The secret of its weakness: racism and the working class movement in Britain

Colin Barker reviews Satnam Virdee‘s book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, which is an important contribution to the debates around race and class. This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine. 

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Satnam Virdee has written an important book. It is a history of working-class struggles to win economic and social gains, and to gain access to democracy in Britain, viewed through the prism of ‘race’.
From the start, English and then British capitalism was founded on imperial expansion, drawing under its control large parts of the world, and ‘importing’ into its territory large numbers of people from the lands it conquered, colonised and robbed. Yet many accounts of British working class development are silent on the presence and the impact of migrants, their sufferings and resistance, and the vital ‘racial politics’ that shaped both the major waves of popular resistance and the troughs between them.

Equally, historians have paid too little attention to the ways that notions of ‘national identity’ were regularly used and reworked in order to win over parts of the working class to consent for the continued rule of those in power. Commonly this involved spreading ‘racialised’ stereotypes and caricatures of a vicious and demeaning kind, and pushing migrants down to the least attractive jobs alongside disproportionate unemployment.

Three broad themes inform Virdee’s book. First, Britain’s rulers gradually learned to rule in a more ‘consensual’ manner at home, incorporating widening layers of workers into an inclusive notion of ‘the nation’, and at the same time opposing to this a succession of ‘racialised’ others. Working people and their organisations played an active part in this process, embracing visions of ‘national identity’ suffused with racist exclusions. At the same time, the boundaries of racist exclusion were both contestable and prone to shift. Thus Irish Catholic workers were ‘racialised’ in the decades after Chartism’s defeat in 1848, yet ‘incorporated’ in the later part of the19th century, with Jews taking their ‘outsider’ place, to be followed in turn by workers from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa.

Second, successive versions of ‘socialist nationalism’ were elaborated to justify British racism, but at every stage were challenged from the left by socialist internationalists, whose work in opposing working class racism was vital, if often difficult. The periods in which the internationalist left was most successful in combating racist views that were otherwise taken for granted coincided with waves of wider working class revolt, notably the later 1880s, the 1920s and 1930s, and the 1970s and 1980s. Rises in popular combativity seem to have provided the most fertile ground for generating a wider class solidarity that challenged racism.

Third, the struggle between nationalist and internationalist perspectives within workers’ movements, and the organisation of active resistance to racist oppression, was a vital element in the ‘making and remaking’ of the British working class. A principled internationalism was, throughout the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, the property of minorities, with figures from ‘racialised’ minorities commonly playing leading roles.

A further general point is worth making. The term ‘race’ has no scientific basis whatever, any more than any form of racism does. In the course of the 20th century we may have learned to associate ‘race’ and racism with ‘skin colour’, but this is a misconception. Irish Catholics in the second half of the 19th century were said to belong to an inferior ‘Celtic race’, and were the subject of cartoons depicting them as subhuman and writings marked by the vilest racist stereotyping. Jews from Eastern Europe were light‑skinned, but subjected to similar caricatures and violence. In our own period, Islamophobia has all the characteristics of racism, as the best of the contemporary left has recognised. Racism is a political phenomenon through and through.

A review cannot do justice to the wealth of rich documentation that Virdee brings to his history. The dual themes of nationalism and racism are skilfully woven together throughout.

The Chartist movement was notable, not only for the wave of working-class militancy associated with its calls for political reform, but also for widespread support for Irish national liberation. Its leaders included many of Irish descent, along with a sprinkling of black workers – notably William Cuffay, a lead organiser of the famous Chartist demonstration of 10 April 1848. But the defeat of Chartism initiated a period of ‘unmaking’ of the working class, marked by anti-Irish prejudice, arising within a complex web of contrasting developments.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a series of gradual political reforms, as Britain’s rulers learned to govern in a ‘more consensual manner’, incorporating better-off sections of the working class into an expanded ‘imagined community’ of the British nation. That ‘community’ was defined in ways that excluded the ‘less respectable’ and above all those of Irish Catholic descent, for whom there was no room in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. ‘Hunting Irishmen’ was a sport practised in working class areas, much like ‘Paki‑bashing’ in the 1970s. Where, before 1848, workers had struggled – mostly unsuccessfully – to develop general unions, now trade unionism was largely confined to workers organised according to their craft. These unions relied on ‘negotiation’ with employers rather than the assertion of class-wide demands, and were staffed by a new cadre of full-time officials whose political horizons were narrow and exclusionary. These attached the ‘organised’ layers of the working class to the Liberal Party, and to Empire.

The 1880s saw a new wave of class militancy, with the rise of ‘industrial unionism’ among the less-skilled and poorer layers of the working class, with a new language of class solidarity and ‘socialism’ gaining ground. This movement linked itself to demands for Irish Home Rule, highlighting “the capacity of political positions to alter in the course of large-scale and sustained collective action”. However, the ‘socialism’ that predominated was not revolutionary, but rather one that tied itself to demands for wider inclusion in the ‘British nation’. Now there was room for Irish Catholics, at the same time that an ugly new racism – antisemitism – was turned on Jews escaping from Tsarist pogroms.

