Darcus Howe

Race, class and black rebellion in Britain, 1976-1981

To commemorate the passing of radical black activist Darcus Howe and the forthcoming anniversaries of the riots of 1980-81, I am posting an excerpt from an older article on how the British left and black activists interpreted the rebellious actions by black youth in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Howe, alongside Stuart Hall and A. Sivanandan, helped the British left develop a new language for understanding the interaction between race and class, stressing the importance of unity between black and white workers, but not at the expense of the demands of the black struggle being subsumed by the objectives of the primarily white labour movement. You can find the rest of the article here.

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Photo by Phil Maxwell

Black radicalism in the 1970s

In the mid-1960s, British black politics, and wider anti-racist politics, was beginning to shift from a focus on anti-colonialism to domestic anti-racism and saw the emergence of broad-based and moderate black organisations, such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the United Coloured Peoples Association and the Institute of Race Relations. However the ineffectiveness of the official legislation, the Race Relations Act, to combat racism in British society and the increasing bipartisan consensus within the British Government that black immigrants were the ‘problem’ produced a more militant black political awareness, inspired by black power from the United States, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial politics in the former British Empire. Black power in Britain was partially a reaction to the dissatisfaction felt amongst black activists with the existing anti-racist organisations; a belief that the labour movement had subordinated issues of ‘race’ for the class struggle and that the official race relations bodies were compromised by a tendency towards conciliation, rather than effective anti-racist actions. Black power – the idea that ‘black people needed to redefine themselves by asserting their own history and culture to project an image which they would develop without white people’[1] – inspired many disaffected activists, buoyed by the actions of African-Americans in the US and the widespread cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Black activists in Britain established their own political organisations, with the proliferation of radical publications and bookstores providing the structural centres for many black British militants. They were able to produce a number of radical publications, which advocated a black power position and often combined with a Marxist framework. These publications were often distributed out of black-owned bookstores, which became hubs for black radical and important landmarks for the black communities, functioning as what Colin A. Beckles has described as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’.[2]

Beginning in 1958, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) had been established as a moderate and scholarly organisation to address ‘race relations’ and black politics in Britain and by the early 1970s, had two significant journals dealing with these issues – Race Today, which was a monthly magazine[3] and Race, which was a academically-minded journal published quarterly. However by this time, there was an increasingly vocal section within the IRR that the Institute needed to be much more pro-active in its discussion of ‘race relations’, rather than merely an ‘impartial’ scholarly body. As A. Sivanandan, one of the major critics of the ‘old’ IRR and founding editor of Race & Class, wrote, ‘We did not want to add to the tomes which spoke in obfuscatory and erudite language to a chosen few, we no longer believed in the goodwill of governments to listen to our reasoned arguments’.[4]

In 1973, Race Today became a separate entity from the IRR under the editorship of Darcus Howe, a black radical journalist, forming the Race Today Collective. Influenced by the work of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, Howe rejected the view that it was necessary to ‘build a vanguard party to lead Blacks to some emancipation’[5] and the journal became a beacon for black political journalism, intertwining libertarian Marxism with a radical anti-racism. Max Farrar has described this position as ‘black self-organisation for socialism which is autonomous of, but not cut off from, the white majority’.[6] (My emphasis) Following the departure of Race Today from the IRR, the ‘old’ IRR shrank to three staff, who revitalised the Institute as a ‘servicing station for oppressed peoples on their way to liberation’.[7] The quarterly journal Race was changed to Race & Class in mid-1974 and conceptualised as a ‘campaigning journal, “a collective organizer”, devoted not just to thinking… but to thinking in order to do’, linking ‘the situation of black workers in Britain and the liberation struggles in the underdeveloped world’.[8] These journals promoted the idea that the black communities in Britain were not simply part of the British working class, but an autonomous political entity, which had different agendas, strategies, histories and points of entry to the traditional labour movement. Although an integral part of post-colonial British society, the black communities experienced ‘discrimination and exclusion’ in many aspects of life, which led to the development of ‘networks of black people organising, primarily without the help of white people, against the racism of employers, unions, police, local authorities, political parties and others’.[9] Their inspiration came partly from radical Marxism and class-based politics, but was just as informed by anti-colonial politics from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, which intertwined to present a black British identity with a colonial legacy, rather than merely colonial subjects in the ‘Mother Country’. This article does not assert that Race Today and Race & Class saw ethnicity and class as completely separable entities (indeed the title Race & Class denotes an acknowledgement of the importance of class), but their main focus was on building autonomous black working class politics, with the debut editorial of Race & Class stating that the concern of the journal was ‘the oppression of black people in Britain’, primarily ‘the place of black workers’.[10] And importantly, in their interpretations of the episodes discussed in this article, they emphasised that these were acts of rebellion by black youth, reflecting the concerns of Britain’s black communities.

