Unite and fight

Issue: 142

Zak Cochrane

Brian Richardson (ed), Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism (Bookmarks, 2013), £9.99

What is racism? Where does it come from? Why has it remained prevalent despite the changes to society? How best can we fight it? These are some of the key questions examined in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism. Its eight authors apply a Marxist analysis to look critically at the origins and history of racism in Britain and abroad. The book highlights key examples from the US and Britain of black and white unity, resistance and struggle in order to challenge the notion that racism is somehow natural or inevitable.

Indeed, the constant need by the ruling class to revitalise old racist ideas in new forms is testament to the level of resistance against racism. For instance, Talat Ahmed’s chapter argues this is the case today, with Islamophobia becoming the new “cutting edge” of racism while simultaneously coexisting with and feeding other forms, such as anti-immigrant racism.

Racism is often keenly felt through individual experience, yet this does not explain how it actually functions in society, or its purpose. One central argument running through all the chapters is that racism is not simply about individual attitudes and behaviours; of far greater significance is institutional racism that works to foster divisions at the bottom of society to the benefit of those at the top. This analysis stretches back to Karl Marx, who argued that the ruling class reaps the real rewards of racism. When looking at the divisions between “native” English and Irish immigrant workers, he argued that the English worker despised the Irish worker for supposedly lowering the English standard of living and for having not been born in the “ruling nation”. Irish workers in turn saw English workers as tools and accomplices of the English ruling class that ruled over Ireland. This hostility between the two groups of workers, Marx argued, was “artificially kept alive and intensified by…all means at the disposal of the ruling class”. It left the comparatively well organised English working class in a state of “impotence”, thus strengthening the position of the ruling class.

Marx’s approach goes a long way towards explaining racism’s persistence and function today. It can also help explore the origins of racism, addressed in Ken Olende’s opening chapter. This explains how central the slave trade was to early capitalism and how racism was created to act as a justification for it. Initially indigenous Americans and white indentured servants worked on the plantations of the New World, but as the new economic system developed, the plantations required ever greater supplies of labour. Planters turned to imported African slaves. However, the large numbers of people enslaved and transported in horrific conditions needed to be justified, particularly given that, in the bourgeois revolutions erupting in this period against the established landed ruling classes, the slogan that “all men are created equal” was one with a powerful resonance. Racism provided a convenient explanation. Pseudo-scientific ideas were fashioned to show that black people were inferior to white people and were born for servitude.

Nevertheless, since the birth of racism there has been resistance to it. Following a series of uprisings in Virginia from 1663, involving both black slaves and indentured servants, planters pursued an aggressively racist programme that sought to extinguish any common cause or sense of solidarity between blacks and whites.

There are many more examples in Say it Loud of the great lengths the ruling class has gone to in order to maintain divisions between different groups of workers. Perhaps the clearest example is that of the racist segregation of the Jim Crow laws in the Southern States of America after the Civil War. The ruling class who imposed these laws were terrified by the political radicalism and unity that developed between blacks and whites after the war, which abolished slavery, and knew that they would have to divide the groups in order to secure their rule.

The book discusses how best to fight racism and fascism, highlighting different strategies that have been used in Britain and abroad and their relative effectiveness. Several chapters demonstrate the limitations of black nationalist approaches, in which the racially oppressed seek to fight independently of the wider working class. Socialists should, of course, respect the right of oppressed groups to organise separately should they so choose, but because this strategy does not unify workers across racial lines it limits the capacity of such movements to challenge the structures of capitalism. When such movements fail to break through, sections of the oppressed population have often instead found themselves co-opted by the state in order to undermine more revolutionary elements. During the 1980s a layer of black activists took the decision to shift from fighting against the system to attempting to reform it from within. This attempt at “progressive reformism” was channelled through the Labour Party, who in 1987 had four black candidates elected to parliament.

But working within the system came to mean managing the effects of racism and opening up a space for the black community within British capitalism. There was a rise of Racism Awareness Training, a growing black middle class and increased employment opportunities, particularly in the public sector. Yet the institutional structures that perpetuate racism remained intact—a fact made appallingly evident by the police handling of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

Say it Loud argues that it is those instances where both black and white workers have stood together and challenged their collective exploitation, or the threat from racists or fascists, which have marked the most effective challenges to racism. The working classes create the wealth under capitalism and are therefore a tremendous threat to the capitalist class when unified and conscious of the roots of their exploitation and oppression.

This approach has been developed through a long socialist tradition, including, crucially, Leon Trotsky’s writings on the united front, which are at the centre of a chapter entitled “Beating Back the Fascists”. This chapter recounts important lessons from 1930s Germany where a divided left composed of rival Social Democratic and Communist parties failed to take the threat of fascism seriously and unite in activity in order to stop the Nazis.

Today the tactic of the united front, through which revolutionaries unite with reformist organisations and their followers over specific questions, while preserving their independence, is as relevant as ever with fascist groups continuing to try to exploit the economic crisis in order to revive their fortunes. Mainstream and right wing populist parties such as the UK Independence Party have aided this process with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim scapegoating. However, in Britain in recent years the success of Unite Against Fascism has meant that fascist groups such as the English Defence League and British National Party have not been able to make the kind of gains achieved by Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary or the Front National in France.

The book does not shy away from challenging rival accounts of racism and the possibilities of resistance. Privilege theory, for instance, has received a hearing among some contemporary movements. At the root of this theory is the idea that certain groups benefit from the oppression of others—such as white people benefiting from racism towards black people. The book cites research demonstrating that, rather than benefiting from racial discrimination against black workers, white workers in fact see their pay and conditions suffer because capitalists are able more effectively to play workers off against one another.

The final chapter of the book, which engages with some of these contemporary debates, criticises privilege theory for reducing the significance of structural inequalities, while elevating individual privileges to a pre-eminent position in the analysis. The result of this is to shelve attempts at solidarity when confronting oppression until we have all “checked our privilege”. It prioritises what divides us over what unites us. By contrast, the Marxist analysis that underpins the book is clear that while there are many forms of oppression under capitalism, class exploitation plays a unique role. Challenging exploitation ultimately raises the possibility of eradicating all forms of oppression by overthrowing the system that breeds and perpetuates them.

Say it Loud provides a comprehensive account of the history of racism and anti-racism in Britain. The intention of the book, though, is not just to recall key anti-racist battles; it is a call for renewed action and solidarity against racism and fascism.