I take my duties as a bitter ultra-left sectarian very seriously, so I’m always annoyed when sub-standard arguments from the purported ultra-left force me to say nice things about, for example, the SWP. But recent criticism of RESPECT for “substituting race for class” or being based on “cross class alliances” is representative of a trend which is kind of interesting to look at. As the RESPECT people like to say, the claim that they have “rejected socialism” or given up on the working class in favor of Islam assumes that no-one could be muslim and working class and socialist. But the mistake is actually more fundamental than this; the soi disant leftist critics of RESPECT seem to assume that if a group does not label itself as working class, it can’t possibly be working class—the mistake is the classic idealist one of mistaking the name for the thing. The supposed leftist tut-tutting that the SWP have rejected class for “identity politics” gets things precisely the wrong way round: it is those who ignore the material reality of racism in favor of an appeal to a reified “working class” who are rejecting Marxism and embracing an identity politics of class.
This is politically diastrous, because, in assuming that the working class must present itself fully formed as such, it neglects the possibility of a working-class subjectivity constituting itself through struggle, which is tantamount to rejecting politics tout court. The value of the RESPECT project, it seems to me, is in the extent to which issues of racism and impoverishment in the East End of London are increasingly being seen, not as the immutable effects of some naturally given “ethnic” otherness, but as political questions (which is why the criticism of RESPECT’s “communalism” is so off-target; indeed, what could do more to essentialize a community than to say, “We can’t work with them, they’re communalists”?).
What makes this all the more interesting is that we see the same logic playing itself out in debates over the conflict in the Middle East. The anathematization of Hizbollah because “class struggle is the only way out,” are, obviously,formally correct and everything, but they’re politically worthless. They fail to ask the question, why is it that Hezbollah is capable of mobilizing in defence of people who are, coincidentally, working class? The comparative defeat of self-consciously working-class forces raises a crucial political question. Failing to see the actions of the working class when they are not named as such leads the supposed ultra-left to fail to see organizations like Hezbollah as sites of political struggle. This is enormously problematic because it neglects the political agency of working-class people within Hezbollah, and so rejects the possibility that they might ever struggle self-consciously.
Here, however, the ultra-ultra-leftism cuts both ways. If a monolithic rejection of Hezbollah depoliticizes, so too does a straightforward endorsement, as Angela points out. It may be more depoliticizing, in fact: rejecting currently-existing political actors holds open the possibility of some other political action, if only in the form of indeterminate negation. Embracing Hezbollah as given, rather than as a site of internal political struggle, endorses the central depoliticizing claim: that there is only us. “We are all…” When the “we” stops meaning “us ordinary people, that is, revolutionaries,” and turns into a spurious (or mereley wished for) universal identification with all people, politics has departed.