Socialist Worker

Multiculturalism: Defending the right to be different

Issue No. 2241

Socialists were right to rush to the defence of multiculturalism after David Cameron’s outrageous attack.

The idea that we should respect all cultures and not regard some as inferior or backward was a major step forward for anti-racists.

We can reject Cameron’s caricature of multiculturalism. But he only thinks he can get away with his attack because multiculturalism is an often ill defined term that can mean different things to different people.

Socialists remember a history of resistance, rejoicing in a multiculturalism that is entwined with the fight against racism. But for others it can be a passive celebration of different dress and food.

Multiculturalism emerged in the 1970s, as the state tried to come to terms with anti-racist movements.

A Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, has talked about the British experience.

He said, “Cultural expression came not from government edict, but from the joint fight against racial discrimination—on the factory floor and in the community—by Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and whites, thereby creating unity in diversity.”

But as the anti-racist struggle became more defensive under the Tory government in the 1980s, there was a shift into a more cultural form of multiculturalism.

After inner city riots caused by poverty and police racism in the early and mid 1980s the government responded by pushing programmes to end “ethnic disadvantage”.

As Sivanandan puts it, “Meeting their cultural or ethnic needs would somehow stave off protests about inequality and injustice.”


The term “multiculturalism” became more popular, but its meaning was contested. On one side people still built unity through their fight against racism and the system.

But on the other, many in authority came to see the celebration of diversity as opposed to fighting to change oppression. In fact for some the very celebration could be used as evidence to show that no such oppression exists.

It was usually Labour councils that tried to fight racism using the second method. For them it became a way to incorporate people who had come out of grassroots campaigns and divert their radicalism into safer channels by giving them council funding.

This establishment multiculturalism can also lead to an acceptance of the idea that there are fixed communities—usually with their own leaders. It’s as if all Muslims, Jews or Scots share a core set of values, not affected by their class or social position.

In his speech Cameron promoted the common sense idea of a fixed national identity. But Eton-educated bank speculators do not share any interests with hospital cleaners on the minimum wage.

Cameron claimed that Islamic extremism emerges because “we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity”. And how did this come about? Because multiculturalism “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream”.

This turns the truth on its head. The media and ministers’ speeches have been full of attacks on the unacceptable views of Muslims as the “war on terror” continues. This has led to a rise in Islamophobia across Britain.

And it is not a matter of unthinking prejudice. The persistence of racism serves a vital purpose in capitalist society.

If black and white people or Muslims and non-Muslims are fighting with each other, they are much less likely to put the blame for their problems on bankers or pro-war imperialists.

In Cameron’s eyes, if you are a Muslim you will be held responsible for any Muslim who is regarded as an “extremist”. At the same time, no British Christian would be held responsible for the actions of Christians elsewhere in the world.

The Tories want to create a single British “culture”, where those who refuse to sign up are seen as outsiders.

As the commentator Gary Younge said, “The demands are also based on giving up difference—handing over your headscarves and veils. For that you will earn the right to exist in what may be the country of your birth. So it’s only about integrating ‘them’ into ‘our’ culture.”

And increasing obstacles are put in the way of anyone who tries to integrate—for instance the savage cuts in language classes for people who want to learn English.

To defeat the Tories’ attacks on the working class and multiculturalism we will need to keep up the tradition of creating new cultures of resistance.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 1 Mar 2011, 18:46 GMT
Issue No. 2241
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.