Sivanandan’s Pessimistic Hope in a Degraded Age

Saturday 10th February, 2018

Ben Gidley

I moved to London in 1991. In many ways, it was a miserable year for me. I started a Philosophy degree at a Russell Group university, and I found myself loathing the entitlement and privilege, the casual homophobia, racism and class conceit of the student body and most of the lecturers. Reading the obtuse texts of Greek philosophers and struggling with the esoteric exercises of formal logic felt mind-numbing.

In particular it felt completely irrelevant when there was so much suffering and violence going on outside the ivory towers – Rolan Adams had been stabbed by a racist gang in Thamesmead, then Rohit Duggal was killed in Eltham, Ruhullah Aramesh in Thornton Heath and Sher Singh Sagoo in Deptford; Delroy McKnight, diagnosed as schizophrenic, bled to death after he sawed through his neck with a piece of glass broken from his Wandsworth cell window; Vandana Patel was stabbed to death by her husband in Stoke Newington police station where she had sought safety from him; Ian Gordon, a black psychiatric patient, was shot dead by Telford police; Orville Blackwood died after being given an injection of “calming” drugs in a Broadmoor secure unit; Omasase Lumumba was killed while being “controlled and restrained” by six guards in Pentonville; there were riots in Blackbird Leys, Handsworth and Dudley; Freedom Bookshop was burnt out by fascists – and I was listening to lectures about Leibniz. The final straw came for me with Bishop Berkeley and the question of how we know if there is a world external to the self, which seemed to me the least relevant question imaginable. I dropped out.

Outside the classroom, I had thrown myself into political activism and in particular into anti-racist and anti-fascist politics. Anti-Fascist Action was growing. Its Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs had 10,000 participants; a march in Bethnal Green under the slogan “Beating the Fascists: An old East End tradition” had 4,000 participants; and in 1992 a pitched battle at Waterloo Station would lead to a decisive victory against the white power music scene. Grassroots organisations such as the Newham Monitoring Project, Southall Black Sisters, the Monitoring Group in West London and Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks were defending black communities from racist attack across London. The Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) relaunched its independent magazine. The Institute for Race Relations published Deadly Silence, a devastating litany of black deaths in custody. Alongside this, I haunted the public libraries and independent bookstores of London, devouring CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Walter Rodney – texts that seemed to make sense of the world so much better than anything on my college reading lists.

Sivanandan was never the headline speaker at public events, but his presence was vital in this period, as a person and as a thinker. I volunteered at CARF, so met him a few times, but I was shy, and my first real conversation with him was just after I dropped out of college, and it left an indelible mark on me. When I told him about leaving the course, he said, with a mischievous smile, “Yes. I forget who noted that the philosophers just want to interpret the world, in various ways – but you want to change it." My young heart glowed. Looking back, I’m sure he’d met a thousand kids like me, idealistic radicals who wanted to make a difference, but at the time I’d felt my intellectual hero had looked inside me and recognised something unique.

He also said, “Make no mistake about it: there is no anti-racist movement today.” The movement, he said, was a faintly flickering flame compared to an earlier cycle of struggle, but that our task was to tend it, "in the pessimistic hope" that it would return to full flame again. That spirit of pessimistic hope seems to me still vital today – I later recognised it in Hannah Arendt’s mid-twentieth century reflections on “dark times”, as well as Gramsci’s prison notebooks. And similarly Sivanandan’s diagnosis of British anti-racism’s abeyance also seems vital.

That diagnosis had, I think, four elements. First, the mainstream (white) left (exemplified by the Anti-Nazi League, relaunched at the end of 1991 by the Socialist Workers Party, and now trading under the Stand Up To Racism brand) had exchanged militant anti-fascism for a populist moralising, focused on the (white) campus and on the (white) High Street. This stance demonised the far right as “Nazis”, but lacked any analysis of the racism and the material forms that shaped their appeal, and lacked any ability to communicate with those communities, who, having been broken by neoliberal de-industrialisation and evacuated by the left, might be pulled towards the message of the right.

