Thursday Book: The hobby horse of race war


Stephen Howe
Wednesday 05 August 1998 23:02

THE IDEA of global race conflict, argues Frank Furedi, has been a paramount but mostly hidden theme of international relations throughout the 20th century. Western, especially US and British, foreign policy has waged a "silent race war", maintaining an embarrassed public silence about racial issues, but in private obsessed by them. Western policy-makers and pundits were guiltily convinced that anti-colonial protest, the rise of the Asian powers, Civil Rights campaigns, and the Communist use of the race card in Cold War propaganda, were all riding a global wave of racial revenge against white domination.

Furedi believes that, in response, the Western powers moved slowly away from their Victorian assumption of racial superiority. They shifted first to a defensive "racial pragmatism"; then to petulant claims that it was the rebellious victims who were spreading racial conflict. Next, in the Sixties, came a belated and grudging acceptance of the idea of racial equality. Now, after the Cold War's end, comes a new solution, to rehabilitate the West's colonial past and justify its imperialist present. This is the effort to highlight and even invent the failures - from corruption through economic stagnation to genocide - of newly independent Third World states.

Furedi's is a stimulating and bold argument from a very able, if sometimes dogmatic historian. It is flawed, though, by its tendency to draw sweeping conclusions from a rather narrow range of evidence, and by nagging inconsistencies and gaps in the detail of his reasoning. But there's a wider aspect to Frank Furedi's work on this subject. He is the main intellectual inspiration for a substantial group of writers on race and international politics connected to the Revolutionary Communist Party and to its glossy magazine, Living Marxism.

In the pages of Living Marxism and other places where RCP associates publish, one finds his arguments so closely repeated, in such similar language, that it is tempting to suspect that a dozen or more bylines are in fact all pseudonyms for Frank Furedi. Actually, they're not: I have met some of these other writers in their quite distinct fleshes, though not all write under their real names. Yet the sheer homogeneity and conformism of the arguments (even Furedi's key phrase, "the silent race war", is repeatedly used) leave one wondering where the individual thinker ends and the party line begins.

The shared conviction of the RCP is that pretty much all of contemporary politics, including the manipulation of ideas about race and nation, is the fault of Western imperialism. It is a clear and simple idea, which gives its devotees a ready-made explanation for everything that happens in the world. If the mainstream media blame Serb extremists for the carnage in Bosnia, and Hutu ones for that in Rwanda, then they must be covering up for imperialist plots in those countries. Moreover, the Serbs and the Hutu must be unfairly maligned; indeed, stories of genocide in Bosnia must be fabrications.

If the papers are full of stories encouraging us to worry about child abusers on the streets or dangerous additives in our food, this must be a grand conspiracy to distract us from the real problems of global capitalism and imperialism (Furedi devoted his last book to that theme). If Green ideas have an ever bigger place in public consciousness, even in conservative newspapers and corporate boardrooms, this must reflect an irrational, anti-science worldview, which in turn must serve the interests of global capitalism. Did the Western media cry out with one voice against the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria? Well, in Living Marxism's eyes, not only must the outcry have been hypocritical, but Saro-Wiwa was probably guilty as charged by the military thugs who hanged him.

The pity of it is that, across all these areas, a good case is being spoilt by wild overstatement. Furedi and his co-thinkers are on strong ground when they complain that many Western liberals now embrace a comfortable amnesia about imperialism and take a horribly smug comfort in blaming the Third World for all its own ills. They are right, too, to damn much of the contemporary Left for its abandonment of Enlightenment rationality, its collapse into a kind of spineless relativism. At best, the Living Marxism take on race and imperialism, when allied to serious historical investigation, produces really powerful analyses - as with Kenan Malik's work, or the best of Furedi's. At its crudest, though, it degenerates into strident tub-thumping, paranoid conspiracy-mongering, and - as in some of its advocates' commentary on Bosnia - into apologetics for mass murder. Furedi himself usually avoids the worst excesses. But writers must take some responsibility for the way their admirers use their ideas, and here The Silent War is in some very questionable company.

The reviewer's book 'Afrocentrism: mythical pasts and imagined homes' is published by Verso

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