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Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, a response

This week we read Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, a book which takes seriously the role of Irish Catholics, Jews, African and South Asian migrants in the British left from the 1700s to the 1980s. I have committed to writing shorter blogs in the interests of leaving room for other work, so this week’s reflections are quite short and respond directly to the book’s content. In particular, I was interested in three elements of the book: the role of nationalism in the cooptation of the white working class into Britishness and away from internationalist class solidarity, the often unspoken significance of whiteness in the construction of class from a left-wing perspective, and thirdly, the legacy of politic; blackness and its discontents.

The utility of Satnam Virdee’s book, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, is in demonstrating how at each point in the trajectory of the increasing consolidation of race with nation and consequent racialization, there was resistance mounted by those who he calls ‘racialized outsiders’. He demonstrates what solidarities existed and how these were thwarted by various forces, including those of the state but also of organized labour. This provides a form of blueprint for organizing – thinking about what the various constraints were in constructing interracial solidarity over time and what creative means were used by groups in collectivizing against them.

It also points to the weaknesses of various movements due to various failures to completely encapsulate the problems being faced or to recognize at the time the power of the forces against them, especially from within the ‘white left’.

  1. Racism and nationalism
James Connolly, one of the Socialist leaders drawn on in the book

According to Virdee, the ‘success’ of early instances of working class solidarity between English, Irish and to some extent African workers (early-mid 19th C.) is possible due to the elitism of nationalism. The white working class is not considered integral to the English (British) nation, However, it should be noted that Virdee does not completely explore the contradictions between Englishness and Britishness here and how Britishness is made through Empire.

The British ruling elite in the 1830s-40s learns to govern in a more consensual manner and is thus able to incorporate parts of the working class into the ‘expanding imagine community of the British nation’ (Virdee 2014: 33). The working class thus starts to see itself as separate from Irish migrants in particular. Scientific racism in the mid-1800s complements this. The Irish are seen as racially as well as religiously inferior. Britain is reimagined as ‘an Anglo-Saxon protestant nation’ (ibid. 34). This racism is spread through the popular press and other forms of propaganda, including music hall and imperialist fairs/exhibitions.

“An understanding of ‘racial’ difference embedded itself in the cultural and political life of the working class in England” (ibid. 35).

The working class could improve its standing by ‘asserting their legitimate rights as members of the British nation’ (ibid. 36).

Reactions against the move towards nationalist inclusion by the organized left were minoritarian and led by racialized outsiders, in particular Irish Catholics and later Jews.

Virdee does not do enough here, to my mind, to consider the impact of Empire on labour conditions at home. While he does talk about the rise in imperialist sentiment in Chapter 4, and its spread to include the working class, he does not fully consider what colonial, slave and indentured labour means for the relationship between labour and capital in the ‘metropole’.

Virdee spends quite a lot of time thinking about the role of culture and education on the spread of imperialism, but not enough on the actual encounter between British people both in the colonized countries – where class became relativized by racialized positioning vis-à-vis the ‘natives’ – and in Britain itself in the encounter with former enslaved Africans, migrant workers and workers for the East India Company etc.

Here his work would benefit from the infusion of the type of account offered by Lisa Lowe in The Intimacies of Four Continents, which develops on how ideas of race are worked out in and during these unequal encounters, as I discussed here.

While Virdee does spends time talking about the infusion of the socialist left and the working class with a sense of nationalism and imperialist consciousness, he does not extensively discuss the relationship between racism and nationalism. It would have been interesting to incorporate the work of Etienne Balibar on the link between racism and nationalism. Balibar proposes that modern racism emerges in societies that are considered egalitarian, a condition not of the state per se but of the ‘modern (nationalist) nation-state’ (Balibar 1991:50).

Balibar does not reduce racism and nationalism to each other but he says that they exist in a relationship of ‘reciprocal determination’. Racism assists the national objective of imposing political and cultural unity over the population of the nation-state.


“Where groups could not be assimilated so as to be classified in nationally acceptable terms, racism intervened to oppress them ‘as if the domination of a culture and a more or less fictively unified nationality … over a hierarchically ordered diversity of “minority” ethnicities and cultures marked down for assimilation should be “compensated” and mirrored by the racializing persecution of an absolutely singular pseudoethnic group …’ Lentin 2004: 44; Balibar 1991:52).

“[R]acism is not an ‘expression’ of nationalism, but a supplement of nationalism or more precisely a supplement internal to nationalism, always in excess of it, but always indispensable to its constitution and yet always insufficient to achieve its project, just as nationalism is both indispensable and always insufficient to achieve the formation of the nation or the project of a ‘nationalisation’ of society.” (Lentin 2004: 45; Balibar (1991:54; emphasis in original)

2. The left, the working class and whiteness

What remains as a question not answered completely by Virdee is why race continues to grow as a mobilizing factor despite the failures of the promises of nationalism.

