Race and the British working class

Issue: 147

Antony Hamilton

Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), £26.99


Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider provides a strong historical and theoretical basis for understanding the making of the British working class. This “study of working class efforts to secure economic and social justice” is a fascinating read and provides an insight into a class shaped by racism and resistance.

In the struggle for greater freedoms and rights, Satnam Virdee insists that “racialized minorities” often “played a formative role”. The aim of the book is to acknowledge the significant role played by race within the working class while critiquing “both liberal and socialist accounts…that have largely ignored racialized minorities and thereby contributed to the whitewashing of working class history”.

Virdee takes us through historic class battles from the viewpoint of the racialised outsider. These battles—which shook society to its core—witnessed the marginalised and most violently oppressed groups taking centre stage. He packs an immense amount of history into only 166 pages, carrying through a message ­relevant to today’s struggles against injustice, inequality and racism. Virdee argues that a clear class analysis over the “long durée (covering a two hundred year period between 1780 and 1990)”, is necessary to understand the material conditions of the day and firmly to plant anti-racist ideas within it. This analysis provides an understanding of who benefits from oppression and who has the power to fight it.

The racialised outsider is the protagonist in Virdee’s call for action. They are the marginalised sections of the newly emerging working class. Due to scientific racism and divisive propaganda created by the capitalist class, marginalised groups—those who have been targeted as ethnically “other”—were not immediately adopted into the ranks of the working class. In fact they begin their political life as consciously excluded elements seen by some other workers as only able to hold them back.

Virdee recognises this propaganda in the racial language that portrayed Irish Catholics as drunken job thieves and Jews as money grabbers. These divide and rule tactics were nothing new for the class which ruled over the British Empire. However, it needed to take a coordinated effort from the trade unions and early socialist formations to reject these deceptions. Unfortunately, for a long time workers’ organisations not only failed to overcome racism but at times they actively embraced racist ideas such as the reactionary ideas about Jewish workers at the end of the 19th century. In 1888 the TUC noted “it was the duty of the trades to keep the matter of Jewish migration under close consideration” (p48), thereby tailing the idea that Jewish workers undermined the conditions and wages of British workers—something the ruling class would have us believe today about migrants from Eastern Europe.

To sum up what was happening over these few hundred years, Virdee notes that “former slaves of African-American and Caribbean descent, Irish Catholic labourers, African and Asian Lascars and seamen, along with Jewish migrants…made their homes in England…significantly, most entered the ranks of the working class… It brings the working class in all its diversity…centre stage as an actor in the making of English society…although not always in circumstances of their own choosing” (pp2-3).

From the start Virdee recognises the significance of national identity, the major hurdle that class politics must overcome. Referencing Linda Colley’s book Britons: Forging the Nation, Virdee cites the cementing of national identity in the “war that rages between Britain and France for almost half the period between 1688 and 1815”. This period helped to reinforce a dominant Protestant ideology that sought to unify Protestants across class boundaries while also alienating all others (especially Irish Catholics) as “outsiders”.

During this period Virdee distinguishes his interpretation of the shaping of the British working class from Colley’s. Viewed “through the prism of race” Virdee’s book is a response to the popular idea—which Colley flirts with—that the working class is the object of history and not a subject with the ability to control its own destiny.

In the early phase of industrialisation (around the 1780s) the Irish population in Britain was around 40,000. However, by 1852—the end of the Irish famine—the migrant population had grown to 727,000. Virdee exposes the contradictions of this large-scale immigration by contrasting the anti-Catholic riots—such as the Gordon riots in 1780 in which mobs mobilised against the papist act (which scraped the surface of discrimination against Catholics), killing 285 people and torching every Catholic church and house they could find—and the “massive social and political struggles” where “the Irish Catholic immigrant was a key participant”. This ­dialectical relationship is key to understanding the heroic class struggles leading into the 20th century. The Irish Catholic worker becomes the first, but certainly not the last, instance of a “racialized outsider” thrown into the leadership of working class organisation and struggle.

From chapter to chapter Virdee is able to pinpoint the necessity for inclusion and leadership on the part of racialised minorities. Recognising “black radicals as linchpins of the anti-slavery movement” is key to understanding working class demands to abolish slavery, even though abolition it seemed would lead directly to economic uncertainty: “In Britain itself, the anti-slavery movement was intellectually and politically nourished by the growing population of freed slaves of African descent” (p18). The input of people such as Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho, Robert Wedderburn and countless others into the struggles of groups like the Chartists and abolitionists directed them politically and made them push from below for more direct, autonomous actions inspired by the slave revolts across the western hemisphere.

