Ambalavaner Sivanandan, 1923-2018

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Sivanandan, left, was both activist and intellectual

Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who died on 3 January, was the director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and one of the most important anti-racist activists and intellectuals in Britain.

Sivanandan talked and wrote on all aspects of racism in an anti-imperialist, Marxist framework. He spoke out strongly against the idea of celebrating fixed ethnic or racial communities as the basis for fighting racism. He said that the fight must come out of “communities of resistance” — people who came together and thus defined themselves as a community in the fight against racism.

He was born in 1923 into the minority Tamil community in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. As he grew he was influenced by his colonial education, but also the ideas of nationalists and radical groups like the Trotskyist LSSP — at the time a mass revolutionary party. On graduating from university in the mid-1950s, he taught poor children on the tea plantations, before becoming a bank manager. He fell out with his Hindu family for marrying a woman from a Sinhalese Catholic background.

Rulers of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority attempted to cement support for their rule by backing ethnic attacks on the largely Hindu Tamil minority. Tragically the left — including the LSSP — splintered on ethnic lines. The left’s failure to challenge the spread of this poisonous ethnic nationalism let the divisions lead to persecution and civil war.

Sivanandan wrote the magnificent novel When Memory Dies in 1998 looking at the crisis through the experience of three generations of radicals:

“‘When memory dies a people die,’ uncle Para broke into his reverie, and Vijay had the eerie feeling that the old man was privy to his thoughts before he was. But remembering the experience of the past few days, he asked, ‘What if we make up false memories?’ ‘That is worse,’ replied the old man. ‘That is murder’.”

Sivanandan left as ethnic rioting spread and arrived in London in 1958 — just after the Notting Hill race riot. He was always suspicious of politics that divided the oppressed into groups based on ethnic origin or religion. He saw black as a political term uniting all those who were oppressed by imperialism and racism.

Racist discrimination meant he could not get a job in banking, so he retrained as a librarian and in 1964 joined the Institute of Race Relations. With others he started organising against the IRR’s then conservative bias, particularly after a 1969 report “Colour & Citizenship”. One colleague, Robin Jenkins, dismissed it as “an appalling mixture of highly reactionary ideological notions, which, at a superficial glance, are supported by piles and piles of statistics on the immigrant communities”. He advised that, when future IRR researchers come knocking at their doors, immigrants should “tell them to fuck off”.

In 1972 Sivanandan and others led a takeover, vowing that the IRR should not just report statistics but should be an active part of anti-racist resistance. As Sivanandan came to head the organisation he helped shift it towards always putting race in the context of imperialism and colonialism. The IRR remains an important think-tank to this day.

He renamed its journal Race & Class when he became editor in 1974 and added the subtitle “Journal for Black and Third World Liberation”. Though he talked about class, he did tend to see this in terms of an underclass of the oppressed on the streets rather than one that resisted in the workplace.

He said that in education what was required was not multicultural education, but “anti-racist education, which by its very nature would include the study of other cultures”.

This focus on the centrality of institutional racism led him to disagree in the late 1970s — wrongly in my opinion — with the Anti Nazi League, whose emphasis on fighting fascism he saw as a diversion from the central struggle. But it was the same political position that meant he kept a trenchant criticism of the retreat of race from class in the 1980s.

While his politics was sometimes far from those associated with this magazine, his attacks on the retreats of the left, such as his demolition of the Eurocommunists in “All that melts into air is solid: the hokum of New Times” (1990), were always welcome.

He continued writing on Islamophobia and more recent political crises. Even where I disagreed with his conclusions, as in his recent arguments about how new technology and globalisation have removed power from the working class, he was solidly part of the movement that looked for practical solutions to the horrors created by racism and imperialism.

He summed up his argument in 2006:

“The fight against racism cannot be reduced to a fight for culture… Nor does learning about other people’s culture make the racists less racist. Besides, the racism that needs to be contested is not personal prejudice (which has no authority behind it), but institutionalised racism, the racism woven over centuries of colonialism and slavery, into the structures of society and into the instruments and institutions of government.”

Read the collection of his writings, Sivanandan, Catching History on the Wing (Pluto). For more on the Institute of Race Relations go to irr.org.uk