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John Molyneux

The ‘politically correct’ controversy

(Winter 1993)

From International Socialism 2:61, Winter 1993
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The debate over Political Correctness has been going on in the United States for several years and it is to some extent already an issue in Britain. The tabloids are handling the question in their usual style. More ‘serious’ journalists such as Simon Hoggart and Melanie Phillips have also jumped on the anti-PC bandwagon. But what is PC? Despite the capital letters it is not an organisation, a campaign or even a movement. There are no recognised PC leaders, no official or even unofficial PC programme or manifesto. Nor is it even possible to identify key theoretical texts which exemplify the PC outlook. At most, perhaps, it could be described as a trend, a cultural phenomenon, a series of attitudes and practices which are an effect or residue of certain aspects of the movements for black, female and gay liberation. Indeed PC did not even name itself. The term ‘politically correct’ appears to have originated within the left. Paul Berman tells us that:

’Politically Correct’ was originally a phrase on the Leninist left to denote someone who steadfastly toed the party line. Then it evolved into ‘PC’, an ironic phrase among wised up leftists to denote someone whose line-toeing fervour was too much to bear. Only in connection with the PC debate itself did the phrase get picked up by people who had no fidelity to radicalism at all, but who relished the nasty syllables for their twist of irony. [1]

For this reason the analysis of PC is best approached by starting with its opponents on the right whose attacks have constructed it as a bogey.

In retrospect it is clear that an opening shot in the anti-PC campaign was fired by the right wing University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom with his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. This rather bizarre work, which denounced not only the student revolt of the 1960s and its consequences but also rock music, was dedicated to the proposition that universities and especially American universities were the ‘home of reason’ and the disinterested pursuit of truth until undermined by radical ‘relativists’. Such an eccentric production contained too many hostages to fortune to launch a crusade but nonetheless met with extraordinary success – more than six months at the top of the New York Times best seller list.

Bloom demonstrated to publishers and potential authors one thesis beyond doubt: it is possible to write an alarmist book about the state of higher education with a long winded title and make a great deal of money. [2]

Bloom was soon followed by educational journalist Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics has Corrupted Our Higher Education and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: the Politics of Race and Sex on Campus which rapidly became ‘the bible of the anti-PC campaign [3]. D’Souza’s work achieved this status partly thanks to the author’s political acuity. For the purposes of his attack on PC he adopted a political standpoint substantially to the left of his real position. D’Souza was a hard right winger, a policy adviser in the Reagan White House and biographer of Jerry Falwell, yet in Illiberal Education he presents himself as a supporter of Martin Luther King, an anti-racist and a sympathiser with the plight of black students. To his political godfathers ‘liberal’ was the ‘L’ word with which they baited their Democratic opponents, but D’Souza claims to write in defence of liberal education. Accordingly he writes in a tone of sweet reasonableness, merely raising issues for debate and making ‘modest proposals’ [4]. This doesn’t change in any way the profoundly right wing character of the book but it does make it possible to win plaudits from the likes of Eugene Genovese. [5]

Part stimulating, part swimming in the wake of the relatively heavyweight tones of Messrs Bloom, Kimball and D’Souza, came innumerable articles in Newsweek, the New York Times, the New York Review Of Books, the New Republic, the Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal and almost every other US paper, magazine or journal of note. Before long even the indolent George Bush had noticed that something was up and decided that it would aid his chances of re-election to join the onslaught. Addressing students at the University of Michigan in May 1991 he declared, ‘Political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race.’ [6] With Bush in the field, supported by other leading Republicans such as former education secretary William Bennett and National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney (wife of defence secretary, Dick Cheney) the attack on PC could only intensify.

In a short article such as this it is obviously impossible to document or even summarise all the charges and arguments produced by this conservative campaign, but the essence of their case can be summed up fairly easily. It is that America’s universities have been, or are in the process of being, taken over by a new alliance of radical faculty members (lecturers) and student activists who are destroying the hallowed traditions of American academia and higher education through their obsession with the politics of race and sex. The key weapons of the radicals are said to be affirmative action, ie positive efforts to recruit hitherto under-represented ethnic minority students (basically blacks and Hispanics) which is lowering academic standards, curriculum revision designed to attack the canon of Western civilisation and culture, and language codes prohibiting racial and sexual abuse which contravene the right to free speech. The effect of this leftist subversion is to transform the universities into citadels of totalitarian intolerance in which racial antagonisms are increased, honest academic inquiry inhibited and ‘ordinary’ students and ‘moderate’ or traditional staff members walk in fear of constant repression and harassment by PC fanatics.

Before dealing in detail with these specific issues, some of which present quite knotty problems, some general observations on the nature of the anti-PC campaign are in order. First it should be noted that in America the debate has focused primarily on the narrow terrain of the university, with only limited overspill into other areas (the schools, arts, etc.). In Britain, a point I shall return to later, the key terrain for the PC battle seems likely to be elsewhere, for example the social services.

Second, the issue which in Britain seems most to have caught people’s attention, namely euphemistic language reform (calling short people ‘vertically challenged’ etc.) has only been one small aspect of the debate and not the one which has generated most heat. Far more important have been the fights over affirmative action and the literary heritage.

Third, while the anti-PC campaign was clearly launched by and has been dominated by right wing forces, in its latter stages it attracted at least qualified support from some surprising sources. I have already mentioned the erstwhile Marxist historian Eugene Genovese but others from the left, or at least left of centre, who have weighed in on the anti-PC side include Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice [7], veteran social democrat Irving Howe [8] and perhaps most surprising of all Edward Said, who as the author of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism many would have identified as himself a Pcer. [9] Paul Berman notes ‘the way that certain liberals and old-school leftists joined the neo-conservatives in making several of the arguments as something new and perhaps quite significant, since previous debates tended to observe a chaste division of left and right’ [10].

At this point it is necessary to mention the intervention of Robert Hughes, author of the best selling history of modern art The Shock of the New and the art critic of Time magazine. In 1993 Hughes published Culture of Complaint – The Fraying of America, which in a number of ways is a quite distinctive contribution to the debate. Firstly Hughes broadens the focus from the university to American culture as a whole which he sees as having become an ‘infantilized culture of complaint’, a ‘broken polity’ polarised between the ‘twin fetishes of victimhood and redemption’ [11]. Secondly, unlike D’Souza and Co, he does not concentrate his attack exclusively on the left. Instead from a position of robust ‘commonsense’ liberalism he treats the politically correct of the left and the ‘patriotically correct’ of the right (the likes of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Jessie Helms who dominated the pre-election Republican Convention of 1992) as mirror images of each other, twin descendants of America’s witch hunting puritan past; and lambasts both with equal fervour. Thirdly, and this is also in contrast to most of the literature on the subject, Hughes writes with such gusto and panache that it is hard not to be beguiled by him even when one is in sharp political disagreement with a number of his arguments [12]. Nevertheless, despite these distinctions, it was inevitable, given the context and timing of its production, that Culture of Complaint would be received and taken up primarily as a blow against PC.

This then is the anti-PC line up: a formidable array comprising almost all strands of the American media stretching politically from the far right to the liberal left.

Bush’s election defeat in 1992 took some of the wind out of the anti-PCers’ sails. Bush’s attempt to win re-election on the back of conservative cultural themes like ‘family values’ failed. But the potency of the issues on which the anti-PC campaign focused remains. In June 1993 President Bill Clinton withdrew his nomination of a liberal Black civil rights enforcement appointee following a conservative campaign that labelled her a ‘quota queen’. And campus anti-feminists have recently taken to labelling women who speak out against date rape as ‘sexually correct’.

The socialist response

A socialist response to the anti-PC campaign has to both analyse the debate as a whole, examining the social forces and politics involved on both sides, and also respond to a number of specific issues raised by the debate which present themselves as concrete practical questions in workplaces, colleges and elsewhere quite independently of our choosing. At the general level the most striking feature of the anti-PC campaign is the disproportion between its rhetoric and the enemy which it is attacking. Irving Kristol claimed in the Wall Street Journal that ‘multiculturalism is as much a “war against the West” as Nazism and Stalinism ever were’ [13]. George Will argued that the war against the politicisation of higher education was more important than the war against Iraq [14], while one of the most common charges against PC has been that it is a new McCarthyism. Thus December 1990 Newsweek headlined its key PC article Is this the New Enlightenment or the New McCarthyism? only to be echoed a few months later by Eugene Genovese: ‘I fear that our conservative colleagues are today facing a new McCarthyism in some ways more effective and vicious than the old.’ [15]

There is a bitter irony in the accusation of McCarthyism for it is clearly the anti-PC crusaders of the right who are the spiritual heirs of the junior senator from Wisconsin, but it is also an absurd overestimation of the PC forces. It should be remembered that McCarthyism at its height had the power to arraign before Congress, fire, blacklist, deport, drive into exile and imprison thousands of supposed Communists and leftists from all walks of life including Hollywood, teaching, and academia itself, whereas not a single academic has been sacked as a result of PC activity. The real McCarthyism was able to persecute not just Paul Robeson, Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller but a figure with the standing of Charlie Chaplin. If PC had comparable power Arnold Schwarzenegger would be on the plane back to Austria and Clint Eastwood out of a job, not raking in Oscars.

