The Poisonous Roots of Racism

The rise of racism throughout Europe was one of the major themes of the RCG's July Dayschool Fight Racism! Fight Capitalism! Fight Imperialism! -- By Any Means Necessary. We reprint MAXINE WILLIAMS' speech to the dayschool.

To understand racism it must be placed in its political context -- the existence of imperialism and the particular stage which capitalism has reached in the late twentieth century.

Socialism or Barbarism

Every day brings forth new evidence of the crisis that is gripping imperialism. In Europe at least 17 million people, 12 per cent of the workforce, are unemployed officially. Civil war, unleashed by imperialist interests and their local nationalist forces, rages in former Yugoslavia, leaving tens of thousands dead and millions stateless. In Europe and the USA, governments are carrying through sweeping attacks on working class social benefits, trade union rights and living standards. In Germany for example, they are cutting £8 billion from state expenditure at a time when, in what was East Germany, unemployment is raging. In Britain the income of the poorest 10 per cent of the population fell 14 per cent in real terms between 1979 and 1991. The poorest half of the population now gets only 25 per cent of national income. Amongst that half figure overwhelmingly the old, women, black people, the unemployed.

In the USA a President who was talked of by British Labour leftists as a model for a future Labour government, sends Cruise missiles into heavily populated Baghdad, accompanying the missiles with the warning, 'don't tread on us'. This was said apparently without irony to Iraq, which two years ago the imperialists tried to 'bomb back into the stone age'.

So this is the New World Disorder. This is the system which boasted of its own rationality and technical and economic superiority when it stood finally after 70 years with its boot on the neck of the former socialist countries and said, 'We've won'.

As Marcuse said of the essence of capitalism:

'The union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope and fear to the delusions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth constitute the most impartial indictment of this society; its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.'

It is an irrational system of organised banditry, the sophisticated organisation of poverty and death. How else can we view the recent competition between groups of workers in Plymouth and Scotland for the privilege of keeping their jobs by winning a contract to produce Trident nuclear submarines, weapons of mass destruction? Such an event is not surprising when you consider that virtually the only sector of the British economy which is growing is the arms trade, a trade which not only turned Margaret Thatcher's son from a racing driver to a multi-millionaire but has also stuffed the coffers of the Tory Party with donations from grateful arms dealers.

Increasingly we are seeing the veils that disguised the hideous reality of capitalism in the imperialist countries during the post-war boom, ripped away. We are seeing the naked reality -- militarism, nationalism, poverty in the rich countries and starvation in the poor. They are re-colonising those areas of the world that were afforded some slight protection by the existence of the socialist camp. Nor will they be satisfied until they get them all, even Cuba. We see their reversion to outright colonialism today in Somalia whose inhabitants, being poor and black, do not attract the sympathy of the world's media.

Such events show the full force of the words which socialists used in past eras -- the choice is between socialism and barbarism.

The rise of racism

There has been an unprecedented increase in levels of racism in the imperialist countries. Governments have moved to further tighten immigration controls. Germany is changing its asylum laws to prevent entry for refugees; Britain is doing the same with its Asylum Act to prevent refugees entering or having the right to effective appeal against deportation. In France the government is aiming at zero immigration and appears to be modelling its police operations in black areas on those of the Los Angeles Police Department. The French Parliament has been debating an amendment which would allow police to carry out identity checks on anyone suspected of being foreign but with consummate hypocrisy has said that the judgement of who Is foreign must not be based on how people look. Japan is stepping up its deportations of Iranians as well as Chinese and other immigrants from South East Asia.

Alongside these developments has gone a sharp rise in fascist activity. In Germany for example, racist attacks take place every day with only the more dramatic ones, where whole families die in firebombings, reaching the world news. In Britain official figures record 8,000 racist attacks a year. Although fascist organisations are growing, their growth is limited by the fact that the governments in office in these countries are already carrying out much of their racist programme. ln Germany the government has blatantly used the fascist organisations as a political tool to get through immigration controls, warning the public that without such measures the fascist groups will grow beyond control. This partnership explains the apparent government and police impotence in the face of fascist attacks. In Germany we see most clearly the intimate connection between state racism and the unofficial racists.

