Race Today

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.

Darcus Howe

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

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The intersection of race, class and gender at the Grunwick strike

On 23 August, 1976, six workers went on strike at the Grunwick Photo Processing Lab in North-West London, beginning a strike that lasted for almost two years and involved thousands of people over the course of it. The Grunwick strike is now considered a turning point in the history of British trade unionism and race relations. I have written elsewhere about the intersectionality of the strike, but this post, based on an extract from my forthcoming book, expands on how the issues of race, class and gender crossed over during the strike.

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Looking through the lens of critical race and feminist theory, it can be argued that the Grunwick strike was intersectional,[1] where issues of race, gender and class were all present and raised by different people involved in the strike. However while all of these issues were present (and recognised by those involved), the approaches formulated to tackle these issues were disparate and non-inclusive. While the trade union movement recognised racial and sexual discrimination were issues of resentment amongst those striking at Grunwick, the strategy for ‘victory’ was a class-based approach – primarily recognition of trade union representation from the owners of Grunwick.

In the coverage of the strike in the various left-wing, feminist and black activist publications at the time, the prominence given to the various issues of class, gender and race can be seen. The Socialist Workers Party declared in their pamphlet on the strike that, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’,[2] while the International Marxist Group depicted the Grunwick strike as part of a longer union history:

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.[3]

However it was suggested in the journal Race Today that some black workers felt that to mobilise on this issue ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[4] Meanwhile A. Sinanvandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, wrote that the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[5] In his eyes, 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’.[6] For example, 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’.[7] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands. 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. As the Black Women’s Group Brixton stated in the following years:

The only basis on which the trade union movement and the White left would support the struggle of Black workers was on the condition that they subordinate the main issue of racism to trade unionism, which is of importance, but not sufficient to ignore the racist issue.[8]

The feminist magazine Spare Rib celebrated the role taken by women, particularly Asian women, in the strike, who, according to them, made up 60 per cent of strike. In January 1977, the magazine declared:

It takes a great deal of guts for an Asian woman to come out on strike and stand on a picket line in the full glare of publicity day after day. All sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on her. Members of her family may gossip and deprecate her, as it is considered a dishonour for a woman to put herself in the public eye.[9]

The magazine also highlighted the particular hardships faced by women employees at Grunwick and quoted one of the women on strike:

What I mean by slave treatment is that if a woman is pregnant, for example, she can’t get time off to go to the clinic. The management says why we can’t we go on Saturdays, but the cliniuc is not open on that day.

Many of our women have small children at school or in nurseries. The management tells you halfway through the day that you must work overtime that night – but this is terrible because you can’t pick up your children and you can’t contact your home.[10]

Interviewed at the height of the mass pickets in July/August 1977, Jayaben Desai talked positively about the support that came from different areas for the women on strike:

Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community see what we are fighting for.

And before, the trade unions in this country were felling that our community was not interested – this was wlways a gap in our community. But this will bring the distance nearer.We can all see the result – people coming here from all over the country were seeing us as part of the workers now.[11]

These differing persepctives on the focus of the Grunwick strike have led to much debate over whether the strike was a class-based strike or a strike against racism (or both), with the female aspect of the strike overlooked by many scholars. A. Sivanandan wrote in 1981 that the ‘basic issue for the strikers was thw question of racist exploitation’, acknowledging that union recognition was part of this.[12] Ron Ramdin also acknowledged that racial discrimination was an issue at Grunwick, but wrote, ‘[w]hile low pay, racism and the oppression of women were contributory factors, the main cause of the Grunwick strike was the ‘conditions of work’.[13] Following on from this argument from Ramdin, several authors have argued that Grunwick brought black and white workers together as a class to fight for trade union recognition and to combat racism in the workplace. Gary Macfarlane stated that the strike ‘ demonstrated that class unity could be forged in action and racism challenged head on’,[14] while Satnam Virdee wrote ‘during Grunwick, ‘key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive lanhuage of class that could now also encompass racialized minority workers.’[15]

Although the main emphasis of APEX and the Brent Trades Council was on trade union recogition, as mentioned above, there were moments when these organisations did not acknowledge that there was a racial aspect to the strike. In a letter from the Basingstoke General branch of APEX to the General Secretary of the TUC, there was a call for a national campaign by the TUC to highlight the struggle at Grunwick, with letter ending, ‘Let all know about the Grunwick employers Dickensian nature of employment, mainly of Asian origin, thus making the issue additionally delicate in the matter concerning race relations.’[16] Furthermore, in a flyer produced by APEX to call for the mass pickets in mid-1977, it was stated in bold capitals at the top of the flyer:

GRUNWICKS STRIKE IS ABOUT

IMMIGRANTS             WOMEN

TRADE UNION RIGHTS

WORKING CLASS SOLIDARITY[17]

However other academics, such as Jack McGowan, have rejected that racism was an issue at Grunwick, writing that a ‘race-driven narrative is a tenacious trope in the accounts of Grunwick from the Left.’[18] McGowan cited the Commission for Racial Equality as stating, ‘It cannot be shown that the management at Grunwick practised racial discrimination’, and further argued that the strike could not be about ‘race’ because the co-owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was of Anglo-Indian descent.[19] Criticising a particular BBC Radio 4 documentary on the strike produced by Melissa Benn, McGowan lamented that ‘Benn’s radio audience might… misinterpret Grunwick as a case of white exploitation of ethnic workers’ and argued:

