National Sections of the L5I:

Racism – what it is and how to fight it

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“For three years these people, normal people, put shit through my letterbox, spat on me, kicked my child’s push chair, screamed at our visitors. These were women, you know, other mothers. So nice to each other. Animals to us.” (Shaida, Asian mother)

“Thirty percent of London Underground workers are form ethnic minorities, but 97% of the managers are white. In 1990, 250 new management jobs came up. Nearly 90% went to white applicants.

“In 1990, 16% of all male prisoners were from ethnic minority groups. 28% of all women prisoners were form ethnic minority groups. People from ethnic minorities make up only 4.8% of Britain’s population.”

The three examples of racism quoted above are not isolated. Racist attacks are on the increase; racist employment practices are rife; black youth are being systematically criminalised.

Racist immigration laws reduce large numbers of black people in Britain to second class citizenship. Racial abuse is an everyday experience for black people.

The problem is international. All over Europe far right parties are growing, and the traditional parties are openly pandering to racism.

But what causes racism? Is it “human nature”? Is it genetically determined? Is it a product of “evil” or deviant individual behaviour? Can the cause be traced to laws, social structures and traditions—or a combination of all of these?

Understanding the cause of racism is crucial if we want to eradicate it. Otherwise anti-racism becomes a mere gesture. Take this statement:
“I want a society that encourages each and every one to fulfil his or her potential to the utmost . . . Let me say here and now that I regard any barrier built on race to be pernicious.”

The words belong to John Major, the Tory prime minister in charge of the racist system!

Even the Metropolitan Police spends hundreds of thousands of pounds on “anti-racist” advertising campaigns.

But genuine, consistent anti-racism flows from an understanding of the causes of racism. It means implementing a strategy that can totally eradicate it from society.

Workers Power, as revolutionary socialists, believe that racism is built into the capitalist system. We believe its foundation stone lies within the structure of the imperialist world system. The anti-racist struggle can only achieve complete victory through the working class struggle for socialism.

Many committed anti-racists dis-agree. Reformists and liberal anti-racists think that racism can be eradicated through legal measures and education within the present system.

Some black nationalists and separatists believe that racism is part of human nature and that it can never be eradicated. Some socialists believe that racism is just an ideological hangover from the past, or is caused by the unfamiliarity of white populations with recent black immigrants.

In every case the strategy and tactics of different political currents in the anti-racist struggle are dictated by their understanding of the root cause. To understand racism in modern capitalist society we have to understand its origins, its history and its material roots. Marxists believe that all ideas—especially the ideas that govern people’s social and political behaviour—are, ultimately, a reflection of real material conditions in society.

If we look at the three examples of racism quoted above, we can see that only one of them, the first, is directly a problem of the ideas and behaviour of a few active racist individuals.

Black workers in London Underground are not only held back by the racist prejudices of their top managers. They are also discriminated against in many aspects of training and education. They are disadvantaged by a promotion system which claims to be “colour blind” but which is really only blind to racism.

Similarly the huge numbers of black people in prison does not happen just because the police and the judges are racist—though they are. The whole system of deprivation in housing, education and employment pushes sections of black youth into crime.

The rich and powerful decide what constitutes a crime in this society. Thus the police killers of Joy Gardner walk free while black youth are jailed for minor offences.

The problem is not simply one of racist ideas and racist language or even of the racist propaganda peddled by the Tory press. It goes deeper. Society is not racist because of people’s racist ideas— it is the other way round. Racist ideology is nurtured and perpetuated by the social system. A system of racist discrimination inhabits every area of social life.

Coupled with the incessant insults, the subtle racist codes and symbols in the media, and the rising wave of racist attacks this constitutes a systematic, material racial oppression.

So what causes racial oppression?

The roots of racism
Human society has changed dramatically during the thousands of years since it began. Distinct forms of class society have existed, from the “slave societies” of ancient Greece and Rome, to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, through to the current capitalist system.

Capitalism itself—the system of production for profit based on constant technological innovation and factory production—went through several distinct phases of development.