The right wing groups find a ready base in the white working class, particularly the young, now facing unemployment. They have no tradition to draw on that guards against this ideology. Instead they and their parents have belonged to Labour movements, like the British Labour Party, whose slogan was never An Injury to One is an Injury to All but rather: an Injury to Foreigners before an Injury to Us, an Injury to Black People and We Will Keep Quiet, an Injury to Women Does Not Count.

Nationalism and racism: the evil twins

The rise of racism in this period accompanies a general rise in nationalism. The rise of nationalism in Europe, the USA and Japan flows inevitably from the growing competition between imperialistpowers to divide up the world into economic and political spheres of influence. Such a tendency always exists in imperialism. But today, the crisis has given it new impetus as has the fact that the two economically strongest powers, Germany and Japan, do not have a world imperialist role to match their economic might. What begins as an inability to agree about trade or diplomacy has the capacity to end in war as it did in 1914. The signs are there. Germany and Japan are altering the constitutions imposed on them after their defeat in 1945, to allow them to use their military forces abroad. The big powers cannot agree on the GATT trade negotiations and continually threaten more protectionism. The USA has set up its own North American Free Trade Area, Europe is following suit with its protected markets, wishing to keep out imports particularly from the Pacific rim countries. They each protect their vital interests. This fight of 'hostile brothers' has its political reflection in their inability to agree over what to do about former Yugoslavia. The British and others are complaining that French troop presence there has begun to give France unfair influence. Germany has vetoed any use of sanctions to prevent its 'protectorate' Croatia from grabbing any more of Bosnia. The USA has drawn its line over Macedonia and said it will intervene if fighting spreads there because this, the old Ottoman Empire, is its sphere.

In such circumstances, nationalism takes on a new respectability and force. Who is surprised when the German Foreign Minister calls for a new German 'patriotism' or the USA beats its chest and insists that it is the dominant power? A new struggle for colonies is beginning.

These powers will intervene to protect their right to exploit the local materials and population, against rival powers. Having spread poverty and starvation in Africa, the imperialists now increasingly say that the African people are not capable of ruling themselves and must be supervised. Such crude racism has not been heard since many African nations won independence. A new racist mythology has been born and echoes earlier colonial racism.

Imperialism and racism

Racism takes on a particular role in a period of economic crisis. In the early post-war period, the imperialist countries suffered from a labour shortage, particularly in the public sector and unmodernised industrial sectors. They drew in immigrant labour to do this work. With crisis and unemployment, the capitalists no longer need to draw on the world reserve army of labour created by imperialism in the poorer countries. Immigration policy has been relentlessly tightened. Those immigrants who came in the post-war period and were in many countries not even granted citizenship, are now being encouraged or forced to leave. New immigrants are kept out. In the wake of the drive to keep out or expel such labour, a growth of racism is inevitable.

John Major showed how respectable racism has become when he urged a strong perimeter fence around Europe: 'We must not be wide open to all comers simply because Paris, Rome or London seem more attractive than Bombay or Algiers'. He urged Europeans to guard against a tidal wave of 'illegal immigrants, drug pushers, criminals and terrorists'. Having thus associated these disparate groups, he went on to argue that immigration controls must be tightened in order to safeguard racial harmony in Britain. British governments, Labour and Tory, often use this argument. For them, the best way to have good 'race relations' would be to have no black people at all.

The issue of immigration controls reveals the reality of imperialist relations which underlie racism. This we must understand if an effective anti-racist movement is to be built -- a minority of theworld is wealthy because billions live in poverty in the poor nations. The fundamental injustice of that imperialist relation -- the division between oppressed and oppressor nations -- is mirrored in the sordid record of deportations, raids and virginity tests that have made up the British immigration policy. Racism is the form taken in imperialist countries by national oppression, duplicating internally the oppression which imperialism creates externally.

