Carson Rainham argues for the necessity of revolutionary organisation which moves beyond the stale debates of the past.
In our final essay of our series on fascism and antifascism, we explore what we believe is a foundational split between miltiant antifascism and more political campaigns. We argue that these tendencies must be unified to create a durable response to the rising fascist threat, and that this can only be achieved organisationally.
- by Kay
Before we can engage with the challenge of analysing past socialist projects in the internet era we must first look at the way the internet, and social media specifically influences the way we discuss politics and history. In an environment dominated by character limits and people often just reading headlines before deciding what they think about something, many political stances are not explorations of the topic, but statements of intent.
Let’s use the USSR as an example. If a person believes the USSR was generally a positive thing in the 20th century, even if they are willing to accept that it failed in some places, it can still be much easier for them to concisely display their support of the USSR via pithy statements such as “Stalin did nothing wrong” to align yourself with other people who support the USSR. Likewise, if another person views USSR as a revisionist distortion of the goals set out by the revolution, but is still prepared to acknowledge some areas where it succeeded, it can still be much easier to align themselves with people who do not support the USSR and/or hold anti-authoritarian stances with their own one liners about “Tankies” and “Red Fascists”.
Now that we’ve each picked our teams we can begin the work of selectively trawling for information on the USSR to find ammunition with which to attack the enemy team, proving once and for all that the Soviet Union was either a perfect utopia or a giant death camp. Things are either Good or Bad and once you decide which thing is which the discussion kind of has itself.
A problem of the internet era is that for nearly any stance, there exists evidence in support of it, if you simplify the stance enough. If your stance is “USSR Good” you can quote any number of quality of life improvements (reduction of homelessness, progress in women’s rights) and be technically correct. If your stance is “USSR Bad” you can quote the wholesale deportation of specific nationalities. Also technically correct.
This is reinforced by the argument style we apply to currently living people. If you can provide evidence of a person doing or saying something bigoted or otherwise harmful you now have a source in your back pocket and can freely respond to any mention of that person with “X is problematic because Y” and be technically correct. The thing with random celebrities who say racist shit is they are: a) individuals, b) given an opportunity to respond to these criticisms with the possibility of positive change and aiming to make amends as well as the possibility of doubling down or outright denial.
Applying this same way of thinking to, say, the leader of a party with membership numbering in the millions at the head of a country made up of a complex bureaucratic network and declaring, with the benefit of hindsight, that something they did was harmful or generally a failure, therefore “USSR bad” is not a helpful way to view history, and with these men long dead and unable to actually respond to these criticisms (and they are often valid criticisms, though some may be ahistorical) it doesn’t have the same possibility of positive improvement that it does when applied to a living person.
We need to let go of the concept of past socialist states and leaders being Good or Bad and accept them for what they are: a massive resource of lessons (both positive and negative) to take forward in the struggle to build socialism and oppose the stranglehold of global capitalism. As well as an attempt (with varying degrees of success) to actualize the will of that country's proletariat, for better or worse. No socialist project exists in isolation (philosophical, economic, geographic, or historical). The ideas of their time and their people will have an impact on them and some of those ideas WILL be wrong, and even dangerous. We need to deprioritize scoring Gotcha Points on dead men (it’s worth noting just how many of them ARE men) and constructively analyse the environment that breeds such policies.
Having established what sort of criticisms are NOT useful we now need to look at what kind of criticisms ARE useful.
As Marxists we have a question that we must ask of socialist projects first and foremost. What is their approach to the contradictions of class society? This should be the starting point of asking the second question, and the question that matters much more than applying some moralistic Bad or Good status: Are they building socialism? Building socialism will not always look the same, it will not be without setbacks, and it will be imperfect. The goal is not perfection, the goal is to build a better world by ending class contradictions by bringing the struggle between classes to its natural conclusion: the withering away of classes. Taking a single failure and reasoning that this project has therefore failed is to not accept the fact that socialism is built in the real world, by real, fallible people, and it is to assume that any mistakes suddenly render the progress made in the struggle for liberation somehow irrelevant. Some failures reverse the direction of travel of the class struggle and others do not.
What does it look like when a socialist project is taking an approach to the class struggle that does not aim to progress toward that ultimate goal of elimination of class society, therefore descending into revisionism? Continuing to use the USSR as an example we can learn a lot about the face of revisionism from the likes of Nikita Khrushchev, who proposed a policy of “Peaceful Coexistence” between the proletariat and capitalist classes, both in individual countries and globally, and asserted that revolution could be carried out without violence, through the ballot box, with the approval of the state.
History has, of course, undone that sort of wishful thinking, but its indicative of an abandonment of the most fundamental principle of building socialism: The goal is to end class society. The class in power, the bourgeoisie, will not allow this to happen peacefully and uninterfered with, as has been demonstrated by the Cold War itself and countless coups, propaganda campaigns, and outright military opposition. Khrushchev’s proposition was, in effect, to put the class struggle on the back burner and prioritise the strengthening the USSR's productive capacities from within; and while still espousing "revolution" but only on terms that the ruling classes of other countries knew were generally doomed to failure or at best reformism in order to develop better ties with the imperialist powers, headed by the USA.
To criticize a socialist project for not completing the massive undertaking of transforming their entire society and production model within your personal timeline is not a good faith engagement with the struggles we face in the fight against capitalism. However, criticizing a socialist project for stunting that development and deprioritizing the class struggle in order to play at conventional global power politics, which they would ultimately go on to lose (inevitably, as the terms of these power politics are dictated by capitalism) is completely justified.
A socialist project demonising other oppressed groups, or agricultural reforms which when improperly implemented add to the immense hardship and starvation caused by drought can be cause for criticism but is not always cause for abandonment. It is important that we be critical and understand both where socialist projects have gone wrong, and also, where in spite of this, their role in historical context is still worth defending. Most importantly, we must remain conscious of the difference between an error and a betrayal of the revolution, even where there is a relationship between the two. Failure should be an indictment reserved for cases where direction of class struggle has actually been reversed.
The failures of socialist projects, especially when it comes to replicating oppression based on sexuality and race, often mirror the same trends in capitalist nations of the time. Communism is not the inverse of capitalism. It is the progression beyond the class contradictions that prevent our society from flourishing. A revolution will take on aspects of the society that birthed it, for better or worse. The continuation of such bigotries are to be corrected, not used as a bludgeon to beat down efforts at socialism and allow capitalist powers, who have no love for those oppressed groups, to further their global hegemony.
We must always strive to learn from the mistakes of our past, but we must also learn from our successes. We have an incredible history of proletarian struggle, a history we should be proud of. We cannot allow bourgeois idealism to prevent us upholding our greatest victories just because we have also known failure.
Picture: İhsan Eliaçık leads the 'Antikapitalist Müslüman Gençler' [Anticapitalist Muslim Youth] in Friday Prayers during the Gezi Park Protests in 2013.
by Muhsin Yorulmaz
The following is a response to Matt Hrkac's piece for Green Left Weekly, ""Take a stand against the mainstreaming of racism".