[Benn] appears to conflate the profound difference between the structural, socio-economic status of a sector of the labour force – regardless of ethnicity – with an implied willingness on the part of an employer deliberately to exploit workers on the grounds of race alone.[20]

McGowan here takes a very narrow concept of racism and does not consider that Grunwick’s owners and management relied on the structural position of the Asian manual workers (especially the female workers), largely informed by their ethnicity and recent migrant status, to treat them poorly as employees. As Pratibha Parmar and Parita Trivedi have argued, Asian women were viewed as ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘meek’ and ‘pushed into unskilled and semi-skilled jobs’ in ‘small organized sweatshops or doing homeworking’.[21] These racist and sexist assumptions, along the difficulties of trade union organising in these workplaces, made Asian female workers vulnerable to exploitation, but as the Grunwick strike has shown, these women were willing to challenge these assumptions and were able to take the lead in militant industrial action.[22]

The importance of the strike in fighting sexual discrimination has traditionally been overlooked in discussions of the strike, although since Amrit Wilson first wrote about the strike in the 1978 edition of Finding a Voice, it has been acknowledged by feminist scholars that the discrimination that workers faced as women informed the militancy of the women involved on the picket line.[23] As the quotes from Spare Rib above show, women at Grunwick experienced specific discrimination based upon their gender, which was often combined with discrimination based upon their ethnicity. The recent work by Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson suggests that previous accounts of the strike have ‘neglected the complex intersections between class, gender and ethnicity’ at Grunwick and therefore argue that the strike should be viewed through an intersectional lens.[24] For the labour movement, there was an emphasis on class, although there was an increasing acknowledgement of the extra problems faced by ethnic minorities and by women – but the strategies put forward for combatting the intersecting forms of class, gender and racial oppression always emphasised class unity and using the tools of class mobilisation, such as the mass picket and the accession to the trade union leadership.

Although the strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since because of this compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recogniswed the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[25]

————————————————————–

[1] See: Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139-68; Crenshaw 1991, pp. 1242-300.

[2] SWP, Grunwick, p. 4.

[3] Socialist Challenge, 3 November 1977.

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

[5] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292.

[6] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, p. 70.

[7] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, in Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[8] Black Women’s Group Brixton, ‘Editorial’, Speak Out, 2, 1981, p. 3, DADZIE/1/8/3, in Stella Dadzie Papers, Black Cultural Archives, London.

[9] Rossiter, ‘Risking Gossip & Disgrace: Asian Women trike’, Spare Rib, January 1977, p. 18.

[10] Campbell and Charlton, ‘Grunwick Women’, Spare Rib, August 1977, p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sivanandan 2008, p. 130.

[13] Ramdin 1987, p. 288.

[14] MacFarlane 2013, p. 87.

[15] Virdee 2014, p. 135.

[16] Letter from APEX Basingstoke General branch to TUC General Secretary, 18 April 1977, MSS 292D/253.119/3, in TUC Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[17] APEX flyer, August 1977, MSS.464/20, in APEX papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[18] McGowan 2008, p. 389.

[19] McGowan 2008, pp. 389-90.

[20] McGowan 2008, p. 390.

[21] Parmar 1986, p. 245; Trivedi 1984, p. 45.

[22] Although a recent study has suggested that African-Caribbean women, who also went on strike at Grunwick, have been erased from the visual and collective memory of the stike. McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 606.

[23] Wilson 1981, pp. 60-71.

[24] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2012, p. 134.

[25] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 600.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-168.

——— 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43, 6, pp. 1242-1300.

MacFarlane, Gary 2013, ‘From Confrontation to Compromise: Black British Politics in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, London: Bookmarks.

McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2012, ‘Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain’, Gender, Place & Culture, 19, 2, pp. 133-152

——— ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, pp. 754-775.

McGowan, Jack 2008, ‘“Dispute”, “Battle”, “Siege”, “Farce”? – Grunwick 30 Years On’, Contemporary British History, 22, 3, pp. 383-406.

Parmar, Pratibha 1986, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, London: Hutchinson, pp. 236-275.

Ramdin, Ron 1987, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot: Gower.

Sivanandan, Ambalavaner 2008, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press.

Trivedi, Parita 1984, ‘To Deny Our Fullness: Asian Women in the Making of History’, Feminist Review, 17, 34-50.

Virdee, Satnam 2014, ‘Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968-79’, in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 209-228.

