Prejudice or racism

Government ministers Banks and Blunkett - all part of the pretence?

In trying to make a strong case for the CPGB’s position against immigration controls and responding to my incorrect positions, as he fondly imagines them, Alan Fox (‘Fight oppression not prejudice’ Weekly Worker November 20 1997) makes several minor and major mistakes.

By concentrating on the superficial, official policies of the state, in its national and local manifestations, we are able only to obtain a partial reality. A number of deeply serious questions are raised that need extensive research and discussion to plumb. For example, can racism be distilled down to a stinking essence that concentrates only on skin colour? A very doubtful proposition. After all, Germany’s Nazis applied a test of ‘racial’ taint to those of Romani ancestry whereby anyone was eligible for the camps if merely one of their great-grandparents was a Rom, twice as exacting a test as that applied to Jews. Hostile perceptions of difference, where overlapping manifestations of chauvinism, xenophobia and racism are concerned, is anyway fraught with difficulties in the way of scientific, communist assessment. But without doubt there is an element of racism in the way in which many migrants are treated on arrival at Britain’s ports of entry; and racist oppression is a fact of life in today’s Britain.

Roma whose ancestors came to Britain centuries ago are still facing racism today. Recently in parliament, on Monday November 24, politicians were complaining about problems caused by indigenous Roma, that is, British ‘gypsies’, in their constituencies. Roma coming to Britain from the Czech Republic (many of whom, incidentally, migrated recently from Slovakia) or from Slovakia face racism - not because “most … are dark skinned …” but because they are Roma. Comparison of skin tones is invidious, in fact, since this is only one of the possible bases of racism, a world view preoccupied with race, itself a slippery, highly political categorisation system with a variety of different definitions serving different political purposes. It is beyond our powers as communists to pin down racism to the simple, not to say simplistic, formula that racism is only concerned with skin coloration. Outside of Africa, which has a richly diverse human genetic pool according to recent research, there is in fact very little genetic diversity from one end of the planet to another. So, of course, the idea of a genetic template for perceived racial difference falls down and we are forced to try to understand this irrationality, vomited up most particularly under capitalism, using tools which tackle its non-scientific and totally subjective character, made even more difficult since each variant of racism develops its own internal logic.

Xenophobia, or fear and hatred toward outsiders is, of course, but the precursor of the later term, ‘racism’. Before the 1950s the term ‘racism’ was almost unknown anyway, at least in Britain - the expression ‘racialism’ being virtually used synonymously. Cloaked in various forms, such as the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, the ‘superior’ English ‘race’ (for which read ‘imperialism’) conquered ‘inferior’ peoples; for the last 150 years or so the English/Scots/Welsh amalgam has within bourgeois ideology carried the same idea of racial superiority for its ‘racialists’ and racists, whether or not leading lights in the British imperialist state. This state has not changed its spots, nor will it ever do so. But it will often hide its light under a bushel, versatile enough under conditions of relative social peace to be able to avoid the brickbats of liberal chatterers and anti-racists and happy to encourage itself to be portrayed, superficially and wrongly, as ‘anti-racist’. In like manner has the state become ‘pro-feminist’, allegedly in favour of women’s rights and sympathetic to the needs of the female majority?

Communists’ tasks include that of destroying illusions about the nature of the state. Our job is not helped by pretending that the capitalist state is somehow now positively anti-racist, since this is only surface and intended to obscure its real face. Otherwise, we are no better than the liberals, social democrats, and opportunists of the old CPGB who kidded themselves at some time or other that the state could be, if it was not already, a means to achieving ‘progressive’ ends in society. Marx examined this question in his earliest writings and clambered through his own misapprehension about what the bourgeois state could do, concluding it was anathema to the development of humanity and had to be overthrown.