I recently read Matt Hrkac's piece for Green Left Weekly, "Take a stand against the mainstreaming of racism". I wanted to applaud the piece's connection of the bourgeois press to the rise of hate speech directed against racial and religious minorities in Australia. Like Yassir Morsi's piece for the Guardian, it highlights a worrying and fascistic trend which is being "allowed" to grow thanks to the "tolerance" of the bourgeois press towards such views (a tolerance never afforded to communists or others on the "extreme" left).
Australia is known around the English-speaking world for the nonchalance and lack of apologetic attitude with which it regards its own extremely racist settler-colonial history and a fascistic attitude towards immigrants which is born out of this white supremacist history. But if Australia is quantitatively more racist than the US or Canada, this difference is not yet qualitative. Therefore, despite not being an Australian in any sense myself, my own experience in the Turkish community in the US and my time in the "motherland" of Turkey does give me some insight into the "problems" of anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia in Australia.
Matt Hrkac concludes his piece with a message which is both hopeful and practical, allow me to quote at length:
Definitely this is true, and it is a message which first of all resonates with me as a part of the Turkish left, who find ourselves repeating similar messages against the campaigns of hate by the fascist Turkish regime against Christians and Alawites in particular. While Sunnite Turks are driven towards an orgy of hatred for the identitarian "other" who supposedly "betray" Turkey, they save themselves from association with the forces of "treason" and "terrorism" on the political left, but at the cost of any ability to take a stand against their "co-religionist""compatriot" bourgeoisie. As the AKP clique line their pockets, building a palace for Erdoğan in the midst of a deepening crisis and rising unemployment and debt, the only forces who speak of a meaningful alternative, are precisely the socialist left who defend the Kurdish people, Alawites, women, LGBT, Armenians, etc. from the hateful and fascist rhetoric of the Turkish government. This goes even for the most reformist elements, such as the mainstream and Turkish nationalist CHP. The entire CHP is united in word in its hatred for Erdoğan, but it is ONLY those elements within the CHP who are brave enough to defend the HDP and the Kurdish movement against the fascist rhetoric of the government (rather than buckling to it like the buffoonish party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu or the cowardly presidential candidate Muharrem İnce) who have the vision to to speak most clearly of a worker's movement to attack both the fascist ruling classes and the crisis which creates and was created by them. One cannot accept Erdoğan's rules and expect a fair game, and this is what those who think we should exercise "caution" in speaking up for the rights of minorities and their resistance fail to see.
It is precisely by embracing "the other" that we can begin to imagine a universality of struggle that embraces the totality of the working class. This is no different in the US, this is certainly no different in Australia.
When I write these words, I know those reading it will broadly agree. When it comes to anti-racist rhetoric, the Australian left is well versed in opposition to the Pauline Hansons and in empathy for the targets of the hate speech of people like her. However, there is something which has bothered me for years as someone living in a diaspora Muslim community about the way in which Islam is treated by the left in English-speaking countries.
Naturally I am not about to insult the intelligence of the reader by playing the role of the neoliberal shill Mohammad Tawhidi and suggest that we must recognise some unique threat to Islam, nor am I going to imply that there are no efforts to drive Islamophobes out of the movement in Australia. My concern is a somewhat more nuanced one, which is the sort of positive, almost fetishistic way in which Islam is regarded by non-Muslim leftists in majority non-Muslim countries.
Islam, in short, is rather boringly like Christianity or Judaism. This is something we are all well-versed in pointing out when people rail against "the Muslims" in a way they would not (usually, although this is tragically becoming less certain of late as well) rail against "the Jews", or when people are made uncomfortable by public displays of religiosity by a Muslim minority than they are by the Christian majority, who necessarily have more economic, political, and cultural power. But it is equally true within a given community, outside of the question of bigotry. Many "western" leftists attempt to uniquely court Muslims through the medium of Islam, or attempt to identify with Muslim figures or political trends they would reject or ignore if they came from a non-Muslim community, such as the Chinese.
For example, at least prior to the Rojava Revolution, I bore witness to dozens of white US leftists who would "critically" defend Erdoğan "against Israel", despite his government's ongoing agreements (including military agreements) with Israel. One can still see the same sort of support for various conservative Muslim groups with ties to Gulf oil money simply because of some vague belief that they are "democratic" and "anti-Zionist". How many of these leftists would fawn over a right-wing Latin American president offering some criticism of Israel's abhorrent war crimes, which are naked for the whole world to see? No, in Latin America, these leftists see the class contradictions which lurk behind the lying rhetoric of bourgeois politicians.
I am not denying for a second the strong role that Islam plays in Muslim societies. During Gezi we all saw it with our own eyes, as many religious yet politically progressive youth grouped themselves around İhsan Eliaçık (who presently is not allowed to travel outside of Istanbul within Turkey for his comparison of the trench resistance by the PKK to the Battle of the Trench waged by the Prophet Muhammad and his disciples). We saw that religious Muslims, who, broadly defined, are the majority in Turkish society, would bring food and otherwise aid resisters, and even the muezzin in an Istanbul mosque sheltered the resisters from the Turkish police, as well as went on record defending the protesters from the religiously motivated slander of the AKP. But none of these things are different to how things actually function in a Christian society. We have seen in many Catholic societies priests who sheltered leftists and aided the cause of human liberation, as well as fascist and abuser priests close to the bourgeois state.
This is what we mean when we speak about class. We are none of us, who are really honest, trying to reduce everything to paycheques and job titles. Capitalism does that. We are the ones who speak of the liberation of the human life and spirit, the passing over from necessity into freedom. But in class society, in our diverse social experiences, the universal that we all experience is something which we can call "class". As Matt Hrkac puts it, "we must not fall into the trap of talking only among ourselves", and when we go out to the masses, we can and must use class to expose the hatemongering fascists in every society, to expose the lie of common interests between racist politicians and workers who, out of lack of social experience and fear, are hostile to "the other". But I hope that white Australian leftists do not imagine their only task is to organise white, Christian Australian workers and ask them to leave minorities be.
We also want to organise "the other", because if our values are universal, we see our reflection in "the other" and we want them to see their reflection in us. "The people" whose "rising anger" we must "direct", to which Matt Hrkac refers, surely this includes all kinds of people. We must be equally comfortable in a mosque as in a church as in a gay bar as in a student dormitory. When white Australian leftists meet Australian Muslims, they must not "tolerate" them. They must find a way to identify with them, and make them identify with them in return. These communities are themselves divided on the basis of class, and can be united in struggle with other immigrant communities of different faiths, with the white Australian proletariat, and with the downtrodden Aboriginal people.
I write these words in a dark hour for the Turkish left. Many of our cadres sit in jail. We have given many martyrs over the past few years alone. The state has carpet bombed Kurdish cities to no outrage by the Turkish masses at large, who are fearful of being identified with the "terrorists". And yet we are still hopeful. Our people are back out in the streets for the recently passed Eid distributing propaganda against the regime's attempts to make the poor pay for the crisis while offering them nothing but empty holiday wishes and nationalist lies.
