An interview by Quintin Hoare, Malcolm Imrie and Jenny Bourne for the book Communities of Resistance: black struggles for socialism (Verso 1990)
How did British politics and culture first impinge upon you?
They did not really impinge as such; British culture and politics were what I was born into. They were already there, they formed me. It was not so much British politics as British administration that pervaded everything – schools, professions, the running of the country, the post office, the railways. And it was in these areas of the British administration that a lot of the English-educated people like myself, and my father before me, came into contact with British culture. Of course we came into contact with British culture first via education – particularly the Tamils because we come from the North of Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it then was) and the North is arid country where nothing grows except children. There are no mountains or rivers, the water is saline, the farms are not large holdings but small plots.
My grandfather was one of the smallest of smallholders and his chief ambition was to send his sons to an ‘English school’ (where, that is, the medium of instruction was English) 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 the Tamil areas.
My father finally made it from the Tamil-medium school to an English-medium school by the time he was 13 or 14, just for a couple of years, and then 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 or leading a better social life. Because he was in the postal service, the British Raj transferred him from one malarial station to another. These civil servants (both Tamils and Sinhalese, but mainly Tamils) were the pioneers who opened up the country, the jungles and uninhabited areas, for British colonisation.
The best schools were in the metropolis, Colombo, in the Sinhala South, and were often run by Catholic or Anglican religious orders. And because my education was disrupted by my father being transferred from place to place, I was sent to live in Colombo.
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 like any Hindu should. Inside me then, western culture and religion were being mixed up with Hinduism; the urban with the rural; the aspiring poor boy who wanted to become middle-class was learning the culture of the slum.
I suppose that is rather an abstract way of describing my conflicts (with the benefit of hindsight). The way I lived through them was often agonising. There was, first and foremost, behind everything, the knowledge that it was my duty as the eldest son of a fairly poor family 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’ – overlaid most of the conflicts I suffered. And yet there were experiences that tore me apart. Going back every holiday to my village, it was a wrench when I realised little by little that my cousins there were being left far behind me in educational terms. Even when it came to playing village cricket, I, as a 14-year-old, would play for the first eleven, which showed that the boys who went to public school in Colombo had a prowess beyond the boys in the village. There was a searing gap between me and my contemporaries which was painful because I wanted so much to belong to the village. And then again there was the other side of me – the one that wanted to belong to Colombo and my English school and my pukka friends. I remember most acutely my sense of betrayal when I disowned my favourite aunt when she came to visit me in school, because she was shabby and unshod, and I made out to my school friends that she was some sort of family servant.
You were being formed educationally in the colonial image, you were being educated for a typical comprador class. But you didn’t end up there. Why do you think that was?
I think that it’s a mistake to think of colonialism as a one-way street, as something that is done to you, as something that takes you over, 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 an existential rebellion – a rebellion against everything that goes against your grain.
Maybe the fact that, though I was Hindu, I was forced by some of the fathers to go to church, to follow catechism classes, gave me occasion for rebellion. I remember how much I jibbed at that. There were lots of aspects of that education that I resisted but I still did not find an alternative.
I could have gone one of two ways, I suppose. I could have become totally Tamil, totally Hindu, totally Ceylonese. I could have gone into a retrogressive nationalism, tried to put the clock back and denied the fact that the British and the Dutch and the Portuguese had influenced our cultures, educational system, politics, our sense of ourselves even. (And there was a feeling in me that if I went back to the temple, learnt more about 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 my family, to become a barrister (as I wanted to at one time), to go to England some day, to the Inner Temple or to university, then I had to go along with the system, I had to become a ‘comprador’, as you say. But I didn’t see it like that, it was just a way of going up in the world, economically and socially. The choice, in other words, was between becoming a nationalist and becoming a comprador.
And which did you choose to become?
One does not actually choose to become this or that in my sort of circumstances. It was more that by the time I was entering university, all the other contradictions we have been speaking about – the urban-rural and all that stuff – had boiled down to this gigantic contradiction between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. And I suppose I was one thing one minute and the other the next.
So by the time you went to university you were caught in this one big contradiction, yet you weren’t a political person. What was the intellectual trajectory that led you to become political? Presumably you didn’t become a Marxist overnight?
