“The present cannot undo the past; it carries the past within it. History is the sum of all that has gone before, and the historical process is the eternal reworking of past material under the impress of new conditions.”Neil Faulkner
As a historian Neil recognised the enormity of time but still had the ambition to grasp its connections, visualising its totality and contradictory unity. He took a similar approach to his activism, always attempting to direct the dynamic and explosive potentials of the present towards the goal of human emancipation. No one who ever met Neil could fail to be struck by the force of his intellectual and moral commitments to these endeavours.
In fact, to meet Neil was simply to be impressed. Who else could move so naturally from discussing Lawrence of Arabia in the BBC In Our Time studio to distributing leaflets for the latest left initiative or debating Marxist strategy downstairs at Housmans Bookshop? To simply ask the question is to underline the scale of the loss.
I met Neil when he and a group of young activists launched Brick Lane Debates, a project of political discussion and action in the mid part of the last decade. The initiative drew a massive audience by the standards of the time, perhaps in its own way indicating the upsurge in support for left wing ideas that would go on to make Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party leader.
I haven’t seen Neil for a fair few years but had recently been thinking about the productive criticisms he made of my book (and also, in the same piece, Paul Mason’s) and working on a reply. With a copy of Creeping Fascism on my desk when the news that he had passed away came, I was reminded immediately of the tremendous contribution that Neil made to radical political ideas and the blow that his death represented. The book was ahead of its time, has since been joined by a vast range of work trying to catch up with his analysis of the new authoritarian phenomena, and was, typically for him, hugely ambitious.
Neil trenchantly insisted on using the f-word (‘fascism’) in relation to this new threat. He further argued that the new fascism is, in essence, the same as the old in its aims and goals but distinguished by the speed of its advance (the ‘creeping’ character). These arguments may on occasion have been overstretched, but it stands to reason that they cannot be easily dismissed. The position hardly seems outlandish after the events of January 2021 in the United States. Neither do the genocidal policies being pursued by China’s one-party corporatist state, in the name of Han Chinese ethnic nationalism, seem especially un-fascist.
In his strident way, Neil had a great ability to deconstruct the received wisdoms of the political left. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, he wrote a fine piece which took apart the common belief that this should be read in the same terms as Saigon, 1975. Neil rejected the comparison, arguing that treating the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a sign of the diminished status and global hegemony of the United States missed the true significance of these events. For him, the Taliban victory was another indication of the global rise of fascism. It would be used, in turn, as a source of fear and threat by Islamophobes and fascists elsewhere. And, above all, it would be “good for business”, providing an on-going justification for spending vast sums of money on the military industrial complex in the West. At the time, I sent the piece round to a number of friends and colleagues, describing it to Mary Kaldor as a “kind of orthodox Marxist version” of arguments she had made (e.g. in The Baroque Arsenal, a Cold War era book) on how military supply tends to generate its own geopolitical demand.
Although we had analyses in common, Neil drew different political conclusions to my own. His complaint, broadly, was that in our differing but complementary accounts of the new authoritarianism, Paul Mason and I had both limited our horizon to protecting the existing liberal democratic order, rather than pursuing a revolutionary agenda. Neil in his book did talk about the need to ‘unite the broadest possible coalition of forces’ (p. 301). He also argued that the left ‘cannot build mass resistance to fascism unless it offers an alternative’ and supported, in this context, albeit very critically, ‘turning existing parties into effective instruments of social democratic reform’ or building new broad parties on a reformist programme (p. 307). So, the difference may not be as stark as he suggested. And although Neil put our view down to the ‘pessimism of the Left in the third decade of the 21st century’, I am not sure this is best seen through the pessimism/optimism dichotomy. After all, Neil himself argued that the left was, as he saw it, involved in a ‘desperate defensive battle’ (p. 314), a formulation which carried the implication, from his perspective, that capitalism was fairly secure from any revolutionary threat and more limited goals were now the priority.
For my part, while I am not a fan of their latter-day populist ‘turn’, my position here is closer to the tradition associated with Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau’s path breaking text, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – whose influence is felt across my book. Against the historical backdrop of the communist revolutions of the twentieth century, they argued that attempts to seize and hold power to achieve a transition to a new mode of production had failed due to the inability of this political project to allow for democratic pluralism. By contrast, the attractiveness of liberal democracy lay in its ability to permit different ideologies to cohabit within a rules-based system for political competition. Recognising this reframes the traditional divide within Marxism between revolutionary and reformist ‘roads’. For it maintains that when revolutions occur (as they have done, of course, in recent years on many occasions), the key question is whether they create political systems and institutions that allow power to be exercised with legitimacy and protect fundamental rights. The vision of socialism that arises from this perspective therefore puts an equal emphasis on democratic majoritarianism and individual freedoms, which would need to shape how a new mode of production emerged. There are a number of insights that could be drawn on from what might be called the tradition of ‘left wing liberalism’ for such a political approach. For example, Amartya Sen’s work on ‘human security’ or Lea Ypi’s Kantian Marxism.
It would have been wonderful to discuss these differences further with Neil. I am very sorry we are not able to do so – and wish his collaborators on the left the best of luck with taking forward his legacy. The thoughts of everyone at Another Europe are with his close friends and family at this terrible time.
14th February 2022