The situation in Australia is better, for now. The fascist tide is still weak, as the economy is much stronger. I know that there are many people reading this who sympathise with what I have to say, and who are worried about the ticking clock imposed by crisis and environmental catastrophe. I hope that interested comrades will reach out to us, our organisations and our communities, and I work to make sure our people do the same. Crisis and danger lurks around the corner, but at the same time, it is inspiring some of the best in our collective action and thinking. I hope this crisis brings us closer together.
"The time to stand up and fight back is now."
by Anthony Jones
Officially, the United Kingdom presently recognises four constituent “home” countries, three of which (Wales, Scotland, and the occupied six counties in the North of Ireland) are in fact under the open economic and sometimes covert political domination of Westminster, which serves as the political head of England, whose capital, London, is also the capital of the whole United Kingdom.
With the national identity and economic life of England being so strongly identified with the British state as such, “the English” are objectified in the “oppressor nation” role within the UK and around the world through British imperialism. “The English people” fill the same role for the UK and British imperialism that “the French people” fill with regard to the French state and its domestic and foreign policies.
It is the tendency of imperialism to create through the internationalisation of the productive process “oppressor nations” and “oppressed nations”. In contrast to the Three World Theory, we do not hold that this means that these national formations are no longer actually divided on a class basis. It was the Leninist assumption from the beginning that in spite of the power of imperialist to “nationalise” class struggle, the national struggles could never be fully extricated from the class dynamics. From the perspective of the proletariat of the oppressed nation, they experience their class oppression through the lens of the extra oppression and exploitation they receive as members of, for example, the Irish nation. From the perspective of the proletariat of the oppressor nation, however, they can conceive of the totality of the position of their class by identifying with the oppressed nation’s proletariat.
In this sense, Marxists even unfamiliar with British politics could easily say that the truly class conscious English proletariat ought to identify with the struggle against British imperialism, a principled unity in struggle against the capitalist-imperialist ruling class in Westminster. But in the UK, it has for some time been an implicit assumptionthat there is no national question on the island of Britain itself. It is very easy from Wales or Scotland to counter that, in fact, the Welsh and Scottish are separate nations from the English.
But it is not our goal here to enter into polemics on the Welsh national question, a debate which we consider very clearly resolved: there is a Welsh nation, with a territory and language, and a right to self-determination, which is being oppressed by England. The more interesting point is this: it was only by an ongoing process of nascent struggle by the Welsh people ourselves that Wales was again recognised as a country in its own right, separate from England, as it was insultingly considered a part of until the 1960s. We have won this debate in practice, and the Welsh people continue to struggle for our own future. No, magnanimously, in an internationalist spirit, it is our intention here to return to the question of England and ask how many nations live in England today?
Cornwall is a small national territory, south of Wales, and created by the expansion of the Kingdom of England over indigenous British territory. By the time of capitalism’s development and with it, the development of nations, the remnants of the British tribes on the island who began to develop something like a national consciousness were cut off from one another. The larger group became the Welsh of today, and the territory in question is clear. The smaller group, in Cornwall, spoke a closely related language which was dying out already by the time of the industrial revolution, and the policy of linguistic genocide applied by the English rulers in Wales to some success easily destroyed Cornish entirely.
Linguistic revival attempts are ongoing, but the Cornish still have a clear territory of their own, and a distinct economic life typical of small colonies of Westminster and its imperialist domination. The Cornish disparagingly refer to their neighbours to the east as “Emmets”, and a small national liberation movement exists, albeit even weaker than the one in Wales.
As political development continues throughout the crisis and takes increasingly national form on the island, it is possible the Cornish will experience a considerable growth in national consciousness, that the autonomist and secessionist movements will gain followers and reshape the economic and social dynamics in this territory. It is also possible that their weak cultural, economic, and political position will cause them to gradually identify with their long-lost cousins, the Welsh, or with the English people who currently dominate them.
It is up to the Cornish to decide what sort of national future they envision for themselves, but it is in our interest as revolutionaries to defend their right to resist the assimilatory politics of England, late though it may be, and it is in anti-imperialist terms clearly advantageous to us if the Cornish begin to sever ties with England.
The other Englands
The most salient division in England is that between the north and the south, with the southerners generally being the more bourgeois and mainstream and the north being the more economically disadvantaged and “otherised” culturally. But this does not mean that the north and the south of England constitute two separate nations. The north and south of Wales are likewise culturally, linguistically, and economically different, but it is no one’s view that there are two Welsh nations as a result. As far as it is normal within any country, it is not surprising that the English or the Welsh might display some quantitative differences in national cultural and politico-economic standing that does not carry over into a qualitative difference of being two separate national populations (of north and south).
So as much as we might relish the idea of dividing England after their bourgeoisie has done everything in their power to assimilate us into the culture of capitalist English modernity, it is of course up to the groups living in England today to resist this process and lay claim to an alternative future.
It does so happen that there are some such trends already, and it should not surprise us to find them in the north of England where local culture was not as quickly or as definitively bound into the new metropolitan English culture that became dominant in the era of imperialism. Each of these, like the Cornish national movement, may end up failing, and the people may choose instead an “English” identity, or some other one. But we should be aware of these trends, in touch with their proponents, and able to provide a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the concrete reality of these potential national struggles.
There exists a “North East Party” movement, which seems to seek autonomy for what is effectively the parts of Northumbria that fell under English rule. The historical context is telling: such a movement could easily eventually choose union with Scotland as conflict between England and Scotland grows, or it could present a “wedge” role, or it may remain satisfied with a certain autonomy of a non-”national” character within England.
Also in the north is Yorkshire, who have their own “Yorkshire Party”, but even without it, Yorkshire’s strong attachment to their regional identity is well known. In short it might be said that the entire north of England is host to a dynamic of strong proletarianisation and strong local culture born out of their fringe relationship with “their” capital in the south. Revolutionary cadres who organise in this part of the country ought to be especially sensitive to this potential for resistance to the state and capital becoming objectified in a “local culture” rather than “strictly” within the political realm, as has been observed in Wales and Scotland already for decades.
Moving south, there is a movement in the Midlands for a sort of revival of “Mercia”, which has an anti-Norman historical character and a regionalist present character. Even “Wessex”, a very traditional southern English region, has produced a small movement to protect local culture and advocates some sort of autonomy.
However much these movements are signs of the potential for national struggles that right now appear within “one nation” or not, it is a sign that whatever remains at the end of these deliberations, whatever is “legitimately” England, has some unease about an imposed monolithically English identity. The English, it would seem, come in various colours even once they have stopped colonising the other. A socialist and federative England alongside socialist republics of various Celtic peoples seems a perfectly noble goal for the English revolutionary, in this light.
