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Say it loud – Marxism and the fight against racism

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An important new book on the politics of anti-racism has just been published. Here Socialist Worker reprints some small extracts
Issue 2362

Introduction from Brian Richardson

Nurses join a TUC demonstration for the NHS in September 1982

Nurses join a TUC demonstration for the NHS in September 1982 (Pic: John Sturrock)

The pomp and pageantry of Thatcher’s funeral were illustrative of the imperial past that the British ruling class pines for. It was very white, very male and typified by a display of military power out of all proportion with Britain’s role in the modern world. 

Commentators were quick to claim that the funeral had been a marvellous event, something that Britain does better than any other country and one which had brought the nation together. The real truth is that Britain remains deeply divided, not least on the subject of race. 

One week after conducting Thatcher’s funeral, the Bishop of London, Richard Chatres, presided over a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. 

Again therefore it was an occasion for reflection which revealed that the Lawrence family are right to argue that they have been denied justice and that a legacy worthy of Stephen’s name has not been built. 

In many respects both domestically and abroad the balance sheet for black people is grim. It would be wrong to conclude that the picture is unremittingly gloomy, however. 

As the Guardian journalist Gary Younge among others has noted, one of the most important developments in Britain is a significant rise in the number of children born to parents from different ethnic backgrounds, so called “mixed race” children. 

In less than a decade, from 2001 to 2009, there was a 50 percent increase from 672,000 to 989,600. This intermingling of ethnic groups and cultures is indicative of the fact that in most towns and cities black and white people live, work, study and socialise together with ease. 

But there can be no room for complacency. Racism will not simply fade away as different ethnic groups become more familiar with each other. The frequency with which mainstream politicians turn to scapegoating immigrants and asylum seekers and the periodic resurgence of the far-right are indicative of the fact that race remains a touchstone social and political issue.

How do we fight racism today by Esme Choonara

Anti-racists protest in Muswell Hill following a racist attack this year

Anti-racists protest in Muswell Hill following a racist attack this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Many critics of Marxism argue that an analysis based on class is reductionist—that it ignores or downplays questions of oppression or expects oppressed people to “wait for the revolution” to secure their liberation. 

For example, white privilege theorist Tim Wise argues that “left activists often marginalise people of colour by operating from a framework of extreme class reductionism, which holds that the ‘real’ issue is class, not race”. 

It should already be clear that for socialists our strategy involves an urgent and immediate fight against racism in all its forms. Apart from anything else, it is highly unlikely that we could see successful class struggles without challenging and overcoming racist divisions in the working class. 

As Marx wrote in Capital, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded”. However, class is not just one of a series of inequalities that we face. 

It is defined by exploitation—the basis of a live and antagonistic relationship between the two great classes under capitalism, the capitalist class and the working class.

The rise of racism is intrinsically linked to and sustained by capitalism. This does not mean that distinct forms of oppression can be reduced to class— racism and sexism for example have their own dynamics and affect all classes—but the unlocking and defeating of this oppression is intimately linked to the struggle against capitalism. 

This is not automatic: a political battle must be waged to overcome ruling class ideas, including racism. 

Lenin made this point in 1902 when he wrote that socialists should not restrict themselves to narrow economic and workplace struggle. He wrote that for socialists the model should not “be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”.

So socialists should take up every issue of inequality and oppression. Lenin doesn’t leave it at that. He goes on to say that socialists should also be “able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation”. 

So socialists should oppose every manifestation of injustice, but attempt to draw out from it a more general political picture of how society works. 

Marxists stand in a tradition of socialism from below—the self-activity of the working class to effect change and ultimately to liberate all humankind. This is in contrast to ideas of change from above, such as those represented by the Labour Party or a range of activists who see the key to change as securing positions of influence within the state. 

At the time of writing we have a greater number of black and Asian MPs than at any time in British history and a black president in the most powerful country in the world, yet the reality for most black and Asian people is that life is getting harder. This is because it is not enough just to get people into positions of power—it is necessary to challenge the logic and power of the capitalist state altogether. 

This requires mass activity, crucially mass resistance by workers.

The roots of racism by Ken Olende 

Pickets at Bulmer and Lumb factory in Bolton, 1978

Pickets at Bulmer and Lumb factory in Bolton, 1978 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Slavery was central to early capitalism and racism became its justification. Racism evolved entwined with capitalism over three centuries. Both have changed, but they are still intimately connected and we will not see the back of racism while capitalism survives. 

