Debate: Anti-racist struggle and working-class unity

Submitted by martin on 15 June, 2020 - 3:25 Author: Becky Crocker and Dan Katz
Black Lives Matter

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The need for special demands

By Becky Crocker

The editorial in Solidarity 551 suggests a "programme for active working class unity" in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The article falls short in three main respects.

Firstly, it advocates working class unity without explaining what this concept means in the context of a struggle against racism. It does not differentiate itself from a position that is all-too common on the left and in the labour movement: that black workers must "unite" with white workers by side-lining racial oppression and focusing on struggles that affect all workers instead.

Secondly, the article does not raise many specific demands to address racial oppression. Without these, calls for working class unity can appear to tolerate inequality and division within the working class.

Finally, the article does not acknowledge that, while working class unity is possible and desirable, there are some very real barriers to unity which we must actively overcome. We need demands that challenge racism and division in the labour movement and integrate the struggle for black liberation into a concept of class struggle.

Firstly, on working class unity. The article advances demands that all workers can unite around regardless of race: a well-funded NHS; jobs with proper contracts; free education; high quality affordable housing for all. The article focuses on the need for workers to struggle in "unity" as if racial divisions can be easily batted aside.

This sounds too much like an argument for "colour blind class unity" that you will often hear in the labour movement. This argument goes, "it is important to unite around struggles that affect all workers". This usually means that black workers are urged to keep quiet about racial oppression to avoid dividing the working class. Without explaining the relationship between "class unity" and the struggle against racism, the editorial slips into sounding like it is telling black workers to depart from slogans about racial oppression and focus on all-class issues instead.

The closest the editorial comes to explaining how class unity relates to the struggle against racism is this section: "Class is central. Only a government based on the working class majority, uniting those from all backgrounds and skin colours can cut the roots of racism and intolerance". The problem is that the relationship between the struggles of "the working class majority" and fighting "racism" is barely explained.

Fortunately, I have read enough material by Workers' Liberty to understand the point it is hinting at. By saying, "class is central" it is not saying, "race is marginal". It means that the working class is the only class that is in a position to overthrow oppressive class relations through struggle. The working class is "the tribune of the oppressed", the social force that is best placed to struggle against racial oppression at the same time as it fights for freedom from exploitation and oppression for all. Far from marginalising race, class struggle can amplify and add weight to the struggle against racial oppression. It is a shame that the editorial does not explain how this works and instead sounds like it is advocating the more common "colour blind" concept of "class unity".

The second point is that if the working class is to act as the "tribune of the oppressed" it must be armed with specific demands that challenge racial oppression. If we stick to demands that all workers can unite behind we will leave inequality within the class intact. For example, the editorial calls for "free education" as a unifying demand. But free education, on its own, is not a unifying demand, without additional demands that address discrimination within the education system. As Trotsky and CLR James concluded: “Any allegedly socialist position ….that advocates class unity as a solution without forthrightly confronting racial discrimination and inequality may give off an aura of class militancy but in fact accommodates racism and thereby weakens class unity”.

The article attempts some anti-racist demands, but limits them to: disarming the police, curbing police powers, and much-increased democratic scrutiny and accountability; a radical reduction in the prison population; closure of immigration detention centres and the opening of our borders; end “No Recourse to Public Funds” and the NHS surcharge; freeze Brexit. These demands are bold and far-reaching, but do not seem to cut to the heart of what Black Lives Matter has been about.

As a white person, I can only comment on what I have read in recent weeks: black people saying "enough" to being spat at in the street; to needing a receipt to avoid accusations of shoplifting; to being extra polite in class to avoid expulsion from school; to being qualified to the max to compete for a job that a white person could breeze into. These daily indignities have their roots in structural racism, which our demands must address. Ideas include: teaching about the history of slavery and colonialism in schools; an examination of the impact of behaviour codes in schools and how they disproportionately result in black kids being excluded; investigation into health inequalities…. and many more.