The centre of empire
As the centre of empire, even when it is not incorporating their territory into itself, England is incorporating the labour, materials, culture, and lives of persons of many national backgrounds into its borders. Today one cannot help but notice in London that “the English” are the minority there. The majority is in fact the multinational proletariat which built the empire whose stolen wealth lies in the same city. Like a magnet, the two are attracted to each other. Without the labour of the slaves of empire, the imperialists in Westminster cannot go on, and so they jealously guard their commonwealth, their crown, their history of lies that is shoved down our throats, of the glorious empire on which the sun never sets. Their victims, unable to develop their own countries thanks to the genocide and subjugation and robbery of England, now fill England’s un-English capital, face racism and exploitation and death in burning tower flats, driving themselves to the very edge to survive.
London’s great multinational character is in some ways a disadvantage from the perspective of radical struggle: various national groups distrust one another and become nationalist in the diaspora, and to the extent they intermix, they begin to socialise into the English nation and its social-political values, regardless of their origins. To the extent that London can prove a base to radical groups from other countries, for example, the Turkish and Kurdish revolutionary movements, or the Irish, it would behoove British revolutionaries to offer concrete internationalist solidarity to help them build. Just as the English must see in the liberation of the Irish a blow against empire, so too must every Welsh or English or Scottish view the autonomy of anti-imperialist actors swimming in the sea of their compatriots as a key front of struggle against our common enemies.
Just because a potential geography, such as Cornwall, may not choose national development, does not mean their autonomy is of no value to us. The experience of local politics and fighting for local culture is the experience of the masses in fighting alienation, in demanding radical change, real democracy. By the same token, just because no national group in London can call London their national territory, does not mean that their national origins are of no concern. On the contrary, the longer that, for example, the Kurds hold on to their national identity in diaspora, in spite of the impossibility of creating a full national life as they hope to in their liberated homeland, the more chances the Kurdish liberation movement and our own socialists have to reach one another through this dialectical point of tension that we call “diaspora”.
When we look at England, we do not see one nation, and we do not see one class. We see a constellation of social groups, national formations, class politics, which reflect the totality of a brutal history of oppressive and exploitative empire. In this geography too, there is the real potential for struggle. But Marx did not say that “the lever must be applied in Ireland” because he was an Irish nationalist. It is because Marx understood that the march to proletarian liberation for English people must pass through a reckoning with the victims of the empire which was built in some sense in their name and image.
Under the conquest of the indigenous Celts, the toiling multinational proletariat of London pulled from the four corners of the empire which committed genocide against them, lies a complex history of the English proletariat, which like the French proletariat, first glimpsed a view of a radically different world during a “national” revolution. Like the French today, it is by fighting against the nationalism of the triumphant empire that followed that the English will achieve their dreamt-of liberation.
by Anthony Jones
The tradition of the monarchy weighs like a nightmare on Britain. The crisis has emboldened the left to appropriate the language of the glorious French Revolution, and jokes about “guillotines” have spread across the internet left in what would seem to be a sign of the radicalisation of the youth. But when republicanism is put forth as a sincere political position, we are confronted with the prejudices not only of traditionalists, conservatives, fascists, in a word, the explicit forces of reaction, but also from the liberals. What theoretically informed points can Marxists derive from and interject into the question of the Queen?
Why do we need the Royal Family?
When the more skittish liberals in Britain are confronted with the question of abolishing the House of Windsor, they immediately begin rattlings off a series of the perceived advantages of the outdated monarchy to our supposedly modern society. Of course, there is the touristic income, as if ordinary working people across Britain are being saved from poverty by the tourists who go to see Buckingham Palace. Young people who are watching as their NHS is being dismantled are struggling to find employment with or without the increasingly unaffordable tertiary education the Tory cuts are so keen on ripping from their hands. But even if this income were keeping our lives livable (which it is not and which they are not), the French are able to draw impressive crowds of tourists to Paris without a royal family, as if any of the tourists who come from far and wide to London ever meet the Royal Family in the first place, who are as far removed from the tourists as they are from us “commoners”.
Instead, the Royal Family’s unreasonably high standards of living are subsidised by the state which lets the poor die from our poverty, in between occasional ostentatious displays such as the disgusting Royal Wedding which was imposed not only on the subjects of the House of Windsor but on the entire world thanks to British Imperialism’s significant cultural as well as literal capital.
A more honest answer, often given only after this first argument has been rebutted, is that the Royal Family is a symbol of British unity. As revolutionary Marxists, of course, we have no interest in holding together the imperialist British state, and we should note that this at any rate merely symbolises the union of the English and Scottish crowns. Wales, for example, was conquered by brute force, and our more or less colonial status is legitimised through this union in which even our “own” ruling classes were never given any say. Without going through every single piece of territory the British state dominates openly through military means and territorial claims and which are subordinate to British capital thanks to past military conquest, we would be remiss if we passed over the North of Ireland, which is still counted as a “home” nation of the United Kingdom in spite of the famously violent recent history of state suppression of the national will of the Irish people which has been necessary to hold onto this territory. This is the unity which a relic of English and Scottish feudal past is meant to symbolise.
When arguments such as these are exhausted, it becomes clear that there is no positive case for the Royal Family. There is only the negative motives of apathy towards change, and fear of the unenforced but still enforceable legal power the monarchy and the British state have to suppress republicanism as treasonous.
What is a figurehead?
The above case against monarchism has been made countless times from countless angles by countless republicans, Marxist and otherwise. But an important question that must be asked is why the concept of a “figurehead” is supposed to erase the reality of the Royal Family. By affirming the existence of “figurehead” leadership, we assume the existence of leadership which is no mere “figurehead”. This is in some sense a mistake. While there is certainly the potential for different degrees of decision-making power which can be vested in a particular organ of political decision-making, in the final instance Marxists oppose “the Great Man Theory” of history and insist that in some sense, all leaders are in some sense stand-ins for social dynamics. The ruling class represent themselves through a particular political leadership, and the amount of power these “leaders” are vested with, and which leaders come into favour with the ruling class, likewise reflect certain interests.
Since the reestablishment of the English monarchy under Charles II, the developing capitalist class and the former feudal leadership came to a peace. Have these groups fused into one class? If they have not, the contradictions between them are not extremely sharp. If the House of Lords and the monarchy are representatives of a feudal aristocracy, it is one that is not strong enough to challenge the ascendency of the big English bourgeoisie, not only over England, but over the other nations in Britain, and the various oppressed nations outside of Britain under the domination of English capital. The legal mechanisms which would allow for the Queen to override parliament are viewed as unimportant because they are not exercised, but given the development of the capitalist mode of production, they likely would be exercised not because of a conflict between the monarchy and English capital, but between different sections of the English bourgeoisie, or between the different national bourgeoisies in Britain.
But the Prime Minister is no less a figurehead. As head of government, we have seen Theresa May exercise extreme authority, such as the deals with the DUP which are in contradiction with the Good Friday Agreement. But this violation of the British state’s ostensible agreements are in the interest of the British state itself at this phase of the crisis. One can easily imagine Theresa May forced to resign in disgrace, as her predecessor was, if the ruling classes feel it is not in their interest to rally around her.