Capitalism emerged in northern Europe—particularly in Britain and Holland—as a new economic system based around sale for the market. For it to replace the previous feudal system a wholesale shift in ideas and social organisation was required. 

One of the key developments was the triangular slave trade, where manufactured goods from Britain were taken to the west coast of Africa and traded for slaves. The slaves were transported to the Americas on the second side of the triangle, where they were sold to work on plantations. 

Finally the products of those plantations—sugar, cotton and tobacco—were brought back to Britain on the third leg. These were sold and the process began again. The profits were astronomical. 

Capitalists pushed the idea of universal trade and the “free market”. As Chris Harman put it, “Market relations rest on the assumption that, however unequal people’s social standing, they have an equal right to accept or reject a particular transaction”. 

Such ideas were expressed in the slogans of the bourgeois revolutions: “All men are created equal” in the US, and “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, equality, brotherhood) in France. 

Earlier societies had certainly not considered these to be self-evident truths, and therefore their rulers had felt no need to justify straying from them. But the massively profitable Atlantic slave trade—based on brutally forcing some people into inequality of the most extreme kind—dominated the capitalist’s income. 

How could the capitalist resolve this contradiction? In 1911 the black US Marxist Hubert Harrison argued that: “to the credit of our common human nature, it was found necessary to reconcile the public mind to the system of slavery. 

“This was effected by building up the belief that the slaves were not really human: that they belonged to a different order of beings…One broad, general implication of this belief seems to be the denial of social, political and economic justice to all people not white.”

The rise of Islamophobia by Talat Ahmed

 In 1993 Harvard professor and sometime US government adviser Samuel Huntington published a highly influential essay, “The Clash of Civilisations?” Later expanded into a full length book, it argued that the world was entering a new historic phase where the primary struggle would be between the “Christian West” and the “Islamic East”. 

For Huntington, Islam represented a “different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power”. For good measure he added that Muslims have a “high propensity to resort to violence”.

Two years later Nato secretary-general Willy Claes warned that: “Muslim Fundamentalism is at least as dangerous as communism was. Please do not underestimate the risk because it represents terrorism, religious fanaticism and exploitation of social and economic justice.”

This speech heralded a reconfiguration of the world as the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Western powers crowed at the demise of the Soviet Union and as they congratulated themselves talked in terms of a new world order, where publicly at least, peace and prosperity were the order of the day. 

However, as Claes’s statement demonstrates, a new bogeyman loomed on the horizon. Muslim terrorism signified the new threat and the rise of Islam replaced Soviet tyranny as public enemy number one. In the same speech Claes defined NATO not simply as a military alliance but as one “defending basic principles of civilisation that bind North America and Western Europe”. 

These ideas helped normalise racism against Muslims as well as justifying imperial attacks on Muslim countries under the banner of civilisational conflict. 

Black British politics in the 1970s and 1980s by Gary McFarlane

A Specials concert in 1981

A Specials concert in 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

In 1973 the government published a White Paper on Police-Immigrant Relations, not to draw attention to racist policing but to warn of “a small minority of young coloured people… anxious to imitate behaviour among the black community in the United States”. 

The scene was set for blanket oppressive policing of African-Caribbean youth in the inner cities. The police in London formed the Special Patrol Group (SPG) to carry out this task, which they set about with relish. 

In Lewisham, south east London, for example, they stopped 14,000 people in 1977 and arrested 400 in an operation unofficially codenamed Police Nigger Hunt. The police aggression brought a fitting response. 

Battles broke out with the police at the Brockwell Park fair in Brixton, south London, in 1973, in Chapeltown, Leeds, in November 1975 and at the Notting Hill Carnival, west London, the following year. 

The Notting Hill Carnival had grown in size every year since its inception in 1965. By the 1970s it had become the largest street festival in Europe, a site of music and revelry. 

For the police it was an opportunity for the mass harassment of black youth. They intended to do this in style in 1976 when 1,600 officers were mobilised for the clampdown. 

By the third day of the carnival at around 5pm the police made one arbitrary arrest too many. The youth turned on them and fought back in what turned out to be the biggest explosion of civil unrest seen in mainland Britain since the Battle of Cable Street drove Mosley’s Blackshirts off the streets of east London in 1936. 

The zone of insurrection spread to encompass the area round Ladbroke Grove and fighting with the police went on into the night. 

Over 300 police officers were injured and 35 police vehicles damaged or destroyed. 

Say it loud! Marxism and the fight against racism is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £9.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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