The Social Democratic Federation, led by Henry Hyndman, claimed adherence to Marxist ideas, but opposed both Jewish and Chinese refugees and migrants. To its credit, William Morris’s Socialist League upheld internationalist principles, but they were in a tiny minority against a predominant ‘socialist nationalism’ that excluded Jewish migrants and supported the British Empire, sometimes lapsing into overt racism and proto-fascism. When a renewed ruling-class offensive pushed back workers’ gains, socialist nationalism revealed its dark side. The TUC called for legislation to restrict Jewish immigration. The internationalists were marginalised, and the first British fascist organisation —the British Brothers League— was founded in 1902.

The Aliens Act of 1905 followed. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Party argued for social and political reform, but framed their arguments in terms of the benefits the Empire would reap from ‘white superiority’. The path was set for Labour, and the union leaderships, to support ‘their’ government in the mass slaughter of the 1914-18 war. As elsewhere in Europe, only a brave minority of socialist internationalists – figures like James Connolly and Arthur MacManus along with a number of Jewish activists – stood firm against both racism and national imperialism.

The actual experience of war produced widespread radicalisation, its end being marked by a big upturn in strikes and union membership. There was, however, an intensification of racism and antisemitism, including racist riots in many of Britain’s ports against black and Asian seamen. The National Union of Seamen led strikes against ‘foreign’ seamen working on British ships. Deplorably, both Manny Shinwell of the ILP and Willie Gallacher of the British Socialist Party, both leaders of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, supported these racist strikes, with only the Scottish Labour Party opposing them. The depth of racist poison, even on the far left, is revealed by Lenin’s rebuke, at an early Comintern meeting, of one British delegate warning about strike-breaking by “jolly coons”.

Despite these lapses, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) marked a step forward in the organisation of anti-racist and anti-imperialist forces. The party was initially tiny, and composed “to a remarkable degree, by persons of non-English origin”, with its main roots in South Wales and Scotland, and among Irish Catholics and Jews. The party restored its honour by campaigning in South Shields in support of Arab seamen. Up to the late 1930s, the CPGB led opposition to Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, while Labour temporised and still promoted antisemitism. But, tragically, as Virdee records, the advent of ‘Popular Front’ politics saw the party retreat from overt anti-racism and anti-imperialism. Socialist internationalism was dealt a body blow.

The decades following the Second World War represented the high point of working-class ‘inclusion’ and social reform. The same period, however, was also marked by extensive racism towards new waves of immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Within days of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, 11 Labour MPs called for limits to black immigration as a threat to the “harmony, strength and cohesion of our political and social life”.

Shamefully, leading unions played active roles in reinforcing discrimination against these new additions to the working class, collaborating with employers’ ‘colour bars’. There were union-sponsored calls for bans on immigrant workers on the buses and elsewhere. 1958 saw fascist-led race riots against black people in Nottingham and Notting Hill. In 1962, the Tories legislated to slow down immigration from the former Empire, and Labour leaders expressed support for immigration controls – with the spurious argument that ‘integration’ required limits to numbers. In April 1968, Enoch Powell delivered an inflammatory racist speech that led to the first political strikes in postwar Britain, in support of him. Opinion polls recorded 74% support for Powell. Virdee records the desperate isolation of the small minority of anti-racist socialist internationalists.
The 1960s saw a number of strikes by Asian and black workers, with only occasional support from white socialists, and overt resistance from officials of the TGWU and other unions to their demands.

Yet, as Virdee documents in his final chapters, the tide of racism was partly turned in the 1970s and 1980s, as an anti-racist and anti-fascist movement developed that he judges “unprecedented in scale and scope [and] that remains unseen on the European continent to this day”. As on earlier occasions, the background was a rise in workers’ militancy against the state and the employers. This helped the socialist left to expand its influence in the unions, and to develop initiatives independently of the CPGB, which remained soft in its anti-racism.

In the mid-1970s, the National Front (NF) seemed to be growing, attracting larger votes but also taking to the streets. 1976 witnessed several blatantly racist murders. When even leading rock stars such as Eric Clapton and David Bowie made racist statements, a small group of members of the International Socialists and others launched Rock Against Racism (RAR) with a letter to the music press and a sudden spread of quite small local concerts. Numbers of both punk and reggae bands joined up, pulling in a layer of (initially) mostly white youth.

