Catching History on the Wing: A. Sivanandan as Activist, Teacher and Rebel


Lou Kushnick and Paul Grant interviewers for  Against the Odds:scholars who challenged racism in the 20th century

My grandfather was one of the smallest of smallholders in the arid North of Ceylon, where nothing grew except children. His chief ambition was to send his sons to an ‘English school’ so that they could learn English and thereby find proper jobs and some sort of economic and social mobility. That was the ambition of most people in the North and in all Tamil areas. My father finally made it from the Tamil-medium school to an English-medium school, and at sixteen entered the postal service as a clerk. And his ambition, in turn, was to send his children to the foremost English schools and give them a better chance of entering the professions. Because my education was disrupted by my father being transferred from place to place (the British Raj didn’t like dissidents and transferred him from one malarial station to another), I was sent to school in the capital, Colombo.

But I was conscious at the time that my first duty, as the eldest son of a fairly poor family, was to go through school and college, hopefully to university, and then get a good job and so be able to help my parents to look after the family. That sense of responsibility – that sense of what Nyerere meant when he said, ‘We must return our education to the people who gave it to us’ – underscored most of my conflicts. For, my life was full of contradictions. I came from a poor peasant background, I attended a Catholic ‘public school’ and lived with an impoverished uncle in a Sinhalese slum. I was a Tamil and a Hindu having to attend Catholic religious knowledge classes, sometimes attending mass and benediction, and at the same time going to temple on a Friday with my uncles, aunts and cousins. Inside me, then, Western culture and religion were mixed up with Hinduism, the urban with the rural; the aspiring boy who wanted to become middle-class was learning the culture of the slum. And I was also desperate to belong to my village in the North which we went back to every year for holidays. Because I went to the Colombo school, I had a prowess beyond the boys in the village. And a searing gap

between me and my contemporaries grew up which was so painful. And then there was the other side of me – the one that wanted to belong to Colombo and my English school and pukka friends. I remember most acutely my sense of betrayal when I disowned my favourite aunt when she came to visit me in school. She looked shabby, was without shoes and a proper blouse under her sari, and I made out that she was some sort of family servant.

It’s out of all these forces and conflicts that my politics and commitments probably sprang. I think that it’s a mistake to think of colonialism as a one-way street, as something that is done to you, something so powerful you can’t resist it. There is always a resistance somewhere that comes out of your own culture, your language, your religion. And that resistance first takes the form of existential rebellion – rebellion against everything that goes against your grain. I remember how much I jibbed when some of the Fathers forced me to follow catechism classes and go to church. . I suppose I could have gone one of two ways – become totally Tamil, totally Hindu, totally Ceylonese. I could have gone into the kind of reactionary nationalism that tries to put the clock back and pretend that the British, Dutch and Portuguese had not influenced every aspect of our culture. (And there was a feeling in me that if I went back to the temple and my culture I would find refuge from Catholicism, from colonialism, from the British Raj.) On the other hand I knew that if I wanted to get places, to look after the poorer members of the family, to become a barrister ( as I once wanted) to go to England some day to the Inner Temple, then I had to go along with the system. By the time I entered university in Ceylon I was veering between being a nationalist and being a cosmopolitan.

I was not really political then in a conscious way. But all colonised peoples have, all the time, a subliminal sense of politics, a sense of powerlessness. What university did was to formulate that politics – especially because I did political science and economics. What opened me up was looking at various political theories and the writings of people such as Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau, Owen and Proudhon and Fourier and finally finding Marx. Or, rather, finding dialectical materialism and, in it, finding a way of analysing my own society, a way of resolving my own social contradictions, a  way of understanding how conflict itself was the motor of one’s personal life as well as the combusting force of the society one lived in.

This was after the war, when our countries were becoming independent, and nationalism both in India and Ceylon was anti-imperialist and pro-working class. Many of our lecturers had been educated at the London School of Economics and they came back with very radical ideas. They had absorbed some of the British Left traditions and became the conduits through which those traditions passed on to us. We imbibed Harold Laski’s Grammar of Politics, the thinking of Maurice Dobb, Joan Robinson, the Webbs, the Fabians through these teachers – many of whom were also members of left parties in Ceylon. They opened us up to a left British culture which was anti-subjugation and spoke to the British working-class struggles for liberty and equality.

