Taking stock

Taking Stock – a speech to a conference organised by Newham Monitoring Project in 1988

You have heard what Ian Macdonald had to say about the investigation in Burnage, and what the schoolchildren have said about the lessons to be learnt from Burnage, from various struggles that black people have fought in this country. We have also learnt more immediately about the problems here in Stratford school. We know about the divisions that have arisen in the race relations industry over the definition of the term ‘black’, about what it is to be Asian. We’ve got a rearguard battle from the Asian petty-bourgeoisie in the echelons of race-relations-industrial power to change definitions and struggles that we have instilled and fought for and maintained for 30 and 40 years in this country. We also know about the fractions and factions that have befallen us, the disunity between Africans and Caribbeans and Asians that obtain in this society.

So it’s a good time to take stock, speaking to you as members of the communities of resistance that we are going to build, to ask ourselves what went wrong in our struggles, and what sort of strategies and plans and programmes we have got to make in order to take up the struggle again and forge forward. It’s a good time to take stock, because the boom time for the black petty bourgeoisie is over. It is coming home time. It’s a good time because all those people who flew away from our communities on the wings of multiculturalism and ethnicity and racism awareness training and anti-racist training and transcultural training, all those people who flew away on the wings of local authority handouts, have come back and have to relate to the community because there is nowhere else to go.

Of course I don’t mean those whom we have lost to the Tories, those Asians and African Caribbeans who have defected to Mrs Thatcher, become lapdogs and arse-lickers. And of course I don’t mean those intellectuals, those black intellectuals (which for me is a misnomer, it’s a contradiction in terms), who appropriated black struggle and ran away to academia and became doctors, or choirboys and girls standing on the sidelines and cheering on the steel workers, the Holy Smokes and everybody else while they didn’t get their fingers dirtied, not for one minute, and wrote books on them. They talked about GLC socialism, Margaret Thatcher abolished it. So much for the socialism that can be abolished. The Inner London Education Authority is going soon, the local authorities are being shut down, Mrs Thatcher says, there’s no fight.

So it’s a good time – even the Black Sections have come home to roost, they’ve got their four MPs, they can’t get anything more, so they are now trying to relate to the black community for the first time. So if you look at the Black Agenda, you find it is a black agenda. It is learning from the history of black people.

It is a good time to take stock, because the old ideologies, the old programmes of multiculturalism, ethnicism, RAT, ART, the whole bloody lot, happen to be fallacies. Some of us said so from the beginning. You’ll never listen, because it came from what you great radicals thought was an ‘Institute of Race Relations’, and therefore we were palavering between races, and not what it really was. You didn’t judge us by the work we did, you judged us by our name. You borrowed our ideas, they became commonplace and that is a tremendous compliment. We don’t want credit, but I want to say that we told you. I remember talking about ethnicity in the very temple of ethnicity, in the GLC at the inaugural ceremony in 1984?[U1]   Nobody listened to us, nobody listened to people in the community who talked about us – because we didn’t derive these things out of the air or in some academic ivory tower, but because we were engaged in the struggles of various black communities in various parts of the country, they taught us. We were not a grassroots organisation nor even a stepping stone, we were a servicing station for black people on their way to liberation, we put the gas in their tanks. But you didn’t listen to us.

It is a good time to take stock because even if multiculturalism and anti-racism hasn’t been beaten by us, the Right has beaten it. We waited for the Right to take the chestnuts out of our fire – isn’t that terrible? We couldn’t put our own house in order – no self-criticism, no self-assessment. Instead, we prided ourselves. Just because the kids burned down the cities and gave us jobs. You think you got those jobs on your own merit? Bullshit. It was because the kids burned down the inner cities. How do you think the IRR got a building that doesn’t leak? The GLC and charities gave us half the money, because they were scared, after 1981 and 1985, that more places would be burnt. And they hoped that if we had a nice building, the kids would burn that down first!

To work out how we go from here, we must start with a clean slate, wipe out all the stuff that went before. Take multiculturalism for instance. Also the misinterpretation of the sea changes that are taking place, on the part of the Left, so that they no longer see the working class as agents of change any more, but the so-called new social movements: the blacks, the gays, the women, the ecologists, the anti-nuclear people. Now what they forget to see is that those are also stratified, and that means in the black community as well. There is no black community qua black community. Those days from the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s are gone. There is stratification. You get middle-class people and you get working-class people, and if you talk about racism, you’ve got to understand which sort of racism you are talking about – the genteel racism of the middle class, the generous racism of the multinationals, or the violent racism of the working class, who compete with the other workers and non-workers for the limited economic means they have at their disposal.