Even Jeremy Corbyn, whose leadership in many ways reflects the reemergence of working class politics among the oppressor English nation, must be understood in this light. While Jeremy Corbyn rightly condemns the current exploitative order in England and Britain and indeed around the world, aligning himself with oppressed peoples and our class, the proletariat, with its need for economic justice, the limitations of his leadership can be seen in the “small business” overtures his party have accepted. Corbyn may rail against privatisation, but he has already opened the doors theoretically to a more charitable equivalent of this state of affairs.
The line is very thin indeed, between the labour aristocratic union leadership and the more Brexit-ready components of the English bourgeoisie, particularly the petty bourgeoisie, who are mostly progressive in those instances where they fully grasp that their economic precariousness is not a symptom of a weak economy or bad trade deals, but the monopolistic tendency of capitalism itself. Petty bourgeois intellectuals, like unionised workers in an imperialist country, are particularly dangerous elements if they do not grasp the totality of the capitalist system. They can easily vacillate and dampen the revolutionary direction by believing a deal can be struck with the state which has been built by and continues to protect the domination of the big bourgeoisie.
The youth for Corbyn can be won over to the revolutionary cause, but only by seeing that not only will a Corbyn government alone not save them, but without a continued push in the revolutionary direction, could even be the first step in incorporating them into the fight against the more marginalised: refugees, non-unionised workers, the oppressed nations, women whose labour is nominally not on the market but is no less crucial for social production and reproduction. An obsession with a formal English labour movement is not only a potential disaster for Marxist revolutionaries and a unity of struggle of workers and oppressed peoples the world over: it could be a disaster for these same relatively privileged elements, as they struggle to defend some elements of the so-called “social state” (the NHS, schooling), unable to fight for more because they are unable to strengthen the forces of class struggle through principled unity.
These ultimate interests of the proletariat are what must be represented in the “figurehead” we call leadership. Not formal membership in the proletarian class, which can also be a feature of extreme reactionary populism. Nor mere anger at “capitalism”, if it fails to grasp the actual mechanisms of how capitalism functions in the era of imperialism.
So what of our leadership? As Marxists, driven by a desire to expose the truth and fight for the liberation of all people, we do not seek to conceal the reality of what our leadership is. As revolutionaries, we have no desire to position ourselves as mere representatives of different sections of the ruling classes. Where our leadership will emerge, it must represent the interests of the poor and oppressed peoples themselves. Our “figureheads” will not be positioned to exercise nominal authority in order to broker power deals between different sections of the exploiting classes. They will come not from union bosses with war stories of their old days in the CPGB, but from strugglers who sincerely prove themselves in their ability to weave together the diverse trends of struggle, at home and around the world.
Our leadership, our movement, must be held accountable to the revolutionary proletariat in all its particular struggles. Our leadership’s essence has already been gleaned from the student protests of 2010, from striking fast food workers, from women and LGBT struggling against gendered oppression, from the Welsh and Scottish who have seen that Westminster is aligned against their political and cultural future in the interest of English capital, from brave internationalists who go and fight, shoulder to shoulder with Turkish and Kurdish revolutionaries for Rojava. To become the “figurehead” leaders of a movement that will weave all of these together is the formal structure we hope to build. But in essence, each individual who seeks to fill such a role must grasp themselves as “mere figureheads” representing a revolutionary system being born out of these struggles, built by these heroic ordinary people.
It is apparent to us that the House of Windsor has no legitimacy. But it is equally apparent to us that Britain such as it exists, a cultural, economic, political nightmare imposed on us by the stolen riches of the British Empire and all the forces it commands, has no legitimacy. We must not lose sight of what “figureheads” represent. And we must represent something fundamentally, radically different: a new Britain, free of exploitation and oppression. A new Britain, built anew from the rubble of empire. A new Britain, where the people are in control of their own lives, and build their own leaders from themselves, every day, through a social revolution from the bottom up
On 1st March, British online publication Salvage published an article entitled Syria and the Problem of left solidarity, written by academics Donya Alinejad and Saskia Baas, seeking to contrast the Western Left’s response to the Turkish invasion of Afrin in Northern Syria, with the response to the continued fighting between the government and rebels in eastern Ghouta. The authors state ‘The striking hypocrisy forces us to re-examine how our concept of international solidarity applies to the unarmed victims of this war.’ This article seeks to show that this characterisation relies on a number of false premises and mystifications.
Who are the western left?
The article starts with a description of what the authors see as the attitude of the Western Left towards Syria:
Whilst there is a grain of truth in this statement, the article then goes on to state:
The idea that the Western Leftists who eschew criticism of the Assad government are also the ones that are supporting the Kurdish revolutionary movement is patently absurd. For example, one prominent British support of the Assad government also calls the Kurdish revolutionary movement a ‘zionist plan’ and makes unsubstantiated accusations that Kurds have ethnically cleansed areas of Northern Syria of Arabs. There exists an underbelly of so called ‘anti-imperialists’ who’s support for the Assad government include slandering and smearing the Kurdish movement as Imperialist proxies wanting ‘balkanise’ the Syrian state. Clearly these are not the same people campaigning for an end to the invasion of Afrin. By linking these conspiracists with those genuine internationalists who support the revolution in Rojava the authors attempt to dismiss the longstanding concerns of the Kurdish movement and their allies about the nature of the current armed Syrian opposition.
A Third Force
The authors continue the article by seeking to tie the revolution with older moments of Kurdish resistance, for example, the protests in Qamishli in 2004 and 2005, in an attempt to raise the spectre of the long history of Ba’athist oppression against Kurds and link it to the oppression of the democratic protesters in 2011. Whilst many - particularly younger Kurds - supported the protests in 2011 as an opportunity for democratic change, as the character of the armed Syrian opposition became clear, the Kurds opted for a third path.
The authors make it seem that these choices were part of a ruse by the Assad government to split the opposition to it. In reality, the kurdish movement was well aware of the reactionary nature of much of the armed opposition from the very beginning. Not to mention that as well as the FSA being supported by many reactionary gulf monarchies, it was also supported by Turkey, something which was unacceptable to many Kurds in Syria.
The young kurds who took part in the initial protests against the Assad government are also those who have been fighting and dying in the YPG and YPJ to defend the radical democratic Rojava revolution, first from the fascists of ISIS, and now from the Turkish army and assorted Jihadist and FSA units.