It was common in the past for sections of the left to view racism as an outdated ideology, a hangover from slavery and Britain's imperial past that could be corrected by educating people. But racism is not something from the past, it is continually being recreated in the relations of imperialism.

Imperialism maintains its rule over the oppressed nations through political, economic and military means. To maintain a situation in which, for example, wages in Thailand are 100th those of Europe, requires an imperialist-backed regime in Thailand of a repressive character. The imperialists foster such regimes and, should a regime come to power in an oppressed nation that in any way reflects the will of the masses, they starve, strangle or crush it, as they did in Grenada, as they are trying to do to Cuba. Imperialism also maintains its power through unequal trade terms and the imposition of massive debts on poor nations. The result is that those nations cannot develop freely and their inhabitants starve or live in poverty and are often forced to migrate to seek work.

This systematic oppression and dehumanisation of the oppressed is racism. Those conditions that imperialism creates in the poor nations are racist. The fact that millions of children in these nations die every year from poverty because the imperialists will not allow the people to rise above the level of earning 100th of European wages, is regarded as natural, like the sun rising. Thus is two thirds of humanity, mainly non-white, disregarded. Europe and its offspring continue to exercise domination and to justify such domination with racist ideologies of backwardness. They may have been cruder in the past, for example when the Labour Party programme of 1917 said that 'nobody contends that the black races are fit to govern themselves' and referred to them as the 'non-adult' races. But the actions of the new colonialists in Somalia and their justification show the same contempt.

The split in the working class

Just as imperialism created a split in the working class on an international level, with an aristocracy of labour tied to imperialism in the rich countries, so then did it recreate this split internally. Labour and the trade unions reacted with predictable chauvinism to immigrant labour. They made no serious effort to recruit from those areas such as catering where the worst conditions prevailed. Where immigrant workers in those sectors organised, the trade unions sabotaged their efforts, as they have done with the Burnsalls strike. As unemployment started to climb, previously unattractive jobs became more desirable and by the late 1960s, the TUC was calling for a strict quota on recruitment of immigrants to the catering industry and 'expressed surprise that no applicants for jobs could be found for which aliens were recruited who spoke no English and were without training'. In 1967 the TUG opposed anti-discrimination legislation as 'people to be protected might be put in a privileged position'.

The Labour Party has faithfully represented this aristocracy of labour. On issues of immigration and race relations legislation it has had a more or less continuous policy of bipartisanship, as it hason the Irish question and on every issue that closely touches the interests of imperialism. This policy has been that there should be tight immigration controls -- it was a Labour government which introduced the 1968 Immigration Act and enthusiastically operated the 1971 Act -- coupled with cosmetic anti-discrimination legislation. Labour has not only supported immigration controls but has supported every major attack by the state. Nothing frightens Labour more than the prospect of black resistance.

It was Labour which used the police to smash the Grunwick strike. Labour also used the police to suppress anti-fascist demonstrations in London, most shamefully in Southall in 1979. We should not forget the brutality of what a Labour government did in Southall when the black and Asian community mobilised to prevent a National Front meeting from taking place. Labour sent in 5,000 police and sealed off the area. So frenzied was the police assault that 1,000 people were injured and Blair Peach was murdered. 800 people were arrested, 342 charged and an 85% conviction rate resulted in heavy fines, gaol sentences and even witnesses attending court cases were bound over. Labour Prime Minister Callaghan blamed these events on 'outside agitators'. Two years later Labour wholeheartedly supported the suppression of the 1981 uprisings led by black people and the subsequent imprisonment of 700 people. It has consistently opposed any organised self-defence against racist attacks labelling such defence 'criminal'. Labour is well tuned to the needs of British capitalism.

