaries.

    Why is it LGBTQ and not |L| |G| |B| |T| |Q|? Is it possible to be a male feminist? Is there such a thing as the 99%? Does empathy matter? The task of defending boundaries is harmful and tedious. The landscape of failed transformation is littered with the ruins of boundary skirmishes. Could one be a Chinese-Jamaican-Gay-English-speaking-Quebecois-Choreographer-living in Jakarta and still make useful contributions on the Left?

    • The task of defending boundaries is harmful and tedious. The landscape of failed transformation is littered with the ruins of boundary skirmishes.

      I might have to quote you on this. Fully attributed, of course.

  4. (Longish but I hope you agree it’s justified. Also no italics appear so emphases have the ugly, & scary, *xxxx*.)

    What’s the problem in Left Unity warranting this never-less-than-50% politics? What’s the evidence?
    Emancipatory political activity, including what we say, is likely to be more successful if it is guided by knowledge, not just any belief; it means such activity should be rational, & therefore based on evidence.

    Thus if an organisation, like LU, decides that women will never be a minority on any regional or national committee (it seems this doesn’t apply locally, to branches) then one would expect that this was based on an investigation that had shown that anti-female sexism was so rife within LU that an internal political campaign, & possible remedial organisational measures, were necessary to change this sexist behaviour. And why is sexism a problem? Because its realisation as practice results in oppression, it obstructs attempts to live more egalitarian relationships between people, & it institutionalises rulership (if only in the sexed &/or gendered dimensions of our lives). In the case of a political organisation it helps a sexed/gendered group become decision-makers, thereby securing control over resources that it can then distribute & consume in a sexist way.
    So what evidence has been presented of sexism in LU? From what I can gather, none. However, what has been said within LU, by the advocates of discrimination in favour of girls & women, amounts to like more than assertion, although one can construe an implied argument: in being present in a sexist society, Britain, it *must* be the case that LU is sexist; presumably almost everyone in LU believes sexism is wrong, so something has to be done to oppose sexism (usually unintended) within LU; so let’s try something, let’s ensure females are never in a minority in a LU regional or national committee.

    (Contrast this argument with what readers might remember about the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. Straight after the early January National Conference the undeclared permanent faction running the show inverted the LU idea: “the SWP is not an institution of capitalist society” (‘Response to Attacks on the SWP’, 14Jan2013, penned by the National Secretary, Cde. Chaplin). Strangely this is no longer at the SWP site,, perversely showing that at least some part of the SWP is still working, being fit for purpose. So a Banner of Labour medal, with 404 bar, to the dutiful cipher – also a framed pic of the award ceremony, Cde. Chaplin orchestrating, a dour Stallinicos twitching the curtain of the upstairs office, something the court photographer has observed so many times before.

    Thing is, despite deeming eastern Europe state capitalist, what the cipher had been ordered to do was so bourgeois, having been done in the German Democratic Republic in 1976. This was a swap arranged by Pinochet & Brezhnev: the imprisoned leader of the Chilean Communist Party, Luis Corvalán, traded for the imprisoned dissenter, Vladimir Bukovsky; note that they were simply use values, with no value dimension. GDR TV covered it – without mentioning Bukovsky, without saying it was a swap. Thing is, the whole citizenry could catch the TV signal coming from the Federal Republic. The point being, Chaplin’s statement was only published on the SWP site *after* it had been leaked onto the internet – where it remains to this day: Further proof that bureaucrats find learning quite difficult.)

    But back to this LU business. Sexism is a problem in British society, but how is it a problem within LU? How is it institutionalised, & how onerous is it, how harmful? That we haven’t been told. Invoking talk of the totality, stepping back a moment, what inequity is there in LU, not just its sexed/gendered expressions? Again, not been told. In the LU oppression stakes, what’s the rank of sexist behaviour between LU members? Who knows, perhaps the lives of LU members are being messed up even more by other kinds of relations they have with one another? One could go on. Let’s just say when you start examining this matter systematically it becomes obvious that there’s been a huge over-reaction given the paucity of evidence offered.

    And who could think, especially for a Brit, that simply being a girl or woman makes a person *necessarily* more enlightened, more virtuous, more socialist? One word: Thatcher. Two words: Le Pen. Women were the majority on the SWP Disputes Committee that protected Martin Smith. The voting fodder of Blair’s continuation of the Tory onslaught were ‘the Blair Babes’, 101 of them – which given the prevalence of US cop shows on British TV should have sounded a warning in itself. That’s why Tony Greenstein at LU’s Founding Conference said, “[to] impose a 50% quota it’s substituting what you want for what you are . . . I believe – I’m sorry – that if you’re faced with a choice, vote for the person you agree with because of their *politics*, not because they happen to be born of one sex or another.” (Next came Amina from London – who stirred things up even more.) (from 5:40)

