[Alfie Hancox is a Masters of Research student investigating the politics of gender, sexuality and race on the British far left. He is interested in recovering theory linking diverse social movements with an anti-imperialist political economy.]
By Alfie Hancox
Fifty years ago, in 1968, the capitalist world-system was shaken by an eclectic outpouring of revolutionary activity on a global scale. Liberation struggles were raging throughout the global South, with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam inspiring revolutionaries world-wide by dealing a humiliating blow to the imperialist superpower. Domestically the US was rocked by an intensifying Civil Rights Movement, urged on by the more radical activity of groups like the Black Panther Party, in turn giving strength to the nascent Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). These currents rapidly spread to Europe, where they climaxed in May with the Parisian “Night of the Barricades”, after which French students poured out of the campuses and joined the worker revolt that rapidly paralyzed their country. 1968 in Britain was milder than elsewhere in Europe, but here the “spirit of ‘68” nonetheless continued well into the 1970s, as intense industrial unrest was coupled with a burgeoning of “new social movements” (NSMs) mobilised around issues like race and gender, including the British WLM and various radical black organisations. Yet fifty years onwards, the crucial historical question of ‘68 is this: why had this great release of revolutionary creativity so quickly dissipated by the late 1970s and given way to the neoliberal reaction and authoritarian populism of Thatcher’s New Right?
While it is frequently asserted on the left that the NSMs were always liberal distractions from the “true” class struggle, there is less concern with the left’s own failure to adapt to and draw strength from the new social issues. A major shortcoming in particular stands out: the historical limits of the British left’s internationalism gave rise to the predominance of left nationalism and enabled the New Right to set the terms of political discourse. Furthermore, the absence of a materialist understanding of imperialism in the postcolonial era resulted in a faulty analysis of fascism as a mere “false patriotism”, which is still the standard framing used by the British left today. These are issues of the utmost relevance, as Corbyn’s capitulation to left nationalism has cleared the path for the convergence of far-right elements now represented by the Alt-Right, UKIP, the populist wing of the Tories and more traditional street fascists like the English Defence League (EDL) and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). To combat this highly organised and internationally-coordinated phenomenon the left must begin taking seriously fascist ideology and its peculiar racist and gender essentialist elements, and it is only by acknowledging the imperialist nature of the British state, and the embeddedness of left nationalism within it, that this can be accomplished.
Left Internationalism and its Historical Limits in Britain
A central lesson of ’68 was the importance of international solidarity. Revolutionary movements are mutually reinforcing, and the Vietnamese liberation struggle served as a global catalyst in this regard. The highpoint of Britain’s ’68 was the anti-war demonstration outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. However, the lack of a materialist analysis of modern imperialism meant the left was unable to seriously evaluate the root causes of racism in Britain, which in turn lead to them allowing the New Right to set the terms of discourse on issues like immigration.
In the aftermath of ’68 radical black British political movements such as the British Black Panther Movement, the Black Unity and Freedom Party, and the Asian Youth Movements signalled a new self-assertiveness among national minority communities. Yet the response of the British left (reformist or otherwise) to these vital developments was minimal: racism was viewed as merely an issue of discriminatory attitudes, clearly demonstrated when they adopted the idealist slogan “Black and White Unite and Fight!”. In the worst cases, however, the left attacked black workers and activists for “dividing the working-class”—as if the divisions were not pre-existing and structural. To understand these pathetic responses, it is crucial to acknowledge the historical complicity of the left in British imperialism and the consequent development of left nationalism/patriotism.