In each of these successive forms of human society there were relationships of exploitation and oppression. Always a rich minority dominated society, accumulating wealth and inflicting poverty on the majority. The ruling classes exploit and oppress us not because they are inherently evil or greedy. Their actions are always a function of their class position—their relationship to the means of production.

The very same applies to the majority but in reverse. It has always struggled against the ruling elite in order to defend itself from poverty and to combat its own exploitation at the hands of the ruling class. History has always been driven forward by the class struggle. At first sight it seems obvious that the early forms of class society—tribalism, nomadism, the marauding hordes of horsemen who swept across continents—must have been racist.

These were superstitious societies where life was cheap and economic survival depended on killing and enslaving rival tribes. It is also well known that both the Greeks and Romans had stereotypes and prejudices against other peoples (including each other). Many people conclude from this that racial oppression is as old as human society itself. Marxists reject this idea; not because we see former societies as nicer, friendlier places than modern Britain, but because we make a distinction between ignorance, prejudice and fear of the unknown and systematic racial oppression.

The point about prejudice and fear of strangers in pre-capitalist society is that it was indiscriminate, not systematic, and was often based directly on different class interests. In ancient Greece the philosopher Aristotle did advance a pseudo-racial justification for slavery:

“Those who are so much inferior to others as . . . beasts to men are by their nature slaves and benefit like all inferiors from the rule of a master.”

But this was rejected by most Greeks in theory, in law and in practice. Greeks could be slaves and non-Greek slaves could buy their freedom. The prejudices of pre-capitalist societies were not systematic. There were black (Arab and African) generals in the feudal armies. Societies which conquered other peoples often assimilated them and sometimes even abandoned their own language and culture and adopted those of the people they had conquered.

Genocide was carried out by the feudal rulers not just against other peoples, but against whole communities of their own peasants who tried to throw off the rule of the landlords.

All of this does not mean that racial prejudice was absent in pre-capitalist societies, or that there were no laws of racial discrimination. But the history of the Jews in feudal Europe shows how these prejudices and laws were always based on other, more fundamental, class conflicts.

While Jews were always subjected to anti-Semitic prejudice from the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, their social position underwent dramatic changes according to their social role in the feudal society which the Church presided over.

At certain times, when it suited the economic interests of feudal land owners, the Jews enjoyed relative freedom from persecution. At other times they were viciously persecuted, especially when their economic interests clashed with those of the landowners. This was because—unlike any “ethnic minority” in modern society—Jews as a people fulfilled a specific class function, as small traders, merchants and bankers.

What is unique about the racist prejudices and laws under modern capitalism is that they are pure, systematic. They become transformed from disconnected prejudices into a pervasive system of racial oppression. The whole development of capitalism was a process of the creation of a racist system, a system of oppression which has changed radically even during the life of capitalism itself, but which is deeply rooted in the needs of the capitalists to make a profit.

Capitalism arose as a system in conflict with dying feudalism. Its first phase, the epoch of merchant capitalism, saw the capitalists fighting to create unified nation states at home—under the banner of universal human rights. At the same time they were conquering colonies for plunder and raw materials, using the late feudal system of “indentured” labour (see below) and later re-introducing slavery.

Systematic racial oppression and the racist ideologies which came with it were created by the very contradictions of this early capitalist development. The act of establishing unified nation states with national consciousness sowed the seeds of systematic racism. Rights within the nation were to be accorded only to “nationals”, not foreigners.

But the nation could only be defined “ethnically”, through a common language and culture. Thus the earliest attempts to build modern capitalist nations— in Britain and Spain for example—led to racist and exclusionist laws against sections of the population held to be “alien”.

In the 16th century we see the Spanish monarchy imposing the “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood) laws. These were designed to exclude people of Jewish ancestry, who had converted to Christianity, from holding public office. Later we see the imposition of “inquisitions” against Jews and Spanish Moors (people of Arab descent) to drive them from the country.

