Race, class and the English worker

Submitted by AWL on 18 August, 2015 - 4:57 Author: Michael Johnson

A review of Satnam Virdee's Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider.

Virdee covers two-hundred years of working-class history, but not as we know it. This is history, he says, “through the prism of race”, a contribution towards “unsettling the academic consensus which equates the history and making of the working class in England with the white male worker.”

From the movement to abolish slavery to the rise of black self-organisation in the British labour movement in the 1980s, taking in the struggles of Irish and Jewish workers, the rise and fall of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the struggle against Enoch Powell and fascism along the way. Virdee has made a major contribution towards the way historical materialists view the interplay of race and class in history.

Virdee challenges “race-blind” accounts in which racial minorities figure as interesting “add ons” which nevertheless do not alter the contours of working-class history. He criticises the tendency to restrict discussion of race and class to “official” episodes, such as Cable Street in 1936 or the Grunwick strikes in 1976. Virdee notes that “the working-class in England [was] a multi-ethnic formation long before the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex in the summer of 1948, carrying 493 passengers from Jamaica.” Race, therefore, is not peripheral but integral to understanding the making and re-making of the working-class, its composition, its struggles, and its capacity for class solidarity.

Virdee has an expansive and historically sensitive notion of race, moving “beyond currently dominant conceptualisations of racism as a colour-coded phenomenon, to bring into view other modalities of racism that have been much neglected in sociology, including most notably anti-Irish Catholic racism and anti-Semitism.” Though it is largely beyond the scope of the book, such a conceptualisation of race and of racism can be helpful in understanding the specificity of anti-Muslim racism in Britain today, where Muslims face a prejudiced hostility on the basis of presumed religious affiliation in a way which is distinct from and not reducible to the anti-South Asian racism of in the 1970s and 80s.

Virdee’s historical account begins with the rapid expansion of the Irish population in Britain in the period of the Industrial Revolution, settling in London, Liverpool and Manchester to work in the building trade, and on the docks, the canals and the railways. Though Protestantism was a constituent part of British national identity in the period, a counter-tradition of support and solidarity emerged, with English and Irish Catholic workers taking part in naval mutinies during the Napoleonic Wars, sharing an enthusiasm for Jacobinism, and a commitment to opposing the aristocracy and the institution of slavery.

As working-class pressure forced the abolition of the anti-trade union Combination Acts in 1824, it was an Irish cotton worker, John Doherty, who was behind the formation of the Grand General Union of the Operative Spinners of Great Britain and Ireland in 1829 and, later, the National Association of the Protection of Labour that united 100,000 workers across trades to defend working-class interests.

Virdee gives us a “bottom-up” account of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, turning away from the usual narratives about elite figures such as William Wilberforce, and highlighting black radicals such as Robert Wedderburn, born in 1762 in Jamaica to an enslaved African woman and a Scottish doctor.

After the Chartist movement for political democracy fell away, there was a turning point. Fearful of the working-class Chartist movement, English elites begin to focus on its ostensibly foreign and alien character, holding up the examples of Irish and African involvement as proof that it did not represent the aspirations of the workers.

Virdee argues that “this form of elite racism continued to gather momentum and began to embed itself in the wider political culture of British life”, giving the example of Punch magazine which referred to the 1848 Chartist conspirators as “Mooney, Rooney, Hoolan and Doolan” and a Times editorial which claimed it was appalled by “that extravagance of wild sedition which, for want of any other adjective, must be denominated ‘Irish’.” Thereafter, “any attempt to remake the solidarity between the English working-class and racialised minorities from the mid-nineteenth century onwards would have to contend with and overcome the growing penetration of racist and nationalist sentiment in British public life, including within parts of the working class.”

(An odd gap in this narrative is the movement of British workers’ against the Confederate South during the American Civil War, 1861-5. Lancashire cotton workers’ played a crucial role, against their economic-corporate interests, in stopping British intervention on the side of the cotton-owning slave-owners.)

Later in the nineteenth century, more skilled and better-off sections of the working-class were integrated into a re-imagined Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation, as the ruling-class reluctantly learned to supplement coercion with a more consensual style of rule. This was typified by the 1867 Reform Act designed to enfranchise the “respectable” sections of the working-class. The integration of that section into the Liberal Party and moderate craft unions accentuated racial divisions within the working-class.

