You can’t fool the youths: Paul Gilroy on race & class formation in 1981

You can’t fool the youths …

Race and Class Formation in the 1980s

Paul Gilroy

Theoretical/analytical responses to Brixton and the other urban riots of 1981 – Part 1. An article written in 1981, originally published in Race & Class, Winter 1981/2.


You teach the youths to learn in school
that the dish ran away with spoon
You teach the youths to learn in school
that the cow jumped over moon
So you can’t blame the youths of today
you can’t fool the youths
(Pete Tosh)

There is nothing more to organise. you can organise workers as workers. You can create a special organisation of revolutionary workers. But once you have those two you have reached an end. Organisation as we have known it is at an end.
(C.L.R. James)

Where marxist science has stooped to provide accounts of racial conflicts, it has been at best race blind, and at worst eurocentric. Socialist politics driven to the edge of popular nationalism by the crisis are incapable of solving the complex problems posed by the articulation of race and class. yet the-economic, ideological and political struggles over the meaning and relevance of .race, have effects on the formation and reproduction of classes.

Racism is not a transhistorical essence, and not least because the biology of racial characteristics has no relation to ‘races’ in political struggle; there can be no general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’. The 128 racial classifications of the French Imperial code noir, the structured racism of today’s South Africa and the popular racism which forms the backdrop to the latest legislation on British citizenship do not make for theory. Different racisms are found in different social formations and historical circumstances. To paper over the specifics of each historical conjuncture with a general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’ is misguided; to acknowledge simultaneously that the biology of racial characteristics has nothing to do with races as constituted in politics is dishonest. In each case, racial differences, whether wholly imaginary or anchored in the raw material of biology, are magnified, systematised and rationalised into vehicles of political dominance. And it is this ‘malleability of the concept of ‘race’ which qualifies its use as a scientific category of social analysis. Its very meaninglessness, on the other hand, should continually refer us to the precise but changing conditions in which racial groups become possible in politics, ideology and economic life. And it is to this unique dialectic of race and class at the centre of contemporary British politics that this article addresses itself
– not so much for what it reveals of how real structural phenomena are misrecognised and distorted by racial prisms, but for what it enables us to perceive about our historical period. It is precisely because race binds the processes by which ethico-political hegemony is presently reproduced that focusing analysis around it offers a privileged view of unfolding state authoritarianism, the stage of capital accumulation and the balance of forces in political struggle.

Unlike the sociologists, the British left has remained reluctant to concede any depth to racial divisions in the working class, let alone approach that Pandora’s box. With few exceptions, it has been cheerfully unaffected by sixty years of black critical dialogue with marxism, presented, most notably, by Garvey, Padmore, James and Wright. The theoretical and political contributions of these authors, particularly their early critique of Stalinism and their dogged anti-reductionism fashioned in the awareness that black liberation required more than economic transformation, make recent European discovery of non-economistic socialism less than startling. Yet their insights have been bypassed, and the left has adopted a peculiar national perspective which obscures the role of black struggles in the development of the British working class, all the way from abolitionism to the factory gates of Imperial Typewriters. It has remained stubbornly blind to the fact that, even though rendered invisible, black labour power has conditioned the most intimate structures of British daily life. ‘It is the sugar you stir, it is in the sinews of the infamous British sweet tooth, it is the tea leaves at the bottom of the British cuppa.’1

Having waved away the political analyses of autonomous black groups with a few fashionable insults such as ‘economistic’, ‘reductionist’ or ‘abstentionist,2 the left’s recent writings on the subject of racial politics remain paralysed by an inability to conceive race and class as related. Race is either shorn of all determinacy and allowed to ascend to the rarified heights of ideological autonomy, from where it ‘only subsequently’ intervenes at the level of the economy, or it is subsumed entirely to class. The experience of racial domination is so distorted that its class character evaporates. Variations on the latter theme present the struggle for black liberation as a ‘democratic’ issue to be secured by the simple assertion of a ‘pluralist national identity3 or more predictably, as a divisive danger to the achievement of true class consciousness parallel to the threat posed by fascist organisation.4

On the contrary,

The class relations which inscribe the black fractions of the working class function as race relations. The two are inseparable. Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced.5

That is not to say that ‘race’ can be miraculously hitched on like an extra railway carriage to the locomotive of non-reductionist marxism.The extent to which blacks have become part of the working class demands more than that the left should simply note their presence and register the resultant ‘multi-cultural tones of metropolitan class struggle. Though even this may have polemical value, it woefully underestimates the transformation of political culture brought about
by post-war black settlement.