I left university with a degree, but not a very good one. The sports I loved – football, tennis, badminton, table tennis – the debating society and Trotskyite left party that everyone belonged to, all seemed more exciting than our studies. And because I didn’t come from a rich family and have the necessary connections, (nepotism was the way into the sought-after professions) I went into teaching. It was so poorly paid I could not meet my family obligations, so I finally got into a bank as a Staff Officer and soon Deputy Manager. Those of us who had degrees were few and far between then and as the banks were being nationalised (i.e. Ceylonised) they were looking for Ceylonese nationals who could be put straight into management.

But then in 1958 the riots broke out between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (my wife was a Sinhalese). My father’s house was attacked, I saw people being killed, being burnt alive. Our Sinhala Buddhist government did nothing to end the violence, educated people in high places did nothing, the press and radio did nothing. Sinhalese-Tamil friendship ceased at the midnight hour. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I chucked up my job and pushed off to England.

I came to Britain in 1958 in the wake of those riots in Ceylon and walked straight into the race riots in Notting Hill, where I had  gone to live. It was a double baptism at of fire which, I believe, set the course of my career and my commitment since.

I was into my 30s by then, married with three children and found it very very difficult to get either accommodation or job. I had been a bank manager in Ceylon but they did not want ‘Coloureds’ in banks here. Besides, if I wanted to challenge racism I needed another career – a teacher, perhaps, or writer. I ended up, instead, as a tea-boy in a library in Middlesex. But I qualified as a chartered librarian a few years later and, in 1964, found myself at the Institute of Race Relations.

The ‘old’ Institute of Race Relations


In the early days the Institute of Race Relations was more concerned with looking at race relations abroad – at the question of race relations in Third World countries, in the colonies and ex-colonies. It had been set up in 1956 as a department of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and many of those involved understood race relations as an aspect of international affairs. A few years later, the Race Relations Department moved out of Chatham House to become an independent institute, but it still continued to look at race relations as a factor in persuading Third World countries after Independence to allow new investors to come in and proceed with recolonising them. Hence the Tropical Africa project financed by Shell, for instance. The Institute also received monies from the Nuffield Foundation, and later the Ford Foundation.

In the colonial period the whole question of race and race relations was one of superiority and inferiority. White racism was expressed through the beliefs that white people had a superior culture, a superior language, a superior religion and so on: the natives had to be rescued from themselves and taught to govern themselves. With Independence, however, and the natives’ coming of age, the colonial view of race relations, where natives were subordinated to the ruling power, ceded to the neo-colonial view of race relations, where we were all equal but some were more equal than others. And an organisation such as the Institute of Race Relations was necessary to prepare the way for such an understanding. A whole number of books published by the old IRR speak to that exercise.

The race riots of 1958, however, brought race relations back home – and the Institute began to concentrate on domestic issues. So it wasn’t an accident that the first IRR publication on Britain was on the 1958 Notting Hill riots. The Institute now began to look at the question of how the study of race relations in Britain should be funded in its own right. It was, at the time, the only such research organisation in Europe, and it started off with a fairly liberal outlook. But the contours of that outlook were defined quite quickly when the passing of the Immigration Act of 1962 restricting immigration from the New (i.e. non-white) Commonwealth required the Institute to have a point of view. At first, it said nothing, but when the Act was endorsed by the Labour government in the White Paper of 1965, the Institute’s director declared that there had to be immigration controls because the newcomers couldn’t be easily assimilated. ‘We have to take them a mouthful at a time’, was how he put it in a Guardian article.

I entered the Institute in 1964 and soon became conscious of the contradiction in the organisation between intent and action, between the declared objectivity that the Institute pursued in the matter of race relations research and its action in siding with government policy to one degree or another. This didn’t look like independent research to me, especially given the fact that it was siding with immigration acts that were clearly racist.