In Britain the prolonged wars of colonisation of Ireland were accompanied by the rise of an ideology which condemned the Irish as uncivilised and barbaric. Under Elizabeth I the first laws were introduced ordering “blackamoors” to be expelled from the country. Alongside the oppressive results of the formation of the nation at home, we see the emergence of early forms of racial oppression in the treatment of indigenous populations in the newly conquered colonies. Ireland is a case in point, where its Catholic population was systematically denied rights throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In Latin America the Spanish Conquistadors wiped out the Inca and Aztec populations with the justification that:

"The Spanish are as much above the Indians as man above the ape”.

These early examples have to be seen as a form of “proto-racial oppression”, elements of oppression that anticipated the later generalised racial oppression of more developed capitalism. Whilst resulting from the emergence of capitalism they also, to an extent, rested on earlier, economically-based conflicts and religious prejudices.

It is with the emergence of slavery that the contradiction between capitalism’s ideology of universal rights and its need for cheap colonial labour develops into a complete system of racial oppression.

Slavery had died out in ancient societies because, fundamentally, it was a less efficient form of production than the feudal farming society which replaced it. So why did early capitalism bring back slavery with a vengeance, one thousand years after it died out in ancient Greece and Rome?

The early capitalists represented a new dynamic form of production, based on wage labour and the generalised production of commodities for the market. During the earliest period of accumulating capital by the plunder of indigenous societies and the exploitation of colonial raw materials capitalists began to trade in and utilise slaves.

Initially the racism was not systematic. Francis Drake, one of the earliest slave raiders, also formed armies of “maroons” from the indigenous people of the Caribbean, to fight the Spanish. These were not armies of slaves. Likewise, the Spanish Conquistadors, who perpetrated terrible crimes against the Incas and Aztecs, also included in their ranks black African and Arab officers.

It is with the rise of a mass market for plantation products—like tobacco, coffee, sugar and cotton—that systematic slavery is introduced. At first the colonialists tried to work their plantations with “indentured labourers”. These were people who had sold themselves into temporary slavery in return for the promise of land at the end of 12 years or more. The majority were whites from Europe.

But developments in Europe undermined the system of indentured labour. Until the late 17th century Britain controlled most of the colonies, but Holland controlled the slave trade. Then in 1667 Britain defeated Holland, taking over control of slave trading. In the 1690s a massive expansion of slavery took place because, with rising wages in Europe and a land shortage in the colonies, fewer Europeans wanted to “indenture” themselves.

Indentured labour became uneconomic for the plantation owners. The plantation owners needed to produce for the capitalist market, with labour- intensive methods, but without the wage labour system. Their doctrine of universal human rights stood at odds with enslaving Europeans. Meanwhile a huge supply of African slave labour was now on tap. Thus the system of black and white bonded labour was turned into a system of black lifetime slavery.

“Slavery was not born of racism; rather racism was the consequence of slavery” writes African-Caribbean historian Eric Williams (Capitalism and Slavery). It was an essential part of the first phase of capitalist development. The horrors of the slave trade are well documented. Overall it is estimated that 115 million black people were seized and taken out of Africa during the era of the slave trade, and that 75 million died either en route to the colonies or soon after their arrival.

The only “problem” the capitalists had with this system of mass slavery was how to justify it.

Despite their murderous system of exploitation, the capitalists saw themselves as progressive, even revolutionary opponents of feudalism, a system ruled by religious prejudice and legal inequality. Under feudalism the explanation for everything reactionary was simple: it was the will of God and his representatives on earth, the landed aristocrats. Social class was defined by law.

The early capitalists could not have built a dynamic new society based on learning, technological innovation and political democracy if they had rested content with the feudal system. Instead they had to evolve their own ideological justification for the new system.

They demanded “freedom” for the peasants tied to their landlord’s land so that they could exploit them as wage labourers. They demanded political equality for themselves and introduced, for the first time in history, the idea of universal human rights.

But how could they explain their “right” to own slaves and to plunder the non-European world? Only through a new, racist ideology.

To explain the right of “Christians” to trade in and own other humans, to rule their countries, to kill them at random, those other humans had to be defined as sub-human. Black Africans, native Americans, Indians, Aborigines were all grouped together as sub-human savages.

The specific social traits and traditions of their societies, which were a product of their social backwardness, were seen as products of genetic backwardness, of “savagery”.