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Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

The militancy of black youth

The clashes between the police and black youth correlate with the increasingly confrontational nature of the police in the mid-to-late 1970s and throughout the Thatcherite era. At the heart of this confrontation was the ‘criminalisation’ of black youth.[11] Both Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth faced many of the hardships that had been experienced by their migrant parents, but they also had grown up in Britain, which altered their experiences, particularly in terms of cultural identity and their expectations. The children of post-war black migrants had experienced similar developments in their young lives as their white contemporaries and in many ways, shared closer ties with white British society than to the culture of their parents’ homeland, but were still divorced from many of the opportunities offered by a white identity. Chris Mullard wrote of this as the ‘black Britons’ dilemma’:

He will be British in every way. He will possess understandable values and attitudes; he will wear the same dress, speak the same language, with the same accent; he will be as educated as any other Englishman; and he will behave in an easy relatable way. The only thing he will not be is white.[12]

In a 1974 discussion of youth culture in the Communist Party journal Marxism Today, Imtiaz Chounara claimed that ‘most young coloured people are caught in between two cultures – that of Britain and that of their parents’.[13] Chounara appealed for the CPGB to incorporate black youth (not just black workers in the industrial sector) into the Party, to counter the appeal of ‘black power’, which the CPGB believed to share an affinity with ‘deviant’ versions of Marxism, such as Maoism and Trotskyism.[14] Chounara suggested:

We must therefore fight for black youth to mix culturally with white youth but at the same time to retain their own cultural identity. This is an important part of the fight for black consciousness – to get respect for black people and their culture, not only amongst young white people but also amongst black people themselves. This cannot be done in a “black power” manner, putting black above white, but in a true Marxist manner, fighting for the rightful place of black workers alongside their white brothers as equals.[15]

However the CPGB had to compete with other groups on the far left, such as the International Socialists (after 1977, the Socialist Workers Party), and radical black activists, who both saw black youth as a far more positive force for revolutionary political action.

For them, black youth were deemed to have the same divorced position from the organised labour movement, but were less closely associated with the traditional organisations of the black communities and more likely to be involved in militant actions. This willingness to confront the perpetrators of racial violence and the state led many to idolise their spontaneity and militancy. Ian Macdonald declared in Race Today that black youth were ‘the vanguard of a world-wide proletarian movement’.[16] Cathie Lloyd points to the fetishisation of the rebellion of black youth seen through The Clash’s punk song ‘White Riot’, which ‘expressed admiration for combative black youth at [the Notting Hill] Carnival ‘76’.[17] ‘While black workers were still seen as victims’, Lloyd wrote, ‘there was also admiration and a feeling that they [especially black youth] were at the forefront of a challenge to the established social order’.[18]

For the IS/SWP, the revolutionary potential of black youth was realised as their acts of rebellion, such as the Notting Hill Carnival riot in August 1976, coincided with the Party’s campaign strategies. In a 1976 internal bulletin, the Party declared that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’,[19] attempting to incorporate those affected by racism and unemployment, which were both experienced by black youth. Acts like the riot at the Notting Hill Carnival were seen by the IS/SWP as the beginning of a series of events that ‘highlighted the question of the political role of black youth’, where the seemingly spontaneous rebellion presented ‘new opportunities’ for socialists.[20] Tony Bogues, in the journal International Socialism, defended the actions of those at the Carnival as not mere lawlessness or the deeds of the ‘lumpenproletariat’, declaring that these youth were ‘part of the strata in the working class that is exploited and oppressed’.[21]