Working-class formation in Britain coincided with the height of British empire. In the late nineteenth century, as Britain experienced an economic boom off the back of its colonies, Engels observed the development of a privileged “labour aristocracy” among the working-class, bought-off with the profits of imperialism. The complicity of this organised labour aristocracy in British colonialism was reflected in the open racism and imperialism of Britain’s early Marxist organisations, which provided the ideological foundations of the Labour Party (formed in 1906). After the Second World War Britain experienced another economic boom this time partially subsidised by America, the new imperialist superpower. Consequently, the labour aristocracy became generalised to encompass the majority of the white working-class, which in its desire to maintain a relatively privileged position vis-à-vis non-white workers was highly susceptible to the racist discourses of the ruling class. The left, “revolutionary” or otherwise, has largely failed to recognise imperialism as an economic system that reproduces unequal development and hence has ignored the structural roots of racism. As long argued by radical economists located in the global South like the late Samir Amin, capitalism from the nineteenth century created an imperialist world-system, characterised by a continual flow of wealth from the exploited countries of the global South to those of the rich North, a system that continued after the end of formal colonialism.
1968 was itself in a very real sense a microcosm of the entire “’68 era” in Britain. As new progressive movements began to converge around the anti-war movement already forces of reaction were setting in. Labour’s new Immigration Act reinforced the racist colour bar, while Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech signalled the beginnings of New Right populism. The Communist and Trotskyist left were inhibited by a rigid economistic outlook that entailed collaboration with the anti-immigrant Labour Party and union bureaucracy, which demanded black and Asian workers “assimilate” (accept their subordinate position in British society). Racism, if acknowledged, was understood by the left generally as a top-down “trick” to manipulate workers, which failed to get to the root of racism in the pre-existing structural divisions within class arising from imperialism. Migrant workers from countries exploited by Britain were brought here to enter low-wage roles and service the post-war labour shortage, yet when they arrived they were greeted with discrimination, racist abuse, and police harassment. The left continued to deploy a chauvinistic left nationalist discourse which opened the way for the New Right.
Fifty years later and Britain remains racist to its core, as recently highlighted by the Windrush Scandal and by the institutional murder of poor and predominantly immigrant residents in Grenfell Tower. Corbyn may criticise the excesses of the Tory government, but in failing to break with the old left nationalist paradigm he remains incapable of setting an alternative agenda to combat the rise of the far-right. The current Labour Manifesto panders to chauvinistic fears, making reference to migrant labour ‘undercutting workers’ pay and conditions’. It reproduces the dehumanising principle that migrants are legitimate only as economic units, calling for a ‘system which is based on our economic needs, balancing controls and existing entitlements’ and emphasising ‘the economic and social contributions of immigrants’. What’s more, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, has promised to hire 10,000 more police at a time when our prisons are bloated particularly with black youth—remarkably, there is a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prison here than in the ultra-racist US. The divisions within the working-class will not be resolved by abstract appeals to unity or by fetishizing the “economic contributions” of migrants; this can only strengthen the contradictions that weaken all workers. A prime responsibility of the left must be to promote anti-racism and anti-imperialism among the white working-class by making common-sense the truism that these humanist positions are essential prerequisites to the amelioration of the entire working-class. It must provide an internationalist (as opposed to liberal “humanitarian”) counter-narrative to that of the authoritarian right.
Imperialism, “race” and macho-sexual politics
Critically, an anti-imperialist politics is necessary to avoid the erroneous left understanding of fascism as a “false patriotism”; a mere regressive reflex to capitalist crisis. There is nothing “false” about it, it is a natural expression of the contradictions of an imperialist, patriarchal state in which the working-class is divided along racial lines, contradictions which left-wing patriotism can only strengthen. The anti-fascist action of the 1970s for all its militancy could do nothing to stem the incoming tide of authoritarian populism, because it equated fascism with Nazism and drew on the nationalist mythos of “anti-fascist” Britain, thereby failing to pinpoint the fascist elements inherent to the British state. Did not Nazism itself draw upon the eugenicist ideas and practices first inculcated within Britain; was not Hitler inspired by our very own Lebensraum in India, not to mention the concentration camps run by British imperialists in southern Africa and elsewhere? Is it correct to view fascism as a foreign import when our last Prime Minister referred to refugees and migrants as a “swarm”; and when a virulent Islamophobia, now a lynchpin of British fascism, is actively encouraged by our politicians (seen recently in Boris Johnson’s racist comments about veiled women) and determined by the imperialist aggression of Britain, following America’s lead, against Muslim-majority countries? Furthermore, it is only by taking seriously imperialism that we can understand the peculiarly gendered dimension of fascism.
