The shared history of black and white Britons


Jamacian born, Robert Wedderburn was one of the speakers at the Chartist gathering on Kennington Common, 10th April 1848


Each October, as Black History Month begins The Guardian columnist, Gary Younge, writes an engaging article asking a simple question, ‘Why can’t white and black people have access to a shared history that is accurate, honest, antiracist and inclusive?”

This year his piece noted that ‘there is no scientific or biological basis for race. It is a construct to explain the gruesome reality that racism built.’ Whilst this observation is true, the answer to his answer original question partly lies in the little acknowledged fact that black and Asian anti-racists worked alongside white colleagues within left and labour movements to challenge the gruesome realities of British history. If you read E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm or watch Ken Loach’s ‘The Spirit of 45’, there is little acknowledgement of the part played by Black and Asian people in these working class movements for social and economic justice in Britain.

Now a new book by Satnam Virdee addresses this by examining the period from the early Chartist movements through to the 1980’s. It’s a long journey, which not only explores the history of racism in England, but also the history of solidarity and anti-racism involving the ‘racialized outsiders’ of the British nation.

Jagdish Patel from the Monitoring Group recently met with Satnam Virdee to speak further about his book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider.

Why did you write the book?

I wrote the book, in part, because I felt so much of the history and sociology of the working class of Britain had failed to integrate the experiences of the racialized fractions within that social class – the Irish Catholics, Jews, Asians and Caribbeans. It was almost as if the working assumption of these academics and socialist historians was that the working class was always wholly white. Clearly, as the grandson of an Indian carpenter this didn’t speak to the complexities of race and class of my family in Britain nor that of the Caribbean labourers that he worked alongside. So, it was a desire to recover this history, and their stories, which led me to write this book.

JS68177538The book itself traces the broad contours of the struggle for social justice, including racial equality across two centuries rather than the usual period from which black and Asian history in Britain starts – namely, 1948 and the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury. This helps, I think, to demonstrate how racialized minorities were present throughout the history of modern Britain. The Conservatives rarely acknowledge this, but perhaps more disappointingly the labour movement and the socialist left have not been much better in making this multi-ethnic diversity of the working class transparent.

This type of race-blindness has prevented the organised labour movement from recognizing the formative role played by racialized minorities within the labour movement – not just in challenging racism but in helping to expand the political imagination of all workers engaged in the struggle for social justice, and against inequality.

In that sense, the anti-racist struggle was not a particularlist struggle but one that helped to enhance the struggle for democratisation of the British nation waged by all workers.   I wanted to show that if you look at British history through the eyes of Black, Asian, Jewish or Irish Catholic workers one gets a very different insight into the workings of British society. It doesn’t make sense to me to talk about Black history as a marginal issue, that we teach kids the history of human and civil rights, but place race as a ‘variable’ that appears towards the end of that account.

It’s important to emphasize that I tried to write a book which presents this complex history in an accessible format. I recall EP Thompson – the great historian of the English working class – encouraging me in relation to another project ‘to write democratically; not for the small community of academic sociologists but for a broader set of informed publics that will be interested in my work’. This is what writers like Ambalavaner Sivanandan were already doing, and he, – along with Stuart Hall – were important intellectual and political inspirations.

What’s the importance of the period from the 1850’s to the 1950’s for the anti-racist movement?

Working class racism did not begin in 1948. From the moment when the English elites learnt to rule in a more consensual manner in the mid-Victorian era to the bipartisan consolidation of the welfare settlement in the 1940s and 1950s, a series of influential social and political reforms such as the incremental granting of the franchise (to some working class men) and trade union rights accompanied by the delivery of sustained periods of economic security, assisted by its colonial policies, facilitated the incorporation of ever larger components of the working class into the imagined nation as active members of an imperial state.

Significantly, racism – in all its variegated forms – accompanied this process of working class integration. As early as the 1850s and 1860s, the inclusion of the ‘respectable’ working class of craft workers and others went hand in hand with the consolidation of racism against Irish Catholics. The even earlier association of the English with Protestantism was over-determined in this period by an increasingly influential understanding of themselves as members of an Anglo-Saxon race. Irish Catholics – long excluded from the nation as a result of their Catholic faith – found themselves doubly disadvantaged as both Catholics and alleged members of the Celtic race.

This was not always the case. When English and Scottish workers were being wrenched from the countryside to populate the industrial factories, the so-called ‘dark satanic mills’ they came into great conflict with the ruling elites. In this moment, the multi-ethnic English working class was a rebellious force engaged in transformative social change. Significantly, this was also a period of multi-ethnic class solidarity where parts of the English working class collectively suppressed expressions of racism and, on occasion, actively rejected it altogether. Central to these moments were socialist men and women belonging to minority groups whom I describe as racialized outsiders.

Take for example the case of Robert Wedderburn – born in Jamaica in 1762 to an enslaved African woman and a Scottish doctor and sugar planter – who helped make visible the links between the suffering and struggles of African enslaved peoples abroad and working class struggles at home. By 1813, Wedderburn appears to have joined the Spencean Philanthropists – a left-wing group inspired by Thomas Spence’s writings. Shortly afterwards, he went on to publish six editions of a magazine called ‘The Axe Laid To The Root’. Through this remarkable magazine and countless meetings of the Speancean Philanthropists, he linked the plight of the ‘African slave’ to the difficulties faced by the English working poor for, ‘The means to obtain justice is so expensive, that justice cannot be obtained’. This attempt to link the struggles against slavery with social justice for the working poor found political expression in his calls for a Jubilee – a free and egalitarian community. According to Wedderburn,

Spence knew that the earth was given to the children of men, making no difference for colour or character, just or unjust; and that any person calling a piece of land his own private property, was a criminal; and though they may sell it, or will it to their children, it is only transferring of that which was first obtained by force or fraud.

