On A. Sivanandan’s Communities of Resistance

Below is the introduction to a new edition of A. Sivanandan’s classic collection of essays Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism.

A. Sivanandan was the foremost intellectual of the black working-class movement in Britain during its insurgent heyday from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. The essays collected here, written between 1982 and 1990, and originally published as a collection in 1990, constitute his analysis of the means by which that movement was disaggregated, undermined and muted. To read them today is to be simultaneously confronted with connections and discontinuities between then and now, victories that might have been and losses forgotten, the familiar and the strange. By the mid-1980s, the dominance of what we would now call neoliberalism had become an unavoidable and overwhelming global political reality – one that has remained with us to the present day. At the same time, the older traditions of black and working-class struggle in Britain still had enough life in them to provide the seeds of an analysis of the newly emerging political terrain. These essays, then, analyse structures of domination and exploitation we still live with from the perspective of an earlier, insurgent phase of activism – and that is their great value for us today.

Communities of Resistance book cover

The son of a rural postal clerk from the hinterland of a minor colonial territory, Sivanandan fled Sri Lanka after the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958 and arrived in London a refugee. The experiences of postcolonial ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and racism in Britain became the twin poles around which he weaved his politics, his ‘double baptism of fire’ (p. 9). One inscribed in his soul the dangers of ethnic separatism, the other brought home the need for a ‘race’ politics relatively independent of the existing British labour movement. Socialism was the goal, but it was a socialism ‘blackened’ by the experiences of racism and imperialism.

Famously and most controversially, Sivanandan defined himself as politically black. The academic Left and liberals tended to misrepresent this stance, like they have so much of his work. Political blackness was not the collapsing of different cultural identities into a singular ‘universal’. Sivanandan was never interested in deriving political positions from answers to the empirical question of where one identity formation stops and another begins. One’s African-ness, Asian-ness or European-ness was, in itself, politically meaningless. Identity was, for him, an outcome of political struggle, not the goal for which it is fought. Blackness was not the name of a culture to be defended or celebrated but of an anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist politics rooted in the experiences of Third World communities in the First, who had come together as a class fraction without downplaying the cultural differences between them. The birth of black resistance was to be found in the entangling and bastardising of those cultures, not their erasure. Its radicalism derived from the location of Third World peoples within the class structures of racial capitalism; its fight was not just in the workplace or parliament but across every aspect of life; and its basis was the community itself rather than trade unions or political parties.

The misrepresentation of Sivanandan by academia was partly a reflection of his work’s unacademic (but not unscholarly or unrigorous) aims and methods. His essays cannot be understood without grasping the unique material conditions under which they were written. Their production was only possible because of the successful struggle Sivanandan led in the early 1970s to take over an establishment think tank, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and transform it into a ‘servicing station’ for black and Third World movements. He was thus able to work in an institutional setting of his own creation – guaranteeing his intellectual independence. Freed of the need to confine his writing to the parameters of an academic discipline or the think tank circuit, he aimed at direct communication with liberation movements. Third World revolutionaries, US black Marxists, European radicals, draft dodgers, political rappers, dissident local government workers and urban guerillas all beat a path to the IRR’s office in Kings Cross, London, bringing with them the kind of knowledge that escapes capture within academic conventions. That knowledge, in turn, fed into the intellectual production of the IRR, including its journal Race & Class, where most of the essays collected here first appeared. The goal was ‘to bring out the common denominators of oppression and exploitation and point the way to a common struggle’ (p. 14).

Sivanandan’s account of how that ‘common struggle’ could emerge is even more valuable today than it was when these essays were written. The failure to think of race and class in terms of each other has been one of the gaps through which Trump and Brexit have stepped. Class politics has been increasingly racialised and race politics disconnected from anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, to the extent that the ‘black socialism’ of this volume’s subtitle appears almost as a contradiction in terms. Sivanandan’s analysis offers both explanation and remedy.

Against today’s prevailing view of ‘whiteness’ as a continuous, self-standing feature of modernity, Sivanandan thought of racism as changing ‘shape, size, contours, purpose, function – with changes in the economy, the social structure, the system and, above all, the challenges, the resistances of that system’ (p. 64). Racism was not only a historical legacy of slavery and colonialism but regenerated by contemporary capitalism and imperialism in new forms. The analysis of racism must therefore begin with the nature of capitalism in the present era, its international division of labour and the associated forms of global domination.

Already in his 1979 essay ‘Imperialism and Disorganic Development in the Silicon Age’, Sivanandan had argued that the revolution in digital technology was enabling an epochal transformation in the functioning of capitalism. In ‘New Circuits of Imperialism’, written a decade later and included here, he examined the dispersal of industrial production from the metropole to include newly industrialising countries in Latin America and South-East Asia. While ceding their monopoly of industrial production to other regions, the developed countries retained control of the profitable, higher-level ‘design’ of the new world being built with digital networks. Digital technologies that might otherwise have allowed for ‘more time to be human in’ were instead, under neoliberalism, used to set up Big Brother systems of centralised ‘microelectronic surveillance’ (p. 72).