As Jack Conrad’s Draft programme for the CPGB says, “The capitalist state in Britain has an official ideology of anti-racism. That in no way contradicts the national chauvinist consensus which champions British imperialism’s interests against foreign rivals and sets worker against worker.” And in no way does this thin veneer of the “official ideology of anti-racism” conceal the underlying reality of the British state’s racist essence. National chauvinism meshes with xenophobia and racism in a multitude of ways in neo-colonialist, imperialist Britain.

It is precisely because the bourgeoisie at this time wants social peace and stability that it puts on the coat of ‘anti-racism’. But let us not be fooled by appearances. While expressions of hostility to those of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin living in Britain are officially frowned on under the state’s policy of ‘anti-racism’, this is not the case as regards the Roma, whether or not individual Rom live in the country or not. Similarly, there has been no difficulty for so-called ‘patrials’ (ie, with a ‘racially’ acceptable grandparent born in Britain) from beyond the EU migrating to Britain, whether or not they are workers, while petty bourgeois as well as working class South Asians wait months and years to join their spouses under the racist immigration rules. There is no getting away from the fact that racism is part and parcel of the British state’s being, infecting all parts of society. Pointing to black presenters on children’s television programmes is almost too fatuous for words: it betrays complete ignorance of the racism pervading media organisations as it pervades all of revolting capitalism.

It is amazing of comrade Fox to argue that were the state to require disharmony (which state does not want harmony and stability, anyway?) it would either “encourage black immigration - or conversely repatriation” (original emphasis). Neither black or any other kind of immigration creates racial strife in and of itself: this is one of the oldest myths perpetuated by reactionary liberal ‘anti-racism’. Giving credence to this liberal lie goes directly against the Draft programme, which states: “Immigration is a progressive phenomenon which breaks down national differences and prejudices. It unites British workers with the world working class.” Racism is created, developed, and nurtured by the bourgeoisie as one means to divide worker from worker and secure its hegemony; clearly the use of racism is a dangerous tactic for the capitalist class, but limiting it by means of ‘anti-racist’ legislation maintains a degree of control over it, given that prosecutions may or may not go forward, depending on government policy at any particular time. There are even suggestions that some ‘anti-racist’ initiatives and groups are connected with MI5 in order that the state may keep tabs on racist groups and organisations and ensure they do not get beyond the state’s control. Clearly, nice judgements by the British bourgeois state are involved as to what degree racism shall be allowed to prevail and to be tolerated by it, depending on relative social peace and the need to divide the working class at any particular time.

The fact that comrade Fox was stung to respond to my original letter (Weekly Worker November 13 1997) suggests that he imagines the argument for workers to be allowed free travel without border controls is somehow weakened by ignoring the strong racist element present in the way many migrant workers are dealt with at port of entry and inside Britain by the state. Unfortunately, if the whole truth seems messy this is no reason to ignore parts of it. The case of the Czech and Slovak Roma shows exactly how the British state’s figleaf of ‘anti-racism’ falls off, exposing how the Roma’s special status at this time as pariahs in British society allows racism, even in a restricted form, to continue to exist at the level of bourgeois respectability (ie, with at least the complicity of the state).

British state ‘anti-racism’ can be switched on or off as desired: a fact implied by comrade Fox when he describes how the state may, in a revolutionary situation, seek “to undermine working class unity and foment division”. But the state cannot turn on what is not there to be turned on: that is, not the mere presence amongst the population of different ethnic and religious minorities, but their ongoing scapegoating, anathematising, and racist oppression. At the moment, the Roma fulfil this ongoing purpose for the bourgeoisie: a vehicle for the engenderment and maintenance of a reservoir of racism, to be topped up as and when necessary, consequent on the depth of crisis and proximity to a revolutionary situation.

In contradiction to what comrade Fox declares, castigating “the left’s insistence on seeing racism in the motives of the ruling class” for being “not only foolish, but downright dangerous”, if communists refuse to see racism when it is always there in the state’s calculations as a ready weapon in case of difficulty, then we shall not be ready for revolution. Window dressing is merely that: a display intended to entice us into the bourgeoisie’s ideological store, whose goods stink of reaction.

Tom Ball