Norway: The odd, the marginalised and why the Left will never have a Brevick

‘All the hallmarks of an Al-Queda attack.’ So claimed the talking heads across most of the major 24-hour news stations as reports began to seep in of the Oslo bombing. By the time it became clear that the bombing was a feint to distract from an unfolding massacre at a youth camp the line shifted. We were witnessing a ‘repeat of Mumbai.’

Except we were not. On that day terrorism had a Norwegian face and the cause of Anders Behring Breivik was not one of jihad. He didn’t fight for Sharia law, for a global caliphate or in solidarity with the Taliban. There wasn’t even a spurious link to Palestine. Instead Breivik carefully murdered over 70 teenagers in the name of fervent nationalism and plain old xenophobia, albeit dressed in the tired guise of a ‘clash of civilization.’ A clash which stubbornly fails to materialise despite the very best efforts of many over the past 10 years.

Breivik has clearly failed to kick-start the Europe wide war against multiculturalism which he supposedly yearns for in his rambling ‘manifesto.’ Instead his five minutes of infamy have given commentators the world over the opportunity to link his crime to whichever agenda they happen to already be pushing.

To the right-wing media Breivik was reacting to the ‘legitimate’ problems of immigration and the failure of multiculturalism. They didn’t plant the bombs themselves, we are told, but the Muslims should still shoulder the blame. Ex-Fox News fear-peddler Glen Beck even managed to refer to the youth camp as being reminiscent of the ‘Hitler Youth’, to suit his favored: ‘Europe is socialist and so were the Nazis’ canard.

Of course the liberal-left and the hard-left did the same. To us Breivik is merely a symptom of the crisis in Europe. He shows what happens in the world of recession when people are alienated from politics, and groups like the True Finns have a chance of reaching government on a ‘We shouldn’t pay for Greece’s crisis’ ticket of isolationism. To us, they didn’t plant the bombs themselves but ultimately the bankers should shoulder the blame. To some, the usual suspects, Breivik also demonstrated how the spectre of the Far-Right stalks Europe and how groups such as the EDL may be prepared to commit similar acts in London or Bradford.

Aside from both narratives London Mayor Boris Johnson plowed his own furrow by calmly declaring Breivik a madman, driven by his own rejections and pathetic existence. 

The ‘lone madman’ accusation is of course part of a traditional centre-right view of crime in general. In a magistrates court the accused didn’t shoplift because of ‘society’ but because they are a lone criminal, and people like Breivik do not commit murder because of social reasons, they do so because they possess a deviancy which places them firmly in the camp of the insane. He cannot be reasoned with. He can have no cause we could ever comprehend. He’s just a babbling madman with access to firearms.

Of course the ‘clinically damaged psychopath’ label can fairly be applied to some. You can after all suffer from a broken mind just as easily as a broken leg. However, focusing on the individual and not the context is usually a certain way of neither understanding nor preventing similar crimes in the future.

The reality of Breivik will of course not conveniently fit into anyone’s narrative. It’s quite possible he will be found mad, but the inescapable truth will be that he is a product of his society. This is an age where mainstream political parties are being widely rejected and without an attractive alternative the result can easily be further alienation or apathy just as it can lead to the indignado camps of Madrid and Athens.  

At the same time the far-right are looking to exploit people’s misery to further their own political ends. Indeed the intrinsic ability of capitalism to divide us along racial, ethnic, religious and national lines, thereby pitting working family against working family will always aid them in this task.

However, even if all of these points and possible motives contain a nub of truth, and even if Breivik is a product of his times and his society, there is one simple fact. No one else has done what he did. Even the far-right, who will certainly agree with his principles, are not in a position to emulate his actions. He may be a symptom of crisis, or even a symbol or some ideas, but he alone was prepared to turn them into action, which means we should also consider the individual.

Little is known about Breivik’s life. It is suggested he was reclusive, unpopular in school and unsuccessful with women, but all that is speculation. What we can say is that he perceived himself to be on the periphery of society and in his mind his selection of targets showed he was targeting its centre, the establishment.

On an individual level he felt that he lived on the very edges of society and in retaliation he sought to identify himself with a violent ideology which he could use to explain his alienation and battle against it. It’s a true chicken and egg question. Did he hate before he became affiliated to the far-right, or are we to suppose to believe he was a ‘normal’ and contented citizen before coming into contact with a poisonous ideology and taking its worst tenets to their logical conclusion?

This process of the alienated and marginalised identifying themselves with causes which are also on the edges of society is not new and to the hard left it should be more than familiar. Since the defeats of the 1980’s socialism, in the hard-left sense of the term, has been increasingly pushed to the social fringe. While the far-left has busied itself and has fervently fought tooth and nail to reverse the slide into obscurity and political oblivion the harsh fact remains that most far-left parties worthy of the term would struggle to fill an average football stadium with its official membership. Indeed most would fail to fill a single stand at Fratton Park.

