Simon Brooks’s blog ‘On the Progressive Alliance’ is a powerful response to two phenomena witnessed in Wales during the course of the General Election. The first is the challenge that Corbynism now poses to a Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, that has for many years defined itself as a more radical alternative to managerial, Blairite, Labourism. The second is the warm embrace, and even the promotion, of Corbynism as part of an alleged ‘progressive alliance’ on the facebook sites and twitter feeds of Plaid Cymru supporters and activists. Simon argues that in
persuading voters that “progressive politics” – most easily attained through a state-wide party like Corbyn’s Labour – is more important than nationalism, Plaid Cymru undermined the logic of its own electoral existence. […] This is why continuing to promote Corbynism and the Progressive Alliance represents a threat to the very existence of the Welsh national movement itself.
The debate regarding the ‘progressive alliance’ is not limited to Wales. I will come to our current predicament, and my points of disagreement with Simon’s analysis later, but will take something of a historical detour and will begin with a comparative example.
The following words belong to the African American critic and philosopher Cornel West. He is describing, in positive terms, a cultural phenomena that can also be perceived in nineteenth century Wales.
Black Nationalism was never fully embraced in an organizational sense. Black people usually still maintain some possibility for a multiracial coalition, for trying to extend the scope of democracy in America. I think the role of the Black Church has been crucial in this, because what it has done historically is steal the thunder from the Black nationalists. It highlights Black cultural distinctiveness and, despite calling for group cohesiveness, its message is universalistic. It has always been open to others willing to work with us. By saying that self-love and self-affirmation are key, it took center ground over Black Nationalism.
Cornel West sees the African American embrace of the universal as a positive. In a context where territorial nationhood was not an option, the dominant desire was to expand the parameters of American democracy and to claim full citizenship. As a minority within Britain the historical experience of the Welsh is similar to that of ethnic groups in the United States. The Welsh, however, also had the option of territorial sovereignty, but unlike the Finns, the Slovenes and the nations of the Baltic states, it was an option that was never taken.
In his newly published Why Wales Never Was (an English language version of his seminal Pam Na Fu Cymru), Simon Brooks aims to explain why this was the case. He recounts a story that is essentially similar to that offered by Cornel West. The ‘universalism’ of Christianity in the realm of the spirit, and of Liberalism in the realm of politics, resulted in a resistance to the full embrace of a nationalist project. Unlike West in the African American context however, Brooks sees the rejection of nationalism in the name of universalism as a historical disaster for Wales. Welsh radicals took the view that group rights for members of national and ethnic minorities defined their members in terms of an enclosed identity, hindering their entry into wider society. Informed by Nonconformist Christianity, the 19th century Welsh rejected nationalism and wrapped themselves in the ideology of Liberal universalism. In order for the individual to access all areas, participate in the common good and benefit from it, one had to be inclusive and embrace the English-speaking civic spaces of the British state. Opposition to minority nationalism was made in the name of helping the minority out of its peripherality, rather than oppressing it. Simon Brooks sees the same mistake being made today in the name of the ‘progressive alliance’ and concludes by noting that in order to survive
Plaid Cymru will have to retreat from the Progressive Alliance and return to the national question.
The argument has considerable merit, but it might be sobering to note that the critique of ‘progressive alliances’ within the nationalist movement is an exact mirror image of the resistance towards collaborations with environmentalists, feminists and minorities expressed by elements within the ‘internationalist’ Left. Eric Hobsbawm’s well documented contempt for minority nationalism, for example, was part of a wider rejection of ‘identity movements’. As he put it:
The political project of the Left is for all human beings. However we interpret the words, it isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity for the old Etonians or gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only.
In equating ‘shareholders’ with ‘blacks’ and members of ‘the Garrick Club’ with ‘the handicapped’ Hobsbawm is demonstrating the crude terms of a world view that he shares with American figures such as Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky – a group that the historian Jesse Lemisch described as the ‘Angry Straight White Men on the Left’. There is no doubt that Hobsbawm et al were right in deploring the waning of class-based politics on the Left, and in foregrounding the danger to democracy from the growing disparity of income between the richest and the poorest. But they were wrong in thinking about identity politics as a ‘distraction’, as a turning away from ‘enlightenment universalism’. As the queer activist and scholar Martin Duberman has noted, the
highflown, hectoring rhetoric about the need to transcend specific allegiances and unite behind Enlightenment ‘rationalism’ to become ‘universal human beings with universal rights’ rings hollow and hypocritical. It is difficult to march into the sunset as a ‘civic community’ with a ‘common culture’ when the legitimacy of our differentness as minorities has not yet been more than superficially acknowledged – let alone safeguarded. You cannot link arms under a universalist banner when you can’t find your own name on it. A minority identity may be contingent or incomplete, but that does not make it fabricated or needless. And cultural unity cannot be purchased at the cost of cultural erasure.
It would do well for Jeremy Corbyn and his followers to keep Duberman’s corrective words in mind, for their unwillingness to countenance any broader alliances and to claim to speak ‘for the many, not the few’ is in keeping with the intolerant Left’s resistance to identity and ‘special interest’ politics. The mistake made overtly by Hobsbawm in the 1980s, and less consciously by the Corbynistas today, is one that I explored in a previous blog; the failure to differentiate between class position and cultural identity. When ‘the few’ are shareholders and the ultra-rich then one can see the power of the slogan, but when ‘speaking for the many’ involves the imposition of majoritarian norms on ethnic, religious, gender or sexual minorities it may have less emancipatory (even if unintentional) implications.