Marx’s famous remark that ‘the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ acquired new poignancy as the great-grandchildren of martyred slaves and indentured labourers set up home in the land of those who had tormented their progenitors. The mass of black people, who arrived here as fugitives from colonial underdevelopment, brought with them legacies of their political, ideological and economic struggles in Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub continent, as well as the scars of imperialist violence. Far from being fixed or unchanging, the accumulated histories of their far-flung resistance have brought a distinct quality to class struggles in their new metropolitan home. For, as Cabral points out: ‘If imperialist domination has the vital need to practise cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.6

Developing this theme, Sivanandan has argued that a disorganic articulation of capitalist relations of production with vestigial political and ideological forms tends to generate a contradiction between the political regime and the people, with culture as the expression of their resistance. And it is cultural resistance which … takes on new forms … in order fully to contest foreign domination.’7 It is in the embers of that furnace that the now-transplanted political consciousness of post-war black settlers was forged. It is with that tradition that they and their British-born children have preserved organic links, in their kitchens and temples – in their communities. Though their new struggles at the centre are diffused throughout a different structure in dominance, the lingering bile of slavery, indenture and colonialism remains, not in the supposedly pathological forms in which black households are organised, but in the forms of struggle, political philosophies and revolutionary perspectives of non-European radical traditions, and the ‘good sense of their practical ideologies. The contradiction is, of course, between the people and the power bloc8 – but because in this case it is bounded by racial division, culture assumes a central importance. Hence, in opposition to those theorists who would reduce ‘race’ to custom or “ethnicity’, we must locate racist and anti-racist ideology as well as the struggle for black liberation in a perspective of culture as a terrain of class conflicts – in the same way that Richard Johnson does for the working class as a whole:

‘working-class’ culture is the form in which labour is reproduced … This process of reproduction, then, is always a contested transformation. Working-class culture is formed in the struggle between capital’s demand for particular forms of labour power and the search for a secure location within this relationship of dependency. The outcomes of such necessary struggles depend on what ideological and political forces are in play.’ 9

Except that – and it bears repetition – the struggles of ‘black’ people appear in an intensely cultural form because the social formation in which their distinct political traditions are now manifest has constructed the arena of politics on ground overshadowed by centuries of metropolitan capitalist development, thereby denying them recognition as legitimate politics.

To put it another way, the politics of black liberation is cultural in special sense: Coons, Pakis, Nig-nogs, Sambos and Wogs are cultural constructions in ideological struggle. Cultures of resistance develop to contest them and the power they inform, as one aspect of the struggle against capitalist domination which blacks experience as racial oppression. This is a class struggle in and through race. Black struggles to refuse and transform subjugation are no ready answer to class segmentation, but because they are ‘against capitalism, against racism’, they do attempt to constitute the class in politics where ‘race’ is no longer relevant; whereas the racist ideas and practices of the white working class become ways in which the class as a whole is disorganised.