In the newly industrialising countries, the working class was held firmly in check by the force of authoritarian regimes sponsored by Western governments. In any case, the neoliberal culture transmitted to the Third World ‘in the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the music you hear, the television you watch, the newspapers you read’ trained the mind to celebrate ‘individual greed in place of collective good’ (p. 185). Outside of the newly industrialising regions, in the rest of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, ‘colonial capitalism had bred neither a capitalist class that out of sheer economic compulsion was dying to break its colonial integument nor a proletariat that could see beyond race and religion to its class interests’ (p. 204). Like the Subaltern Studies group of historians, Sivanandan argued that capital functioned disorganically in postcolonial settings – without the ‘self-assurance … to fashion its own political hegemony’ (p. 211). Unlike them, he did not elevate this social fact into a theory of cultural difference between East and West. Instead, his purpose was to trace how colonialism, bourgeois nationalism and imperialism colluded in the descent to majoritarian populism, state authoritarianism and ethnic violence. His account of this trajectory in ‘Sri Lanka: a case study’ is both a rich, empirical account of the history that exiled him and hundreds of thousands of others from his home country and a theoretical elaboration on a ‘pattern, with variations, that has been set in country after Third World country’ (p. 248).

Meanwhile in the developed countries, the labour movement lost its political power, as the working class could no longer call upon ‘its pristine form, shape, size, homogeneity of experience, unity of will, clout’ (p. 28). Production could now easily be moved to where labour was cheapest and most easily exploited; capital was thus ‘emancipated’ from its having to grant the modicum of rights and privileges won through workplace organising under industrial capitalism in the West. Post-industrial, neoliberal, globalised capitalism hollowed out democracy, shrunk the welfare state and turned the proletariat into a precariat.

The loss of status experienced by white workers, seemingly for the benefit of cheaper labour elsewhere in the world, provided the material basis for a new racism in the age of globalisation, directed especially at asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers who had been ‘displaced from their own countries by the depredations of international capital’ (p. 153). It is migrant ‘labour, cheap and captive, that fuels vast areas of an ever-expanding service sector’ (p. 153); at the same time, the presence of migrants came to symbolise the loss of white entitlements. With the clash between capital and labour no longer the primary visible political conflict in the West, defining who ‘we’ are, as a nation, as a race, as a culture, as a civilisation, as a minority – in a word, identity – was the new terrain of politics.

Much of the Left responded to these changes by giving up any role for class in their analysis and seeing the ‘new social movements’ of the women’s movement, anti-racism, the LGBTQ movements and environmentalism as new drivers of progressive social change. Ever since, a battle has been fought on the Left that is usually defined in terms of a conflict between, on the one hand, advocates of ‘identity politics’ and, on the other, those who prioritise class struggle, the one seeing culture as the new terrain of politics, the other, economics – a battle that continues to the present day in discussions of how to respond to Trump and Brexit. Sivanandan’s essay ‘All That Melts into Air Is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’ was, at the time of its publication in 1990, read as a trenchant stance on one side of this battle, a definitive denunciation of ‘identity politics’ as a betrayal of Left principles. Its immediate target was the New Times project that saw the ‘subjective’ as central to the political success of Thatcherism and sought to rethink left-wing politics on that basis. The leading intellectual figure in New Times was Stuart Hall, who had written the introduction to Sivanandan’s first volume of essays, A Different Hunger, but had become one of those ‘friends with whom, out of a different loyalty, I must now openly disagree’, as Sivanandan put it in the essay’s dedication.

Today, the New Times project appears as a 1980s staging post on the road to Blairism rather than an authentic renewal of the Left. But Sivanandan’s critique of it has continued importance. Not the defence of Marxist orthodoxy from the deviations of ‘identity’ that it is often read as, Sivanandan’s position – conveyed across many of the essays in this volume – points to escape routes from the impasse of the Left on the questions of how class relates to race, gender and sexuality, and economics to culture.

Sivanandan’s argument has two parts. First, he notes that the industrial working class that Marxism sees as crucial to socialist struggle still exists but is now in the Third World or peopled by those of the Third World living in the First. Eurocentrism has led the Western Left to ignore this fact: 

The Third World has been lost to view in the last 15 or 20 years – lost to view in the deliberations of the Left because in today’s global factories, the low-paid workers who do the dirty work 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. (p. 14)

Second, Sivanandan argues that the new social movements are themselves misunderstood or made reactionary if they are separated from questions of class and capitalism. If racism, for example, is not seen as one aspect of a whole social formation, then analysis is personalised to the level of individual prejudices and attitudes, and anti-racism reduced to a project of removing whites from positions of power (and today the ineffectual expressions of outrage that so-called social media encourage). A privilege-checking politics, in which enclosed selves see themselves as the ‘laboratory of social change’ and ‘burrow into themselves for social truths and answers’ (p. 34) leaves unchallenged overarching structures of power. Moreover, it is a politics that gives hostages to the Right by dwelling solely on individual identity and encouraging the image of anti-racism as ‘guilt-tripping’ of whites.