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Notting Hill Carnival 1976

The 1981 Riots as Social Protest

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership saw extensive rioting by black youth, first in Bristol in 1980, then in Brixton and across Britain in 1981. For commentators, academics and activists on the left and within the black communities, these riots have been viewed as either part of a wider malaise by the lower classes against the neo-liberal policies of Thatcherism, or the unstructured reaction by black youth to years of racial harassment and discrimination that continued on from the black struggles of the 1970s.

For the left, the 1981 riots were indicative of a widespread antipathy towards the socio-economic policies of the Conservative Government, which saw a reaction by the ‘most oppressed group in the inner city areas’ – black youth – who ‘drew into the struggle the slightly less oppressed’ – white youth.[22] As black youth were amongst the most affected by these economic conditions, coupled with the more immediate burdens of police harassment and the impact of institutional racism, they were the most likely to react, albeit in a manner that was outside the organisation of the left.

The SWP were adamant that the 1981 riots were ‘class riots’ and not ‘race riots’.[23] Colin Sparks stated the riots were the work of ‘a mainly working class community against the symbols of oppression and deprivation’.[24] The riots were the ‘common result of unemployment and crisis’, exacerbated by the experience of racism and the unequal distribution of economic hardship upon black youth.[25] What demonstrated the class aspect of the riots was, Chris Harman wrote, the fact that ‘in virtually all the British riots there has been significant white involvement alongside blacks, and the involvement has not just been of white leftists, but of white working class youth’.[26] For Harman, the ‘immediate background of the riots lies… in a huge increase in unemployment’,[27] with the result being a common experience of repression and economic hardship that contributed to the lower class rebellion. Harman portrayed the riots as a modern incarnation of previous rebellions by the lower classes in Britain. While there was a strong narrative of resistance flowing from the black industrial struggles of the 1970s and the disturbances at Notting Hill and Bristol, Harman linked the riots to previous unemployment struggles in 1886-87 and in 1931-32.[28] For the left, the riots were seen as a starting point for resistance to Thatcherism. The SWP declared that the riots were the symptoms of a ‘bitterness brewing… from the experience of Tory government and economic crisis’, which would ‘sooner or later… explode in the factories as well as on the streets’.[29] It was up to socialists to ‘seize the opportunities to build unity in struggle’[30] that would present themselves as Thatcherism emboldened its attacks upon the ‘subversive’ elements of society.

While not denying the common economic causes of the riots or the involvement of white youth, black activists and journalists emphasised the role of black youth and the racial discrimination and harassment experienced by the black communities that were integral factors in the outbreak of the rioting. For the journal Race & Class, the reasons for the riots were clear, quoting a black youth interviewed for the Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is not against the white community, it’s against the police’.[31] The journal emphasised the repressive nature of the police and the continual harassment faced by black people in everyday life. The repeated harassment by the police formed a long narrative that heightened with the events of the late 1970s, before exploding with the riots of the early 1980s. The journal tried to emphasise the continuity between the events, stating, ‘In many ways what happened during and after the 1976 Carnival was a premonition of the later “riots”’.[32]

The journal also drew a historical continuity between the hundreds of racial attacks that had occurred since the mid-1970s and the rioting; a process from which black people were ‘attacked,… criminalised… and rendered second-class citizens’ to the violent response against the racists and the police, who had failed to adequately protect the black communities.[33] Quoting the Hackney Legal Defence Committee, the journal portrayed the riots as the long awaited reaction to this continual racism:

Black youth took to the streets to defend our communities against police and racial violence. From Brixton to Toxteth, Moss Side to Southall black youth said: “No more: enough is enough!”[34]

Both Race & Class and Race Today portrayed the riots as the result of a lack of a political voice for Britain’s black communities in conventional party politics. As A. Sivanandan was quoted, ‘The black community is a community under attack and, increasingly, a community without redress’.[35] Looking at the political situation for black Britons throughout the early 1970 and the early 1980s, both journals saw the long process of the black communities attempting to work within the system, but still facing exclusion – from the mainstream political parties, trade unions, local government and the left, amongst others – which could burst into spontaneous acts of rebellion. The riots were a forceful recognition of the limited space in which black people in Britain could enter the political sphere, as well as an unplanned reaction to years of racial discrimination, police harassment, violence and economic hardship. The left and black activists recognised that these riots had a political dimension, but there was disagreement on whether this dimension was characterised by notions of ‘class’ or ‘race’.

