John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Farthing’s 11: how universities are duplicating the government’s response to dissent

A recent Huffington Post poll of the “most political” British universities – which was based on the frequency of political activity and protest and the progressive nature of institutional directives, faculties and offered courses – put Sussex University in the top five. On that front, it’s fair to say that Sussex made it on that list despite, not because, of its managerial and institutional practices. Here’s why.  

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Barnaby Raine: The Marxist, the Daily Mail and the anti-politics of ‘Britishness’

Who hates Britain? Is it Ralph Miliband, who spent much of his life engaged in a theoretical and practical struggle to define and ultimately to create a better society for people within these shores and beyond? Or is it perhaps the Daily Mail, whose patriotic credentials are never called into question? The Daily Mail loves Britain, its pages assure us, though it hates half the people living in it. Modern Britain consists of over a million black Britons, 1.5 million Muslim Britons, and a rich multitude of others whose origins span the globe. The Daily Mail regularly inveighs against them. Modern Britain is a centre of gay and lesbian life, yet homosexuality was long a byword for perversity in the imaginary of the Daily Mail. Modern British society is home to the NHS and the welfare state, to hundreds of thousands of doctors, teachers and other public sector workers who serve communities from Cornwall to the Hebrides. There are 6.5 million British trade unionists, and, shamefully, 2.5 million Brits who have been left unemployed. There are British atheists, British single mothers and yes, even some British socialists. These varied groups make up much of the fabric of contemporary British life, yet the Daily Mail might legitimately be said to hate all of them – certainly it spews bile about them with clockwork regularity.

Should the Daily Mail have the right to decide that Eton, the royal family and the House of Lords are so essential to Britishness that to raise political objections to any of them is to hate Britain, while the millions of British people who belong to ethnic or sexual minorities, who are members of trade unions or who choose not to attend church every Sunday matter so little that to hate them is perfectly consistent with loving Britain? And, if the Daily Mail’s loyalty is not to Britain but to a portrait of a mythical British past, how ought we to decide what really constitutes ‘hating Britain’? Who and what would one have to hate to hate Britain – which of this country’s varied and often sharply conflicting cultures do we mean to evoke when we talk of ‘Britishness’?

If it is hard to find a satisfactory answer to this question, the following question is no less difficult: why should we care? Why should the political virtues of Ralph Miliband or anyone else be judged on the basis of how loyal they were to this constructed category of ‘Britishness’? It seems an unnecessary theoretical detour to judge someone’s views not on their political rectitude but on how well they accord to a national pedigree. Ed Miliband’s defence of his father’s patriotism on the grounds that he fought at D-Day failed to escape the Daily Mail’s logic. The argument should be that Ralph Miliband was worth celebrating politically not because he was loyal to ‘Britain’ (however defined) but because he was loyal to the cause of social justice. He was critical of British institutions where they merited criticism.

This matters because the Daily Mail’s project, tinged with Dreyfusard anti-Semitism as suspicion of the foreigner, is to discredit even mild radicalism. According to the Mail’s subsequent defence of their original piece to seek an elected head of state is to ‘hate Britain’. Such a McCarthyite definition covers a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs as well as the comedian Jo Brand and the Daily Mail journalists Julie Birchill and Suzanne Moore. Under that punishing logic, to be a Marxist is to be nothing short of a national enemy. Whole schools of opinion are thus excluded from the realm of debate by an allegation of national disloyalty in place of a serious challenge to their arguments.

Patriotism is the loyalty to a set of arbitrary borders and the cultural practices extant within those borders. It is the political equivalent of the psychological affinity for the home. We can do better than drawing our politics from a sense of ‘Britishness’ while hoping the resultant values will accord with a broader sense of justice. After all, those who speak of a patriotic politics hardly lack a sense of the meaning of justice and injustice, which they attempt to mask behind national phraseology – hence the advocacy of Anglicanism as a social force appears not theological, sociological or political, but national. We can instead set as our category of political importance not the nation but justice or human emancipation. Ralph Miliband was loyal to those lofty ideals, loyal to humanity and its struggle to realise its full dignity. That places him in a different moral league from the small-minded nationalists of the Daily Mail, the paper that once backed Oswald Mosley because, whatever else one might say about that demagogic fascist, at least he was British.