The division of humanity into social classes explains its history infinitely better than its division into races or peoples. Yet the racial fragmentation of the British working class is a powerful warning against any view of classes as continuous or homogeneous subjects which, once formed, develop in a linear manner as political actors on the historical stage. The marxist concept of class refers primarily, but not exclusively, to the location of groups in production relations. The effect of capitalism’s tendency to generate surplus labour power which is excluded from employment by revolutions in the productive process and changes in accumulation should emphasise this.10 At the social formation level, this labour power is actual men and women expelled from production – ‘black’, ‘unskilled’, ‘old’, ‘young’. But there are intense political struggles over the composition of this surplus population. It is never determined mechanistically by the objective conditions (development of productive forces, phase of accumulation, etc.),
which only delineate the range of possible outcomes. Even the commonly understood definition of unemployment itself reflects this. For example, at present it refers disproportionately to males, while the possibility of waged work for women is suppressed by ideologies of domesticity. Patriarchal capitalism can accept the ‘unemployment of women marooned at home, but as the crisis bites, black youth on street-corners become a ‘visible political problem’ which prompts new forms of state intervention and social control. The way in which this surplus population becomes organised politically has implications for the segmentation of the working class, and is clearly relevant to racial politics. It serves to remind us that the privileged place of economic classes in the marxist theory of history is not the same as a simple assertion of their political primacy in every historical moment.

“We cannot conceive of the class struggle as if classes were simply and homogeneously constituted at the level of the economic and only then fractured at the level of the political. The political level is dependent – determinate – because its raw materials are given by the mode of production as a whole.”11

Marx makes it clear that there are periods in which the proletariat is unable to constitute itself as a class in politics, even though “the domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests’.12 Recognising the problems in the effective entry of classes into politics is the first step to understanding that: ‘Classes must be viewed as the effects of struggles structured by objective conditions, that are simultaneously economic, political and ideological.13

These objective conditions change, and the unity between the ‘economic movement and the political action of the working class not the same in 1981 as it was in 1871. The working class is different. This is a place where we can restore some of the determinacy which class struggle has lost in much recent marxist writing. We must re-draw the boundaries of the concept “class struggle’ so that it includes the relentless processes by which classes are constituted – organised and disorganised – in politics, as well as the struggles between them, once formed. In this way, to synchronise the movement of different class fractions with discontinuous but related histories becomes an object of struggle itself. This unity is now less than ever pre-ordained in economic positions. A complex view of class formation which gives due weight to the struggle to organise classes in politics takes us far beyond the simplistic ‘class in itself/class for itself’ dichotomy. It poses the question of forms of struggle and political organisation. This has become important not simply because blacks have introduced new political traditions into the British social formation, but also because in many instances in the 1970s the immigrant workers have not only participated in labour’s struggle: they have led it. They have not only participated in existing forms of struggle, they have invented new ones.14

Working-class black communities

Following in the well-trodden footsteps of Castles and Kosack,15 recent avowedly marxist approaches to analysis of the black working class have centred myopically on the shop-floor. Phizacklea and Miles16 have shown a dogged determination to impose their own restricted conceptualisations of political organisation on the blacks whose political consciousness they have quantified on the basis of questionnaire material. In doing so, they ignore the fact that the specific character of the black struggles they describe has often resided in the support such struggles have drawn from the surrounding black community.

Localised struggles over education, racist violence and police practices continually reveal how black people have made use of notions of community to provide the axis along which to organise themselves. The concept of community is central to the view of class struggle presented here. For it links distinct cultural and political traditions – which have a territorial dimension to collective action and consciousness, and operates within the relations of ‘economic patterns, political authority and uses of space’.17 The idea of a racially demarcated collectivity of this type underlines the fact that community cannot be viewed as either static or as determined by the essential characteristics of the class or class fractions which have come to constitute it.

The cultural institutions which specify community have not been a continual feature of working-class life. The history of working-class communities, into which we should insert the particular experiences of post-war immigrants and their children, is entwined with the processes of industrialisation and social discipline18 which established the city as a site of unique political conflicts. The form and relevance of community have therefore fluctuated with the changing social character of capitalist production. Even while the British proletariat was still being formed, attempts to assess the political relevance of community required that attention be paid to the dynamics of class formation and political organisation . The history of the Minters, the Costermongers, the Scuttlers and their Molls19 all show the strengths of the working class organised on the basis of community in urban struggles long before blacks became a replacement population in areas which, despite the demand for labour power … failed to attract sufficient white population.20

In an influential discussion which anticipates the direction of the argument here, Gareth Stedman-Jones has pointed to a growing separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere as an important determinant of both the cultural and political life of urban workers in late nineteenth-century London.21 His example of the disruption of community in fact illustrates the concept’s value in connecting the spheres of waged and domestic labour. To make this connection pays dividends not only where leisure practices are found to impinge on the labour process,22 but also where political organisation forged outside the immediate processes of production (for blacks with police, racists or profiteering ghetto landlords) has effects on the struggle at work and vice versa.

