Brexit stage Left? Or maybe better not at all

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The amount of leftist posturing around the issue of Brexit exists in inverse proportion to the actual potential of the situation, which as everyone knows is zilch. It reflects the flailing impotence of the contemporary Left and the total absence of a viable proletarian or internationalist alternative. Neither the vote to leave nor the vote to remain is radical in the least.

Several months ago, in their official statement on the matter, the Communist Party of Great Britain therefore observed: “Cameron’s referendum is a cynical maneuver that pits reactionaries against other reactionaries… Likewise, the ‘out’ campaign is dominated by noxious chauvinism, [aiming to replace] ‘Fortress Europe’ with the stronger ‘Fortress Britain’.” From Cardiff a voice justly proclaims a pox upon both Britannia and Europa, advising abstention from this plebiscitary farce.

Yet even the call for communists to abstain feels like something of an empty gesture given the current context. Mike Macnair, one of the authors of the aforementioned statement, has basically said as much. “Boycotting the vote is what I am arguing for,” explained Macnair at a panel organized by Platypus in London. “Had we more forces, I’d argue not merely for a boycott but to disrupt this vote as a sham, a fraud, and an anti-democratic initiative.”

Amidst the cacophony and confusion a quote from Lev Trotsky has resurfaced, which echoes uncannily across the ages and seems to speak to the present dilemma. While the constellation of forces is no doubt quite different, and Marxists should refrain from drawing hasty historic parallels, the quote is nevertheless well suited to the task of trolling left Brexiteers — for example the Swappers (slang for members of the British Socialist Workers Party), as well as the independent Trot septuagenarian Tariq Ali:

If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to “autonomous” national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.

Meanwhile, Sp!ked has been running a public campaign in support of the Brexit. The whole thing has been an embarrassment, painful to watch, with Neil Davenport holding fast to a naïve majoritarian model of democracy. “Particular people seem not to trust ordinary people to vote the right way in an election. So how would they feel about them taking over the means of production?” As if this were not simply repeating the same populist platitudes always inimical to revolutionary Marxism. Continue reading

Against Richard Seymour

Daniel Harvey
Weekly Worker
June 12, 2014
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Richard Seymour

Against austerity: How we can fix the crisis they made?
Pluto Press, 2014, pp198, £11.50

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Some readers are going to need to have their memories jogged. There was this bloke who used to hang around the left a while ago called Richard Seymour, who cuts a lonely political figure now. Having left the Socialist Workers Party, he then left the International Socialist Network he had helped set up because he made a comment about race and sexual bondage that was considered non-PC. Then even a group as boring as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century rejected his membership application out of sheer prudishness.

Now he has written up some thoughts about where we have been going wrong in his book, Against Austerity, which some commentators have been absolutely raving about. Alan Sears from Canada calls it a “crucial reference point for the left,” an “unflinching and insightful analysis of the current situation in which the radical left finds itself.”[1] Mark Perryman sees the book as continuing “the important line of thinking” of the late Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea in the Kilburn Manifesto.[2] Louis Proyect over on Counterpunch says: “At the risk of inflating the young man’s ego, I regard him as the most compelling prose stylist on the left since Alexander Cockburn in his heyday and Christopher Hitchens before he turned into Mr Hyde.”[3]

It seems like high praise from some quarters for a book that must have the dullest title the leftwing publisher, Pluto Press, could have chosen. A bit like a headline in The Socialist. So what is the author’s main line of reasoning? Well, after five to six years of the great recession that began in 2008, Seymour has noticed that the left has not advanced very far.

He is disappointed, and we can see why if we look back at his oeuvre from before his split with the SWP. Back then, as James Heartfield has pointed out on Sp!ked, he had higher expectations.[4] He was heaping praise on the “wave of radical leaderships” in the unions in 2006[5] — he said on his blog: “The picket lines are out, and more than a million workers will not be crossing them today. I had a sneaking suspicion that the atmosphere of the Winter of Discontent would be evoked.”[6]

It is worth quoting the feelings that were stirred in comrade Seymour in 2011 by the March 26 march called by the TUC. I remember us all trudging to Hyde Park to listen to Ed Miliband, but for Seymour this was a profoundly transformative moment:

It was something that I haven’t really seen en masse before. It was something that some people had written off. They said was a bit old hat, doomed to a slow, dwindling death, if it even really existed. It was the working class. Not the working class in the shitty, nostalgic, culturally regressive sense that people invoke, not the deus ex machina mobilised to berate black people and gays for being too assertive of their legitimate rights. It was the working class as an agent of its own interests; it was a class for itself. It was the labour movement, every bit the multicultural entity that Cameron reviles. And that movement, comprising several millions of people, having lain dormant for years, is now looking decidedly up for a fight. If you’re a socialist in one of those workplaces on Monday morning, you should have an easier job arguing for militant strike action now, because people now know what they could not be sure of before: that we are many, and they are few.[7]