The cultural legacy of black African societies was, quite literally, erased, hidden from history. Yet, the often subservient behaviour and mentality imposed on Africans by a life of degrading slavery, where individuality is systematically obliterated, were seen by the Europeans as the “natural” features of black people.

Slavery and colonial plunder were the material foundations of systematic racial oppression and systematic racist ideology. This new racist ideology was developed by the colonial plantation owning capitalists and spread by them, through books, newspapers and political agitation, to the rest of the capitalist class. According to Zig Layton-Henry:

“Early stereotyping of Africans as savage, heathen and uncivilised intensifled as the major contact with West Africans involved enslavement. Comparisons between negroes and chimpanzees, who also inhabited West Africa, became more frequent as did portrayal of Africans as having lustful and unrestrained appetites . . . Biological theories of racial inferiority were clearly needed to justify such an abhorrent and anti-Christian trade and to salve the consciences of those European traders reaping such rich rewards from slavery . . . They were described, for example, by Thomas Carlyle as ‘indolent two-legged cattle’.” (The Politics of Race in Britain)

As capitalism emerged out of its early stage—what Karl Marx called “primitive accumulation”—it developed less haphazard forms of profit making than slavery, pillage and piracy.

The generalised form of exploitation—wage labour by workers who are “free” to work for any employer—was promoted by the capitalists themselves. They converted the countries where a kind of early capitalist gun law ruled into “colonies”— replacing the rule of individual capitalist companies by the rule of the British, Dutch or French capitalist governments. But racism did not disappear. In the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century the European capitalists were engaged in a political struggle against the old rulers, the landed aristocrats. Their slogans were “the rights of man”, “liberty, equality and fraternity”. When it suited them in their struggle to prise away the colonies of a rival capitalist country, they occasionally said these rights should be given to the black people of the Caribbean, India and Africa. But in general they did not grant such rights.

How could this be justified? Only by the racist theory, dreamed up to legitimise colonial rule, that the non-European peoples of the world were in a childlike state of savagery and could not be trusted to run their own affairs. Thus the myth of the “white man’s burden” was born. The white European capitalists had the “burden” of running things for the black inhabitants of their colonies because black people, explicitly compared to children, were incapable of doing so.

Despite this many socialists in the mid to late nineteenth century assumed that the development of this free competition phase of capitalism would eventually lead to the eradication of all forms of racial oppression. The mid-19th century saw determined and even revolutionary struggles by the bourgeoisie and middle classes of the emerging capitalist nations for outright political control of the system. They fought against the alliance of slave owners, aristocrats and merchants which had dominated the previous phase of development.

The 19th century saw the emancipation of slaves in Europe, a civil war between industrial and plantation capitalism in North America, legal emancipation of the Jews in the emerging industrialised countries, and in Britain, the lifting of many legal repressive measures against Irish Catholics. Those who saw a future without racism in the development of the fully fledged capitalist market, were dramatically wrong. By the 1880s the free competition system of capitalism was giving way to a new phase of capitalist development, the imperialist epoch, which was to see racism intensified and generalised.

The final phase in the development of systematic racial oppression under capitalism occurs in the imperialist epoch.

The 20th century has seen genocide practised on a systematic, even “scientific” basis. It has seen the pollution of the working class movement with support for racism. To understand why, we have to grasp the crucial role of the nation state in capitalist development.

Before capitalism the nation state did not exist—i.e. the formation of a single political entity, a state, coinciding with a more or less unified ethnic group sharing the same language and culture. Under feudalism the German speaking peoples were divided up into hundreds of states at war with each other, often with their armies staffed by non-Germans. In feudal England the ruling class spoke a completely different language to the peasantry.

In order to develop the capitalist economy the rising bourgeoisie created the modern nation state. They fought for the unification of countries like Britain, Germany and Italy, for the rule of law throughout the nation, for a national economy protected by trade restrictions, customs, borders etc. They also created a bourgeois national culture and language, designed to identify the people of a nation state with each other and separate them off from their enemies and competitors.