Even the more soberly expressed claim of D’Souza and Kimball that PC culture now dominates America’s universities is plainly false. Such wild exaggeration is built into the structure of D’Souza’s book, for his method is to select typical PC offences, illustrate them with ‘case studies’ from particular colleges – hence ‘admission policy at Berkeley’, ‘multiculturalism at Stanford’ and so on – and pass the results off as a representative survey of American higher education. It is as if someone were to present a picture of crime in Britain based on case studies of the Yorkshire Ripper, Dennis Nielson and the Moors Murderers.

Reading Kimball and D’Souza one has repeatedly to pinch oneself to remember the elementary fact that America’s universities (like British and other universities) are businesses in their own right and tied by a thousand threads to the giant corporations and the state including, of course, the military. Radical feminists, black militants, left wing socialists, neo-Marxists and the like do not run America’s universities and never will this side of a revolution. In so far as such people exist in the colleges they are a minority influence concentrated in junior positions. The Higher Education Research Institute 1989-90 Survey of 35,000 faculty members of 392 US colleges and universities showed that 40 percent identified themselves as ‘moderates’, 37 percent as ‘liberals’, 18 percent as ‘conservatives’ and only 5 percent as ‘far left’. [16]

Even Robert Hughes, though dissociating himself from Genovese’s McCarthyism charge [17] and other extravagant claims, is still prone to this exaggeration. It is a central weakness of Culture of Complaint that the book is premised on equating the two PCs, politically and patriotically correct, both morally and in terms of their significance. To imagine that Leonard Jeffries, Paula Rothenburg or the Black Faculty Caucus at the University of Texas [18] are the equal of Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan or William Bennett (not to speak of Bush) in terms of status and power in American society is absurd. The error derives from Hughes’ over-concentration on the cultural sphere to the exclusion of the economic. As a result he fails to see that ‘the fraying of America’ which he detects is far more the product of the ongoing crisis of US capitalism than of particular statements and attitudes of journalists, academics and politicians. Enthusiasm for his polemic also leads Hughes into rhetorical lapses of his own. When deploring pro-choice disruption of a Village Voice sponsored debate on abortion he immediately reaches for the imagery of fascism, ‘the jackboot and the gag ... Brownshirt ranting’. [19]

Exaggeration and scaremongering however are familiar features of right wing thinking and propaganda. Think of McCarthy himself with his delusions of Communist influence in the US army or the perennial racist inflation of immigration figures and those fears that the ‘great’ British culture is about to be ‘swamped’, or all that hysteria about extreme influence in the Labour Party. No doubt the paranoia is partly genuine, reflecting a nagging suspicion in conservative minds that one day the Earth may open up beneath their feet and swallow them up; no doubt there is an element of sincere shock that hallowed traditions should be challenged at all, but exaggerating the forces of the left (especially when the left is relatively weak) also has the strategic function of disguising the real purposes of a campaign and winning ‘moderate’ support for far right wing views. Demonising Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler helped sell a war on the Iraqi people for control of oil. McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt masked an attack on trade unionism and New Deal liberalism. The assault on Militant in the Labour Party was used to defeat Bennism and tame the soft left.

The next question socialists have to ask therefore is, what is the real target of the anti-PC campaign? The answer is pretty plain: it is what remains of the gains of the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. The attack on PC is part of the much wider ruling class project to ‘roll back the 1960s’ which has included the attack on unions, the attack on welfare, the war on drugs with its criminalisation of the inner cities and overcoming the Vietnam syndrome by serial invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Somalia.

The great radical movements of the 1960s (and to be accurate, the early 1970s) – the black movement, the student revolt and the anti-war movement – fell apart in the mid-1970s, part crushed, part exhausted and part incorporated, but they left a legacy. Racism remained, of course, but the laws, the culture and the consciousness of mainstream America with regard to race were significantly changed. So too was the consciousness of black Americans – Malcolm X was killed but not forgotten. There was also the emergence of a substantial black middle class, as both price and condition of the defeat of black revolution. The women’s movement and to a lesser extent the lesbian and gay movement had similar effects.

The universities were also changed. Mass student activism subsided but a generation of teachers who had lived through the 1960s, even if they themselves had not been activists or had moved to the right, could not simply return to the smug conservatism and stifling conformity of the 1950s. In the humanities and social sciences the old certainties of art for art’s sake, cold war politics and functionalist sociology were no longer good enough even for ‘moderates’ and liberals. At the same time the combination of social change and affirmative action meant that the student population ceased to be virtually all white, which itself inevitably put new demands on the curriculum. For the right wing the campaign against PC is the intellectual equivalent of the invasions of Grenada and Panama. They see it as an opportunity to start turning the clock back to the imagined golden age of elitist higher education unsullied by the politics of race and sex. [20]

It is therefore clear that in the PC war socialists must in general side with the left and counter-attack against the right. In that sense we must defend PC. But what kind of defence should this be? One possibility is to take advantage of the distortions and exaggeration in the anti-PC campaign to enter a plea of not guilty, i.e. to argue that it is all a case of right wing hype and that nothing particularly radical or controversial is happening. This option is likely to be attractive to academics and professionals who, while well meaning and progressive, are not political activists and lack a worked out political perspective. [21]

Another possibility is aggressive support for PC and all its works: an approach which sees the PC fight as the latest frontline in the struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia and tends to assume that all opposition and criticism is simply a manifestation of covert bigotry flushed out by PC’s iconoclastic attack on the assumptions of white Western civilisation. [22] This response is perhaps most likely to be adopted by militant black nationalists and radical feminists.

However, for Marxists neither of these options is satisfactory. In the first place it is clear that the PC phenomenon does exist, if only on a limited scale and only as kind of cultural mood, so simple denial will not do. It is also a fact that some of the things done in the name of PC are, to put it charitably, simply silly. Consider the testimony of Edward Said. Said was presenting a paper based on aspects of his book Culture and Imperialism to an advanced historical studies seminar. Its theme was ‘the emergence of a global consciousness in Western knowledge at the end of the 19th century’, which he argued, coincides with a fully global imperial perspective:

The first question after my brief resume was from a professor of history, a black woman of some eminence who had recently come to the university, but whose work was unfamiliar to me. She announced in advance that her question was to be hostile, ‘a very hostile one in fact’. She then said something like the following: ‘For the first 13 pages of your paper you talked about white European males, thereafter, on page 14 you mention some names of non-Europeans. How could you do such a thing?’ I remonstrated somewhat. After all, I said, I was discussing European imperialism, which would not have been likely to include in its discourse the work of African-American women. I pointed out that in the book I say quite a bit about the response to imperialism all over the world ... [including] such writers as ... C.L.R. James. To this my critic replied with a stupefying confidence that my answer was not satisfactory since C.L.R. James was dead! [23]

That an academic of Said’s standing and anti-Eurocentric credentials should be criticised in this way (as opposed to a number of other ways in which he could quite reasonably be criticised) and that he should be driven by PC zealots to public protest is a sign both that something is up and that something is wrong.

Of course socialists support and identify with all struggles against oppression and bigotry, and some PC activity, or activity which is attacked as PC, comes under this heading. But it is also possible for well intentioned (as well as not so well intentioned) anti-racists and anti-sexists to adopt strategies, tactics and positions that are ineffective or even counter-productive and when this happens socialists have a duty to criticise – without however lining up with the right.

The basic problem with PC derives ultimately from its social location. Essentially it is a middle class phenomenon, which is not to say that PC issues cannot arise within the working class movement, but its social roots lie in those sections of the left and of the black, women’s and gay movements which have attained positions of relative comfort and authority within bourgeois society. Moreover at its heart PC is an attempt to use those positions of authority to impose anti-racism, anti-sexism and so on from above. In America, as we have seen, PC culture is concentrated in the universities (and in some of the most elite campuses), but it is not in the main associated with mass student revolt against the govemment or the university authorities, rather it is primarily an attempt to pressurise the authorities and even enlist them as allies. Hence its rather prim and proper character. It is impossible to imagine a genuine mass movement from below – a revolutionary upsurge of the working class or even an uprising of the mass of the oppressed like that in Los Angeles – being ‘politically correct’. For it is in the nature of such a movement that it draws into the struggle the previously backward, unorganised and uneducated who come with many of their old prejudices, habits of thought and speech intact.

