Identity Politics and the Contemporary English Left II: Class War and/in Rojava

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December 2, 2016 by James Crossley

This continues some notes on my research on contemporary English politics (Left, Right, Centre) and their use of ‘religion’, ‘the Bible’, and so on, though there’s not much religion or Bible below.

The previous post looked at how ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ understandings of gender and racial issues in relation to class and economics have played out in debates on Left in English political discourse since the emergence of Corbyn in the summer of 2015. Such issues are also tied in with issues of race, economics/class, imperial histories etc. and have been messy, complicated and, at times, contradictory, constrained as such critiques are by parliamentary democracy. This was building on Marika Rose’s summary of issues involved in contemporary ‘identity politics’. She finished with questions aimed at Žižek in particular:

is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact…? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?

I am continuing to use Marika’s comments as a way in to illustrate some tendencies in the recent history of English leftist discourse. I suggested that it might be argued that such analyses are present in certain radical groups more firmly outside parliamentary debates and thus have less constraints. It is notable that such critiques are far more emphatic than Žižek has typically been in print or interviews. Of course, this does not mean all non-parliamentary radical leftist groups are as engaged in analyses which integrate class and economics with gender, sexuality, race etc, though it is striking that the SWP received sustained and devastating ‘radical’ (as well as ‘liberal’) feminist critiques over their disastrous handling of a rape allegation.

The anarchist group Class War have been sharply critical of racism, sexism, ‘liberal’ feminism, ‘identity politics’ etc as well as playing around with gender assumptions, as integral to their ongoing criticism of existing structures more overtly implied by their name. This includes the Womens Death Brigades and protests against the Jack the Ripper museum for glorifying violence against women. The following images from Class War give some flavour:

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Over the past few years, anarchist, Marxist, and radical leftist representations of the Rojava revolution in Kurdish northern Syria have also foregrounded challenges to a range of issues, rather than singling out class or economics alone in their critiques of capitalism. Feminism in particular has been foregrounded among the creation of communes, cooperatives, councils, and cantons, and has faced opposition from, among others, ISIS and Turkey. I stress representations because there are contestations about realities on the ground, including arguments among those identifying with the radical Left. That debate is for another day but for now it is clear how Rojava has become a prominent example of challenges to issues that go beyond a narrow focus on class or economics alone among the contemporary English Left. The following image from Rojava, for instance, promotes an antifascist festival in Manchester:

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Indeed, antifascism has been an important feature because the Rojava revolution has tapped into the mythology of the Spanish Civil War, with ISIS regularly cast as the fascists. This stands in sharp contrast to certain representations (fairly or unfairly) of the English Left as accommodating of ‘Islamic radicals’, ‘Islamists’, or whatever problematic term is used. But perhaps even more than the antifascism has been gender and feminist thinking in the social revolution. The Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have played a major role both in both rethinking gender roles and in fighting the ISIS enslavers and sex-enslavers.

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(YPJ images from Rojava Report)

Similarly, representations of Rojava in English political discourse are not the sort of thing found regularly in parliament but they are among radical political groups with connections to the UK and Ireland. One group managed to get noticed by the media, partly due to their online tactics and striking graffiti: the Bob Crow Brigade. The Bob Crow Brigade appear to be made up of a left-wing British and Irish contingent associated with the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), helping with both social change and fighting ISIS, as well as messages of internationalist solidarity, whether on issues of gender, strikes, racism, and so on. @bobcrowbrigade has now been suspended on Twitter but relevant material associated with them and other related groups is still available (e.g. Red London Facebook), including a statement about Britain First after the murder of Jo Cox:

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In line with Kurdish radicals, their material has also included the language of ‘martyrdom’ and ‘immortality’. Presumably such presentations compete with such language against groups like ISIS but the idiom of immortal martyrs is taken from the Kurdish idiom, Şehid Namirin, repeatedly used to remember those who died in battle with ISIS. Moreover, as related uses of ‘martyrdom’ show, this language also references a famous socialist anthem: the Red Flag.

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But once again,  the construction of radical female martyrdom has played a prominent role in such presentations, as in the case Ajda Nahai and Ivana Hoffmann.ajdanahai

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The commentary by the Bob Crow Brigade (if memory serves me right but no longer available, as far as I can find) on Hoffmann’s death which was categorised, as elsewhere, as a ‘martyrdom’, was also is in line with the strong emphasis on gender and ethnic (and religious) inclusivity associated with the cantons and councils of Rojava, as well as issues of class and her upbringing. This is also part of a long leftist tradition of martyrdom and gender, the most famous example of a European ‘martyr’ is probably Rosa Luxemberg who has been referenced as an example by female fighters in the YPJ for potentially interested Europeans. The iconic prominence of female fighters in photography, film (e.g. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom [1995]), and popular memory of the Spanish Civil War is part of the prominence of the gendered ideology of such representations of the martyrs of Rojava revolution (and more generally: “No Pasaran” is common in graffiti and rhetoric).

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Image from Libcom

These ways of constructing revolutionary thought is helpful for understanding an intervention by the Bob Crow Brigade in the summer Labour leadership contest when Owen Smith challenged Jeremy Corbyn.

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.@hilarybennmp banging on about the International Brigades one minute, then backing someone who would make deals with ISIS fascists the next (@bobcrowbrigade, 27 August, 2016)

.@hilarybennmp from the actual international brigades fighting Daesh: when will you condemn your mate Owen’s words? (@bobcrowbrigade, 27 August, 2016)

The Hilary Benn critique was a reference to Benn challenging Corbyn on the bombing of Syria when Benn claimed the legacy of the International Brigades in challenging the ‘fascism’ of ISIS and the background to these tweets reveal how competing visions of feminist and antiracial politics as part of the ‘liberal’ versus ‘radical’ visions discussed in the previous post. To suggest an implicit subtext: from this perspective legitimate feminism and antiracism needs to be accompanied by anticapitalism—and vice versa.

Representations of Rojava are a helpful way of understanding radical critiques of identity politics. Critiques of ‘liberal’ (or neoliberal) identity politics (including, we might add, critiques aimed at Owen Smith and liberal feminism by e.g. Red London, as in the following example) are common enough.

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But it is striking that issues of gender, race, imperialism, economics etc. have been integral, as they were (in a different way) for Class War. If, to return to the starting point in the previous post, the contemporary ‘liberal’ stance promotes greater inclusivity and participation within the existing structures whereas the ‘radical’ position pushes this logic one step further in attempting to turn the very system which produces inequalities on its head. As Gary Oak announced his hope on the Red London Facebook page, on departure to Rojava (3 July, 2016), ‘mass politics…will be less identitarian, less subcultural, more counter cultural.’ But equally clearly this logic incorporates feminism and antiracism as integral to its critique of capitalism.

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