Thereafter, I began to look more closely and critically at the research the Institute was doing and the books it was publishing – on Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and on other Third World societies with ‘race relations’ problems. But, by now, the Institute’s reputation as the foremost think tank on race relations in the western world was growing – and the Institute was expanding. A lot of new people were coming in. An International Research Unit (IRU) was set up as a companion to the Survey of Race Relations in Britain. The latter did a great deal of research on race relations in London Transport, employment, education, social services and so on. Its findings were published in 1969 in the book Colour and Citizenship, which, in its comprehensiveness, claimed to be Britain’s Myrdal.

The Survey, and later the IRU, brought a few radicals into the Institute – this was the Sixties, mind – and some of them began to question the nature of the research being carried out by the Institute – and the premise of Colour and Citizenship itself, based as it was on empirical research based on pre-ordained notions.

Black Power and Alien Gods

When I joined the Institute, as its librarian, the library was only open to members of the IRR and its Council. But this was a period of political activity on the streets, with grassroots groups such as the Universal Coloured People’s Association, Black People’s Alliance, and various other self-help organisations emerging. And they were asking all sorts of questions but had nowhere to go for the answers. So I opened the library to all these kids from off the streets and people from these groups. They wanted to understand what the hell was going on around them. They wanted to know about the impact of the immigration acts. Why were they being discriminated against in schools and jobs? Why were black children disproportionately being placed in schools for the educationally subnormal? Who is this man Elijah Muhammed and is black separatism a good thing? What about the Black Panthers? Where can we read Malcolm X, since his writings aren’t in public

libraries? They had all these questions, so I began to get the journals and newspapers that would answer them, such as the Black Panther Party Newspaper, Muhammed Speaks and Black Scholar. I would get journals from Third World countries, about the war in Vietnam, about Indochina, about the movements in Indonesia and so on. As the revolutions in so-called Portuguese Africa developed, I would get material about those struggles and about Amilcar Cabral and Mondlane, and later about Walter Rodney and the Rastafari movement. And, of course, there was always, always, Frantz Fanon, probably the greatest influence on my life at that time. (In fact I was called Fanonandan by the then director of the Institute!)

That was the literature that I began to provide in the IRR for people from these various black groups who would come to use the library after the Institute was closed. I, the librarian, provided the material they wanted and they, the kids from the streets, gave me the feel of their lives and a new consciousness. It was a two way process: I was contaminating them with literature and they were contaminating me with their experience.

I already had a politics, the politics of anti-colonialism: the politics of left-wing groups in Ceylon (as it then was), an understanding of the Indian national movement and how that affected Ceylon, and of other Third World struggles for Independence. My experiences had been up to then, more or less, the experience of the movement for colonial freedom. Now I was getting an experience, even if only at one remove, of the fight against racism in the inner cities and the ghettos, in the favelas of this country. These kids were giving me an understanding of what was going on and I began to get involved with the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP). The Institute was getting press cuttings about racial incidents all over the country and those too were part of the politicising process.

It was just a coincidence, I suppose, a historical accident, that the librarian of the IRR was, at a time of heightening racism, institutional racism, state racism, being brought into increasing contact with the denizens of the inner city. The first gave me an understanding of how the power system worked and why racist policies were being formulated; the second made me feel the impact of those policies on ordinary people. I was seeing both ends of the spectrum, as it were, at the same time, and that blinded me. Or rather, the opposite: it opened my eyes. I was in the system, but not of the system, and that position allowed me, I think, to see the symbiosis, not only between theory and practice, but also between race and class.

I was beginning to locate the whole question of ‘race relations’, as it was then defined, as a relation of power and that relation of power as tied up with the question of wealth and poverty. And I had to wrestle with the implications of this within myself. I had been born poor, but had through education, gone to university, become a teacher and then a bank manager – and become ‘bourgeoisified’: I had a car, house and servants in Ceylon. So there was another symbiosis there, between the political and the personal. And what that told me was that I was a jumped-up middle-class shit, who had come from a poor family and had forgotten where he came from. I had in Eliot’s grand phrase, had the experience but missed the meaning. (Although he’s a conservative poet, there are things about his work that have resonances in my own life.)