For Virdee New Unionism in the late 1880s was a revolt of the “residuum”, putting the stress on the catalytic role of Irish Catholic workers, many of them young women, and leaders of Irish descent such as Will Thorne and Ben Tillett. In the solidarity shown between English and Irish workers, “the new unionism posed an alternative working class vision, one of solidarity and collective action whose success as dependent on the suppression of such racist divisions within the working class.”

There are limits to this, however. Virdee rightly highlights what is called “socialist nationalism” in the workers’ movement; “an almost unthinking loyalty to the British nation” as opposed to a thoroughgoing “socialist internationalism”.

In the formally Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), though the majority of the party “undoubtedly held a more democratic conception of the nation than that currently advanced by the ruling elites…their expanded socialist vision remained firmly located on the terrain of the nation, with Irish migrants and particularly their English-born children re-imagined as part of the English race.”

Their hope was ‘”to expand the concept of the imagined national community so that it might encompass the majority of the working class who currently remained unenfranchised and disadvantaged… they sought the establishment of a broader, more inclusive British democracy.”

The boundaries and limitations of this “socialist nationalism” were exposed sharply by the attitude taken by some socialists to Jews migrants from eastern Europe, who resisted such straightforward assimilation even into a more expansive imagined British nation. The TUC in 1888 noted that “it was the duty of the trades to keep the matter of Jewish migration under close consideration” and Tillett, referring to Jewish workers, declared: “yes, you are out brothers and we will stand by you. But we wish you had not come.”

The tragedy of this period was that the nation was broadened and remade but “only at the expense of consolidating another modality of racism — anti-semitism.” Soon after followed Britain’s first immigration controls, the 1905 Aliens Act, aimed at Jewish migration from eastern Europe, which was only opposed by a minority in the movement.

Virdee also gives weight to the important revolutionary internationalist minority in the British workers’ movement, so “crucial in determining the scale and scope of anti-racism that is likely to emerge within the working class.”

Socialist internationalists, particular from racialized minorities, he writes, “proved to be the conduit through which anti-racist ideas, consciousness and political practice… came to be transmitted to the left wing of the organised labour movement and beyond.”

The importance of figures such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx in keeping alive the idea proletarian internationalism is heralded, and mention is made of their fight against chauvinism through the pages of the Socialist League newspaper Commonweal. Other figures highlighted in carefully chosen vignettes include James Connolly, who fused socialist internationalism with anti-imperialism and anti-racism, and Theodore Rothstein, Zelda Kahn and Shapurji Saklatvala from the early Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

Virdee’s emphasis on the importance of internationalism as a component of socialist consciousness, is directed at “economism”, or the view that an upsurge of struggle on the economic front is sufficient to make a workers’ revolution. Citing the SWP’s Chanie Rosenberg’s claim that 1919 Britain was “on the brink of revolution”, Virdee notes that “what such accounts have ignored is how this upturn in class struggle was accompanied by an intensification of racism and anti-semitism amongst all social classes.” For example, there was a wave of racist riots that same year through several of Britain’s largest ports, as recently demobilised soldiers and sailors returned from war to compete with black and Asian seamen.

Virdee’s account of the early CPGB notes how it consisted, in Henry Pelling’s words, “to a remarkable degree, of persons of non-English origin”, and he cites a Special Branch report characterising an early meeting comprising mainly “Aliens, Jews and Sinn Feiners”. It is no surprise that the party’s strongholds included Glasgow and east London, areas respectively of Irish Catholic and Jewish population.

The communist movement exercised a pull for minority activists due to the tremendous inspiration of the Russian Revolution as a liberatory moment for the oppressed and exploited worldwide, and Lenin and the Communist International’s firm position on the national and colonial questions in opposition to the imperialism of the social-democrats. In a sense, the CPGB mirrored the Bolshevik party itself, which was led in large part by comrades from all across the Russian Empire, “including Ukrainians, Latvians, Georgians and Jews.”

One strength of the early British communist movement was its solidarity with racially oppressed workers. In 1930, for example, rank-and-file activists in the CPGB-led trade union Minority Movement organised solidarity between white workers and Arab seamen in South Shields.

However, the Stalinisation of the CPGB, and the rise of its cross-class Popular Front politics, led to tension between many activists and the party leadership, most notably when the former tried to prevent east London activists from confronting the British Union of Fascists at Cable Street in 1936. Thereafter, it retreated from such confrontations “indicating its increasing subservience to the shifting priorities and realpolitik of the Comintern…under Stalin’s leadership” as the strategy of the Popular Front subsumed class war and proletarian internationalism “in an emergent discourse that spoke increasingly of the ‘British nation’ and the ‘British people’.