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Ken MacLeod on Iain Banks

Along with many others, we were saddened to hear of the death of Scottish writer Iain M Banks earlier this year. His friend, the writer Ken MacLeod, has kindly allowed us to republish here what he wrote about Banks's politics on his blog, The Early Days of a Better Nation.

Use of Calculators

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks When Iain Banks and I were students back in the early 1970s, I was one of the first readers of Use of Weapons. I seem to recall reading the first draft in weekly instalments as the pages flew from the typewriter, and discussing the unfolding content almost as often. Iain explained that the Culture was his idea of utopia, in which advanced technology, inexhaustible resources and friendly artificial intelligence made possible a society in which nobody had to work and there was no need for money or a separate state apparatus. At the time I was reading with some excitement a slim paperback edited by David McLellan and titled Marx's Grundrisse, a collection of extracts from Marx's notebooks, in which he allowed himself some bolder speculations than he ever saw into print. I explained to Iain that the Culture was very similar to Marx's conception of communism: a stateless and classless society based on automation and abundance.

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Brenna Bhandar: Race, gender and class

Race, gender and class: some reflections on left feminist politics and organising

These are notes from a short talk that I gave at the IS Network meeting on 8 June 2013; they are a reflection of an informal discussion of some key issues facing left feminist politics and organising.

One of the speakers just noted how the organised left contingents at recent anti-fascist demos against the English Defence League and British National Party have been largely white, and that there was a need to cultivate an anti-racist politics on the left that included more people of colour. I want to suggest that one reason for this absence is the perception among many people of colour on the left that socialist organisations and parties have had, and continue to have, a very poor track record of taking issues of race and racism seriously. Taking race seriously requires more than mentioning the word anti-racism and acknowledging that racism exists, and goes to the core of how we analyse political problems. This is what I want to focus on today.

Building a radical left political movement or network means taking race and racism, along with gender and sexuality (and we should also add, disability), seriously. And while there are great instances of solidarity and activism between left organisations and particular campaigns (the SOAS cleaners campaign, for instance), or in a different context, the efforts of the organisers of the Historical Materialism conference to account for race and gender, reflected in the stream being organised on Race and Capital: Marxist Legacies of Anti-Racism and the Black Radical Tradition that explicitly accounts for black feminist activism and scholarship, and critical indigenous theory, there remain quite serious obstacles to advances being made on this front.

An example of socialist feminist work that has failed to take into account issues of race and racism as a core part of its analysis of gender oppression can be seen in Nancy Frasers recent work, The Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (London: Verso, 2013). A panel to discuss her work and to reflect on the future of feminism was held recently in London. Did the organisers of the session on the future of feminism not think it necessary to include any women of colour or scholars whose scholarship deals centrally with both race and gender? One of the panellists, in fact, mentioned at the conclusion of her remarks that race was a problem in the composition of the panel. (The session can be listened to here.) This is important as it reflects a cognisance among left feminists that race is something that needs to be accounted for in feminist theorising.

This problem of representation is complex; it is not merely about the visible representation of women of colour, although this remains a very important issue because we are all too often absent from these sorts of discussions and our points of view rendered invisible. Representation, however, is a larger and more complicated problem because the left has not got very far in reconceptualising the very categories of analysis that people use to understand political phenomena, such as patriarchy. If socialist feminism(s) had reached a point where race formed a core part of its analyses, then it would perhaps not matter as much, as to whether or not the panel was all white. But chances are that ones standpoint or epistemological framework is still determined by ones experiences in the world. How is it, that 40 years after the publication of Selma James’s Sex, Race and Class, and 30 years after the publication of Angela Y Davis’s Women, Race and Class, race has yet to really permeate socialist feminist theorisations of patriarchy and capitalism?

And here we can briefly turn to Frasers book (although there are many others that would serve as equally valuable objects of critique), and some of the problems with her frame of analysis that doesnt seem to account for the scholarship of black feminists, women of colour, subaltern and post-colonial feminism. The Fortunes of Feminism is a collection of Frasers essays spanning the past 30 years or so. The collection is a testament to Frasers original and highly significant contributions to the fields of feminist theory and philosophy.

