Communities of Resistance

Speech to Communities of Resistance Conference, Hackney Town Hall, 11 November 1989.

The wall has fallen. The Eastern bloc is dissolving into the West. There’s freedom for Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Poles, Russians to move around from country to country. But no freedom for us. There’s unfreedom for us – for Third World refugees, for blacks, for non-whites, for all the peoples of the world who have been exploited and oppressed by multinational corporations supported by the countries of Western Europe and the United States of America. Freedom for Europe; no freedom for us. And as for 1992, our 1992 is merely a date by which we have got to be ready to lay siege to Fortress Europe. We had better start here and now.

In 1974 a number of migrant workers’ groups from all over Europe, and black communities in this country, organised a conference in Holland. Their aim was to bring forth an international confederation of workers against racism and sexism and against a common market of capitalists that was coming into being at the time.

The conference succeeded – workers’ committees came from all over Europe – but the aim failed; after six months the action that came out of it began to fold. Why? Because we did not have an understanding then of what was happening in the world at large, of the technological revolution that was taking place and bringing about a sea-change in all Western societies, and having implications therefore for Third World peoples in terms of a new imperialism. That imperialism had already begun; capital was beginning to move to Third World countries, it wasn’t bringing labour into the First World.

Because we made that mistake then, of not understanding what was happening, I want to address myself first to that large sea-change that’s taking place today, so that we know where we are located in that struggle, why capital moves in this way, how we are brought together as refugees and asylum-seekers. For unless we have that understanding we cannot weave a strategy, we cannot weave communities of resistance to fight capitalism and imperialism and racism and sexism.

The revolution in technology that is going on today is even vaster than the Industrial Revolution, which changed handicraft and homework to manufacture and machine-facture, changed metallurgy, chemistry, physics, brought railways, steamships and later, electric power. If steam, and subsequently electricity, replaced the muscle-power of man and woman, then today, what electronics replaces is the brain. Robotics, computers, lasers, fibre optics are replacing labour, manual and mental.

From the at least of Karl Marx the call has been to emancipate labour from capital. Suddenly here comes the technology which threatens to liberate capital from labour, by replacing the worker with a robot. You don’t get 2000 workers on a factory floor today, and if they produce a motor car they aren’t on the same factory floor; they’re stretched out between here and Hong Kong. The fanbelts, engines, transformers are made in different countries; a car is not assembled in one place; the assembly line stretches the centre to the peripheries of the world. Technology has made that possible. But the financial organisation that has that technology to use are the multinational corporations.

The multi-national corporations have made the nation-state anachronistic. Multi-national finance runs Britain now, not Mrs Thatcher. She is fighting a valiant rearguard battle, as a nationalist, as a patriot, as a reactionary. But she’s in a contradiction as between the thrust of multi-national capital and the pull­ back of national capital.

We on the Left have hardly begun to look at these things anew. We have been stuck in our old trade union organisations, in our old labour movements, in our old forms of organising. When I talk about communities of resistance I talk about new ways of organising.

The only power that the working class has had, orthodoxically speaking, has been to withhold its labour. But the more the working class today withholds its labour, the more capital goes into labour-saving regimes, productive regimes, more labour­ saving devices, electronics, computers and robotics, and the more it moves into the cheap labour pools of Third World countries. There is exploitation, of course, and class; but the centre of exploitation has shifted to the Third World and the class has become divided – into the highly skilled car workers on the one hand, the unskilled peripheral workers on the other.

In manufacturing production now, there is a core of privileged, multi­ skilled workers – programme engineers, and on the periphery there are all the peripatetic workers who are needed from time to time, ad hoc, temporary, casual, and therefore eminently women and Third World refugees and asylum-seekers.

Another thing that the technological revolution involves is a shift in the centre of gravity of employment from manufacturing industry to service industries. If 350 years ago agriculture employed the largest number of workers, and after the Industrial Revolution it was industry, today in the post-industrial society it is the service industries that account for the most employment. It is estimated that by the end of this century only 10% of the employed will be in manufacturing industry.

In retailing, bar codes, just-in-time ordering, CAD (Computer Aided Design) allow a multiplicity of choice for consumers, and technology has given birth to the designer consumerism whereby ‘identity’ can be bought by way of ‘lifestyle’ commodities. All that is made possible by the workers who are invisible, in the sweated industries of our countries, in the inner cities – the women, the refugees, the poor peripheral workers, who are taken in and spewed out, chewed up, forgotten, as capital moves from one ad hoc labour pool to another.

