A tradition of resistance

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Socialist Review spoke to Hassan Mahamdallie, one of the contributors to the new book Say it Loud, about the fight against racism in Britain, the role played by socialists and the lessons for today.


How has racism changed in Britain over the past 30 to 40 years and what's been driving those changes?

Let's go back a little further - let's talk about the past 50 years. If you think about the first generation of West Indian and Asian and other groups that came to Britain to fill the labour shortages and rebuild Britain after the Second World War, they experienced naked racism.

Until the late 1960s there wasn't any anti-discrimination legislation. You could openly sack someone because they were black or Asian, or operate an open colour bar with people told they couldn't work in a particular job simply because they were black.

That was an extremely harsh period. The police were also quite openly racist, for example in the way they used the "sus" laws against the black population right up till the 1970s and 1980s.

Part of the role of the police, the courts and the prisons was to keep blacks in a state of fear and to raise racist stereotypes in the popular imagination, seeking to divide black or Asian workers from the wider working class.

When you look at the broader historical span, and Say It Loud goes into this, you see that racism in society and the position of black people has changed in some ways, but in other ways it hasn't really changed at all; it's got worse.

When the first generation - the Windrush generation - arrived, they all had work. Now among black youth unemployment rates are at 50 percent. So some things have changed and some haven't.

But one reason why some things have changed is that, right from the beginning, there was a response to racism with those at the sharp end of racism organising against it. So, for example, if you go back to the anti-black riots in Notting Hill in 1958 you see West Indians and other people who came to their aid unashamedly defending themselves.

In the face of discrimination at work, black and Asian workers joined a union and went on strike. And they always sought to try and involve workmates in their struggles. Sometimes they were successful; sometimes they were not. Sometimes the trade union bureaucrats acted in a racist manner; sometimes they didn't. But the impulse was always to try and reach out to other workers.

And when you look at the National Front in the 1970s, the BNP in the 1980s and 1990s or even Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists stirring things up in east and west London after the Second World War, there was always a response. Racism has always been resisted, whether it's been in the workplace or in the community.

The trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s had a pretty bad record when it came to supporting black workers. But by the time you get to 1977 and the Grunwick's dispute in west London, which was led by an Asian woman, Mrs Desai, you can see the impact that black workers and their allies had had on the trade union movement.

The Grunwick workers got a lot of solidarity, including from postal workers and Yorkshire miners led by Arthur Scargill. In the wake of struggles such as at Grunwick's you get the first black general secretary of a trade union, Bill Morris of the TGWU (now part of Unite).

That's an incredible testimony to those who fought to get the trade unions to take racism seriously. We now expect the trade unions to be anti-racist and generally they are.

But 40 years ago you couldn't have said that. But that's not something that just naturally happened. I remember someone saying, "there is a drift towards a multicultural society" - but this discounts all those struggles, small and large, that laid down deep anti-racist roots in the trade unions and the wider working class. That's been a massive achievement.

But racism remains embedded in all the major institutions in our society and in the structure of capitalist society. Although racism may mutate, find a different target or different cutting edge, it's incredibly durable. This says to me, and this is what the book argues, that racism is part and parcel of capitalist society and that's why it keeps on reasserting itself.

Therefore if you want to get rid of racism, then you have to fight against it and get as many people as you can into that fight; that's the prerequisite. But you have to go a lot further. You have to talk about the structure of society, about capitalism and the role that racism plays in society. That's ultimately where you have to look if you want to get rid of racism forever.

The subtitle of the book is Marxism and the Fight against Racism. Marxism is often portrayed as being able to explain the economy, class and so on but it can't really deal with things like racism. How do you respond to such arguments?

One of the things that makes Say It Loud unique is that it maps out how revolutionary socialists in this country have always been in the vanguard of fighting racism. Revolutionary socialists have also added a lot in terms of a theory that explains where racism comes from and arguing that, if we can find the cause, we can find the solution to the problem, not just look to ameliorate it.

The fight against racism is a defensive fight. But only Marxists point out that within those struggles you can also see the potential for something much deeper and long lasting that can get rid of racism altogether.

If you look at other parts of Europe or the world where similar fights against racism are taking place, the record here has been very effective by any standard. We should not be complacent, of course, but there is a historical tradition in this country, which is both activist and theoretical, that has helped ensure that those struggles which have arisen have gone as far as possible.

At the heart of that tradition what Marxists say is that you don't write off the white working class.