When it comes to issues of race, gender and sexuality, however, I am not the first person to critique the manner in which race figures (and is also absent) in her work. The chapter entitled A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State (co-authored with Linda Gordon) analyses the racial and gender subtexts of the discourse of welfare dependency in the US. While the chapter usefully unpacks some aspects of the political development of the term dependency, including its colonial and neo-imperialist dimensions, the repetition of the housewife, pauper, native and slave quadrumvirate as the focal point of analysis certainly recalls the criticism of black feminists Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith encapsulated in the title All the Women are White, All the Men Are Black, But Some of Us are Brave (NY: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1982). Black feminists have critiqued modes of analysis that fail to consider how the categories of race, gender, sexuality and class cannot be kept analytically distinct if one is to understand how oppression operates along these axes in an interlocking manner.

In some of the later essays, Nancy Fraser focuses on the need for a post-industrial welfare state. In the chapter entitled After the Family Wage: A Post-Industrial Thought Experiment race disappears entirely from the discussion of waged labour and domestic work in the home. Issues of income equality between men and women take no account of how race and racism operate to devalue the work of women of colour in ways that differ markedly from that of white women. In fact, racial-ethnic justice is posited as an entirely separate goal from gender justice, to be handled via parallel thought experiments”. The experiences of women of colour as workers in and outside of the home are not accounted for in devising the framework of analysis.

Feminists have revealed the ways in which traditional Marxist understandings of labour as waged labour dont account for the socially reproductive work of women. Marxist feminists have also shown how theories of capitalist accumulation have invisibilised the reproductive labour of women who reproduce the most essential capitalist commodity labour power (Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (NY: Autonomedia, 2009,.p8). 

Feminists who take race as a fundamental part of their gender analysis have taken this critique much further, deepening our analysis of the contradictory ways in which capitalist exploitation operates. As Patricia Hill Collins has noted, black womens relationship to both paid labour and unpaid work in the home is significantly different from that of white women:

A less developed but equally important theme concerns how Black womens unpaid family labour is simultaneously confining and empowering for Black women. In particular, research on US Black womens unpaid labor [sic] within extended families remains less fully developed in Black feminist thought than does that on Black womens paid work. By emphasising African-American womens contributions to their families well-being, such as keeping families together and teaching children survival skills such scholarship suggests that Black women see the unpaid work that they do for their families more as a form of resistance to oppression than as a form of exploitation by men. (P. Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 2000, p46))


If time permitted, Collins’s argument could lead to an interesting discussion of James’s political demand for the remuneration of work done in the home. However, the point I want to make here is that when we try to understand the way in which labour as an analytical category needs to be reconceptualised to account for womens reproductive labour, this becomes a much more complex and contradictory endeavour when race is also a material concern. And this is really important for political organising. These debates have been going on in feminist communities in Britain since the 1970s when Marxist feminists identified the home and domestic work as a key site of womens oppression, without accounting for the very different experiences and understanding that black women had of their labour and its relationship to the labour market.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the one, albeit very brief mention of the work of Southall Black Sisters by a panellist in the Futures of Feminism session. A brief but welcome attempt at refuting the analytical distinction between a politics of recognition and redistribution that is central to Frasers theory of recognition. The issue of race seemed largely reduced to an issue of cultural difference or diversity. From there, it follows that race is understood as a category of identity, and on that basis, Fraser critically assesses an identity-based politics of recognition (while simultaneously acknowledging its importance) as having drawn attention away from the pressing political objective of redistribution.

However, in ignoring the ways in which women of colour have out of necessity integrated their claims for equality, recognition and redistribution (for it is impossible to separate these out practically or analytically when racism and sexism always already constitute the specific form of class exploitation that one is faced with), their experiences, histories and scholarship are rendered irrelevant. As Aslan and Gambetti have skilfully shown in a related context, Frasers work has a tendency to disregard the differences between feminist movements in their cultural, political and geographical contexts (Provincialising Frasers History: Feminism and Neo-liberalism Revisited, in History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, Vol.1 No.1 Summer 2011, p133).

One effect of this approach (and the failure to criticise it) is to universalise the experience of white, and most often, middle class women. The word woman is used as though it applies to all women when it actually represents and signifies the experiences and histories of white women. This means that the experiences of black women, Asian women (and, in other contexts, indigenous women) are erased or suppressed by the theories and politics of left feminisms. It means that the analyses of political problems that are being presented are partial and incorrect because (as we know), capitalism has been forged through colonial dispossession, the Atlantic slave-trade, and now, a globalised form of capitalism that depends on third world labour whose value remains fixed to some degree by racism and a persistent belief in white superiority.