 

 

 

The role of the Communist Party in the British anti-racist movement

 

Below is something that I wrote as an overview of the book that I have been writing over the last year and with the manuscript finally submitted to the publisher a few weeks ago (and deadlines for other projects looming), I thought I’d post this.

sharma

I have recently completed a book manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’ (currently with the publishers) which uncovers the prominent anti-racist role that the Party played in the post-war era. The history of the Communist Party’s role in the anti-racist movement in Britain is one of varying degrees of success and failure from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the initial political organisations to actively campaign against the racial discrimination faced by black people in Britain, it was at the forefront of the broad anti-racist movements of the 1950s and 1960s (borne out of the earlier anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements that the CPGB participated in). However by the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Communist Party in the anti-racist movement was surpassed, on one hand by black activists who formed autonomous black-led organisations and on the other by the groups of the far left, such as the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group, who proposed a more radical political agenda, including a more confrontational anti-racist/anti-fascist programme. Although the shift towards embracing the new social movements, centred around those writing for Marxism Today, somewhat reinvigorated the CPGB in the 1980s and possibly promised a potentially more nuanced anti-racist strategy, the Party was on the verge of collapse and did not translate into practical anti-racist activism.

In 1957, Claudia Jones, the West Indian-American communist who had been deported from the USA, wrote in an article for the CPGB’s weekly journal discussing West Indians in Britain:

Our Party is judged among colonial workers by its policy, but much more so by its deeds.[i]

Spanning nearly the entire period of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short twentieth century’,[ii] the Communist Party, throughout its existence, had campaigned against colonialism, the ‘colour bar’ and racial discrimination (and racist violence) in the colonial sphere and in Britain. The Communist Party was one of the first organisations within the British labour movement to have an explicit anti-racist agenda, opposing the ‘colour bar’ in the British Empire/Commonwealth then opposing it in the domestic sphere, as the number of Commonwealth migrants rose in the 1940s and 1950s.

The question that I have sought to answer in my book is how successful was the Party’s effort to help fight racism faced by Britain’s black and Asian communities and how successful was the Party in convincing other sections of the labour movement to take up the anti-racist struggle. In assessing this, my argument is that CPGB were constantly in a balancing act between looking to the trade unions and other labour organisations to spearhead the anti-racist movement, making white workers aware of the fight against racism, and working more closely with the black communities at the grassroots level, where there increasing scepticism over the eagerness of the trade unions to combat racism. As a Liverpudlian Party member asked in a letter to the Party magazine Comment in 1981:

On what terms do we involve the labour movement in the [anti-racist] struggle, as the vanguard taking over the direction of the struggle or as supporters of the black community bringing the power of the movement to bear where the black community itself feels the most urgent need?[iii]

Since the reformation of factory branches during the Second World War, and particularly as the Party’s post-war programme The British Road to Socialism saw them as key to any influence upon the Labour Party, the trade unions were central to the CPGB’s agenda, including in the fight against racism. While the Party was attracting a number of black workers, activists and students from across the Commonwealth in the 1950s, its literature focussed on attempts to convince trade unionists to welcome these fellow workers and campaign against ‘colour bars’ in the labour movement and the workplace. In the pages of the daily newspaper Daily Worker in the late 1950s, Party member Kay Beauchamp stressed ‘the need for the whole Labour movement to take up the fight against colour discrimination, for the trade unions to champion the rights of coloured workers and to make a special appeal to them to join the unions.’[iv] Although the trade unions supported campaigns, such as Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom, at bloc level, getting individual trade unionists to take part in anti-racist activities was a much more difficult task. As others have pointed out, until the mid-1970s, trade unionists favoured a ‘colour blind’ approach that promoted no ‘special treatment’ for people based on ethnicity or nationality, but then offered little assistance to those who needed help in overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace.

The elections of Labour in 1964 and 1966 highlighted the differences between the labour movement and the needs of Britain’s black communities, and the problem that the Communist Party had in attempting to win the ‘mass party’ towards a Labour-Communist alliance and maintaining a credible anti-racist programme. Although Labour did introduce legislation against racial discrimination in public places, housing, employment and in social services in 1965 and in 1968, this was done in conjunction with further restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, which tied together the notions of integration with restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote, this signalled a convergence between Labour and the Conservatives on the issues of immigration and racial justice:

[a]n advanced, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.[v]

It also signalled to black workers in Britain that Labour’s anti-racist idealism could be countered by the poll-driven necessity to be as ‘tough on immigration’ as the Conservatives. A major part of the Communist Party’s anti-racist agenda throughout the 1960s and 1970s was to campaign for Labour to repeal its commitment to racist immigration control measures and to place further powers in the Race Relations legislation, but the two terms of Harold Wilson in government showed that these were difficult demands to implement. It was absolutely necessary for the Communist Party to oppose these racist actions by the Labour Party, just as much as it opposed those perpetrated by the Tories, but this was juxtaposed with the CPGB’s support for Labour in many other areas, especially in the electoral sphere. This inconsistency convinced a number of black activists and workers that it was better to join black community or single issue organisations, rather than be a minority in the primarily ‘white’ labour organisations. This deviated from the strategy put forward by the CPGB, who were wary that these black community organisations would feed into the ‘black power’ movement and turn black workers away from the importance of the class struggle.[vi]

Even in the 1970s, as the trade unions became more aware of the issues of racism faced by black workers and new networks of solidarity were formed between the labour movement and the black communities, there were still tensions over the direction of political activity in these areas. In his book, Virdee describes the Grunwick strike from 1976 to 1978 and the success of the Anti-Nazi League between 1977 and 1981 as important steps for the British labour movement in overcoming the bifurcation of the working class that had existed in the 1960s and early 1970s,[vii] but these new bonds between black and white workers raised questions over political strategy and the aims of the various people involved in these actions. For example, was strike action at Grunwick primarily about defending the right to strike or combating racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace (or fighting the sexist treatment of South Asian women by the management at Grunwick)? Was the anti-fascist movement more concerned with the threat that the National Front posed to the working class, or did it concentrate on the racial violence and harassment experienced by black Britons at the hands of NF and other fascist sympathisers?

