Once more to utopia

Between Camps: nations, cultures and the allure of race

Paul Gilroy <em>Penguin, 406pp, £22.50</em

Between Camps is dense, difficult, inconsistent and over-ambitious. It makes many questionable claims, and some that, I think, are plain wrong-headed. It's also one of the most challenging, important, even brilliant, pieces of political writing to have appeared in English in recent years.

It's extraordinarily hard to say, in a few sentences, what this book is about: Paul Gilroy has one ear pressed against the speaker's bass cone, the other, like Thoreau, listening to a different drum; one eye on the television screen, the other straining at the far horizon. In part, Gilroy offers a history lesson, an account of how racist and even fascist ways of thinking and seeing, supposedly discredited for ever in the aftermath of the Holocaust, are creeping back in quite unexpected ways. They infect major areas of scientific research and of popular culture, their continued hold made possible by our failure to think clearly about how many of Europe's noblest ideals were compromised, poisoned even, by their historical association with colonial racism. We have refused to see the connections between Nazi genocide and the earlier slaughters of colonised and enslaved non-European peoples: connections that Gilroy rediscovers via the forgotten stories of black witnesses to the Holocaust.

Worst of all, racialised and crypto-fascist thought infiltrates even among its former victims and within anti-racist politics - much of which, as Gilroy argues, has been blindly reactive and lacking in moral vision. The danger of fascism lurks wherever people become entranced by the idea of purity and innocence: the belief that particular kinds of people are, whether on account of their history or of their biology, particularly virtuous or righteous. No one is immune to such appeals; their seductive danger may be most insidious precisely among those whose modern histories make it easiest for them to portray themselves as perpetual victims, never the aggressors. Disturbingly close parallels with classic fascist themes can, Gilroy suggests, be found in some African-American groups today, as in Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. But less obvious links or analogies exist on much broader fronts, in aspects of contemporary black popular culture - especially rap music.

How can we escape all this? The only way, Gilroy argues, is through the final abandonment of the idea of race and its replacement by a new cosmopolitanism, which he calls "planetary humanism". He calls for freedom from all (in the argot) "racialising and raciological thought, from raciological seeing, racialised thinking and racialised thinking about thinking". In order to bury racism, we must kill off the standard language and thought of anti-racism, too. Anti-racists who continue countering racism in the language of race - fighting fire with fire - engage at best, as Gilroy puts it, in a "pious ritual", at worst in a destructive complicity with the very things we seek to overcome.

In his earlier writings, Gilroy looked to black Atlantic popular culture, especially music, for liberating alternatives. Here, the view is far less optimistic. He argues that music itself has been displaced from its once central position, overwhelmed by visual images. In the process, an invaluable space of social criticism has become ever more constricted. More broadly, he laments that democratic and cosmopolitan traditions - once central components of the political thought of the "Black Atlantic" - "have been all but expunged from today's black political imaginary". The apocalyptic tone of these words, with which he ends the book, is overstated. Fortunately, it is not true that the authoritarian, nationalist and misogynistic currents that Gilroy dissects, and is rightly disgusted by, have become ubiquitous or even dominant. Things may be bad, but are not as awful as he says.

Gilroy wanted Between Camps to be more widely accessible than his previous books, but he has not succeeded. If anything, his new book is more difficult than his earlier work, its range and ambition being at once its greatest strength and its vulnerability, some of his arguments too compressed to be easily followed or evaluated. Yet much of this difficulty is necessary. Gilroy is wrestling with a huge range of complex ideas, and putting forward an innovative set of claims. Many writers in cultural studies adopt an obscure style; the murkiness is a passport to professional advancement, or an attempt to mask an inability to write and think coherently. Between Camps exhibits none of that wilful opacity. It repays the effort demanded.

Stephen Howe's most recent book, Ireland and Empire (OUP, £25), was reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the NS of 22 May