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Right-Wing Identity Politics and the Trans Debate: the New Reactionaries.

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“In cultural matters the old division of right and left has come to look more like two Puritan sects, one plaintively conservative, the other posing as revolutionary but using academic complaint as a way of evading engagement in the real world.”

Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint. 1993. (1)

Trevor Phillips has been suspended from the Labour Party for alleged Islamophobia. What looks like a parting factional swipe at a long-standing opponent of Corbynism, only adds to the culture wars. After the crisis over anti-Semitism recent weeks have seen a new battle, over Transsexuals, reach a peak. Some have demanded that transphobes be added to the list of the expelled. Defenders of family, faith and flag from Blue Labour, self-identifying libertarians, and supporters of the Brexit Party in Spiked, full-blown national populists, and radical feminists have joined together to attack demands for trans rights.

Judith Butler wrote in her critique of ‘foundational’ identity politics, Gender Trouble (2007) “If I were to rewrite this book under present circumstances, I would include a discussion of transgender and intersexuality, the way that ideal gender dimorphism work in both ways to discourses, the different relations to surgical intervention that these related concern.” At present it looks improbable that differences between gender-critical, or “materialist feminists”, and those defending transsexuals, can take place within reasonable limits.

For Blue Labour, citing the inevitable Christopher Lasch on ‘narcissism’, Jonathan Rutherford asserts that, “Like other forms of identity politics, the language of its more extreme advocates has the same mix of moral self-righteousness and ideological certainty. Scientific facts that compromise ideology are dismissed.” “Identity politics becomes the singular pursuit of self-interest detached from social obligations.” He claims, “It is a struggle that many women feel is all the more threatening because of the involvement of powerful lobby and corporate interests.” (The Trans Debate And The Labour Party)The nastiness of a minority amongst those defending absolute ‘cis’ gender has shredded that hope to pieces. The Suzanne Moore affair has opened up a breach that is unlikely to be bridged. (2)

In 1993 Robert Hughes was one of the first to suggest that Marxism, dead after the collapse of official Communism, has had an afterlife by shifting away from “economic and class struggle in the real world”, theorising instead a variety of oppressions and “discursive” articulations and antagonisms. This ‘cultural Marxism’, exploring themes from German and French left theory, has become a target for conservatives railing against “multiculturalism”. Speech codes, the “PC wars” of the 90s, and. fast-forward. Today we have Mark Lilla’s 2018 left of centre critique of “liberal identity politics” (The Once and Future Liberal), and Douglas Murray’s conservative broadside against “identity politics and intersectionality”, “the last part of a Marxist subculture” (The Madness of Crowds. Gender, Race and Identity. 2019) (3)

National Populism.

Those attracted to national populism, who disdain the causes of minorities, have become champions of identity, of the “Somewhere” plain folks against the identity politics of the ‘Anywhere” cosmopolitan elites. This strategy is not confined to the English-speaking world. “The ambition is to imitate the activism of minorities – postcolonial or LGBT – fed by French theory …..in order to serve the cause of identity” writes Nicholas Truong in this Saturday’s Le Monde (Il s’érige contre la « dictature » de la « bien-pensance » : l’essor du national-populisme intellectuel et médiatique). In France, “national populism”, a “catéchisme néo-réactionnaire”, the theme of immigration, the fear of the “great replacement”, the ‘Islamisation’ of urban spaces, up to hostility to human-rights “mongering” (droits de l’hommisme) , and the “terror” of feminist campaigns against sexual violence and harassment. The denunciation of multiculturalist “bobos” (Bourgeois bohemians) parallels British sneers, from Blue Labour, Spiked to the Morning Star at the ‘Islington left”. Truong, with good reason, compares this to French Communist language of the past century attacking the “petty bourgeois”.