What I’m trying to say here is that my own colonial education, like reading T. S. Eliot at university, hadn’t become practical, material, until I met with the extraordinary racism in his and then Eliot was cast in a different light – although he would have been horrified to know that I was quoting him in favour of liberation. In a sense, it pleased me, because I was driving the white man, not only out of his own language, but out of his own literature; I was purloining the white man’s language and the white man’s literature. And it is in taking conscience of all those forces that I came to write what for me was a vitally important essay, Alien Gods. Important because it was an exercise in decolonising myself, a purging of my colonial soul. Vital, because it was a crucial taking-stock exercise: to view, from my own experience, the place of the black intellectual in the fight against racism. (Hence its subsequent publication as The Liberation of the Black Intellectual.)

Looking back, in writing that piece I also came to consciousness of my role, my immediate role, in the struggle. It was a sort of prelude to struggle. There was my role on the streets with the BUFP, but there was also my role in my job, at the IRR. So far, I had found that as librarian, I could provide the material that ordinary black people required to understand their own lives and help them connect with the experiences of other like-minded people all over the world. Now, because that experience cast light on my own self and who I was, I asked myself: what’s my role in this place and what’s happening here?

The struggle for an independent Institute

Here was a so-called ‘independent’ Institute, justifying the ways of the state to man, as it were, and I began to ask how we could change it. In a philosophical way I began to realise that the goal might be a non-racist society, the goal might be a socialist Valhalla, an egalitarian society without oppression or exploitation, but if I were simply goal-oriented, I would end up in hopelessness. I shouldn’t lose sight of the goal, but I should begin from where I was. I didn’t have to be a great revolutionary, but I could move pebbles and they would start an avalanche. I felt I should try to bring about changes in the Institute to the best of my ability.

It began strangely enough with a fight over luncheon vouchers. The Institute gave us luncheon vouchers, which were supposed to be in addition to our pay, but were really in lieu of it. But we could only use them in the restaurant at Chatham House, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, of which we were once a branch. Now the Royal Institute was posh and the people who came to eat lunch there were posh people, in ties and suits and spoke with posh accents. I felt completely out of place and I wasn’t going to eat there. I found that others on the staff, a Chinese woman and the black telephonist also felt uncomfortable there. We couldn’t go and eat anywhere else with those vouchers, so we demanded money in lieu and that was our first battle. It taught me something about an issue that would unite people, it had brought all the employees together across race and colour and provided a foundation for our next struggle.

When the IRU was set up, other employees of the Institute began questioning the type of research the Institute was doing. For example, Robin Jenkins, one of the researchers in the Unit, read a paper at the British Sociological Association, ‘On the Production of Knowledge at the Institute of Race Relations’. In this paper he told black people that when researchers came from IRR with their questionnaires, they were really spying on the black community and should be told ‘to fuck off’.

The Council of the Institute argued that Jenkins, in attacking the work of the Institute outside the Institute, was guilty of gross disloyalty and should be sacked. At the same time, Race Today, under Sandy Kirby, an ex-priest, was opening up its pages to black

voices and criticisms of dominant race relations organisations and views. It published critiques of the government’s Community Relations Commission and Race Relations Board, despite the presence on the IRR’s Council of its former Chairman. It also gave a free advertisement to the Anti-Apartheid Movement on the back cover and put on the front cover a photograph of Lord Goodman, the government’s negotiator in Rhodesia, with the headline, ‘Five million Africans say “No”. The Council was furious about this, because, don’t forget, at that time it was run by the lords and ladies of humankind and they were in cahoots with the government.

So, although we started small, with the luncheon voucher revolt, we quickly learnt that we could have a broad agreement on issues that were common to us and that a common cause could be the basis of action. And there were two issues on which all the staff agreed. One was academic freedom: should Robin Jenkins be allowed to express his opinions as an academic or should he be censored? The second was journalistic freedom: should Sandy Kirby be censored or had he the freedom to write what he wanted in the journal he edited? On the basis of those two liberal concepts, we got nearly all the members of the Institute on our side; and an ongoing battle around those principles took place first within the Institute’s membership and then in the pages of the national press.