World War I and World War II, both both major catalyzing moments for working class inclusion, do not lead the working class into greater antiracist consciousness following the revelation of their failure to elevate the standing of the working classes in the nation. So despite dying for the nation or coming back to mass unemployment and economic hardship, the working class does not ally itself en masse with the exploited labour in Britain itself or worldwide. It would appear that this is due, not only to the erosion of an anti-racist/anti-imperialist consciousness in the working class due to the ‘success’ of nationalism, imperialist jingoism and the popularization of scientific racism (i.e. external/top down factors), but also due to the investment of the white working class in whiteness itself.

In Chapter 5, Virdee discusses the role of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in constructing the British worker as ‘white’ vis-à-vis Jewish and Chinese migrants after WWI. However, he seems more concerned to bring to the fore the, albeit less well known, instances of resistances to this dominant racialization (e.g. the role of white working class women on Clydeside who were married to Africans in objecting to the racism experienced by their husbands).

Thus, it seems to me that an opportunity was lost to more deeply theorise whiteness as it relates to the working class and the left. Virdee notes David Roediger and Noel Igantiev’s work on the Irish in the US and acknowledges the ‘wages of whiteness’ that put whites at an advantage. But he seems to want to assert that the experiences of the Irish in the UK were in the main different. Whereas this may be the case to some extent, not least due to the persistence of British colonialism in Ireland and the Irish liberation struggle, this does not explain the gradual acceptance of the Irish into whiteness while the same has not been true for the other ‘racialized outsiders’.

The Battle of Cable Street, a key moment of Jewish and working class resistance against British fascism

Moreover, the space given to the role of Irish Catholics (and also Jews) in working class struggle and its framing as making space for them as outsiders against encroaching British nationalism, is at the expense of the discussion of the role of Black and Brown people, especially considering that the alliance between the Irish, Jews and Black and Brown people did not last.

The discussion of the role of Powell and Powellism is important in showing how the working class consolidates its identification with British nationalism and imperialism in the post-1968 moment. The role played by trades’ unionists in rallying behind Powellism, while he was ousted by the elites (relegated by his own party) is important. It makes clear, contra the belief that working class racism is always manipulated by elites, and show how it has been politically expedient for elites to embrace an antiracist positions at times.

However, just the character of that antiracist position is not explicitly laid out by Virdee. It is clear, in the case of Powell, which the British state was at a time of transition with regards immigration from the former colonies. The 1962 and 1968 Immigration acts were about placing immigration controls in order to end the free movement of labour from the ‘Commonwealth’ and regulating the population internally. A key piece to making this work in an international context of decolonization brought about by anticolonial uprisings, was the provision of anti-discrimination legislation presenting the appearance that the state had the best interests of racialized minorities at heart. It goes without saying that this legislation was fought for by Black and brown people themselves, but it also came on the back of the civil rights and black power movements in the US, in addition to anticolonialism abroad (and support for it from migrant communities at home). Hence, ensuring ‘peace’ between the British state and its racialized populations required some form of appeasement. It is under these conditions that Powell loses his positon in the British political establishment.

What Virdee does not do is to update the legacies of Powell, which have seen a mainstream revival within the context of multiculturalist backlash.

The White Season (BBC 2007) focused on the ‘left behind’ white working class. A documentary on Enoch Powell was framed in terms of what Powell had got right and why his message was ignored.

A letter of complaint reproduced on the IRR website, makes the point that the documentary manipulated an association between Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and the uprisings of over ten years later, drawing a false association between his words and these events:

“The programme made explicit links between Powell’s speech and the Toxteth and Brixton riots over ten years after. The presentation of these events also suggested that they were part of a racial war that was overwhelming British society in the 1970s and 1980s. As any serious historian of the time will confirm, they were nothing of the sort, but were localised responses to White oppression from government authorities. This telescoping of history had the effect of suggesting that Powell’s warnings were correct. In fact, they are not. Powell warned of racial warfare in the UK. We have not seen anything of the sort since then, and it is irresponsible to suggest that we have.”

However, against the backdrop of a mainstream consensus that multiculturalism had been a failure and that racialized minorities, by not being forced to integrate into British society and assimilate to (undefined) British identity, had caused society to implode. The publication of David Goodhart’s 2004 article, ‘Too Diverse?’, followed by his subsequent books on immigration, such as The British Dream (2013), was an example of the mainstreaming of Powellism.