The heteronormative gender binary (straight male-female gender roles as complementary and “natural”) has pre-capitalist origins but is nevertheless vital to and hence reproduced by the capitalist system. This is in order to 1. ensure the reproduction of surplus labour and capitalist ideology through the patriarchal nuclear household, 2. keep the working-class divided via the gendered division of labour and the “burning” of class by (hetero)sexism (just as class is also burned by “race”) and 3. furnish the unemployed labour reserve army to push down wages by providing non-meritocratic bases for discrimination (today especially LGBT people, who transgress heteronormativity, are kept out of the workplace); all to ensure capitalist profits.
Neoliberal globalisation since the 1980s has entailed the wholesale destruction of small-scale farming in the global South, leading hundreds of millions of migrants to enter wage-labour relations. Migrant women have poured into factories and sweatshops, becoming essential to the working of the capitalist economy. Due to the ideology and material system of heteronormativity women are paid less, work longer hours and are overrepresented in vulnerable employment. Over sixty percent of women’s working hours are completely uncompensated. Most worryingly today, the mass entrance of women into waged work has fed the global rise of fascism as men react to the loss of direct control over “their women”. In the West specifically, fascism is fuelled by a contradiction that was latent since ‘68: the failure of gender anti-essentialism to become hegemonic has led to a clash between traditional expectations and the reality of restructured post-boom capitalism (women in the workplace along with a general loss of social stability).
The inseparability of race and gender finds clearest expression in fascist ideology. This is seen in the Alt-Right’s paranoid obsession that feminism (in alliance with “Islamofascism” and “Cultural Marxism”) is destroying white Western civilization. Such views are propagated in online spaces, particularly “men’s rights” forums. There are, however, strong cross-fertilizations between the Alt-Right and traditional fascist groups, and to be clear, anti-Semitism is always lurking just below the surface of these new discourses. The fascist rhetoric of “white genocide” also stems from sexualised notions of racial purity. Yet what is little recognised is that all these iterations represent logical conclusions of nationalism in an imperialist country. Imperialism is itself highly sexualised through the vector of race. Recall how the bloody colonial projects were accompanied by a neurotic concern about “native” hypersexuality, alongside fears of white male impotence. This was related to eugenicist notions positing women as the locus of a nation’s well-being/hygiene/“honour”. It is a reflection, in the last analysis, of the contradiction imperialism generates as homogenising capitalism is brought into conflict with defensive nationalism and patrilineality.
As such, eugenicism did not end with the break-up of formal empire, nor has it left the mainstream. In the 1970s UK border authorities subjected female Asian immigrants to humiliating “virginity tests”. Today migrant women remain extremely vulnerable under the current UK visa system. Sexual abuse is common, and fears of deportation often make speaking out impossible. Immigrant’s sexuality is both fetishized and feared. In 2016 a Daily Mail article written by an Oxford professor furthered the fascist narrative of white genocide, anxiously warning that women ‘born overseas contributed 27 per cent of all live births in England and Wales in 2014’. None of this is to deny that fascism is primarily the fanatically authoritarian face of capitalism in crisis mode. However, analysing capitalism in its current imperialist form is necessary to understand the reproduction of the racism and gender essentialism that underpin fascist ideology. Through mass fascist movements, these superstructural elements latent to capitalism achieve a new “relatively autonomous” expression.
