“It hurts to be misrepresented, but there is no representation without misrepresentation… Bangladeshi Britons would be better off not reading — or, when it comes out, seeing the film of — Brick Lane.” Germaine Greer, ‘Reality Bites’, the Guardian, 24 July 2006
The furore that accompanied plans to film Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane in the eponymous east London neighborhood were just the latest in a long-running series of incidents that have come to signify — if not define — the deterioration of the left, its understanding of race and identity.
Hanif Kureishi’s 1985 screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette sparked another such incident. Centering around the love between Omar and Johnny, the film prompted protests where demonstrators carried “No homosexuals in Pakistan” placards. A bigger surprise than the protests, according to Kureishi, was that “this was the first time I remember the left and Muslim fundamentalists joining hands”… “Islamic critics would say, ‘You’re saying we’re all homosexuals’ … the left would say, ‘you should be standing up for your community’ and ‘you should not attack minority groups’” (From Fatwa to Jihad).
So how did it come about that Ali, Kureishi, Rushdie and scores of other writers and artists should be faced with opprobrium from left and right, death threats and the rest? How did we arrive at the point where Greer’s questioning of a writer’s “authenticity” is accepted as justification for questioning or stifling free expression? How is it that Greer can comfortably express the reactionary impulses of self-appointed Bengali leaders as truly authentic whilst at the same time questioning the right of others to represent that same community? Why do most of the left buy into the idea of a homogenous ”Muslim community” and embrace without questioning the pronouncements of “community leaders”?
The short answer, according to Malik, is that the credit for the emergence of these “communities” as homogenous cultural and political facts and “leaders” as “authentic” resides firmly with the left.
“The GLC [Greater London Assembly] strategy of the 1980s combined the distribution of council largesse with the celebration of cultural distinctiveness.
‘Here’s the cash now go off and do your own cultural thing. Just don’t cause commotion on the streets.’ That was the essence of municipal anti-racism.” (From Fatwa to Jihad)
As Mark Lilla notes in his analysis of the “Tea Party” movement in the US (‘The Tea Party Jacobins’, New York Review of Books, May-June 2010), the impulses of the new social movements of the 60s and 70s have now become largely uncontested: politically, the aims of those movements met with defeat, but culturally their categories achieved a fixed position in social discourse.
The problem — for Lilla, Malik and most socialists, I would argue — is that once divorced from a clear political imperative, the categories and “concerns” themselves become essentially devalued: “Americans saw no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace… and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties”, writes Lilla.
In general society, we can view such developments with a measured sense of disappointment. Disappointment because the re-discovery and re-coupling of class politics with issues around gender, sex, race and basic freedoms opened significant opportunities for the left – and still does. Disappointment, because the promise was not fulfilled. Measured only because it is surely preferable to experience some degree of freedom and unrestrained pleasure — however contained, manufactured or illusory — than to return to a buttoned up, church attending, stultifying existence like the 50s.
But the organised left, though being of general society, remains distinct from it because of our politics. For this reason, we should feel more than just a bit put out by the contradictions of a watered-down permeation of these ideas. We should be sharply critical of the methods and motives of those who enabled it and the consequences of their actions.
The way in which distorted notions of “difference” became embedded in society can be traced to the way in which the decline in politics of the new social movements was managed.
Ideas about the role of self-organisation in minority groups were distorted to the point where, rather than being seen as a constructive and basically democratic method to mobilise for action in solidarity with others, “self-organisation” — or in its new form “difference” — became an end in itself. In the relative abeyance of class militancy, this trend achieved a greater hold.
As large sections of the left in the UK moved away from organising and participating in militant action, towards increasingly uncritical municipal politics through Labour Party structures, they carried with them these corrupted cultural-political premises.
When in power and when faced with the very real social and racial conflicts that resulted from the onslaught of Thatcherism, how did the new municipal socialists respond?