Despite explicitly claiming, in his latest intervention, that it is not racist for people to favour their racial group and end immigration, under the headline ‘why the left is wrong about immigration’, Goodhart is still thought of broadly as a left-wing thinker (by the mainstream). He can easily publish in centre-left publications such as the Guardian despite his explicitly anti-immigrant positions based on biased research such as Eric Kaufmann’s recent study, ‘Racial Self-Interest is Not Racism’.

Positions taken by Goodhart, Trevor Phillips (the black former head of the Commission for racial equality), Kaufmann and others, which often tie in with a centre-left islamophobia (i.e. Nick Cohen) give legitimacy to both state and popular racism.

3. Political blackness

In an article for the New Left Project, Satnam Virdee gives a useful update of his argument in Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider which ends at the end of the 1980s by asking what the legacy of the history of these struggles is for the 21st century.

He rightly claims that the past struggles of Black and Brown people as well as that of other racialized outsiders has had benefits for their descendants today. However, he now sees these ‘fragile gains’ as being under attack due to the erosion of society under intense neoliberalism, public spending cuts, and the growth and spread of islamophobia. Virdee is relatively pessimistic about the possibility of a coalitional politics of the sort he claims could be seen in the 1970s and 80s emerging to combat racism:

“political opposition to neoliberalism today is more fragmented and weaker than in the 1970s and 1980s. The two primary agents of anti-racist mobilisation in those years – black self-organisation and socialist-led working class resistance – have both been severely weakened in the intervening decades, making the likelihood of effective collective opposition more remote. The black subject fragmented in the late 1980s, in part as a result of its own success in forcing open various sites of British society to racialized minorities. Those racialized minority groups, people from South Asian, African and Caribbean backgrounds that had coalesced around the ideology of political blackness to challenge an all-pervasive colour-coded racism disintegrated into their component parts as each group made varying levels of progress within British society. As a result, the structural foundations that bound this alliance together in a coalition of the racialized poor dissipated, along with the political moment of decolonisation and civil rights, leaving little possibility today of a return to the anti-racist politics of blackness.”

The extent to which ‘political blackness’ was ever as strong a mobilizing force as it has been subsequently portrayed has come into question over recent years. On the one hand, it is impossible to deny that state multiculturalism and the willing cooptation by ethnic minority community leaders did not have a role to play (cf. Modood’s claim that political blackness denies Muslim/Asian subjectivities). However, it is not as simple as to say that there was top-down project to destroy a movement of interracial solidarity. Within migrant communities, there were also hegemonies that played their role in downplaying racism within antiracist groups. Also, there is little effort to think about the role of whiteness within political blackness, in other words how the convenient adoption of the label could have the effect of letting Brown, Irish and Jewish individuals off the hook in terms of confronting anti-blackness within their own communities.

Political blackness is also not class-neutral; while for some the adoption of the label ‘politically black’ was a political choice, for others their de facto material conditions – as exploited migrant labour or the descendants of this workforce – led to a conflation of their experience of racialization – as the ‘racialized outsider’. By the late 1960s, however, there was little way of including Jews among this group despite their former exploitation as migrant workers in the pre-war period.

Secondly, any discussion of political blackness today cannot take place in a vacuum. It must recognize the extent to which the discussion if filtered through global debates about black identity and anti-blackness that are inflected by engagement with those debates in the US (where political blackness for obvious reasons was never a label used by anyone).

Adherence to political blackness today can also only take place in the absence of an engagement with the cultural politics of representation. Indeed, many older activists reject criticisms of political blackness from the younger generation as ‘identity politics’ without taking seriously what the concerns of these younger activists are. As the recent case of the Guerilla TV series shows, it appears that political blackness as a rhetoric depends on the erasure of actual Black people’s contribution, and that of Black women in particular.

Coalescing around political blackness should not mean mounting a pretense that everyone who adhered to the label, for undoubtedly good political reasons, was treated or regarded as the same. Some may at the time have chosen to identify with the label as a rallying force while recognizing that this meant downplaying anti-Black racism within movements for a ‘higher purpose’. The largely failed project of broad based antiracism – for many reasons (many of them beyond the purview of antiracist activists themselves) may have led some to question what they gave up at the expense of rallying around ‘political blackness’.

An excellent discussion with Ash Sarkar, Wail Qasim and Reni Eddo-Lodge in which political blackness is usefully discussed

Flattening out and reifying all forms of racism does not do anything for explaining the persistent power of race. While I am encouraging a relational approach to the study of race that demonstrates the continuities of race as a project, this is not benefited by seeing all racisms as equal with each other. The various trajectories that brought Africans and African-Caribbeans to the UK, including the history of slavery, is of a different quality to the reasons behind South Asian, Irish or Jewish migration. While what we could all the racial-colonial binds their experience of race as domination, its operation is different across time and location. Race also relies on creating differences between the racialized, which are reproduced in relations between differently racialized peoples.







Alana Lentin