The authors talk of how ‘Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have been split by domestic and foreign state influences.’ In doing so, they fail to recognise the crucial Arab component of the SDF, who have joined with the Kurdish militias primarily to fight against ISIS. On the 46th day of the Turkish army’s invasion of Afrin, Jaysh al-Thuwar (the Army of Revolutionaries), a syrian opposition group fighting as part of the SDF, as well as groups Jabhat al-Akra, Lîwa Şemis El-Şemal El-Demokratî and Idlib Military Council, pledged to join those fighting in Afrin. In their statement they say they are going to Afrin due to the international community's silence over Erdoğan’s crimes there, and also state that:
We should not, as the authors wish, see a split the Syrian Revolution from the Rojava Revolution down ethnic lines. Instead, we should see the Rojava Revolution, through it’s democratic confederalist ideology, marries together the Kurdish national liberation struggle with the radical democratic demands of the initial protests against the Assad government. To claim the Assad government ‘pacified’ the Kurdish movement with overtures towards them, particularly as it’s military pulled out of Kurdish areas to operate in the west of the country, leaving them open to attack by ISIS and other Jihadist forces, should be rejected as absurd. A cursory reading of the history of Rojava proves this to be entirely false, and simply serves as a rhetorical device to drive a wedge between what they believe the principles of the attempted democratic revolution in Syria and those of Rojava. In their essence, none exist. In the practice of many of the groups who claim to represent that revolution, and the practices of the PYD/YPG/YPJ/SDF, a huge gulf exists, filled with the blood of innocents.
An Ongoing Revolution?
The article sees the fighting in Ghouta as a continuation of the Revolution which began in 2011, yet does not make any mention of the groups actually involved in fighting against the Assad government there. The four main groups in Ghouta are Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army), the Al-Rahman Legion, Ahrar al-Sham (recently merged with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement to form the Syrian Liberation Front), and Tahrir al-Sham. It should be noted that all but the Al-Rahman Legion describe themselves as salafist/Jihadist groups (with al-Rahman describing itself as ‘Political Islamist’, and does not seek to turn Syria into an Islamic State. Tahrir al-Sham is the descendant of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. All of these groups have been accused of various human rights abuses such as firing on protestors, using human shields, extrajudicial executions, and even chemical attacks. Most of them have been engaged in fierce fighting with each other over the last several years.
The authors also fails to delve into the complexities of the situation in Ghouta. Russia and the Government have opened up a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to allow civilians to escape the bloodshed in Ghouta. Whilst many may be skeptical of this move (which has been criticised by the UN and international aid agencies as not being a viable escape route for civilians), it should also be noted that two civilians have also been shot by sniper fire by rebel groups trying to leave the city of Douma in eastern Ghouta. In a recent article (published after the Salvage piece), the head of the UN agency for refugees in Damascus, Sajjid Malik, who has been allowed to enter Ghouta underscores that ‘combatants on both sides are responsible for the horrific situation for civilians in eastern Ghouta’. The situation in Ghouta is undeniably horrific, and civilian casualties are absolutely unacceptable. One has to ask what solidarity activists are able to productively give in this situation? And what’s more, how this is linked with the Syrian Revolution, currently misrepresented in Ghouta by groups executing civilians trying to escape? I would argue, that the only meaningful solidarity which may be provided to those suffering is to pressure our governments to engage in efforts to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict, whatever this may be. This must be joined with a broad anti-war effort which seeks to stop western governments engagement in and support of the Saudi war on Yemen, and the tacit support of the Turkish invasion and attempted occupation of Afrin. This solution is not proposed, and indeed, not able to be proposed under the terms in which the authors present the situation.
The authors acknowledge in passing the ‘fragmentation’ of the various armed factions in the Syrian Opposition. The article they site in support of this states:
Dispute the acknowledgement that ‘Kurdish and Arab revolutionary movements have been split by domestic and foreign state influences.’ the authors use lofty phrases about doing ‘justice to history’ and argue that ‘This means acknowledging the shared origins and destinies of Syria’s multiple revolutions. Not least because the self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria will not be guaranteed by any precarious, war-time alignment, but is inherently tied up in the dynamics of the Syrian people’s revolution.’ This entire section does nothing but gloss over the actual dynamics of the armed uprising against the Assad government in order to portray the disparate extremist factions operating in Ghouta, who have committed and are committing their own well documented war crimes against the people of Syria, as somehow representing a Syrian people's revolution or ‘anti-dictatorial popular movements’. We should be in doubt of any ‘popular’ movement which required $1 billion a year in CIA funding and access to training camps in Israeli occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. This funding was curtailed by 20% in 2015 due to fears that ‘that ISIS, al-Nusra and some of the other radical Islamic factions are the best positioned to capitalize on the chaos that might accompany a rapid decline of the regime’.
Even if it is not the authors explicit intention to direct people’s support towards such brutal and oppressive groups, the lack of clarity and the deliberate fudging of the events, and erasure of the politics of the groups participating in the armed uprising in Ghouta has this affect.
The split between much of the opposition and the Kurdish movement is portrayed as the result of ‘Authoritarian divide and rule tactics’, rather than a well documented political and ideological split from the very beginning of the armed conflict.
What of Idlib?
The authors state that ‘The situation in Afrin is urgent, but in Idlib and Ghouta it has been urgent for years’ and that against a ‘crude anti-imperialism’, the piece seems to be arguing that those of us in solidarity with the Turkish attack on Afrin should also be in solidarity with those in Idlib. If this is the case, we must assume includes rebel groups, as no distinction is made between civilians and armed combattants. To do so, we would have to ignore the FSA and other resistance groups, who Erdoğan call the ‘National Army’ involved in the attacks in Afrin from idlib. Well documented killings of civilians and looting by these groups showing that they are little more than mercinary gangs. The fascist Erdoğan government has stated its intent to ethnically cleanse Afrin of its Kurdish population, replacing them with Syrians displaced by the war and kept in Turkey due to a deal struck between the Turkish government the European Union. Idlib itself has been under Turkish control since 2017 as part of a “de-escalation agreement” signed by Turkey, Russia, and Iran. This has caused a certain amount of consternation between jihadist factions working with Turkey, and those who aren't, with the promise of more violence to come. If the authors claim to care about the lives of civilians in Idlib, and propose that the ‘Western Left’ give political support to those there, why do they not mention the political nature of the groups involved there? Or even once mention that this area of syria is under the control of a foreign army, which is using it as a base to conduct operations into Afrin? They do not mention this, because they seek to blur the truth around the political situation, to try and draw an equivalence between the situation - between a mass political and military resistance to an invasion, and those who are perpetrating that invasion. It promotes a dead apolitical humanitarianism which asks us to care about ‘civilian lives’ whilst ignoring the political consequences of the proposed action we take in support. Of course, our solidarity should go ‘beyond which armed faction to support’, but completely ignoring the politics of the factions involved in the civil war goes beyond ‘incidental ignorance and laziness’ it is dishonest, depoliticising, and dangerous.
The authors seek to draw a similarity between the events in Aleppo 2 years ago, and the events in Ghouta now. If we are to do this, we must also remember the complexities of the situation there. In 2012, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, spoke to a rebel commander who argued that:
Even in a poll commissioned by the Dohar Debates (funded by the resolutely anti-Assad Qatar monarchy) published at the beginning of January 2012 at the start of the conflict, that 55% of Syrians wanted the Assad government to stay, with the primary reason being fear about the future of the country.
