Literally a Communist
“I’m a communist you idiot!” declared Ash Sarkar on Good Morning Britain, in response to the heckling and strawmanning of Piers Morgan. (Video here.) She’s subsequently been all over the media. Morgan has accidentally made this into her ‘moment’. As she herself humourously overstates, he’s even accidentally rehabilitated communism. Turns out, if it’s communism or Piers Morgan, the British people seem more likely to give communism a try.
Sarkar, senior editor at Novara Media, was being interviewed as a representative of the anti-Trump protestors descending on London (despite Trump’s well-advised absence from that city). As it happens, I suspect very few of the 100,000-250,000 who assembled were communists – despite the Daily Mail‘s characterisation of the protest as consisting of what they rather confusingly called a “rent-a-leftie mob”.
(I’m wondering if there’s any money in lefty-rental. Can I hire myself out? And who does the renting? George Soros? The Mail seems to imply it’s Corbyn… but isn’t he one himself? Shouldn’t he be on the books rather than keeping them? Could I start my own franchise? “Ah, so you’re a socialist but you make money from lefty-rental? Hmm… interesting.”)
Morgan is one of those puzzling people who continue to enjoy a high profile in Britain despite the fact that almost everyone in Britain hates their guts. Alongside other such specimens – Tony Blair, for instance – Morgan is one most disliked people in Britain, capable of provoking scorn from even his ideological kindred. He’s a nasty lout who – as Editor of the Daily Mirror – apparently presided over endemic illegal telephone hacking. (The subsequent Leveson inquiry found his denials “unpersuasive”.) He’s so repellent, so self-evidently cynical and foolish, that not even his posh(ish) British accent was able to make anyone in America take him seriously. He doesn’t come off looking significantly preferable to his interview subjects even when they’re Alex Jones (he did at least manage to be broadly on the right side of that ‘debate’) or Donald Trump himself. (To give you some idea of Morgan’s technique: in one interview he asked Trump if he was a feminist.) Sat opposite Ash Sarkar – whom he talked-over, patronised, misrepresented, and unrelentingly attempted to shout-down – he looked possibly more asinine than ever before in his misbegotten life, which is quite an achievement when one contemplates the sheer levels of misbegottonness involved in that life. It was like watching a petulant toddler throwing a tantrum because his increasingly exasperated babysitter wouldn’t let him have a fifth funsize Mars bar. It was only appropriate that he should try to strawman her. What else has a man of straw got?
Morgan has seemed, in recent months, to be trying to make a new career out of Trump-sycophancy. He has recently been castigating London mayor Sadiq Khan (a favorite target of Trump’s, and of Trump’s online constituency, for depressingly non-mysterious reasons) for permitting the infamous Trump-baby balloon. We won’t get into that, except to note that Morgan (whining on Twitter) genuinely didn’t seem to understand that there was a particular reason for portraying Trump as a baby, namely Trump’s characteristic infantilism. His spoiled-brat combination of greed, raging id, and mindless screeching. His tendency towards shitting his nappy and throwing his toys out of the pram when he doesn’t get his own way, etc. I didn’t like the balloon much myself, but I understood what it was getting at. Morgan, however, wondered about what would’ve happened if Barack Obama had been portrayed as a baby. He seemed to assume that it would’ve provoked howls of politically correct fury at racism. But portraying Obama as a baby wouldn’t have happened (I’m sure it probably did somewhere, i.e. in a Ben Garrison cartoon maybe, but if so it clearly didn’t catch on) because, whatever his faults, babyishness wasn’t among them. Moreover, Morgan seemed to imagine that any unflattering depiction of a person of colour automatically provokes charges of racism, as if simply depicting POC is considered a racist act. As usual with people like him, Morgan projects his own hyper-sensitivity onto the left. Criticism of the nature of depictions is taken as a totalitarian desire to eradicate depictions, precisely because the aspect of the depictions being criticised (i.e. the racism) is dear to the hearts of the closet-totalitarians. Undoubtedly, one has to take greater care when depicting POC, owing to historical context which Morgan and people like him either don’t know about or don’t care to bother understanding. But there were plenty of unflattering depictions of Obama across his presidency just in the mainstream, including racist or borderline racist ones, and the reaction was – at least as far as I know – muted, maybe even too damn muted. As usual, we’re dealing with projection. (I know accusations of projection are very easily batted back the way they came… but luckily, reality is ultimately one-sided, at least when it comes to matters like this which actually do ultimately rely on quantifiable things.)
