Recovering the hidden history of past anti-racism struggles can help inspire collective action today, explains Professor Satnam Virdee.
What is so important about the 1970s when it comes to understanding racism and anti-racism in Britain?
The American political scientist Ira Katznelson suggests that to understand social change one should focus on those ‘moments when system creating choices are made… Such intervals of indeterminacy are times when the boundary conditions of politics are renegotiated and reset.’
The 1970s were just such a moment. They marked the onset of the organic crisis of British capitalism when the post-war welfare settlement built on the twin principles of active citizenship and full employment broke down. While the state and employers attempted to make the working class and the oppressed pay for the crisis, these social groups responded by mounting a level of resistance not seen in Britain since the early 1920s.
From the massive increase in class conflict to the growing opposition to the British state in Northern Ireland, from the rise of the women’s movement to the collective action mounted by black and Asian communities against state and working class racism, workers, women and racialised minorities moved into collective motion against a neo-liberalism that had not yet been named, and whose victory was not yet assured.
There are therefore important theoretical and political lessons to be derived from studying this period, particularly with regard to questions of race and class, and anti-racist political practice.
By the time I entered sociology in the early 1990s, the script for the 1970s had already been written. A fruitful, but sometimes acrimonious debate had taken place across the pages of various learned journals during the 1980s between members of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) on the one hand, and Robert Miles on the other.
The CCCS school, and Paul Gilroy in particular, showed (contra Miles) that race was not just a mechanism of regulation and social control, but could also be a form of identification that could be appropriated and infused with a new ideology to challenge racism.
Or to put it more concretely, black and Asian people had taken hold of the ascribed racial identity of black previously used to disparage people of African descent, and infused it with a new ideological meaning out of which were fashioned powerful ‘communities of resistance’.
While the CCCS analysis represented a more convincing account of the 1970s than that offered by Miles, there were fundamental weaknesses in their account which few scholars at the time picked up. For example, they failed to identify and explain the emergence of a sustained current of working class anti-racism, particularly within the organised labour movement.
Now of course there were moments when class politics did not align well with the struggles against racism in British society. Think for example of 1968 and the militant dockers marching in support of Powell shouting ‘Back Britain, not Black Britain’. But less than 10 years later, significant parts of the trade union movement had shifted their position from one of indifference about the concerns of black members to one where they challenged racism. Such anti-racism didn’t just remain symbolic in nature, but was translated into the kind of solidarity action that would have been unimaginable just a decade earlier.
In the course of the Grunwick dispute, led by Asian women workers, and the large-scale involvement of the organised labour movement in the Anti-Nazi League and elsewhere, the working class did emerge episodically as an anti-racist agent in the 1970s.
Further, the late 1970s demonstrated that in such moments racial formation wasn’t an alternative to class formation as Gilroy and Miles had both claimed, but its essential precursor. That is, in that organic crisis of the 1970s class struggles were brought into alignment with those against racism by the collective efforts of socialists, anti-racists and socialist feminists such that, to paraphrase Sivanandan, racialised minority workers – through a consciousness of their colour – arrived at a consciousness of class. At the same time, white working class – in recovering its class instinct – arrived at a consciousness of racial oppression.
Re-examining the 1970s as part of the on-going archival work of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) will allow the research team to recover aspects of the hitherto hidden history of collective opposition to racism and analyse how this helped to democratize and transform British society.
By doing so, this will also help us to better understand that the struggles of our grandparents and parents bequeathed to us an important legacy of anti-racism. This can serve as an important resource to challenge the structural foundations of racism today, but only if we make current generations more aware of those past political struggles.
As Walter Benjamin reminds us, there is nothing that inspires struggle against oppression more than knowing the history of enslaved forbears.
- The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).