Historically the development of the nation state represented progress.
It was the necessary political form of the development of the capitalist economy. But in the imperialist twentieth century the nation state has become an obstacle to the development of the economy, with dramatic repercussions for racism and nationalist ideology.

For Marxists the word “imperialism” does not just mean one country conquering another and building an empire. It means the degeneration of capitalism into a global system of rival imperialist powers and their subjugation of all the non-imperialist countries either directly (colonies) or indirectly (semi-colonies). It means the existence of a deep rooted sickness in the capitalist economy leading, periodically, to economic catastrophes, world wars and revolutionary upheavals.

Having divided up whole continents in the 1880s, these imperialist powers fought wars, killing millions, to re-divide their conquered territories and markets.

We have a world economy divided up into competing nation states and dominated by the rulers of a tiny handful of the richest, imperialist powers. We have seen the emergence of a world economy: world trade, a world division of labour. Capitalism itself created this.

But it cannot create the political form that can progressively develop the world economy: a world state.

It cannot do this because each national ruling class is tied to its own nation’s economic interests which are, in turn, in conflict with the interests of other nations or blocs of nations.

The development of this imperialist system, and specifically the transformation of the role of the nation state, had several effects on racism within capitalist society.

As rival imperialists clashed they fought hard to instil the working class with blind loyalty to their own country. Difficult as it is to imagine today, the workers of the early nineteenth century held little spontaneous allegiance to “King and Country”.

They were also the least imbued with racial prejudice. In nineteenth century Britain there was widespread working class support for runaway slaves, and for the Northern, anti-slavery forces in the American Civil War. There was also widespread support for revolutionary socialism.

To change this state of affairs the imperialist bosses consciously fostered the emergence of a layer within the working class whose conditions of work, income and control over production processes gave them a lifestyle very different to the rags, dirt and starvation of most unskilled workers. Marxists labelled this layer the “labour aristocracy”. To buy the loyalty of this section of workers the imperialists used the huge profits accrued from exploitation of cheap raw materials and cheap labour in the colonies.

In 1895 Cecil Rhodes, the coloniser of Zimbabwe and South Africa, witnessed a mass meeting of the unemployed in London’s East End. He said:

“On my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism . . . in order to save the 40 million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

Rhodes, along with Joseph Chamberlain, another self proclaimed “social imperialist” who became the British Colonial Secretary in 1895, set about selling the idea of “gas and water” amenities for the skilled workers, paid for by the profits of Empire and rewarded by the unstinting loyalty and votes of the workers themselves.

The organised working class movement, the trade unions, was heavily dominated by the ideological outlook of the labour aristocracy and developed much of its early politics as a form of working class Liberalism, called Lib-Labism. And there were plenty of racist theorists to provide the early workers’ leaders with a rationale for racism and national chauvinism.

Starting with Dr Robert Knox’s The Races of Men in 1850 and reaching its height in the works of Benjamin Kidd, whose book Social Evolution sold a quarter of a million copies in 1894, Social Darwinism—a racist perversion of Darwin’s theories of evolution—added its weight to all the other forms of racist ideology.

Because Europeans had conquered the world, said the “scientific” racists, they must be a “master race”, because it is only a question of the survival of the fittest. All serious scientific evidence shows that Social Darwinism is pure rubbish. But it embodied a grim racist logic that led in a straight line to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.

The claims of scientific justification for racism, the categorisation of entire “races” on a ladder from ape to Englishman, was only the ideological reflection of a real, material change in the nature of racism in the imperialist epoch.

With the emergence of intense national rivalry and national chauvinism, the “nation” was increasingly defined ethnically. The previous ideologies of anti-black racism, anti-Irish racism and anti-Semitism in Britain, for example, were included and subsumed in the jingoistic, national chauvinist sentiment that all “aliens” were potential enemies.

The concomitant of the rise of mass racism and national chauvinism was the identification of anybody “alien” to the nation as a real or potential enemy. Since the nations of Europe had been formed out of a mixture of all kinds of “ethnic” peoples, bourgeois nationalist ideology had to construct a “racial” type, a ladder of racial supremacy.