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The Brixton riots, 1981

[1] Kalbir Shukra, ‘From Black Power to Black Perspectives: The Reconstruction of a Black Political Identity’, Youth and Policy (Summer 1995) p. 6

[2] Colin A. Beckles, ‘“We Shall Not Be Terrorised Out of Existence”: The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops’, Journal of Black Studies, 29/1 (September 1998) p. 51

[3] Race Today was first published by the IRR in 1969 until the Race Today Collective broke away in 1973. From this time until the mid-1980s, the magazine was under the editorship of Darcus Howe. Leila Hassan took over editorial duties in 1985, but the magazine and the Collective folded in 1988. The George Padmore Institute in London and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford hold archival material of the magazine and the Race Today Collective.

[4] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance: The IRR Story’, Race & Class, 50/2 (2008) p. 28

[5] Darcus Howe, interviewed by Ken Lawrence, in Paul Buhle (ed.), C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (London, 1986) p. 147

[6] Max Farrar, ‘“You Don’t Have to Have Read James to be a Jamesian”: Preliminary Notes on the relationship Between the Work of CLR James and Some of the Radical Black, Anti-Racist and Left Movements in the UK, 1970s to 1990s’, Paper delivered at the CLR James Centennial Conference, St Augustine, 20-23 September, 2001, p. 9, http://www.maxfarrar.org.uk/docs/CLRJamesPaperUnivWI2001.pdf, accessed 14 July, 2009

[7] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance’, p. 28

[8] Editorial Working Committee, ‘Editorial’, Race & Class, 16/3 (1975) p. 232; p. 231

[9] Kalbir Shukra, ‘The Death of a Black Political Movement’, Community Development Journal, 32/3 (July 1997) p. 233

[10] EWC, ‘Editorial’, p. 231

[11] See: Paul Gilroy, ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, Socialist Register (1982) pp. 47-56; Cecil Gutzmore, ‘Capital, “Black Youth” and Crime’, Race & Class, 25/2 (1983) pp. 13-30

[12] Chris Mullard, Black Britain (London, 1973) p. 145

[13] Imtiaz Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, Marxism Today (October 1974) p. 318

[14] International Affairs Committee, ‘Racialism and “Black Power”’, CP/LON/RACE/02/01, LHASC

[15] I. Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, pp. 318-319

[16] Ian Macdonald, ‘The Capitalist Way to Curb Discrimination’, Race Today (August 1973) p. 241

[17] Cathie Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Danièle Joly, Scapegoats and Social Actors: The Exclusion and Integration of Minorities in Western and Eastern Europe (Houndmills, 1998) p. 159

[18] C. Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, p. 159

[19] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin (1976) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[20] Tony Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, International Socialism, 1/102 (October 1977) p. 12

[21] T. Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, p. 13

[22] SWP Central Committee, ‘The Riots and After’, SWP Internal Bulletin, 4 (1981) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, MRC

[23] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’; Italics are in the original text.

[24] Colin Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, Socialist Review (May 1981) p. 7; Italics are in the original text.

[25] C. Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, p. 9

[26] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14 (Autumn 1981) p. 14; Italics are in the original text.

