Kevin Ovenden on why the anti-racist radical left must give the ideological battle
It’s sad to see the NGO-generated monitoring group, AfD Watch, in Berlin peddling the centrist attack on the radical left, claiming it is convergent with the far right. It says there is a major problem of what it terms the “pro-Moscow left” uniting with the fascistic right over issues such as Syria. The evidence it has produced for this is largely images of a few individuals on demonstrations against the Syria bombing with decidedly reactionary placards. But to go from that to say that there is a major corruption of the radical left and that it is in bed with the fascist right is a ludicrous construction.
I think most of us have seen on any significant demonstration the odd – sometimes very odd – individual with some placard or slogan that is both wholly unrepresentative of the mobilisation and quite unhinged or reactionary in its imagery or ideas. Probably still in Britain, for example, people come across on many demonstrations outside Downing Street that quixotic character dressed as a leprechaun, doing a bad Irish jig and sporting a placard with a quote from, if I recall correctly, the Book of Deuteronomy. Or there’s that bloke with the placard – made of cut-out lettering in the manner of a kidnap demand – about the evils of fiat money. Or that woman who pops up everywhere with her Illuminati leaflet and telling us it is all the fault of the Bilderberg Group.
Most people would accept that it is unfair and absurd to highlight those odd people as somehow characteristic of the mobilisations they serially pop up at. But that is often what media – both conservative and liberal – who are hostile to those mobilisations do. Sometimes they have done so over more socially and politically significant presences. At the start of the anti-war movement in 2001 there were some people from the fringes of the Muslim communities turning up with religiously sectarian and reactionary slogans and imagery.
For the pro-war social democratic left it was something to seize on. The short-lived Euston Manifesto intervention, for example, claimed that the anti-war left in Britain was in bed with “Islamic fundamentalists”, by which they meant not only the small groups of nihilist sectarians but the mass Muslim organisations and community structures who, along with the left, were bitterly opposed by the sectarian reactionaries.
It was because the left led a broad but politically focused anti-war movement that those reactionary sectarians became increasingly marginalised. That was to the extent that in Tower Hamlets, for example, they took to physical attacks on the united campaigning and political activity by the radical left alongside progressive Muslim activists, who grew massively in number. The other line of smear against the anti-war movement was the false syllogism that: “You oppose the war; the fascist BNP also opposes the war; therefore you are in league with the fascists.” But it was the left who led the anti-war movement, with a militantly anti-racist edge, not the fascists.
The BNP opportunistically adapted to the popular mood, but was unable to participate in the movement. And it is not true in Germany that anti-war sentiment is being corralled by the far right or that the radical left is in some unholy alliance with the fascists. Sure, there are demoralised fringes of the left with bad politics hailing from the 1970s (and those have contributed to their demoralisation) who look to rotten alliances of convenience. But that is not a major thing socially. It is actually less significant socially than those demoralised Muslim strands who looked to an alliance with Nato over Libya or Syria in the face of authoritarianism and repression in those countries. It is not characteristic of the leading forces of Die Linke, whatever ideological and political debates are happening in that party and on the German left.
The same Die Linke MPs who are central to opposing German militarism are also often central to the fight against deportations, against German state racism and directly against the AfD. When the fascistic Pegida tried opportunistically to be a part of the anti-war mobilisation in Chemnitz, an old friend and comrade Einde O’Callaghan describes how he and the other organisers prevented that. That’s because they had taken the initiative and built good, principled alliances – not narrowly demanding ideological convergence in advance, but cleverly forging a front that rebuffed far right attempts to inveigle their way in. On the anti-war demonstration in Berlin friends describe an overwhelmingly left wing and internationalist atmosphere and a focus on Germany’s militarism and participation in the Western military alliances, also pointing out its racist policies at home. Of course, that means ideological argument against wrong and bad ideas in the movement from small demoralised fringes. But that is based upon taking the initiative in the first place.
You can imagine what would happen if the radical left did not do that but instead left the field open to the far right or reactionary forces. You would have a situation in which the radical right dominated in selective anti-war activities – something which a recent column in the Guardian falsely claimed to be an accomplished fact in Europe and North America. But the ideological argument is not only – or even mainly – against odd bits on the fringes of the left or of immigrant communities. It is overwhelmingly in dealing with the pressures exerted by the pro-capitalist liberal centre. That’s because socially those pressures are far, far greater. The odd remnant of 1970s Maoism in Germany might get 10,000 votes nationally.
The SPD, despite its precipitate decline, is still the major party expression of the German working class movement. It is in government. It provides a foreign minister intent on a “more aggressive” policy towards Moscow. It has capitulated to anti-refugee policies from the right and far right. And it provides the liberal-interventionist cover for German militarism and out of area deployments, just as a Green Party foreign minister did for the SPD 20 years ago. Moreover, those are largely the positions of the liberal intelligentsia which influences, often through the bureaucracies of the labour movement, masses of ordinary people.
The bigger ideological battle is against those pro-systemic forces who seek to contain rising radicalism and anger, not least through the “horseshoe” or “theory of the two extremes” in which radical left and radical right are routinely bracketed together as twin enemies of progress. One big area of intervention for them is the politics of anti-racism. For them anti-racism equals being an enlightened middle class liberal. It does not mean the revolutionary insurgency of the Black Panther Party against the US state in the 1960s.
Indeed, in Britain, France and Germany similar systemic, liberal forces seek to accuse the radical left of racism because we challenge the state at home, its imperialism abroad, neoliberal globalisation, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and the false idea that opposing racism means supporting the institutions of liberal capitalism and imperialism. We want and need the broadest possible fighting unity on the left, of the labour movement and of oppressed communities.
But no one should be under any illusion that in the course of that the pro-systemic forces of the centre will fight back. They will seek to channel anti-racist sentiment not in an anti-systemic, anti-capitalist direction, but towards support for the liberal state structures and their political expressions, which continue to be the dominant structures and ideology – even in Trump’s America, let alone Britain, France and Germany. So the left has to give that ideological battle in return, based upon building mass movements in which it takes the initiative.
It is not the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist left that is in league with the fascists. It is the centre that is opening the door to them.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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