The Fascist Threat Today
On 6 May 2018 thousands attended a rally in central London organised by the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). It featured various high-profile speakers, representing a convergence of fascist elements in Britain. These included co-founder of the English Defence League Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson) who declared “we are now mainstream!”; Raheem Kassam, former advisor for UKIP and editor of Breitbart, the US Alt-Right paper that helped secure Trump’s electoral victory; UKIP leader Gerard Batten; Alt-Right icon Milo Yiannopoulos; and far-right YouTuber Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin), who has over 200 million video views and who along with other prominent Alt-Right personalities has recently been invited into UKIP. After the arrest of Yaxley-Lennon for contempt of court multiple “Free Tommy” rallies encouraged by the US Alt-Right were held, with one in London on 9 June drawing up to 15,000 supporters. Trump’s visit the following month attracted further thousands of far-right protestors. Fascist agitation has continued in the past months and another march by the DFLA was held in London on Saturday 13 October, although this time it was outnumbered by anti-fascist protestors.
The left’s response has been uninspired. There are talks of reviving the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), originally formed by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party in the 1970s. The strategy of mainstream anti-fascist groups like Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF) remains cooperation with the Labour Party and trade unions. This has been encouraged by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and a ‘National Unity Demonstration Against Racism and Fascism’ has been organised for 17 November. Clearly the lessons of the 1970s have not been learnt. The ANL had always served to divert attention away from the imperialist and racist character of capitalism which Labour is embedded in. Consequently, it did not listen to the real concerns of black and Asian communities so that in September 1978, during one of the ANL’s glamourous London Carnival events, these communities were left alone to combat a fascist march through East London where an Asian man had been murdered just months earlier. Anti-fascists continue to label the far-right Nazis, obscuring the indigenous origins of British fascism. The recent counter-demonstration against the DFLA, partly organised by SUTR and UAF, fell into this reductionist trap with protestors shouting “Nazi scum off our streets!”. Influential neo-Trotskyist Paul Mason has recently stressed the dangers of pandering to nationalism, but symptomatically he fails to identify the existence of left nationalism, instead praising Labour for its policy of relative “toleration” of migrants!
The recent anti-DFLA demonstration did not totally lack creativity. One contingent was headed by the Women’s Strike and a Feminist Anti-Fascist bloc, comprised of women and non-binary gender people. They successfully reclaimed sexual politics away from the right, with their slogan banner declaring “No rape. No racism. No silence to violence.” A reflective article on the demo by a Women’s Strike member notes how the far right ‘seek to portray black and Asian men as inherently more prone to committing acts of violence’ and underlines the importance of ‘the feminist analysis of power, racism, ‘safety’ and the grooming gangs crisis, opposing the racist instrumentalisation of sexual violence.’ What is lacking in this “intersectional” feminist analysis (and equally lacking on the mainstream left) is an understanding of how inter-connected “sites” of oppression like racism and (hetero)sexism are not just free-floating into one another but are part of a dialectical unity determined by capitalism-imperialism. Consequently, the left as a whole must acknowledge its long-standing rootedness in imperialist discourses and practices. It must recognise fascism for what it is so as to begin the counter-offensive by attacking racism, gender essentialism and all forms of British nationalism, and by demonstrating counter-hegemony with a truly radical socialist alternative.
Corbynism is Social Imperialism
If the left does not grasp that capitalism exists as an imperialist, patriarchal world-system, it cannot hope to solve the contradictions inherent to social democracy. Social democracy, because it is a left-nationalist compromise between capitalism-imperialism and the labour aristocracy, can only reproduce the conditions for capitalist crisis and strengthen the far right, i.e. it can only hurt the entire British working-class. After 1968 the majority of the British “revolutionary” left hoped to cultivate a left-wing Labour to achieve socialism within the existing system. This contributed to the 1974 Labour electoral victory, which drained the more radical energies of ’68. The inevitable failure of Labour’s social-democratic compromise (the ‘Social Contract’) to deal with the economic crisis, along with its anti-immigrant stance, paved the way for Thatcherism. Labour’s racism is a necessary consequence of operating within capitalism; Blair was no deviation in this regard. Just a few examples of overt imperialist actions by Labour governments long before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq include the bombing of Indians during their independence movement; backing Greek fascists against the anti-Nazi partisans; a violent counterinsurgency in Malaya; the institution of a regime of torture and internment in Ireland; not to mention support for numerous right-wing dictators and for the apartheid regime in South Africa. This gives an idea of what Marx meant when he wrote that capitalism always comes “dripping from head to foot in blood”.
