Fighting writing

Fighting writing


Written by: Arun Kundnani

The radical, international journal Race & Class was founded thirty years ago this month.

Race & Class might never have happened. Its publisher for the last thirty years, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), had first been established in the 1950s as a forum for ‘objective’ scholarship on the emerging post-colonial societies of the Third World. Funded by the corporations that profited from the exploitation of Africa and Asia’s resources, the IRR, in its first incarnation, was aimed at understanding how to preserve colonial economic relationships even as the British Empire as such became unsustainable. It might have continued in that role to the present day. But, caught in the storm of revolutionary politics in Britain and abroad, the IRR was transformed in 1972 into the first anti-racist and anti-imperialist ‘think tank’ in Britain, after a rebellion led by the staff. It was a unique victory in the war of knowledge, capturing for the black and Third World liberation movements of the day the resources of a key institution of neo-colonialism, including the old house-journal Race, which two years later was renamed Race & Class.

Whereas Race had pretended to publish neutral studies on ‘race and group relations’, it was, in fact, scholarship that served the interests of the new forms of imperialism then being hammered out of the old Empire. It was western academics talking to other western academics. It was scholarship that systematically insulated itself from the political struggles sweeping the Third World. It was knowledge that was of more use to imperialism than to its subject populations. The staff who worked at the IRR – particularly in its library where each day mounting evidence of racism in Britain was collated – saw first hand how the production of knowledge on domestic race relations could be skewed in the name of ‘neutrality’. In official IRR publications on the UK, the obvious conclusion – that Britain had institutionalised racism – was carefully avoided and obscured through ‘sociological doublethink’. The staff had also seen up close how there was gathering around the IRR a group of ‘race relations’ professionals who recommended a ‘managerial liberalism’ as the solution to the ‘race problem’ in Britain, the purpose of which was not to eradicate racism but to manage the social fall-out it produced. The same was true of the relationship with the Third World, as the IRR was part of an array of international bodies prescribing ‘solutions’ to neo-colonialism’s problems, none of which involved the ending of neo-colonialism.

With the IRR reclaimed by its staff after 1972, the shackles of a pretended objectivity were broken. The renaming of the journal as Race & Class signalled not just the addition of another dimension to the analysis of race relations but a move away from the arid, anthropological and academic style towards writing that understood race relations as an inherently political area of study. The ‘colour-line’, Du Bois’s ‘problem of the twentieth century’, was a line of power, being fought over across the world – in South-East Asia, in Portuguese Africa, on the streets of London and Los Angeles. It was to these movements that Race & Class, now under the editorship of A. Sivanandan, turned for its new constituencies. It looked to the ‘Third World intelligentsia, its radicals and political activists, its refugees and exiles’. With them, it set itself the tasks of addressing the economic slavery and political subjugation faced by black and Third World peoples; of recovering histories of struggle that had hitherto been isolated and denigrated; of revealing what Third World women had to teach western feminism; and of examining how racism had imbricated itself in contemporary academic scholarship.

Again, it might never have happened. With the corporate funders gone, the IRR’s old Piccadilly offices were vacated for the backstreets of King’s Cross. Race & Class was forced to survive from day to day on the goodwill of friends and by building a network of supporters, drawn from the grassroots black political movements and radical churches of the day. Like so many other left-wing journals, it might have folded under the weight of its own ambitions after a few issues. But, instead, Race & Class soon established for itself a reputation as an outpost of independent thinking on black and Third World politics. It was to Race & Class that you would turn to understand the prospects for radical politics in Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Chile, Yemen, Ethiopia, Palestine and Iran, as well as black America. It was around events in these places that writers like Eqbal Ahmad, Malcolm Caldwell, Jan Carew, Basil Davidson, Hermione Harris, Thomas Hodgkin, Ken Jordaan, Orlando Letelier, Cedric Robinson and Chris Searle shaped a distinctive Race & Class style. On the struggles against institutional racism in Britain, A. Sivanandan used the pages of Race & Class to turn existing thinking on race relations on its head, a quarter of a century before the concept of institutional racism would receive official endorsement.