The making of classes at work is complemented by the making of classes where people live; in both places adaptive and rebellious responses to the class situation are inevitably closely intertwined.23

The notion of community is also important for the way it can be used to re-establish the unity of black people in answer to the divisions which state policy, race relations sociology and common-sense racism have visited on their experience of domination. All of these fragment the cohesion of black people, united in their opposition to the power bloc by cultures and languages of resistance. In its place, they have created the image of the respectable and hard-working first generation of black immigrants locked in struggle with their children, whose ‘identity crises’ and precarious position between two cultures’ impel them into deviant behaviour. Rejecting the parental culture while reproducing its pathological characteristics, these young people, whether of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin, are presented as divorced from their parents’ concerns. This powerful stereotype unites self-proclaimed radical and openly racist theories of black life. It must be met with a concept of community which reveals the ties between the struggles of blacks outside the workplace and those who remain within the wage relation. Unemployment is increasingly affecting all black people, regardless of age, and where community has broadened the base from which they successfully fought the unholy alliance of employers and racist trades unions, there is every reason to suppose that it may now provide the means to take on the state itself in defence of local services and amenities. Where generational conflict is visible, it expresses deep debates over political strategy rather than aberrant familial practices.
Such conflicts are always premised on the fundamental unity of the community in question and conducted within the repertoire of its political traditions, which make the common ground on which discussion is possible. Tension between Asian youth movements and the Indian Workers’ Association organisations is a clear example of this process. It reveals the struggle between corporate and autonomous modes of struggle in a complex fashion, informed and affected by the peasant political traditions in which both aspects of the movement have been formed.

The interrelation between production and the political space in which community develops is not satisfactorily understood at the level of production’s immediate processes. The need to periodise class struggle and relate it to phases of accumulation requires detailed consideration of the organisation of surplus labour power. This is inextricably fused with the formation of workers into a class. It should be obvious that the move from full employment to structural unemployment heralds fundamental changes in the way surplus labour power appears as surplus population. In the context of organic crisis, the importance of community in these processes is highlighted by the use of new mechanisms of social control and surveillance which, recognising the strength of communities, attempt to penetrate them in new strategies for containment24 – ‘control is shifted from the criminal act to the crime-inducing situation, from the pathological case to the pathogenic surroundings, in such a way that each citizen becomes, as it were, an a priori suspect or a potential criminal’.25

The political traditions of black people expressed in the solidarity and resistance of their communities have determined such a territorialisation of social control. This is visible in the use of ‘Sus’ laws to confine black youths to particular areas,26 and in the particularly brutal police operations which have become commonplace in black neighbourhoods. In the past, community relations apparatuses fused political representation with state intervention to channel black grievances into ‘quasi-colonial institutional structures which would deal with the issue of race outside traditional political arenas’.27 Now, ‘community policing’ initiatives reveal new dimensions to the urban struggle in their attempt to redefine community so that it is counter-posed to ‘crime’ rather than to the police.

Corporatism vs autonomy

All this means that forms of struggle cannot be taken for granted. Mass unemployment generated by crisis and the microprocessor revolution demands reassessment of the institutions of political representation. These must be understood as historical phenomena. Posing the problem of political organisation in direct form invites the separation of corporatist modes of struggle from the diverse attempts to repoliticise the process of class formation. All this is taking place in the face of a new imposition of authority, new ideologies of the crisis and the mobilisation of the law in political struggle. Corporatism is defined as:

“political structure within advanced capitalism which integrates organised socio-economic producer groups through a system of representation and cooperative mutual interaction at the leadership level and mobilisation and social control at the mass level. Corporatism is understood here as an actual political structure, not merely an ideology (emphasis added).” 28