Yes! So what happened? Where did it all go wrong? I think it is safe to say that the fact he left the SWP had something to do with it. Not being in that perpetually optimistic echo chamber has had something of a come-down effect for him. In any case, the fact that comrade Seymour has started to use his own eyes again is great news for the rest of us. That means he is now looking at austerity in a whole new light. It is a class project, he says, which is just the latest part in a decades-long strategy by our political elites. He has been reading Foucault, and he has now decided that austerity is a project to redesign western capitalism at a cellular level. But it will take a generation to rebuild the left to a point where it can have any real clout again. Continue reading

“Race-play” and BDSM revisited: Looking back at the ISN split

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Several months have passed since the fiasco around the infamous image of the oligarchess Dasha Zhukova sitting on Bjarne Melgaard’s chair in the shape of a black woman led to mass resignations in Britain’s newly-formed International Socialist Network (ISN). Richard Seymour and Magpie Corvid, both of whom helped to found the fledgling group just months after it broke away from the publicly disgraced Socialist Workers Party (SWP), ventured into an online discussion about sexual and racial taboos related to the chair. Seymour, a famous blogger and writer for Verso, and Corvid, herself a well-known dominatrix, were almost immediately branded mansplaining, racist perverts for even entertaining the idea that such stuff was permissible if all parties consented. Needless to say, the whole thing was a farce. Together with the sci-fi author China Miéville and a host of other prominent ISN cadre, they  split from the party amidst outrage and recrimination.

Anyway, I covered that entire saga back when it was still unfolding in late January. But it’s back in the news, so I thought it’d be fitting to take a look back. The Times ran a full-page story on the incident, authored by David Brown and Jonathon Manning. It’s a serviceable enough mainstream account. From what I hear, the New Statesman also put out a retrospective this week on the still-earlier SWP “rapegate” scandal, which is what led to the formation of the ISN in the first place. New Statesman is probably less keen to write up anything about Seymour’s subsequent follies, as they published the so-called “Discourse on Brocialism” between him and fellow Guardian  columnist Laurie Penny last November. Continue reading

Further adventures in intersectionality

On the hounding of Laurie
Penny & Richard Seymour
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James Heartfield
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“White settlers” who “cut off indigenous people’s hair as part of genocide”; you make “a lot of erasing statements,” to “silence” and “exclude,” in the name of “white solidarity.”

— commenter, discussing a piece
about women with short hair

How fucking dare you…turn around and put the word “racist” in quotation marks like the accusation is a trivial or silly one…your response has been at all times to try and define this racism out of existence…your response at all turns has been to argue, essentially, we’ve got a moral chip on our shoulders. YOU FUCKING CRACKER.

— commenter, discussing the
racism of an advertisement

Who could they be talking about? Are these perhaps some racist white settlers exterminating indigenous people, and degrading blacks?

Well, no. In the first paragraph are tweets to the New Statesman columnist and feminist Laurie Penny, and the second paragraph are replies to the Guardian columnist and self-styled revolutionary socialist Richard Seymour. Both Penny and Seymour have made a point of arguing, moreover, for the latest fad in leftist thinking: intersectionality. “Intersectionality” supposedly means taking seriously the many different oppressions, and how they intersect. “My socialism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” Seymour has made a point of saying. Given that they are so keen to speak out against oppression in all its multi-layered forms, it seems really bad luck that they should be accused of being “racist crackers” and “white settlers.”

Why are they the ones denounced? And who are the critics who judge them so harshly? They are their friends. Yes, that’s right. That is what their friends think of them. In Richard Seymour’s case, it is what his own comrades in the International Socialist Network — that he recently helped to set up — think of him: that he is “a fucking cracker.” Laurie Penny says that the woman who tweeted or re-tweeted all of the posts above — about her being a settler engaged in genocide — is someone she takes very seriously: “I care what you think,” Penny reassured her. Continue reading

Postscript on identity, intersectionality

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Over the last week the whole internet’s been aflutter with righteous rage and condemnation, all stemming from the publication of a couple articles critiquing identity politics and intersectionality on the Left. “Exiting the vampire castle,” a piece addressing the former of these topics, appeared on The North Star five days ago. Its author, Mark Fisher, known for his widely-acclaimed monograph Capitalist Realism from 2009, sought to isolate and describe a rather corrosive tendency within contemporary leftist discourse. He christened this tendency “the Vampires’ Castle”:

The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities” recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Several weeks ago I posted an exchange between Michael Rectenwald and me about “identity” as “the bane of the contemporary Left,” along with a follow-up on the shifting significance of the term “identitarian” within critical theory. These are somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. Anyway, Fisher’s article almost immediately unleashed an unholy shitstorm (stricto sensu) of leftish snark and indignation across the web. Both in the comment thread and beyond, throughout the Twitterverse and numerous repostings on Facebook walls, supporters and detractors alike hashed it out in an orgy of opprobrium and vicious accusations. Lost amidst all this pseudo-controversy and scandal-mongering was any sense of scale or circumspection. These are usually the first casualties of such disputes, of course.

