To hell with liberalism

When the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury died in 1885, hundreds of religious and philanthropic institutions were represented at his funeral in Westminster Abbey. They included any number of Ragged Schools, the Reformatory and Refuge Union, Hoxton Costers’ Mission, St. James’s Home for Female Inebriates, Destitute Children’s Dinner Society, Female Mission to the Fallen, Gordon Memorial Fund for the Benefit of Poor Children, and so on, an impressive roll call of Victorian do-goodery. Many respectable citizens shook their heads at such philanthropy in the slums – in the manner of Punch’s Challoner-like cartoonist they depicted the destitute Hoxton coster or the ragged child saying when he saw yet another helpful visitor – “Let’s ’eave arf-a-brick at ’Im”. The “destitute child” or the “fallen female” may well have been pleased with their bowl of hot nourishing soup and instructive religious tract, and it may well have been better to have attended the  Ragged School than no school at all, but the growth of the working-class movement is a series of metaphorical half-bricks heaved at men like Lord Shaftesbury no less than at the Punch gentleman-fascist ideal. 

The sophistication of the present day does not permit such wonderfully expressive titles as those used in Lord Shaftesbury’s day (the Ogle Mews Ragged School, the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes). In any case, the labouring class has improved its condition by its own efforts. Philanthropy has given place to liberalism. People are enabled to do something for those “less fortunate than themselves” by joining the League for the Rights of Man, the Association for the Advancement of the Coloured People, the Committee against Racial Discrimination, the Movement for Colonial Freedom. But their language has not really changed much. 

I went into the army in 1939 because I couldn’t sit by and see the Jewish people wiped out. I was opposed to war all the same,” A.B., an engineer. 

We’ve got to do something to help these poor devils who come over here. After all, negroes are human beings, the same as us,” C.D., Post Office clerk. 

What are we doing for the less fortunate nations?” E.F., pacifist speaker. 

My dear liberal friends, why do you not call your organisations by such names as Society for the Poor Blacks, League for the Downtrodden Jews, Union for the Betterment of the Underdeveloped Nations? (One cannot be too satirical – the last phrase is actually in use.) And why are you surprised that not only the working classes (for whom you have done so much – but then, the Guinness family did a lot for the poor people of Dublin, as Brendan Behan remarked, and the poor people of Dublin did quite a lot for the Guinness family), but also the Black Moslems and the people of Watts County, are all heaving half-bricks at you? 

We were assured that when Smethwick rejected Mr. Patrick Gordon-Walker, it was a blow to human dignity and freedom, and when Leyton declined him, also, racial discrimination was apparent. Yet the half-brick sustained by Mr. Gordon-Walker may have been a lucky shot in its way. As Foreign Secretary, so right-wing a figure would have been a major disaster in handling such matters as Viet-Nam. Mr. Stewart, as locum tenens, has been bad enough, but the setback to the leading right-winger of the Party may have restrained him a little. It is unfashionable today to suggest the working class may sometimes be right. Perhaps Smethwick knew full well what it was doing in rejecting Mr. Gordon-Walker. He was, after all, not a member of any racial minority. Any so-called left-winger of the Labour Party could have retained the seat – even a right-winger with a working-class background could have retained it – even somebody like Shinwell could have kept it, despite being a Jew (which has never been an electoral liability in England), despite being 80 years old and quite as reactionary as Gordon-Walker. As a member of the Front Bench, engrossed in foreign affairs (like Viet-Nam), Gordon-Walker could and did offer nothing. But Smethwick was a “safe seat”, so it did not matter. But there was some racial discontent (nobody disputes that) and so it did matter. 

Yet even so, was Smethwick entirely wrong? Its people did not want to go on living in the slums with coloured immigrants. Why do coloured immigrants live in the slums? Because they cannot get out of them. Would anyone from Smethwick mind living in Hampstead Garden Suburb, like the members of the Labour Front Bench, with neighbours who might be equally as black as those in Smethwick, but not quite so ubiquitous? It is easy to live in Hampstead, with an Indian doctor next door, to whom one says “Good morning” over the hollyhocks, and join CARD; it is quite a different matter to live in Smethwick and have a West Indian family over one’s head playing jazz until 2 a.m. The working-class may express themselves badly on the matter. But basically what they are complaining about (in England, at least) is the conditions under which they live. It is automatically assumed by the liberal that this is the same problem that exists in the Southern States of the U.S.A., or South Africa, but it is not.