Kenan Malik describes the “response” — or real lack thereof — through contrast: “On 17 April 1976 the far right National Front (NF) organised a march through the centre of Manningham, the main Asian area of Bradford… In response to the NF march… local politicians and activists organised a counter-rally in the center of Bradford.
“Frustrated by the fact that while racist brutes were marching past their home in Manningham, the opposition was rallying several miles away in the safety of the city centre, hundreds of young Asians broke away from the main demonstration, fought their way through police lines and attacked the NF marchers…
“About a year after the anti-NF riot, a group of young Asians met in a pub to form the Indian Progressive Youth Association. Why did men and women whose origins lay in Pakistan or Bangladesh call themselves Indian?”
Why indeed, and why does any similar response to the equally despicable English Defence League seem a remote possibility today?
The young men and women of 1976 chose the name Indian Progressive Youth Association in recognition of the work of the Indian Workers Association, which had been involved in a number of industrial struggles and political efforts in conjunction with and where necessary against existing unions and organisations. The creation of the IPYA was the precursor to the creation of the Asian Youth Movement, which played a major role in self-defensive actions against the fascists in years to come. At this time, very few second generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi families identified as “Muslim”. There were no large and visible “Muslim” organisations. There were no national organisations claiming to represent “all Muslims”.
So what changed? Here’s the contrast: “Between 1981, when Labour regained control of the council, and 1986, when it was abolished, the GLC pioneered a new strategy of making minority communities feel part of British society. It arranged consultations with them… On average, fewer than forty people attended each consultation meeting… Yet these came to be seen as the authentic voice of each community.”
Malik argues that the GLC’s strategy worked against the traditional left wing conceptions of common values, instead promoting the remnants of “new social movement” politics. Only, rather than the free flow and creative “grass roots” version of these ideas the GLC constructed a small and rigid, undemocratic bureaucracy with tens of millions of pounds at its disposal.
If you needed “Muslims” to be represented in such a structure then you went looking for someone who claimed to represent “Muslims”. A militant collective of second generation Pakistanis and Bangladeshis calling themselves “Asian” or whatever wouldn’t fit the mark. So who did Mayor Livingstone pick and what sort of characters were chosen in other areas where the policy was replicated?
The answer to this question lies with the characters who came to be embraced as representative of “Muslims” by not only governments and councils but by the most prominent organisations of the socialist left: characters like the gay-hater Iqbal Sacranie, organisations, like the Islamist inspired Muslim Council of Britain and the clerical-fascists of the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, the Muslim Association of Britain.
Mailk traces the rise to prominence of these groupings, their role in the Rushdie affair, the internecine conflicts between them and the way in which the left helped shape the creation — in some cases fundamentally engineering the contours of — “Muslim” identity.
Can we straightforwardly blame the transformation and bureaucratization of “identity” politics on the relative degeneration of the left within municipal Labour Party organisations and local government?
To do so, we would have to credit characters like Livingstone and a myriad of other, lesser known, political figures with a specific, inherent, natural idiocy. But the politics of the Livingstones of this world were not born in a vacuum.
If we are to understand the actions and motives of the left during this period, we need to understand the extent to which most of it — even the apparently avowedly anti-Stalinist — was formed and informed by the legacy of Stalinism. This aspect of the story is almost totally overlooked or perhaps omitted in Malik’s narrative.
Questions of race have a muddied history in our movement. Perhaps the most obvious example of ill-conceived theory and even more ill-conceived and executed practice comes from the experience of American communists, Trotskyists and socialists.
The first American Trotskyists, working closely with Trotsky himself, described the situation of the significant and bloodily oppressed black minority in the USA as a specific racial question (and even discussed the possibility of that black minority wanting self-determination). Their conclusions were based on the material and economic political history of the country from Civil War, reconstruction and onwards (see the writings of Arne Swabeck, Max Shachtman, CLR James and other on this question for a fuller description).