All too often PC makes a mistake paralleling the errors of its opponents: the inflation of the importance of the sphere of education and culture and the neglect of the sphere of material conditions and relations of production. Barbara Ehrenreich sums it up when she writes, ‘I’ve noticed students that I would characterise as PC who get very worked up about imagined or real verbal slights, but you don’t see them running en masse to support campus workers when they’re organising or striking.’ [24] Typically PC is characterised by a cultural idealism and moralism which is the besetting sin of intellectuals cut off from the working class and the mass movement.

PC is also a good deal less radical than its proponents imagine, firmly reformist rather than revolutionary. In the PC pantheon of ‘race, gender and class’ class has always come a very poor third [25], but the pursuit of race and gender equality detached from the struggle of the working class inevitably proceeds in a reformist direction more or less regardless of rhetoric or subjective intentions. This is because objectively neither blacks on their own, nor women, nor lesbians and gays have the material power to overthrow American capitalism and its power structure; consequently their focus inevitably shifts to the demand for inclusion within the existing capitalist hierarchy. Nor is PC by any means the most radical form of reformism. Despite all the talk of the ‘rights’ and ‘empowerment’ the main tactic of PC is to appeal to the consciences of ‘the oppressors’ on the basis of moral guilt. Hence the PC cult of victim status so excoriated by D’Souza and Hughes. [26] Unfortunately it is far easier to guilt trip an idealist student or a liberal intellectual than the US ruling class. Guilt is also a very poor basis for fighting racism and other reactionary ideas in the working class. The mass of white workers will be won to anti-racism and unity with black workers through an understanding of their common class interest, not through guilt over the legacy of slavery (for which they were not responsible in the first place).

Therefore, while Marxists and socialists must start from a position of exposing the anti-PC witch hunters and defending PC against the right, the defence must be a highly critical one. Some idea of the exact combination of support and criticism required is best provided in an examination of a number of concrete issues.

Affirmative action

Dinesh D’Souza places the issue of affirmative action (i.e. positive discrimination in the recruitment of black and Hispanic students) at the centre of his attack on PC. Affirmative action was, as we have noted, one of the ‘gains’ of the 1960s – indeed in material terms it was, along with the abolition of Jim Crow in the south, one of the most important gains. It was always, however, an ambiguous advance. On the one hand it was a concession – rung from the ruling class by the combined weight of the Civil Rights Movement, black power and inner city insurrections from Watts to Detroit. On the other hand it was a key element in the ruling class strategy to defeat and divide the black movement through the deliberate creation of a substantial black middle class – a strategy that was at least partially successful. Despite this ambiguity the central argument in favour of affirmative action, namely that a degree of positive discrimination is essential if blacks are to overcome the racism built into American education and American society for so long, is one that both socialists and the wider US left have generally supported.

From its inception affirmative action was subject to right wing resistance and counter-attack on the grounds that it constituted ‘reverse discrimination’ and an infringement on the individual rights of whites. One thing that seems to unite racists and oppressors across the world from the white South Africans to Ulster Unionists is their extreme sensitivity to the slightest hint that they may find themselves in the position of underdog. To those of like mind in America affirmative action was a red rag to a bull.

In 1977 the case of Bakke v. The University of California at Davis came before the Supreme Court. Alan Bakke had failed to gain admission to medical school at Davis at a time when the school reserved 16 of its 100 places for ‘disadvantaged’ students. Claiming that his academic record was superior to some of the 16 ‘minority’ students Bakke maintained he had been discriminated against. In 1978 the Supreme Court by a five to four majority found in favour of Bakke, but it was to some extent an equivocal decision. On the one hand the court ruled that the use of an ‘explicit racial classification’ where no formal discriminatory behaviour had been demonstrated was unconstitutional. On the other hand, it also found again by five to four, that affirmative action which made race ‘simply one element’ in the admission process was permissible ‘since universities had a legitimate interest in seeking diversity in their student populations’. [27] In 1990 the Bush administration issued regulations restricting the ability of colleges to award financial aid to minority students. And a civil rights bill intended to reverse some of the Supreme Court’s most far-reaching attacks on affirmative action, passed by the Democratic led Congress in 1992, explicitly outlawed the use of quotas for affirmative action. Thus affirmative action has continued in American universities but under increasing pressure and on a diminishing scale, with the result that, whereas in the 1960s and 1970s the number of blacks attending college expanded enormously [28], in the 1980s the proportions of black high school graduates going to higher education started to fall. [29]

It was against this background of affirmative action in retreat that D’Souza launched his offensive. He is careful not to mount his challenge directly in the name of white majority, but begins by taking up cudgels on behalf of Asian-American (i.e. Japanese, Korean, Chinese) students and then, apparently, on behalf of black and Hispanic students themselves. First he presents individual case studies and statistics to show that Berkeley’s admission policy, which is striving for proportional representation of ethnic minorities, results in Asian students with good grades having less chance of admission than similar black students, due to the fact that Asians over-achieve at high school while blacks under-achieve. Then he moves on to argue that this policy damages black students themselves as the feeling that they are only there because of affirmative action undermines their self esteem, and their inability to compete with better prepared white and Asian students leads to a high drop out rate. Finally he suggests that it is affirmative action which is responsible for increased racial tension, separatism and even for the wave of outright racial incidents that swept American campuses in the late 1980s:

Separatist black and Hispanic groups became a haven from the anxieties that spring from the sharp differences in academic preparations among various racial groups. Indeed separatism can serve as a form of group therapy, in which affirmative action beneficiaries persuade themselves that their difficulties on campus are predominately, if not exclusively, the consequence of rampant bigotry …

Many white and Asian students reciprocate in kind, because they are offended by what they see as university-sponsored discrimination against them ... some respond with barely suppressed exasperation whenever they see black and Hispanic students make the slightest mistake, or congregate together on any occasion. [30]

Let us take the last argument first. D’Souza’s language is cautious but essentially what he says is that white racist activity like assaults on black students by a white mob at Massachusetts or arson of a black fraternity house at the University of Mississippi [31], are the result, almost the ‘inevitable’ and ‘excusable’ result, of affirmative action. The structure of this argument should be familiar. It is the same logic which ‘explains’ and partly justifies racist violence in Germany or Britain by the presence of too many immigrants who are supposed to be taking over ‘our’ houses, ‘our’ jobs and so on. It is based on the assumption that if the black presence were reduced numerically the racist resentment would fade. The falsity of this assumption is demonstrated not only by the history of immigration and immigration control, but also by the history of American universities themselves which for centuries remained almost exclusively white without any disappearance of racism. [32] Rather it is the campaigners against affirmative action, like D’Souza himself, and a number of other senior Republicans, who are encouraging such racism.

To D’Souza’s arguments about unfairness to Asian students and damage to black and Hispanic students’ self esteem and so on socialists have a simple answer – an egalitarian system of higher education open to all. Of course it would be objected that such a solution is not realistic. But we should be clear about why it is ‘unrealistic’. It is not that American society couldn’t afford it. It is that the American ruling class wouldn’t grant it. It is that even if higher education were made open to all it would not be egalitarian (the ruling class would ensure that some colleges were more privileged than others) because America is a competitive, class divided society in which the primary function of education is not the enlightenment and development of the population as a whole but the selection and training of the bourgeoisie and the middle class. But then revolutionary socialists are revolutionary not because they prefer revolution to reform but because the contradictions and evils of capitalist society cannot be removed solely by means of reform.

In the absence of an egalitarian system socialists must continue their support for affirmative action. The alternative is to side with the racists and the right and see the black and Hispanic student presence dwindle to a tiny minority of the offspring of the upper reaches of the already established black and Hispanic middle class. Socialists must combine this with support for every measure that improves the general education and wider socio-economic position of blacks, Hispanics and other oppressed groups whose acute educational difficulties are the cumulative result of capitalist slavery, capitalist imperialism and capitalist racism.

At the same time socialists should have no illusions as to what affirmative action can achieve. The most it can do is to provide some opportunities for some students who would not otherwise have had them. It cannot end racism nor create genuine equality in society as a whole or even within higher education. It cannot even manage to be ‘completely’ fair even in its own terms. An unequal, racist, sexist society cannot be put right by means of educational social engineering. Education both reflects and shapes society. Socialists fight for it to shape society in an egalitarian direction but must recognise the material fact that the element of reflection inevitably outweighs the element of shaping. More fundamental change can be achieved only by a mass movement in which students, teachers and professors can play a role but which must be led by the working class.

Speech codes

The question of speech codes has been one of the most controversial issues in the PC debate. Many universities responded to the outbursts of racism and bigotry in the late 1980s by establishing codes making the use of abusive and offensive language pertaining to race, gender, and sexual orientation – perhaps best described as ‘hate speech’ – into a disciplinary offence. A coalition of the right, much of the media, and liberals, including the influential American Civil Liberties Union, have attacked speech codes as violations of the principle of free speech, a principle which in America has the special status of being enshrined in the First Amendment to the constitution.