It is racialism. What is wrong with racialism? It has always been highly inconvenient both to political and to economic imperialism to find that some folk traditions could not be readily wiped out. Nationalism has always served the State, but racialism has sometimes tripped it up. By making all the people in one country citizens of one nation-State, the State has canalised their obedience: exacting tribute from them just as long as it had authority over them. Yet nationality can be exchanged like a worn-out suit; indeed, the Englishman who emigrates to a country of similar language or culture changes his nationality quicker than he wears out his suit, and by the time he is sartorially indistinguishable from his new compatriots he is probably sneering at “pommies” or “limeys” with the best of them. Folk differences, however, make it difficult for the State: the Romans found the Jews stubborn and the Celts indigestible, and the Coal Board cannot get Welsh miners to go and work in Lancashire. The American workers objected to cheap Chinese labour coming into the U.S.A. at the same time as the Chinese themselves were hounding the Manchurians out of China. It suits the State at times to call for liberalism. The U.S. today would like a little more liberalism in race relationship, without altering the economic status of the Southern Negro, but the white is too ignorant and the Negro too poor to accept this legacy of Kennedy, who was not even much of a liberal saint but the best they can offer us. 

It would be very convenient for a modern liberal government if we had no differences at all. Like the ideal Chinese worker of Mao Tse Tung, clad in identical blue tunics, we could all turn up to work wherever we were sent, a nation of blue ants, industriously toiling for our masters, who could be kindly and tolerant scholars living in elegant homes, giving us the benefit of their wisdom. This is the utopia of statesmanship. They would impose it if they could. The fact, however, that liberalism still exists is an indication that sometimes the blue ants can occasionally sting. Of course anyone with a grain of working-class experience knows that racial discrimination, race hate and the like are evil things, as much as any liberal. But there are other evil things too and one depends upon the other. The housing situation is the particular one in this country, and if this had been remedied, there would have been no colour clashes any more than there were in the days when Limehouse faced a similar wave of immigration. When the housing problem eases, the problem of race relationship also eases. What causes the colour clash? So far as England is concerned, it has nothing to do with the old imperialist attitude to the colonies. Then, the white sahib abroad despised all foreigners, all natives, and was convinced of his own superiority. Now, the people who nod musingly when some idiot chalks up “Keep Britain White” are by no means convinced of their own superiority; on the contrary they have a strong inferiority complex due to being kept down in the slums. 

They get houses, we don’t … if I blacked my face I might get a council house … and XYZ, MP, said to me, I can’t do anything for you, I’m too busy looking after the poor coloured workers…. They can get National Assistance, but if we went we wouldn’t … etc.” 

That is nothing to do with old-fashioned imperialism, everything to do with a strong inferiority complex. How can the liberal call these people “fascists”? They are just frightened. This is an attitude that runs right through the decaying houses and disappears in the sunlight of better housing. It has nothing really to do with colour prejudice. (The same districts have always accepted as better the “black doctor” – usually Indian – have mixed freely with seamen of all nations and colours – and begin to accept coloured people when they mix freely at work, but particularly if their housing problem has been solved.) The tendency of liberalism is to rail at prejudice but to do nothing about the major problems. The reason for that is simple: they have abandoned the working-class struggle, if it ever interested them in the first place. As one result, they are forced to purely political solutions. Stop landladies from refusing coloured tenants! Stop incitements to race hatred! Stop snobbish Gentiles banning snobbish Jews from snobbish golf clubs! All these well-meaning organisations and their well-meaning activities are only the modern equivalent of taking round bowls of soup for the destitute child in his Ragged School. Why does the Black Moslem heave his half-brick at the worthy liberal no less than does the Notting Hill labourer in one room of a raddled house, the rest of which is occupied by a West Indian family being bled white by the mortgage so that every speck of dirt on the stairs is worth its weight in gold-dust? He is not really a Moslem in that he holds that “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet and Mohammed Ali is the greatest” so much as a protest against the tolerance which is being shown him. Not everybody liked being placed in a ragged school either. There is not much difference between liberalism and illiberalism: one is only the reverse of the coin. Those who show toleration could equally well be intolerant; and while it is true that the more decent people are tolerant and the less decent people intolerant, as once more decent people provided soup and the less decent people said you would not be thanked for it, ingratitude must rightly be expected. 