The Council tried to divide us, offering a carrot here and wielding a stick there – but it failed. And although it had powerful press connections and with the media generally, we had widespread support throughout the black community and among a wide range of whites. There was a general commitment to an independent Institute, which finally forced the Council to put the issue of management vs. staff to an Extraordinary General meeting of the members (April 1972). And, in the hall, academics, journalists, community and social workers spoke up for our cause – and we won the day. In one sense, it was a Pyrrhic victory, because the Council took the money and left us with the library. But in another, it established that in future, the staff, the workers, of the Institute would run the organisation and not the Council of Management. And that tradition has lasted to this day.

The second stage of the palace revolution began when we were forced to move out of our posh premises in the Fortnum and Mason belt into an old warehouse in the precincts of Pentonville Prison – and people who were not really committed to the cause of fighting racism were leaving the Institute. So we did not have a purge, the Institute purged itself, because the money went and people who didn’t want to work for the cause went with it. We were finally left with a bare shell of an Institute, with a marvelous library, three members of staff, a small management council (headed by its first black chairman, Reverend Wilfred Wood) which worked alongside the staff, a host of volunteers and a black community group keeping the library open for black kids in the evenings.

We had taken over the Institute and, as the slogan at the time put it, we had become ‘a sparer, leaner, more relevant Institute’. We had realigned the Institute, with Race Today doing grassroots work and the library catering to black and Third World kids. But the most difficult fight was to wrench the Institute’s quarterly journal, Race, from the clutches of the academics and make it relevant to the struggles of ordinary black and Third World peoples – predicating, in the process, a symbiosis between race and class. From which arose the precepts that ‘the function of knowledge is to liberate’ and that we must ‘think in order to do and not think in order to think’. And a series of articles and pamphlets, looking at racism (and not at the study of racism) from the subaltern’s point of view came out of that understanding – most importantly Jenny Bourne’s ‘Cheerleaders and Ombudsmen: the sociology of race relations’ and my Race, class and the state: the black experience in Britain.

Race, class and the state and the ‘problem of race relations’

Until the publication of Race, class and the state in 1976, race relations had been popularly viewed as relations between people of different hues and habits with the British people as a largely tolerant, reasonable lot, who were prepared to put up with the darkies so long as they knew their place and did not overcrowd this little island. The academic sociological view was not much different except that it attributed ‘coloured immigration’ to Britain to the push factors of poverty in the Caribbean and Indian sub continent and the pull factors of prosperity in Britain and Europe.

What Race, class and the state did was, first, to define the problem not as one of race relations but of racism – and state racism in particular. And, second, it challenged the academics’ push and pull theory of immigration and pointed out that ‘coloured immigration’ to Britain should be seen in its historical context as a continuum of colonialism: we are here because you were there. This allowed us to analyse what colonialism had done to our countries, how much it had cost us to ‘produce’ our workers back home (and deliver them ready-made to Britain) and how it was that the removal of our capital to the ‘mother country’ that had brought us here – textile workers from India to Bradford, for instance. Labour follows capital.

The pamphlet also looked at how post-war immigration began and how the Nationality Act of 1948 had lifted all citizenship restrictions for Commonwealth immigrants because a war-ravaged Britain needed all the labour it could lay its hands on. Whereas the rest of Europe had to resort to Gastarbeiter labour, Britain had its colonies to dip into, and that is why the Act established that every citizen of the Commonwealth was a citizen of Britain.

But at the point of entry we automatically became second and third class citizens. We were not people, but units of labour, to be fed into the maws of the factories and the service industries: Asian and Afro-Caribbean workers were needed for the post-war reconstruction of Britain. But by that very same token, when that period was over, Britain began to shut off further immigration with a series of immigration acts which excluded all but the skilled workers that Britain still needed.

Race, class and the state also pointed out that the setting up of the Race Relations Board and Community Relations Councils ostensibly to smooth out race relations, would only serve to induct Afro-Caribbeans and Asians into ways of controlling their own people, of buffering protest, of absorbing struggle and negating it – creating, in the process, a managerial class of black people who would manage racial discrimination within the purview of law.

In the matter of language or terminology, too, Race, class and the state established an important point: that we were no longer ‘coloured immigrants’ but black settlers. And that in turn, established our right to fight for our rights as equal citizens: we were here to stay, here to fight.