We have to ask ourselves, if we started from scratch, from the bottom, should we not begin to understand the oppression of those people who have not. And do we not understand that those who have will not give, and therefore those who have not must take. So we have the difficulties about the break-up, the fragmentation caused in our communities because of ethnicism, and we also know the difficulties we have got to face from the Left. Not only is it a question of the new social movements’ politics, but also the individualism which the Left is subscribing to – socialists become the individualists they talk about. When Mrs Thatcher talks about individualism, the Left talks about radical individualism. But there is no such thing as individualism, there is no such thing as the individual good if it does not spring from the collective good. If we are human beings, we are nothing if only ‘I’, if not in relationship with the other. It is in fighting for the collective good, for the people around us, that we ourselves find our individual aspirations, our individual goals.

So those are the dangers we have to face: multiculturalism, ethnicism, the fragmentation of the working class. What these things began to do, particularly in combination, including the New Marxism, was to make the most important thing fighting for identity: ‘Who am I?’

But who you are is what you do. And you do not abstract yourself from the struggle to get into some ashram or Trappist monastery to find out who you are, do some navel-gazing and then come out and rejoin the struggle. You become who you are because of struggle, in the course of fighting, in the course of being part of a collective you find out who you are. Now if that identity politics, that individualist politics has separated us from each other, has fragmented us and made us easy prey for Mrs Thatcher and her cohorts, we have made ourselves hostages to the enemy, vulnerable to the enemy. Is this the  measure of our history? All those years of colonialism, slavery, our struggles here, men, women, white left, radicals, working-class struggles, the great things that white people have taught us about democracy in our own countries? You have forgotten this history, and let Mrs Thatcher get away with it!

These are some of the parameters we have to watch out for. This whole question of identity, of internalisation, personal politics, ‘the personal is the political’. The personal is not political, the political is personal. We subscribe to these slogans without examining them. You can’t be at a meeting at Newham on Sunday morning and drive off in your Rolls Royce on Monday afternoon. So the political is not the political person, it’s the life you lead, the salary you get, what you do with your money, the way you work – these are part of your politics. But just because I’m black, that doesn’t entitle me to certain democratic rights – I may be a bourgeois black.

When the question of racism itself becomes internalised, you get racism awareness training. Racism becomes defined as a thing of the mind, as prejudice. But I don’t give a bugger if you like me or not. I don’t care about your prejudice. It is when you act out that prejudice in socially discriminatory terms that it affects me. As long as I can send my child to your school, I can buy your house, I can do the same job your son has got because I have the qualifications, then I don’t give a damn about your prejudices. It’s the acting out of that prejudice. And then, when that acting out is enshrined not merely in popular racism but also in the echelons, the institutions of power, in the apparatuses of state, giving it respectability, sanctity – that is the racism I want to fight.

The RAT people define racism as ‘power plus prejudice’. Bullshit. Power from where? Where is it derived from? Himself? The housing officer, the policeman? No. He derives his power from his position. How does the institution that allows him this position allow him to be racist? RAT teaches white people to excrete their racist shit discreetly. We made these arguments four or five years ago in Race & Class. RAT, as Ian Macdonald and his team have shown, took flesh in the murder of a boy, alas, in Burnage. I raise my hat to Ian and his team for bringing the dangers of RAT and anti-racist training (ART) to the notice of the people of this country. For ART is only another version of RAT.

What is anti-racism? There is no such thing as anti-racism. There is no body of thought called anti-racism, no ideology, no philosophy. There is racism in this society – racism is as English as Shakespeare, and as old. And there is racism in every walk of life, and it’s different at different points of time, it’s different in housing, in personal relationships, in terms of Depo-provera, the violations that are heaped on our sisters and mothers, the virginity testing that is a violation beyond violence. There is racism everywhere. Our business is to fight it in every conceivable way that we can. But to belittle ourselves to a particular form of strategy or tactics, without understanding the issue itself, what the fight should be, I think it’s wrong. There are a thousand ways of skinning the cat, and the cat has a thousand skins.

What there is, is a collection of experiences, and what is important is to have an authority over our own experience. In the midst of this disinformation we must not allow other people to interpret our experience for us. Because between the experience and the conceptualisation of our experience, between my experience of racism and our understanding of that racism and how to fight it, falls the shadow of the newspaper, the media chief, the teacher. We have to teach our children and ourselves to regain that authority over our own experience. We have to be arrogant in our experience. We’ve got to understand the reality we live in, the society we live in, in terms of that experience, not submit to someone else’s interpretation, and therefore to somebody else’s way of fighting. So, how do we proceed? That is what we must discuss, take back to our communities. I have a few things to say on that as well.