Black political traditions fall outside the ‘contradictory unity’ of corporatism/parliamentarism. There is also overwhelming evidence to support the view that the political institutions of the white working class have consistently failed to represent the interests of black workers, both abroad29 and at home, where black rank-and-file organisation has challenged union racism at every level since the day the Empire Windrush docked. Nor are blacks alone in the marginalisation they suffer. The experiences of female, young, unemployed or even unskilled workers present similar examples. The growth of rank-and-file militancy and conflict between the shop floor and union bureaucracy only hints at the struggle in these institutions. Indeed, they do not represent the class as a class at all. Their failures must be set beside the rapid growth of new movements with an autonomy from capitalist command as well as from the disabling political perspectives of the labour movement. The movement of the black communities is but one place among many where a patient listener may discern:

The dialogue between a young social movement, still searching for its identity, and the movement which preceded it but which is now growing old, dying, or being converted into its own antithesis by becoming an agent of the authorities.30

Such a claim requires that we demonstrate that black struggles are not merely political in a broad sense, but approach the task of social transformation not from a transplanted disorganic politics alone, but in forms and with ideas which relate directly to the immediate historical conjuncture in which they have developed. Rastafari, which appears where blacks are supposedly least class conscious, provides useful but by no means unique evidence of this.31 It is an example which must be treated with care if it is not to reinforce the peculiarly powerful racist image of intransigent black youth, whose previous incarnation, ‘the mugger’, has been brought up-to-date in a new folk-devil, ‘the criminal Rasta’. Sociologists who identify the movement exclusively with young men have done nothing except reinforce this view. Their definition of the movement is crude and empiricist – offering a shopping list of dogmatic tenets to which the true ‘cultist’ is subsequently found to subscribe. Instead, we should locate the symbols of dread-head wraps, long skirts, Ethiopian colours and dreadlocks – by which researchers have identified ‘cult affiliates’ — at one end of a continuum of belief which encompasses both age and gender difference. Avowed Rastas maintain that all black people are Rasta whether they realise it or not. This points to a broader idea of the movement than sociological orthodoxy allows. To see it as a distinct expression of the contradiction between black people and the power bloc lays bare its real structure as a movement organised around a political and philosophical critique of oppressive social relations – identified by the Rastas as a cohesive human creation – ‘Babylon system’. That this critique appears partially in religious form should not lead us to underestimate the degree of political transformation it represents. Though religion has always supplied weapons in the struggles of the colonised, downtrodden and enslaved, the ‘religious’ elements in Rasta discourse comprise a sophisticated criticism of a people’s paralysing encounter with religion. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than by the Wailers:
Preacher man don’t tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know
what life is really worth …
Most people think great god will come from the sky
take away everything make everybody feel high
but if you know what life is worth
you will look for yours on earth
now you see the light you stand up for your rights.

The Rastas’ insistence that heaven is on earth and nowhere else, and the denial of god which comes with their belief that ‘God is I and I and has always been’ are the kindling of the process in which: ‘The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.32

The sharing of linguistic devices and political concepts marks the limits of a community bonded by a particular conceptualisation of the people’. The confrontation in style which has developed where open signification of dreadness transforms the unacceptable attribute of blackness into a source of collective strength and inspiration acts as a focal point for dread and baldhead alike. The immense scope of the movement is obscured by continual preoccupation with the stylised and flamboyant defiance of its younger adherents. Once dread style has been abandoned as the essential qualification for ‘cult’ membership, it becomes clear that many older people share the movement’s pan-Africanist sentiments and take pride in its rejection of racial domination. For older West Indians have encountered the discourse of Rasta before.