In Le rappel à l’ordre (2002) Daniel Lindenberg outlined the way a group of French writers had begun to denounce May 68, human rights, feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, Islam, and “globalism” (mondialisme). These “new reactionaries” had moved from the left critiques of market liberalism to national republicanism, He suggested that anti-globalisation could serve as a crossing-point

A “crude piece of work” commented Perry Anderson. It takes no more than a few minutes to see some names, Marcel Gauchet, Alain Finkielkraut, reappear in Truong’s article, some, like Eric Zemmour, and Jean-Pierre le Goff, author of a study that is recalled or its postscript on the enduring impact of “cultural leftism” post-68, had yet to come to wider attention. Others, like the once respected historian of the French left, Jacques Julliard are much more recent entries, though one was perhaps forewarned by his willingness to debate Jean-Claude Michéa, who asserts that the original sin of French socialism was its Dreyfus Affair alignment with democratic liberal human rights defenders. That one of these figures, Michel Onfray, a self-styled anarchist and pop philosopher has extended his openness to reaction by contributing to the pages of the Nouvelle Droite Eléments, is the occasion for sadness. (4)

Realignments to the right that have yet to go so far could be seen in the UK during the EU Referendum and Brexit process. The Full Brexit brought together left sovereigntists, Blue Labour, Labour Leave, activists in Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and members of the Communist Party of Britain. They contrasted the real popular sovereignty of the nation against the workings of the globalist EU elites. Andrew Murray has expressed the widely shared views of these sections with his hostility towards “rancid identity politics”, pitting the rights of “peoples” against the “poisonous seeds” of human rights (The Fall and Rise of the British Left. 2019)

The French new reactionaries have, Truong outlines, a strong and highly visible media presence right in the mainstream, the MSM. For those inflamed with hatred for identity politics Britain offers the consolations of Spiked, the Spectator, and the hard right press for those hostile to all things Woke, with the occasional television platform like Sky Press reviews. As interest in Brexit has waned some of  this new sect of plaintitive reactionaries  has taken up the cudgels against transsexuals. Elsewhere Verso Books publishes Andrew Murray, who thanks Tariq Ali for his “support and political commitment., The journal of Perry Anderson, New Left Review, is home to Wolfgang Streeck, a supporter of the Full Brexit, who believes that national borders are the “last line of Defence”….

 

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  1. Page 60. The Culture of Complaint, The Fraying of America. Robert Hughes. Harvill. 1994.
  2. Page xxviii. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Judith Butler. Routledge 2007.
  3. Lecture 2. Multi-Culti and its Discontents. Robert Hughes. Op cit. “PC Wars” in Chapter 8. New Consensus for Old. One Market Under God, Thomas Frank. Vintage 2002.
  4. Page 169. Perry Anderson The New Old World. Verso. 2009 Jean-Claude Michéa and Jacques Julliard La Gauche et le Peuple. Champs. 2014.
  5. Page ix. Andrew Murray. The Rise and Fall of the British left. Verso, 2019

“Brexit Derangement Syndrome” Andrew Murray Warns Labour Against Taking Sides in “Culture War.”

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Andrew Murray: International Campaigner.

Labour should stay neutral in Brexit ‘culture war’, warns Corbyn ally

Heather Stewart Guardian

Wholehearted embrace of remain would cost party votes in leave seats, warns adviser Andrew Murray

Labour must avoid taking sides in the Brexit “culture war” if Jeremy Corbyn is to win the upcoming general election, one of his key advisers has warned.

Andrew Murray is the chief of staff of the Unite union and worked closely with Corbyn in the Stop the War coalition. He has been seconded to the Labour leader’s office part-time and is closely involved in conversations about a series of issues, including Brexit.

In a rare interview, with a general election looming after Corbyn declared on Tuesday that Labour’s conditions for an early vote had been met, he warned that the campaign to stop Brexit had increasingly become a form of identity politics, with remainers and leavers pitted against each other.

“It’s had aspects of it from the beginning, and now the culture war aspect of it is very, very powerful,” he said.

Murray is cited saying, “If Labour becomes one side of the culture war – the side that is, stereotyping, the liberal side – that would be very damaging to the present project, and would have no basis in social justice.”

In his recently published book The Fall and Rise of the British Left (2017), Andrew Murray attacked “rancid identity politics, ‘othering’, on the basis of race, nationalist education, geography or a potpourri of assumed values.” (Page 214) He singled out  “Brexit Derangement Syndrome” that infects those opposed to leaving the EU.

This apparently has the potential to destroy the alliance behind the Labour Party.

The pro-Brexit forces in the Labour party have gone so far as to vote with the Conservatives on the Withdraw Bill.

