Black Power comes to Britain

Issue: 143

Gary McFarlane

Robin Bunce and Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography, (Bloomsbury, 2014), £54.99

This fascinating political biography of Darcus Howe will teach even the most knowledgeable of students of Caribbean history and the struggles of the diaspora many valuable lessons.

Howe, born in 1943 in pre-independence Trinidad, stands out among the dwindling band of black intellectuals and activists who cut their teeth both in the post-independence battles in the Americas, where the extent to which new political freedoms were to be translated into a thoroughgoing transformation of social relations were being fought out, and in the fight of migrant workers to establish themselves and their families in post-war Britain. He first came to the attention of the authorities in the UK most notably, and effectively, as one of the nine defendants in the 1970 Mangrove trial at which he successfully defended himself against the trumped-up charges of riot and affray. In August 2011 he was one of the very few leading black figures who went out of their way to defend the youth who rose up in rage in London and across Britain in the wake of the killing of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham.

However, Howe’s actions and thoughts are cut through with contradictions; contradictions that remain unresolved for the reader if not for Howe himself. In many ways he stood out from the crowd—combining a restless individualism with a commitment to radical change through collective action that would lead him, time and again, to break with former allies. But his was also a commitment to radical change that accepted pragmatic limits and reformist preconceptions. In fairness, this could also be seen as a healthy suspicion of ultra-left poseurs. To his credit he often showed a superior grasp of strategy and tactics to his peers.

Bunce and Field bring out those contradictions against the backdrop of the Paris student revolt of 1968, the rise of the Black Power movement in the US, and the near-insurrectionary events of 1970 in Trinidad which Howe approvingly bore witness to as a process bore witness that threw up from the working people and students a movement characterised by “a whirlpool of reason”. After moving to Britain, Howe became central to setting up a British chapter of the Black Panther Party. At the time African-Caribbean communities were beginning to take on the everyday racism of institutions and general society that hemmed in and sought to crush their aspirations. They dared to reach out beyond the boundary laid down by the establishment, which was to fill a temporary labour shortage and nothing more. Howe was either at the centre of, or close observer of, all those battles and more.

Howe, an alumnus of Trinidad’s elite Queen’s Royal College school and a nephew of the Marxist historian C L R James, developed an early identification with those less fortunate than himself and with radical politics. And those formative years in the Caribbean had a lasting impact on him. It is unfortunate though that when Howe came to know his uncle politically the writer of the seminal Black Jacobins had already begun his journey away from his classical Marxist roots and the related task of building Bolshevik-type parties. As Howe himself puts it:

“When I read Facing Reality by C L R James, and Modern Politics, those two books made it clear that this kind of ‘I know therefore I lead’…the ordinary working person in the Caribbean, descendants of slaves, they weren’t putting up with that” (quoted in Bunce and Field, p48).

Howe took to heart “Jamesianism”. Sadly, however, in practice James didn’t just turn his back on the attempt to build mass revolutionary socialist parties; he turned against mass organisation period. Small became beautiful in his view. Relatively small groups, it was imagined, could bring together black workers and the dispossessed to share their struggles, and also learn from and educate those around them to effect change. James puts it even more starkly in Facing Reality (written when he was still a Trotskyist): “All development takes place as a result of self-movement, not organization or direction by external forces.” For Howe, James’s precepts, which in this original iteration had the worthy target of the Stalinists in focus, could cure “that disease of the political leader and the vanguard party”. The intellectual was the facilitator. More importantly perhaps, he turned his back on the building of bi-racial socialist organisation.

Even without that connection, the version of Marxism (and socialism) that dominated in the late 1960s and early 1970s was either heavily influenced by Stalinism or, in the case of the New Left in the West, tempted to look to shortcuts that sought to explain away the supposed embourgoisement of workers by orienting instead on anti-colonial struggles or on students or oppressed minorities as alternative agents of change. This would likely have led Howe in a black nationalist direction, albeit on the left wing where he rejected narrower cultural nationalism.

But, despite the various distortions and misunderstandings that Marx’s legacy contended with, Howe, almost instinctively, was able to position himself on the most plebeian axis of the political cross-currents of the time, when revolution seemed to be in the air, because of his attachment to the primacy of the self-activity of the masses, sometimes as an intellectual catalyser but also too as an activist in the thick of it.

Howe was not a fan of the self-appointed politically uneducated “leaders” that sprang up in the British version of the Black Power movement. He had little time for hot air and timeservers, black or white. But he did share with even the best elements of the Black Power movement such as the Black Panthers and their imitators in the UK the notion of the centrality of black self-activity. Black people had to do the fighting themselves and take control of their own communities. In that battle whites were outsiders.

That didn’t necessarily lead him away from working with white socialists. On the contrary, and in a different locale—namely Trinidad—he went out of his way to undermine the communalism that the colonialists had created and fostered between those of Indian and African descent in the oil-rich country. But building multiracial organisations was never seen as a critical strategic objective. Of much greater import was the project of black self-organisation, which could at times seem as if it was an end in itself.

Indeed, the “white left”, which throughout this short but politically rich biography remains undefined, is used by the authors and by Howe himself as if it were some dilutional existential threat. One group, the Maoist Big Flame, is singled out for praise, but that organisation’s deference to the black struggle, as opposed to engagement on a class basis, smacked more of the white liberalism which characterised black people as only victims, that Howe rightly despised. Readers of this journal might well wonder whether it makes sense to designate revolutionary socialist organisations—even those that happen to be mostly composed of white people—as “the white left” in any case. It’s a question that is not adequately addressed but neither is it one that is decisively accepted as a closed matter.

On the split with Ambalavaner Sivanandan at the Institute of Race Relations the authors bring to the fore the import of the “new direction” in which Howe would take Race Today and the organisation—the Race Today Collective—that he created as a spin-off from the magazine itself.

The parting of the ways between Sivanandan and Howe was provoked by the threat to the Institute’s charitable status and corporate philanthropy receipts posed by the more activist direction in which Howe sought to take Race Today. Howe, perhaps unfairly, characterised Sivanandan at the time as seeing black people as helplesss victims—a certain sign of the rancour and bitterness the dispute engendered. At root the split was deeply political—although Sivanandan probably agreed with the core of Howe’s ideological stance, if not its practical expression which he clearly saw as a challenge to his position at the Institute:

“Howe argued that anti-government feeling existed in black and Asian communities to a much greater extent than it did in the white working class. The roots of this disparity were historical: the British working class had been socialised by capitalism for more than 400 years, whereas the mores of the new arrivals were at greater variance with prevailing values” (p145).

But criticism of a failure to grasp the common exploitation of black and white workers by the same capitalist system, and the potential and actual bonds of unity this builds, shouldn’t blind the reader to the valuable contribution this biography makes to a deeper appreciation of the context in which Howe’s ideas and actions were formulated. Howe survived police harassment, imprisonment, death threats from the Trinidadian state and the pressure to metamorphose into a middle class peacemaker that went with becoming something of a media star and then broadcaster. It is a testimony to the strength of his resolve that he still remains committed to struggle from below—a struggle in which black people had to find their voice but also one where he did not give up totally on the possibilities of wider class unity, although it was perhaps for others to concentrate on this. Howe persists as a troublemaker and this book is a fitting and honest testimony to his continuing contribution to the struggle for black liberation and radical change.