(It’s also worth noting that the significantly smaller march the following day in support of fascist and convicted-criminal Tommy Robinson saw – alongside violence and racism – at least one balloon depicting Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, as a pig.)
Morgan – ever the opportunist – also seems to be trying to position himself at the head of a hoped-for wave of right-wing radicalism in Britain. This is, at least, Sarkar’s suspicion. In a recent interview with John Iadarola on his Damage Report show, Sarkar said that Morgan is making “a deliberate tack to the alt-right”, and that
in the next few months, particularly as Brexit negotiations continue to drag their carcass across the floor of British politics, we will see an increase in American money flooding into British politics and political media, to try and nurture an alt-right culture of the like that we’ve seen in the US. And I think that Piers is… detecting where the wind’s blowing, and is trying to set up his show as a cradle for the culture wars.
I strongly suspect she’s right. I also think she’s right in her further observation that, as a woman, a muslim, and a communist, Piers expected to be able to use her as a “performing poodle”, showing off his ability to destroy someone who embodies, in one handy package, everything the alt-right hates and fears. But it seems to have rebounded.
Piers looks like he’s copying (in his own much less slick way) the tactics of right-wing broadcasters in the US, many of whom are increasingly allowing their talking points to be constituted of not-so-watered-down versions of alt-right obsessions and propaganda… which themselves are, of course, already partly constituted of mainstream conservative ideas on fascist steroids. (I hope to write about this more specifically in the future, centring on the recent triangulations of the odious Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who seems to me to be the standard-bearer of this shift as he frolicks in the space left by Bill O’Reilly. Noticeably, Carlson is also fond of the hostile interview – i.e. shouting match – with those people calculated to look like they embody reactionary bugbears and obsessions.) This development, aside from demonstrating the fundamental kinship and similarity between the supposedly ‘respectable’ right and the alt-right, their incestuous and dialectical relations, also opens a potential space for a more open ‘joining-up’ of the increasingly radicalised right-wing ‘mainstream’ in the US with the actual fascist fringe – a horrifyingly dangerous development. Sarkar is, I suspect, correct to anticipate similar developments in Britain post-Brexit, which looks – at least if it stays on its current course – to be developing into a full-blown ‘carnival of reaction’, to borrow James Connolly’s correct prediction of what would happen in Ireland after partition. If this happens, it probably won’t be because of a rightward shift in actual attitudes, or growing reactionary feeling. UKIP may be enjoying a twitch of a resurgence (thanks to the disarray and perceived softness of Theresa May’s plans for Brexit) but this is about a realignment of the right more than a groundswell. As Richard Seymour pointed out, “[t]he Right’s attitudes may be hardening [in the UK], but they’re not numerically larger“. Recent studies have tended to suggest that certain key right-wing opinions are becoming less popular in Britain. Attitudes are softening on immigration since the EU referendum. In the context of a continuing desire to see immigration reduced, more people have positive opinions about the contributions immigrants make the UK economy. We can argue about what this actually means and why it’s happening, but the fact remains it doesn’t connote growing reactionary attitudes. In other sectors, there seems to be genuinely greater openness to left ideas. Labour are pulling ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls again, with Labour still doing better than the Tories on voting intention even when the public are offered alternative Tory leadership candidates. Only the Boris leadership scenario puts the Tories neck and neck with Labour. This is the inflexible right-wing Brexit people hardening their attitudes, which is also behind UKIP’s little twitch of recovery at the expense of the Tories. The extreme centre are currently escalating their attacks on Labour, via more of the largely confected anti-semitism accusations, and the increased call for a new centrist party. If they fail, it may be the right that splits its way to defeat whenever the next election happens. A genuinely left-wing social democratic Labour government looks – for the first time ever, by my reckoning – to be a real and imminent possibility. The same nascent social movements from the left that have buoyed Corbyn this far are also showing elsewhere, such as in the greater openness to someone proclaiming themselves a communist on TV. As with many reactionary ideas, the paranoid conflation of all left-wingery – even social democratic reformism – with communism isn’t entirely wrong. There is a germ of truth in the basic idea of a connection. The ruling class, especially their media ideologues, can smell the suggestion of the beginning of a radical threat a mile away. And social movements evolve.
