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Marxism and oppression – do we say ‘class first, race later?’

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Issue 2513
A Campaign Against Racist Laws demonstration in 1981
A Campaign Against Racist Laws demonstration in 1981 (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)

The Institute of Race Relations has published its journal Race and Class highlighting the fight against racism in post-war Britain.

As the battle of Black Lives Matter rages on both sides of the Atlantic there would hardly be a better time for it.

Socialist Worker readers will doubtless relish the pieces that deal with largely hidden episodes in anti-racist and working class history.

The interview with Mickey Fenn, a socialist docker in east London during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, is remarkable.

Its candid description of how shop stewards fought the racism that followed Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 has an unfortunate resonance.

But above all it shows the need to organise and take a stand even if you find yourself in a minority.

The article Striking Back Against Racist Violence in East London, 1968-1970 reveals a hidden tradition of black self-defence against attacks.

It also shows the growing divide between those who insisted on keeping the struggle within the limits of the state and those who looked to the “politics of the street”.

Other pieces include an interview with Vishnu Sharma, who helped organise the 1965 Woolf Rubber strike.

It shows the degree of community solidarity that newly arrived migrants offered each other in the face of racist employers.

There are many points on which Race and Class and Socialist Worker are in agreement, but there are also areas of difference.


The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the Anti-Nazi League it helped to launch in 1977, are on several occasions accused of insisting on “class first, race later”.

It is true that we in the SWP have a different emphasis than the tradition associated with Race and Class.

But the starting point has to be an honest account of each other’s positions.

A casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that the SWP believes that racism will inevitably be solved by class struggle. And that no special attention need be paid to how race and racism divides workers.

That claim is not borne out by either our practical activity or our theory.

The SWP’s starting point is that we stand with the oppressed when they are under attack, regardless of their class background.

We do not first ask whether the victim is a small business owner or worker, or whether they vote Tory or Labour. We act by trying to organise the broadest and most radical response.

But it is true that as Marxists, we see class as vital to ending the system that creates oppression in the first place.

To that end, we fight against prejudice and chauvinism among workers in part because there can be no socialist future while we are divided.

Like Race and Class we understand that those who share racial oppression are divided by class. We both understand that this division shapes how people and groups respond.

There is a battle between those who want to work within the system and those who want to smash it.

On that question, as on many others, we and the contributors to the journal are absolutely united.

Race and Class: The Colour of Struggle, 1950s-1980s. Race and Class journal, July 2016, edited by Jenny Bourne, £5

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