Particularly when it comes to the things the youngsters have been talking about today, about the education of our children. Because there is no such thing as my children and your children – there are only children. Children are the measure of our possibilities, the measure of our humanity, the measure in which we are going to grow. And when you talk about education, you see the devastation that has been caused by this government, with a ‘national curriculum’ which is a nationalist curriculum. They shut children away from the experiences of black and working class children, that is one problem. There is no room in it for black studies, peace studies, women’s studies – children are not to know anything about the world. Can you imagine a disinformation society where the adults are brainwashed through adverts and TV and the newspapers – they’ve got a disinformation school, a disinformation curriculum, where children are not taught to imagine any more. Where the imagination sits down, totalitarianism creeps in.

To become the other through the imagination, to become the oppressed: that is what my fight against racism should mean. A fight against racism is not a fight for culture. We’ve got to understand that we have the experience, we must not lose its meaning. That is the greatest gift that education can give. To have an experience, in Eliot’s grand phrase, and not miss its meaning. That is absolutely important. That, I’m afraid, is what Israel has forgotten. They’ve had the experience of oppression for centuries and have forgotten its meaning, and themselves have become the oppressors. And when the wheel of history comes full circle and black people begin to inherit this earth, I want to be the first to shout out against the oppression that the blacks would try to mete out to others. We ourselves cannot become the oppressors. How can we?

But all that depends on the education we give our children and ourselves. We can’t have a national curriculum. It shuts our minds, and we are not provided with the wherewithal, the literature that will free us from this captivity. Let us look back to our history. We can start our own schools again; we did it in the ‘60s and ‘70s, all sorts of schools. We must teach our children the connection between racism and imperialism. We must connect our oppressions, so that if I’m oppressed as a black, I can open out to the oppressions of women, of Palestinians, of South Africans. That is the education we have got to give our children. Let us not ask the system to give us these things. We have done it, we can do it ourselves. The books we have out there, Roots of Racism, Patterns of Racism, the cartoon book that education minister Baker wanted banned in ILEA schools (thanks to him, sales went up) – then we can begin again to build the cultures of resistance, a community of resistance, that extends to all sorts of minorities, all sorts of workless people.

But in that struggle against racism, one of the things we have to look at is the new racism that is springing up from the interstices of the old, to the refugees and asylum seekers in our midst. And to see, in the post-industrial society, it’s the service sector that is growing, not production, and hence this new consumer culture, ‘I shop therefore I am’, which is being promoted by both the Left and the Right. The Marxism Today people talk about consumerism, lifestyle – there’s nothing wrong with that except that there is no politics in it. As Huey Newton said to Karenga in the Black Power struggles in the ‘60s, ‘Revolution doesn’t come out of the sleeve of a dashiki’, revolution comes out of the barrel of a gun.

So culture by itself does not prescribe or ordain progress or predicate change. If we are going to take the struggle further we have got to look at a subject I haven’t touched on yet, but I hope you begin to think on: the presence of American imperialism, because of the technological revolution, in Third World countries. Imperialism needs to set up dictatorships in our countries in order to provide a cheap labour source for the multinational corporations. And now they are moving from the electronics field to agribusiness. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the land that has been opened up by peasants for peasants, for irrigation schemes, has now been handed over to Del Monte and Brooke Bond. We were once asked to eat tea; now we are asked to eat pineapples.

We have got to look at these connections – the imperialist presence in Third World countries that is necessary to maintain dictatorships there, whether in Chile, Nicaragua – sell them armaments, foment local wars – that throws up the refugees onto European soil. The Tamils are not here in Britain because they don’t like Sri Lanka, but because in the course of their political struggle against the forces of the state that is upheld by American imperialism, they get stranded like flotsam and jetsam on the shores of Europe. And then they are used as labour for the catering industry, in the service sector. Go to a takeaway, a service station, anywhere in Europe, on your holidays. Who are the people who are selling things on the streets – Algerians, Arabs, Pakistanis, Asians, African Caribbeans, not necessarily from the British West Indies but from the Dutch, and so on. These are the people who are afraid to go back home. They are asylum seekers. If they go back home they are murdered, killed. And this is what [Gunter] Wallraff talks about when he talks about the Turks who are used in experiments by pharmaceutical companies, used to clean up nuclear waste. It’s happening here in Britain, you don’t have to go to Germany. These are the rootless, rightless, peripatetic workers of the 21st century. And as Britain goes deeper into Europe in 1992, there will be more of it. It means that for our purposes, the struggle against racism and the struggle against imperialism are symbiotic. Not only must our struggles as blacks open us out to all the other struggles, they must open us out to all the struggles against imperialism in Third World countries. The struggle is endless. Hurrah!