I don’t know whether I am a Marxist. Marxism for me is not a dogma, a faith; it is a way of understanding the world – in order to change it. As for my being a political person, I don’t think you can ever talk about politics (with a small p) being absent from a colony. All colonised peoples have, all the time, a subliminal sense of politics, a sense of power or rather of powerlessness. And therefore one is not removed from politics. All the contradictions I’ve been talking about are societal conflicts which are personalised for one by the nature of colonial society – by the deracination that one undergoes and then by the way one questions that deracination. Politics is part of the atmosphere of powerlessness in which one is brought up, within which one goes to school, within which one relates to one’s family, within which one relates to poorer, as opposed to richer, members of one’s family.
But what the university did was to formulate that politics – especially because I did political science and economics – and tell me how to look at society. What opened me up was looking at various political theories and going through the writings of such people 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 in which one lived. That tool of analysis that Marxism gave me in dialectical materialism was ‘the moment of a miracle’ which, in Dylan Thomas’s phrase, is ‘unending lightning’. And I was later, much later, to discover with the poets and the novelists that the dialectic was not just a tool of analysis but a felt sensibility.
It’s ironic, in a way, that this British education, which was teaching you all that was good about your coloniser and the coloniser’s language, was also that which was giving you the wherewithal to fight them.
Yes and no. It was the progressive, anti-colonial, subaltern aspects of British culture, not the dominant aspects of British culture, which influenced me. Those tendencies which were Left, and came out at that time principally from the London School of Economics, were what we principally imbibed. Harold Laski, whose Grammar of Politics I was weaned on, Maurice Dobb, Joan Robinson, the Webbs, the Fabians, those sort of thinkers – and I’ll never forget the day I stumbled on T. A. Jackson’s Dialectics in an old bottle-shop. That was a blinder.
It was after the war – our countries were becoming independent and nationalism both in India and in Ceylon was in its progressive phase, anti-imperialist and pro-working class. Many of our lecturers had been educated at the LSE. 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.
Quite a few of them were members of Left parties – either the Communist Party or, more usually, the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). And therefore their teaching was not merely theoretical but also practical and we followed them, in a sense, from the school-house into the street. So politics was not just what we learnt as part of our degree syllabus, but also those activities we took part in outside university hours when we went to public meetings, or attended various LSSP study groups and societies.
These teachers opened us up to a Left British culture which was anti-subjugation and spoke to the British working-class struggles for liberty and equality. But they taught us in such a way as to make us see parallels in our own society and open us out to the possibilities for struggle for our own working people. We were not taught English literature without a Left analysis being brought into it. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale we saw parallels with our own wives’ tales, poems, folklore. They taught us to nativise the insights of these authors, so to speak – to appropriate them so as to enrich, not to be a substitute for, our own experience – to take out the universal in them and apply it to our own particularities. They localised Chaucer while still leaving him in England. And that opened us out to all sorts of other possibilities. In music, for instance. I was steeped in Sinhalese and Tamil music – particularly Tamil thēvārums (hymns) – but when I now heard the Gregorian chant I could see how it resonated with the religious music of our own people. And your minstrels and early poets harked me back to our Sinhalese poets who went from village to village singing out the social poetry from ōla scrolls in the marketplace.
I was formed, I suppose, by that move and mix of cultures fighting for an independent Ceylon. And that is perhaps why I still think that culture is something dynamic, moving, forged in the crucible of struggle, and not some preordained, congealed set of artefacts, folklore.
Did you then, on leaving university, become an active left-wing campaigner? You also had to get a job, you had people to support.
The whole of the first part of my life, in a manner of speaking, was taken up in resolving one set of contradictions and coming up against others. I left the university with a degree but, because I didn’t come from a rich family and didn’t have connections, the amount of influence that my family could wield was very little. Since nepotism didn’t help me, I had to go and teach. (Those from poor families who got degrees went and taught, those from rich families who got degrees went into law, medical college or became upper-crust civil servants, police superintendents, prison chiefs.)
I first taught in a small mixed school in the tea country where the pupils were mainly the children of poor Sinhalese workers, with a sprinkling of Indian Tamil children from the plantations, who were the poorest of the poor and had no access to proper schooling at all. From there I went to teach in the hill country among the Kandyan peasantry. Both were very important experiences. I had known the Tamil country, I had known the cosmopolitan life of the metropolis and now I had, by living among the plantation workers on the estates, got to understand how debased the plantation workers were, and in Kandy I came across the landless Sinhala peasantry whose paddyfields had been taken over for tea plantations. I was getting an understanding of the social formations of my country first-hand. Later, that helped me to see how it was that British and other colonialisms had impacted on our countries at different historical periods, on different parts of the country, in many different ways, and thrown up such diverse social formations within one small country – left us underdeveloped in different ways and shored up the differences between the peoples of our country which then became defined in ethnic or racial terms.