Finally, we cannot be blind to the barriers to unity that exist in our movement. The article says: “We must build a movement — inclusive to Black, brown, white workers from all backgrounds”. It sounds like a call for the labour movement to simply open its arms wide as though inclusivity would be easily achieved. In fact, this would require a campaign to overcome and address divisions within the labour movement. Overall, the labour movement does not have a great record of fighting racism or integrating the fight against racism into class struggle. In as far as it has fought racism, it has tended to "contract out" its anti-racist work to external campaigns. Black people are underrepresented in the leaderships of the unions, although where black people are organised, they are likely to be local reps and activists. Labour movement culture is too often built around a white male working class culture. In addition, sectionalism, where unions organise around issues that affect specific trades or groups of workers, promotes struggle around self-interest. It means that, in a segregated labour market, workers in a white-dominated workplace will be encouraged to think that issues affecting black workers are not "proper trade unionism".

The editorial calls on the labour movement to take the lead in the Black Lives Matter movement. In reality, we need to call for the transformation of the labour movement to make it fit for this task. Unions need to examine and challenge their own histories of racism; challenge racial segregation within and between industries; and amplify the struggles of black workers. We need to fight for more rank and file control and democracy to give greater voice and power to black workers, who are likely to be raising demands at workplace level.

Take up anti-racist concerns, fight for workers' unity

By Dan Katz

All the programmes Workers’ Liberty and our forerunners have ever advocated for dealing with racism have combined a fight for specific demands against racist activity by the police, state bodies, and racist groups, and in opposition to racist government policy, with the idea of a united workers’ movement which fights for basic, fundamental rights.

Look at the original version of our pamphlet How to Beat the Racists, published nearly 30 years ago, for example, and you’ll find exactly the same ideas presented in a similar way.

Take the example of housing. In 1993 the British National Party had Derek Beackon elected in Millwall ward, on the Isle of Dogs in East London. He was the first fascist elected in England since 1976.

Two thousand white workers turned to the BNP. Why did they do that? Because successive local Labour and Liberal councils had failed to provide decent services, and had discredited themselves, and because there was a massive housing crisis. No-one could get a council flat.

The BNP had an answer: give council flats to white people. In that situation liberal anti-racism — everyone should be nice to each other — had no grip at all.

In order to undercut the BNP, and win white workers away from the fascists, we needed to show a way for them to get housing.

Of course, amid all this, Black and Asian people, while being blamed, also had inadequate housing and often were in a worse position than the white people in the area because of racist discrimination.

In fact, in the end the BNP were defeated in Millwall, in 1994. The local Labour Party got special dispensation from the national party to fight on a more left wing programme, promising much more council accommodation.

Or take the Brexit vote. Many white workers who wanted to defend the NHS, wanted secure well paid jobs, thought turning against immigrants would sort out their concerns. With terrible political consequences for everyone, and a ratcheting up of racism for immigrants and non-white people.

In order to stop situations like this, where white and black are divided on race lines by demagogic right-wingers, struggling against each other for scarce resources, it is extremely important we raise the idea of workers’ unity on key questions: homes, jobs, education.

In fact, raised by the socialist left with the intention building a movement to militantly fight for a levelling-up of provision, these policies are also anti-racist policies.

And immediately this is very pressing on the jobs question. There is a massive jobs crisis coming. Black and Asian workers are discriminated against in hiring and firing. But minority communities are not able to stop that on their own.

Full employment, on union rates of pay, will benefit all workers, while benefiting BAME communities currently marginalised and discriminated against most of all.

Programmes by black organisations like the American Black Panthers, which demanded “full employment for our people”, were utopian. How could Black Americans, 10% of the population, win jobs for black people in isolation from the rest of the working class? To guarantee employment for all in well-paid useful jobs requires governmental action, and that requires a majority.

And in many areas white workers will not stop job losses without unity with BAME workers.

In order to win the trust of black workers, white people in the unions and Labour Party must be seen to take up anti-racist concerns.

So black and white workers’ unity in common struggle on basic questions is a big part of the fight against racism.

The current posture of the union leaderships must be challenged. They do not generally organise effective industrial action in defence of jobs and conditions and they contract out the fight against racism and fascism to groups like the SWP’s front-group Stand Up To Racism.

None of the unions have mounted an effective challenge to the far right mobilisations in recent years. My union, the school workers’ union NEU, sends our general secretary to speak at anti-racist marches, but does not organise to put hundreds and thousands of our members on the streets against racism and fascism.

We must transform the labour movement to more effectively fight against racism and for well-paid jobs and affordable, pleasant homes for all.

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