This troubling atmosphere for the right is precisely what is likely to make the most dedicated and extreme reactionaries in Britain likely to fall in behind an attempt to construct a UK alt-right counter-movement. Don’t write off the idea of alliances, open or covert, explicit or tacit, with the increasingly media-savvy fascists in Britain. Piers Morgan famously clashed with Tommy Robinson on Good Morning Britain last year, an encounter which succeeded in nothing besides granting Robinson a platform and allowing Morgan to show-off his anti-bigotry credentials. But he’s tacking rightward, as Sarkar says. And building a profile as a no-bullshit contrarian who opposes all extremisms, left or right, was always going to be part of any strategy to normalise his own right-wingery. It’s part of how Carlson positions himself. It’s part of how the entire hard-right positions itself now, in different forms and to different degrees. Spout positions that are either covertly fascist, or on the spectrum with fascism (and Morgan supports Trump, so…), then loudly denounce fascists, get offended when anyone points out that you agree with fascists about loads of key things, and that you platform and normalise them constantly. Then blame the person pointing these things out (i.e., the left) for pushing reasonable people like you towards fascism by daring to point out that you’re already halfway there.
Morgan would love to position himself as the ascendant Carlson (or whoever) in an ascendant, British, post-Brexit, reactionary counterpunch, controlled and prodded by media ‘outriders’ like him the way Thatcherism was back in the early days of the neoliberal revolution – the revolution, or rather counter-revolution, that helped give us garbage like Morgan in the first place. Such an establishment-endorsed right-wing counter-assault would not directly ally with Tommy Robinson, but would tacitly make common cause with him, and feed off any nutrition his provocations could generate for them. Morgan himself opposes Robinson, though I doubt this is from any real principle. But, as far as I could see, this was his only tweet about the ‘Free Tommy’ protests. Compare with his acres of tweets puffing Trump in various ways, attacking anti-Trump protests, excoriating Trump haters, etc. He knows what side his bread’s buttered.
UKIP already stands as the connective skein between the hard reactionary elements of the establishment and today’s actual fascist movement, even more so now that their ranks have been ‘strengthened’ by alt-right-adjacent internet provocateurs like Sargon of Akkad and Paul Joseph Watson. This ragged, squabbling, but essentially kindred far-right milieu is waiting in the wings. If UK capital thinks it needs any combination of these people, they’ll be called upon. Possibly, as Sarkar predicts, via American money. Steve Bannon already has eyes on trying to wedge himself into this opening. Good Morning Britain gave him a platform after ‘debating’ Sarkar, and Morgan is reacting to criticism of this – from Sarkar amongs others – by equating Bannon’s politics with Sarkar’s. There’s that right-wing tactic again. Equate fascism and communism.
It bears noting, however, that just as Carlson is ultimately a careerist Republican Party loyalist who wants to use fascism as a way to help the GOP while pushing it to the right, so is Morgan ultimately a self-promoting Tory who wants to use disguised hard-right rhetoric to support the Conservative Party and the Tory pro-Brexit right. These people don’t dream of assuming power in an actual fascist government. But then the establishment bourgeoisie and conservatives and militarists who levered Hitler into power thought they’d control him, use him to crush the left, and then discard him.
Their chances of ultimate success for a UK right-wing coalition depends on too many uncertain variable to permit of prediction, but at the very least they could cause immense trouble and misery in the process of trying. Mind you, I’m doubtful of how much of a role there would actually be for the hopeful Morgan. He’s not the broadcaster Carlson is, and Carlson isn’t even the broadcaster O’Reilly was. Morgan is, as I say, widely hated by the British public. But he’s also reportedly disliked and distrusted by his own class (see Eyes passim). And his professional drawbacks were demonstrated clearly in his clash with Sarkar. Even his co-presenter looked horribly embarrassed.