The extent of racism today

The effects of Race Relations legislation and anti-discrimination measures have not begun to erode discrimination. Instead what these policies have done is to 'slightly enlarge a black middle class.

68% of Afro-Caribbean workers still work in manual and unskilled jobs compared to 78% over twenty years ago when such jobs were far more plentiful. Shift work patterns point to the kinds of work which black people do. In Leicester in 1990, 31% of Asians worked shifts compared to 17% of white men. In the 1970s nationally, 31% of black males worked shifts compared to 15% for white males. Nothing much has changed. Black people remain overwhelmingly concentrated in the lowest paid and least secure sections of the workforce. Today the rate of unemployment for black people is 22% compared to 9% of the white population. That figure will worsen and the policy of the British state will continue to be heavy policing of black areas and the tacit encouragement of racist attacks. By such means they hope to prevent black people fighting back and, as they so nearly did in 1981, giving a lead to other increasingly impoverished sections of the working class.

The results of discrimination and repression are best shown by the extraordinarily high imprisonment figures for black people. 16% of the male and 28% of the female prison population is black. Equally revealing and shocking are the figures for mental health committals -- in the mid 1980s, 36% of mental health committals were of black people. These statistics reflect the horrific reality of racism in Britain. As do the rising number of racist attacks.

In April this year, young Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racists in south east London. A terrible toll is being taken by the racists. Last year official figures record 8,000 racist attacks, nearly double those for 1991. The real figure could be ten times higher. Many such attacks go unreported as the victims rightly fear that they will be arrested.

When young Asians fought to defend themselves against fascists in Drummond Street, they were arrested. When Satpal Ram was attacked by six whites he killed one in self defence and is now serving life. Black people are twice as likely as whites to be assaulted on the streets and three times as likely to be murdered. The current arguments about the right to self-defence clearly do not stretch to cover those most under threat.

The police ignore racist attacks, when black people organise the police attack them, as they did on the recent march against the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Reading press reports you would have been hard put to know that the police had attacked the march. Only because a press photographer was photographed being assaulted by police was there any indication of what had taken place. Unfortunately the Anti-Racist Alliance spokesperson Marc Wadsworth, himself a Labour careerist, did not help matters by firing off letters to the press about 'outside agitators' causing the trouble, sounding uncannily like Jim Callaghan in Southall in 1979. Thus was another police assault covered up.

The legacy of black struggle

To look at the question of racism and not to consider the question of how the fight back will develop, would be pessimistic. Every generation of the black struggle has produced lessons. It is important today, when all oppositional movements are weak, to recall these. It is especially important because at present we are seeing various anti-racist organisations come into existence which are apparently tied to political trends, often Labour left trends, as in the case of the Anti-Racist Alliance. And we see also the strange re-emergence of the Anti-Nazi League.

These organisations often place loyalty to the Labour Party above the interests of the black struggle and drag the movement back from lessons it had already learned in the 1970s and '80s. The ANL was thoroughly discredited in the 1970s when it refused to come to the aid of black people opposing a fascist march in 1978 in East London, instead holding a carnival in South London. It justified this on the grounds that to confront the fascists would mean fighting the police and this they were not prepared to do.

With such organisations able to dominate the agenda we are seeing one of the consequences of the state's twin tactics against the black movement, repression and incorporation. Those that won't give up or join some phoney state-funded organisation, are put in prison or harassed until they are too exhausted to continue. After 1981, 700 people went to prison and lots of them carried into prison some tremendous political lessons. Unfortunately there was no movement for them to come out to and spread those lessons. They saw the devastation caused by opportunist forces following the rising, they saw the vicious condemnation of their actions launched by the Labour Party, but for the most part they are no longer around to pass on lessons that would make the Anti-Racist Alliance sound very politically lame. A movement is the memory of the class that it represents. But the black movement is constantly disrupted by repression and it is hard for that memory to continue as a live political force.

But there is a deep, strong legacy of the black struggle and any future movement will draw on it.