Thus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we see the onset, across the world, of sustained attacks on the racially oppressed: the renewal of pogroms against the Jews in the Russian empire, the overturning of reforms granted to freed slaves in the southern USA, the genocide against Native Americans, the anti-Semitic outcry prompted by the Dreyfus case in France, the passing of the first Aliens Act in Britain in response to the influx of East European refugees and racist attacks on the black communities of Liverpool and Cardiff by white mobs.

Mass racist organisations emerged to enforce white supremacy with violence. Whipped up by the bosses, but drawn from the middle classes and the poorest and least organised labourers in the towns and countryside, these movements formed the prototypes for later fascist organisations.

In Russia there was the Union of Russian Peoples: misleadingly called “Black Hundreds”, these were in fact white anti-Jewish mobs. In the USA the Ku Klux Klan (disbanded in 1869) was refounded in 1915 and grew to a membership of millions. In Britain the British Brothers League was founded, dedicated to the defence of the British Empire and to mass street demos against Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. It played a major part in forcing the implementation of the Aliens Act (1906).

Capitalism created and developed racism, first through slavery and colonial plunder, then through the myth of the “white man’s burden” and through imperialism, the creation of a “labour aristocracy” and a pseudo scientific theory of racial stereotypes and hierarchies.

Imperialism’s contribution to the development of racism was to systematise and generalise all the preceding forms of racism, whether spurred by colonialism, slavery or anti-Semitism, and fuse them under the banner of virulent national chauvinism.

Imperialism brought a massive intensification of racism and its ideological generalisation and systematisation. It did this despite the nineteenth century’s eradication of much of the original material bases of racist ideology: e.g. slavery and the legal repression of Jews.

This generalised and systematised character of racism is what explains modern capitalism’s ability to reproduce racism constantly. Modern capitalism continually finds and categorises new minorities and scapegoats. It maintains colonialist ideology long after most of the “colonies” have been converted into self governing semi-colonies. It maintains a vicious system of racial oppression even as “positive images” of black athletes, businessmen and musicians swarm across our TV screens.

The root cause of this is the ultimately degenerate and reactionary role of capitalism itself. It can no longer develop the world economy in a progressive way. Its nation state system is strangling the world economy. Its demand for a world labour market draws millions of non-white workers into the imperialist countries only to condemn them to a life of second class citizenship, harassment and oppression.

The imperialist epoch fused and systematised previous forms of racism and relations of oppression under the common racism inherent in national chauvinism.

And by plunging humanity into devastating world wars, by arbitrarily drawing the boundaries of states right through the middle of emerging Third World nations, by detonating repeated economic crises which impoverish millions and set them off in a frantic search for scapegoats, the imperialist system provided humanity with ample opportunity to exercise this new and generalised form of social oppression.

Racist ideas are the ideological reflection of racial oppression, a material social system. Systematic racial oppression is intrinsic to the capitalist system. It can only be destroyed by destroying that system, and the division of the world into nation states that it has engendered.

The working class
Who can destroy the system that creates and reproduces racial oppression?

For Marxists the answer is the working class.

Irrespective of the workers’ level of political and anti-racist consciousness at any one time, it is the material interests of the working class which convince us of this.

The working class—those who work for a wage, with no money-making property like shares, or business premises—will have to sweep away capitalism in order to provide itself, and the rest of society, with a life free from poverty, hardship, and unemployment.

While it might seem that the capitalists are an “international” class—jetting about the world to meetings and holiday locations, with a finger in the pie of a dozen countries, speaking different languages—in fact the only really internationalist class is the working class.

The capitalists are tied to national formations of capital. The workers, in the famous words of Karl Marx, have no fatherland.

To make socialism work the working class will have to abolish national boundaries, planning production across continents and the globe. It cannot build socialism in one country, as the bitter experience of the former USSR shows.

The working class has a material interest in the abolition of imperialism and capitalist exploitation, which are the root causes of racism.

“But many white workers are racist” comes the objection. “And perhaps the majority are at best only passive anti-racists”.

This is true. But it is not permanent. Racist ideology in the working class is not evenly spread. It is stronger in certain sections. It is weakest, and can be overcome most easily, wherever workers are in struggle.

