In 1936 Max Levitas fought Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists at Cable Street. Today, in Altab Ali Park – named after the murdered textile worker – the sprightly nonagenarian gave an emotional and rousing speech from the platform in support of the demonstration against the English Defence League organised by Unite Against Fascism. Though not a communist myself, I warmed hugely to his theme that racism and capitalism have, throughout the history of the industrialised nations, been inextricably linked. The demonstration was one of many that have been set up in opposition to an underbelly of racist sentiment that has been fuelled by the extremes of competitive behaviour that we all really should have left behind centuries ago. But racism, an unsophisticated tribalism that comes from the same desire to express competitive differences between groups as much as notions such as sexism, nationalism, corporatism, homophobia and Islamaphobia is still an attractive proposition for people brought up to believe that their own particular tribe is somehow intrinsically special. It was thus with mixed feelings that I also listened to excellent speeches from a huge number of other interested parties from womens’s groups, religious groups, community groups, political organisations, human rights groups and local government; not because I was not in agreement with their unity but because many speakers also chose to proclaim their own brand of activism as the true face of peace and socio-political worth. It was not, however, the literal content of the speeches that gave that impression but the style of delivery and the clamour to be an activist of note and substance as opposed to being one of thousands of ordinary citizens present who happened to represent a particular view.
Of course, we are all prone to believing that our own interpretation of things is superior to the thoughts of others and perhaps we would not bother to communicate our views otherwise. Indeed my own writings here and elsewhere are part vanity and partly a desire for communion with those who might have similar reflections. But I hope that my ramblings are at least tempered by a desire to come to some uncontroversial areas of common ground by rejecting notions that stand in the way of unity rather than supporting notions that pander to further competition. There were several activists behind their stalls and piles of pamphlets who spoke of resisting racism by ‘whatever means necessary’, there were many who claimed that only ‘a pure form of Trotskyism’ was worth reading. Others were convinced that only ‘theoretical Marxism’ can save the day or that ‘left wing reform is just another form of Capitalism’. And while there was much genuine passion in all of these views they served only, in my opinion, to dilute the main message of the day; that extreme forms of anything lead eventually to the demonisation of the ‘other’. For even while invited speakers were trying to be heard over the very loud and effective PA system, there were other activists attempting to out-volume them with their own loud hailers as if standing together, united against racism, was insufficient reason to support the organisers of the demo they had chosen to attend. It was also sad that capitalists of good heart and libertarians who have respect for others were not also invited to speak. Regular readers of this blog will know that my politics have become less and less defined as the years have passed; I love individual freedom and the social space for creative endeavour yet I dislike corporatism, the concept of ‘management’ and the disparities of wealth that capitalism logically fosters. Yet I also do not wish to be controlled by a central authority for whom theoretical expediency trumps human need and reciprocated kindness.
The problem I have outlined above is central to the problem of racism and it is that any form of ideology includes in its structure the sense that those outside one’s own group are worthy of less worthy treatment – in fact they become ‘worthless’. Of course it is vital to oppose those who might oppress us and as much as ‘fighting might with might’ is not something to be taken lightly it is sometimes essential when those wishing you severe harm are nearly at you door. Yet, even though the EDL are becoming more and more popular amongst (mainly) disaffected white youth, we are not living in a country ruled by psychopathic fascists and it was unhelpful of some speakers to paint the members of our main political parties as EDL supporters even if many of their policies have lead to a massive shift to the right compared to 20 years ago. No, the situation is more complicated than the choices offered by the fractured Left. It is not just that people need to be persuaded that capitalism leads to factionalism and more racism. It is that we all, as individuals and groups, need to positively buy in to the idea that common ground can not be established if, at the same time, we are fighting each other for the highest rock. So it is pointless to underscore issues upon which we find it impossible to agree. What we should be doing is uniting around issues upon which we all can agree easily and seeing how our own groupings, poltical parties and tribes shape up to those ethical standards. It is the latter part of the previous sentence that proves to be not easy at all in practice; it means rejecting many of the divisive tenets of our own tribes. And while that was ostensibly the purpose of today’s demo it did not feel as if that was really happening. But, as is often the case, one of my favourite political people, Peter Tatchell, caught the mood beautifully with his placard. On one side it read ‘No To All Hate, Stop EDL and Far Right Islamists’ while the other side read ‘Gays and Muslims Unite, Fight All Hate. As always, the answers to the human condition lie not just in political structures but in ourselves. Thus individuals, especially those representing or allied to institutions who refuse to examine the prejudices they promote, are simply adding to our collective unease; in that respect, we are all racists in need of reform.