To lay the blame for such bloodshed entirely at the door of the Assad government (which does bare a heavy responsibility), is undermined by the willingness of the rebels to pursue a war without the support of the people. We should not attempt to cleanse the rebel factions by associating them with the revolution, when they have pursued a bloody and terrible war, largely against the wishes of the populace, and against the ideals of the revolution.
We should also seek to understand the reasons many Syrian civilians prefer the regime to the bloody sectarian nature of many of the rebels. Events like the bombing of the Buses containing mostly Shia families evacuated from Foua and Kefraya, where 126 people were killed (including at least 60 children), or the beheading of a 12 year old boy by the Al-Zenki movement, a group currently fighting in Ghouta, and who was vetted and funded by the US government, show why many Syrians particularly those of a minority religious/ethnic background, who though not enamoured with the government, continue to support it.
Whilst claiming the need to amplify the voices of Syrian Leftists and Intellectuals, the authors link to a collection of resources curated by British activist Mark Boothroyd on British political group RS21’s website. The article contains recommendations for where activists can gain information on the conflict. This information is presented entirely uncritically and apolitically, and includes references to the White Helmets, who’s funding relationships with western governments and relationships with extremist groups were the subject of a recent expose by journalist Max Blumenthal. White Helmets members even participated in an execution undertaken by Al-Nusra against an unknown man in civilian clothes. The expose prompted a statement from the group, confirming the did dispose of the body after the execution, but condemned the act in itself. Other people listed on the page include Kyle Orton, who has described the YPG/YPJ as ‘Terrorists’, and attempted to get internationalist volunteers imprisoned on their return to their homes countries.
Another person cited on this page is Robin Yassin-Kassab, who supports the occupation of Idlib, and the Turkish invasion of Afrin.
Whilst Yassan-Kassab appears to cut short of calling for the support of the occupation of Afrin itself, He explicitly supports and apologises for the invasion, when there is evidence of mass abuses by FSA/Jihadist gangs, and the stated desire for the ethnic cleansing of Afrin by the Turkish government (see above), the calls for ‘Kurdish self determination’ seem rather hollow. Yassan-Kassab also praised the Lakattia offensive undertaken by the Al-Nusra front in 2014, specifically thanked Erdoğan and Turkey “for the supply lines” that facilitated it.
These are just two examples from the list, and the point is in no way to tar every resource on the list with the same brush. The point is that the authors present this list as a way to gain insight into the minds of Syrian leftists and academics, but the list itself presents this material without any political explanation, and includes voices such as Orton and Yassan-Kassab without comment. If the ‘Western Left’ is practicing ‘selective solidarity’ with regards to Idlib and Ghouta, then what are we to call these so called experts on the revolution? They do not simply ignore the plight of the people of Afrin, they denigrate the resistance and actively support those who are causing the devastating situation!
Readers of this resource page are invited to read the ‘truth’ about the conflict. The truth many people on this list provide attacks the revolution in Rojava, and serves to provide authenticity to the facade of the continuation of a genuine revolution in places like Idlib.
A Well Worn Argument
Much of the articles argument mirrors an article from October 2014 entitled ‘The struggle for Kobane: An example of selective solidarity’ by Lina Al Shami (another activist mentioned in Boothroyd’s resource page). Shami spends a great deal of time time documenting some of the Rojava Revolution’s achievements, including its struggle against ISIS, and the participation of Arab groups in this struggle, even calling the experiments in direct democracy ‘a beacon of light in what’s fast becoming a region of darkness’. However, this leads into warning that ‘Anti-authoritarians should not romanticise the PYD’ before a much cited quote by ‘Kurdish-Anarchist’ Shiar Neyo about the ‘Amuda Massacre’ where the PYD, it is alleged, fired on civilians.
It is important to note that the original source for this claim is a press statement from the US State Department, published on 1st July 2013, referring to several days of clashes which presumably took place before that date (i.e. June), and was rigorously denied by the PYD, who claim it was a response to an ambush by members of Jabhat Al-Nusra, where 4 fighters and 2 civilians died. This rebuttal is not mentioned by many of the people who chose to share Neyo’s words uncritically, including many pro syrian revolution revolution blogs, and the Anarchist Federation of Great Britain.
What links Al Shami and the author’s articles together is an insistence of describing the armed uprising as ‘anti-authoritarian’, but singularly failing to discuss the politics of any of the groups involved. Whilst they do this, they paint an incorrect and politically suspect picture of the YPG/J and the PYD, and the historical process of the revolution in Rojava.
On what basis is this for the broader, political solidarity called for by the authors? There is none, unless solidarity is build on a foundation of a dubiously defined ‘anti-authoritarianism’, ignores the well documented politics, ideology, and war crimes of the principal military actors, and a deliberate misrepresentation of the politics of the Kurdish movement at a time when they are under bombardment by the Turkish state and rebel groups.
A Political Humanitarianism?
Whilst seeking to avoid ‘apolitical humanitarianism’, the authors do not only offer no concrete political actions for people to engage in, they mystify the politics of the situations with pleas for support for civilians. Civilians in Idlib, Ghouta, Afrin, and everywhere else in Syria are not benefited by western activists calling for solutions which they barely understand. They may be benefited by active political engagement with the history of the civil war, and the events as they happen, rather than being seduced by the comforting myth that an anti-authoritarian opposition to Assad exists that represents the spirit of the protests of 2011.
The authors final paragraph, argues that we must “stop approaching Syria in the way a colonial power approaches its subject’s civil war, calculating which intervention(s) of force to back and then vehemently spreading the chosen party’s war propaganda.” This is is gross mischaracterisation, arguing that their opponents see the Syria as one giant Risk board, rather than have come to know the struggles in Syrian Kurdistan through a spirit of internationalism and freedom. This is even more misguided, when the US, actual imperialist power, has released a statement condemning Russia’s actions in Ghouta, whilst not raising any complaint to Turkey’s actions in Afrin - even though they have supported the YPG/J against ISIS since 2014.
The article ends with a plea to ‘the radical internationalist idea that we inhabit the same world as all those who struggle for a dignified human existence.’ The world the authors wish us to inhabit is one mystified to the extent that butchers become revolutionaries, oppression becomes dignity, and the crimes of the present are wiped clean by the valiance of the past. As internationalists, we must do better.
One political act of solidarity that ordinary people can take part in in support of those suffering in Syria is to take part in the boycott of the Turkish Republic proposed by the KCK. The longer the Turkish army remains in Syria, propping up reactionary factions, and using it as a base to attack Afrin, the longer all Syrians suffer.
As the Turkish Army/Jihadist gangs move closer and closer to Arfin city, actively showing our solidarity with the people under threat there is more important than ever. Please follow the local solidarity groups in your country for information on demos and actions you can take to help prevent further bloodshed.
- John Lazarus
For the UK: Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign - http://www.kurdistansolidaritycampaign.org/
1. Knapp et al, Revolution in Rojava. Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, (London 2016), p. 50.
Activist Bahar Mustafa gives her personal take on the recent events surrounding Munroe Bergdorf's appointment as a LGBT advisor to the Labour Party, and the left's response.