Many of those currently invoking the First Amendment against university speech codes can easily be exposed as the most obvious hypocrites: people who rush to the defence of the most vile racism, while demanding censorship of anti-religious, left wing or sexually explicit language that they find offensive. A good example is Republican Henry Hyde who sponsored legislation in Congress to outlaw speech codes but who has also ‘co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, endorsed the Helms amendment to deny federal funding for “homoerotic” art and supports the regulation barring abortion counselling in federal funded health clinics’. [33] Such people are the political or intellectual equivalent of police who defend the right of Nazis to march through black or immigrant areas on the grounds of ‘democracy’ while systematically persecuting those same black people and attacking left wing or anti-racist demonstrations.

However, not all those in the anti speech codes campaign fall into this category. Some like Nat Hentoff, who has spent ‘three years of reporting on anti free speech tendencies in higher education’ [34] for the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the New Yorker, appear to be genuine liberals who actually believe in freedom of speech as an absolute principle. Therefore there is an argument that has to be taken on intellectually. Literary theorist Stanley Fish, in an article entitled There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, cites the example of Milton:

Not far from the end of his Aeropagitica and after having celebrated the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment, John Milton catches himself up short, and says of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate. ‘I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil suprentacies, so itself should be extirpated.’ [35]

Fish’s point is well made. The fact is that no society has ever permitted total freedom of speech without any restrictions whatsoever and it is hard to see how it could. Certainly in contemporary America and Britain and every other bourgeois democracy there are a multitude of restraints on free speech. First there are legal limitations like the Official Secrets Act, the libel and slander laws, laws against incitement to riot or violence, blasphemy laws and so on. Even more important there are institutional rules which curtail rights of free speech in innumerable situations. Imagine a soldier trying to exercise his freedom of speech to a superior officer or child to a head teacher or even a student to a college president. A large number of employers place restrictions on their employees’ freedom to speak about their work or to go to the press. These restrictions are usually presented as matters of respect for authority, or not bringing the company into dispute or just good manners, but they remain restrictions on freedom of speech nonetheless. The problem with almost all liberals is that they simply don’t notice all these violations of their ‘absolute’ principle, they just take them for granted. So if a worker is sacked for telling the manager to fuck off, or a defendant is sent down for contempt of court for calling a judge a geriatric git, that is accepted as normal, but if a student or professor is disciplined for using race or sex hate words, that becomes an issue of freedom of speech.

A further difficulty for those who try to make the claims of free speech inviolate is the impossibility of drawing an absolute dividing line between words and deeds. Consider the example of blackmail. This is generally accepted as being a crime, yet it may consist entirely of words. ‘Pay me £1,000 or I will tell the papers your guilty secret.’ Then there is the cynical politician who deliberately incites racism. Is he or she any less guilty than the thug who beats someone on the street? Racist, sexist and homophobic epithets are on this borderline between speech and action. There are many situations in which they are associated with violence and can lead to violence and in which they cause as much hurt or offence as violence.

Taking all these considerations into account, it is clear that ‘freedom of speech’ cannot legitimately be invoked to defeat or protect hate speech. Moreover socialists, whose whole aim is to unite the working class and fight all forms of oppression, have special reason to combat these disgusting and divisive terms. Therefore, in general terms, attempts to combat abusive language have to be defended. Once again, however, it cannot be an uncritical defence. Speech codes have a number of defects which socialists must not lose sight of. First there is the obvious point that outlawing certain expressions does not in itself change attitudes or ideas. Thus there is the fact that speech codes are normally drawn up and imposed by university administrators, rather than emerging from below, and consequently are bureaucratically operated. This in itself is likely to compromise and alienate the codes in the eyes of students by associating them with the rest of university’s authority structure and disciplinary procedures.

There is also the danger that politically sophisticated right wingers will dance rings round any speech code while non-political and unsophisticated students may fall foul of it. This is especially likely if it is mechanically and pedantically applied. Such cases are then likely to be seized on by the right and the media to discredit anti-racism and anti-sexism as a whole.

Finally there is the likelihood that speech codes will be used against the left rather than the bigots. It is easy to imagine situations where calling scabs scabs or Nazis Nazis would become disciplinary offences. Selfa and Maass give an example from Harvard where a white Southern student was allowed to hang a Confederate flag in her dormitory while a black woman was required to remove a ‘No Racism’ banner bearing a swastika, and cite the University of Michigan where the authorities did nothing when right wingers destroyed shanty towns built by anti-apartheid and Palestinian activists but disciplined student journalists who criticised Israel.

For all these reasons the best strategy for student activists is not to rely on speech codes but to concentrate on mobilising students for collective struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia. If this is done the social pressure of student opinion will be far more effective than codes in discouraging hate speech.

Language reform

It is through its attempts to promote language reform that PC, certainly in this country, has gained its greatest notoriety and been subject to the most ridicule (though as we noted earlier this has not been its most controversial aspect in America). Language reform is related to the attempt to outlaw hate speech but is also distinct from it. All the main terms of racist, sexist and homophobic abuse are well known parts of everyday speech and their insulting nature is commonly acknowledged. Also they all have perfectly straightforward non-offensive alternatives already in common use. Eliminating hate speech therefore involves little more than omitting certain deliberately derogatory and offensive expressions.

In contrast language reform involves discovering pejorative or oppressive meanings in words or expressions where none was previously acknowledged and attempting to replace them with new, often artificially created, words and expressions. At the same time even the strongest supporters of PC have not generally tried to make use of these neologisms a disciplinary matter (though doubtless there is an exception somewhere). Rather the attempt is to reform the language through example, moral pressure and sometimes administrative measures.

Language has of course always been a political issue and political struggles have always involved battles over language. In the Reformation the translation of the Bible into common language was a political question. The suppression of native languages by conquerors – a common practice ranging from the banning of Gaelic in the Highlands to the prohibition of Kurdish in Turkey – has always been a political question. Forms of address, sensitive indicators of social rank, have always been political. In The Revolution Betrayed Trotsky indicted the Stalinist bureaucrats for their habitual use of the second person singular with subordinates and workers. ‘How can they fail to remember’, he asks, ‘that one of the most popular revolutionary slogans in Tsarist Russia was the demand for the abolition of the use of the second person singular by bosses in addressing their subordinates.’ [36] Revolutions in thought have introduced new terms and concepts which are important to the new way of understanding the world but which at first may seem strange or obscure. It makes a difference whether we speak of the ‘creation’ or the ‘evolution’ of the species, whether we call modern society ‘industrial’ or ‘capitalist’, whether we demand a ‘people’s state’ or a ‘workers’ state’. Revolutions in practice have always led to the renaming of cities and streets, to calling people citizen or comrade instead of sir or master and to the popularisation of new words. Here is Trotsky again:

Notice with what sensibility the languages of civilised nations have distinguished two epochs in the development of Russia. The culture of the nobility brought into world currency such barbarisms as Tsar, Cossack, pogrom, nagaika. You know these words and what they mean. The October Revolution introduced into the language of the world such words as Bolshevik, Soviet, Kholketz, Gosplan, Piatiletka. Here practical linguistics holds its historical supreme court. [37]

Yet one senses an obvious difference between all these examples and many of the efforts at PC language reform. A note of caution is necessary here, for it is clear that many of the most absurd examples are apocryphal. Have you ever actually heard anyone use ‘vertically challenged’ or ‘follicly impaired’ other than ironically? Nevertheless there is an element of pompous artificiality present in PC language which positively invites parody. What this derives from is not an attempt to make language reflect real social change but a vast overestimation of the role of language in bringing about social change and the attempt to substitute language reform for real reform. To put the matter sharply the strategy of the Bolsheviks was to win over the mass of workers, soldiers and sailors, storm the Winter Palace and transfer all power to the soviets, and then rename the streets. It was not to imagine that renaming the streets would bring about the revolution. [38] All too frequently PC seems to get this the wrong way round.

The most fruitful sources of positive linguistic change in recent times have undoubtedly been the black movement, the women’s movement and the gay movement. The shift from ‘coloured’ or ‘Negro’ to ‘black’ that took place in the 1960s both reflected and signified a great step forward in pride and self assertion. The appropriation of ‘gay’ was also obviously a progressive step since all that existed before was the clinical (and usually pejorative) ‘homosexual’ or hate speech, and gay has won very widespread acceptance. ‘Homophobia’ was also useful as the appropriate naming of a specific bigotry. ‘Sexism’ contributed by the women’s movement, which has generally replaced the more clumsy ‘male chauvinism’ (also contributed by the women’s movement) has served the same purpose as homophobia and has also achieved widespread use.