The mention above of Obama brings us to one of Morgan’s tactics in his attempt to deflect Sarkar’s criticism of Trump, namely his attempt to paint her as a hypocrite. He demanded why she – and the left generally – had not protested to the same degree against, as he fatuously put it, “Your hero, Obama”. Morgan may even be developing a Trumpian obsession with Obama and the hypocrisy he supposedly reveals in liberals. As it happens, Obama (like Clinton, etc.) does reveal much hypocrisy in many liberals, but not of the kind Morgan thinks he sees. The actual hypocrisy is only delineable from the left. But part of the problem, as is now obvious, is that Morgan doesn’t know (or care about) the difference between anything or anyone on the left, which he defines as a great undifferentiated lump of unTory. As a result, he keeps trying to pull the ‘hypocrisy over Obama’ card on everyone. Indeed, hypocrisy looks like his favourite target, ironically. He tried the same thing with Owen Jones, demanding to know why he hadn’t protested against Saudi Arabia, when Jones has in fact been one of the organisers of protests against the Saudi government. Again, projection. Cynicism and hypocrisy are assumed, by cynics and hypocrites, to be so universal that they must be present everywhere.) Sarkar reacted with incredulity, pointing out her record of criticising Obama, until she was driven to exclaim “He’s not my hero! I’m a communist you idiot!”
It is, of course, characteristic of today’s far-rightists that they conflate the entirety of the left into one big homogenous blob. In America, the far-right plays host to multifarious conspiracy theories about the Democratic Party – including, namely, Obama and Hillary Clinton – being communist in ideology and intent. This sort of rhetoric is, of course, as old as the hills. Roosevelt’s New Deal was said by some to be communism. To a significant portion of the American Right, anything to the right of the GOP is communist, including everything “liberal”, to the point where some use “liberal”, “leftist”, “communist” etc as synonyms. This attitude is now widespread across the world, owing to the international success of the ‘alt-right’ and ‘alt-lite’ and their various subgroups and fellow travellers, including but not limited to the resurgent fascist groups with whom they have – at the very least – fuzzy ideological borders, disavowels notwithstanding. (In effect, as seen at Charlottesville, the ‘alt-right’, though it has a distinct modality, is little more than a front or PR rebranding for a rough coalition of American fascism, old and new.)
As satisfying as it was for me – as someone who understands the difference between a liberal, even a left-liberal, and an actual left-winger or socialist – to hear, there are many people to whom Sarkar’s exasperated statement (“I’m not pro-Obama. I’m a critic of Obama. I’m a critic of the Democratic party because I’m literally a communist.”) would have sounded unintelligible or, by their ‘understanding’ of politics, blatantly dishonest. It isn’t clear to me to what extent Morgan has imbibed the kind of alt-right (i.e. neo-fascist) ideology with which Trump is aligned. My sense of Morgan is that his reactionary affiliations are reflexive rather than ideologically considered, his attitudes cultural and self-seeking, and whose hatred of the left comes from a general sense of threatened self-interest and revulsion at the (to coin a phrase) ‘not we’. Even so, the lumping together of every ‘enemy’ into an undifferentiated mass is characteristic of reaction generally, and especially when in attack mode. (Which is why, despite acknowledging affiliations and similarities where they exist, we must always be careful to remember that the right, even the far-right, is not homogenous and without sometimes significant internal conflict. Indeed, if you ask me, the internal conflict is a paradoxically cruical part of how they work.)
The subject of the internal differentiations within ideological persuasions is an important one, not just in terms of understanding the enemy but also in terms of understanding ourselves, our own positions. The left has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for infighting (though again, I suspect a good deal of projection on the part of those on the right who perpetuate the idea that this is a distinguishing and distinctive left trait). However, ideological clarity is not unimportant.
Sarkar’s exclamation has, at least according to Paul Mason, started a conversation. Sarkar herself laughing says that Morgan has “accidentally rehabilitated communism“, with even Elle magazine (somewhat to Sarkar’s bemusement) apparently siding with her. Their pleasure seems more centred on Sarkar’s uncontroversial but satisfying description of Morgan than on her communism… but at the very least, they don’t find her communism off-putting. On the contrary. Sarkar was also interviewed by Teen Vogue in positive terms. Alongside giving her critical but nuanced take on Obama and his political meaning (perhaps a little too nuanced for my tastes), she talked about Marx’s ‘Fragment on the Machine’, a short but famous section of the Grundrisse, a vast collection of notebooks in which Marx worked out the ideas that would become Capital. (This is in line with Sarkar’s interest in technology and automation, etc. Again, I have differences with her here.) Teen Vogue have shown interest in Marx in the past, publishing this not-too-bad article about the “anti-capitalist scholar”… much to the incoherent, handbag-clutching outrage of pro-bullshit scholar Jordan Peterson.