Murray’s old comrades in the CPB on October the 22nd urged MPs to take the Tory side,

Communists urge support for EU Withdrawal Bill

The Communist Party of Britain urges MPs to support the swift passage of the new EU Withdrawal Bill which is due to have its Second Reading vote later today (October 22).

Following Lindsey German in Counterfire (with whom Murray has close links through the Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly) there is no suggestion this has done any damage. Whatsoever.

In a rare moment of self-criticism Murray, who was a member of the pro-Brexit Communist Party of Britain during the Referendum does say.

I personally voted leave, but the leave campaign unfortunately gives no warrant for a Lexit position, because it was dominated by this alliance of xenophobic nationalists and Thatcherite utopians. And they set the tone.

In his book, by contrast, Murray celebrates the line of his new friend that at least the Leave vote gave the international neoliberals (Trump excepted?) a kick up the arse.  It was “a rejection of the Davos priesthood of global capitalism.”

“Tone” and “arses” apart Brexit is not just a matter of colour and atmosphere.

Brexit was, is and will be, a hard right political and economic strategy.

Labour cannot stand aside and let leading party members campaign for different policies as it did during the 1975 referendum.

The Tories election campaign will be centred on the issue.

Internationalists are not going to stand aside from confronting the hard-right Brexit policy, nor Brexit itself.

The Guardian continues,

His influence alarms many centrist Labour MPs. Murray – a longtime member of the Communist party, who has in the past expressed solidarity with North Korea and praised aspects of Stalin’s legacy – only joined Labour in 2016.

Some also balk at the juxtaposition between his comfortable background (his grandfather was the governor of Madras, and he attended a minor public school) and the class struggle he espouses.

But he insisted: “I’ve always voted Labour in a general election – never voted anything else. My joining Labour was largely motivated by the wishes of my union: that as its chief of staff I be in a place to help advance its political strategy, which requires being a member of the Labour party. And Jeremy Corbyn’s election removed any remaining doubts.”

Murray’s influence equally alarms left wing internationalists.

He sounds as if he’s warning left wing internationalists not to speak out about Brexit.

Talk of ‘culture wars’, the language of Spiked ,Blue Labour and the red-brown front, the Full Brexit, is both to trivialise disagreements about the European Union, and to work with another form of identity politics.

The expression is a weapon used by the national populist right against all forms of left and progressive thought and activism, studded with terms like “cultural Marxism”.

It is a step towards asserting that that internationalists are rootless liberal cosmopolitans with no concern for “real” working class politics.

Murray and his pro-Brexit crew are edging towards the kind of hatred of human rights, and the cultural politics that came about in the wake of the late 6os upheavals, that marks out the nationalist populist right.

Who is the author of these passages on human rights?

“articulated the preference for individual rights over the collective, which has come to preponderate on much of the Western left, a flowering of the more poisonous seeds of the politics of personal identity and human rights.”

“Human rights universalism prevents us from defending ourselves in the name of a short-sighted individualism that does not see that it is not individuals who are in question but rather great masses of people…”

The first is Andrew Murray in The Fall and Rise of the British Left.

The second is the far right French historian, Eric Zemmour, author of Le Suicide français (2014).

Murray’s lot launched their own culture war in August,

Leave – Fight – Transform: Founding Statement

The LeFT Campaign is a new grassroots network of socialists, trade unionists and community activists, committed to democracy, internationalism and socialism – and making sure the 2016 EU referendum result is implemented.

Here is a counter-response for the election:

The internationalist-left and the coming election

On 29 October Labour for a Socialist Europe is meeting to discuss its plans, including plans to organise an internationalist-left profile within the Labour campaign in the general election.

The Fall and Rise of the British Left. Andrew Murray. Review: Socialist “Common Sense” Faced with “Brexit Derangement Syndrome”.

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The Fall and Rise of the British Left. Andrew Murray. Verso 2019.