However, probably the most radical successful challenge to existing linguistic practise has been the challenge to the generic use of ‘man’, mankind’ and ‘he’. It is a striking fact that before the 1970s everything written by people of every political persuasion (including male and female Marxists) employed this form, but somewhere in the mid to late 1970s this changed quite quickly and everyone who supported the goal of women’s equality, which meant virtually everyone on the left, started to write ‘people’ for ‘men’ and ‘humanity’ for ‘mankind’. Of course the change was far from universal but in broadly progressive circles it was quite thoroughgoing. It seemed that at the historical moment the issue had only to be raised for substantial numbers of people to alter their practice. This was possible because this particular linguistic reform was a product of a real movement and a real change in the consciousness of millions of women and men which in turn arose from real changes in material conditions and social relations (the influx of women into paid employment, higher education and the professions, the pill, abortion rights). The innovations introduced by the black and gay movement were effective for the same reasons. In addition such changes could be made without making the language pedantic and complex – PC often accomplishes the opposite (for instance by tokenistically insisting on writing he/she when ‘they’ would be more readable).

The problem underlying many of the recent PC efforts has been that these real mass movements have receded, leaving a layer of intellectuals stranded in academic or cultural ghettos trying to continue the struggle by purely verbal means and falling over themselves to find linguistic wrongs to be linguistically righted.

The social condition has been reinforced by two other influences which are, at bottom, expressions of the same situation. The first is French philosophy and social theory, deriving from the work of Sansurre, namely structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism et al. [39] This has led to a pervasive and deep seated philosophical idealism according to which (reversing Marx) social consciousness determines social being and language determines social consciousness. A good example of the kind of thinking this has produced is provided by Dale Spender whose book Man Made Language has been influential in the language reform project: ‘A patriarchal society is based on the belief that male is the superior sex and many of the social institutions and much social practice is organised to reflect this belief.’ [40] Note that here society, institutions and social practice are all based on ‘belief’. Where this belief comes from is not explained. This has led to claims that language as a whole is male created and male controlled.

These claims are as plainly and simply false as the idea that the human mind created the physical world or that humanity has suffered lamentably from the idea of gravity. [41] While some men (essentially ruling class men) can exercise a disproportionate influence on some parts of language and some of its meanings, language as a whole is no more controlled by men as a whole than is the world economy or world culture. It is in the nature of language that it evolves historically through human practice – which includes, albeit in subordinate roles, the practice of women, children, blacks, Jews and everyone else in society. [42]

While it is true that the development of language gave an enormous boost to the development of consciousness and thought, and that the nature of language exercises an important influence on what is thought and what is ‘thinkable’, it cannot be true that there is no consciousness or thought prior to language or animals would be unable to hunt, cats would not find their way home, chimps could not engage in elementary tool use and babies would not be able to learn language. Nor is it true that language constructs or determines consciousness from nothing. If it were, the project of language reform would itself be inconceivable. There is an ongoing complex interaction between external material conditions, physical and psychological human needs, human social relations and human thought and language. Within this interaction social being – the combination of circumstances, needs and social relations – remains primary.

The development of language is tied to the development of society, reflecting the contradiction and conflict at the root of society, not just the views of the ruling class and their academic followers.

Nevertheless intellectuals have always been drawn to theories that flatter their role and place them at the centre of historical change. What this leads to in practice is such things as the futile attempt to purge English of all negative uses of the word black, as in ‘black day’, ‘black spot’, ‘blackmail’, and ‘blacking’ (or even non-pejorative uses such as black coffee) or all words with male associations such as ‘seminal’ or ‘seminar’ or to replace ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ or ‘women’ with ‘wimmin’. The net effect of this fetishism is simply to provide entertainment (at the left’s expense) for the press and the occasional refuge for scoundrels, as when certain trade union officials opposed to blacking Timex products because it involved breaking trade union laws claimed they objected to ‘blacking’ as racist.

What it also fails to understand is that, if people or conditions are renamed or redescribed but reality is not changed, the new name or new description will soon come to take on the old meaning and connotations. Thus a school which practises streaming may decide to rename its A, B and C streams L, M and N, but the children at the school will still tell you that the N class is the ‘thickies’ class. Similarly the attempt to relabel backward children as ‘special needs’ or ‘children with learning difficulties’ or disabled children as ‘differently abled’ results, in the absence of any deeper change, only in people saying ‘special needs’ or ‘differently abled’ and thinking ‘backward’ or ‘disabled’. Worst of all the obsession with language serves to trivialise and discredit anti-racism and anti-sexism in the eyes of many working class people whose exploitation and harsh conditions of life ensure that they have far more serious and pressing things to worry about than pedantic linguistic niceties. In this respect PC can be directly counterproductive, objectively strengthening the reactionary ideas it sets out to combat.

The second more mundane and material influence on PC language reform has been the professional need for jargon. Under capitalism all the elite professions – doctors, lawyers and so on – tend to develop their own jargon incomprehensible to the lay public. Some of this is justified by convenience and/or the need for specific scientific rigour but much of it is elitism pure and simple. It excludes the majority from the professions’ deliberations while mastery of the jargon serves as a badge of club membership. The academic world is full of this and Marxist academics are certainly not immune to it. It plays a considerable part in PC language. As Barbara Ehrenreich comments, ‘I have seen PC culture in college campuses, chiefly among relatively elite college students or relatively elite college campuses. It amounts to a form of snobbery’. [43]

For socialists with an orientation on the working class any snobbery about how working people, awaking to political consciousness, express themselves is disastrous. This does not mean compromising with racist or sexist ideas but it does mean focusing on what people do and what they think rather than on the formalities of language. The Marxist motto is not, ‘In the beginning was the word’, but, ‘In the beginning was the deed’.

Western culture and the canon

Of all the issues arising in the PC debate in America it is the struggle between the defenders of Western culture and the proponents of multiculturalism which has probably generated most heat. The European and the North American bourgeoisie has invested a great deal – financially, politically, intellectually – in its particular view of history and culture. This view depicts the ‘rise of civilisation’ as a more or less linear process beginning in the Middle East (temporarily annexed to Europe for those purposes) and running through Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment to present day Western democracy. It depicts all, or almost all, the highest philosophical, scientific and artistic achievements (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Mozart, Goethe, Kant, Einstein etc.) as lying within this tradition. Until recently this world historical picture has permeated and dominated all education in the West; indeed it remains overwhelmingly dominant to this day. At present, however, it is facing a challenge from within American universities – a challenge mounted in the name of multiculturalism.

This debate has raised a host of issues ranging from the status of scientific knowledge to the origins of Ancient American civilisation – enough to fill volumes with many of the individual controversies requiring specialist knowledge in their own right. All I shall attempt to do here is to offer a brief summary of the multiculturalist case and the outline of the Marxist response to the issue as a whole. The main charges levelled at the canon of Western civilisation are as follows:

  1. That this form of education is inappropriate for a multicultural society and a multicultural student body – it assumes a single, more or less homogenous dominant culture and fails to meet the needs of minority students (for role models, sense of identity, self esteem and so on).
  2. That this Western tradition is not only inappropriate but false. That its profound Eurocentric bias has distorted the true picture of human development, excluding, downgrading and trivialising the contributions of non-white, non-European cultures.
  3. That the Western tradition as a whole has been imperialist, racist, ‘classist’, sexist, homophobic and so on.
  4. That all, or virtually all, the individual products of this tradition are permeated or at least tainted with racism, sexism and other reactionary ideologies.

On the basis of these charges the conclusions are drawn that both the canon and the curriculum are in a drastic need of revision; that the Western tradition and all its works must be criticised in such a way as to expose its inherent oppressiveness and, if not ousted altogether, at least removed from the centre of the stage and placed on an equal footing with other cultural traditions; that the study of DWEMs (Dead White European Males) must give way, at least partly, to the study of work produced by the oppressed.

Naturally such accusations and proposals have produced howls of outrage from traditionalists and conservatives inside and outside the academy. Where should Marxists stand?

We must begin by recognising the truth of some of the multiculturalist case. It is true that the Western cultural tradition is a tradition shaped by exploitation, oppression, slavery, conquest and so on (although it has also been shaped by resistance to all that, albeit not to the same degree). It is true that the presentation of that tradition in education has been Eurocentric and either explicitly or implicitly racist in its downgrading of all other traditions. It is true that the real history of humanity has been profoundly distorted. It is true that the most outstanding representatives of this tradition are nevertheless the products of this society and that much of their work has been tainted by reactionary ideas and that Kant was a racist, T.S. Eliot an anti-semite and so on, not to speak of a minor figure like Larkin. It is true also that education and students would benefit from the correction of Eurocentric distortions and the study of Confucius alongside Locke, Rabindranath Tagore as well as Walt Whitman, Ben Okri and Toni Morrison as well as William Golding.