However, with the defeat of Chartism and the consolidation of imperialism, some workers began to turn away from the language of class and solidarity and instead focus more on re-imagining themselves as integral members of the nation in opposition to those they now defined as Black or Irish Catholic and therefore not part of the British nation.

What this suggests is that we need to stop thinking about the English working class as a single continuous entity; it was made up of many ethnicities, of men and women and divided by occupation and skills levels. Further, both racism and anti-racism were present in the making of the English working class.

And with regard to the latter, I found that racialized outsiders – that is, those of Irish Catholic, Jewish, South Asian and Caribbean descent – at different points in this history played a formative role in bringing about a re-alignment of these different stratum of the working class. That is, there presence was crucial in moments such as the 1830s and 1840s, 1880s and 1890s and 1970s and 1980s when to use Thompson’s phrase’ class happened’ and black, brown and white joined in collective action against racism, and for social and economic justice.

Can you tell us more about the post-war racism experience by Black and Asian workers?

From the perspective of a colour-blind class politics, the 1940s and 1950s were a moment of unprecedented working class advancement. However, when investigated through the eyes of migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean we find not the spirit of solidarity, collectivism and commitment to social justice, but a systemic racism across large swathes of British society; racism which contributed to positioning those migrants and their British-born descendants overwhelmingly at the bottom of the class structure for two generations. Alongside the racism they faced from the state and the main political parties, migrants also faced enforced discriminatory practices from trade unions on the grounds that they were not white and thus could not be classed as British. Racist quotas and colour bars were commonplace, and when such practices were breached, some white workers – including most notably on the buses in the West Midlands transport industry – were happy to take industrial action to reinforce them.

2641767While the racialization of British nationalism was not new, what distinguished this post-war period above all was the extent to which the British state, employers and workers had come to share a common British nationalism, underpinned by a shared allegiance to whiteness. Such racism and nationalism profoundly scarred English society, and the working class within it. Its effects can be traced through the political and cultural spheres as well as the economic. From the creation and consolidation of a stratified division of labour in the workplace, to the informal regulation of intimate social relations in the community, racism’s reach was all encompassing. And over time, such racism became institutionalised. This meant it no longer always required active enforcement because the structures and institutions of society came to reflect this distorted understanding of the world. It became, in Bourdieusian terms, an integral component of the English habitus – the cluster of resilient and unconscious dispositions acquired by social groups over time. The working class re-imagined itself as a racialized class, such that race in Hall’s phrase became ‘the modality in which class [was] lived, the medium through which class relations [were] experienced, the form in which it [was] appropriated and ‘fought through’.

How does your book speak to the present?

The two primary agents of anti-racist mobilisation from the 1970s and 1980s – black self-organisation and socialist-led working class resistance – have both been severely weakened in the intervening decades, making the likelihood of effective collective opposition more remote. The black subject fragmented in the late 1980s, in part as a result of its own success in forcing open various sites of British society to racialized minorities. Those racialized minority groups, people from South Asian, African and Caribbean backgrounds who had coalesced around the ideology of political blackness to challenge an all-pervasive colour-coded racism disintegrated into their component parts as each group made varying levels of progress within British society. As a result, the structural foundations that bound this alliance together in a coalition of the racialized poor dissipated, along with the political moment of decolonisation and civil rights, leaving little possibility today of a return to the anti-racist politics of blackness.

At the same time, while class remains a fundamental source of inequality, the working class subject that briefly emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s has also been comprehensively defeated. Further, the idea of socialism as an emancipatory political project lost much of its appeal amid the collapse of the state socialist regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s such that today it has little purchase among large swathes of the working class. And the traditional party of the working class – Labour – cognisant of such changes, long ago abandoned its commitment to building a democratic socialist society.

In this interregnum, -and despite the welcome election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party – other intellectual currents have tried to fill the void in the Labour Party, including most notably Blue Labour. Blue Labour’s intellectual founders, who include Maurice Glasman, have spoken of the ‘paradoxes of Labour’s tradition’ arguing that it needs to ‘address the crisis of its political philosophy and to recover its historic sense of purpose’ by ‘rebuilding a strong and enduring relationship with the people’ (Glasman et al 2011: 9-11). They suggest that working class voters will be won back to Labour through a re-discovery of its socially conservative roots, with an approach that emphasises concern for ‘family, faith, and flag’ (Sandbrook 2011). However, such a conservative message is likely to resonate only with certain categories of workers, particularly those who are concerned about questions of race, immigration and Europe amongst others.

And its rather narrow conception of the working class fails in particular to consider how such a message might play to a working class in England that today is increasingly characterised by ethnic diversity. What these Labour intellectuals have also failed to recognise is the structuring power of racism throughout British society, including within the working class, and the extent to which visions of ‘the people’ have been deeply racialized. Any progressive political projects that attempt to invoke notions of the people today must actively seek to both acknowledge this contradictory and complex history of racism, and plot ways of moving beyond it and its structuring effects in the present conjuncture.

So, what theoretical and political lessons we can draw from a work of historical sociology in order that we may push back against such an increasingly precarious present. It was Edward Palmer Thompson who once remarked that:

History is a form within which we fight, and many have fought before us. Nor are we alone when we fight there. For the past is not just dead, inert, confining; it carries signs and evidences also of creative resources which can sustain the present, and prefigure possibility.” (Thompson 1981: 407-408)

I hope Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider can make a contribution to re-connecting the contemporary working class of England – Asian; Black and White – to the struggles for democratization, social justice and equality waged by their ancestors, and at the same time provide them with clues about how they might make their own history.


41XTO9t+nTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Racism, Class and The Racialized Outsider: Satnam Virdee   Palgrave Macmillan. 2014.     Buy on Amazon here





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