Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Why the ‘politics of class’ leads to moral relativism

Readers of this blog will probably already know of two excellent, recently published books that raise the question of where the Left has gone wrong, and why it has reached its current state of moral degeneracy: Nick Cohen’s What’s Left and Andrew Anthony’s The Fallout. For anyone who hasn’t already, I’d strongly recommend reading them both as an introduction to the subject. Although they have produced many replies from among the ranks of those whom they target – the Guardianista soft-left and the harder, ‘anti-imperialist’ left – these replies have tended to be along the lines of ‘whatabout Iraq’, and without exception have failed to address Cohen’s and Anthony’s central accusation: that moral relativism, obsessive anti-Westernism and a fundamental lack of interest in the struggle of foreigners against oppression at the hands of other foreigners have led leftists in the West to abandon those they should be supporting (such as democrats and trade unionists in Iraq, or Muslim women abused at the hands of their families and communities) and lining up with those who should be their mortal enemies (Baathists, Islamists, etc.). We are still waiting for an alternative explanation from the ranks of Cohen’s and Anthony’s critics as to why this happens, or why it is wrong to resist this tendency.

Cohen and Anthony field a range of arguments to explain what is going wrong, most of which I agree with. But the one argument that both of them make, and that fails to convince me, is their claim that the degeneration of the Left is related to its abandonment of the working class. For Cohen, the readiness of liberals in the US to achieve major reforms, such as the legalisation of abortion, through the courts and the judges rather than through campaigning among the working class has led to a working-class alienation from liberal values. For Anthony, guilty white-liberal idolisation of non-white and non-Christian minorities has led to a readiness to denigrate the white working-class; this is a theme to which he has recently returned, and which a new BBC 2 programme is apparently also addressing.

My own background in left-wing politics is somewhat different to Nick’s and Andrew’s, and it has led me to the opposite conclusion: that the radical left’s obsession with class and class interests, over and above ideals and principles, is at the root of its degeneration. The Militant Tendency and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), two far-left groups to which I was close in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were always whinging on about the ‘working class’. The phrase ‘only a socialist party based on the working class’ is indelibly marked in my memory, but I’m not even sure if it belonged to one of these groups, or to several of them.

The point was always to support the ‘working class’ and oppose the ‘ruling class’, not because of what they were doing, but because of what they were. Something was only worth supporting if it had the correct ‘class character’. A strike by ambulence workers was a worthy cause; the campaign for proportional representation in the British parliament led by Charter 88 was not, because there was nothing ‘working class’ about it.

I discovered that this meant that, in the war in the former Yugoslavia, comrades from the Militant and the SWP were fundamentally uninterested in such mundane questions as opposing genocide or national oppression, and wanted to see Serb, Croat and Muslim workers joining together against the bosses of all nations, before the comrades would muddy their hands in this particular conflict. Indeed, I am still holding my breath, waiting for the workers’ revolution that the SWP suggested might stop the war in Bosnia.

Of course, this obsession with class was not just about supporting the working class, but also about opposing the ruling class. This may explain one of the enduring mysteries of SWP politics, one for which only a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist might be capable of providing a full explanation. Namely, over the Balkans, the SWP would berate defenders of Bosnia such as myself, for ‘lining up with one group of nationalists against another’, when all these nationalists supposedly had the same ‘class basis’ and were equally reactionary. Meanwhile, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the SWP lines up with one group of nationalists against another, even though all these nationalists supposedly have the same class basis and are equally reactionary. The SWP opposed the Croatian struggle for national independence in the early 1990s by pointing out that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had mentioned that he was glad his wife was neither Serbian nor Jewish; it nevertheless supports the Palestinian struggle for national independence, even though Hamas and other Palestinian groups have a much worse record on anti-Semitism than Tudjman’s Croat nationalists (the SWP itself probably does as well, but that’s a whole different article). I’m not a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist, but if I understand correctly, the disparity can be explained by the fact that the SWP views the Croatian nationalists as being ‘on the side of the ruling class’ (i.e. the Western ruling-class) while the Palestinian nationalists are ‘not on the side of the ruling class’. Accusations of anti-Semitism are purely instrumental and opportunistic in the goal of opposing the ruling class.