Capitalist culture constantly bombards workers with racist propaganda.
It varies from the subtle intonations of BBC presenters to the overt bigotry of Murdoch journalists like Richard Littlejohn. But if it were just a case of capitalist propaganda, racism would not be so deep rooted, so easily rekindled and re-created.

The bosses’ racist propaganda finds roots in the minds of workers because there are material divisions within the working class. The most prevalent form of these divisions is the everyday competition between working class people for resources, services, houses.

When capitalism enters periods of stagnant growth and economic crisis— as it has since the early 1970s—it becomes a question of “my son’s council house means your son is homeless”, or “my job versus yours”.

The elementary solution to the competition between workers which capitalism fosters is solidarity. When working class people stand together and fight for houses and jobs for all, or more often against job cuts and poor housing, they stop competing with each other and start to see who the real enemy is.

Competition amongst workers is always encouraged by the bosses, and where possible many of them use racism to stir up such copetition and weaken the working class as a whole.

Racial oppression is based on systematic disadvantage. It is easy to see why white workers can experience a short term, temporary, material benefit as a result, and why some can be induced to participate in maintaining the racist system.

The experience of Tower Hamlets, in particular the Isle of Dogs where the fascist Derek Beackon was briefly elected as a Nazi councillor in 1993, shows how a combination of propaganda and short term benefits, real and imaginary, lead to the growth of racism.

The main issue on the Isle of Dogs was housing. The working class community, living in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the symbol of Thatcherite capitalism, suffered from sub-standard housing and, more urgently, a shortage of housing for those starting new families.

For years the local Labour and Liberal administrations had refrained from placing Bangladeshi immigrants on the “Island” because they feared stirring up prejudice amongst the largely white workers there.

Thus, from the start, the Isle of Dogs was a monument to racist housing policy. When black workers did start to be housed there it provoked a growing wave of racist resentment. This was partly fuelled by the BNP’s intervention, but overwhelmingly it was spontaneous racism, not overt Nazism. It was a racism that the official working class movement—long since weakened by the demise of the well organised London Docks—did little to counter.

The local white working class was fighting to maintain a racist compromise or concession it had held for years: unlike the rest of the borough of Tower Hamlets it was to be “spared” an influx of Bangladeshi migrants, leaving “local” young families a better chance of getting a council house. Of course on top of this there were all sorts of illusory ideas that white “islanders” would gain from the exclusion of blacks.

But it would be ludicrous to deny that a small scrap of short term material benefit resulted from the council’s preferential treatment of whites in its housing policy.

That was the material root of the active racism of a section of workers on the Isle of Dogs. Generalised to the level of society it is obvious that if one section is discriminated against—as black people are in jobs, housing, education, justice— another section can feel a short term material benefit from this oppression.

Another important factor in the maintenance of working class racism is the existence of a relatively privileged layer of workers whose lifestyles and incomes separate them off from the rest of the working class and allow them to be the conveyor belt for racism.

Most of the white racist workers on the Isle of Dogs were not privileged “labour aristocrats”. But many of the most vehement organisers of racism are—in the Isle of Dogs and throughout the country.

The racist football hooligan—with his designer clothes, well paid office job or skilled self-employed status—may be a caricature; but it is one based on fact.

The fact is that the bosses use such layers of the working class to disseminate all their ideas—racism, nationalism, reformism.

However today, unlike when Lenin and Engels discussed the emergence of this privileged, pro-capitalist layer, the capitalists also have other conduits for racist and pro-capitalist ideas, notably a mass education system and the capitalist-controlled mass media.

The point of discussing the material roots of racism within the working class is to prepare ourselves for the fact that, like it or not, some sections will be more resistant than others to the power of solidarity against the common enemy, the bosses.

Nevertheless experience shows that there is nothing absolute or permanent about working class racism. It can be eradicated, or at least marginalised, through struggle.

Workers are susceptible to racist ideology because they are bombarded with it daily, because they are forced into competition with one another and because systematic disadvantage for blacks can mean short term advantages for some whites.