But racism rests not on individual attitudes but on ‘racist laws, constitutional conventions, judicial precedents, institutional practices – all of which have the imprimatur of the state. In a capitalist state, that power is associated with the power of the capitalist class’ (p. 114) because, and here Sivanandan draws on Stuart Hall’s formulation, the power relationships between classes are mediated or ‘lived’ through race. Ending ‘white privilege’ cannot be achieved, therefore, through a guilty turning inwards; it has to involve a struggle against the state (its prisons, its police forces, its immigration laws) and against the capitalist class (its unequal distribution of food, housing, healthcare, education, and so on).

In fact, says Sivanandan, the struggles of ‘women, blacks, gays, etc.’ have the capacity to produce a new universal struggle for ‘human worth, dignity, genuine equality, the enlargement of the self’ (p. 32) but only if they move out ‘from their particularities to the whole and back again to themselves, enriching both, in an unending traffic of ideas, struggles and commitments’ (p. 33). This is not the orthodox Marxist picture of race and gender as derivatives of class. Nor is it an image of ‘intersectionality’: traffic between parts and whole is a different metaphor, not a place where identities overlap or oppressions interlock but a forging of different race, gender and class struggles into something greater than the sum of its parts.

This ‘forging’ is illustrated by his narrating of the black response to the Pentonville Five case of 1972. During the trial and imprisonment of five white workers who had been prosecuted for organising unofficial picketing in support of a strike by dockers, the trade unions invited black organisations to join a march to Pentonville prison where the men were held. The dilemma for black organisations was that, while they recognised that ‘the unions’ struggle was also black people’s struggle’ (they, too, were workers), the entrenched racism of the trade unions (four years earlier, the dockers had marched in support of the racist politician Enoch Powell) meant they would not join the official march. Moreover, to the black organisations, imprisonment was an aspect of state racism that impinged on their communities in a distinct way. ‘Instead, they led a different march down a different road to the same spot on behalf of the Pentonville Five’ (p. 75). Same destination, different journey. Not the intersection of identities or oppressions but of movements; not a hierarchy of oppression but an opening out to other struggles while maintaining the specificity of one’s own.

Understood in this way, ‘identity politics’ does not fragment class struggle but radicalises it. The black movement, LGBTQ movements and feminism are the ‘richest political seams’ (p. 77) of the working class, because they take socialism away from a narrow focus on wages and enable ‘the return of community to class’ (p. 118). ‘Black struggle – for human dignity and true freedom – far from being divisive of, or in competition with, socialism, actually lies within and advances its best traditions’ (p. 143). This is why, argues Sivanandan, the state seeks the isolation of race politics from class politics and the degeneration of black radicalism into a politics of ethnic recognition within a framework of official multiculturalism – which he identifies as the state’s response to the urban uprisings of the early 1980s. It leads to the ‘living, dynamic, progressive aspects of black people’s culture’ being turned into ‘artefact and habit and custom’ (p. 85) and evacuated of their ‘economic and political significance’. ‘The fight against racism became a fight for culture’ (p. 147). Here Communities of Resistance is effective as an anticipatory critique of the race politics of Blairite Britain and its afterlives under Brown and Cameron, in which a gentrified multiculturalism and empty politics of the self went hand in hand with state racism and imperialist wars.

The socialism around which Sivanandan hoped a unity of race, gender, sexuality and class could be forged was not a socialism of economics alone. It was a 

moral creed, a secular faith – tolerant, loving, creative, increasing all to increase the one. … loyalty, solidarity, camaraderie, unity, all the great and simple things that make us human. That is the morality of socialism that the working-class movement, the peasants’ movement, the women’s, black and gay movements, the green and anti-nuclear movements – all the movements of liberation have sung out. (p. 192)

It is this kind of socialism that Sivanandan finds expressed most strongly in the struggles of migrant workers in Europe, which are, he says, grounded in ‘a simple faith in human beings and a deep knowledge that, by himself or herself, the individual is nothing, that we need to confirm and be confirmed by each other, that only in the collective good our selves can put forth and grow’ (p. 58). In the end, the most devastating effect of neoliberalism was, for him, its annihilation of the cultures of solidarity that had been built up through generations of struggle in the West; it is to the migrant that the West now needs to turn to rediscover its best version of itself.

The essays that follow outline a socialism that is both universal and particular, economic and cultural, personal and political. In Sivanandan’s grappling with how political struggles coalesce, his attention to the emptiness of neoliberal culture and in the global reach of his analysis, he emerges as an oddly contemporary thinker.

The new edition of A. Sivanandan’s Communities of Resistance can be ordered from Verso Books.

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