Second, Sivanandan argued that some of the successes of the anti-racist movement in the 1980s had turned out to be pyrrhic victories. The threat of uprising posed by the inner-city rebellions of the 1980s awoke the attention of the left at the moment when post-New Left radicals were moving into positions of power in municipal bureaucracies. But the municipal left’s embrace of anti-racism proved poisonous: “the fight against racism moved from the streets and the shop-floor to the town halls and the committee rooms where bureaucrats sought neatly packaged solutions to throw at 'the problem' and its vocal spokespeople.” Personal racism rather than institutional racism became the site of struggle, and anti-racism became a platform for individual career advancement. Sivanandan described this process as “the degradation of black struggle”.

But Sivanandan’s critique wasn’t just of the personal compromises of former comrades who chose less austere lives than his; it was also of a reorientation away from what he saw as real politics. “The fight against racism became a fight for culture, and culture itself was evacuated of its economic and political significance to mean lifestyle, language, custom, artifact.” The passing of political blackness, and its replacement with ever narrower ethnic categories, stood for him as indicators of this degradation.

In a period of political defeat, many intellectual retreated into ever more obtuse forms of theory, politically as disconnected from the struggles of the inner city as the Leibniz and Berkeley I rejected during my first attempt at university. Sivanandan’s bitter polemic “All That Melts into Air is Solid: the hokum of New Times”, aimed partly at Stuart Hall, slices through some of these theories with the brilliance and hardness of cut diamonds, showing how intellectual radicalism in the academy could provide an alibi for degraded forms of anti-racism in state bureaucracies.

However, although he saw the movement away from the anti-racism of the 1960s and 1970s as a form of degradation, he did not argue for a simple return to its fixed certainties. Racism, he argued, “never stands still. It changes shape, size, contours, purpose, function, with changes in the economy, the social structure, the system and, above all, the challenges, the resistances, to that system.” Speaking as part of the post-Windrush generation of citizen-migrants from Britain’s colonies and former colonies, he went on to note that “The racism we are faced with today is not the racism we faced 40, 50 years ago, when we first came here.” This heightened awareness to racism’s mutability meant racism’s new forms came into clearer focus.

When CARF relaunched in 1991, its first issue included a long analysis of resurgent anti-Arab racism starting before, but rising rapidly as a result of, the first Gulf War. The article also discussed the return of anti-Islam racism in the wake of the Rushdie affair. Similarly, Sivanandan’s concept of “xeno-racism” recognised the turn at the end of the 1990s towards the racialisation of migrants, that would come to dominate the politics of our time. Like anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism (and the new antisemitism of the same period, to which Sivanandan was less attentive), this was a radically non-epidermal racism: “not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at western Europe’s doors.” A racism “that cannot be colour-coded, directed as it is at poor whites as well.”

Within academia, the failure to recognise the repressed nexus between race and human mobility has been institutionalised in a split between a race-blind migration studies, on the one hand, and, on the other, an ethnic and racial studies that is only now starting to take migration seriously.

From the perspective of 2018, perhaps the long march into the institutions, of which Siva was so dismissive, can now also been seen as a victory for the anti-racist struggle, and even the attenuated forms of anti-racist policy of that period helped trigger a generational change in racial attitudes. Even these thin victories have been enough to generate resentment and a sense of dispossession from those fragile wearers of a threadbare white privilege, so many of whom voted to take back control in 2016.

Is the flame of anti-racism, which Sivanandan saw as barely flickering that day in 1991, alight still? Are there grounds for even pessimistic hope in the age of Trump and Brexit? Sivanandan argued that new forms of racism always meant new forms of resistance. The avoidable tragedy of Grenfell Tower, for all its horror, has shown us this again: a working class community, whose complexity in terms of immigration status and racialisation exceeds even the supplest academic descriptions of “diversity”, enacting a praxis consisting of solidarity, autonomy, mutual care and dignity that point towards not just how to “interpret the world in various ways”, but maybe, just maybe, also how we might start to change it.

Ben Gidley is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. His latest book, co-edited with James Renton, is Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe. Ben tweets at @bengidley.

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