Among the plethora of black nationalist groups and other strands which have developed over the years, only the revolutionary socialist tradition says that white workers are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Sometimes that is a difficult argument to put and win. It was a very difficult argument to put just after Stephen Lawrence was murdered.

In areas of south east London, where Stephen lived and was murdered, places such as Welling and Thamesmead with a large white working class population, a lot of people were saying, "We can't go there; we can't go to that estate."

We had to argue that we shouldn't write those people off, but instead have an argument with them and draw them into activity.

How do you counter the argument that white workers benefit from racism, or are in a better position or are even privileged compared with black workers?

Theoretically you have to say that black workers and white workers make up the working class and they exist under the same exploitative system. That's the first point.

The way some people talk about black struggle implies that black people are outside of the working class. But they are not and we live in a mostly integrated society, where there is a tradition of working class solidarity.

Secondly, if you look at the historical record, those struggles that have been successful in drawing in the white working class have also been the ones which have gone furthest.

If you look at the fight for justice for Stephen Lawrence, solidarity was delivered most consistently by one group in society and that was the trade unions. They are organisations of the working class, but most of the people inside trade unions are, of course, white. They were the most consistent group to support the Lawrences - forget about the Daily Mail and politicians and all that rubbish - it was working class organisations that did that.

If you take a historical overview, which you get in Say It Loud, at every juncture white working class people are won to the fight against racism. Now if it was really the case that their interests lay in the opposite direction, then how do all these integrated struggles come about?

When people talk about privilege, the notion that the white working class in places such as Thamesmead are somehow a cut above black workers and therefore don't associate with them is just a nonsense.

Is there a crisis of "black leadership"? There are a lot more black politicians nationally and especially locally, as well as a layer of black professionals, even some business executives, than a generation ago, but has this made much difference to the majority of ordinary black people?

Clearly, there is a differentiation within some of the black population in this country - there's beginning to be a class differentiation, with a small black and Asian middle class. This is slightly different to 50 years ago. But then you have to ask the question - how did those people manage to get into the position they have? Basically, it's a legacy of anti-racist struggles.

And there hasn't been a proper black leadership in this country orientated on the mass of black people for a good 25 to 30 years. So when you talk about a crisis of black leadership, you're talking about something that has already happened.

But what would a black leadership look like today? I don't think we should hark back to a model from 30 years ago. Today "black leadership" will look very different. It can be a Muslim woman in a hijab or it could be someone from North Africa.

But let's not look at the old template - it's gone. The country is much more integrated than 30 years ago, the struggles are slightly different, racism has targeted different groups of people, it's turned South Asians into Muslims and so on. So when leadership arises in any struggles, then it may look different to how it did in the past.

But there needs to be a struggle for a new leadership to arise. And one of problems we've had in the past period is that we haven't had the struggles that throw up those kinds of organic leaderships. I think we will see a new leadership emerge, though not necessarily in the ways that it did in the past. But it will only really happen when we move into bigger struggles.

What is the potential to win a new generation of black people to socialist politics?
I think black nationalist ideas - the notion that black people need to organise themselves separately - won't go away. Its part of how racism works - it divides people and throws them onto their own resources. It's the way that the world looks to people. So I don't think that black nationalist ideas are not going to go away, even if they might develop in different ways.

But that doesn't mean that black people can't be attracted to socialist ideas. Most black people in this country are also working class, and socialism has a lot to say to working class people and their struggles. And also, and this is where the book comes in, socialists can be proud to say that they have been at the forefront of the fight against racism - the historical record shows that is the case, and it's the case today, in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere.

As socialists we can be proud of that record, but we also need to understand that we also connect to black people as working class people at the same time. Don't just speak to black people about racism - that would be crazy! They are getting screwed by this government as well in all sorts of economic ways - and they want answers to those questions just like every other working class person.

What would you say makes this book unique?

What became clear to me as the project was developing was that all the people who contributed to the book are not only Marxists but also people who have been involved in struggles - in one sense they are all first hand accounts. So the book works on different levels. It contains the thrust of the argument and it goes through different periods of history, but it also has that sense of authenticity from people who were there and engaged in the arguments thrown up in those struggles. I'm glad that Bookmarks said now's the time to write that kind of book.

Sometimes when you read academic books about anti-racist struggles, you can tell that they are researched by people looking back in history. Sometimes that leads people to misinterpret something that happened or draw the wrong lessons. But in this book, you can be certain that it's spot on, because that person was there.

Say it Loud: Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, is available from www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE