Racism or nationalism

Much of the left continues to experience a great deal of difficulty in coming to terms with the British state's now highly developed official anti-racism, writes Peter Manson. The fact is that the state has colonised the left's anti-racism and turned it into its dialectical opposite - anti-racist national chauvinism

Since 1965, with the passing of the tentative measures contained  in the first Race Relations Act - which outlawed discrimination in (some, but not all) “places of public resort” - not only have many overt manifestations of racism been made illegal, but numerous state and media-backed campaigns have stressed a new definition of Britishness, incorporating citizens of every ethnicity.

The extent of the official anti-racist consensus can be seen by the virtually unanimous condemnation of British National Party leader Nick Griffin for referring to black and brown Britons as “racial foreigners”. Speaking on Radio 4’s The Report on April 23, he said that, although “in civic terms they are British, ‘British’ also has a meaning as an ethnic description. We don’t subscribe to the politically correct fiction that, just because they happen to be born in Britain, a Pakistani is a Briton. They’re not; they remain of Pakistani stock.” Denying this was “denying the English their own identity”, he said.

The irony is, of course, that just a few decades ago Griffin’s comments would largely have been considered non-controversial. As late as the 1950s, Britishness (or Englishness) was at least partly defined in ethnic terms. But in 2009 everyone from the archbishop of York to Gordon Brown expresses outrage at any expression of yesterday’s common sense, as articulated by the now apologetically racist BNP.

The left’s difficulty arises from its well entrenched dogma that racism and capitalism go hand in hand. Each bourgeois state must, to a greater or lesser degree, rely on racism in order to divide the working class. The state - or so we are told - cannot achieve the same end through different, opposing, means.

Following on from this, all immigration controls by their very nature must be racist. The capitalist state - presumably in its South African variant as well - has an irrational aversion to people with dark skins. Or, since many recent migrants happen to be from eastern Europe, it is simply foreigners in general the bourgeoisie despises. This too is labelled racism. And, as everybody knows, the state always hopes to set white worker against black as a means of keeping control. Therefore, according to the conventional ‘wisdom’ of the left, it must inevitably seek to stimulate racism. It is institutionally racist.

How strange then that the state itself has now adopted the very same terminology. The 1999 Macpherson inquiry into police handling of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 announced: “There must be an unequivocal acceptance of the problem of institutionalised racism” - not only in the police, but across society.1

But for the Socialist Workers Party it is only appearances that have changed. The encouragement of racism by the bourgeoisie is alive and well. This is illustrated by the presentation of an interview carried by Socialist Worker with Liz Fekete, executive director at the Institute of Race Relations. The headline chosen is “Reworking racism” and the introduction informs readers that “old prejudices have been adapted for new targets”.2

The Institute of Race Relations is a campaigning charity which publishes Race and Class and it is clear that Liz Fekete, if not the IRR itself, shares much common ground with the SWP. She tells Yuri Prasad of Socialist Worker: “In recent years we have seen the rise of racism against asylum-seekers. Newspapers like The Sun started running articles that said that being against refugees wasn’t racist because a lot of refugees have white skin. We noted that, unlike anti-black racism, this new racism isn’t necessarily ‘colour-coded’. It’s anti-foreigner, but it isn’t simply xenophobia because not all foreigners are targets - rich people seem to be fairly welcome here. The common link between those on the receiving end of this new racism is poverty.”

She goes on: “What this new ‘xeno-racism’ has in common with older forms of racism is that it is a structured ideology and is institutionalised by the state. The notion of managed migration stems from the needs of the rich. The leaders of the European Union want skilled workers to come here from across the world. But the trade-off for this has been an attack on the rights of refugees.”

The dogmatic starting point - that capitalism is inevitably racist and that racism is the prime motive for immigration controls - leads to a redefinition: now we have a racism that has nothing to do with race! What is more, “xeno-racism” has nothing to do with targeting any particular ethnic group either. It is “racism” directed against ‘the poor’ alone.

National chauvinism

If ever a ‘theory’ was in need of re-examination it is surely this one. And it is not so difficult, is it? Capital needs workers to exploit and therefore attempts to control the availability of labour. This can mean encouraging or blocking the free movement of workers (either skilled or unskilled) according to circumstances, in order to strengthen its own hand and weaken that of the organised working class. Immigration controls have the added benefit for capital of creating a pool of illegal workers, whose effect is to further undermine our class’s bargaining power.

The ‘race’, ethnicity or nationality of the workers capital seeks to control is irrelevant - what matters is their suitability. In other words, immigration controls are never “necessarily colour-coded”. As Fekete states, members of the same ethnic group might find themselves either barred or “welcome”, depending on their usefulness (which may include their wealth).