[27] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 15

[28] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, pp. 15-16

[29] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’

[30] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 40

[31] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, Race & Class, 23/2-3 (Winter 1981-Autumn 1982) p. 225

[32] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 239

[33] ‘The “Riots”’, p. 232

[34] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 231

[35] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 236

The intersectional politics of the Grunwick strike

Over the last year or so, the concept of intersectionality has been hotly debated within the British left. Phil at A Very Public Sociologist has written some insightful stuff into the left’s grappling with the concept, but I think a lot of the debate has lacked a historical perspective. As I noted in this blog post, what we term as ‘intersectionality’ nowadays was recognised in the 1970s and 1980s as a challenge for the traditional assumptions of the British left and I think this is exemplified by the Grunwick strike of 1976-78, which raised questions concerning the overlapping and competing demands of class, race and gender politics. Below is a section from my PhD (that I’m currently working on turning into a monograph) which discusses how these different elements of the strike were interpreted during the strike and afterwards – but it needs some serious re-working! If I have time, I’d love to turn this into a paper that discusses the historical aspects of the challenge posed by intersectionality to the British left (and if there’s anyone willing to join me in writing such a paper, please get in touch).

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The strike at Grunwick began with a small number of Asian workers walking out ‘in protest at oppressive working conditions’ on 20 August 1976,[i] becoming one of the longest strikes in British history, before it was eventually defeated in July 1978. Asian workers led the strike, but the union leadership of APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs), the Brent Trades Council and the TUC opted for negotiation through the official industrial relations machinery of ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), whose decisions were ignored by the owner of the Grunwick plant, George Ward. This led to a long-running stalemate between the strikers and their supporters, the official bodies of the labour movement, the institutions of the state and those who supported George Ward, with several violent confrontations between the striking workers and the state. This stalemate led the different interested parties in the dispute to claim various issues raised during the strike, contesting what the strike was actually about and how it fit into wider narratives. The historical importance of the Grunwick strike can be found in many competing histories – in black history, in the history of the labour movement’s decline, in the history of anti-racism and anti-fascism, in the history of women’s liberation; and while these competing histories are not mutually exclusive, they take very different aspects of the strike to forge their narrative.

The strike drew together many elements of society, with Graham Taylor, a member of the Executive Committee of the Brent Trades Council, writing:

The Grunwick strike is focus for many different issues and struggles. For trade unionists it is a struggle for trade-union recognition; some fix on police brutality; feminists point to the oppression of female workers; while democrats denounce gross violations of the human rights to work, to speak freely and to associate. To many, Grunwick is part of the struggle against racialism and imperialism… Others regard the racial aspect as minimal and rally behind a simple class struggle by the under-paid. It is the importance of the Grunwick Strike that it embraces all these issues.[ii]

Taylor, along with Brent Trades Council Secretary Jack Dromey, wrote in their account of the Grunwick strike that the significance of Grunwick was that for the first time, the labour movement could mobilise significant support for black workers, while before Grunwick, ‘It would not have been capable of summoning up such solidarity for a tiny strike’.[iii] This can be seen as partly the result of the policy change towards positive action on issues of racism by the trade unions that had occurred in the mid-1970s.

The (primarily white) left saw the main issue of the dispute as George Ward’s refusal to recognise the demands of the strike made through APEX as the strikers had begun the strike without being members of the union. As the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) declared in a pamphlet on the strike, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’.[iv] Linked to this idea of union recognition was the fear that defeat at Grunwick would be followed a full-scale assault by the ruling class upon all trade unions and the fundamental rights of workers that unions were supposed to uphold. The International Marxist Group (IMG) depicted the strike as part of a longer union history, warning readers of their paper of what was thought to be at risk:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[v]

The Grunwick Strike Committee, organised by APEX, saw the strike as the first line of defence against an assault by the ruling class and the State. However the historical analogy put forward by the Strike Committee was an appeal to the white working class, stating in September 1977, ‘This strike is a Dunkirk for our great movement’.[vi] This analogy to Britain’s ‘finest hour’ may have made some connection with the white members of the trade unions, but this patriotic slant on the strike is an example of how the union officials disregarded the cultural sensitivities of the Asian strikers in favour of making appeals to the interests of the wider working class. The petition to white workers to become involved in actions of solidarity with black workers to prevent any further attack upon the trade unions and the struggles of black workers as the first line of defence against a larger capitalist offensive was widespread in leftist literature on anti-racism and black militancy. The sequence of the ruling class using racism to divide black and white workers in a time of crisis in order to prepare for an attack upon the trade unions was tied to the leftist historical analysis of inter-war fascism. The same anxieties that the left had about a defeat at Grunwick was applied to the campaign against the fascism of the National Front in the 1970s, especially as the economic crisis worsened. As the Trade Union Committee Against Racialism declared in the early 1970s: ‘But racialism is only the most obvious of [the National Front’s] anti-working class policies. For their aim is the aim of all fascists; to smash the trade union movement and make it servile to the state in the interests of state monopoly capital’.[vii]