Their materialist analysis and its developments saw the issue of black oppression as a question for the entire American working class. It demanded a class mobilisation against the entrenched racism of American society and up to the 1960s outlined the possible roads of development should the Jim Crow laws, segregation and structural racism in the southern states not be challenged.
During the same period, the totally Stalinised Communist Party of the United States developed a theory of the “race question” in America based on the idea that the black minority within America constituted a national minority and that a solution to the endemic racism in the country could be solved through the creation of a separate state for blacks on American soil.
The Stalinists opportunistically developed a theory of the “black American nation” in response to the demands of a small number of vocal, generally unrepresentative “black leaders” in the hope of gaining political traction and some level of support amongst black workers. They traced the routes of their theory back to the methods employed by the Bolsheviks to resolve national issues in the post-revolutionary period.
The main consequence of this theory — and this is by no means a thorough outline of it — was an increasingly uncritical attitude towards the politics and motives of these self-appointed “leaders”: contemporary and historic (i.e. the elevation of Marcus Garvey, who was an undoubtedly important figure, to some sort of mythic status).
This sort of thinking was not contained to the Stalinist parties themselves. In a thrilling polemical exchange between Richard Fraser and George Breitman of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP Discussion Bulletin, August 1955), Fraser rightly condemns Breitman for advocating a similar shift. Fraser spells out the materialist conception of the major questions involved and critiques Breitman’s seemingly innovative reconceptualisation of the “black question” as a national question with reference to the Stalinsts’ previous work.
The Breitman side of the debate — the majority — prevailed: the political consequences of this slump into quasi-Stalinism is evidenced by the eventual fate of the SWP-US. This organisation is now a political bag-carrier for the Cuban regime. Breitman himself, in old age, fought against this trend, and got expelled.
What has this got to do with the question of the engineering of the “Muslim community” as a political fact? The major political forces involved in the creation of this myth would all concede that the “Muslim question” in the UK is a question of race — not a question of self-determination. Yet the self-appointed leaders of the “community” are treated as if they are leaders of a national liberation struggle.
The Socialist Workers Party in Britain goes one further: in defence of their conceptualisation of “Islamophobia” and their alliances with clerical-fascists in the anti-war movement and elsewhere, they resurrect examples of how Lenin and the Bolsheviks approached and accommodated the leaders of majority-Muslim national minorities.
Permeation of an idea
Only if we understand the potential political origins of their ideas in the context of the theoretical history and development of our movement can we hope to overcome the problems that face us.
Just as the unsystematically challenged ideas of Stalinism have helped to shape what passes for official anti-racism, these same ideas now have traction within larger parts of society and are taken as “law” by the majority of the organised socialist left.
So when faced with the threat of an organisation like the English Defence League — whose ideas do amount to a specific “anti-Muslim racism” — our movement has one of two choices. The first is to accommodate ourselves to the essentially Stalinist strategy that calls on us to uncritically support the “Muslim community” en masse and support the demands of their “leaders” To confuse the politics of anti-racist struggle with the question of self-determination for an artificial, bureaucratically engineered, self-selected “community”.
The second choice, the one advocated by the AWL and others, is to conceive of “Muslims” and their struggle in the context of a wider class struggle and to act and organise accordingly. To act in such a way, we have to accept that although not truly represented by “Muslim leaders” that a growing number — perhaps the majority — of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin now identify as Muslim.
From fatwa to jihad
There’s an awful lot more that can be said about Malik’s book, specifically about the growth and inter-sect rivalry between contending Islamic factions and the links between such organisations and organised terror. The main issue in his investigative analysis is the room it leaves for greater and more in depth analysis.
Malik’s book is an important one for the way is spells out the role of the left in the creation of Muslim identity, the way it facilitated the promotion of right-wing, clerical-fascist organisations and the cultural and political consequences of such a course.
His work provides many essential insights into the history of this questions but leaves a number of theoretical holes that need to be filled — something socialists such as ourselves must address.