Was it a smooth transition, your development from teacher in the plantation areas of Sri Lanka to left-wing thinker here in Britain?
Oh no. I suppose the colonised go through violent contradictions – comprador one minute, reactionary nationalist the next, progressive lefty the next. Teaching was so poorly paid that it didn’t give me enough to meet my family obligations. So finally I got into a bank as a Staff Officer and soon Deputy Manager. Those of us who had degrees were few and far between in Ceylon at the time, and as the banks were being nationalised (that is, Ceylonised), Ceylonese nationals were put in positions of authority. If you had a degree, you did not rise from the ranks, you went straight away into an administrative job.
I had joined the bank for family reasons but the status it conferred on me predicated a certain lifestyle which required that I wear silk shirts from Hong Kong, run a motor car, have servants, belong to clubs, drink imported German lager from fluted glasses under the temple trees in the garden of some other comprador or other – the income-tax commissioner perhaps, or maybe a barrister or an FRCS. But at the same time I was uneasy about that life, partly because when I went home to my parents or back to my village and saw the poverty there, all that made me ashamed of my own prosperity. And I also found that the bank clerks who worked under me, who probably came out of the same slums that I had known, were the people I could be easy with, go drinking with after work. Going to their homes and seeing how they lived, and how exploited they were, affected me. The first sort of bank clerks’ union in the Bank of Ceylon was something that was talked about and given form to in my own house.
Because of this I was constantly at loggerheads with the management, which happened to be British, and I was often in a lot of trouble. I never got promoted.
I was also in trouble with my parents at this time because I fell in love with a Sinhalese Catholic girl and had a runaway marriage – you see how the objective contradiction became subjective? Her parents and my parents were both antagonistic towards such ‘mixed marriages’, let alone unarranged ones.
But then, in 1958, the ‘riots’ broke out between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. My father’s house was attacked and I had to go disguised as a cop with an empty rifle in my hand to get my parents away from a screaming mob. I saw people being killed just by virtue of the fact that they were Tamil; people being burnt alive. Meanwhile the Sinhala Buddhist government, devoted to non-violence, did nothing. Educated people in high places did nothing. The press and the radio did nothing. Sinhalese-Tamil friendship ceased at the midnight hour. The whole decadence and degradation of our people stank in my nostrils. I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted to get away from my country. So I chucked in my job, sold whatever belongings I had and just pushed off to England. And I came and lived in Bayswater and walked straight into the ‘riots’ in Notting Hill.
That was, I suppose, a double baptism of fire – Sinhalese-Tamil riots there, white-black riots here. And I knew then I was black. I could no longer stand on the sidelines; race was a problem that affected me directly. I had no excuse to go into banking or anything else that I was fitted up to do – yes, fitted up. I had to find a way of making some sort of contribution to the improvement of society, to bring about a society where human beings could be human. And I wanted time to read and reflect and to become active. (There was plenty of discrimination; even with a degree and banking qualifications I couldn’t get into a bank in any case: blacks, then, were not trusted in banks.) So I started off as a tea-boy in a public library in Middlesex. And I went on to do my library exams by attending evening classes. From tea-boy I became branch manager of that particular library and then finally I went to be librarian at the Institute of Race Relations in 1964.
Most of your political writing, that people are familiar with anyway, has been done since you worked at the Institute but your thinking and writing were actually tied up with transforming the place where you worked. Presumably you saw that transformation as also part of that idea of ‘returning your education’ – that improving of society – that you were talking about?
I have always felt that living and working and doing are not separate things. One should try to change things not only ‘out there in society’ but in oneself, in the place where one works, in one’s everyday life. The 1960s was the period of Black Power, the decolonisation of Africa, the Vietnam War. Black Power, in particular, spoke to me very directly because it was about race and class both at once. More than that, it was about the politics of existence. And therefore I felt the work of a place such as the Institute of Race Relations – set up as an independent body to do objective research into the relations between white and non-white peoples all over the world – could not keep colonialism out of its remit, could not keep out capitalism; it had to look at various aspects of society which were not necessarily conducive to the academic study of race relations. The IRR hierarchy wanted to look at race relations in an abstract sort of way. But I felt that the study of race relations should help towards the abolition of racism. The Institute could not stand on the sidelines, particularly when successive British governments, Labour and Tory, were passing racist immigration laws.