And this is where I get to the thing I really wanted to talk about. Because, increasingly, ‘communism’ is seen as a respectable position. Or even just a possible one! This is still very much a minority thing. Even so, we don’t have to go as far as McCarthy-era America to remember a time when declaring “I’m literally a communist!” on television would’ve provoked a very different reaction. There is something indefinable but real about the change in the air. It’s not as if communism now has any actual presence as a ‘respectable’ set of opinions in the mainstream media, mainstream politics, etc. Marxism is supposedly enjoying something of a resurgence in academic circles, though I suspect this is overstated, and is manifestly not happening in one (arguably the most crucial) field: economics. Not in the academy anyway.
(We needn’t here linger over the perenniel right-wing accusations that the media and higher education are dominated by the left. As with accusations of projection, facts can easily be adduced to settle that one. Only a small minority of academics identify as “socialist” or “far left”. And every serious study of Western media demonstrates biases towards the political establishment and hegemonic ideological mainstream. In order to claim systemic left-bias in academia and media, the right must mangle the meanings of words so that mainstream centrist liberalism and/or neoliberal ideology becomes socialism. The fact that the mainstream right has been doing exactly this, and worse, for so long, implicates them in fostering the very ideological illiteracy and confusion that is both contributing factor and tactic of the current fascist resurgence.)
One of the favourite rhetorical tricks – though, as ever, the boundary between cynicism and genuine fanaticism is fuzzy – is the performance of scandalised horror at the increasing (or continued) acceptance of communism as a defencible and respectable position. In response to Sarkar’s exclaimation on Good Morning Britain, Jordan Peterson (inevitably) piped up on Twitter to (once again) blub about how outrageous and inexplicable it is that we don’t treat the statements “I’m literally a communist” and “I’m literally a national socialist!” as morally equivalent. (As I said elsewhere, taking this position would logically entail seeing the outcome of World War II as morally neutral. Not many people will take that position. I’m a critic of all the brutal imperialisms which made up ‘the Allies’, and I’d want to focus on their kinship with the fascist regimes rather than their overstated differences, but I certainly won’t say that it wasn’t good that they prevailed and the Axis didn’t.) Note that Peterson takes time to type out “national socialist” rather than “Nazi”, thus (he thinks) putting his thumb on the scales… while actually only impressing people who already think that Dinesh D’Souza is a political genius.
The further you go into the right-wing wackosphere, the less tolerance you encounter for even milder forms of left opinion. Turning Point USA and other such organisations frankly identify, in their memes and soundbites, ‘socialism’ with ‘communism’ with ‘Marxism’ with ‘liberalism’, etc. And they’re comparatively mild, a gateway drug for young potential far-right market fundamentalists to prop up the GOP as a radical fringe (they hope). And the scandal of it is that, despite everything we know about the horrors of 20th century communism, people still unashamedly proclaim themselves socialists and vote for Democrats!
It’s interesting, in light of this, that Marx himself didn’t distinguish between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as forms of society, though he arguably did distinguish between lower and higher phases of communism. This highlights one way in which the right have, accidentally, with characteristic bad faith and flailing ineptitude, stumbled upon a kernel of truth. The idea of socialism as a way of governing capitalism with a strong state – which is the fundamental idea underpinning left-reformism, albeit iterated through lots of more-or-less democratic variations – would’ve been unacceptable to Marx. The right accidentally flail and gibber in the general direction of a real distinction when they collapse all forms of left-reformism and liberalism into communism. They think they’re identifying a kind of totalitarian, statist undercurrent to everything that isn’t hard-right conservatism. What they’re accidentally almost noticing is the fact that there is an essential kinship shared by all forms of left politics which doesn’t entail unseating, or at least trying to unseat, capital as the social relation upon which society is fundamentally based. (Remember, when people like me say ‘capital’, we’re following Marx in talking about a social relation based on a particular form – i.e. commodity production – of the exploitation of labour power, not just ‘money’ and ‘wealth’ and all the things that bourgeois economists mean.)