Of course, the ruling class has always attempted to disguise its anti-worker agenda through the adoption of various ideologies - and nationalism has been employed since the creation of nations. This has often been mixed with notions of ‘race’.

Previously the alleged ‘inferiority’ of subject peoples was used to justify British colonial conquests. But racism, like anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism before it, no longer serves the interests of the state. Today, with the empire long dismantled, a rearticulated national chauvinism is a much more useful weapon. This anti-racist national chauvinism aims to cohere the whole population - black and white - around the class interests of British capital, defined in opposition to the interests of ‘outsiders’.

But modern bourgeois anti-racism, despite its aim of domestic stability, can be just as divisive as was its racism. Its ‘positive discrimination’, imposed from the top, serves to pit black against white in competition for jobs and resources (‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘races’ being political constructs, having nothing to do with supposed biological groupings of human beings). We are meant to approach the state as ‘ethnic’ supplicants - state officials act to ensure ‘fairness’.

Moreover, the aim of state anti-racism is to unite us negatively on the basis of a common Britishness. It encourages workers to turn against the ‘threat’ of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, who are told to stay where they ‘belong’. Our rulers erect barriers against them not because of their race or ethnicity, but because by and large they are working class and, as Fekete states, poor. A secondary consequence is that those who manage to bypass the barriers have no legal status, are virtually impossible to organise and can thus be used as ‘worst paid labour’, undercutting, dividing and weakening the proletariat as a whole.

In times of relative class peace, in the absence of fierce combativity from our class, the bourgeoisie tries to ensure the continuity of social stability. Thus in Britain it actively promotes a top-down ethnic harmony through a whole range of measures. It encourages the notion that ethnic diversity ought to be the norm of a civilised society: indeed it is positively desirable. That is why anti-racism is taught in schools, why local councils and most big companies prominently display their anti-racist policies and credentials, why television in particular - the most popular and powerful of all the mass media - constantly and consistently pushes the same theme.

The bourgeoisie aims to win ideological hegemony over every section of society - every class, every ethnic group. It eschews racism not because it believes in polite and agreeable behaviour, but because a population divided along mutually hostile ethnic lines would be antithetical to its present aims of consolidating national unity directed against outsiders.

But this political correctness only goes so far. While the slightest hint of discriminatory language or action based on race or ethnicity is officially frowned upon and usually forcefully condemned, when it comes to expressions of patriotism, of discrimination in favour of Britain and against outsiders, that is considered to be not only desirable, but completely natural. While white Britons are today never encouraged to think of themselves as having separate and distinct interests as opposed to black Britons, standing up for Britain, for ‘our’ interests, for ‘British jobs for British workers’, is the officially promoted orthodoxy.

This ideology does not usually portray ‘the British’ (newly defined) as being superior to other nations. It insists only that ‘we’ have a common interest - as opposed to those of other countries. Just as employers continually strive to instil in their employees the notion that workers, managers, directors and shareholders all ought to collaborate for the good of the company and their mutual benefit, so British capital seeks to forge a similar ‘unity’ in the interests of the ‘nation’.

This ideology is so powerful and all-pervading that it even affects the thinking of the left. No self-respecting socialist would want to be viewed in any other way than as a committed anti-racist who believes in the equality and solidarity of all. Yet the left and self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations embrace such ideas as import and immigration controls, the hope of making social advances in ‘our’ own country without reference to elsewhere: in short, national socialism.

That is why attacks on the ‘racist’ state are misdirected. The bourgeoisie is only too happy to condemn and attempt to prevent manifestations of racist discrimination within its shores. But there is no common ground whatsoever over genuine internationalism. For the ruling class Britain’s ‘national interests’ must always come first.

Two inquiries

The drive to seal anti-racism as official ideology was giving impetus by the Brixton riots of April 1981, which were also followed by a series of other disturbances during the summer of that year in towns and cities with substantial black populations.

During April a heavy-handed police operation in Brixton, south London, named Operation Swamp 81, involved the stopping and searching of hundreds of mainly black youth under the notorious ‘sus’ laws - whereby the police were virtually given carte blanche to frisk and question bypassers on the mere suspicion that an offence had been, or was about to be, committed. On the evening of April 10 despite saturation policing a 17-year-old was stabbed, but officers on the scene seemed more concerned with questioning him than ensuring he got the urgent medical help he needed. In the tense atmosphere created by Operation Swamp, implemented before the days of prior consultation with ‘community leaders’, the resentment at the arrogant and provocative police behaviour came to a head with this incident.

It took the best part of two days for the police to regain control - but not before pitched battles when both black and white youth attempted to drive the police off their streets. In the ensuing chaos several premises were looted or burnt down and there were dozens of injuries and arrests.