Although the Grunwick strike and the relative success of the Anti-Nazi League showed that the British labour movement could be mobilised around issues of ‘race’ and anti-racism (and both have been celebrated for this in the intervening years since), these achievements came on the cusp of a watershed moment in British history, which upended much of the positive work achieved in the late 1970s. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in May 1979 signalled the beginning of a decade long struggle for both the labour movement and for Britain’s black communities. And despite a connection being made between migrant workers and the labour movement at places like Grunwick, many of the younger generation of the ethnic minority communities were still suspicious of left-wing and progressive groups and felt that their problems were not being represented in the political arena. Against this background of disillusionment with the traditional political vehicles open to the ethnic minority communities, large numbers of Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth were involved in public disorder activities across the country in 1980 and 1981.

Meanwhile, as the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and of Eurocommunism developed within the Communist Party during this period, a number of those involved in anti-racist activities acknowledged these tensions and promoted engaging with black workers, activists and youth in other ways. However by this time, the CPGB’s influence within the anti-racist movement had diminished. Other black activist and far left groups, such as the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) and the Race Today Collective on one hand and the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party on the other, had emerged who were more radical, confrontational and less beholden to the trade unions and the Labour Party. The middle ground that the Communist Party was holding onto was growing ever smaller.

The isolated position of the Communist Party from others within the anti-racist movement was exacerbated by its acceptance, as laid out in The British Road to Socialism, of the potentially positive role of the state. Many on the left eschewed any co-operation with the structures of the capitalist state and this extended to their anti-racist activism, whilst numerous black activists argued that most black people in Britain had experienced the racism of the state in some form and therefore could not relied upon to support an anti-racist agenda. This was particularly the case with the more radical black organisations that appeared in the 1970s, such as the British Black Panther Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Asian Youth Movements. The Communist Party routinely called for the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and for prosecution of those who incited racial hatred or committed racially discriminatory actions. However the uneven prosecutorial history of the Act, which saw black power activist Michael X jailed in 1967, but no case brought against Enoch Powell in 1968,[viii] made the case for others that were sceptical about progressive political movements encouraging the use of the repressive apparatuses of the state to intervene on their behalf. This was reinforced by the violence wreaked by the police against the mass pickets at Grunwick, at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and against the anti-fascist movement on numerous occasions (which resulted in the deaths of two protestors in 1974 and 1979).

By the early 1980s, the CPGB was promoting the popular idea (amongst the Gramscian and Eurocommunist left, at least) that the Thatcher government had ushered in a new era of authoritarianism and that the working class, particularly black people, suffered at the hands of the police and other state agencies, but still pushed in its ‘Charter of Demands’ for greater state interventions in some areas, such as

Existing race relations and public order law must be firmly enforced against racists. These laws must be given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism.[ix]

The revised version of The British Road to Socialism that was drafted in 1977 also promoted greater co-operation with the state at the local level, with a number of CPGB activists proposing that local councils, particularly those controlled by the Labour Party, could serve as sites of resistance to the Thatcherite neoliberal state at the national level. These local councils became involved in what was described as ‘municipal anti-racism’, which tried to redistribute funding and services to ethnic minority communities and organisations, as well as promoting an ‘acceptable’ form of anti-racism. This was criticised by some, such as the AYMs, for only giving funds to those organisations and campaigns that were willing to acquiesce to the rules of the local council, arguing that this meant that the anti-racism of certain radical organisations was blunted. Others criticised the anti-racist training for buying into the Thatcherite paradigm and viewing racism as a solely ideological and individualistic problem, which overlooked the structural and socio-economic basis for racial inequality and racial discrimination. The result of this was, as Alana Lentin has argued, that independent anti-racist organisations and campaigns became increasingly institutionalised, co-ordinated (and co-opted) by local government agencies.[x] This dissipated much of the radical sections of the anti-racist movement during the 1980s, including the role of the Communist Party, who, for other reasons, was already on the verge of collapse.