Black culture, white youth and class struggle

The ‘youth culture’ dimension to Rasta mobilisation has created an important space for dialogue between youth from different racial backgrounds. Asian youth movements have been as inspired by the combativity of Afro-Caribbean young people as the Afro-Caribbeans have been by the Asians’ tenacious defence of their communities, however much this has been concealed by a persistent stereotype of their passivity. At a demonstration against racist violence in Coventry in May 1981, which was under-reported for this very reason, young Asians chanted ‘Brixton, Brixton’ as they charged the ranks of police who protected the racists. And in Southall in 1979, Afro-Caribbean youth came out with the Asians against the Nazis (and the police who protected them) in the defence of their common community.

The effects of West Indian culture in general, and, through reggae, Rastafari in particular, on white youth are seldom considered. It seems that this may have had a profound impact on the racism of young Britons who were not, like their parents, weaned on an unadulterated diet of Empire. There are new limits to the adequacy of racial explanations for the ravages of the crisis. The arrival of black settlers proved to be both catalyst and inspiration to the grandchildren of jingoism who were quick to ape, absorb and adapt the styles and cultural practices which were black relics of a distant colonial engagement with their foreparents. Dick Hebdige has established the connection between white youth cultures and the presence of black citizenry: ‘We can watch played out on the loaded surfaces of the British working-class youth cultures a phantom history of race relations since the war.33

By extending this argument, we can begin to see the fundamental class character of black cultural struggles in a different dimension, and the articulation of ‘race’ around the contradiction between capital and labour in ways obscured by the dominance of corporatist political representation. Since the incorporation of reggae into the sub-cultural repertoire in the late 1960s, political themes began to displace moral and generational conflict as the raw material for the cultural expressions of young whites. The progression from The Who’s ‘My Generation to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK’ and, more recently, the self-conscious anti-racist politics of the ‘Two Tone’ movement ex-emplifies this process. It has been fuelled at each stage by youth’s own perceptions of economic crisis and the consequent crisis of social relations. The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, which was the number one record during the unprecedented week of rioting in British cities in July 1981, provides a chilling image of national decline observed from inside the oppositional culture of urban youth.
This town is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving youth on the shelf
This town is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more, people getting angry
This town is coming like a ghost town.

The mass mobilisations of white youth thrown up in this process, though always both cultural and political, have not always been anti-racist, like the important but short-lived Rock Against Racism alliance. Though it contains no guarantees of a progressive outcome, the fact that neo-fascist and nationalist attempts to win young whites have been forced to recognise the political power of black culture as an obstacle to their success indicates the relatively precarious nature of the youngsters’ commitment to race and nation. 34

Regardless of the ultimate direction of the popular struggle of white youth, we should recognise that its forms have been prefigured in the resistances of black communities – in much the same way that the movement of black Americans in the 1960s determined the patterns of autonomous protest which followed it:

Without Black Brotherhood, there would have been no Sisterhood; without Black Power and Black Pride there would have been no Gay Power and Gay Pride. The movement against the abuse of powers of the state … derived much of its strength and purpose from the exposure of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of the Black Panthers and Black Muslims … only the Environmental Movement did not have the Black Movement as a central organisational fact or as a defining political metaphor and inspiration.35

The mass politicisation of youth cultures, which has followed from their encounter with black cultural forms and leisure practices, bears witness to the survival of African traditions which do not recognise the separation of politics from other spheres of life. Armand Mattelart has reminded us that: “Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom. It is a question of transforming what used to be used exclusively for pleasure and leisure into a means of instruction.”36 Non-European traditions have never recognised this separation in quite the same way, and consequently do not have to be readjusted.

Rastafari is a sophisticated expression of the critical consciousness which informs black struggles, commentating on society and the state and extending into analysis of the post-colonial scene as a whole:

Africans a bear the most pressure, because you find that the people that are controlling them are the white people them. They try to be superior over black people. Not all of them, but certain of them ones as is gods and seat up in high places: All those system, you just see them big notches who a control. Certain of them captains and them big pirates from long time is them family. Some of them people really have the world in their hands, so them keep up various kinds of isms now. Them stop slaving the Africans alone, but them slaving everyone else still. Is the people them to come and unite now, that’s the only way. 37