What is wanted is not the efforts of the liberal at reform, but the revolutionary approach. Those who are now abandoning the revolutionary approach may be as cynical as they wish about it. Let us  change our name from anarchists to libertarians and then concentrate on liberal reforms rather than impossible revolution! – we too will merit our share of the half-bricks if we do so. When A.B. went into the army, he did so because he was conscripted, and did not resist. What really had the position of the Jews in Germany to do with it? A friend in America wrote to me in 1940 more or less to this effect: –

Why reproach G.H. for supporting the war? What alternative is there, say for the Jews in Europe to escape Hitler? We have talked about revolution for fifty years. What will save the Jews in Warsaw now will not be that impossible revolution. It will be the victory of the democratic powers – we have to look to Churchill!” 

This, however, was not the position of the Jews in Europe. G.H. might think that the democratic powers would help the Jews of Eastern Europe. They did not. Joel Brand found that the problems facing the Jewish Resistance was not merely that they had to fight the Nazis but that the democratic powers were of no help. When he was asked to negotiate by Eichmann, it was not a condition that he actually provided lorries to save Jews from the gas-ovens. He merely had to promise to do so. The Allies would not make such a promise despite Brand’s explanation that it would be an easy one to break. The true answer came from Lord Moyne, of the Guinness family that had done so much for the poor people of Dublin: “What would we do with three million Jews if we got them?”—to which Brand could only answer despairingly, “Put them in gas ovens yourself, there is no place for them on earth”. 

What finally happened to the Jews in Warsaw? They rose up in an impossible revolution. The day of barricades is over, said the liberals, but they built barricades. Not just the idealistic revolutionaries built them. Old men in prayer-shawls built them; liberals built them; reactionaries built them; the normally indifferent mass rushed enthusiastically to build them. They all knew it was an impossible revolution and that it would achieve nothing whatever, But it was the only possible course. They compromised the Polish Resistance which was not very happy about the battle that went on while the crowds poured out of Polish churches from Easter service to watch. They compromised the British Government which had done its best for this poor people and allowed soup to be sent through Switzerland. The Negroes in Watts County, too, hemmed in a ghetto for the poor surrounded by opulent districts through which no public transport ran, compromised all the fine liberal-minded organisations that were prepared to do so much for them. They ran amok and burned, while Los Angeles looked on horrified – but not quite so horrified when the police took control. There was no lack of cartoonists to show that the people of Watts County had thrown half-bricks at the liberals. 

Are we to imagine that the efforts of the liberals are somehow half-way houses to freedom? With Ibsen, I believe that this “damned smug compact liberal majority” that dominates the Labour and Conservative Parties is the worst enemy of freedom. We do not want people to smooth over differences and persuade everyone to live together happily in the wormwood-ridden houses of Brixton. The more they break the place up, the better we shall all be. Of course the Cockney and the West Indian throw half-bricks alike at the good folk who tell them that they ought to live quietly together in the Stepney slums. Maybe their common reaction will lead to a common unity. 

Capital punishment was a baneful and vengeful thing, but its abolition has not taken us nearer to the revolutionary policy of abolition of prisons, but further from it! Those academic sociologists who were prepared to admit that society could move towards the abolition of imprisonment are less likely to support it if it means letting murderers loose. Liberalism does not advance freedom. It seeks to define its limits. The do-gooders are pressing for coloured policemen and coloured magistrates and they think that this will be a victory for freedom. To support the case we are told what excellent recruits they would make, which is undoubtedly true. (Behan left on record what excellent prison warders the Irish Catholics were, especially towards other Irish Catholics from whom they needed to dissociate themselves!) 

Fascism will never succeed in Britain. Or at least, if it does, it will he called Anti-Fascism. The only alternative appears to be insurrectionism, and if this is considered old-fashioned and outmoded let us at least go down fighting in our own plumage, the Last of the Mohicans. 

Anarchy 59 (January 1966) p3-8

[Uploaded as supporting material for ‘Slaughter or slander? Notes on the Albert Meltzer-George Woodcock conflict’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No.107-108, December 2022: ]