Now this is not a new problem, and I can only chalk the resistance of white feminists to put race at the forefront of their understanding of patriarchy and capitalism to a few possible things. One is a wilful blindness. Another is the reluctance, perhaps unconscious, to give up the many privileges that accrue to those who are racialised as white. A third is perhaps an inability to distinguish between simply declaring that racism is a problem and actually bringing a critical race analysis to bear upon their theorisations of gender oppression.

And its clear that feminists outside of socialist and Marxist organisations are doing some of this work, and in some instances, it seems to me, are further ahead on this score. One need only look to Critical Ethnic and Critical Race Studies for evidence of this in academic contexts.

Taking account of race, gender and sexuality

There is a long and varied tradition of black radical thought and Marxist feminism that has sought to, in the words of Frantz Fanon, stretch Marxist categories in order to account for colonialism. Its important to recognise that the relations of exploitation established during colonialism have not ended. While formal decolonisation swept through Africa and Asia from 1947 onwards, contemporary patterns of globalised capitalist exploitation rely on the economic and political patterns and relationships established during colonialism. Settler colonialism continues as an ongoing and continuously unfolding event in places such as Palestine, Canada, Australia and others, colonialism has not ended from the perspective of indigenous communities and First Nations.

To take another example of someone who incorporates an analysis of gender and race into her work, Silvia Federici has argued (drawing explicitly on earlier work of feminists like Selma James) that the making of the proletariat was only possible through a capitalist system that was committed to both sexism and racism. She writes, Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as race and age became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat (Federici, op cit., p64).

So we can see that the sort of analysis that we need to cultivate if we are to take race, gender and sexuality seriously is one that seeks to reinterpret and reshape our conceptual toolkit. Federici has done this in relation to the category of the proletariat; Cheryl Harris in relation to property, gender and whiteness; historians of slavery and revolution Eric Williams and CLR James for instance have done this in relationship to our understandings of how race shapes relations of labour and property, and we could go on with a multitude of other examples.

When I was invited to participate in this session, an IS Network member mentioned that young activists turning their gaze towards feminism and anti-racism are interested in the idea of intersectionality as a method. Intersectionality emerged from an American academic discourse that was aimed at making liberal legal rights frameworks a bit better at accounting for how some people do not simply suffer discrimination along one axis, either gender or race or sexuality. While intersectionality usefully opened a conversation in the North American, and 20 years later, the British legal academy about how equality law could better function, in my view its usefulness has really run its course. Intersectionality is primarily a left-liberal law reform project that does little to account for class. As a discourse that is primarily academic and law reform-oriented, I dont think that this has much to offer left political movements or radical Marxist critique. Having said that, a major qualification of this background to the concept of intersectionality is the work of British feminist Avtar Brah, who has used the term to describe a more radical and less limited method of analysing race, gender and class.

I want to conclude with another example of how to rethink the concepts that we use to explain political events. Stuart Hall and others, in Policing the Crisis, explore the work that labels do when they are applied to certain phenomena. So they look at the label mugging that is deployed in the 1970s to construct particular sorts of crimes as novel, and in doing so, racialise acts of theft. They analyse how the label of mugging is used to criminalise black communities and bring in harsher forms of policing and sentencing in criminal trials.

What work are the labels that have been used to describe the Woolwich murders doing? When we see headlines in mainstream press such as Beheaded! Or Bloody Terror: Islamist Beheads Soldier on London Street! or Blood on his Hands, Hatred in his Eyes!

       By interpreting this event as one that is primarily if not solely about Islamic fundamentalism, what gets obscured?

       What work does the label of jihadi or Muslim terrorist do? What have these terms come to represent over the past 11 or 12 years?

       How do these labels detract from the other factors clearly of relevance when we think about the causes of radicalisation i.e. racism, class disaffection and the experiences of immigrants in this country?

       These were disaffected young black British men; one of whom was subject to a violent racist attack right before his conversion to radical Islam. How do these facts fit into the narratives being created by mainstream media?

Richard Seymour has written about this eloquently and incisively and so I will refer you to his piece.

So to sum up, whatever priorities this network sets for taking action, for organising, for analysing and theorising, I think what is really vital is not simply using the language of anti-racism or anti-sexism. What is needed is some thinking through of how political campaigns for a living wage, or campaigns against the increasing privatisation of security and prisons, campaigns aimed at fighting increasingly draconian and punitive immigration policies, anti-austerity politics, etc. need to be conceptualised in ways that take account of how capitalism is committed to and thrives on racism, sexism and hetero-normativity in all their complexity.