Can you describe a little what the organisation was like in the 1960s and what it became?
The Institute was set up as a branch of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the 1950s and became independent soon after the ‘riots’ in 1958. It was supposed to be devoted to the objective study of race relations here and elsewhere (in a slightly policy-oriented way). But after the 1962 Immigration Act it began to take the government’s view that controlling immigration was necessary to improve race relations. The fewer the blacks, the easier their integration. No blacks, no problem. Hitler said the same sort of thing.
The Institute, which was supposed to be independent in its thinking, was funded by big business – Shell, Nuffield, Rockefeller, Ford – and the governing council had people like Oppenheimer (of the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa), Prain (of the RST Group), Seebohm (of Barclays Bank), and Caine (of Bookers) running the place. Most of the early studies looked into Africa and other newly-developing countries with a view to seeing how business could invest there. That seemed to be the underlying purpose in the international field for the study of race relations. Improving race relations was a way of improving business opportunities in newly-independent countries which would no longer accept British overlordship. So if you were going to work with the comprador classes in the newly-independent countries, you had to stop saying that they were inferior to you, that their cultures were inferior to yours, and declare that we were all brothers under the same capitalist skin.
In 1972 the members of the IRR outvoted the old guard and brought in a new Council composed of those who worked in and for the community. Can you say briefly what the new Institute stood for and, more importantly, how it survived? There are a lot of so-called revolutions that took place in institutions in the 1960s that died.
The Institute was part of the Establishment. It was controlled and in part financed by big business; it spoke to government concerns and also had pretensions to establishing race relations as an academic field of study. But all its concerns bore little relation to what black people were undergoing here in terms of racism, and in the Third World in terms of colonialism and imperialism. And it was in trying to air these views and concerns at conferences and in the Institute’s journal that the staff fell foul of the management and the battle for the Institute began. The details of the actual struggle within the Institute have been related elsewhere but, in sum, the issues that the staff, backed by most of the Institute’s members, fought over were academic and journalistic freedom. Behind these issues, though, was the feeling that the Institute was interested not so much in studying ways of alleviating racism as in providing a rationale for government policies, providing a sort of research credibility for state racism – or that at least was where its policy-oriented research was pointing. And it was inevitable that, as racism got worse (with ‘Paki-bashing’, police violence, ESN schooling, passport raids, and so on), that a crisis of conscience should be thrown up in an Institute such as ours. It had to change.
But the second point of your question is the more interesting – how we lived to tell the tale. There were many crises we went through, not least financial (because the old boy network, we found out firsthand, really did control all the trusts and funding agencies). The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the staff, the members and the new Council of Management, mostly Institute members who had fought alongside us, began to have a real vested interest in the work – vested interest in the sense of wanting to educate the public in combating racism – by putting the resources and services of the Institute to use in a new way, in a way that would benefit ‘the victims’ of racism, so to speak. The Institute became a sort of think-tank, a think-in-order-to-do-tank, for black and Third World peoples. The function of knowledge, we held (rather grandly perhaps), was to liberate. But, grand or not, we were at last working with, and responsive to, black and Third World groups as had never before been possible.
We were creating our own priorities, changing the terms of debate, charting all those new areas where the fight against racism had to be taken up – in academe, in the media, in government. We perhaps gave a lead in these matters at that time, but there were very many people in all sorts of community groups and organisations who had been just waiting for such perspectives. And, in that sense, the Institute became far more than a professional organisation or a research body; it was, rather, a servicer of movements.
You take on questions of both racism and imperialism. In the 1960s, this wouldn’t have been a surprising connection in writings from the US or the UK. But today [at the start of the 1990s] the connection is far less in evidence, yet it’s a line to which Race & Class, the journal you edit, consciously adheres. Can you explain that connection, that philosophy?
Do you remember what W. E. B. Du Bois said in 1903? ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.’ Today the colour line is the poverty line is the power line. We are non-white, we are poor, we are powerless. And that which establishes the connection between them is capitalism; that which perpetuates it is imperialism. Except for a handful of black elites who are doing pretty well, the majority of non-white peoples of the world are poor, and powerless to do anything about their poverty. And they are kept that way by imperialism. That is why you cannot fight racism without also fighting imperialism. You cannot fight for the cause of black people without fighting for the cause of working people. You cannot fight black oppression without fighting black exploitation. You cannot, in the final instance, fight oppression without at the same time fighting exploitation – or you end up exchanging one oppression for another.