The old establishment readership of Race was culled after 1974. In its place, new readers were found for the journal in radical bookshops, political meetings and black organisations. By the 1980s, Race & Class was available in the libraries of universities across the world, enabling Third World students to read it for the first time and discover within it a canvas on which their own political struggles could be painted alongside others. In South Africa, where the journal was banned, microfiched articles were secretly circulated in cigarette boxes.

The Race & Class style grew out of the experience of questioning the production of knowledge at the old IRR and was developed, after 1974, in the monthly editorial meetings and highly interactive editorial processes. First, there was an aversion to jargon, dogma and academic posturing – summed up in the injunction ‘writing for the people we are fighting for’. Second was the attempt to critique the processes by which a range of disciplines from anthropology and archaeology to mathematics and musicology served the interests of empire – something that the rebel staff at the IRR had themselves witnessed and fought against. Third was the desire to link together the politics of domestic racism with the struggle against imperialism. Racism was defined by Race & Class widely (as a determinant of both domestic politics and international relations) and narrowly (as an aspect of capitalism rather than a generalised problem of all societies). It was around the poles of imperialism and racism that Race & Class would continually update itself over its thirty-year life – right up to the present day, with the analysis of how globalisation produces refugees in the Third World and racism in the First.

These principles provided Race & Class with the direction it needed during the difficult years of the 1980s and 1990s, as the Left faltered, academia turned increasingly to postmodern navel-gazing and the desperate situation of the Third World disappeared entirely from Western view. The struggle at the old IRR had the same starting point as postmodernism: the question of how knowledge could be turned against people. But beyond that basic question, they parted company. Whereas Race & Class had sought to give scholarship the political teeth it needed to serve the cause of liberation, postmodernism was scholarship that ate its own tail in a never-ending loop of abstraction. Race & Class became one of the centres of intellectual attack on postmodernism in academia and on the new discipline of ‘postcolonial’ studies. Sivanandan’s writings were again pivotal here, exposing the weaknesses of the contemporary Left’s embrace of culture as a new terrain of politics, fighting the reduction of racism in Britain to a question of cultural differences and analysing the new imperialism of the ‘silicon age’. With the blossoming of radical black politics in Britain in the 1980s, Race & Class became, in effect, the house-journal of the black movement. And it continued to examine the changing nature of imperialism, documenting the power of the IMF and the World Bank over Third World nations through the ties of debt, and analysing the technological revolution that underpinned the emerging global order.

Most of this was unfashionable stuff. But Race & Class was good at being ahead of its time even as others thought it behind. By the end of the 1990s, with the special issue of the journal on globalism (‘the highest stage of imperialism’), many of the issues that Race & Class had pioneered over the past two decades were widely acknowledged as central to the political challenges of the day. The growing movement against corporate globalisation, symbolised in 1999 by the attack on the WTO at Seattle, drew on the kinds of critiques of the global financial system that had been prefigured in Race & Class. The demonisation of migrants and refugees in ‘Fortress Europe’, an area that Race & Class had first explored years earlier, had become one of the greatest political issues that Europe faced. September 11 and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq revived the issues of proxy wars, counter-insurgency and terrorism that had long been a theme of Race & Class. And the West once again spoke openly of empires to build.

Today, there is a new spirit of questioning and rebellion afoot in the world. Scholarship that is not only on the people but for the people is once more an urgent demand. And with academia drawn increasingly into the nexus of commerce and state-sponsored ‘evaluation’ of policy, the questions that Race & Class first asked thirty years ago remain valid today: ‘What good is your knowledge to us? Do you in your analyses of our social realities tell us what we can do to transform them? Does your apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Do you convey it in a language that we can understand? If you do none of these things, should we not only reject your “knowledge” but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider you a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?’

Related links

Current and back issues of Race & Class

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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