    But I’ve been misleading you, grossly: the advocates don’t speak of sexism: they want *gender equality*. So one doesn’t need to investigate whether there is a problem (sexism): the only problem is those resisting gender equity. You see, it’s *not* about oppression, about practices, behaviour, what people do to one another; no, it’s about form, about the composition of committees, about satisfying a formal criterion. This means it is *not* about politics: the politics of the females concerned are irrelevant. More precisely, the politics is getting the quota institutionalised, keeping it there, & only then comes the competition for places, when the political views of individuals start to be considered. And in this what is primary, the necessary quality, what makes one eligible, is having either a XX chromosomal composition or living as a gendered female (see my point below). (please see clause 4d)

    To go all human social ontological for a moment, gender equity is static in nature, whereas behaviour, sexist or anti-sexist, is processual, it’s dynamic. It’s the difference between is & becoming. One is preoccupied with identity, the other with interests.
    I contend the political problem is sexism, not gender inequity, enduring systematic & institutionalised sexist behaviour, not an unequal relationship between gendered human beings that can be put right by insisting on never less than 50%. Likewise the problem is racism & racist behaviour, not trying to make the relations between racialised human beings, races, more equal. The problem is a set of oppressive regimes in & through which people live their lives, each delivering a condition of rule, all of them rendered intelligible in that they are all conditioned by the practical imperatives of the productive forces being in the social form called capital. Liberation from exploitation & oppression is the politics here. This point was made a long time ago by Milton Fisk. (‘Feminism, Socialism, and Historical Materialism’, Praxis International [Belgrade], 1982, downloadable for free, as are all their articles, many that would interest readers here; his own site,, surprisingly, gets the title wrong)

    A well-tried attempt to reduce inequity has been the policy of explicit positive discrimination in favour of one group at the expense of another group, be they racialised/ethnicised or genderised or aged, ostensibly to favour the oppressed group, & by extension oppressed individuals (an important difference). My evaluation of the efficacy of this is neither here nor there. I just want to end by saying it seems the critics of positive discrimination offer only one egalitarianising alternative, call it the Greenstein Strategy: vote in those with the best politics, the politics that can be used to create party structures, policies, & practices that are best suited to help people both oppose oppressive behaviour & create more egalitarian practices, be it inside or outside the party. So is there no place for quotas? Should it just be a matter of campaigning for the institutionalising of the best politics?
    It merits noting that the embedding of the gendered male/female binary into LU organisational forms has stirred the ire of those who promote the interests of transgendered and so-called intersex people. Can’t find where I read it, but it said the LU full-timers are having to look into this.
    I say ‘so-called’ because the term, not the concept, is an expression of binomial imperialism: those other than XX or XY in their chromosomal composition should not be wedged between the dominants but should get the recognition they deserve, as being their own sex; even to say they are para-XX/XY is discursively imperialist as it defines them *in terms of* some other sex. We all know how derogatory it is to call coloured people (a quasi-anagram of the right-on ‘people of colour’) non-white. It’s the same here.

    A last word. Not to be thought unkind, but I trust that LU will carry out its duty of care, diverting resources from campaign work in ‘the real world’ to fund the physical infrastructure required by the safe places policy. It is obviously necessary that any LU meeting has adjacent to it a panic room, a suite that needs to be thoroughly inspected beforehand, not least to remove any Jodie Foster & Kristen Stewart pics left there by the mockers & Trotskysauruses. The LU inspectorate may even find strewn about some detritus from the Charnel House itself. But it cannot be denied that it is always enlightening to observe & consider the world through the eyes of corpses.

    (On the subject of constitutions, today, 5 Dec, is the anniversary of the 1936 Soviet Constitution, the one declaring the arrival of socialism at the platform – Platform 666. That’s the one with its own, special, waiting room: Room 101. Another virtue of wiki’s homepage, stirring our historical memory.)

  5. Apologies:

    I should listen more closely to my Wyclef & Mary:

    Also for not checking the para. breaks in this tiny window (they were there in my draft – honest). The only one not obvious is in the first long one, coming straight after “resources . . . distribute & consume . . .”

    And respect to you, Ross, for not editing. Cheers.

  6. Great stuff – except of course that Seymour’s decline began precisely when the shift in the SWP’s line turned him from the Pocket Hitchens of Jihad Chic to the self-appointed Vyshinsky of the Case of the Hitchens-Berman-Geras-Wolfowitz-Žižek Bloc.

  7. Pingback: Live by intersectionality, die by intersectionality | The Charnel-House

  8. That anecdote about the angry woman standing up at the conference sounds suspiciously like the sort of made up story you see online (from both right and left) of some pompous bigot being humiliated. You know the sort, they tend to end in the words “and that young man was… Albert Einstein!”

    Did Seymour make it up. I don’t know, but we’re seeing it through his eyes either way.

  9. Pingback: Against Richard Seymour | The Charnel-House

  10. Pingback: Toward a materialist approach to the question of race: A response to the Indigènes de la République | The Charnel-House

Leave a Reply