The Third World has been lost to view in the last fifteen or twenty years – lost to view in the deliberations of the Left because in today’s global factories, the low-paid workers who do the dirty jobs are literally out there in the Third World and not here in public view or, if here, only as invisible migrant sweatshop and service workers. The Left in the West has failed to understand the changes that are going on in terms of the qualitative leap in the level of the productive forces, they fail to see that our standard of living depends upon the exploitation of an international working class. Instead they say ‘farewell to the working class’ (as though theirs is the only one), elevate the new social movements of women, blacks, gays, greens, etc., as the agents of change and treat the Third World as an object of western charity.
Race & Class poses a counter view. It sees the relationship of racism and imperialism as a symbiotic one; the fact that black and Third World peoples are in the ‘First’ World is directly connected to the presence of the ‘First World’ in the form of multinationals, of superpower machinations in the Third World. Yet Race & Class never subsumes race under class. It looks at race in terms of class, while at the same time bringing to an understanding of the class struggle the racial dimension. I suppose that is what distinguishes us from other Left, Marxist or Third World journals. We do not have a line as such, but we have certain criteria which emerged in the wake of the struggle to transform the Institute and, in particular, of the struggle over the function of knowledge itself.
Since imperialism has distorted the histories of Third World countries and sought to set Third World peoples against each other, Race & Class tries to bring out the common denominators of oppression and exploitation and point the way to a common struggle. There is a task for those of us ‘within the belly of the whale’ to analyse and write about Third World struggles, but I do not think it is our business to be sectarian, to take sides between liberation movements, to tell them how to conduct their struggles. We try in Race & Class to guard against a sort of Left cultural imperialism: the tendency to extrapolate from the western experience onto Third World societies. That might mean turning the equation round to see what we can learn from a particular tendency or movement in the Third World.
Very often Race & Class exposes those aspects of traditional scholarship – in sociology, history, philosophy, science, maths or whatever – that have in-built cultural and class biases. It tries to create new scholarships, if you like, new ways of analysing, tries to retrieve the people’s history of an event or period – be it the testimony of Broadwater Farm residents or a re-evaluation of Mau Mau. Above all, it tries to bridge the gap between theory and practice, academia and the grassroots. We are trying, all the time, to ensure that the people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for.
The sub-title of this book, ‘writings on black struggles for socialism’, is intriguing. That juxtaposition, implying that black struggles are for socialism, hasn’t been expressed like that before. But you obviously think it sums up your writing, certainly in this collection?
Any struggles of the oppressed, be it blacks or women, which are only for themselves and then not for the least of them, the most deprived, the most exploited of them, are inevitably self-serving and narrow and unable to enlarge the human condition. It’s not just a question of having the experience of oppression and missing its meaning, but also of failing to make the meaning flesh. Maybe that’s why my writings are mainly about the liberatory aspects of black struggle and on the sites relevant to that struggle. The black middle class, Black Sections, blacks in academia, do not interest me. The question for me is: what is it in the black and Third World experience, in the experience of the oppressed and the exploited, that gives one the imagination to see other oppressions and the will to fight for a better society for all, a more equal, just, free society, a socialist society?
Any liberation struggle which is not socialist in the first instance ends up in tyranny. The means are the ends, there can be no distinction between them. There is no socialism after liberation, socialism is the process through which liberation is won.
And, for you personally, where is your struggle? Do you feel you are in a kind of exile? Where are you at home?
I am at home in myself; and myself is all these experiences, cultures, value-systems that I have gone through. I don’t consider myself an exile because I would have to ask myself then, what am I exiled from. I may be in the literal sense exiled from my country, but today, at the end of the twentieth century, when all our boundaries are breaking down, we should be looking not to roots in some place but to resources within ourselves for our understanding of our place in society, our place in a particular country, our place in culture. For me to feel truly ‘an exile’ would be to be exiled from the struggles of the black and Third World peoples I know so well and from whom I come. And the struggle is where I am, the struggle is here and now. But, of course, I carry a double consciousness within me: that of my place in this society, my place in the struggle of black, working-class people here and now, and that of my place in the struggles of Third World peoples in Third World countries both here and there. And I am not exiled from that. I may not be in the vortex of those struggles but I am involved in them. And therefore I do not understand the question of exile. I do not understand the question of domicile. The heart is where the battle is.