Ambalavaner Sivanandan (1923-2018) was a trailblazing leader of radical thinking on racism and class

The Sri Lanka-born British political thinker, writer and activist, who founded the influential journal ‘Race & Class’, died in London at the age of 94.

Ambalavaner Sivanandan was one of the leading Black political thinkers in the UK, whose work returned history to its rightful inheritors and illuminated the struggle from below. His battle to reveal the colonial legacy of immigration – “we are here, because you were there” – set the tone for current thinkers of race, likewise, his class analysis of Black Britons – “poverty is the new Black” – exposed the extent to which racism was enabled and maintained by government policy.

In this blog, extracted from the introduction to Sivanandan’s Catching History on the Wing, Colin Prescod recalls a man who gave “the Left, the activist intellectuals, as well as the Black brothers and sisters, eyes to see with and ways to hone new weapons of struggle.”

There is a generation of Black British community activists who emerged politically in the heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, for whom Sivanandan is possibly the most original influence in their lives. They were social workers, teachers, undergraduates and their lecturers, youth leaders, organisers of defence campaigns and members of emerging Black youth and feminist organisations at the grassroots, up and down the country – new generations of youth with Caribbean, Asian and African backgrounds. If they were close to the street, if they were trying to make sense of what was happening as, after 1979, Thatcherism began to bite, they were reading Sivanandan. Photocopies of his articles from Race & Class and well-worn copies of his IRR [Institute of Race Relations] pamphlets were circulated amongst those who read. For those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, read, hearing and seeing him speak was their inspiration. And he is a marvellous speaker, a rare combination of analyst, polemicist and orator – and a caller to arms. In fact, he writes in an idiom that rides on the rhythms of his conversational speech. The style is related to a rule of thumb for avoiding the turgid.

In his own writing, just as with his editing of the writing of others, he cuts out the mortis that so often accompanies the self-conscious rigor (his joke!) of high academe. And this has marked him out from the other, more academically oriented, influential figures on the radical British scene since the 1960s.

Something of the calm authority with which he told our story, of how he insisted on grasping the meaning behind the immediate pain and irritation of experiencing racism, steadied us – steeled us. It was he who announced, in the telling and retelling of our particular British story, that we had moved from “resistance to rebellion”. And it was he who cautioned against the siren seductions of consumerism, poignantly describing what ailed and goaded the souls of inner-city, working-class, Black folk and, at the same time, identifying their demands outside the frame of begging bowl, welfare cheque appeals as “a different hunger”. For those who recall the first half of the 1980s as a watershed in Black British politics, Sivanandan was father, elder to them all.

Here was a Marxist who was not intimidated by taunts of revisionism, because he was a Marxist only, as if this is only an only, in the sense of using Marx’s tools to analyse and unlock the conundrums of capitalism on a world scale. But what a craftsman he has been in the use of those tools. His anti-racism and his fierce opposition to the obscenities of injustice have always been inextricably bound up with a profound anti-imperialism – since imperialism, through its colonial and neocolonial successes, has been the major inventor and reinforcer of institutionalised racism on a global scale. And central to the analysis that he presents to new generations of British Black community has been the insistence that, although they might be pinned with the minority labels attached to their presences in the White centres of global capitalism, they are, in fact, part and parcel of the world’s great majority – peasant and working-class, non-White masses. For as long as they remember, even as they first-foot in the First World, that they still have one foot in the Third World, they retain their authority to make radical demands of “the system”.

Of course, there were and have been other significant figures presenting their analyses of the post-war Black British experience, but none have made their interventionist intention so transparent.

The radical sociologists-cum-cultural analysts simply describe and follow after what emerges from the mass. Sivanandan has always given the impression of getting behind movements and campaigns in order to help push them forward. It was Sivanandan, unseen, who gave his willing ear and wise counsel to the courageous young founders of the Southall Monitoring Group and the Newham Monitoring Project on his doorstep in London, just as, half a generation later, he was still responding to the direct questions brought by the new organisers of community defence campaigns against discrimination and attacks on the fascist-infested estates of Tower Hamlets.

With his unfailing ability to move seamlessly between theory and practice, and to travel from the particular experience of grievance or abuse to the general political context and back again to the particular organisational task, he would invent on-the-spot tool kits for these activists. It was he who made them understand that they would achieve the best political results only to the extent that they turned incidents into cases, made cases into campaigns, pushed campaigns until they became social issues and joined social issues with political movements. Sivanandan is one who has constantly underlined the distinctiveness and inventiveness of the “Black” forged in late twentieth-century Britain. More than mere skin colour or ethnic flavour, and more than merely a victim reaction to racism read as a fact of life, it is the colour of those who have had no option but to stand against racism. Its target is not just racial discrimination but also the system of class within which racism is articulated. Its earliest constituency was working-class Black community but it has and does extend to all the new constituencies of those discriminated against who suffer and would resist injustice.

It was this grounding with the brothers and sisters that gave Sivanandan the authority to speak forthrightly to whole communities when, in the mid-1980s, they began to divide themselves into ghetto-ethnicities, often as a means of obtaining state hand-outs. He urged resisters to look every gift horse in the mouth and to bite the hand that fed where necessary. They had to be the beggars who would be the choosers. Then as now, he flipped everything, turned things over. He castigated self-styled and media-appointed community leaders, exposing their self-interest in using ethnic labels not only to access resources but also as a means of making the laziest appeals to what were uprooted, destabilised communities in transition, carrying humiliated colonial heritages and loaded with what the sociologists called crises of identity.

In the babel of our time, Sivanandan’s has been the voice in the wilderness, warning of the weakening of political community that would accompany the shift to ethnicising our protest and struggle. And he has said this loudly into communities as well as into conferences of the welfare establishment – for the influential King’s Fund health brokers, as for CCETSW [Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work], the setters of professional community work agendas. His has been a distinctive, unequivocal voice, where others who really knew better have lacked the courage and integrity to make the same public stand. That voice has continued to sound loud and clear over the past two decades; but it has taken on new timbres, new keys, as Sivanandan has witnessed and analysed the epochal changes brought on by globalisation.

He was one of the first, not only to see, but also to demonstrate how the technological revolution has refashioned the whole world order, throwing up a new imperialism that has led to the further immiseration of the peoples of the global South and mass migration across the world.

He has charted how the racism – against the poor, the Black, the dispossessed, the would-be migrant – that globalisation has latterly given birth to among the affluent of the global North, is culturally and economically, as well as colour, coded. “Poverty is the new Black” says it all, really. His coinage of the term xeno-racism acutely exposes the self-serving belief that Europe’s formidable hostility to the impoverished migrant workers on which so much of its basic prosperity depends is not just some nice people’s social phobia about foreigners, but a system of belief and practice aimed at locking down, and locking in, the needy and the desperate. And the war on terror has spawned a new anti-Muslim racism, where minarets mark out the enemy within; a racism, as enacted by governments, that has proved an enemy to freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, transparency of judicial process and rights to civil liberty.

Throughout it all, Sivanandan is ever there giving the Left, the activist intellectuals as well as the Black brothers and sisters, eyes to see with and ways to hone new weapons of struggle.

Colin Prescod is the chair of the Institute for Race Relations.

This article first appeared on the Pluto Press Blog.

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