Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, June 02, 2006

No future in England's dreaming

Anyone for croquet? Prince William visits the England team

I know, I know. There are far more important things to discuss than the football. Female readers of Histomat (there must be some) may well be viewing the blogosphere debate about who socialist English footie fans should support in the World Cup as essentially less about the politics of football and more about asserting masculinity (with 'macho' hardmen declaring how much they want to see England victorious with a kind of sneer at those lily livered comrades pissing about with the likes of Paraguay).

My initial defence of the line of 'Anyone but England' has been met with an eloquent and sustained challenge. This has taken two forms, essentially.

Firstly, the argument is made that football is a question of culture and so one's taste in team (like one's taste in music) should not be determined by matters of politics. 'Lets keep politics out of it, and choose our team purely on aesthetic grounds' goes the argument in its various forms. Unfortunately, while I have some sympathy with the problems of 'morality' described by GOM, the fact is that the 'moral' and political questions are already part of the tournament. As Dave Zurin and John Cox have argued, in an article entitled 'Using Soccer to kick Iran':

'Politics cannot be separated from the World Cup any more than it can be from the Olympics...German and US politicians have seized on the tournament to intensify the saber rattling aimed at Tehran. Citing Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear program and the anti-Israel pronouncements of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, several leading politicians in both countries have called for the Iranian team to be banned from the World Cup. In this spirit of tolerance and peace, Berlin's liberal daily Der Tagesspiegel ran a cartoon in February that depicted Iranian soccer players as suicide bombers....Italian reform minister Roberto Calderoli of the anti-immigrant Northern League called on the international soccer federation (FIFA) to exclude Iran and other "rogue states," and in recent weeks British Conservatives--perhaps distraught over their own team's dwindling prospects, after an injury to their best player--have gotten in on the act...Back in Germany, some Christian Democrats have further upped the ante by invoking the specter of Iranian terrorism at the games, asserting that Tehran will slip some suicide bombers disguised as regular fans into a game. Calls for a ban, or at least for a travel ban against the Iranian president, have intensified in Germany as the games approach. Leading Conservative and Social Democratic officials are now quoted almost daily decrying a possible visit by Ahmadinejad. And in early May, a German newspaper reported that officials of Germany, France and Britain are hoping to orchestrate a travel-ban scheme through the European Union that would prevent high-ranking Iranian officials from attending any of the games...In the most recent gambit, on May 12 a group of European Union representatives presented a letter to FIFA demanding that Iran be evicted from the games. To its credit, FIFA has rejected all of these demands, and seems unlikely to budge. But much of this anti-Iran campaign has less to do with the unrealistic goal of banning the top-level Middle Eastern team than with grooming public opinion for aggression.

In short, unsurprisingly, the World Cup does not take place in a pure cultural and moral vacuum but as part of a wider society distorted by anti-Muslim racism and global 'war on terror'. That context has to be remembered - however much we wish it didn't and we could all really just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. Accordingly, Mike Marqusee has argued, persuasively in my opinion that while supporting England 'doesn’t make anyone a xenophobe or racist...in the unlikely event that England win the cup, we would witness a self-consciously national celebration, some of it spontaneous, but a great deal orchestrated from above. In the context of the war on terror, attacks on asylum seekers, Islamophobic arguments about who does and doesn’t belong, this would feed...not just the flagrant chauvinism of the far right, but the packaged, consumerist variant of Blair and Brown'. Socialists who think England doing well or even winning the World Cup would be 'a victory for football' or 'a good thing' in general need to think very hard about which political forces would also benefit.

The second argument revolves around 'Englishness' as a contested identity, and so therefore one which the English Left should engage with in order to shape into a progressive one. Perhaps the best known advocate of this is Mark Perryman, but with the likes of Billy Bragg and Andy Newman in tow. Here is Perryman:

'Inner city England is already redefining what England means. Those flying the flag or wearing the England shirt are now as likely to be black or Asian as white. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the flag has lost its imperial or martial baggage overnight, but it does suggest that the present and future won’t necessarily be determined by our past either. Whenever leftists turn their back on England, they ignore this transformation of our national identity. New left thinkers including Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams and Christopher Hill all understood the necessity for accounting for the formation of national identity. What did EP Thompson call his pathbreaking work? The Making of the English Working Class. Eric Hobsbawm was one of the first to spot how football and nation were becoming hopelessly interconnected, summing up how "an imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people"...St George is not a blank canvas, but to deny us the possibility to shape its current and future meaning is to deny us our nationality.'