Towards the end of the year the inquiry set up under Lord Scarman produced a report which strongly criticised the police operation. Scarman found there had been disproportionate and indiscriminate use of ‘stop and search’ powers against black people. The ferocious response produced by the callous and insensitive use of police powers provoked a new questioning of policing methods - not least the racist culture that went with it. The Scarman inquiry resulted in the inclusion of a new police behaviour code in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which also set up the Police Complaints Authority.

However, Scarman dismissed the notion of ‘institutionalised racism’. While he accepted that police racism had to be combated, he rejected the idea that it was somehow built into police structures. Indeed, if words have any meaning, institutionalisation implies that racism is cultivated from the top - apartheid South Africa was a good example of institutionalised racism. If it was being applied in the Metropolitan police, then perhaps a contemptuous attitude towards non-whites might be inculcated on training courses for new recruits. Or senior police officers might instruct the lower ranks to pick on blacks and Asians - or at least encourage racist freelancers to do their own thing.

Just under two decades later, the Macpherson inquiry came to the opposite conclusion. The police - or at least the Metropolitan Police Service - was institutionally racist. However, Macpherson was only able to arrive at this conclusion by redefining ‘institutional racism’. Now it meant “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amounts to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.”3

To be guilty of “thoughtlessness” is hardly the same as being branded an agent of British-style apartheid. The new definition was equivalent to an acceptance that the police’s policy was basically well meaning (according to bourgeois anti-racist criteria), and represented a statement that the police needed to embrace official anti-racism much more enthusiastically.

Thus the inquiry’s findings did not pinpoint any specific examples either of individual or “institutional” racism in the conduct of the Lawrence case. It stated that the police “underplayed or ignored” the importance of “race relations” and were slow to acknowledge that Stephen’s murder was a racist attack. It pointed to many examples of “ineptitude”, and concluded that the only possible explanation for all the “errors and incompetencies” must have been “pernicious racism”, described as a “corrosive disease”.

Remarkably the Macpherson report cited US black radicals Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton as their authority on institutional racism. According to these two 1960s leaders of the Black Panthers, it “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society. It relies on the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices. A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are ‘better’ than blacks and therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. This is a racist attitude and it permeates society on both the individual and institutional level, covertly or overtly”.4

This was just the right mixture of strongly worded criticism and vagueness on detail for Macpherson’s purpose - to force through a change of culture and the positive implementation of official anti-racism. Ethnic minorities must be won to trust the police as part of their incorporation in the new multicultural Britain - Scarman had gone nowhere near far enough.

Following the publication of The Stephen Lawrence inquiry ‘race awareness’ courses became much more central in police training, and there were big recruitment drives to win more black and Asian officers. Macpherson also tried to ensure that racist ‘incidents’ involving the police were more frequently reported by stating that any such incident should be recorded when one or more of the persons involved perceived it to be of a racist nature.

But Socialist Worker, despite sharing the growing establishment consensus around “institutionalised racism” and joining in the chorus to “sack Paul Condon” (the Metropolitan police commissioner who had refused to accept his force was ‘institutionally racist’ until Macpherson kindly redefined the term), would have none of it. Hassan Mahamdallie asked, “Can the police be reformed?” and promptly answered his own question in the negative. He declared bluntly: “Police racism is not the exception. It is the rule ... we should not lose sight of the fact that the police can never be ‘anti-racist’.”5

This ‘always have been, always will be’ mentality is no substitute for an analysis. Just why is it impossible for the bourgeoisie to adopt a new ideology? And why can it not be imposed on state organs, including the police? It was by now more than clear that the establishment was determined to root out the many racist officers that its police force undoubtedly contained.

Of course, in one sense it is true to say that the police force cannot be reformed. It can never be transformed into an instrument for the working class. Irrespective of its newly found anti-racist credentials, it remains an organ of the bourgeois state. Similarly bourgeois anti-racism has nothing in common with positive working class unity. By contrast to anti-racist British chauvinism, proletarian politics is first and foremost internationalist. We have no interest in promoting the national state.

It is important to disprove the claims of the likes of Socialist Worker not because we believe the police are gentle, fair and impartial. Far from it. They are employed in a quite partial and often vicious way against the working class, anti-imperialists and - yes - black ‘community activists’.

The truth is that the state, through its police, will take action to crush any section or group that causes it to feel threatened. That is why the left’s focus on racism as the main question is completely misdirected. In practice it does nothing to challenge the nationalist consensus and indeed frequently merges with it.


1. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry February 1999 www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm42/4262/sli-06.htm.

2. April 25 - a longer version of the interview is available online: www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=17712.

3. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry February 1999 www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm42/4262/sli-06.htm.

4. S Carmichael, CV Hamilton Black power: the politics of liberation in America London 1967, pp20-21. Quoted by Macpherson.

5. Socialist Worker February 20 1999.