Indeed the Jewish ‘few’ within the current Labour party have expressed some disquiet at the tenor of recent debates. First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, seems to have already abandoned his own re-iterated belief in Single Market access in the face of British Labour’s support for a destructive hard Brexit. The interests of the Welsh ‘few’ are being jettisoned in the face of the British ‘many’ within the Labour party in this instance. The historical antipathy towards the Welsh-speaking ‘few’ within influential sectors of Labour in Wales has not wholly disappeared. Kehinde Andrews notes that John McDonnell’s unwillingness to commit to the single market is ‘a silent anti-immigration nod’, and Labour’s pandering to xenophobic fears – from Gordon Brown’s pledge of ‘British jobs for British workers’ to Ed Miliband carving ‘controls on immigration’ onto his embarrassing ‘stone’ – should be understood as part of a wider pattern, as indeed should Corbyn’s resistance to alliances with other progressive movements, his luke-warm campaign during the European Referendum and attacks on the SNP. It is a characteristic of the centralist British Labour party that it should view itself as the only true voice of the Left, resisting a pluralist progressivism and trumpeting the triumphalist Unionist universalism of the Brit-Left (while being seemingly blind to the fact that Brit-Left universalism is a contradiction in terms).
So we have elements within Welsh nationalism suspicious of a wider progressive alliance, and influential voices within the Labour Left unwilling to accept the legitimacy of identity and issue-based politics. Simon Brooks is right to note that an alliance with Corbynist Unionism should be avoided, and to argue that a clearer demarcation needs to be made between the campaigns of Plaid Cymru and those of British progressives. But progressive alliances need not be framed in British terms, and the desire to make common cause with other parties and movements on the Left did not begin with Leanne Wood, or with Dafydd Elis-Thomas for that matter, as some have suggested. While Saunders Lewis lamented the incursion of a ‘nest of Aldermaston Anglo-Welsh socialists’ into the ranks of Plaid Cymru following the breakthrough election of 1959, a decade later Gwynfor Evans would welcome Raymond Williams’s locating of Plaid Cymru alongside the green, pacifist and civil rights movements that constituted the ‘New Left’:
Derbyniais hyn fel disgrifiad teg o’n lle yn y spectrwm gwleidyddol [I accepted this as a fair description of our place on the political spectrum.]
Drawing on the African American experience, Cornel West argues that any minority struggle has had to appeal to a ‘higher moral or spiritual ground’ in order to gain traction and support in the wider community. The struggle for Wales is no exception. Welshness was largely cultural in the nineteenth century, and was manifested, as Michael Hechter has noted, in the distinctiveness of the international campaigns that the Welsh supported in contradistinction to England: support for the Union against the slave-holding Confederacy in the American Civil War of the 1860s; support for the Bulgarians against the Turks in the 1870s; support for the Boers in the 1880s and 1890s. Simon Brooks argues that this repeated gesture towards wider alliances was, and is, the problem. ‘Taffy’, in the words of poet Alun Rees, supported ‘every bloody cause / Except his bloody own’.
Yet, might we not make the counter-argument that the broader internationalist struggles embraced by the Welsh were not peripheral to national identity, but were actually constitutive of it? When Leanne Wood stands with Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon as part of a minority nationalist, green and feminist alliance is she not adopting and adapting a strategy that has characterised Welsh nationalism since its inception? Hechter’s work suggests that it was within the crucible of the internationalist, ‘universalist’, struggles of the nineteenth century that a distinctive Welsh political sphere was forged. The language of rights, justice, exploitation and political legitimacy characteristic of ‘universal’ Liberalism, created the context for the emergence of Welsh nationalism. Minority nationalism – read as being the child of liberal Enlightenment rather than being a reaction against it – emerges as a result of the application to collectivities, as well as individuals, of the moral principle that human beings should be self-determining. This is what happened in Wales.
So, when Simon calls for a ‘return to the national question’, it is not wholly clear what he means. As prior blogs to this site suggest, that question has never gone away. But if he is arguing for a more overt campaign for independence, or the stronger advocacy of linguistic nationalism, then he is in danger of basing the movement on issues that currently have a limited, or regionally specific, traction on the ground. Furthermore, there simply aren’t enough Welsh speakers to form the foundation for the kind of mass nationalist movement that we have witnessed in recent years in Scotland. It was Raymond Williams who advocated the making of a ‘variable socialism’ based on the ‘cultural struggle for actual social identities and the political redefinition of actual self-governing societies’ as a corrective to the assimilationist, state-centred socialism of the Labour Party. There’s the potential for ‘clear green water’ in that statement. If the national movement is to advance it will do so in tandem with other emergent social movements – the struggle for social justice and equality, the environment, feminism. Progressive alliances have been the very lifeblood of our movement and to retract into a defensive position at this historical juncture would be a grave mistake. Against the assimilationist, centralist socialism of the Corbynist British Left we in Plaid Cymru must emphasise a variable socialism that, in cultural terms, respects the many and the few.