First as tragedy, then as farce. Today it might seem social democracy has been revitalised by Corbyn, but the same fundamental contradictions remain. Corbyn’s rhetoric of “democratic socialism” is used to create a spurious distinction to the old social-democratic paradigm. He co-opts the liberatory possibilities connoted by “socialism” to mask his stale reformism. As such it should come as no surprise that Corbyn has already backtracked on his opposition to Trident renewal and membership of NATO, allowed his MPs to vote to bomb Syrians, enabled the right to continue to set the terms of discourse on immigration, failed to halt Labour’s social cleansing of London, and has now adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which will inevitably silence Palestinian voices. Corbyn takes vicarious pleasure in quoting Third World revolutionaries like Salvador Allende and Thomas Sankara, yet he insults their memory by refusing to put forth concrete proposals to end the imperialist exploitation of the global South, such as unconditional debt cancellation. These positions along with his glorification of the British army betray the left patriotism that is symptomatic of Western social democracy. Corbyn represents precisely what Lenin identified as social imperialism: socialist in name, imperialist in deeds. Labour remains a left-nationalist party incapable of stemming the fascist tide. As argued by Ash Sarkar ‘Corbyn is the promise of “jam tomorrow” [and a hackneyed promise at that!] – the far right urgently needs defeating today.’
We are currently enduring a prolonged period of “revolutionary pessimism”, but the social contradictions stoppered by the neoliberal reaction cannot be indefinitely contained. One divides into two. The youthful enthusiasm that engendered Corbynism, along with the worrying re-convergence of fascist forces, are early signs of this. This is why the lessons of ’68 must be grasped now. Corbyn can only reproduce the failures of the 1970s. His stale social democracy is ill-equipped to deal with capitalism in crisis mode, and his left nationalism will once again pave the way for the far-right elements now represented by UKIP, the Alt-Right, the populist wing of the Tories and street fascists like the DFLA; all of which will shortly capitalise on the lack of the promised hard Brexit. Our response must be revolutionary realism: an assessment of the concrete conditions in Britain and engagement with all progressive social movements (feminist, anti-racist, LGBT etc.), as well as genuine cooperation with black and Asian communities. Recent years have witnessed large spontaneous protests in Britain. Occupy in 2011, the London uprising later that year in response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan, the present Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the huge Women’s March in protest of Trump’s UK visit all demonstrate a desire for radical change. What is required is to unite these eclectic movements by building an all-sided, common-sense socialist alternative. It has been proposed by Giovanni Arrighi et al. that ’68 was a globalised “great rehearsal” for a better world, comparable to the aborted revolutions of 1848 that were not truly realised until 1917. 1968, if properly appraised, can help prepare us for the upcoming period of crisis.
During the 1970s in Britain “blackness” became an inclusive political concept that was taken up by many Asian radicals.
Zak Cope, Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism (AK Press, 2012), p. 258
The Labour Party Manifesto 2017, p. 28 https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf
Calculated from UN statistics on paid and unpaid work in ‘The World’s Women 2015:
Trends and Statistics’.
In Marxist terminology the social “base” comprised of economic and social relations determines the “superstructure” of politics and ideology. However, while determined in the last instance by the base, superstructural elements (including “race” and gender) can achieve a relative autonomy and in turn exert influence on the base.
Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (Pluto Press, 2013), p. 50
Giovanni Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein, Anti-Systemic Movements (Verso, 1989), pp. 97-98.