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Death by the barracks

I knew John Wilson Street sounded familiar. I lived on that street as a student, just adjacent to the barracks and close to the Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich.

Come, Armageddon

There is a tawdriness to the setting of yesterday's killing that adds to its sadness. The main thing going for Woolwich, then as now, is the fact that almost everywhere else nearby is even more grim: Plumstead, Thamesmead, Charlton, North Woolwich. These charmless suburban wastelands surrounding Woolwich actually improve its plight, as by comparison it starts to look like a thriving little metropole. But the postcode area, SE18, was and still is one of the poorest in the country. The Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich, formerly a Polytechnic, was then quite a neglected, dilapidated set of buildings - quite a contrast to the stunning neoclassical facades of the Greenwich campus. It is long closed.

There is a 'common' that looks derelict and abandoned - because it has been abandoned by Olympics planners who flew in with a bunch of promises, then fucked off just as quickly once the shooting was over. Whereas Greenwich town centre has been the focus of neoliberal gentrification and tourism-driven growth, unemployment in the borough is especially concentrated in the two wards, Woolwich Common and Woolwich Riverside. There is nothing there. No amenities, no jobs, no future. Every day is like Sunday.

In addition to being the site of an army base, which was incorporated into an already militarised Olympics Games, it is a racially mixed area. These, in themselves banal facts, provided the backdrop for a (no doubt partially sincere) attempt by local MP Nick Raynsford to respond to the attacks with a classic New Labour 'integrationist' racial project. In essence, Raynsford defended a form of 'Britishness' where militarism could co-exist with lived multiculture, as in Woolwich: black people can fight our wars too. Their loyalty, their collusion in our shared martial values, is what makes them British.

But why does race come into it? Why does multiculturalism come into it? David Cameron has hinted at 'indications' that the killing was a 'terrorist' incident. He has provided the usual assurances of British resilience in the face of such attacks, although such histrionics say the opposite of what they are supposed to: they imply that the British state, one of the most powerful and well-armed in the world, might conceivably one day actually yield, give up in the face of two men with knives. What does 'terrorism' have to do with this? Why is British grit, as opposed to a standard police investigation, the order of the day? The statement from the IS Network highlighted the speed with which the narrative changed once it became clear that the victim was a soldier, even while details remained scarce. Why did the narrative change, and what purpose did that serve?

This is not a post about the killing of a soldier, about which there is little to say, nor about the 'double standards' in the use of the term 'terrorism'. It is about how the notoriously pliable category of 'terrorism' has been put to work in developing fables about our racial selves, about 'Britishness' and its others.

The Muslim in British raciology

Through 'race', social relations, events and bodies are symbolised and come to be seen as 'racial'. Take, for example, the northern riots in 2001. There were a number of conjunctural elements involved: a struggle over local council resources; protests against police brutality; right-wing and fascist violence against Asian businesses and citizens; anti-fascist mobilisation; police repression; and so on. Among the structural elements were the deindustrialisation of former mill towns and ensuing poverty and unemployment; the institutional racism of local governments, which led to struggles over resources being racialised; the degeneration of Labourism, which provided some of the raw material for a right-wing populist politics; the racism of local police forces, who stigmatised Asians as 'anti-white', violent drug-dealers.

This was clearly a complex web of political struggles: the media saw only 'race riots'. Subsequently, a more detailed government response saw 'self-segregating' Asians, 'no go areas for whites', 'parallel lives' and a crisis of 'Britishness'. Subsequently, after 9/11, this view of the Asian as self-segregating, hostile, and anti-British, was re-deployed in an Islamophobic variant which has since become a neo-Powellite folk wisdom. The plausibility of these responses depended on the prior acceptance of their basic precepts. Race is something that has to be believed in order to be seen.

With that said, what does a Muslim look like? When the victim of yesterday's killing was revealed to be a soldier, now known to be a fusilier who had served in Helmand, sections of the media instantly began to seek a Muslim connection. The media has form here. One only has to remember how the Utoya attacks prompted instant speculation about Muslim involvement and hand-wringing about the 'failure of multiculturalism', even well past the point at which it was clear that the attacker was an Islamophobe inspired by the EDL. In this vein yesterday, the BBC's Nick Robinson set the tone by describing one of the assailants as being of "Muslim appearance".

