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A Left For Itself. David Swift. Review: Left-Wing Hobbyists and Labour’s Future.

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Left for Itself, A, Left-wing Hobbyists and Performative ...


A Left For Itself. Left-Wing Hobbyists and Performative Radicalism. David Swift. Zero Books. 2019. 

Neil Kinnock – one of his rare memorable statements – once said (roughly) that the left talk amongst themselves in a way they would never do to a stranger next to them at a bus stop. As the ‘culture wars’ reach new heights over Defund the Police, a slogan that takes learned explanation and knowledge of US politics, a left-wing backlash Labour Party against ‘Blairite’ Keir Starmer reaches a low crescendo, and outrage spreads over J.K.Rowling’s latest intervention in the debates over transexuality, it is hard not to feel some agreement with Labour’s one-time leader. 

David Swift, the author of For Class and Country, The Patriotic Left and the First World War (2017), begins his polemic against “left-wing hobbyists, performative radicals and the ‘identity’ left’ by stating, that the “great radical movements of the twentieth century” trade unions, feminists, by “people of colour and gay people” “were always dominated by those who needed to change their own lives”. Today it would seem that the “post-materialist” politics predicted by sociologists in the 1970s rule a left that has little connection to neighbourhood and work.  

Today often, “left wing activists are there through choice, sometimes to campaign for abstract issues that don’t affect them or anyone they now”. The result is that the British left is dominated by those pushed by “altruism” instead of need. They are a new “labour aristocracy” pushing their “elite culture and esoteric concerns”. A chapter on Gender Identity, ends with words on “trans warriors”, another on the cultural tastes of “post-modern leftism” underlines their isolation. “For left wing hobbyists are their identity, their raison d’être, and the source of their self-worth”. Obsessed with “language, semantic and aesthetics”, stuck in their niche, they are unable to concentrate on “getting into power and improving people’s lives.” 

Swift, the historian, draws on the far-from unknown chronicles of the British labour movement. He offers evidence of pro-Empire opinions, anti-Jewish and anti-immigration views, from Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation’s rants against “Jewish money lenders” to trade unions and the Fabians. He also suggests that the left continues to ignore the surge of patriotism and anti-German feeling in all classes, including the “working class left” during the First World War.  

For Swift those who come from long-standing socialist families often remain as insulated from the hard facts about this history as the most recent student of Discourse Theory. This is hard to believe. My English grandfather, a Clarion Cyclist, joined up in 1914, swept away by patriotic fervour and no doubt the specious arguments of the author of Merrie England. Sparse in his words about that conflict, having been in the trenches, they were restricted to the kind of comments found in Henri Barbusse’s harsh front line account Under Fire (1916). They were not reflections on patriotism. Nor has this background led – as far as can tell from many years of activism on the left this is the norm – many to ignore conflicts over immigration. There were bitter rows over Enoch Powell extending from workplace (or in my case, my North London Comprehensive) to relatives. It would be easy to extend the story up to the present. It would take a very isolated, or wilfully ignorant, activist to ignore that. 

For some years our comrades have taken apart the “anti-imperialism of fools”.  The term was coined on our quarter of the left.  A Left For Itself has little trouble dispatching the Bubble Bolsheviks, from Seumas Milne to others in the previous Labour leadership. Criticism of Israeli policies and solidarity with the Palestinians has developed beyond traditional internationalist support to become an “all-consuming obsession”. The majority of the left ignored the atrocities of Daesh (a small fringe regarding them too as “anti-imperialist”) and continue to ignore the mass killings and torture carried out by the Assad Regime in the Syrian civil war. One can agree that this part of the left has a “White Knight syndrome” that ignores a virulent strain of anti-semitism, that has grown in tandem to a wider sue of conspiracy theories ‘complotism”.  

Is there a way forward by recognising people’s deep attachment to Britain, and the “more reactionary aspects with patriotism in the UK” and to the monarchy? What kind of “radical patriotism” might be developed? One of the greatest socialist leaders of the last century, Jean Jaurès, once said that too much internationalism drew people away from their country, and that a lot of internationalism took them back. The word Jaurès used, was “patrie” a better one would have been “pays”, country, territory, people, region, carries broader meanings than La Patrie, the fatherland, or the Nation. It’s where we live and grow to love, revile, learn its history, carry the memories of the past, and to which we become deeply attached.  (1)

The quiet affection that we have for these things close and dear to is what makes us. At the same time we are “citizens of the world”. The effects of migration, cultural mixing, and planetary Web interaction – are part of the immediate world we live in. Recognising this, by aligning internationalist values with where we are, could be called rooted cosmopolitanism.   

National Populism.

The difficulty for the left is not just that few on our side are emotionally stuck on the Royal Family and the Union Flag. It is that the ‘nation’ has become a lot more than background. The word is part a political project, National Populism, the people standing behind their national identity against the ‘globalist elite’.  The idealism of the Hobbyist Left is as nothing compared to those prepared to vote for abstractions like Sovereignty, Brexit, and freeing ‘Britain’ from the globalist European Union.   

What kind of future could the left offer if it defines itself towards the Nation rather than the “economic ill-winds” that are blowing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic?   The experience of left populism, which has followed Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in attempting to ‘articulate’ the left’s strategies with the ‘affects’ of the people for the Nation, is one of electoral failure. The current’s best-known parties, Podemos and La France insoumise, are in electoral decline in France and Spain. This suggests that adopting radical left nationalism is not an easy way out.  

A Left for Itself might seem to be a horse from the Spiked stable. The ex-RCP magazine cites the book on Gender issues.  This impression is bolstered by the book’s endorsements from Matthew Goodwin, the joint author (with Roger Eatwell) of a book not unsympathetic to its subject, National Populism (2018), and Eric Kaufmann, author of White Shift (2018) about immigration and ethnic change and argues for a new cultural contract, and “multivocalism” that includes “white identity”.  

Yet, at least one hopes, this support could be misleading. It’s the message that counts. There is absolutely no doubt that those who prefer the politics of street theatre and the seminar to the hard work of building support for left politics in the broad population have played a role in Labour’s election defeat.  

When “right wing populists are on the rampage” the left should listen to David Swift’s provocative, well-argued, polemic. Not only to disagree, but to help us turn our backs on Performative Radicalism.  


(1) “Un peu d’internationalisme éloigne de la patrie, beaucoup y ramène.”

2 Responses

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  1. I am aware of how much working-class support there was for the Great Fratricide of 1914. I just regret it. Ditto Brexit. I’ll admit from the start to not being made or cut out for practical politics at all.

    My main problem with arguments such as the one in this book is that they very often infer that landfill shit was “properly” working-class and Dave, J Hus, AJ Tracey et al aren’t. The non-metropolitan youth who have organised BLM demos and pushed that music to the top of the charts have left that argument in the dust. Yes, I know, they don’t make up the majority of the electorate, and yes I know how reactionary the offshore radio set became. But this sort of sovereigntism always seems to imply a two-tier working-class-ness which I absolutely abhor.


    July 6, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    • I steer well clear of commenting on his views about music, which I’d leave to those who know about the subject.

      The only thing that rang true for me was his put down of David Bowie.

      On the wider cultural stuff and his criticisms of the Identity Left’s ‘Cultural Elitism” well there was Julie Burchill’s ‘anti-elitist’ Modern Review….

      It aimed to present “low culture for high-brows.” “to give equal cultural weight to Roland Barthes and Bart Simpson.”

      It was “founded by writers Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman, then married, and Toby Young, who became the editor.”

      They all turned out well!


      Andrew Coates

      July 6, 2020 at 7:00 pm

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