Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A term of abuse?

(July 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.188, July/August 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The majority of the alleged perpetrators of the abuse started working for the council when it was under Tory, old style right wing Labour or Social Democratic control’

‘Politically correct’ has become one of the great bugbears used by right wingers to beat down any consideration of left wing ideas.

They do so by providing a list of things which, they claim, make up ‘politically correctness’ and then denounce the left for trying to impose this on other people – regardless of whether any particular section of the left does so or not.

So you can read right wing commentators insisting ‘political correctness’ involves not eating meat, not talking of blackboards and not describing sightless people as ‘blind’, despite the fact that most left wing socialists do all three things.

It is a short step from such claims to blaming all sorts of social horrors on the ‘politically correct left’ rather than the system – in much the same way as McCarthy used to blame everything wrong in postwar America on ‘Communists’.

The real grievance of the right is that despite running the government and dominating the mass media they have found it increasingly difficult to enforce many of the old stereotypes that turn white against black, men against women, straights against gays. So in opinion polls a majority of white workers express distaste for the racism and police harassment they recognise black people as suffering, and a majority of men are for equal pay and abortion on demand.

This has not come about through the left imposing some ill defined notion of ‘political correctness’ on other people from above. It has been a result of those opposed to the various forms of oppression taking up the arguments with those they live and work with.

There have, of course, been occasional mistakes, as in any struggle.

There has been the belief that the way to fight is to gain a foothold in the existing structures of managerial power and then try to impose anti-oppressive behaviour and language on people from above.

In the 1980s, for instance, left wingers in the Labour Party took control of a number of local councils in London. They were committed at first both to resisting government attacks on the conditions of the mass of workers and to implementing positive discrimination for disadvantaged groups like blacks, women and lesbians.

But they abandoned the struggle against the government when they caved in to its ratecapping policy early in 1985. From then on they increasingly imposed cutbacks in staffing and services, while continuing to make a great deal of public noise about their commitment to anti-discriminatory codes.

It was easy then for the right wing press to give the impression that the councils only cared about jobs and facilities for blacks, gays and lesbians – or even that cuts to nurseries or home helps were a result of grants to black or gay projects. In the same way ‘equal opportunities’ could seem simply as one managerial technique among others for pushing people around.

For this reason, socialists had to argue for fighting from below, through the unions and workplace organisation, for anti-racist positions even when these were formally initiated from above. Otherwise there could be anti-managerial backlashes which played into the racists’ hands.

Socialists also had to be ready openly and clearly to oppose those few cases in which anti-discriminatory talk was used by those in council positions to pick on individuals who were not by any stretch of the imagination open racists – as with the west London headmistress Maureen McGoldrick.

Only by operating in this way could we win people’s support against the real racists. Black nationalists and others who argued otherwise, on the grounds that ‘all whites are racists’, were not only wrong on a question of fact, but also condemning the fight against racism to defeat in a country where 94.5 percent of the population are non-black.

These arguments are relevant today in dealing with some of the latest right wing onslaughts on ‘political correctness’ especially as some one time left wingers are joining in these onslaughts.

One of the most notable examples concerns the London borough of Islington which was briefly a left stronghold ‘Fortress Islington’ – in the mid-1980s but which is now run along classic right wing Labour lines, except for a residual managerial commitment to ‘equal opportunities’.

A recent report criticised Islington for not properly vetting care workers because of ‘political correctness’. There has been abuse in its children’s homes. In this it has not been unique. There have been a succession of such scandals up and down the country, of which the best known are Belfast, Leicester, north Wales and Brent. In all these cases the abuse is a direct product of an underfunding of the homes, the low pay which makes it difficult to attract and hold qualified workers, and the resort to temporary staff whose background cannot easily be checked. The underfunding, in turn, is a result of acquiescing to government policies.

Yet the media have picked on the Islington case as special because the council was once left wing and so ‘politically correct’ – though the majority of the alleged perpetrators of the abuse started working for the council when it was under Tory, old style right wing Labour or Social Democrat control.

In reality the talk of equal opportunities which accompanied the cuts is being blamed instead of the cuts. From this it is only a small step to claiming that those whose oppression was lifted a little by the anti-discriminatory policies – blacks and gays – were really to blame for the abuse, as if the great majority of child abuse in Britain today was not of girls by white men.

The left cannot beat back such ideological attacks unless we learn the lessons of the 1980s. On the one hand, we are socialists, not just trade unionists. So we fight for better conditions for the most disadvantaged groups like children in council homes, and for black and gay rights. On the other, we understand you cannot achieve any of these things unless you can get a fightback from below against acquiescence to government policies that harm all working class people, white as well as black, straight as well as gay, male as well as female.

The attempt to find easy substitutes for such a fight is not only bound to fail, it also gives the right wing a stick to beat us all with.

Last updated on 21 December 2009