However some black workers felt that to mobilise on the issue of union recognition ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[viii] What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces.

A. Sivanandan wrote, the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[ix] The official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[x] In February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[xi] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands.

With Grunwick’s owner George Ward dismissing the recommendations made by ACAS on recognition of trade union membership, the APEX leadership called off the strike, which ended in unclear circumstances on 14 July, 1978.[xii] Tom Durkin, a long-time CPGB member and Chair of Brent Trades Council, saw the defeat as the result of the domination of the right wing of the trade union movement, stating:

It was the Right within APEX, the General Council and the Government which took the strikers into a legal morass, worked might and main to prevent the full power of our movement being used to paralyse Grunwick and which then deserted and ditched the brave men and women of Grunwick.[xiii]

Others, such as the SWP, saw the defeat as the end result of the ‘increased involvement of trade union organisation in the machinery of government’ and the ‘involvement of senior shop stewards in the management policies of many firms’.[xiv] The apparent betrayal of the striking workers by the TUC and upper echelons of the trade union movement was portrayed by the SWP as a vindication of their rank-and-file strategy. For the SWP, the strikers who had maintained the mass pickets at Grunwick throughout 1977 had been ‘entirely deserted by the official leaders of the trade union and labour movement’, but winning the dispute meant ‘breaking with the official side of the… movement and making direct appeals to rank and file workers’.[xv] The SWP declared in the final stages of the strike, ‘The shift to rank and file tactics is the only way of avoiding humiliation and defeat’.[xvi]

This sense of betrayal by the white trade union leadership was also seen in the comments made by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the Grunwick strike, when she declared in late 1977, ‘The union views itself like management… We are the real fighters… But the union just looks on us as if we are employed by them’.[xvii] For black activists, it was the use of ‘official channels’ that had ‘steered the black workers away from community based support’ and towards the unions, who in the end ‘finally betrayed them’.[xviii] The impact of the defeat upon the black workers, and the wider black communities, was that the labour movement had failed to respond adequately to the demands of the struggle against racism in the workplace. The left and the labour movement had traditionally portrayed themselves as accessible vehicles for progressive politics, but the aims of these organisations could not be interchangeable with those of Britain’s black population. The left celebrated its anti-colonial (and anti-fascist) legacies and saw their anti-racist work in the post-war period as a continuation of these former struggles. However a number of black activists saw the left and the wider labour movement as complicit in recreating the labour aristocracy that saw some socialists and trade unionists support the British Empire in the domestic environment.

In 1973, a study of trade unions and racism in Race Today stated:

Yet despite the obvious deficiencies of union organisation in the area, it is interesting to note that not one leading black militant involved in any of the above disputes is in favour of forming separate structures outside the trade union movement. Despite the apparent failure of the official organisation to support black workers in struggle, leading figures still want to fight on inside the present union set-up.[xix]

However by the late 1970s and early 1980s, black activists such as Sivanandan and Darcus Howe argued that the practical benefits of the trade unions in black industrial struggles were lost on many black workers. The Race Today Collective wrote in their history of Asian workers in Britain in 1983 that a common feature of strikes involving black workers was left-wing politicians, who ‘don’t believe in the independent movement of the black section of the working class’.[xx] The Collective emphasised that, ‘Not a single industrial strike of Asians or black workers has been won through this network of assistance’.[xxi]