However, we must also recognise that Marxists arrive at this (partial) agreement from a different starting point and with a different methodology from that which is currently dominant within the multiculturalist tendency. Marxists approach culture from a perspective of historical materialism. Culture in all its forms arises from the economic foundations of society – its forces and relations of production. As Engels repeatedly stressed in his letters on historical materialism, the relationship between the economic base and the ideological superstructure is not one of simple reflection or mechanical determination [44], nevertheless there is always a relation and production remains primary. There is no philosophy, religion or art so rarefied as to be completely detachable from the material conditions in the society of which it is a product. Moreover in a class divided society the dominant culture will always be the culture of the dominant class, of the class which because it controls the means of material production also controls the means of mental production. [45] From this it follows that if the ruling class in society is slave owning then inevitably the culture will reflect this. If the ruling class is imperialist then this will leave its mark on the religion, the literature and the arts. If the society is one in which women are oppressed, sexism will be found in its paintings, its music and its novels.

But from this approach there also follow certain crucial differences with the PC version of multiculturalism. When PCers condemn Western civilisation as aggressive and oppressive they put the accent on Western as if it were an active explanatory category. For Marxists the key category is civilisation. The rise of civilisation – living in the cities – derived from the production of a surplus above what is needed for immediate subsistence and the consequent division of society into classes one of which lived off the labour of the other. Thus civilisation, up to the present, and all its culture have rested on the foundation of exploitation, and therefore are inseparable from aggression, repression, violence and the rest. The historical fact that over the last 500 years the forces of production developed more rapidly in Europe and North America may mean that Western civilisation developed these characteristics to the highest degree – to the level of Auschwitz and Hiroshima – but these characteristics are also to be found in every civilisation based on exploitation and division into classes, that is every society, North, East, South and West that stands between the end of primitive communism and the achievement of socialism. It is therefore futile to condemn Western civilisation in the name of Eastern, African or other civilisations as if war, oppression, slavery and other abominations were not to be found there and it is the temptation to do this which often exposes PC to ridicule, for such claims can so easily be refuted. [46]

Similarly when PCers speak of Western European Male Culture they are stressing categories which are at best secondary and omitting the category which is actually fundamental to explaining contemporary culture, namely bourgeois or capitalist. Of course it is true that capitalism developed first in Europe and Europeans happened to be white and that this gave the white European bourgeoisie an epoch of world economic, political and cultural dominance, but to imagine there is some intrinsic link between whiteness or Europeans and capitalism or dominance is as absurd as imagining there is something peculiarly British about industrialisation or Chinese about gunpowder. It is also an intellectual capitulation to the racist mythology it seeks to combat. Capitalism can develop and has developed on all five continents among people of black, brown or white skins and in the process has given rise to a remarkably similar culture.

Again because PC discourse tends to omit or downplay the categories of capitalism and class it also tends to exaggerate the homogeneity of Western culture and underestimate its contradictions, producing a kind of cultural or even biological reductionism far wider than the economic reductionism of which Marxism is often accused. The idea that the content of every individual’s thought or art is mechanically fixed by that individual’s race, gender, class or nationality is manifestly false. Blake, Shelley, Rembrandt, Goya and Brecht are all Dead White European Males, and all have a prominent place in the canon, yet to imagine that the work of any of them represents an uncritical expression of the status quo or the dominant culture is never to have looked at it. Indeed the work of all of them contains much that can inspire the revolt of the oppressed of both sexes and all continents. Even among writers whose politics were reactionary – the likes of Balzac, Kipling, Eliot, and Lawrence – elements of a powerful critique of existing society are present.

Indeed even to speak of Western culture as feudal, capitalist and imperialist is still an oversimplification. Any class society is a society of class domination but it is also a society of class struggle. There is always resistance and the resistance always makes an impact on the culture. The Bible contains not only, ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, but also, ‘It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.’

Medieval culture was predominantly feudal aristocratic and religious but it also contains John Bull’s lines, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?’ Michelangelo worked for the Medicis and the Pope but his work, for example his Slave sculptures, also gave extraordinarily powerful expression to the struggle for human freedom. Eighteenth century English painting was predominantly in the service of the landed gentry – Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews being the supreme example – but alongside Gainsborough stands the sharp satire of Hogarth.

Imperialism has left its mark on the English literary canon from Robinson Crusoe to Heart of Darkness but resistance to imperialism is by no means absent, think of Wordsworth’s sonnet Toussaint L’Ouverture, Swift’s Modest Proposal, or Yeats’ Easter 1916.

In the 20th century the United States has been the premier capitalist country and its culture is inevitably saturated with capitalist values yet American culture also includes Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Chaplin’s Modern Times, Ginsberg’s Howl and the songs of Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie and that is without mentioning the black contribution.

Therefore any simplistic rejection either of Western culture as a whole or of individual writers or artists on the grounds of their colour, ethnicity, gender or class is foolish in the extreme.

For Marxists this aspect of the PC debate has a familiar ring, for a similar tendency making similar mistakes arose within our own tradition after the Russian Revolution. Proletcult, the movement for proletarian culture, took its stand on the ground of class, not race or gender, but it fell into the same grandiose rejection of past culture, the same oversimplification of the relation between politics and art and the same illusions that a new culture could be generated by dogmatic prescription. At the time the foremost Marxist theoreticians, Lenin and Trotsky, firmly rebutted these exaggerated claims and explained that a revolutionary attitude to ‘Western’ – i.e. bourgeois – culture meant not throwing it in the dustbin but a long struggle to appropriate its achievements for the benefit of all the exploited and oppressed who have hitherto been denied them. [47]

One relatively new issue which has featured prominently in the PC debate is the question of Afrocentrism. This is an account of historical development advanced by a number of black nationalist writers, such as Molefi Kete Asanta and Leonard Jeffries in opposition to the dominant Eurocentric account. This perspective comes in a number of different versions but its main claims are that Africa is the birthplace of humanity, that Egypt is the birthplace of civilisation, that civilisations that developed elsewhere (Iraq, Greece, China, Central America) were the result of a direct cultural diffusion from Africa and that therefore Africa rather than Europe should rightly stand at the centre of human history.

Of course Afrocentrism is a reaction to the blatant (and covert) racism that has long pervaded Western culture – the kind that refused to believe that the magnificent constructions of the Great Zimbabwe could have been built by Africans. Also some of its claims are true or probably true – that human beings first emerged in Africa, that Egypt is in Africa and that Egypt was one of the earliest civilisations and had a significant influence on Greece. Nevertheless there is an evident defect in the Afrocentrist approach in that it attempts to invert Eurocentrism using many of the same highly ideological and unscientific racial categories. For example there has been heated controversy over the precise skin colour of Ancient Egyptians with European scholarship (particularly in the 19th century) attempting to lighten or whiten the Egyptians, much as Jesus was depicted as white, and Afrocentrists arguing they were black. But from the standpoint of any serious historical account and especially from the standpoint of historical materialism, which rejects completely the idea that culture or civilisation or science or art is the monopoly of any race and rejects the concept of ‘race’ itself as anything other than a social construction, the skin colour of the Egyptians is a minor empirical question of no more contemporary political significance than whether Ancient Britons painted themselves with dark or light blue woad. Similarly the claim that Ancient Chinese and Ancient American civilisations were African in origin (which both appears improbable and has little or no empirical backing) repeats the Eurocentric error of denying cultural progress to ‘other’ peoples.

Inverting the myths of the oppressors is not a method confined to Afrocentrism. It has been practised by feminists who try to portray women as the ‘caring’, ‘peace loving’ sex, by some vulgar Marxists who glorify the backwardness of the working class and by Stalinists who argued that, since the Western bourgeoisie depicted Stalinist Russia as an evil empire, it must be a workers’ paradise. It is always shoddy theory leading only to the substitution of one myth for another.

Having made a critique of Afrocentrism, however, it is also necessary to distinguish between the realm of theoretical struggle and the realm of political struggle, between theoretical compromise and political solidarity – the two are connected but not identical. For example, Malcolm X in his autobiography records his induction into the historical theory of the Nation of Islam according to which whites were a race of ‘devils’ specially bred on the island of Patmos 6,000 years ago by the evil scientist Mr Yacub. [48] This ‘demonology’, as Malcolm X himself later called it, is purest nonsense of similar scientific standing to the myth of God creating women from Adam’s spare rib. But this in no way alters our political solidarity with Malcolm X as a great fighter for black liberation and our support for him against the racists, the ruling class and the liberals (many of whom doubtless hold more accurate theories of human development). Similarly in many political struggles against racism we have to stand with the Afrocentrists without making concessions to their erroneous theories.