The consciousness of exploitation provoked in the experience of racial oppression, both inside and outside production, is not some preliminary phase in the development of a mythically complete class consciousness sometime in the future. Though for the social analyst ‘race’ and class are necessarily abstractions at different levels, black consciousness of race and class cannot be empirically separated. The class character of black struggles is not a result of the fact that blacks are predominantly proletarian, though this is true. It is established in the fact that their struggles for civil rights, for freedom from state harassment or as waged workers are instances of the process by which the working class is constituted politically, is organised in politics. Classes are not static or continuous subjects of history, they are made and remade in a continual struggle. It is only the ancient heresy of economistic marxism which stipulates that the relations of commodity production alone determine class relations. The struggle for hegemony
cannot be reduced to economic determinations or vulgarised to refer to solely cultural phenomena, and class analysis cannot be restricted to those positioned in the immediate processes of production.


The resistance and oppositional symbols provided by Afro-Caribbean political culture are central reference points for the struggles of other young people. Like feminist organisation, the anti-state movements which have been at the heart of urban communities’ opposition to increasingly authoritarian forms of social control demand critical self-scrutiny from the left. In both cases, distinct political practices force the ‘heretical realisation that the movement for human liberation and social transformation must itself be viewed as an historical phenomenon.

The young people who set British cities alight are no more a ‘reserve army of labour’ or a “lumpenproletariat’ than they are the criminal hooligans’ that the state has branded them. Their situation exists where are of many of Marx’s concepts – which were themselves historical limited use. Their actions must be examined on their political merits, as far as possible outside the moralistic categories which so much contemporary socialist thinking shares with common-sense ideologies. Racial segmentation places this problem at centre stage: too often the working class is divided into reputable and disreputable strata, personified, on the one hand, by the honest trades union stalwart and, on the other, by black youth whose alienation is manifest in their criminal inclinations. This is dangerous because it dovetails with the state’s own strategy of criminalisation as a response to these new political challenges. The urban ‘race rioters’ strike out at oppressive power materialised in the particular institutions and structures in which it bears down upon them, ‘[in] its capillary form of existence, at the point where power returns
into the very grain of individuals, touches their gestures and attitudes, their discourses and daily lives.’38

The simple point here is that power is not confined to the labour process. Understanding new political movements new class struggles requires analytic concepts historically appropriate to the new forms they take. These spontaneous struggles may sometimes become violent, but this does not render them irreconcilable with a strategic long-term ‘war of position’. The workers’ movement has always struggled with laws and law officers pitted against its own interests.

Bearing in mind the way that C.L.R. James has demonstrated the interrelation of spontaneity and organisation,39 we must also realise that forms of political action and organisation developed in previous struggles offer no guarantees of efficacy in new circumstances and relations of force. The ahistorical fetishisation of organisational forms which have outlived their adequacy in the dogmatic prescriptions of omniscient bureaucrats and party officers is both a fetter on progress and a set of blinkers preventing useful analysis of the present. From this perspective the struggle for black liberation and the related struggles of black and white youth may assume a place parallel to popular feminism and, at a greater distance, political ecology and anti-militarist initiatives. They are not the same, but their critiques of the movement which preceded them are similar. The marginalisation which they suffer at its ageing hands may even be the basis of new alliances and collective actions. Each group’s powerlessness is potentially resonant for the others. All these group’s discourse of movements extend the boundaries of politics beyond the social democratic focus on policy. They represent themselves in politics and denied by corporatist political institutions and patterns of state intervention. The ‘cultural character they share signifies the way each reaches into the future, as a dynamic complex unity of political, ideological and economic concerns, from which heterogeneous struggles form a new working class inside and outside the workplace.