When the dust finally settled (has it settled?), not a few articles had been written. Some were rejoinders to Fisher’s original posting. A few figures also rose to his defense. It’d be pointless to try to reconstruct all these interventions, however, so for now a list will have to suffice.

First, we have his opponents:

Next up, Fisher’s allies:

Heartfield’s piece, incidentally, is the other article I alluded to at the outset. Though it must’ve seemed like a pre-planned, two-pronged assault in conjunction with Fisher’s critique of the Vampires’ Castle, both were written and accepted for publication without prior knowledge of each other. Strangely enough, they just happened to be released around the same time, Heartfield’s a couple days later. Which is why I include it here.

Regardless, there were a couple other responses that took a more ambivalent stance toward the whole affair. Three articles belong to this “third camp”:

Krul’s article was probably the best of the bunch so far, in any of these “camps” — though that isn’t saying very much. In addition to this, there was also apparently some sniping from the leftist blogger Richard Seymour (who goes by the quaint handle “Lenin”). Seymour also took to Twitter to register his opinion of Heartfield’s criticisms of intersectionality. According to Seymour, “Heartfield’s article is classic male backlash/ ex-RCP contrarianism.” He kept his remarks about Fisher a bit more private, posting them on his Facebook wall. When one of Fisher’s associates alerted him to these comments, he had only this to say:

The Reverend Seymour is moraliser-in-chief, who’s built his career on condemning and excommunicating. But nobody cares about these people beyond a very narrow, self-defined online “Left” — they are emperors in Liliput…

A fairly accurate portrayal, at least in my experience. Part of the latter-day Left’s modus operandi is to shamelessly shun or “no platform” its opponents, thereby skirting any substantial disagreement in favor a narrow ideological line of acceptable deviations. Everything else is considered abhorrent and must be ignored unto oblivion. Surprising stuff, considering the stakes are so low. The real, i.e. historical, Lenin gladly met and talked politics with imperialist boosters like the Fabian H.G. Wells and the pro-war anarchist Petr Kropotkin after 1914. What an age we live in. Continue reading

You can’t spell “intersectionality” without “sect”

A dissection

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The concept of “intersectionality” is at best equivalent to unthought social complexity. Even then it is misleading, and potentially pernicious. 
At worst it’s just a meaningless pomo shibboleth used to stifle debate, obscure universal dynamics of capitalist society, and encourage methodological eclecticism (under the questionable pretext of a “plurality” of approaches). See the recent “‘Safe’ Spaces” piece I reposted from the CPGB’s Weekly Worker a couple months back to see the kind of spiraling madness to which this nonsense often leads.

It’s the continuation of identity politics by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz.

Rejecting intersectionality and identity politics does not mean reasserting a crude “class reductionist” model promoting “working-class identity,” however, as Mark Fisher seems to contend in his recent article “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (otherwise a serviceable critique of “identitarian” politics, which are always welcome). After all, this would just be another species of economic determinism, the sort that eventually leads leftists to search for “alien class elements” to root out, explaining ideological deviations by pointing to one’s petit-bourgeois upbringing (for example).

Over the summer I was hoping to co-write something with my friend Jasmine Curcio, a radical feminist and Marxist from Australia, in response to Seymour’s post back in March on “The Point of Intersection.” I’m guessing the title of this entry alludes to the older Marxian concept of “the point of production.” Sadly, Jasmine became busy with university work, and I’ve been bogged down with other projects. James Heartfield’s piece will therefore have to do for now. Luckily his article is quite good. He’s better read in the history of these concepts than most of their proponents, at least. Also, it has the virtue of remaining pretty ad rem, which is more than can be said for most of Heartfield’s critics. George Galloway is one figure I find particularly repulsive, however. I’m not really bothered by Russell Brand, Lily Allen, or Julie Bindel.

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Intersectional? Or just sectarian?