It is a widely held viewpoint that the defeat at Grunwick was a watershed moment; one that saw the end of more than a decade of black political action and a precursor of the neo-liberal agenda to destroy the organised labour movement. The widening schism between the organs of the labour movement and the black workers is seen to have left the black communities without a readily accessible vehicle for political recognition. The victory of the neo-liberal elements of the ruling class at Grunwick and the alleged ‘betrayal’ by the union leadership of its rank-and-file is seen by some as the starting point of a longer history of the end of traditional militant labourism. For many, it foreshadowed an end to class politics that was eventually realised with Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985. In the 1980s, there were arguments that the machinery of the trade unions, through ‘proper procedures’ and their emphasis on ‘British ways’, had hastened the decline of black political action that was receptive to wider working class politics. As Paul Gordon wrote:

More important, perhaps, than the defeat itself was the fact that Grunwick marked the end of an era of vibrant and creative black struggles which had threatened to bring a political dimension to industrial struggle. It was an end brought about by the invasion of official trade unionism, which had moved from a position of opposition or apathy towards black workers to a strategy of control through co-option.[xxii]

A number of activists and scholars have drawn on the continuity between the black struggles of the 1970s and the defensive struggle of the labour movement’s existence during the Miners’ Strike, viewing the state as increasingly geared towards an explicit ‘law and order’ mode, with Trevor Carter writing, ‘You could say that the black community had a head-start of three years over the rest of the left in the battle against Thatcherism’.[xxiii] Although the left (and the trade union movement) had been significantly involved the fight against the National Front with the Anti-Nazi League and had given mass support to the strike at Grunwick, it was almost always done, Paul Gordon argued, ‘on their terms’[xxiv] and the aims of the left and of the black communities did not coincide, with ‘little involvement by the labour and trade union movement in the main concerns of black people’.[xxv] The defeat at Grunwick to the challenge to the unions by Thatcherism can be seen as part of a wider narrative of the rise of identity politics and a realisation of the limitations of organised unionism, which have thus shaped the function of British politics in the post-Thatcherite (and New Labour) period. As Carter wrote, ‘it took Thatcher’s defeat of Labour to drive the left into its first serious examination of the identity and whereabouts of the working class and to accept that it was not only white and male’.[xxvi]

I know I’ve completely overlooked the gender aspect of the Grunwick strike despite mentioning it in the first paragraph. It’s something that I recognise will need to be emphasised much more if I am to re-write this into a proper paper. In the meantime, I will point to the work (here and here) of Sundari Anitha, Ruth Pearson and Linda McDowell as part of the Striking Women project


[i] Andy Forbes, ‘In the Wake of Grunwick’, Marxism Today, December 1978, p. 386

[ii] Graham Taylor, ‘Grunwick’, Broad Left, 12, n.d., p. 8; Italics are in the original text

[iii] Jack Dromey & Graham Taylor, Grunwick: The Workers’ Story, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1978, p. 190

[iv] SWP, Grunwick, SWP pamphlet, London, 1978, p. 4

[v] Socialist Challenge, 3 November, 1977

[vi] Grunwick Strike Committee, Bulletin 53, 5 September, 1977, G1402/7, MSS.464 Box 1, Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[vii] Trade Union Committee Against Racialism, ‘National Front – Election Campaign Notes’, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, People’s History Museum, Manchester

[viii] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154

[ix] ‘Grunwick (2)’, Race & Class, 19/3, 1978, p. 292

[x] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, Race & Class, 19/1, 1977, p. 70

[xi] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February, 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, Grunwick Dispute Archive, MRC

[xii] Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987, p. 307

[xiii] Tom Durkin, Grunwick: Bravery & Betrayal, Brent Trades Council pamphlet, London, 2006, p. 23

[xiv] SWP, Grunwick, p. 16

[xv] SWP, Grunwick, p. 15

[xvi] SWP, Grunwick, p. 15

[xvii] Cited in, ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 294

[xviii] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292; A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, Race & Class, 26/4, 1985, p. 7

[xix] ‘The East Midlands: A Cameo in Conspiracy’, Race Today, August 1973, p. 239

[xx] Race Today Collective, The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, Race Today Publications, London, 1983, p. 15

[xxi] RTC, The Struggles of Asian Workers in Britain, p. 15

[xxii] Paul Gordon, ‘“If They Come in the Morning…”: The Police, the Miners and Black People’, in Bob Fine & Robert Millar (eds), Policing the Miners’ Strike, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1985, p. 172; p. 173

[xxiii] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1986, p. 115

[xxiv] P. Gordon, ‘If They Come in the Morning…’, p. 172; Italics are in the original text.

