Diane Abbott’s version of identity politics has proved to be a gift for Sir Keir and his drive to complete the marginalisation of the left, argues Kevin Bean
Amidst all the blabber and prattle surrounding Diane Abbott’s suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party one thing is blindingly obvious – it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or her tunnel-vision ideas about racism. No, withdrawing the whip from Diane Abbott is just the latest round in Sir Keir Starmer’s campaign to show the ruling class that he really is a man they can trust – and to remind the woefully misnamed Socialist Campaign Group just who is in charge in the Labour Party.
Abbott’s letter to The Observer highlighted what she sees as a distinction between racism and prejudice, and the argument that, while “many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice … they are not all their lives subject to racism” (April 23). She went on to cite Jews, Irish and traveller people.
Making matters worse, she put the claim of black uniqueness in historical terms, citing apartheid South Africa and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is undoubtably true that the trans-Atlantic slave trade and apartheid in South Africa were ideologically justified on the basis of biological racism. However, the same can be said of the oppression of Irish Catholics by the British colonial authorities, and Jews, above all under the Hitler regime. Indeed, Ireland was radically depopulated through famine, imperial neglect and mass emigration, and the Nazis exterminated between four and eight million Jews – not least by putting genocide on an industrial basis.
As for today’s Romany gypsies and Irish travellers, while they appear to Abbott as just another type of white people, the fact remains that, when it comes to poverty, educational attainment, imprisonment, health, life expectancy, mental illness and other such criteria, it is clear that they face far more than mere prejudice. In fact, they are subject to overt racism by politicians, the media and the police.
In reducing racism to simply a question of skin colour, Abbott drew on the very same ideas of a hierarchy of racism that her letter was ostensibly designed to counter. Seemingly equating ‘prejudice’ experienced by redheads with the persecution of Jewish people under conditions of feudal decay in tsarist Russia and petty bourgeois counterrevolution in capitalist Germany, is, of course, stupid beyond stupid. But then that is Diane Abbott for you.
What happened within hours of her ludicrous letter appearing in The Observer followed a pattern with which we have become all too familiar since the big lie of ‘anti-Semitism’ was first used some eight years ago to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and smear the Labour left. The usual suspects from the Labour right, aided by the supposed spokespeople for the ‘Jewish community’ and rightwing media commentators, all quickly jumped in to denounce yet another example of anti-Semitism from a leading Labour leftwinger and demand firm action from the party’s leadership.
Labour renegade Lord John Mann, former Labour MP and returning traitor Luciana Berger, and long-time witch-hunter Margaret Hodge MP were amongst the first out of the blocks. However, there was no need for them to worry. Sir Keir recognised an opportunity when it was presented on a plate and he took no time in rounding on Abbott. Here was his chance to further marginalise what remains of the parliamentary Labour left.
It is important to remind ourselves why the pro-capitalists in the Labour Party weaponised anti-Semitism in their fight against the Corbyn leadership and why they continue to use this vile smear against the left.
This goes beyond simply utilising the moral opprobrium that comes with accusations of racism and the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. For Starmer, demonstrating his loyalty to the political and economic status quo means, first and foremost, showing that he is committed to ‘the west’: that is, the continued dominance of the US as the world hegemon and the strengthening of the Nato alliance in Europe. Support for Israel, the US’s most reliable client and ally in the Middle East, is also an important element of that strategy, whilst also acting as a key political marker at home.
If the accusations of anti-Semitism and faux outrage in the media from the likes of Times columnist Melanie Phillips or Tory ministers were predictable, so too was the rather muted response of Abbott’s supporters in the official Labour left. This is pretty much in line with how all the supposed ‘left’ MPs, Abbott included, have conducted themselves throughout the witch-hunt. They bow, scrape and keep their heads firmly down … in the hope of saving their miserable parliamentary careers.
Once the storm broke, Abbott even rushed to denounce herself. She was sorry for the anguish caused, for the offence. Though her letter was sent twice to The Observer, Abbott made the claim that it was the “wrong draft” – all in the hope of placating Starmer.
Believe the wrong draft claim if you wish – bizarrely, there are those on the left who are defending what Abbott wrote but is now apologising for.
A similarly apologetic line was adopted by John McDonnell – now the only leading Corbynite who retains the Labour whip:
… those now sitting in judgement of her have the generosity of spirit to acknowledge that for decades she has been at the forefront of campaigning against racism and has endured so much herself. Hopefully we can all learn from this.
These apologies and retreats in the face of a clear political attack are nothing new and merely repeat the appeasement and political weakness that typified Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader. In failing to stand up to the big lie campaign of the pro-capitalist right and their friends in the media, Corbyn simply increased the confidence of his enemies in the PLP. Moreover, by allowing thousands of left activists to be expelled, he sawed off the very branch on which his own leadership depended.
The stranglehold that Starmer and his apparatchiks now have over the party machine and the way they effortlessly purge such figures as Corbyn, Livingstone and Abbott shows how totally worthless and counterproductive the official left’s ‘strategy’ has proven to be. Indeed the pathetic state of the official Labour left and the toothless ‘threat’ it now poses is perhaps illustrated by the rather patronising tone of some of the reactions of the Labour right to Abbott’s letter. Shadow minister Pat McFadden and Blairite commentator John McTernan have suggested Diane Abbott’s apology was indeed ‘genuine’ and that perhaps the Labour leadership should be more understanding and forgive and forget her transgression.
Given present conditions it is undoubtably right to defend Diane Abbott from this latest attack by Sir Keir. After all, if she has been stupid – and she has – her sins pale in comparison with the Labour right and the vast majority of the PLP. They are pro-Nato, pro-Israel, pro-nuclear weapons and pro-capitalist to boot.
In calling for Abbott’s reinstatement we are simply defending the limited space that remains in the Labour Party where leftwing ideas can be voiced, promoted and debated. In that context we most certainly denounce her utterly confused – and frankly obnoxious – identity politics. Her comments on the racist oppression and persecution of Jewish people are historically ignorant and border on the unhinged. Reducing racism to a question of skin colour and stressing ‘blackness’ as a primary distinction is rooted in the same essentialism she attacks as a privileging hierarchy of racism. As expressed in her Observer letter, this is a politics of competitive victimhood, in which one ethnic or identity group who claim that they are more oppressed than others now demand recognition for both past and present persecution.
Communists are opposed to all forms of oppression and stand with the oppressed against persecution and discrimination. But that resistance to oppression and the defence of the persecuted is not the same as identity politics or demands for the recognition of victim status by the bourgeois state or capitalism more generally. Instead of a particularist, essentialist and ahistorical politics of identity, Marxists advance working class politics and the struggle for universal emancipation. Like so many on the contemporary left, Abbott defines oppression in the simplistic and reductive language of identity rather than class.
For example, British police forces systemically discriminate against young black males through racial profiling, yes, but this is because of street crime which is often associated with being at the bottom end of the economic pile. Fraud in the City, blackmail threats of litigation by the ultra-rich, advertising hoaxes, phone scamming operations, indeed the straightforward rackets of everyday business involve robbery on an infinitely greater scale, but they hardly concern the police. What matters to them is not so much the law, rather it is order. What young black males experience today poor young Jewish and Irish males experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Locating these types of persecution in capitalist society itself rather than in an ahistorical essentialist understanding of identity points the finger directly at the real nature of oppression and how the working class movement can begin to fight against it. Identity politics of the type espoused so confusingly by Diane Abbott in her letter only serves to further obscure the causes of oppression and so prevent the development of the only form of universalist politics that can overcome both oppression and exploitation – the politics of the working class.