BRS1977

In his discussion of the British left and the fight for gay rights, Graham Willett wrote about looking at how these Marxist groups dealt with movements that fought other types of oppression (rather than class oppression) from today’s perspective:

Deciding on these position depends on whether one assumes that socialists can be expected to transcend the limitations of their own times; whether they should be expected to hold to or, alternatively, to move beyond the most advanced politics available.[xi]

Although anti-racism was a much more accepted political objective than gay rights, with the socialist left promoting opposition to racial discrimination since the 1920s, Willett reminds us that those involved in anti-racist activism had to work within a labour movement (and wider political landscape) where racism was not taken as seriously as it is today and we cannot transpose contemporary political values onto the past. Whatever their actions, it is important to remember that the Communist Party of Great Britain was one of the most vocal anti-racist organisations from the 1920s to the 1980s. When black workers started to migrate to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, it was one of the few organisations to consistently campaign for inclusion of black workers into the labour movement, as well as promoting a broader campaign against racial discrimination in British society. There were certainly limitations to this approach, particularly as the CPGB focused heavily upon the trade unions as a force for change within the anti-racist movement, while it seems that the trade unions lagged behind other sections of the movement to wholeheartedly put their weight behind the issue. From the late 1960s onwards, other left-wing and black activist organisations were able to surpass the position put forward by the CPGB, but their reach beyond the anti-racist movement, the far left and Britain’s substantial black communities was limited, while the CPGB had the potential to reach into the more centrist labour movement. The Morning Star, as a widely read daily newspaper amongst many trade unionists, covered anti-racist issues of a regular basis, forming a significant action on behalf of the Communist Party’s anti-racist programme. The fact that the Communist Party had its feet in both the trade union movement, but also inside radical left milieu and other progressive movements meant that in some ways it was in advantageous position, potentially reaching a broad audience for its programme, as outlined in The British Road to Socialism. But it also meant that the CPGB’s message often fell through the cracks – too radical for some, not radical enough for others – and its actions were diluted by this, with its activists being subsumed into larger social movements and organisations (and in the process losing any identity as a CPGB member). This was the case for the Party’s cohort of dedicated anti-racist activists.

At the 38th National Congress of the CPGB in 1983 (the Congress that saw the Morning Star faction break away from the CPGB over the political line put forward by Marxism Today), the Party’s resolution on the issue of racism criticised the Party for its lack of black membership:

The Congress is concerned at the under-representation of black people in the CPGB and believes that this is in part due to residual racialist attitudes and practices inside the Party.[xii]

From looking at the material published by the Communist Party and examining its internal records, it is hard to agree with this assumption made by in this resolution that racist attitudes existed within the CPGB. It is more likely that while nearly all members of the CPGB nominally agreed to an anti-racist programme, only a number were dedicated to anti-racist activism. The preceding sentence in the resolution is more accurate, that Congress ‘is aware that the [anti-racist] campaigning issues referred to [in the resolution] have not become an essential part of regular activity of every Party branch.’[xiii] Parallel to John Callaghan’s response when Marika Sherwood criticised the CPGB of being racist in the 1930s, while Party had ‘undoubted shortcomings’ in its recruitment of black members, it was just ‘not very good at recruiting any section of the population’ during the 1980s.[xiv] Its membership in 1983 was 15,691 (a loss of more than 14,000 members over the previous decade) and as Willie Thompson wrote, the Party was ‘being rendered incapable of doing anything very much apart from operating on its own body.’[xv] The resolution continued to state that ‘[w]hilst Congress welcomes the work of white comrades involved in anti-racist organisations such as CARL [the Campaign Against Racist Laws], this is no substitute for the task of bringing more black comrades into the Party.’[xvi] This highlights the crux of the problem for the CPGB anti-racist activists in the early 1980s – a section of its membership was heavily involved in various anti-racist campaigns and organisations, but this did not translate into tangible gains for the Party, which was in a downward spiral by now. But it also highlights some over optimistic feelings within the Party at the same time as it was unrealistic to expect many new members joining the Party during this period, particularly from a demographic that had been traditionally overlooked within the broader structures of the CPGB and the labour movement.

This post (and hopefully my book as well) has attempted to outline the importance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the history of anti-racism in post-war Britain and its legacy, but also to highlight the difficulties faced by the Party and the limitations of its strategies. Without understanding the role that the CPGB played in the formation of the modern anti-racist movement in Britain, we cannot understand how the anti-racist movement has developed in the decades since then. The Communist Party was a pioneering force in the anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements from its birth in the 1920s until its slow demise in the 1980s, but it was also a ‘prisoner’ of this time and although sections of the Party promoted reform, it was unable to survive the seismic domestic and international political shifts of the 1980s and early 1990s and was thus was transcended by a new wave of anti-racist, radical and black activist groups. And with this transcendence, the forward march of the Communist Party and its role in the anti-racist movement had been, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, halted.[xvii]

grunwick

[i] Claudia Jones, ‘West Indians in Britain’, World News, 29 June, 1957, p. 416.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 2004) p. 3.

[iii] ‘Letters’, Comment, 17 October, 1981, p. 14.

[iv] Kay Beauchamp, ‘Democracy v Racial Prejudice’, Daily Worker, 16 May, 1957.

[v] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London: Paladin, 1992) p. 211.

[vi] Willie Thompson, ‘Black Power’, Cogito, n.d., pp. 4-5, CP/YCL/21/01, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[vii] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) p. 123.

[viii] Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) p. 30; Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp. 251-252.

[ix] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds) Black & Blue: Racism and the Police (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1981) p. 29.

[x] Alana Lentin, Racism & Anti-Racism in Europe (London: Pluto Press, 2004) p. 143.