I would like to share some thoughts on the recent Munroe Bergdorf's appointment as one of several LGBT advisor to the Labour Party, and the abysmal attacks on her from both the Left and the Right. I do so from both a political and personal standpoint: as a communist, anti-fascist, and feminist organiser I am invested in tactical support for the Labour Party in order to bring the mass base further to the left and our ability to make collective demands as part of wider class struggle. I’m invested in a Labour Party that is free of misogyny, racism, transphobia, and so on, and one that represents a diverse working class. I am also someone who, as a student activist in 2015, came under sustained media and online attacks from April - November when I was embroiled in a “race row” while acting as welfare and diversity officer for Goldsmiths Students’ Union. I had organised a political organising space for BAME women and non-binary people during our occupation that had caught the attention of a ‘yellow journalist’ and student. This meeting I had planned, not unlike women and black caucuses that have been a proud tradition of the the trade union movement for decades, went viral with media outlets from The Evening Standard and the Daily Mail (to name a few) accusing me of racism towards white people and sexism towards men. As long as I remained a full time sabbatical officer I was under the scrutiny of right wing media who trawled through my social media accounts, misrepresented alleged tweets, and harassed my family in order to find anything to discredit me as a ‘loony lefty’, a troublemaker, an anti-white campaigner, and so on. An outspoken feminist with a Muslim name is like gold dust to the right wing press, and what hurt the most was the way certain sections of the Left joined in with the witch-hunt.
Like many other minority women since, Munroe Bergdorf is now facing a similar public attack, and again, certain sections of the Left are happy to collude with the right wing press. First and foremost, let us consider a common criticism coming from those in the Left about the appointment itself. According to some, Dawn Butler was irresponsible for appointing Bergdorf on the grounds that Bergdorf has become a “controversial figure” and will therefore lose votes for the Labour Party. However, under the current socio-political climate it seems implausible that a black trans woman, who has been outspoken about race and racism, wasn't going to rustle a lot of feathers and attract the attention of the media for being appointed to an officer position in the Labour Party. Particularly a position such as LGBT advisor where she would be expected to guide policy based on equality and diversity campaigns for the queer community. In a climate where “equality” and “diversity” are largely interpreted as apolitical and ahistorical categories, a woman of colour who speaks out about white supremacy is instantly accused of racism, as if racism is not socially and materialy constructed.
A black trans woman was always going to be a controversial choice whether or not she'd been lambasted in the press for 'inflammatory' tweets. Just look at the recent vitriolic attacks on 20 year old trans activist Lily Madigan; Madigan was recently elected women’s officer for the Labour Party in her constituency. She was 19 when she first got involved due to an ongoing dispute in her school where she was deterred from presenting as a young woman, forced to wear the male school uniform, and experienced daily transphobia. Simply standing and being elected for women’s officer position sparked a vicious debate within the Labour Party as to whether or not a trans woman could stand for women’s officer. Moreover, the recent infighting in the Party over the gender recognition act has forced to the surface the acute ignorant anti-trans sentiments harboured by some vocal members of the party. And if this is the level of abuse trans people within a party notionally committed to greater equality and democracy are expected to experience, then outside is whole other more horrifying story. We just need to look at suicide stats in the UK to get a sense as to how structurally marginalised trans people are, with recent studies by Stonewall that reveal nearly half of trans pupils attempting to take their own lives.
Now let's revisit the tweets in question. The initial tweet that led to her dismissal from Dove allegedly accuses all white people of racism. There is nothing novel about that position today. Bergdorf’s elaboration of the tweet, that all white people are responsible for racism, is at worst a misguided understanding of how structural racism operates, is anti-materialist, and reduces complex social, class, and race relations to individual actions, rather than structurally protracted antagonisms. This notwithstanding, I think it’s crucial to remember that before her sacking from Dove, Bergdorf very publicly criticised Dove for their racist advert that showed a black woman turning white after using the product! As for the most recent tweet referencing the Suffragettes in the UK that received yet another bashing from certain sections of the Left, here she was factually incorrect. Bergdorf had confused the Suffragette’s here and their struggle to win the votes for women with those of their American counterparts, where it was indeed true that in the USA the Suffragette movement marginalised black women and that up until 1960s there were still some states where black women were unable to vote. Bergdorf does in fact correct herself in later tweets.
Now that Bergdorf has been thrust into the media’s spotlight, she has indeed gained notoriety and is a controversial figure. Speaking from personal experience, this means her current choices are very limited: either Bergdorf will need to change her name and identity if she wants a chance of ever being hired by future employers, or accept that her public profile and recent press attention means that public and political avenues are probably the only ones open to her. The Labour Party gave a black trans woman an opportunity to influence and change public opinion on such difficult questions of social equality including race, rather than pandering to the British public's inability to confront our difficult history with racism and colonialism. Whether you agree with her statement or not, if you are a class agitator committed to fighting all systematic oppression, I can't conceive how you could shrug off her public shaming, or even go as far as to think it was deserved. Ultimately, whether or not we agree with her statements it should not be justification for the vilification she's received. At the end of the day, Bergdorf is on our side! Since the press have trawled through all her social media to trudge up tweet after tweet, Bergdorf has received a torrent of transphobic, misogynist, and racist abuse: and people are still shocked when black and brown women often feel compelled to make such hyperbolic statements about the manifestations of racism and sexism we face daily.
After experiencing ‘endless attacks’ from the right wing press, and a storm of vile online abuse, Bergdoft quite her position on the LGBT advisory panel.
This comes at a time where the battle within the party over trans rights continues to rage. As Labour allows all self defining women to partake in all women shortlists, a number of anti-trans activists within the party threaten to resign in protest. The fact that there has been near silence from many on the left of the party and the left of the movement in this country on the disgusting attacks she was subjected to, shows who ‘the left’ think are worth acting in solidarity with, and who don’t. People who, against the odds, have been arguing for a revivified politics under Corbyn’s leadership, turn and cower at the idea of intervening to push a progressive politics of gender and sexuality. In this, we see another example of the thinking “The movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing." It is times like this that all who believe in socialism and liberation should be standing up to fight the reactionaries who seek to make already abused and marginalised people suffer more.
To dig up old tweets as further evidence that Bergdorf wasn’t appropriate for the position is nothing short of the same old dirty tactics from the right. It is another example of the cowardice of a certain section of the left who are more concerned with pandering to a what they perceive as the socially conservative base of the Labour, who are believed cling on notions of nationality and patriotism as cultural markers of the British working class.
If you want a Labour Party with teeth who fights for the interest of your class you'd better include the interests of women, migrants, BAME people, sex workers, etc: these struggles are class struggles and we are just as integral to the struggle as our white, male counterparts.
Solidarity with Monroe Bergdorf, and solidarity with all trans people at this time of ruthless attack.
By Bahar Mustafa