Can the Labour Party “contribute towards opening up the way to socialism?” Answering this question in 2013 Andrew Murray responded, “The main working-organisations have set it as their task to try to accomplish that transformation after the disastrous New Labour episode…” Today, 2019, “The movement around Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership has changed the political weather for good. There has been a ‘leap’ as Lenin would have understood it. Gradualness has broken, the left has an opening” (Page 165). The Fall and Rise of the British Left is a history and strategic guide by UNITE the Union’s Chief of Staff about how “after a lamentable absence, socialism is back.”(1)

The Fall and Rise is not a straightforward narrative. There is a sparse chronicle of Labour’s century old conflict between the “transformative and integrative” wings (Simon Hannah. A Party With Socialists in it .2018). Murray quickly dismisses Ralph Miliband’s view that the commitment to the Parliamentary system and social reform within that framework rendered it an improbable vehicle for socialist change. The “roots” of the party in working class communities, culture and organisation” made it a “menace to the ruling class in the 1970s and 1980s” (page 13) Labour’s 20th and early 21st century is telescoped into the years leading up to New Labour and Tony Blair’s lifting of this threat by their acceptance of a “market driven economy” and “neoliberalism”. (2)

Murray’s book concentrates on the period of his “own active political life”. It bears the “imprint of many comrades”, including Tariq Ali thanked for “support and political commitment”. As may well be expected the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), which emerged from the “death spiral” of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPBG), from which the author, from the faction Straight Left, surfaced into Labour more recently than the collapse of the USSR, have a place.

Stalinism.

The Communism of the Soviet Union passed away in 1991. Suggesting that a “a particular vision of socialism was compromised” Murray continues, that it was “marked by heroism and enormous self-sacrifice alongside extraordinary self mutilation, by modernisation and brutality, by rapid progress and crippling inefficiency, by the gleam of the future and the baggage of history.” (Page 62) This is both gradioise and low,  a justification of his own decades long support for the USSR. There is no further grappling with what Sheila Rowbotham in Beyond the Fragments (1979) called the “trauma of Stalinism”. The “correct ideas” by “advanced” organisations, such as the CPGB played an obvious role in Britain in sustaining the myth of the USSR’s socialism, modestly calls the “only model yet created of a post-capitalist society”. Murray shrugs this off. A “proper assessment” is “beyond our scope”.

Turning to his own political life Murray looks at some of the controversies that took place in the distingrating CPGB. The Forward March of Labour Halted? (1981) debate is skimmed. There can be no return to the 1970s and the idea that free collective bargaining is the motor of left union struggle. Some parts of the New Times sketch of ‘post-Fordism’ are true. Now socialism needs a new basis, drawing on the insights of the ‘fragments’, hung around the essays in the already referred to Beyond the Fragments (1979). For Murray these centre on making politics more open to women, the values of “solidarity and caring” and learning from green politics, and “new social movements”, perhaps today seen in terms of ‘intersectional’ struggles.  The implication he makes is that small British far-left ‘leninist’ groups were on a par with the vast state tyranny of the Soviet Union in bad practice. It is a thoroughly dishonest appropriation. 

Anti-Imperialism.

Andrew Murray is keen to recognise the strengths of the “socialist and communist organisations of the past”. The tradition of studying politics seriously and mass protests can be contrasted with professional Westminster bubble politics. This left’s support for “struggles of people over the world against imperialism” a “virtue of the twentieth century left” is paramount for the long-term leader of the Stop the War Coalition (StWC).

The importance of anti-imperialism forms the backdrop to his account of the 2003 campaign against the Iraq intervention, a war with long-term disastrous results. Murray notes that (in a cumbersome phrase), that the “broad progressive politics of the anti-war movement” had not been allied for a push inside the “more conventional Labour and left politics” (Page 100). Describing this alliance he does not specify the politics of the principal Muslim force involved with the StWC, the Muslim Association of Britain, (MAB), an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, which not everybody would call ‘progressive’. This optimistic assessment of the role of Muslim politics on the left girds his favourable account of “charismatic leader” George Galloway’s career (perhaps the Brexit Party has yet to register on the Murray radar). Respect, he asserts had a real Muslim base, and its appeal was an “anti-imperialist” and “class” not a “communal one” (Page 147) Few would agree with this rose-tinted picture of the activities of Respect in the East End and elsewhere, studded with communalist incidents and allegations of financial malpractice. 

NATO and military intervention largely exhaust the discussion of imperialism. An account into the new geopolitical set up created by globalised economies, and the assertions of national sovereignty by armed states, which countries fit into the category is not developed. Why fighting imperial powers is a priority rather than supporting struggles for democracy and human rights (as in the Arab Spring) is left hanging in the air. How anti-imperialism can help any resolution to the Syrian conflict, or could have halted the genocides inflicted by Daesh, and the mass murders of the Assad regime, is not explored. The StWC has played a discrafeul role in this conflict, systematically promoting the rights of nations (the  Assad regime) over human rights.

