The left, the state and anti-racist legislation: The example of the CPGB

The Guardian Australia today featured a debate between two figures of the left, Alana Lentin and Antony Lowenstein, on whether Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) should be on the statute books, after the announcement by the new Liberal government that they would seek to repeal this section of the legislation. This has raised the issue for the left in Australia of how effective can the state be in addressing racial discrimination and should anti-racists rely on the state in the fight against racism.

This issue has also been much debated by the British left since the introduction of legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in 1965 with the Race Relations Act. People following this debate may be interested in a paper that I wrote on the subject, particularly looking at the Communist Party of Great Britain’s reaction to the Race Relations Act and how it affected the Party’s anti-racist efforts. The introduction of the paper, published in the conference proceedings for the 2009 conference of the Australasian Association of European Historians, outlines the argument:

Since the 1960s, many involved in anti-racist campaigning in Britain hadargued that any positive action that the institutions of the state (such asthe police, the judiciary and the Home Office) could take to combat racism would be hindered by the racism that was pervasive within these institutions. Many on the left, in the anti-racist movement and within Britain’s black communities had criticised Lord Scarman for his statement in his 1981 Inquiry into the Brixton riots that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’ and this denial of institutional racism,which was prevalent in the thinking of the Government at the time, left many radical activists within the anti-racist movement unwilling to be involved in any state-related anti-racist activities. However theCommunist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as a large and influential body within the British labour movement, was an important radical organisation, which sought to work with the state in anti-racist campaigning. This stemmed from a strategy of working within a parliamentary democratic framework and establishing a broad left alliance, which would involve many trade union and Labour Party members, who may not be willing to take any radical actions. This article will examine how the CPGB appeared to counter the radical trend amongst anti-racist campaigners and how they attempted to work with the institutions of the state, primarily in campaigning for the enforcement of the Race Relations Act. This article will look at the problematic position the CPGB found itself in by trying to maintain its broad left alliance while criticising racism within the labour movement and the limitations of appealing to the state to be the decisive force in combating racism. The CPGB’s balancing act between a reformist and revolutionary strategy for tackling racial discrimination, by trying to involve both the state and its hostile critics, gives an insight into how difficult it can be for progressives to attempt to combat racism through the institutions of the state without their agendas being reduced to a very limited scope.

The paper can be found here. As always, if you can’t access the paper, please email me.

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