[xi] Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay Politics’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) p. 175.

[xii] ‘Racism’, Communist Focus (December 1983) p. 31.

[xiii] ‘Racism’, p. 31; Italics are my emphasis.

[xiv] John Callaghan, ‘Colonies, Racism, the CPGB and the Comintern in the Inter-War Years’, Science & Society, 61/4 (Winter 1997-98) p. 520.

[xv] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; p. 190.

[xvi] ‘Racism’, p. 31.

[xvii] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978) pp. 279-286.

April 1980-81: The riots in Bristol and Brixton and their histories

St-pauls-riot

April 2 is the 35th anniversary of the riots that broke out in the St Paul’s district of Bristol in 1980, the first major confrontation between black youth and the police of the Thatcher years. April 10 will be the anniversary of the Brixton riots that occurred the following year. These episodes of public disorder are often overlooked in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, but are important to understanding the confrontational nature of Thatcherism.

I wrote this article back in 2010 on how different histories of the 1980 and 1981 riots have emerged since then and how different black and left-wing activist groups interpreted the riots. And to complement this piece, in 2013 I published this article on how the histories of the 1981 riots informed how various people interpreted the 2011 riots.

That’s it for now. Once I’ve finished this book manuscript, normal blogging should resume. As usual, any feedback or comments is welcome!

What does the term ‘black’ mean for historians of Afro-Caribbean & Asian activism in 1970s Britain?

Should historians of Afro-Caribbean and Asian activism in Britain in the 1970s-80s use the term ‘black’ to describe these people and their communities? Or does the term ‘black’ as a political category belong to a by-gone era?

 

Photo by Phil Maxwell

Photo by Phil Maxwell

From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, many African-Caribbean and South Asian activists in Britain used the term ‘black’ to denote a political position of Afro-Asian unity in the face of white British racism. Writing in the mid-1980s, authors, such as Peter Fryer and Ron Ramdin, used the term ‘black’ to describe all non-white Britons in their histories of black people in Britain.[i] Paul Gilroy also used the term to highlight opposition to the racism of white British society, which seemed to regard ‘the racial characteristics of both “Paki” and “nigger” as being equally worthy of hatred’.[ii]

In his 1985 work, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, A. Sivanandan referred to the common experience of nearly all non-white immigrants in Britain, ‘created in the post-war years by a culture of resistance to racism in the factories and the neighbourhoods of the inner cities to which the Afro-Caribbeans and Asians had been condemned to work and live’.[iii] Located in ‘the same ghetto’, Sivanandan stated that African-Caribbeans and Asians had ‘found common cause a racism that denied them their basic needs… and brought them up against racist landlords, racist teachers, racist social workers and racist policemen’.[iv] The common problems and interests of African-Caribbean and Asian people in Britain ‘led to a common culture of resistance’ and what Sivanandan calls ‘a community’ – a black community.[v] Using the language of Sivanandan, it can be argued that these black communities of the 1960s and 1970s were defined by their struggle for political recognition and a political voice, as well as racial and socio-economic oppression by the British state, which was experienced by nearly all black people in post-war Britain.

But it is also important to recognise that there were (and are) many different experiences by different ethnic groups, classes, ages and localities within these wider communities. Since the 1990s, many scholars have been reluctant to use the term ‘black’ to include both African-Caribbeans and Asians as it was believed that the term failed to recognise the differences between the multitude of diaspora communities. It was argued that non-white people in Britain could not amalgamated into one homogenous category.

One question that arises from this is what term do historians of the period of ‘black’ activism (from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s) use? In her history of black activism in Britain, Kalbir Shukra wrote:

I retain “black” not to bestow any authority upon it, but because it is the term most commonly preferred by those who were the focus of this project.[vi]

In the past, I have followed Shukra’s reasoning, but am curious to see what other people think.

365

[i] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987

[ii] Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Routledge, London, 2002, p. 36

[iii] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, Race & Class, 25/4, 1985, p. 2

[iv] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, p. 2

[v] A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, p. 2

[vi] Kalbir Shukra, The Changing Pattern of Black Politics in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1998, p. 125

New book project: British Communism and the Politics of Race

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

I am very happy to announce that I have recently signed a contract with Brill’s Historical Materialism book series for a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Politics of Race, deliverable early next year. Here is a little about the proposed book:

This book examines how the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as a large and an influential force within the British labour movement, responded to issues of ‘race’ and immigration from the late 1940s to the early 1980s – from the era of decolonisation and large scale migration to the early days of Thatcherism and the inner-city riots. Informed by its anti-colonial activism in the inter-war period, Communist Party was an attractive option for black workers who had migrated to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s. In this period, the Communist Party was one of the first labour organisations that campaigned against racial discrimination and against racial incitement. However its anti-racism was subsumed by the wider struggle for socialism and industrial militancy, and the labour movement, including the CPGB, was often seen as unresponsive to the needs of Britain’s migrant communities and black workers. The CPGB can be seen as a microcosm of how the British labour movement related to the issue of ‘race’ and how the centrality of class was contested by other forms of politics, informed by ‘race’, such as black power, migrants’ rights and various forms of anti-racism.