This article is based on ‘Steppin’ out of Babylon’, chapter 7 of The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (in press) CCCS/Hutchinson 1982. I would like to thank
Kathy Bor, John Solomos and Vron Ware for their comments and criticisms.
1 – Stuart Hall, ‘Race and moral panics in post-war Britain’, in Commission for Racial Equality, Five Views of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1978).
2 – J.G. Gabriel and G.S. Ben-Tovim, ‘Marxism and the concept of racism’, Economy and Society (Vol. 7, no. 2, 1978).
3 – Martin Rabstein, ‘Why Britain needs national liberation’, in G. Bridges and R. Brunt (eds), Silver Linings (London, 1981).
4 – Annie Phizacklea and Robert Miles, Labour and Racism (London, 1980).
5 – Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis (London, 1978), p. 394.
6 – Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (London, 1973), p. 43.
7 – A. Sivanandan, ‘Imperialist and disorganic development in the silicon age’, Race & Class (Vol. XXI, no. 2, 1979).
8 – Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London, 1977).
9 – Richard Johnson, “Three problematics: elements of a theory of working-class culture’, in J. Clarke et al (eds.), Working-Class Culture (London, 1979).
10 – Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (London, 1969), Vol. I, ch. 4.
11 – Stuart Hall, ‘The political and the economic in Marx’s theory of classes’, in A. Hunt (ed.), Class and Class Structure (London, 1977).
12 – Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow, 1975), p. 159.
13 – Adam Prezworski, “Proletariat into a class: the process of class formation from Karl Kautsky’s the class struggle to recent controversies’, Politics & Society (Vol. 7, no. 4, 1977)
14 – Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Authority and foreign labour: some notes on a late capitalist form of capital accumulation and state intervention’, Studies in Political Economy (No. 2, 1979), p. 50.
15 – S. Castles and G. Kosack, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe (London, 1973).
16 – Phizacklea and Miles, op. cit.
17 – Ira Katznelson, ‘Community capitalist development and the emergence of class’, Politics & Society (Vol. 9, no. 2, 1979).
18 – A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), pp. 296-8.
19 – R. Roberts, The Classic Slum (Manchester, 1971); E.P. Thompson, Whigs and
Hunters, (London, 1975); Henry Mayhew, London Labour and London Poor, Vol. 1 (New York, 1968).
20 – Ceri Peach, West Indian Migration to Britain (London, 1968), p. 62.
21 – Gareth Stedman-Jones, “Working-class culture and working-class politics in London, 1870-1900′, Journal of Social History (Vol. VII, no. 4, 1974).
22 – Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Farnborough, 1977).
23 – Katznelson, op. cit., p. 232.
24 – J.C. Alderson, Policing Freedom (Plymouth, 1979); see also G. Howes and J.
Brown (eds), The Police and The Community (Saxon House, 1975).
25 – Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London, 1978), p. 186.
26 – Institute of Race Relations, Police Against Black People (London, 1979) and Clare Demuth, ‘Sus’ (London, 1978), pp. 37-8.
27 – Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities (London, 1973), p. 178.
28 – Leo Panitch, ‘Trades unions and the state’, New Left Review (No. 125, 1981); see
also ‘The development of corporatism in liberal democracies’, Comparative Political Studies (Vol. X, 1, 1977).
29 – D. Thompson and R. Larson, Where were you brother? an account of trades union imperialism (London, 1978), and P.S. Gupta, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-64 (London, 1975).
30 – Alaine Touraine, ‘Political ecology – the demand to live differently now’, New Society (8 November 1979).
31 – See Horace Campbell, ‘Rastafari: culture of resistance’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII,
no. 1, 1980), and Colin Prescod, ‘The “people’s cause” in the Caribbean’, Race & Class (Vol. XVII, no. 1, 1975).
32 – Karl Marx, ‘Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right’ in Early Writings (London, 1979).
33 – Dick Hebdige, Subculture: the meaning of style (London, 1979).
34 – See Bulldog (paper of the young National Front), issues 7, 10, 16, 17, and 18.
35 – David Edgar, ‘Reagan’s hidden agenda’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII, no. 3, 1981).
36 – Armand Mattelart Mass Media, Ideologies and the Revolutionary Movement (Hassocks, 1980), p. 54.
37 – Hugh Mundell, interviewed in Black Echoes (8 November 1980).
38 – Michel Foucault, interviewed in Radical Philosophy (No. 16, 1977).
39 – C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics (London, 1980), p. 115.


past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015








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