That fight was already in progress – and the common experiences of Independence struggles back home and against an undifferentiating racism here were bringing Afro-Caribbeans and Asians together and forging a Black identity. That identity as a people was then reinforced by the working-class jobs we did. Even if we were educated, when we came here we got working-class jobs. I became a tea-boy in a library, as I couldn’t get a job in a bank though I was a qualified banker. Asians and Afro-Caribbeans were forced to live in the most dilapidated areas of the inner cities – so that gave us a class orientation. All this and the struggles we entered into – on the factory floor for trade union rights and in our communities for decent housing, schooling, etc. – made us a people and a class and a people for a class. And Black was the colour of our fight, our politics, not the colour of our skins. We might have, in our life-styles and our beliefs, defined ourselves culturally, but in our fight against racism we defined ourselves politically. What separated us was not as important as what joined us

But the very success of those struggles – coupled with the anxiety of the state that a British-born second generation was not going to put up with the discrimination that their immigrant parents had put up with – frightened the government into action. It put money into the inner cities by way of Urban Aid and, in the process, bought off a whole lot of self-help groups – which now began to be responsive to the fund-givers and not to their communities. And, backed by the findings of the ethnic sociologists and the new breed of ‘cultural Marxists’, the government proceeded to set out its multicultural stall – of the saris, samosas and steel-bands variety. In the course of which, the fight against racism became a fight for culture.

That, however, did not still the discontent of the never-employed youth of the inner cities who rose up in riot against Thatcher’s police state in 1981. But most of the reports and analyses and commentaries that came out at the time saw it as being instigated by a handful of trouble-makers or, at best, unemployment, and not as a culmination of years of resistance to the double bind of poverty and racism that black youth had been cast into. And it was as a riposte to that sort of ‘victim historiography’ that I wrote From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain. Its importance, I suppose, was in the fact that it was the first history of blacks in Britain written from the subaltern point of view.

RAT and the Degradation of Black Politics

There was a chance in 1981 that the Scarman Inquiry into the Brixton anti-police riots would identify racism, and institutional racism in particular, as the cause of the uprisings. But he insisted instead that there was no such thing as institutional racism – and, as for racism, there was of course the occasional prejudiced police officer…etc. The problem, he maintained, was one of cultural or ethnic disadvantage. It was to take another 18 years before the Stephen Lawrence Campaign and the Macpherson Report would finally put institutional racism on the nation’s agenda.

In the meantime, culturalism and ethnicism revitalised by Scarman, descended into skin politics and identity politics, and black struggle descended into Racism Awareness Training exercises for white people in positions of power – on the grounds that racism was really prejudice plus power. And since power was defined as personal power, the exercise would involve training white officials out of their inherent racism. For all whites were, by virtue of being white, ipso facto, racists. It was ingrained in them, part of their collective unconscious, original sin. But Racism Awareness Training (RAT) could at least render them ‘anti-racist racists’. That was what it claimed.

And so a whole multitude of RAT consultancies and groups, deriving from their American prototype, and headed by Afro Caribbean and Asian ‘trainers’, began to put forth – creating, in the process, a whole profitable industry based on white guilt and supported by local authorities and NGOs who knew no better. All of which helped middle-class blacks to get places, but had nothing to say to poor black people whose lives were being blighted by systemic, institutionalised racism.

That, perhaps, was what triggered off my anger and caused me to write RAT and the degradation of black struggle. The Uncle Toms were living it up again. These were the people who had had the experience of being black, being oppressed, exploited and being poor – and then forgot it when they made it or, even worse, made money out of it, as in the case of many of those involved in RAT.

Besides, the whole RAT thesis was based on the same type of biological/genetic argument that white (scientific) racists had used against blacks. And here were these people using the same tools of oppression to ostensibly overcome theirs. They were not only betraying the black condition, but also the human condition.

The fight against racism is the fight against privilege and class, but it is also the fight for what Fanon calls’ the universality inherent in the human condition’. And that is what these people turned away from. They should have been fighting for a greater justice for everyone, not just for themselves. If we are at the bottom of the barrel, as black people, for example, then by lifting ourselves we must be able to lift others.