The history of the Communist Party’s relationship with black workers was the history of a squandered opportunity, one that saw a steep decline from the 1940s and 1950s, when many black activists were attracted to the Party due to its historical anti-colonial stance, to the 1980s, when the Party was in disarray and the black communities were wary of a labour movement that had for so long minimized the problems of racism that black Britons faced. At the heart of the division between the CPGB and black workers was the belief that colonialism and racism were borne out of capitalism and that anti-racism/anti-colonialism were subordinate to the dynamics of class struggle. The CPGB faced major problems in convincing white workers, including the Party’s own members, to be actively involved in the fight against racism and colonialism – how and why this occurred is the focus of this book.

The theme of how the Communist Party lost its close relationship with black workers and the potential that was squandered frames the book’s investigation, addressing a gap in the cultural history of the British left. The book demonstrates an understanding of the extra-parliamentary forces at work in social policy in Britain and an insight into how government and its critics established social policy at legislative and practical level. The book takes up the argument that while the British left, particularly the Communist Party, has not been able to usher in a socialist revolution, its role in political activism, especially in the areas of anti-racism and anti-fascism, has been significant.

The book will attempt to show how the Communist Party went from one of the most influential political parties for Britain’s migrant workers to one of relative insignificance, overshadowed by other political organisations and by other forms of political activism. It will explore how the Communist Party, as part of the wider labour movement, was traditionally a vehicle for progressive politics and how the British labour movement has historically dealt with issues of ‘race’ and the problems facing Britain’s black communities. The book will argue that the Communist Party, as well as other sections of the British left, are integral to understanding the broader history of anti-racist politics in Britain and the transition from the more abstract anti-colonial politics of the early post-war era to the domestic anti-racism of the 1970s and 1980s.

I am very excited to be contributing to this excellent series of historical and political scholarship and am very grateful for the enthusiasm that the series editors have shown for the project. My recent trip to the UK garnered some brilliant new sources for the book (particularly the material from the Indian Workers Association archive in Birmingham and the Grunwick Strike Committee papers at the University of Warwick), which makes me doubly excited… Now on with the writing!

Before the ‘unity’ of Grunwick: 40 years since the Imperial Typewriters strike

I am currently in Birmingham and have spent the day in the archives of the Indian Workers Association, held in the new Library of Birmingham. Amongst the papers of the IWA is a lot of correspondence linked to the Imperial Typewriters strike on the summer of 1974, where South Asian workers went on an unofficial strike and had little support from the TGWU. The strike lasted from May to August 1974 and can be seen as a low point in the relations between black and white workers before the Grunwick strike broke out two years later. Below is an excerpt from a conference paper I presented at the 2008 Social History Society conference in Rotterdam that discusses the Imperial Typewriters strike. Some of it will be incorporated into a forthcoming monograph manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’.

RaceToday

In May 1974, over 500 Asian workers went on strike at the Imperial Typewriters factory in Leicester; their grievances, like those at Mansfield Hosiery Mills, had come from the lack of opportunities for promotion for Asian workers and unpaid bonuses. The striking workers saw the local TGWU as complicit in their underpayment and as the strike got underway, they felt that ‘the struggles being waged by them were not merely unsupported but were actively opposed by their union’.[1] While both Imperial Typewriters and the local TGWU denied any racial discrimination, the strikers claimed that the ‘white workers don’t suffer from the same degree of discipline as blacks do’, although they were quoted in New Society as stating, ‘This discrimination is quite peculiar because it is so hard to nail. It is the racialism that you feel but cannot overtly see, that exists at Imperial’.[2] The representative of the TGWU for Imperial Typewriters was George Bromley, who objected to the unofficial nature of the strike and the demands being made. Bromley criticised the unofficial measures being taken by the Asian strikers and their apparent disregard for the ‘proper disputes procedure’, stating that the strikers ‘have got to learn to fit in with our ways’ and then claiming, ‘the way they have been acting… means they will close factories and people won’t employ them’.[3] The refusal of Bromley and the TGWU to fully support the industrial action at Imperial Typewriters led to the strikers relying on the black community, instead of the solidarity of their fellow unionists.

The support for the strike, as Robert Moore wrote, ‘reached right down into the community’, not amongst the white working class or within the union, but amongst ‘members of the local Asian society’.[4] Race Today reported the ‘move away from trade union directives’ had given the striking workers ‘a source of political strength’, with the strikers’ autonomy bringing the strike ‘a spirit, an approach, a willingness to try any tactic’.[5] This autonomy and reliance on the black community presented a challenge to the labour movement, which promoted the traditional path of union politicisation as the key to affecting change for Britain’s black population, although black workers were wary of what use the trade unions had in asserting their political rights.