[xxv] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, p. 116

[xxvi] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, p. 115

Historical research into black power in Britain

This article in The Guardian today caught my eye, arguing that the history of the black power movement and radical black activism in Britain was in ‘danger of being forgotten’. The article was referring to a new biography of Darcus Howe, the black activist and editor of Race Today during the 1970s and early 1980s, by Robin Bunce and Paul Field. Bunce and Field argue that the history of black struggle has been overlooked in recent British history and it is true that scholarship in this area is not large, but I’m not sure that it is deliberate as Bunce and Field make out.

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Narratively, the history of black activism has been subsumed into the wider history of anti-racism in Britain and the story of radical black activism/black power, which rose in the late 1960s and waned by the late 1970s, often forms part of a longer narrative. Similar to the history of the wider anti-racist movement, radical black activism may have had victories in the 1970s, but the narrative arc ends with the implosion of radical politics in the 1981 riots and the crushing defeats under Thatcherism. (I have written about the convergence and divergence between black activists and the ‘white’ left in the 1970s and 1980s here)

Practically, researching the history of radical black activism and black power is made difficult by the (scarce) amount of resources that can be obtained by historians. Publications produced by black activists in Britain remain rather difficult to find and archival material of their campaigns is only recently been compiled. Collections such as the Black Cultural Archives in Lambeth, the Race Relations Archive at the University of Manchester, the Sivanandan collection at the University of Warwick Library and the Institute of Race Relations Library are important for helping historians begin to write this history. Although Bunce and Field have made use of archival material from the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police’ Special Branch, files relating to black power and radical black activism in the National Archives are rather few. A quick check of the National Archives’ catalogue shows that there are about 10-15 files on black power in the UK publicly available. (I am sure there would be much more available through FOI) The next step for historians interested in this area is to conduct oral history interviews with people involved in black activism during this time – something which the Organised Youth project have been doing lately.

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Before Bunce and Field’s recent monograph, there have been other studies on black power and radical black activism in Britain. The most recent would be Anne-Marie Angelo’s work on the British Black Panther Party (based on her PhD on the internationalism of the Black Panthers in the UK and Israel). But the others are now over a decade old. Another PhD from 2008, by Rosalind Wild, looked at black power in Britain and its origins from 1955 to 1975. Colin. A Beckles published an article in 1998 on the black activist bookshops in the UK, describing them as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’. Kalbir Shukra and Brian Alleyne have both written about black politics, including black radicalism, but their books were published in 1998 and 2003 respectively. A. Sivanandan’s collection of his works from the 1970s to the present, Catching History on its Wings, has some material on radical black activism reproduced from Race & Class journal, of which Sivanandan was the founding editor.

In the period being discussed (the late 1960s to the early 1980s), the use of the term ‘black’ was a political term and often encompassed both Afro-Caribbean and South Asian people. In this period, there was significant crossover in activism between the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities, as well as with white activists, but there was also divergence, and activism that focussed on the problems specifically facing certain communities. There have been two books on radical activism within Britain’s South Asian communities. Anandi Ramamurthy has recently published Black Star which is a fascinating account of the Asian Youth Movements that started in Southall and spread across Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2003, Rahila Gupta published a history of the Southall Black Sisters, a South Asian feminist organisation that emerged out of the anti-fascist protest against the National Front in 1979 (where Blair Peach was killed). While differing from ‘black power’, this shows that research into radicalism amongst Britain’s ethnic minority communities does exist and is growing.

I look forward to reading Bunce and Field’s book and I hope this spurs more research into the history of radical black activism in Britain.