Racism particularises us, class and gender exploitation particularises us – but in fighting them we should not ourselves become particularist and self-seeking. Through our fight against particularity, we should be able to envisage the universality that Fanon speaks of. To fight racism is not to become racist ourselves, to fight privilege is not to become privileged ourselves. And what is worse is to use our race or ‘underprivilege’ to pull rank over others in a hierarchy of oppression. As I argued in my piece on RAT, there developed a whole politics based on ‘I’m more oppressed than thou’ and ‘I’m blacker than thou’ type positions linked to the whole RAT thing. RAT allowed black people to pull rank on white people. The cause of black people has its own intrinsic merits, it does not need to pull rank on anybody else. It might have been white people who invented RAT, but black people became collaborators in it.

The essay on RAT was a polemical piece, an interventionist piece. I am essentially a pamphleteer, who writes for the time, writes to change the times – not a theoretician writing for all of time. And I think the pamphlet did succeed in alerting the public to the dangers of psychologising racism and instigated a campaign against racism awareness training which led to its official demise.

Unfortunately, its psychologism sprouted elsewhere in mutant forms – among post-modern academics, in particular, who interpreted the racism of white youth in the inner cities as a crisis in white identity engendered in them by anti-racists and anti racism. Hence my attack on post-modernism as an intellectual cop-out on engagement in La trahison des clercs – following on my polemic in The hokum of ‘New Times’ on the post-Marxists who, in my view, were the midwives of post-modernism.

The shape of things to come

In the meantime, the global economic changes that were taking place, as a consequence of the technological revolution, were beginning to change the contours of racism and, at the risk of being called a functionalist, the function of racism. In the interests of a common market, the European Union was forging common racist policies to shut out ‘foreign’ labour altogether and to repatriate and/or de-citizenise those who were already within its borders. For, capital no longer needed labour in the same quantity or in the same place as before. New Technologies allowed it to take up its plant and set it down in any part of the Third World where labour was cheap and captive and plentiful. And it could move from one labour pool to another, extracting maximum profit. And to guarantee such peaceful exploitation, western powers, while preaching democracy, were in fact setting up or consorting with authoritarian Third World regimes – forcing dissidents to flee their countries and find refuge in Europe. But here they are being turned away as illegals or economic immigrants. My answer to that is that there is no such thing as illegal immigrants, only illegal governments.

Global capitalism ties up racism more directly with imperialism. Of course there was always a connection between the two. That is why the Institute’s journal Race & Class, which I edit, has, for the last 25 years, been emphasising the relationship between black and Third World struggles (as the sub-title of Race & Class, ‘a journal for Black and Third World liberation’, indicates). The ‘color line’, which Du Bois identified as the problem of the 20th century, is today the power line and the poverty line. Global capitalism, or imperialism under another name, has effected a symbiosis between race and class and power as never before.

And it is these connections between global exploitation and racism and their implications for struggle that I began to examine in 1979 in Imperialism and disorganic development in the silicon age and continued in New circuits of Imperialism (1989) and in Heresies and Prophecies(1996). My most recent work, Globalism and the Left (1999), has been an examination of the implicit ‘west-centrism’, if not racism, of the orthodox Marxists who continue to ignore the fact that qualitative changes in the productive forces, which the technological revolution has brought about, have also shifted the focus of exploitation from the First World to the Third and, therefore, the focus of rebellion.

Marxism for me is neither holy text nor dogma but a way of understanding, interpreting, the world in order to change it. It is the only mode of social investigation in which the solution is immanent in the analysis. No other mode holds out that possibility. That is what is unique about Marxism. But, for such analysis to be current and up-to-date and yielding of solutions to contemporary problems, it must be prepared to abandon comforting orthodoxies and time-bound dogma. It must dare to catch history on the wing.

I grant that the working class in the Third World is not a fully developed capitalist working class and therefore not a revolutionary working class in the orthodox sense. It is partly feudal, partly capitalist, partly peasant, partly urban – involved in small-scale industries, service industries, or it may be doing menial work. They are the super-exploited and they move from place to place, from village to free-trade zone and so on. In all sorts of ways this is a fragmented, disorganic working class.