James Heartfield
Mute Magazine

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Is self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand really just a “Brocialist”? Is Lily Allen’s feminist pop-video racist? Is lesbian activist Julie Bindel a “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” Is Respect MP George Galloway a “rape apologist”? Welcome to the world of “intersectionalism” — or what we used to call sectarianism.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” This was Flavia Dzodan’s angry challenge to a feminist slogan on a placard on a “slutwalk” march, “woman is the nigger of the world.” Dzodan did not like the “white feminist” laying claim to her the oppression suffered by women of color. “Am I supposed to ignore the violence that ensued in the N* word discussion?’ Dzodan asked: “Am I supposed to overlook its blatant violence in the name of sisterhood?”[1]

Dzodan’s meme “intersectional” was widely taken up amongst radical campaigners and bloggers. Intersectionality seemed to be a way to balance the different claims of oppressed groups. No one would be ignored, or folded into the other. Intersectional feminism would not ignore the special problems faced by black women. Nor would anti-racist campaigners ignore sexism. The watchword of intersectionality was that you should “check your privilege” before making any claims.[2]

For the radical left “intersectionality” seemed to be a way of “achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.”[3] Those leftists were embarrassed by their own tradition, which seemed to them to be too mannish. They felt they had ignored questions of oppression, and would make amends through an intersectional approach. The older texts that saw women’s oppression as a footnote to the class struggle were set aside.[4] Continue reading

The anti-political party: Tony Cliff and the Socialist Workers Party

by James Heartfield

Untitled.
Image: SWP founder and chief
theoretician Tony Cliff (1967)

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Reposted from Platypus Review.

Book Review:
Ian Birchall. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks, 2011.

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The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the largest political party left of the Labour Party, and has been active on the far left since 1977 and before that as the International Socialists since the 1960s. The party was led by Tony Cliff until his death thirteen years ago, and Ian Birchall, who has written this diligently researched memoir, is still a member since joining in the 1960s. Birchall’s “warts-and-all” examination is motivated by a marked unhappiness about A World To Win, the autobiography which Cliff apparently wrote based on recollection, without access to the relevant documentation. Cliff, Birchall remarks, was sometimes abrasive and “often underestimated the contributions of other comrades” (ix, 543). However, whatever its deficiencies, A World to Win narrates the story of the SWP pretty much as it appeared to Cliff, as one that was inseparable from his own life story. And as Cliff made clear, “there was no time in which militant workers were so open to us as in 1970–74,” under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, “not before and not since.”[1] Yet if we take this claim seriously, no organization better embodies the failure of the British workers to take power than the Socialist Workers Party, which has endured for more than half a century, though not for the reasons that its leaders think.[2] Indeed, it might be argued that Cliff’s real achievement was to found a movement that rode a wave of disaffection from mainstream politics, unburdened by too many dogmatic ideas.

Birchall recounts that Tony Cliff joined the small Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League in Palestine before coming to Britain after the Second World War. The movement he joined faced some big problems. First, like all far left groups, it was guilty by its association with the repressive dictatorship that Stalin had built in the USSR. Second, the Trotskyists were saddled with an analysis that the economic crisis would get much worse after the Second World War (the destruction of the war had laid the basis for a revival). Third, globally, the working classes were divided between the peoples of the developing world, who were denied their freedom by military imperialism, and those of the developed world, who tended to support reforms offered by the state.

It was in this context that Cliff started to develop new theories to explain the new conditions in which the Left found itself, along with his early collaborators Mike Kidron and later Nigel Harris. He broke with orthodox Trotskyism to argue that the Soviet Union was not socialist, but actually capitalist, “state capitalist,” only masquerading as socialist (anti-Stalinists like Max Schachtman and Raya Dunayevskaya drew similar conclusions, and later some Maoists argued the point). He also countered the prevailing claims of the Marxist left that the 1960s would be years of crisis, arguing that government spending on arms would boost the economy, what Cliff referred to as the “permanent arms economy.” Lastly, against British comrades who believed in the importance of Lenin’s argument about imperialism, Cliff held that it was not the highest stage beyond which capitalism could develop, but the “highest stage but one.” Together, Cliff thought of the theories of “state capitalism,” the “permanent arms economy,” and the end of imperialism as a “troika” of intellectual achievements.

Tony Cliff during the 1950s

Tony Cliff during the 1950s

Although Birchall does not acknowledge it, these were not really theories so much as an intellectual spinning of the facts, worked up to avoid specific problems. It was wise to say that the International Socialists did not want to make Britain into the Soviet Union, but bizarre to say that what was wrong with Stalinism was that it was capitalist, as if “capitalist” were a word that you applied to anything that you did not like. For as Kidron went on admit, the “state capitalist” “analysis was never a general theory,” and the “permanent arms economy” was a piece of Keynesian thinking.[3] These “theories” saddled the group with false prognoses that had to be reversed later on. The spending on arms, which was credited with preserving capitalism, was later credited with precipitating a new crisis. And while the International Socialists thought that Lenin’s theory of imperialism was superseded in the 1960s (just as the conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere were mounting) the SWP later embraced the struggle against imperialism in 2003 when it rallied to support for what the party called “the resistance” in Iraq and Afghanistan.[4] Continue reading