This is not the same as saying that all white workers “benefit” from their relative privileges in relation to semi-colonial workers. We reject the idea that all the workers of the imperialist countries are racist or that they form, en masse, a labour aristocracy.

Long term it is possible and necessary for the vast majority of white workers to learn , through struggle and solidarity, that the real enemy is the capitalists, and that racism only weakens and poisons the working class struggle.

Black liberation
Because racism is rooted in capitalist society and the imperialist system, racism can be destroyed.

Ours is not a strategy for living with racism, for softening it, or for withdrawing from racist society to start again somewhere else. It is a strategy for overthrowing capitalism, imperialism and racism through workers’ revolution.

Socialism will abolish class exploitation and the exploitation of the Third World by the imperialist multi-nationals. International socialism will break down national borders and destroy the breeding-ground for national chauvinism and bigotry. Our strategy for black liberation is our strategy for socialism. The two cannot be separated for a single moment.

Only the working class has the material interest in overthrowing capitalism. And only the working class has the social power to destroy capitalism. Nothing happens in society without the workers. Through collective action the workers can bring capitalist society to a standstill, defeat the forces of repression through their own armed, revolutionary struggle, and start to run society in the interests of the vast majority.

But the majority of the working class in Britain is white, and many white workers are racist. Even those who are not overtly racist harbour lurking prejudices.

Does that mean that black liberation has to come as an afterthought in the revolutionary struggle? There are many in the working class movement—even some calling themselves revolutionaries—who would say so. They say: “if only black and white workers fight alongside each other, now, for things like wages and conditions, then racism will start to disappear automatically.”

We reject that view. Racism will not disappear automatically, because it is a reflection of real divisions—within society and within the working class.

When black and white workers live alongside each other and struggle together, the barriers of racism can begin to be broken down.

But to win the working class as a whole to the fight for black liberation, a conscious struggle against racism is necessary.

The struggle has to be based on the maximum unity of the working class. But black workers should never have to wait until sufficient numbers of white workers break from racism before they themselves fight back.

Racism rears its head even within the workers’ own organisations.
For that reason we support the right of black workers to organise within the labour and trade union movement, to identify racism and challenge it, at work, in society and in their own trade unions.

Far from dividing the working class, this form of black workers’ organisation is essential if a fighting unity is to be built.

Black self organisation within the working class is a key weapon in the struggle for black liberation.

The revolutionary socialist programme for black liberation is tied to the wider goal of socialism. Its aim is to turn today’s struggle against every manifestation of oppression and exploitation into a general struggle against the root cause— capitalism.

That does not mean we ignore struggles to get a better deal in the here and now. Revolutionaries—black and white— have to be in the forefront of those struggles.

But whereas the reformists and the “community leaders” will fight a deportation struggle as a “special case” we will try to turn it into a fight against all racist deportations.

Whereas the “respectable” black leaders will use the increase in racist attacks to call for better police-community liaison, we will use it to step up the fight for organised self defence.

And as for leadership, revolutionary socialists unashamedly fight to become the leaders of the struggle against racism. But for us leadership means something radically different than what it means for the careerists, the MPs and the bureaucrats.

The people who will lead the socialist revolution are the workers themselves. Black people are destined to play a major role in that revolutionary struggle.

Revolutionary socialists fight for organisations and methods of struggle that can allow the vast mass of ordinary people to lead their own struggles: workers’ councils, workplace and estate committees, community defence associations and so on.

But to fight to make revolutionary leadership a reality we need a revolutionary workers’ party. Our fight for socialism and black liberation will only succeed through dedicated and determined struggle. Victory will not be handed to us on a plate.

That is why we need an integrated, black and white, working class party that is organised for action. Within the revolutionary party there should be full rights for black people to caucus separately and positive action to bring black people into full participation at every level.

But because our goals of socialism and black liberation are intertwined we reject the idea, canvassed by some black socialists, of a separate black socialist party.

This implies a separate black revolution.

In Britain, indeed in any capitalist country in which black people are an oppressed minority, it is absurd. It would not even be half a revolution.
We want a full blown revolution, and for that we need the majority of the working class, and a united revolutionary party—united against racism and united against capitalism.