But global capitalism – through the structural adjustment programmes, and other conditionalities imposed by the IMF and the World Bank and through the adverse trade agreements imposed by GATT, NAFTA, WTO, etc – has impoverished not merely the workers of Latin America, Asia and Africa, but whole populations and blighted their future. The farmers have no land, the workers have no work, the young have no future, the people have no food. The state belongs to the rich, the rich belong to international capital, the intelligentsia aspire to both. Only religion offers hope, only rebellion release. Hence the insurrections when they come are not class, but mass, sometimes religious, sometimes secular, often both, but always against the state and its imperial masters.

Hence the mass revolts in Indonesia, Zaire and Nigeria and hence the continuation of such struggles by the Karnataka Farmers of India, the Ogoni People of Nigeria, the Peasant Movement of the Philippines etc against the WTO, G7 and other avatars of global capitalism in the capitals of Europe and the USA.

But the Marxist Left in the west is still wedded to the theory of proletarian revolution and is reluctant to accept that working class resistance, whether in the Third World or the First, is but one component in an aggregate of rebellions that are slowly and surely being mounted against multinational corporations and global capitalism.

But creating a conscious socialist movement out of them is going to take a long time. We are almost in a new society, we are at the gates of another history. There is an epochal shift in capitalism and we have to understand that there’s a qualitative change in the way that it operates. We can define capitalism in the orthodox way for the next 500 years, I’m not interested in taxonomy. The ways that capitalism impacts on me and the way it operates in ordinary people’s lives are what interests me.

What the western Marxists are interested in are the identity politics of capitalism: what is capitalism, what are its problems, what are its internal contradictions, how is it going to fall on its face, what is its latest ‘crisis’? I’m not interested in these things. For me capitalism is what capitalism does. In everything I’ve touched on, that has been my constant theme: racism is what racism does. Fight racism, don’t define it, because no definition is good for all of time. Racism changes its contours, its inscape, its shape, its velocity, the way it impacts on people’s lives and institutions. We must have a thousand different ways of fighting racism in a thousand places. There are a thousand ways of skinning the cat, don’t commit yourself to one. If one approach doesn’t work try another, otherwise you lose. Be firm in principle but flexible in tactic.


 ‘Alien Gods’, in Colour and consciousness: immigrant intellectuals in Britain, ed B. Parekh, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1974 and as ‘The liberation of the black intellectual’ in Race & Class (Vol.18, no.4, Spring 1977).

‘Race, class and the state: the black experience in Britain’, in Race & Class, (Vol.17, no.4, Spring 1976), also published as a pamphlet (1977).

‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain’, in Race & Class (Vol.23, nos.2/3, Autumn 1981/Winter1982), also published as a pamphlet, (1986).

‘RAT and the degradation of black struggle’, in Race & Class (Vol.26, no.4, Spring 1985).

‘La Trahison des clercs’ in Race & Class (Vol.37, no.3, January/March 1996).

‘All that melts into Air solid: the hokum of “New Times”, in Race & Class (Vol. 31, no.3, January/March 1990).

‘Imperialism and disorganic development in the silicon age’, in Race & Class (Vol.21, no.2 Autumn 1979), also published as a pamphlet (1980).

‘New circuits of imperialism’, in Race & Class (Vol.30, no.4, April/June 1989).

‘Heresies and prophecies: the social and political fall-out of the technological revolution’, in Race & Class (Vol.37, no.4, April/June 1996).

‘Globalism and the Left’, in Race & Class (Vol.4, nos.2/3, October1998/March 1999).

Two collections of political essays, including some of the above, were published as A different hunger: writings on black. resistance, London, Pluto Press, 1982 and Communities of resistance: writings on black struggles for socialism, London, Verso, 1990. The award-winning novel on Sri Lanka, When memory dies was published by Arcadia, London, 1997. A world to win: essays in honour of A. Sivanandan, edited by Colin Prescod and Hazel Waters was published by IRR as Race & Class (Vol. 41, nos. 1/2, July-December 1999).