Moving through the book Virdee takes note of the “sheer scale of the defeats ­suffered by the working class, leading up to the final catastrophe of 1848” with the defeat of the Chartist movement and a turn towards a strategy of negotiation rather than mass action. The sense of demoralisation and feeling of despair and helplessness that immediately followed lent weight to political fragmentation. He recognises that after 1848 the terrain had not only changed in material terms, following the petty bourgeois revolutions, but also ideologically. Restructuring at the top of society forced the “British ruling elite…to govern in a more consensual manner”; to do this “parts of the British working class were incrementally incorporated into the expanding imagined community of the British nation”.

Following the path of new unionism from the late 19th century into the early 20th he documents the failure of socialist formations to retain an international outlook, with some groups actively prohibiting the involvement of Jewish workers facing persecution. For example, he highlights the nationalism of the Social Democratic Forum—a supposedly broad socialist party led by former Tory Henry Hyndman—who “actually understood their commitment to socialism as neatly bound with their allegiance to the state”. This path of chauvinism led to a socialism which favoured the British worker over any other, thereby rejecting the participation of Jewish workers. Ultimately this line of thinking led the party to adopt a proto-fascist approach to the Jewish worker: “wherever there is trouble in Europe…be sure that a hook-nosed Rothschild is at his games” (p51). Contrast this with the opposing force of William Morris, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx who formed the Socialist League, who argued that revolutionary socialism would never be a reality “without the help of the workers of all civilisations” (p49).

Virdee traces the journey of socialists battling for “internationalism in the age of imperialism”, moving through both world wars, the advancement of national chauvinism and the inspiration of the Russian Revolution. It is a shame that the book is as short as it is because it doesn’t leave Virdee with much space to explore the changing role of immigration during periods of imperial expansion. However, the book serves as an introduction towards recognising the role of minorities in the working class—which he has quickly ­followed up online (see the series of articles on the New Left Project website: http://tinyurl.com/Virdee-comments).

As the book leads into the second half of the 20th century, Virdee documents the inter-relationship between race and class. This unity which, following the Second World War, had been systematically attacked, began to reform around the need to oppose fascism.

Rock Against Racism (RAR) displayed the ability of ordinary people to reject the politics of the likes of racist Tory Enoch Powell and organise against them. Alongside the Anti Nazi League (ANL), it bounced off its ability to use the popularity of rock music among young people to draw in large crowds.

RAR came about through the spontaneous activity of workers in the music industry, whereas the ANL—centred around the politics of the International Socialists—focused on a class analysis of racism. This was a key part to the success of the ANL. They opposed fascism on the streets in the largest and broadest possible demonstrations as well as gaining trade union affiliation, thereby linking together workers’ struggles and the struggle against racism. At a carnival organised by the ANL following a demonstration which led into Victoria Park in London, 80,000 ­gathered. They heard speeches from Labour MP Peter Hain and Vishnu Sharma of the Indian Workers Association alongside music from The Clash, the Tom Robinson band and Steel Pulse. According to Virdee, the welding together of these communities came from the direct input of groups “like the SWP…who engaged in a healthy debate about fascism and its ­relationship to racism and capitalism”.

The final section of the book looks at black self-organisation within the trade union movement, including the passing of anti-racist motions. Trade unions such as the National and Local Government Officers’ Association (Nalgo) were able to retain “a significantly large ­membership” because of their engagement in this way with oppressed groups. It is a shame that the book should end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—the “so-called end of history”. Since then we have witnessed the growth of Islamophobia and the constant justification for wars in the Middle East that has transformed the political landscape. In Britain the Stop the War movement which brought millions of people onto the streets in the early 21st century linked the anti-racist struggle with everyday life and trade union activity. This built a strong relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims which has been proven hard to break in years since.

Overall the book is a fascinating history of the reshaping of English society at the hands of the working class. The central focus around racialised workers and their input is well needed in a society currently dominated by “British values” and colonial education. Hopefully this book will be used as a springboard to further analysis of the role of minorities in the historic struggles of the past and the part they can play in the future.