One final criticism must be made of the PC approach to ‘Western culture’ and the canon. Pigeon holing art, artists and audiences into rigidly circumscribed ethnic, gender or national boxes creates an obstacle to understanding and appreciating one of the most important contemporary cultural trends both in ‘high art’ and on the streets – namely cultural interaction, borrowing and fusion. In reality cultural fusion is as old as human culture itself, but in the era of world capitalism, international production and global communications its frequency and variety has enormously increased. From the Latin American novel to South African music and Zimbabwean sculpture, cultural borrowing and interaction are at work producing vital artistic innovation. Traditionalists will deplore or dismiss these developments as in a previous generation they condemned jazz, blues and then rock as ‘jungle music’, but life and art will pass them by. More dangerous perhaps is the threat of absorption, corruption and homogenisation by the Disney/Hollywood (or, for that matter, Bombay) money machine. But it is clear that this rich diversity cannot be defended or encouraged by the mechanical methods of PC. What is required is a genuine internationalism which understands that all culture is a creative human response to the social conditions of people’s lives in all their complexity and contradictions.

A note on Britain

So far this article has focused on the PC debate in America but clearly many of its arguments and conclusions are applicable to PC in Britain. There are however some differences which require comment. In the first place both the controversy and the phenomenon itself have been on a much bigger scale in the US than has been the case or seems likely to be the case in the future in Britain. There are a number of reasons for this: the fact that the left in Britain is more rooted in the working class and its mass organisations; the fact that blacks and other ethnic minorities are a higher proportion in the US and also a higher proportion of the student population and constitute stronger lobbies within bourgeois politics; the fact that the black, women’s and lesbian and gay movements have all been bigger in the US.

For all these same reasons PC activities in Britain (and the attacks on them) seem likely to be concentrated in areas such as social work, the probation service, schools (as opposed to universities [49]) and local government and their associated trade unions. These are areas which have attracted left wingers and in which left ideas, especially anti-racist, anti-sexist ideas have had a strong presence. However they are also areas in which educated leftists in the upper ranks of the white collar working class, or the middle class, hold managerial or semi-managerial positions. Thus the temptation arises to attempt to impose anti-racism, anti-sexism and so forth from above by means of administrative regulations. This leads straight to some of the more detrimental features of PC. The problems of PC are particularly acute when the agencies concerned are involved in administering inadequate and declining resources so the tensions between the professionals, seen as representing the state, and their clients are aggravated.

In many ways the controversy surrounding what the media called ‘loony left’ Labour councils in the 1980s was an example of what today would be dubbed a controversy about PC. Young ‘Bennite’ Labour councillors were elected full of plans to improve services and fund initiatives for blacks, women, lesbians and gays. The latter usually consisted of a mixture of genuinely progressive policies and a certain amount of PC type tokenism. The Labour councils’ failure to resist rate capping and the poll tax left them presiding over worse, not better, services, but clinging to their tokens, which were usually cheap but often irrelevant to most workers white and black, male and female. To put it crudely, it cost less to stick up signs proclaiming the borough a nuclear free zone or to rename a tower block Nelson Mandela House than it does to provide decent street lighting or house repairs. This obviously left the councils open to attack from the right and the press with a good chance of the attacks striking a chord among working class people. Labour’s sustained move rightwards has by and large eliminated the left councils and shifted the focus for the PC onto the welfare agencies and the like.

Social work is a good example of an arena in which PC is likely to arise. Social workers are employed by the capitalist state to handle the casualties of exploitation, poverty and unemployment. By ‘handling’, the state means a combination of help and discipline to maintain social stability. Within this combination the people who become social workers put the emphasis on help (at least subjectively). The state, however, puts the emphasis on social control. Social workers, no matter how well intentioned or left wing cannot escape entirely the disciplinary role they are constrained to play. Most working class people are aware of this and therefore view social workers with deep ambivalence. That social workers make efforts to address this problem is, of course, a step forward. But the nature of their objective position means this is likely to be done in a bureaucratic, dogmatic, top down manner.

One instance which perhaps does not strictly come under the heading of PC but illustrates the dangers was the response by some social services to the problems of child sexual abuse. Obviously social workers were put in an impossible situation, subject to the contradictory imperatives of protecting children and keeping families together – damned if they intervene and damned if they don’t. Nevertheless it is clear that in some instances such as Cleveland they overcompensated for past denial, erected a dogma of near universal child abuse and reacted in a way that was disproportionate and extremely insensitive to working class families and children.

Another more evidently PC example is the question of mixed race adoption. A number of social services have taken a position of total opposition to all mixed race adoption, including by mixed race couples. The well meaning justification for this policy is that since black people face racism in this society only black parents can give black children the support they need to deal with this. But behind this argument stand a number of typical PC ideas: that all whites are racist, that ‘white culture’ and ‘black culture’ are completely distinct and separate entities and that black culture, at least, should remain so.

This fails to recognise that there are many white adoptive parents who are anti-racists, who are perfectly capable of supporting black children against racism, who will know or learn about black culture, and who will bring up their children proud to be black, just as there also exist black parents who will bring up their children as Uncle Toms. In the meantime, since there is a surplus of black children in need of adoption, children are left in care or institutions. At the same time the ‘same race only’ policy, by focusing on skin colour instead of attitudes, concedes the right wing racist argument that ‘race’ is a fundamental and insuperable division in the human species and that black and white cannot live together or fully integrate. Here multiculturalism justifies racial separation and works against class unity, the only real basis for fighting racism.

The National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) also seems to have gone overboard for PC. Charlie Kimber, in an excellent Socialist Worker article on PC, reports:

In 1991 delegates to the union’s conference were given a handbook outlawing terms like ‘paymaster’ as sexist and ‘fat chance’ as sizeist. The next year the national executive ruled out a motion which included the term ‘tinkering’ on the grounds that it was offensive to gypsies. It added that strike breakers could not be termed ‘scabs’ because it was offensive to people with skin disorders ... NAPO also mobilises language monitors to listen to conference delegates. [50]

As Charlie succinctly comments, ‘This is nonsense’. It also seems likely that it is an attempt to compensate linguistically for the deeply problematic role that probation officers are obliged to play as the soft wing of the judicial system.

Another focus for PC in Britain is the race relations industry – the network of official bodies centred on the Commission for Racial Equality, staffed by people professionally employed to improve race relations and combat racism. Traditionally the race relations industry has been dominated by liberal (or even right wing) paternalist whites and extremely moderate and respectable middle class blacks, but there is also a more radical left wing of the same industry. However, what the left shares with the right is that their anti-racist activity tends to be confined to the committee room. They spend their lives drawing up policies for the health service, the police, education and so on, hardly ever stepping into the streets or the estates to confront racism at the sharp end. Words are, once again, at a premium. The left contends with the right over language, over what the committee should be called, over what its aims and obligations should be and so on. Thus arises a culture obsessed with terminological correctness.

In all of these situations socialists have the task, by no means an easy one, of separating out and supporting every genuine step forward against oppression and discrimination from meaningless and counter-productive tokenism, without giving comfort to the right. An example of how not to respond is provided by Melanie Phillips. In an anti-PC diatribe in the Observer she launched into an attack on social work training which employed all the hyperbolic language of the American right wing. So we are regaled with shock-horror reports of ‘a corruption of the traditional values of open-minded education’, of ‘totalitarianism’, of ‘browbeating into false confessions’ and ‘vicious intolerance’. In the course of her attack Phillips, like D’Souza and Hughes before her, undoubtedly scores some hits. However, she also roundly condemns social work training courses for being required to deal with ‘processes of structural oppression, race, class and gender’ and for ensuring students are aware of ‘individual and institutional racism and ways to combat both through anti-racist practice’. [51] To this one is forced to reply, what sort of social work course for contemporary Britain would not deal with these issues? After all they form part of every A level and GCSE Sociology course.

Above all what is nauseating about Phillip’s rhetoric, and also typical of many anti-PC campaigners, is that she writes throughout in tones of expectant martyrdom, congratulating herself on her courage at defying the ‘conspiracy of silence’. In fact she is expressing views that will be warmly applauded by every Tory MP, not a few Labour MPs, and every newspaper editor and proprietor and for which she is rewarded by appearing on numerous TV discussion programmes. In short she has played straight into the hands of the right.

As I write these lines Home Secretary Michael Howard is promising to end the right of silence and increase the prison population and Secretary of State for Social Security Peter Lilly is denouncing single parents and foreign scroungers. In the same week the West Midlands police responsible for the incarceration of the Birmingham Six are let off without even facing trial. It all makes a sickening spectacle but in the context of the furore over PC it also seems a useful reminder of who is really threatening ‘traditional liberal values’, who really displays ‘vicious intolerance’ and who really gets ‘browbeaten into false confessions’.

At the same time a correct identification of the real enemy – the ruling class, its state machine and its political representatives – is the key to avoiding the follies of PC. If we make our primary focus not correcting the language of the student, the teacher and the railway worker but the mobilisation of the same student, teacher and railway worker against the class attacks of that enemy – attacks which are thoroughly material as well as verbal and which include racist, sexist and homophobic attacks – we will not only do more to strike at the roots of racism, sexism and homophobia, but also improve the language and culture of the student, teacher and railway worker in the process.