Human rights are a bugbear in The Fall and Rise. The “imperialist left” of the 2006 Euston Manifesto, widely seen by critics as a justification of liberal interventionism, gets special attention. It “articulated the preference for individual rights over the collective, which has come to preponderate on much of the Western left, a flowering of the more poisonous seeds of the politics of personal identity and human rights.”(Page 97) Such rights trump the “rights of nations” and justify Western, external, intervention. Movements for human rights, linked to and voicing the demands of social movements, theorised by writers such as Claude Lefort and Étienne Balibar, are written off as an excuse for humanitarian intervention, the culture of narcissistic complaint.

“Brexit Derangement Syndrome”

The Labour adviser has more than one occasion to express strong views on “rancid identity politics, ‘othering’, on the basis of race, nationalist education, geography or a potpourri of assumed values.” (Page 214) He traces their effects in the polarisation around Brexit – singling out “Brexit Derangement Syndrome” that infects those opposed to leaving the EU. While it, he generously concedes, includes “many progressive people” and “marches against nativism more than for neoliberalism”. But the Brexit Tories could only intensify” not cause, and that they are not part of a movement “for progress.” Pages 214 – 215) In short, the internationalist anti-Brexit left are caught up in an illness, one that has unsettled their judgement.

“Class unity” for progress on a “broadly left social democratic basis” is the remedy.  Not the pro-European, or  Hillary Clinton strategy of the “new enlightenment”. The idea that class based politics has to be anti-Brexit is ruled out by fiat.

Can “nativism”, the identity politics of the right, the heart of the national neoliberal Brexit strategy, also be cured by this medicine? Can Murray’s friends in the CPB, and the Counterfire leader Lindsey German, who promote their own elusive People’s Brexit develop an alternative? Murray’s keen political nose has not found a whiff to share of it. Some can argue that their actions have only fuelled the national populists by offering illusions about the magic powers of national sovereignty. All the UNITE chief of Staff can say is that “capitalism is the problem, not whether the decisive location of its administration is London and the nation state or Brussels and the apparatuses of globalised market coercion.” (Page 215)

Is socialism, Murray cites Corbyn, “the new common sense”? (Page 178) It is not encouraging to read the name of Chantal Mouffe in the next lines, The theorist of a left populism that is in crisis across Europe, from the split in Podemos (a breakaway Más País offers an electoral challenge) to the decline of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise (LFI), claims that the Left has the possibility of building a “new hegemonic order”. How this is coming to be is far from clear. The pages on Momentum, the would-be organic intellectuals of the left and civil society,  are uncritical, and skate over  internal disputes over the democratic credentials of the organisation. There is no discussion of Mouffe’s views on ‘federating the People’ against the floating signifier of the ‘Elite’ (For a Left Populism. 2018), nor on Mélenchon’s claim that the ‘era of peoples” has replaced that of class conflict (L’Ère du peuple. 2014)

Despite the inability to come to terms with the author’s own (recent) Communist past, an unfamiliarity with Labour Party history, its hackneyed anti-imperialism, the winks at the New Left, and squints at today’s demands for human rights and recognition, the score settling (against Paul Mason, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Nick Cohen), and the appearance of Corporal Jones, The Fall and Rise of the British Left is a valuable book. Murray laments that there is no consensus on foreign policy, nor will there be one when his side uphold an ambiguous line of issues such as Syria. But at the centre of Labour’s plans are John McDonnell’s economic projects with a wider scope than restoring public finances and local government funding. Developed by a talented team, they extend from social ownership, the control of the finance sector, and, above all, ending austerity and democratising the public services ravaged by new public management. They, and other Labour policies, are designed to ensure that “democracy wins”. In this, for the moment at least, the movement is everything.

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  1. Left Unity or Class Unity. Andrew Murray Registering Class. Socialist Register. 2014. The Merlin Press. 2013
  2. See Chapter Three The New Left and Parliamentary Socialism. In Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, Michael Newman. Merlin Press. 2002.
  3. Beyond the Fragments. Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright. Merlin Press. 1979.