Ambalavaner Sivanandan, the Director Emeritus of the Institute of Race Relations and founding editor of Race & Class passed away on 3rd January 2018.
The finality of death is always difficult to deal with. The event creates a myriad of emotions. Sometimes one is left clutching at memories that continue to fade away often triggering an urge to exaggerate the importance of an individual that has passed away. However, Sivanandan’s death actually represents a defining end of an era in British race and class politics. He was the original master; a rare force of nature defined by history that conquered the present through the method of his analysis – the collection of his concise yet gripping analysis is a testament to his intellectual originality and vigour. He thought not only to think but more importantly to think & act as a continuum and thus redefined the role of a political thinker. For me, Sivanandan is the greatest political thinker that our communities have produced in this country whose essence was to remain deeply connected to actual struggle and thereby shape it. He was the embodiment of a people dispossessed who created the essential tools to accomplish victories, not simply by grasping for hope but through relentless exposure of injustices and fearless audacity. He was revolutionary without a country; an internationalist who forced the first world left to refocus their political lenses on racism, class, globalization, imperialism, solidarity and resistance. He was the dangerous and threatening volcano facing the architects of inequality, poverty and war but a gentle breeze of warmth and comfort for those on the ground who were reasoning, reflecting, rebelling and resisting in Britain from the 1970’s to the first decade of the millennium.
The experience and lessons of the ‘double baptism of fire’ of communal conflict in Sri Lanka, where he was born, and racism in the UK remained with him throughout his life. The first, where genocide is the eventual outcome, drove him into self-imposed exile and the second led him to define and articulate the power of autonomous black left politics in this country. Creating a ‘different politics’ for marginalised black communities in the belly of the beast became a defining theme in Siva’s writing and speeches. Anti racism was woven into the same garment of anti-imperialism – since it was this, through its colonial and neocolonial trajectories that had invented and continued to ferment state and institutionalised racism on a global scale. The introduction of a new term of ‘disorganised development’ – where the capitalist mode is not only imposed on feudal societies but it also induced an environment hostile to the growth of social democratic politics that emerged with western capitalism. In this condition the dogma of class struggle as the sole representative of progressive struggle against the state and imperialism needed to be reviewed. Moreover new technologies had dispersed brutal exploitation from the west’s factory floors to the imperial free trade zones in the third world. The process created a less radical labour force that became vulnerable to racial prejudice. Sivanandan is one who has constantly underlined the distinctiveness and inventiveness of the political ‘Black’ forged in the specific British experience. More than mere skin colour, it is not only the politics of individuals who have had no option but to stand against racism but also of communities who have forged a collective consciousness against racism and oppression.
I was drawn to Sivanandan not simply because of his intellect but because I believed in him as a person. I was baptized into political activity by the murderous intent of violent racism and stabbed by skinheads in the 1970’s. We were forced to defend ourselves against ‘paki-bashing’ and racist police operations. Always outnumbered, we survived those battles because we stood our ground together with complete confidence in each other regardless of the consequences. I always felt Sivanandan was battle hardened, He felt our nerves, our fears, our anger, our defeats as well as our victories. Only, he could separate the wood from the tress and see further than us. His pen would create a political storm by offering a context to our resistance and its impact; and in turn his analysis would make me think of the next steps. If one read his work during those moments of struggle, it would take one beyond being just being an angry young man and thrust you into the realm of political culture and its infinite potential. Sivanandan provided the framework of grounding ourselves in our communities combining advocacy with campaigning. He introduced us to a transformative model of turning cases into issues, issues into causes and causes into a movement. It is this model that we used to initiate or strengthen national campaigns around Southall and Blair Peach, Bradford 12, Stephen Lawrence, Ricky Reel, and Zahid Mubarek and more recently on Rotherham 12 in 2016. Its transformative qualities lie not only in turning victims to protagonists but, as importantly, revealing both the racist and the intrinsic unaccountable nature of the state to the wider public at large.
In his introduction to Sivanandan’s Catching History on the Wing, Colin Prescod, the chair of the Institute of Race Relations has written, “In the babel of our time, Sivanandan’s has been the voice in the wilderness, warning of the weakening of political community that would accompany the shift to ethnicising our protest and struggle… His coinage of the term xeno-racism acutely exposes the self-serving belief that Europe’s formidable hostility to the impoverished migrant workers on which so much of its basic prosperity depends is but a system of belief and practice aimed at locking down, and locking in, the needy and the desperate. And the war on terror has spawned a new anti-Muslim racism, where minarets mark out the enemy within; a racism, as enacted by governments, that has proved an enemy to freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, transparency of judicial process and rights to civil liberty.”
Over the years, I have been fortunate to spend time with Sivanandan to discuss struggles and issues occupying my time and energy. At the time of the Lawrence Inquiry, for instance, during our numerous conversations, we continually discussed the necessity of defining institutional racism accurately given its historical context and impact in the future. I last visited Sivanandan near the end of last year. His body appeared frail and weakened but he was lucid and razor sharp in this thinking. We reflected on the Grenfell carnage, especially on the strategies that were being adopted. We also touched on the prospects for the growth of black left in Britain as well as the USA. As usual, the seriousness was interposed with playfulness and laughter as well as dread for the future. It was a joy to be in his company I treated Sivanandan like my brother. He has my love and respect. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I wish I could meet him once again simply to embrace and bid a tearful farewell but with Rumi’s promise ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there’
His politics and compassion transformed an ordinary bank clerk into an extraordinary political thinker and intellectual. That legacy is in the Institute, in his thinking and writings and in his method. There is no time to lose but build on this solid foundation otherwise his memory will become distant thunder.
Suresh Grover 13 January 2018