The Communist Party and the International Socialists did report on these strikes in their newspapers, the Morning Star and Socialist Worker respectively, but were criticised for their alleged limited practical actions. In the Imperial Typewriters dispute, the fascist far right organisation, the National Front, tried to take advantage of the refusal of white workers’ to join the strike and held demonstrations against the black workers. A counter-demonstration was held in August 1974 against the presence of the National Front that included a large contingent from the International Socialists. Hasmukh Khetani, one of the leaders of Imperial Typewriter Strike Committee, criticised the International Socialists for ignoring the actual strike and using the demonstration as a recruitment exercise. Writing in Race Today, Khetani complained that ‘One got the impression that the white left organisations… were more concerned about a fascist threat… than actual support for Black workers struggle’.[6]

Some have seen these strikes as a clear demonstration between ‘the national union model’, where the leadership has made conciliatory gestures towards equal opportunity for ethnic minorities, and ‘the local model(s)’, which generally, ‘if not actively opposing the pursuit of equal opportunity… are apparently much less committed to opposing racist discrimination’.[7] The International Socialists viewed these wildcat strikes as the ‘beginning of workers’ control’ against union officialdom, who allowed racial discrimination to occur in the workplace.[8] The trade union leadership, Paul Foot wrote in an IS pamphlet, ‘have passed their motions, but done nothing whatever to combat racial discrimination… or the racist ideas which exist in the minds of many of their members’.[9] The solution to the ineffectiveness of the union officials against racial discrimination, for the International Socialists, was to turn black workers towards their rank-and-file movement. Rank-and-filism was an industrial strategy that opposed the ‘reformist’ actions of the trade union leadership, proposing that ‘strong defensive rank-and-file organisations’ be formed to challenge the unions’ ‘reformist bureaucracy’ who, left unchallenged, would lead workers down an ‘increasingly blind and occasionally bloody alley’.[10] In an IS pamphlet, aimed at readers of the short-lived Urdu and Punjabi IS newspapers Chingari, the party stated that the ‘only fight back’ against racism ‘comes from rank and file workers’ and with this rank-and-file organisation, ‘a real fight can be waged on the conservatism and outright racialism of many union leaderships’.[11] Despite the emphasis upon the rank-and-file as the core of a revolutionary organisation to overthrow capitalism, and therefore the vehicle for defeating racism, the IS/SWP never reached a the level of influence in the unions that the CPGB had and the strategy floundered,[12] with the SWP being a much larger influence in the anti-fascist movement with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League.

The trade union leadership, as seen in a 1974 pamphlet produced by the TGWU, blamed white workers and the intervention of the National Front for the racism at Imperial Typewriters, with no mention of the complicity of the local union officials. For the TGWU, the lesson of the Imperial Typewriters strike was to establish a ‘consistent recruitment campaign to bring black workers into trade union membership’ and to ‘involve them in union ongoing activities’.[13] For the white union leadership, the strategy to combat racial discrimination was to adopt black workers into the existing structures of the trade unions, with ‘special representation for black members… at different levels’,[14] rather than unofficial militant actions by black workers. Despite this declaration to promote anti-racist actions within the trade unions, by 1986, only 4 per cent of black workers held elected posts within their unions, compared with 11 per cent of white workers.[15]

A number of academics have viewed the strike at Imperial Typewriters as part of a wider history of autonomous black industrial action that spans from Woolf’s Rubber Factory in Southall and Courtaulds Red Scar Mill in Preston, both in 1965, to the defeat of the Grunwick strike in late 1978, which highlights the controversial issue of ‘the relationship of trade unions to external community-based minority ethnic groups’.[16] As John Wrench and Satnam Virdee have noted, this issue ‘pricks a number of sensitive points in British trade union history’,[17] where the left and the labour movement have had address the fact that shopfloor racism fractured the supposed inherent unity between black and white workers.

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[1] Mala Dhondy, ‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, Race Today, July 1974, p. 202

[2] Robert Taylor, ‘Asians and a Union’, New Society, 30 May, 1974, p. 511

[3] Cited in, M. Dhondy, ‘‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, p. 201; ‘Two Worlds in Conflict’, Race Today, October 1974, p. 275

[4] Robert Moore, Racism and Black Resistance in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1975, p. 81; p. 83

[5] M. Dhondy, ‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, p. 205; ‘Imperial Typewriters Strike: The Continuing Story’, Race Today, August 1974, p. 223

[6] H. Khetani, ‘Leicester Anti-Fascist Demonstration’, Race Today, October, 1974, p. 287

[7] Richard Jenkins & Gary Parker, ‘Organisational Politics and the Recruitment of Black Workers’, in Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, The Manufacture of Disadvantage: Stigma and Social Closure, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1987, p. 67

[8] International Socialists, The Black Worker in Britain, IS/Chingari pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 24

[9] Paul Foot, Workers Against Racism, IS pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 19

[10] Steve Jeffreys ‘The Challenge of the Rank and File’, International Socialism 1/76 (March 1975) p. 7

[11] IS, The Black Worker in Britain, p. 28; p. 25

[12] John McIlroy ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’: The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol 2: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999, p. 285

[13] TGWU, Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions,TGWU pamphlet, 1974, p. 6

[14] TGWU, Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions, p. 7

[15] Satnam Virdee & Keith Grint, ‘Black Self-Organisation in Trade Unions’, Sociological Review, 42/2, May 1994, p. 206

[16] John Wrench & Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in Peter Ackers, Chris Smith & Paul Smith (eds), The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 257

[17] J. Wrench & S. Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised’, p. 257