Virdee argues that, despite the best efforts of mainly minority CPGB activists, when black and Asian workers arrived in Britain in the 1940s and 50s, “there was no progressive, anti-racist political ideological framework which would have enabled the working class to ‘make sense’ of a black presence in Britain.”

In its place, workers were drawn to Enoch Powell’s attacks on new migrant communities, who “represented the living embodiment of the Empire now lost”. This was demonstrated most notably by the racist strikes which followed the infamous “Rivers of Blood speech” in April 1968 that led to Powell’s sacking from the Tory cabinet.

Powellism showed up the left’s lack of rootedness in migrant communities, as many minorities turned to self-organisation outside the structures of the labour movement in movements such as the Black People’s Alliance and the Indian Workers Association. This only began to shift in the mid-70s, as an upturn in industrial militancy fused with an increasingly leftward shift in the rank-and-file trade union movement, bringing socialist activists (including Trotskyists and the Labour left) into positions of influence.

In 1973, socialists were instrumental in winning the TUC conference to a call on Labour to repeal the racist 1971 Immigration Act. The rise of the National Front injected a new degree of urgency into the fight against racism, sparking movements such as Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). In 1974, under growing pressure from the revolutionary and Labour left, the TUC General Council admitted for the first time that black workers were subject to racism and discriminatory practices, and in 1976 called unions to take steps “to strengthen the organisation among immigrant and black workers and unity between work people.”

This period then saw the introduction of the 1976 Race Relations Act by a Labour government, a moment which with all its limitations was a “testimony to the remarkable changes brought to bear on formal institutional politics in British society by the combined forces of black self-organisation, and socialist activism in the organised labour movement.”

Though eventually sold out by the TUC and defeated, the strike of a mainly Asian women workforce in the Grunwick print facility in 1976-77, and the solidarity it elicited from sections of the wider labour movement “helped crystallize how — in the space of less than a decade — parts of the organised working-class had undergone a dramatic, organic transformation in their political consciousness.”

Virdee ends with an account of Thatcherism which stresses how the neoliberal and restructuring of the economy was racialised, disproportionately affecting black and Asian workers. Rising levels of unemployment combined with increased state harassment of black youth, leading to a social explosion in the early 1980s.

Running alongside this restructuring, however were two important processes. One was an upsurge in the socialist left in Labour, especially in municipal government, which did much to push anti-discriminatory measures and support the idea of self-organisation. There was a sharp increase in black and Asian employment in local government, for example, more than trebling in the Greater London Council (GLC) between 1981 and 1986.

This tendency was given impetus by a second process, the increase in black self-organisation within the local government trade union movement. Many black and Asian workers entering the National and Local Government Officers’ Association (NALGO) and experiencing fighting racism and fascism continued in the same spirit inside the trade union movement.

The National Black Members’ Co-Ordinating Committee, established in 1983, led the fight for self-organisation of black workers inside NALGO, arguing that “it is not self-organisation for the sake of being separate. It is to ensure... that black issues and rights are addressed by the trade unions to which we belong in a way acceptable to black members.”

It achieved this goal in 1985, and the principle of self-organisation was won, often in opposition to union leaderships, across the public sector. By the end of the 1980s, areas of non-manual local state employment had been decisively opened up to black workers. Though work was “increasingly proletarianised in nature, characterised by growing routinisation and de-skilling…black and Asian workers were now no longer overwhelmingly restricted to largely unskilled and semi-skilled manual work… as they had been in the 1960s and 70s.”

This was a remarkable achievement given that “this social change took place in an era of consolidating neoliberalism” and demonstrates that class struggle has the power to challenge and shape even the most vicious of capitalist offensives.

Virdee argues that the collective action of black and Asian workers, together with socialist activists, consolidated a current of working-class anti-racism in the labour movement. It was an anti-racism “bequeathed to English society by the racialised outsiders of Irish Catholic, Jewish, African and Asian descent”, without which, “English society wold have been comprised of two communities stratified by racism.”

Yet, Virdee cautions, despite the capitalist crisis today, “the elaboration and support for emancipatory projects that seek to transform our existing social relations and free us from exploitation and oppression remain marginal, especially in the West.”

This book uncovers a working-class history of immense value to socialist activists. It is up to us to absorb and expand upon the lessons and take to heart the key insight that a movement which does not have at its core the fight against oppression will be not be able to effectively challenge, let alone overthrow, the capitalist system of exploitation.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.