Gunter Wallraff wrote about all this in his evocative book, Ganz Unten, translated into English last year as ‘The Lowest of the Low’. It came out five or six years ago in Germany. Wallraff was an investigative journalist who disguised himself as a Turk, Ali, and went into various areas of immigrant employment to see how Turkish workers were used in Germany. He started working in Macdonalds, over red-hot grills in spitting fat for a pittance, then moved out to building sites to remove the slush and muck from giant pipes on high buildings in temperatures below zero, cleared drains without protective gear in chemical industries, was used as a guinea-pig by a pharmaceutical firm, and then finally, he was asked to recruit Turkish workers to clean a nuclear plant, because Turkish workers can then be sent back to die when the radiation whereas local indigenous workers couldn’t. These are some of the ways that migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers are being abused by the new capitalism.

We came here in the 40s and 50s and 60s, black people, from Afro­ Caribbean countries, from the Indian sub-continent, from Africa, because of colonialism. We are here because you were there. Similarly, what is bringing Third World migrants and refugees to Europe today is the penetration of the multi-national corporations into our own countries, investment and development that serves not our people but theirs, and the setting up of authoritarian regimes in our countries to facilitate such investment and development dictatorships and pseudo-dictatorships, in Chile, Sri Lanka, all over the world. If the governments of these countries got out of our countries we would happily go back home. We say to them, stop bleeding us to death. Take out your investments, your factories, your people. We don’t want your paedophiles, your sex tourists, your tourism, your culture of greed. We want to retain something of those feudal cultures – gratitude, and loyalty, and friendship, and camaraderie, and honesty. There are new lessons to be learned from the capitalist system, but there are old values to be kept from our own.

I came here in ’58 because of the troubles between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and walked straight into the Notting Hill race riots. That was a double baptism of fire. My generation was brought up believing that Britain stood for certain values. When I came here I discovered that all the things we had been taught that Britain stood for, it didn’t. We had been deracinated and brainwashed through cultural imperialism. It was through seeing the Notting Hill riots that I began to understand what my Afro-Caribbean brothers and sisters were going through, and our Asian workers, in Southall and Handsworth, and began to realise that our presence here and the British presence there was part of a continuum, and that colonialism had thrown us up on the shores of Britain. Similarly it is the new imperialism that is throwing up migrants and refugees and asylum-seekers on the shores of Europe today.

I have sketched very briefly what is going on in the world today, why we are here, for unless we know what is going on out there we won’t know how to fight. Now what should we do?

If the working class is becoming fragmented, dissipated, disinvested of its strength, if the old organisations don’t have the same clout, it is because the terrain of struggle has moved from the economic to the political level. That does not mean that the battle itself is not about exploitation, oppression, class issues, only it is class in the sense of a metaphor for poverty and deprivation and not class in the structural sense that we have known it. Therefore we must build new organisations, new movements, from the new entities and the new facts, and that is why I have laid them out before you.

What are these new facts, new entities? Who are these new protagonists? They’re not the ‘new social forces’ talked about by some people on the left. They’re not blacks qua blacks, they’re not women qua women, they are not gays qua gays, they are not ecologists qua ecologists. Because there’s a class structure within blacks. Not every black is a working-class black, or has a working­ class attitude. When we say black liberation, which blacks? The black bourgeoisie? Which women? The bourgeois women? The middle-class women who are in the race relations industry, who are in the women’s industry? And ecology – what about all the destruction that is taking place in the Third World? What do we want with a green movement that doesn’t address the question of imperialism? What do we want with new social forces which instead of opening out to the oppression of others, go deeper and deeper into themselves looking for the specific identity of their own oppressions? Or worse, looking for their own individual identities? Identity politics is a misnomer: the question of who you are is what you do. And who you are and what you do transpires in the course of struggle, in relation to other people, in relation to issues like injustice and inequality and poverty and immiseration and exploitation.

If we’re talking about organising communities of resistance then, we should be taking as our guidelines the needs and demands of those who are worst off in our communities, those who are at the bottom of the black community, at the bottom of the women’s movement, the worst-off women, the Third World women, the black women, the Palestinian women – these are the people we are talking about. That’s the first point.

The second is that we cannot come to these countries from whatever part of the Third World and not understand the common history that brought us here and the common denominators of struggle that unite us now. We cannot go on being Kurds, and Turks, and Tamils, and Gujeratis, and this ethnic group and that ethnic group in a system that dominates us by fragmenting us into a million shards and pieces. Yes, we want our cultures. Yes, we want our languages – ‘language is God gone astray in the flesh’. But we must also, as Fanon said, find in the singular the universality of the human. To do that, however, we need to cultivate what Du Bois called, in another context, a “double consciousness”. He didn’t know how apt his phrase would be for the 1990s. We must cultivate a double consciousness – one of the countries we came from, for our anti-imperialist struggles there, and the other a consciousness of what is going on here, for our struggles against racism in this country. So we keep our cultures, our religions, our languages, to give us our sense of ourselves, our knowledge of ourselves, which is what is necessary to combust the struggle. But the struggle itself is not about the language or religion we brought with us, bur about our rights and freedoms right here and right now.