Yet both assailants, as evidenced in the morbid footage, were black men wearing casual clothing. One, who addressed a passerby recording the incident on a camera-phone, was wearing jeans, a hoodie and a beanie hat. Even by the conventions of British raciology, it seems a stretch, or at least a new departure, to say that this is a stereotypical 'Muslim appearance'. The police's blunt Identity Categories would, as Symeon Brown pointed out, classify the assailant as being an IC3 male - a man of African/Caribbean descent. Challenged about his description on social media, however, Robinson replied to his critics that he was quoting a description from a Whitehall source, who was in turn quoting police. Such reporting at third hand demonstrates the mutually corroborative effect different wings of the state and media connecting to one another in a perpetual feedback loop. But it also suggested a strong will on the part of the authorities to 'see' a 'Muslim appearance', as that would instantly provide the fable they desired.

It was also suggested that there was some chanting of the phrase "Allahu Akhbar" after the attacks, the story attributed to two men who reportedly heard it. This story was circulated by all the major news media. Once ITN News broadcast video footage of one of the assailants, Michael Adebolajo, all doubt seemed to pass. He said that the beheading of this soldier was a message to David Cameron, who has sent British troops to Arabic lands: "We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." He went on: "You think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy - like you - and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace." While a Muslim man spoke those words, they do not constitute a religious diatribe but rather a straightforward, and perfectly coherent, political message. The only directly religious phrase used, as far as I can tell, is biblical rather than quranic.

Adebolajo, notably, came from a Nigerian Christian family, and is a convert to Islam. He went to the University of Greenwich when he turned eighteen, and lived in student accomodation in 2004 and 2005. He must have studied at the Avery Hill campus if he lived in Eltham during that time. I'd like to know what he studied, and what degree he ended up with. It was in 2005 that he first came under surveillance by MI5. I'd like to know what groups spoke to him, and converted him. There is a vague report that he was 'radicalised' by the group Al Muhajiroun in 2003, a suggestion which seems to ignore something fairly massive and bloody which began to happen in that year. I'd like to know how he ended up living in a miserable housing estate in Woolwich, handing out Islamist literature in the high street every week, probably not far from where I used to proselytise for revolutionary socialism.

I think his conversion to Islam, and particularly to Islamist politics, may have had something to do with the anger and misery arising from the many sleights, insults and exclusions of living in a racist society. I think his affiliation with a network of combat jihadists may have given him a sense of power and purpose: they had an analysis of their problems, a strategy for resistance, and a utopian horizon to aim for. Certainly, this bloody action seems to have been committed with a sense of empowerment: they seemed, to witnesses, to be completely in control of what they were doing, and to relish the opportunity to explain why they had done it. They were not 'on something', and they were not 'disturbed'. They were political militants who had killed an enemy combatant as far as they were concerned. One thinks of Richard Reid's trial. He had been to prison before: that is where he had converted. But this time, he was not afraid. He sat before the judge and stated with a smile: "I am an enemy of your country and I don't care."

'Terrorism' and its Other

Before the body of Drummer Lee Rigby was cold, his mutilation was already being registered, not simply as a killing, but as 'terrorism'. The Telegraph refers to the perpetrators as "Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic terrorists", situating the attacks as a 'return' of the 'terrorism' last seen in July 2005. The Guardian likewise referred to the killers' "typical Al Qaeda rhetoric". The Independent warns us, citing a former Flying Squad Commander, of an emerging "new type of terror threat". David Cameron is reportedly attending an emergency meeting of Cobra, presumably intending to contrive a 'tough' new response to 'terrorism'.

Glenn Greenwald has done the usual sterling work in anatomising this response. Without duplicating his points, a simple comparison suffices to convey it: of all the freelance racists who have murdered black people in the UK over the years, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually, how many have been characterised as 'terrorism'? And it seems worth asking what is left of the term 'terrorism' once one has discounted for the consistent inconsistency of its usage? No one can agree on a definition. No serious scholarly book on the subject dares venture a definition that isn't either weighed down with caveats or ultimately self-cancelling. Suffice to say that in some cases, violence with a clear political and symbolic purpose is classified as 'terrorism', and in some cases it is not, and there appears to be no explicit, principled distinction between those which are and those which are not.