That summer, just before the founding of RAR, a group of Asian women had begun a strike at the Grunwick film-processing plant. For a change, their union, APEX made the strike official and sought support from other unions. The following year unprecedented mass pickets drew in miners from South Wales and Yorkshire and – notably, given their support for Powell in 1968 – London dockers. The TUC backed off, causing Mrs Desai, the workers’ leader, to remark famously, “Support from the TUC is like honey on your elbow: you can smell it but you can’t taste it.” APEX finally suspended the strikers and the strike was lost after 670 days. Despite the defeat, the strike’s conduct revealed a changed atmosphere in the unions with respect to racism. A further ‘remaking’ of the working class was under way, transcending the racist divisions of previous decades.

In August 1977, an assembly of local community activists, socialists and trade unionists physically broke up a NF march in Lewisham. This very effective action provoked controversy on the left with leading socialists declaring the SWP ‘no better than fascists’. The SWP, without giving up the right to take on the NF in the streets, joined with leading figures from the left of the Labour Party and the unions to launch a broader anti-fascist movement, the Anti Nazi League (ANL). Joining forces with RAR, the ANL organised the first open-air Carnival Against the Nazis in Victoria Park, Hackney in April 1978.

In the 1979 general election, which Thatcher won, the NF vote largely collapsed. The ANL had helped alter their image to that of Nazi thugs, while Thatcher was bidding for their softer supporters with her racist remark that “people in this country are really rather afraid that their culture might be swamped by people with a different culture”. Virdee offers a nuanced defence of the ANL’s contribution, against the charge (from Paul Gilroy) that it had downplayed anti-racism and played a British nationalist card. Drawing on work by David Renton, Virdee these charges.

Virdee ends his study with an account of anti-racist initiatives undertaken by left Labour councils in cities up and down Britain in the 1980s. Spurred by black caucuses in the public sector unions, councils turned to recruiting sizeable numbers of minority workers to white-collar council jobs. There were similar advances in the health service. While the 1980s was mostly a decade of defeat for the left, Virdee credits these initiatives with partly stemming and reversing the racist tide the Tories had encouraged. In the process, important sectors of working-class jobs that had been closed to black and Asian people were opened up.

But there was something else that Virdee doesn’t discuss so much: 1981 saw riots in many English towns and cities. A less-publicised feature of these events was that they were integrated riots. In Manchester, for example, the majority of those arrested were white. Young working class black people had the new experience of leading white youth in fighting the police.

Virdee’s history is of a working class that has always been ‘racialised’, but in different forms and degrees at different times. Within the ranks of that class, important roles have been played by “racialised outsiders” who challenged the basis of their deprivation and – especially where they won the active support of anti-racist whites – were able to shift the nature of the internal boundaries that disfigured the class’s movements. Some of the victories of the 1970s and 1980s may have been ‘symbolic’, but they contributed to making racism ‘unrespectable’ – no mean thing in Britain!
Virdee’s study stops at the end of the 1980s. That’s a pity, for it would have been valuable to have his take on racism’s latest shape, Islamophobia, and the forms of opposition to it.

There are 3 comments

  1. Michael Rosen

    This looks really interesting and very timely in relation to Trevor Phillips’ view of the world through racial lenses. Re Hyndman and the 1890s: my father used to tell us that his grandfather (Jewish sweat-shop worker) cursed Hyndman regularly.

  2. Emancipation & Liberation » THE SECRET OF ITS WEAKNESS: RACISM AND THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT IN BRITAIN

    […] We are posting this  review by Colin Barker (RS21) of Satnam Virdee‘s book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. This book is an important contribution to the debates around race and class.It was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of rs21 magazine. It can also be seen at:– http://rs21.org.uk/2015/03/21/the-secret-of-its-weakness-racism-and-the-working-class-movement-in-br… […]

  3. The Working Class Zero

    The problem is manifold. The modern anti racist movement is by and large dominated by affluent middle class people and likewise the equality movement. This means that working class white voices are not really heard, and the false assumption that working class people either need leading or are racist to some degree. The total focus on racism by the middle class means that class prejudice and the deeply unfair class system is never scrutinised nor the sometimes virulent class prejudices of the middle class. Ironically, if you check nearly every equality organisation’s website, you will find little if anything about social class issues. Why, I am not sure. Class isn’t an issue for white middle class people I assume.

    The other salient reality is that as the voices for equality have got louder, the economic divisions particularly have widened to a degree not really witnessed since the 1950s or some have said since the 1930s. Hmmm. So we have a situation where people express their disdain at such poverty whilst things are actively getting worse. This seems to be the middle class attitude sadly. Acknowledge there is injustice, comment on it, but actively benefit from it at the same time. And this is not to mention anything of ‘charity’. The equality movement and anti racist movement at worst is a smokescreen, the worst kind of Fabian socialists pretending to care when they are actually promoting division between the poor white working class and other impoverished ethnic minorities, and at best are merely saying what most people on the sharp end of economic injustice have know for years.

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