I hope to develop some of this in future posts. It’s worth talking about, I think, because, as is so often the case with nasty reactionary nonsense, the horror at the supposed normalisation of communism isn’t based on pure smoke. There is a germ of truth to it. I don’t imply good faith or real insight on the part of the pearl clutchers. But, sensibly, their attacks are always aimed at weak spots. If there’s a crack in the ice, that’s where you pour the water. And the history of communism is undoubtedly a crack in the ice. A chasm, actually. And the chasm will only widen the more communism becomes something people talk seriously about once again. This chasm is why I have, until very recently, been very leery of using the term ‘communist’ as a self-description. It has historical meanings with which I identify closely. It has historical meanings which are connected with things I recoil from with horror. This is also why, quite apart from the crude provocations and moral-panic-mongering of the right, it is well worth talking about what we do and don’t mean by terms like ‘communism’. And that’s what I’m (hopefully) going to try to do in future posts.
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July 22, 2018 @ 6:44 pm
I really enjoyed this post Jack. Very well-articulated. Very interested and invested in the sort of thoughts that swirl around over defining yourself as communist in this day and age, so I’m really eagerly looking forward to any follow-up posts.
July 22, 2018 @ 10:48 pm
I’m currently confused about how a ‘socialist’ and a ‘communist’ can possibly be different, on the basis that I understand communism to be something socialism just might eventually turn into if it wins for long enough (and a subset of socialism), so trying to bring about socialism and trying to bring about communism should always mean taking precisely the same actions, and a “thing-ist” to just be someone who is trying to bring about “thing” (or defend it if it already exists).
(I assume we’ll be getting to this.)
July 23, 2018 @ 2:55 pm
I suspect everyone has their own definitions, which probably say more about ones politics than anything else, but my understanding of the two was that Communism is a subset of socialism, where the original idea was that various industries would be formed into ‘communes’ (hence the name), so that they could all support each other. Think along the lines of several farms being grouped with a flour mill and a bakery (for example). It would be socialist in that the workers would all own their farms/mills etc (ie the ‘means of production’), and all would benefit from it.
Of course, as we all know, that’s not the way that it ended up playing out in reality, (Stalin in the USSR was basically a dictator, which isn’t exactly socialist).
Socialism on the other hand is closer to being a philosophy than an easily defined set of rules, that everyone should stand to gain from common resources. It is a word that could be used to cover everything from the USSR, to Britain’s NHS, or even a community garden.
There’s probably ‘correct’ philosophical definition that are nothing like what I just wrote, but I’ve never found actually useful in the real world.
July 24, 2018 @ 1:44 am
Phuzz is on it, but there’s a historical perspective too: when you say “I understand communism to be something socialism just might eventually turn into,” you’re describing a specific Marxist view. Non-Marxists (and also many Marxists who don’t agree with that interpretation or who think that’s what Marx meant but he was wrong about that bit) may well think that socialism will NOT turn into communism, but is a desirable end-state on its own.
(If you want to take it a step farther, Marx also says CAPITALISM is just a stage on the road to communism, right? So isn’t a “capitalist” just someone who wants to bring about communism? Well, no, some misguided fools think it’s an endpoint.)
So Fabian socialists are real socialists even though they’re not communists, for instance. Some kinds of syndicalism would fit this bucket, I’m sure you could find social-democratic strains of thought that go beyond just a welfare state, etc.
July 23, 2018 @ 12:40 am
On the subject of American money infesting your politics, that looks to be exactly what your recent TERF outbreak has been. https://twitter.com/caseyexplosion/status/1016681053333983232?s=21 (also see link to previous thread at the end of that, and links at the ends of those)
July 25, 2018 @ 10:09 am
Oh dear. I’ll never be able to enjoy Father Ted in quite the same way ever again.
July 24, 2018 @ 2:30 pm
Ah, that old slogan, “Communism or Piers-Morganism.” Or I think that’s how it went.