The distinctions which are offered, say between 'terrorism' and 'just war', are pure ideology. Talal Asad points out that there are typically three such distinctions offered. First, a just war is fought in pursuit of virtuous, liberal, humane and democratic ends, while terrorism is waged only for nefarious, fanatical ends. Second, a just war is restrained, seeking to avoid civilian casualties, while terrorism is unrestrained mayhem that if anything actively seeks out a civilian body count. Third, a just war takes place only at the last minute, after all alternatives have been exhausted, while terrorism is capricious, and barely needs provocation. It goes without saying that this is pure ideology: no serious examination of the course of, say, the 'war on terror', would bear out any of these claims.

The term 'terrorism' is concretely used here, not to signify a method, a goal, or a form of organisation, but rather to signify a particular genre of story-telling. It is a narrative device. In this context, the counterpoint to 'terrorism' was the "absolutely indomitable British spirit", as the Prime Minister called it, exemplified in the acts of members of the public who spoke to the assailants and attempted to guard the already mutilated corpse against further assault. Cameron went on to say: "The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values that we hold dear. The belief in freedom, in democracy, in free speech, in our British values, Western values."

Thus, a pitiable scene in a cold, grey-skied summer day in Woolwich, was attached to a world-historical battle mantled with abstract values. More to the point, it was linked to a contemporary metaphysics of race. Using David Theo Goldberg's terminology, we could classify this as a 'historicist' type of racial metaphysics. Whereas a 'naturalist' racial metaphysics treats biology as destiny, 'historicist' types treat racial differences as a result of differing degrees of cultural and political development. For the subordinated, 'historicism' holds out the promise of eventual racial uplift, full citizenship, pending the fulfillment of certain conditions - acceptance of our values, integration, passing a citizenship test, and so on.

Once examined, the terms 'British values' and 'Western values' unspool into a sequence of connotative links connecting territory, birth and culture in a roughly 'historicist' manner. It is a given that 'the West', for example, is not a geographical entity so much as a historically produced caste of national states comprising Europe and its colonies, from North America to Australasia. This white West is connected to its supposed values through the crucial vector of culture. Thus, it just so happens that white people are the legatees of a particular level of civilizational and cultural development that give them these unique, priceless assets such as democracy. This necessitates forgetting how passionately and often violently democracy was resisted within the social formations of 'the West', as well as how much modern democratic revolutions owed to the decidedly 'non-Western' Haiti. But the link between territory and values is most forcibly made through the example of the Second World War, with the Cold War providing a distant second point of reference, which is why 'terrorism' is always discussed as if it's the equivalent of the Third Reich stamping on the toes of the British Empire.

It goes without saying that the meaning of culture, in this neo-Powellite culturalism, is greatly reduced. Culture, aside from being cross-sected by multiple antagonisms, never ceases to be constructed, its points of reference continuously displaced, and thus never arrives as a finished essence. But in the dramaturgy of 'Western values' and 'British values', culture has to do perform the same theatrical purpose as biology once did, and thus it has to be frozen and essentialised. If biology is not destiny, culture certainly is: in the warmed up 'modernisation theory' of the post-Cold War era, it is the destiny to which all formerly abject peoples were suddenly racing.

What the race fable tells us, then, is that we belong to an indomitably superior culture that is radiantly attractive to others, part of whose superiority lies in its generosity, its openness, and its ability to incorporate those of lesser cultural breeds - whether through an overly relaxed immigration policy, or through an excessively benign policy of military intervention. It tells us that there are some who, given this priceless opportunity, decline to accept it; they revert to type, repudiate it, and spit in our faces. With few resources, but endless guile, they seek to persuade others of their status also to repudiate the gift, and kill us instead. And in doing so, they come to resemble their kin in the non-West, while 'we' resemble ourselves only more perfectly as 'we' stoically respond to the challenge. This is 'terrorism'.


The race fable was illustrated by ITN News which, after showing the footage of a bloodied Adebolajo, referred to the scene in Woolwich as a day when 'Baghdad-style violence' came to south London. It was a catchy line, precisely because it resonated with the media's own conventions when reporting from imperial frontlines. Others, such as the Telegraph, have evoked untamed bestiary, and in one typical article speculates on a possible link to a Nigerian group which has waged "a bloody campaign against Western values of freedom and democracy". In other words, though the 'terrorism' was home-grown, it has actually penetrated from the outside, smuggled in by immigrants and the internet. The juxtaposition in the Baghdad line reminds us where such violence really belongs.