Amilcar Cabral, the great African revolutionary, once said that it is the culture of a people that at any moment of time takes on a political form, or an economic form, or a military form, to overthrow the oppressor; it is the culture of a people that builds into a revolutionary form to fire the struggle. It happened here in the 50s and 60s, with unions being formed in barber shops and protest movements in churches and gurdwaras; with strikes supported by whole communities; and in the 70s, when 500 kids sat down Gandhi-style outside the Southall police station after Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder and refused to move until the protesting youth arrested by the police were released, even when they brought fire engines to disperse them. It happened again in the 80s, when inhabitants of the neglected concrete ghetto of Broadwater Farm came together to create a community, setting up a nursery, providing meals and a meeting place for pensioners and a recreation centre for youth, and building up in the process a political culture which resisted police intrusion and took on the judiciary and the press over the mis-trial of Silcott, Braithwaite and Raghip. It was the migrant workers and the Refugee Forum who fought for the rights of Kurds who had to flee Turkey in 1989 – the feeding, housing, clothing, help with translation, appealing for the right to remain, were all undertaken by the community groups themselves.

That is the culture I’m talking about, a living, dynamic political culture of resistance, not the reactionary culture that the system wants to promote for us, based on culturalist artefacts that Western culture wallahs – now joined by Asian and Afro-Caribbean culture wallahs – want to sell us. Other aspects of our culture – our customs and habits, the way we eat and meet, are important for us, in our other consciousness. But when we come to the struggle of black, working-class communities in this country, then we lay all those aside and look at the common denominators that oppress us – the things that unite us, not those that divide us. Those of you who know about the struggles of black people in Britain know that this has been our history. Black wasn’t a skin colour, black was a political colour that Afro-Caribbeans and Asians and Africans carved out on the factory floor and in the communities, as a people and as a class and as a people for a class, in this country in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s. But the system broke it down into culturalisms and ethnicisms, and we have to reforge again that unity now in terms of the new immigrants, the new refugees, the new asylum-seekers.

One further point; let us leave the politics of our countries in our countries of origin, our divisions at home back home. That may well form of our consciousness what is to be done in Sri Lanka, Chile, and Turkey, and so on. That can inform our struggle here, but it must not detract from our struggle here, which is a common struggle. There are things to be done here about policing, about housing, about health and safety at work, about children. There are too many fights to be fought to retreat into our particular cultures or into our particular politics. We are here and now and the struggle is here and now, and we must unite here and now.

I was talking earlier about the hardships we faced and the struggles we fought when we first came here as immigrants. But compared to the hardships that our immigrant and refugee friends face today, we at least had some privileges. We were Commonwealth citizens, we had some sort of passport, we had some sort of right to settlement. Of course there was racism, virulent racism, and all sorts of discrimination. But because we had papers, we had some sort of footing, and because Britain needed all the workers it could lay its hands on in a period of post-war reconstruction, we had some sort of employment. We were not “illegitimate”, we did not have to be invisible. We could organise as workers, we could come together as a community. When we could not get trade union support, we could set up our own workers’ organisations – Indian Workers Associations, Pakistan Welfare Association, Afro-Caribbean solidarity groups all over the country, and fight on the factory floor – at Imperial Typewriters, Woolf s, Courtaulds – and in the community over housing and schooling and immigration. And most of us who were here, though we were Asians and Afro-Caribbeans and Africans and Greek Cypriots, were able to speak a common language because we came out of a common colonial ethos. There was a possibility of a unity, although it was difficult.

Unlike those of us who came then, the people who are coming today have no papers, no livelihood, no status, and nothing to go back to having arrived here; so the coefficient of exploitation on the part of the employers is a thousand times greater. And there is no common language among migrants and refugees and asylum-seekers today, making unity even more difficult.

One of the things that we were consistently fighting in those days, 25 or 30 years ago, was the description of us as coloured immigrants, and subsequently as immigrants. We rejected the term ‘coloured’ and, after all those Immigration Acts that wanted to keep us out and send us back we rejected the term immigrant. We were settlers, black settlers and here to stay. Now, 25 years later, knowing only too well the sufferings and the pains that our brothers and sisters as migrants and refugees are going through, I want to lay aside my claim to be a black settler, because the term no longer carries its fighting connotation. Because 25 years later, the meaning of black settler has become corrupted to mean those people who have been assimilated into the British way of life, integrated into the British race/class hierarchy, got places within the British social and economic structure, and therefore forgotten where they came from, forgotten the pain and hunger and deprivation they once knew and forgotten in the process the plight and predicament of our migrant brothers and sisters in the countries of Europe today. Therefore I renounce the claim of being a black settler, and I want to be an immigrant once more, with you. I am an immigrant, an old immigrant, you are a new immigrant, and I stretch out my hand to you in friendship and camaraderie and solidarity.