It should be easy to see why this should lead to moral relativism. Whatever the ‘ruling class’ does is for the sake of its class interests, therefore whatever it does should be opposed. If it arms and finances Saddam, it should be opposed; if it bleeds Iraq dry with sanctions, it should be opposed; if it invades Iraq to overthrow Saddam, it should be opposed. The Iraq War is opposed not because it will increase the suffering of the Iraqi people or involve large-scale civilian casualties or because it violates international law – such arguments are purely instrumental – but because it’s ‘all about oil’; i.e. it serves ruling-class interests. Leftist arguments levelled against Western leaders are made not because the leftists necessarily believe in them, but because they want to oppose the Western leaders whatever they do. Hence, the principles put forward in such arguments are inherently insincere and liable to be abandoned as soon as they are no longer necessary: emphasise Croatian anti-Semitism, ignore Palestinian anti-Semitism; emphasise ‘working-class unity’ over national liberation in the Balkans, emphasise national liberation over working-class unity in Palestine; etc.

Conversely, one is supposed to support the working class no matter what it does; all strikes should be supported, regardless of what the workers are striking over. Anthony complains that moral relativism leads liberals to ditch the white working-class in favour of even reactionary Muslims and homophobic black rappers. But it is difficult to see how this is any different from denigrating the middle class or aristocracy and idolising the working class; it simply involves a reclassification of the same old categories of groups one likes and groups one dislikes.

Unfortunately, even the most honourable traditionalist left-wingers cling to the certainties of ‘class politics’, and this leads them either into some extremely dubious company – or into no company at all. The summer before last, my fellow Eustonite Philip Spencer and I spoke at the annual conference of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyist group which is fairly sympathetic politically but incredibly dogmatic, in order to argue the merits of the Euston Manifesto. And what a dismal experience it was – being berated by a room-full of Trots for the fact that the Euston Manifesto says nothing about the class struggle, and about how disgraceful it was to support a manifesto that even a Labour minister would have no trouble supporting.

There is a very good reason why the Euston Manifesto is not concerned with the ‘class struggle’ (in the Marxist sense of supporting the ‘working class’ against the ‘ruling class’) – it is an anti-fascist, anti-fundamentalist manifesto whose purpose is to reaffirm a commitment to liberal, democratic and progressive principles that the Left has increasingly tended to jettison. Were the ‘class struggle’ to be inserted into this manifesto, it would involve splitting the anti-fascist front for the sake of obsolete Marxist principles. It would mean jettisoning non-Communist anti-fascists in order to remain part of a ‘Left’ that includes fascists and their fellow travellers. Indeed, the AWL apparently responded to the wonderful split in the Respect coalition (the British manifestation of the Red-Brown alliance) between the SWP and the supporters of George Galloway, by coming down on the side of the SWP. The AWL’s Sean Matgamna wrote an open letter to the SWP’s Chris Harman last autumn, appealing for the SWP to return to its socialist principles by opposing Galloway: ‘Comrade Harman, the revolutionary politics which you spent most of your life working for are still worth fighting for! In the SWP they will have to be fought for against the leaders and their “theoreticians”, such as you. Comrades of the SWP, the socialist ideas which the SWP claims to represent are worth fighting for! Break with Galloway!’

So long as support for the ‘working class’ against the ‘ruling class’ trumps support for Enlightenment values as values worthy of support in their own right, even a relatively honourable group of Trotskyists such as the AWL will not be immune to the temptation to ally with one Red-Brown faction against another, and against the ‘ruling class’, leaving more politically mainstream elements to do the serious work of resisting fascism and fundamentalism. Alternatively, insistence upon class-based politics may lead to self-imposed isolation, whereby the honourable left-wing traditionalist rejects allies both among the Red-Brown alliance and among the liberal mainstream, leading him to feel ‘desperately lonely’, as Bill Weinberg of WW4report complains. But even in this loneliness, it is difficult to escape moral relativism so long as one is determined to oppose the ‘ruling class’ no matter what it does; Weinberg has consistently spoken up for the oppressed Kosova Albanians and their right to self-determination, but is less than enthusiastic about Kosova’s independence now that it has been recognised by the US.

Anthony is right to condemn moral relativists for their grovelling before Muslim fundamentalists and homophobic black rappers. But in his defence of ‘white working-class’ Jade Goody from the charge of racism, on the grounds that her critics are anti-white-working-class, he falls into the same moral relativist trap.

All social classes and ethnic groups should be judged by the same standard; none has any inherent nobility greater than the others; all should be subject to criticism but defended when necessary. So long as one places the support of groups above the support of principles, then principles will inevitably degenerate. It is principles, not groups, that should be supported: support social justice and trade-union rights, rather than the ‘working class’ as such; national self-determination, not Croats or Palestinians as such; religious tolerance, not Muslims as such; anti-racism, not Jews or black people as such.

It is humanity as a whole that should be supported; the only principles worth supporting are those that apply to the whole of humanity.

Hat tips: Daniel Davies, Chris Bertram.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008 - Posted by | Political correctness, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left

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