Yet the vector through which the pathology spread is more specific than immigration as such, or the internet. In this connection, the plight of other British Muslims in all this has not been forgotten. It has been a mainstream political doctrine for some years that 'terrorism' is a specific pathology of Islam, that it is something which Muslims have a particular duty to seek out 'terrorism' in their midst and report it to the authorities. Governments from Blair onward have seen it as their particular business to coerce and coopt British Muslims in this way. This is the doctrine of 'muscular liberalism' that David Cameron has boasted about; it lets British Muslims know that their national status is still in question and that this is largely because of their own shortcomings.

Cameron was briefly magnanimous enough to say, yesterday, that the attack was not the fault of Islam but of the individuals alone. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Ramadhan Foundation corroborated this exoneration of the faith with their strenuous denunciations of the killing. But they will know very well that such corroboration implied that the exoneration was needed. They will also know that in his speech Cameron also referred to the problem as one of 'extremism', and it is this which he charges ordinary Muslims with tolerating or harbouring. They will know that Cameron's government will hold Muslims and Muslim organisations answerable for this, irrespective of diplomatic statements made in the heat of the moment. Their every statement can now be combed for potentially disloyal nuance. Police searches, internment, a few more Forest Gates - all this is possible until the government is satisified with the degree of cooperation it is receiving.

The consequence of over a decade of syncopated Islam-baiting has been a pronounced political turn to the Right, especially on questions of immigration, nationality and 'race'. Coterminously, 'Britishness' has increasingly been merged with militarism. The ultimate test of one's integration, one's loyalty to 'British values', is to fight for said values. The ultimate proof of one's betrayal is to insult the soldiers who defend them. One can be against war, on the ground that it is too much benevolence for an undeserving mob, but one can't denounce the troops themselves. The case of Azhar Ahmed, whose sole offence was to castigate British soldiers on Facebook, indicates the potential costs of doing so, particularly for a Muslim. It also illustrates the centrality of the state to the development and implementation of these ideologies.

And it is because of the dominant role of the British state, and in the context of that state's action, that a right-wing 'counter-jihadist' politics of street mobilisations and violence has developed. The 'lone wolf' mosque attacks in Woolwich and elsewhere were followed up by an English Defence League 'protest' in Woolwich. The EDL had exhausted itself until recently in a sequence of miscues and hyper-activism, but last night mobilised a contingent of masked combatants to descend on Woolwich within hours of the attack. Their Facebook page experienced a surge of new supporters, and they have shown up in some cities this evening for the first time. They now plan to march in central London this weekend, and are probably emboldened in their recently revived scheme of staging at least one successful march in Tower Hamlets. Even if they succeed at none of these objectives, it is quite plausible that some of them will succeed in shedding some blood before the immediate consequences of this have worked themselves out.

The dominant political response to this threat is largely dismissive. Nick Raynsford has suggested that the EDL simply need to 'grow up' and realise that causing trouble is 'counteproductive'. He presumably did not mean to imply that his disagreement with the EDL is mainly a tactical one, that they threaten to scupper shared objectives. A New Labour politician is emphatically not on a par with a proto-fascist football casual. Nonetheless, I think his slip is meaningful. The account of 'terrorism' and 'Britishness' which I have just given above describes a set of ideological parameters that are virtually unchallenged in the mainstream, and which validate the Islamophobic far right, making it nearly impossible to seriously oppose them, or to discern anything but a completely misconceived appropriation of 'real concerns'. This is the role that 'terrorism' is playing in British politics today.

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Woolwich killing: resist the racist backlash

A horrific murder was committed on the streets of London. When it became clear that the victim was a soldier, the narrative changed. The police began to treat it as an act of terrorism. David Cameron caught the first plane back from Paris. The government called a meeting of its emergency committee, COBRA, and all other news was swept aside. Speculation filled the gaps.

We could point out the contrast between the rolling news coverage devoted to this murder while the constant, grisly killings committed as part of the West’s wars around the globe barely register. And how the decade-plus of the ‘war on terror’ is the context behind this tragedy. Al Qaeda was created, funded and trained by the West during the Cold War – now it is sustained by recruiting those driven to despair by the never-ending bombing that was supposed to pacify it. Yet hypocritical politicians refuse to acknowledge any such link, explicitly telling us that it would be wrong to do so.

In the wake of yesterday's events in Woolwich, the immediate issue for the left is this: we must resist the racist backlash.

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