There are of course real differences in the processes of class formation in nations -just as the balance of class forces in each country needs to be accounted for with reference to past struggles as well as the present. Of course an imagined community seems more real as a team of 11 people - one can look at a team in one game and quickly form an opinion or identity with them in a way that one can never quite do with a nation of millions of people the vast majority of whom you will never meet. Yet here we come back to for me the key question - do we want to reclaim 'Englishness'? Aren't we supposed to be for international socialism, not 'socialism in one country'? Marqusee notes:

'In its time, the patriotism of the English Jacobins carried a radical thrust – championing the people, the vast majority, against a self-interested clique. But they soon found that turned against them when the rulers rallied the populace for war against revolutionary France. Even with identities of resistance, clawed back from the oppressor through struggle, such as those shaped by African-Americans or Dalits in India, there’s a double edge. With Englishness – handed down to us by the oppressor – the edge cuts mostly the wrong way. The right didn’t appropriate patriotism merely because the left was indifferent or snotty. Its an ‘ism’ of national unity: for anyone seeking to obstruct class conflict or critical thinking, it’s a logical resort. ‘Englishness’, in particular, blurs the ethnic and the national (‘English’ often being a synonym for ‘native born white English’). That remains problematic.'

Marqusee concludes that for him 'Anyone but England' is a position that is logical for him to take because of his personal experiences: 'As someone who lives happily with no sense of national identity (born and raised in the US, lived in London 30-odd years, worked in south Asia, internationalist by inclination), I have the luxury of choosing and altering my sporting allegiances (really that’s open to everyone, if the environment is free enough to permit it).' But while he notes that 'my watchword in the ‘World Cup’ will remain "Anyone But England"...I don’t prescribe that to others – telling people who they should or shouldn’t support is a violation of the game’s precious triviality.'

Here, my initial post perhaps might be criticised for putting things too strongly, arguing 'English socialists should support "Anyone but England"', though I did say that this position should not be done 'in an overly dogmatic fashion...One has to be creative about this.' Still, as this drew the grand Gladstonian wrath of GOM (and no doubt others) I think I owe it to readers to spell out more about what I think this might involve. Marqusee argues that 'a left politics of sport that requires people to renounce the national team is a non-starter.' I agree that no Marxist who understands why nationalism remains such a powerful pull for people under capitalism would want to construct an unnecessary boundary between working class people and the organised Left (for want of a better phrase). Far too many such unnecessary boundaries already exist (thanks in part to socialists who insist on stressing their ideological 'purity' at every stage) without creating even more.

Yet my argument is that English socialists - ie. not the English people as a whole - should support the position 'Anyone but England'. I think it is important - indeed essential - for socialists to be internationalists regardless of whether or not they have the personal international experiences of the likes of Marqusee. It is more possible than ever thanks to the internet for socialists in advanced capitalist countries to traverse national boundaries and become 'Citizens of the World'. Lets remember the words of that great English radical Thomas Paine, who incidently was born near Norwich, in Thetford: 'My country is the world, and my religion is to do good'.

Edited to add: Read about the Soca Warriors - also backed by Darcus Howe.

'Many doubted us before
But they can't do this no more
Respect to the max I'm sure
They know what we got in store'
From Victory, by Maximus Dan

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At 10:22 pm, Blogger AN said...

hey that title was my joke !!!

At 10:55 am, Blogger Snowball said...

I thought of it before I read your piece (honest) but didn't have time to then think of something else suitable...

Apologies if it seems like I nicked it...

At 2:23 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7:02 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

It's only a game. Save your fire, for the real war.

I agree with you. It is a diversion as an issue.

Excluding Iran only strengthens the mullahs, as they build nationalism.

At 6:11 am, Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

Blairshirt, Brownshirt... I'll be waving the Red flag in the stands.


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