Self defence is no offence

That was a cornerstone of the Black Panthers programme and obviously in the USA they took that to the conclusion of the right to bear arms. In Britain in the '70s this slogan became the rallying point of the Asian Youth Movements fighting fascist attacks. This slogan attacks one of the fundamentals of bourgeois society, that the state has a monopoly of violence. But the black movement said 'No, we have an absolute right to stop our people being murdered by defending ourselves.'

A telling incident recently took place at Kingsway College, London which is reported in a very interesting anti-racist magazine called Kingsway Fighter. The students called a meeting and used the famous poster of Black Panther leader Huey Newton, bearing a rifle, to advertise the meeting. The authorities hysterically ripped the posters down and the students held a series of protests. Why such a response to the image of Huey Newton, when you recall that there was no such response to images of Rambo? Of course, Rambo is white and slaughters Vietnamese people, but Huey Newton represents a movement of black people fighting back, so under no circumstances will they tolerate this image influencing a new generation of young black people.

The fight against racism will confront the British state

That was learned over and over again in the US and here from the 1960s to the 1980s. If you, for example, confront the fascists on the streets, you will immediately face the police, the courts and, very soon, prison. If you want to fight racism you cannot avoid the issue of the state's immigration laws which are specifically racist laws. You cannot fight racism without coming up against the mother and father of racism -- the British state. In the 1970s the ANL attempted to avoid the issue of state racism, specifically refusing to oppose immigration controls. This path in the end led to impotence even in the face of fascist attacks.

Self-help and organisation

This was the key to the Black Panther organisation with their community programmes, education and food programmes and was taken up and still survives in the black population here. This principle is important to all of the oppressed. It rejects the soft policing of the British state, the state funding, the well-paid community workers. It is a matter of pride, survival, and is part of the process of revolutionary growth. The miners' wives discovered it during the strike of 1984. The soft policemen who appear to help the oppressed are one of the means of misleading them.


There is a rich legacy from the anti-colonial struggles of Africa, hut also from black leaders like Malcolm X who, before his murder, was arguing strongly for unity of the black movement and anti-imperialist forces worldwide. The fight against racism cannot be separated from the fight against its origins, imperialism. There is no separation between the fight to defend independence in Africa or Cuba and the interests of black people. It is the same struggle. Cuba has shown that the precondition for overcoming racism is freedom from imperialism, is socialism.

George Jackson perhaps best sums up this revolutionary legacy. His great work, Blood in My Eye, was finished a week before his murder in the gaol where he spent 12 years on a charge of stealing $70. He was a determined black revolutionary and his message has many lessons for the struggle today. He identified three stages in the black struggle: revolutionary nationalism and identification with Africa, riot by revolutionary black America and finally, scientific socialism. He was a communist, which explains why his memory has been so carefully erased. He argued that the real enemy of black people is capitalism and imperialism. Anyone who owes any allegiance to capitalism is 'our enemy'. He called for an alliance between the peoples in the imperialist nations and the oppressed nations. Only those close to the 'heart of the monster' would be able to finally destroy it. He understood that the official labour movements had been bought off and could not defend the oppressed people. He believed that unity with white workers was possible but that it must be on an anti-racist, anti-capitalist programme. George Jackson understood the enemy in a way that puts what passes for left wing politics today to shame:

'The history of the USA, the blood-soaked, urine-steeped essence of its being, the wreckage and demise of its human character under the wheels of a two-hundred-year headlong flight with heedless, frightened animals at the controls of a machine that has mastered them, allows for no appeal on a strictly ideological level.'

'...Can power be seriously challenged without a response, will the robber baron, the tycoon, the fùhrer allow us to seize his privilege without resistance? Can we steal it away from the greatest bandit of all time by sleight of hand alone? Incredible!'

The black movement has a legacy to be proud of and one which will guide the movement in years to come.

FRFI 114 August / September 1993


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