1. P. Berman (ed.), Debating PC: The Debate over Political Correctness on College Campuses (New York 1992), p. 5. This combines a collection of articles from across the US political spectrum, including pieces by Edward Said, Irving Howe, Stanley Fish, Dinesh D’Souza, and Barbara Ehrenreich. It is therefore an essential source for the debate as it happened in the US.

2. J. Searle, The Storm over the University, ibid., p. 86.

3. L. Selfa and A. Maass, PC: What’s Behind the Attack on Politically Correct? (Chicago 1991), p. 5.

4. D. D’Souza, Illiberal Education (New York 1991), p. 251.

5. ‘With admirable restraint and civility, D’Souza has written an informative account that provides a rare combination of tough-minded analysis, principled judgements, thoughtful proposals and a humane solidarity’. E. Genovese, former Marxist and author of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, quoted on the dust jacket of Illiberal Education.

6. Quoted in L. Selfa and A. Maass, op. cit., p. 2.

7. See N. Hentoff, “Speech Codes” on the campus and Problems of Free Speech, in Debating PC, op. cit., p. 2.

8. See I. Howe, The Value of Canon, in ibid.

9. See E. Said, The Politics of Knowledge, in ibid. Said also appeared on a late night TV discussion programme chaired by Christopher Hitchens in which he was billed and spoke as an opponent of PC.

10. P. Berman, ibid., p. 5.

11. R. Hughes, Culture of Complaint – The Fraying of America (New York 1993), p. 11.

12. My guess is that such stylistic seduction was responsible for the relatively uncritical review of Hughes’ book that appeared in Socialist Review (July/August 1993).

13. I. Kristol, The Tragedy of Multiculturalism, Wall Street Journal, 31 July 1991.

14. See L. Selfa and A. Maass, op. cit., p. 3.

15. E. Genovese, Heresy Yes – Sensitivity No, New Republic, 15 April 1991, p. 30.

16. Faulty Attitudes and Characteristics: Results of a 1989–90 Survey, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 May 1991, A16–A17, cited in L. Selfa, op. cit., p. 9.

17. See R. Hughes, op. cit., p. 56.

18. Jeffries is the Afrocentrist author of the theory of Ice people (whites) and Sun people (blacks), Rothenburg is the author of a textbook, Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study and professor of philosophy and women’s studies at William Paterson College of New Jersey. The Black Faculty Caucus was in a dispute about ‘multiculturalism’ at the University of Texas in 1990.

19. R. Hughes, op. cit., p. 16.

20. This may be an accurate characterisation of the anti-PC campaign as a whole, which has been dominated by the right, but it obviously does not fit someone like Hughes who makes clear his commitment to what he sees as a non-PC multiculturalism and anti-racism. The problem with Hughes is that he takes the very real gains of the 1960s for granted and fails to appreciate the extent to which they were won through struggle, including methods that were extreme or revolutionary. It is this classical liberal error of failing to understand that the cultural and intellectual climate depends not only on rational argument but also on the clash of real social forces, which leads him to write a book which, whatever his intentions, lends aid and comfort to the reactionaries.

21. One example of this approach is M. Berbe, Public Image Limited: Political Correctness and the Media Big Lie in Debating PC, op. cit. Berbe knocks a lot of spots off Messrs Bloom, Kimball and D’Souza but essentially his article does not go beyond being a defence of ‘young faculty members’ against media misrepresentation. Another is P. Rothenburg, Critics of Attempts to Democratise the Curriculum are waging a Campaign to Misrepresent the Work of Responsible Professors, ibid.

22. See for example M.K. Asante, Multiculturalism: An Exchange, ibid.

23. E. Said, ibid., pp. 173–174.

24. B. Ehrenreich, The Challenge for the Left, ibid., p. 335.

25. The term ‘classism’ is among the least happy of the PC inventions with its tendency to reduce the material relationship of class exploitation to a mere ideological phenomenon of class prejudice, i.e. snobbery (a tendency put forward by the bourgeoisie and its apologists including, of course, John Major). It is therefore a theoretical step backwards from the concept of class as such and particularly from ‘class struggle’. It should be noted that, whereas socialists oppose racism and sexism, we support classism in the sense of supporting class consciousness and class struggle.

26. D’Souza repeatedly attacks what he calls ‘the victims revolution on campus’, but the reality is not revolution but pressure for reform.

27. R. Polenberg, One Nation Divisible: Class, Race and Ethnicity in the United States since 1938 (New York 1980), p. 271.

28. Between 1970 and 1977 ‘the number of black students had more than doubled’, ibid., p. 276.

29. ‘In 1975, 32 percent of black high school graduates enrolled in institutions of higher learning. In 1988, 28.1 percent of black high school graduates did. During the same period, the white enrolment level increased from 32.4 to 38.1 percent’. L. Selfa and A. Maass, op. cit., p. 12.

30. D. D’Souza, op. cit., p. 51. Conservatives like D’Souza use Asian academic ‘overachievement’ to claim that racism is no barrier to those with the ‘right’ values and dedication to hard work – both of which are assumed to be ‘Asian’ cultural traits. In fact, Asian achievement is a function of class. Unlike other racial minorities in the US (i.e. Blacks and Latinos), the Asian population is a heavily middle class population, owing to US immigration policies which favoured middle class Asian immigrants over working class Asians.

The 1990 US Census showed that four of 10 Asian families earn more than $50,000 annually and that a similar percentage (39 percent) of Asians 25 years and older have four or more years of college education. Two-thirds of Asian voters voted for Bush in the 1992 election.

In fact, the University of California admits Asians at a rate of more than three times their representation in Californian high school graduating classes – more than twice the rate at which it admits Latinos. See A. Hacker, Affirmative Action: The New Look, New York Review of Books, October 12, 1989, pp. 63–65.

31. See L. Selfa and A. Maass, op. cit., p. 10.

32. The extent of white dominance of American universities in the past is well symbolised by the fact that Harvard, the oldest and most prestigious of all the colleges, has only had two tenured black professors in more than three centuries.

33. L. Selfa and A. Maass, op. cit., p. 17.

34. N. Hentoff, “Speech Codes” on Campus and Problems of Free Speech, Debating PC, op. cit.

35. S. Fish, in Debating PC, op. cit., pp. 231–232.

36. L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (London 1967), p. 104.

37. L. Trotsky, In Defence of the October Revolution (London 1971), p. 28.

38. It should be noted that the Bolsheviks did not get around to giving even themselves the politically correct name of Communist Party until well after the revolution.

39. For a Marxist critique of these tendencies see A. Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism? (London 1982) and Against Postmodernism (Cambridge 1992).

40. D. Spender, Man Made Language (London 1980), p. I.

41. See K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (London 1985), p. 37.

42. It is hard to think of a more marginalised and oppressed group than the gypsies, yet the argot of my home town, Portsmouth (and Portsmouth is not alone on this) contains numerous Romany words which are widely used in the working class: dinlo (stupid), chary (child), mush (bloke), chore (steal), bok (luck or bad luck), kushtee (good, OK).

43. B. Ehrenreich, in Debating PC, op. cit., p. 335.

44. See for example, Engels to J. Bloch, 25 Sept 1890, in Marx, Engels, Selected Works II (Moscow 1962), p. 488.

45. See K. Marx and F. Engels, op. cit., p. 64.

46. D’Souza and Hughes are both able to make great play of African complicity and Arab practice in the slave trade (see D. D’Souza, op. cit., pp. 76–77, and R. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 140–147). Indeed Hughes is able to turn the slavery argument round into a special merit of the West on the grounds that while ‘Africa, Islam and Europe all participated in Black slavery ... only Europe (including, here, North America) proved itself able to conceive of abolishing it.’ (p. 146) But Hughes misses two crucial points again through his focus on culture rather than economics and struggle. First, Western abolition of the slave trade and slavery derived not from morality but from the transition to industrial capitalism for which slavery is unsuited – hence the conflict between the northern industrialist states and the Southern plantation based states. Second, he ignores the role of the slave revolts such as that led by Tousaint L’Ouverture in San Domingo.

47. See L. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (London 1991), and L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, (New York 1970), especially, Class and Art, pp. 63–82.

48. See The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Harmondsworth 1968), pp. 258–262.

49. The main exception to this and the main instance of PC in higher education has been in the upper echelons of the National Union of Students. In recent years the NUS conferences and the NUS bureaucracy have been dominated by frantic tokenism and identity politics. This has been linked to a move to the right in terms of both general politics and student struggles and PC has been used, more or less consciously, as a weapon against the revolutionary left to attack direct action or any kind of vigorous politics as ‘macho’ and ‘intimidatory’.

50. Socialist Worker, 31 July 1993.

51. M. Phillips, Oppressive Urge to Stop Oppression, the Observer, 1 August 1993.

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