Inevitably when an ideology, or indeed a political party, is pushed from the mainstream towards the periphery it will begin to attract people who have already been pushed there themselves.  For the Scandinavian far-right, who have been pushed back to the frayed edges of public acceptability over many decades, they find themselves standing alongside Anders Behring Breivik.  Breivik may be unique, or certainly very rare, in having the will to take his adopted ideology to such a criminal conclusion, but perhaps in that there is an uncomfortable point. His motivation may not have been far-right politics itself. That may have merely been his excuse.

This is not to say however that hidden amongst the huddled and sparsely filled ranks of even the far-lefts furthest reaches, CPGB-ML, Workers Power, Class War, the AWL, you will find the left’s Breivik, but what it does mean is that those who feel marginalised by society will make up a disproportionate amount of any left party’s membership as long as they remain on the periphery.

To say it is not a new problem implies unfairly that it is a problem at all, but as a political reality it is hardly new. In Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell famously declared that like Christianity the worst advertisement for socialism are its adherents  as he pointed to the makeup of the Independent Labour Party from viewpoint of the mainstream middle classes.  To Orwell the ‘odd’ who made up the ILP were ‘vegetarians’ and ‘pacifists’, a viewpoint which says more about 1930’s perceptions of deviance than it does of the manifesto of the ILP. 

Social norms move on and while vegetarianism is no longer considered (that) weird the left, and the far left, have remained a home to all those pushed to the far reaches of society’s spectrum, a tendency which has reached its nadir in recent decades. From the latter half of the 20th century to present day it is no coincidence that the far-left has thrown itself at the causes of rights for homosexuals, ethnic groups or the disabled as comrades from those constituencies have found a political home and an ideology for liberation.

Today of course many of those causes have been normalised, yet what remains of the far-left remains a cacophony of the marginalised and the proudly odd. You’re just as likely to find someone who declares himself to be ‘vaguely Buddhist,’ a nature worshiping pagans or, yes, a vegetarian, as you are a trade union steward or shop floor militant.  (Not that any of these characteristics are mutually exclusive of course.)

It goes beyond breaching political correctness into outright rudeness and perhaps even mild bigotry to consider this annoying. Yet, I confess that once or twice when meeting a new trade unionist or a new party contact I have hoped that they ‘won’t be odd.’ This isn’t to say I’m constantly yearning for a contact that doesn’t also worship the moon or foster an obsession with Pokemon, but occasionally I’ve been known to think: Give me a contact with a wife, two kids and a season ticket to Fratton Park. Why? Because I’d fear that if an aforementioned ‘odd’ hobby were to come up in conversation it would, by association mar our shared ideology. Socialism itself isn’t odd, I would be forced to awkwardly declare, but sometimes it just happens to attract those who are. (Here perhaps we are straying into the ‘what’s normal anyway’  ‘people are different’ strain of identity politics. Something I’d rather leave to Ollie Reader.)

In thinking any of this of course I’d be missing the point entirely. Yes, when the left rebuilds and forces itself onto the political centre stage it will inevitably attract more ‘mainstream people’, but that will never mean those who we have met on the peripheries will be cast out.  The left is inclusive by its very nature and ideology. The pursuit of socialism is inherently the pursuit of freedom of identity.  It will always remain the task of socialism to champion one and all, bringing ‘the odd’ in from the cold where they have been pushed by capitalism. A genuine socialist party could fill Old Trafford or the Albert Hall a hundred times with ‘regular folk’ but would still be all embracing. That’s what Socialism is.

This is why the left is unlikely to find itself harboring a Breivik. The worst we’re likely to find is a middle class teenager in a sect, wearing a Che t-shirt on his chest and a day-dream like aspiration for armed revolution on his sleeve. To the Marxist the injustices of this world are systematic and there is an appreciation of vast social forces at work.  You can’t change the world with one Kalashnikov. The right-wing however, even at its most tame centre, focuses on the individual, both positively and negatively. For the far-right, this encourages the scapegoating ideology which can identify a specific social or ethnic group to blame and it’s this mindset which can encourage an already damaged man to murder 70 teenagers and believe he is attacking the establishment.

The left, even at its most liberal fringes, is an ideology of inclusion and solidarity. Give us 10 angry men and women, pushed to the periphery for their gender, sexuality, disability or by a societal rejection of their lifestyle choice and we’ll channel that into a positive force of collectivism. It’s an irony he will never consider, but If Breivik is indeed sane then had the self-titled ‘Marxist Hunter’ chosen a different path to explain his alienation he could have been saved by the very ideology he so despised.




2 Responses to “Norway: The odd, the marginalised and why the Left will never have a Brevick”

  1. hrb264 Says:

    excellent post comrade

  2. dennis Says:

    a thoughful comment – thanks for making the point 🙂

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