From the French revolution to Gate Gourmet: black radicals in British history

Submitted by AWL on 17 October, 2008 - 10:57 Author: Sacha Ismail

Written and published for Black History Month

William Davidson and the Cato Street conspiracy

Terrified by the radical phase of the French revolution in 1792-5, the British ruling class intensified its repression against radicals and working-class organisations above all. The Combination Acts of 1799 banned trade unions, making it much more difficult for workers to organise against the dire social conditions produced by Britain's industrial revolution.

This anti-working class terror persisted for decades. In 1819, the British state killed eleven and injured hundreds of unarmed protestors for Parliamentary reform in Manchester (the "Peterloo Massacre"), and followed up with the "Six Acts" making any meeting demanding radical reform an act of treason. This repression was opposed by small and harrassed groups of radical agitators. These included follows of the utopian socialist Thomas Spence, who had advocated common ownership of land, and in 1820 a small Spencean group in London organised a conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet.

The Cato Street conspiracy, named after the street near Edgware Road where they last met, was uncovered and stopped by the police. The conspirators were tried and five of them publicly executed - including William Davidson (born in 1786), a cabinet-maker originally from Jamaica described by his contemporaries as a "man of colour". Davidson was among the best known and most active radicals in London.

William Cuffay and the Chartists

William Cuffay (1788-1870) was a central figure in Britain's first mass workers' movement, Chartism, which fought for the vote as the way to win political power for the working class.

Cuffay was the mixed-race son of a naval cook of African origin, who had previously been a slave. He served an apprenticeship as a tailor and became active as a trade unionist. After being sacked for involvement in a strike, Cuffay became convinced that only if workers won the vote and organised to get their own political representation could society as a whole be changed. (At the time Marx too believed that the "inevitable result" of universal suffrage would be "the political supremacy of the working class".)

He helped organise the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association in 1839, and in 1842 was elected to the five-man Chartist national executive. Later that year, he became president of the London Chartists. So central was Cuffay to the the movement that the Times contemptuously referred to the Chartists as "the black man and his party". The thousands of workers who elected Cuffay to represent them did not share that prejudice - or those that did regarded it as less important than working-class solidarity.

Cuffay was on the left, "physical force" ie revolutionary wing of the Chartists; after the mass demonstration and abortive uprising of 1848, he was arrested and, despite his brave and now famous defence in court, convicted and transported to Tasmania. Even after he was pardoned he stayed in Tasmania and continued his working-class political activity. He died in poverty in a workhouse in 1870.

When British workers stood up against slavery

The export of cotton from the south of the United States was a major factor in the growth of British industry during the 19th century. The blockade of Southern ports by the Union navy during the US civil war resulted in a major crisis. By July 1862, Britain’s supply of raw cotton stood at one third of the normal level. Three quarters of British cotton-mill workers were unemployed or on short time.

For this reason, and because of their general hostility to democratic ideas, the British ruling class leaned heavily towards the Confederacy. Leading members of Palmerston’s Whig government, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister William Gladstone, openly favoured British intervention to lift the Northern blockade and help establish Confederate independence.

Despite the fact that its members’ immediate economic interests were under threat, the British workers’ movement - including in the Lancashire textile towns - overwhelmingly opposed intervention and stood solid “for Lincoln and liberty”.

This was something of a puzzle to supporters of the slavocracy. Henry Hotze, a Swiss-born Alabamian who arrived in London in 1862 to work as a Southern propagandist, wrote: “The Lancashire operatives were the only class which as a class continues actively inimical to us. With them the unreasoning aversion to our institutions is as firmly rooted as in any part of New England.” But, as a former Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton... it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

Marx wrote to Engels in April 1863, describing this magnificent display of solidarity as “an act almost without precedent” in the history of the working class. Marx documented how, during the Civil War, a series of mass workers’ meetings in English towns from Newcastle to London, including pro-Confederate Liverpool, passed resolutions denouncing slavery and promising resistance to the threat of British military support for the Confederacy.

One such meeting was organised by the London Trades Union Council in March 1863; Marx considered it critical to process which led to the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association the following year. As the founding rules of the International put it:

“It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England, that saved the west of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.”

Dadabhai Naoroji and Shapurji Saklatvala

Britain's first non-white MP was Dadabhai Naoroji, a campaigner against British rule in India. Between 1892 and 1895, he represented Finsbury, having been elected in a storm of controversy after the Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury said he doubted whether British voters would elect a "black man". The Tory campaign in Finsbury was, naturally, marked by virulent racism against Naoroji.

Although elected as a Liberal, Naoroji was good friends and worked closely with HM Hyndman, the pioneer British Marxist, on issues including opposition to British imperialism. He steadily moved to the left and, after losing his seat in the election of 1895, associated himself with the Socialist International, speaking on Indian independence at its 1904 congress, where he stated that "the fate of India is in the hands of the working class".

Britain's second Asian MP, in Bethnal Green, was the pro-imperialist Tory Mancherjee Bhownagree. But the third, elected in 1922, was Shapurji Saklatvala, a star of the Communist Party of Great Britain before it fell victim to the virus of Stalinism.

Like Naoroji, Saklatvala had originally been a liberal when he came to Britain, but drew socialist conclusions from the anti-imperialist struggle. He was part of the small group that, inspired by the Russian revolution, sought to lead the Independent Labour Party into the Communist International and, when this failed, left to join the CPGB. Between 1922 and 1924, before Communists were definitively excluded from the Labour Party, he represented Battersea North as a Communist MP with Labour support; he lost his seat in 1923, but won it back in 1924 and held it until 1929.

Saklatvala was no ordinary MP. Listen to communist and Trotskyist veteran Harry Wicks:

"In the twenties, to the consternation of the Labour leadership, Battersea North elected as their member of parliament the Indian Saklatvala. Not only was he an Indian but a Communist, and he was sponsored by the united Battersea labour movement.

"The link that Saklatvala established with his worker constituents was not that of the proverbial surgery: 'Can I help you?', 'Have you any problems?' At that time the entire working class had a problem, that of survival against the employers' lock-outs, widespread unemployment and the downward slide of the sliding scale of wages agreements.

"Saklatvala spoke at factory gate meetings and introduced the monthly report-back from Westminster. There were great meetings. Long before the doors of the town hall opened, queues formed just like they used to at Stamford Bridge.

"The platform was always crowded. Sak, as he was affectionately known, was flanked by the entire executive of the Trades and Labour Council and numerous representatives of Indian and colonial organisations."

Saklatvala was the first person to be arrested during the General Strike of 1926, after calling on soldiers to disobey orders to fire on strikers.

Claude McKay, revolutionary journalist

The revolutionary socialist Claude McKay (1889-1848), who only lived here for a few years, has been described by many as Britain's first black journalist. Famous for the novels and stories written as and after he abandoned socialism, McKay was an important figure in the pre-Stalinist communist movement.

Born to a peasant family in Jamaica, he published his first book of poems - the first poems to be published in patois - in 1912. After moving to the US to study, he was shocked into political activity by the intense racism he encountered. In 1919, he met Max Eastman, the maverick radical who produced the Liberator magazine. It was here that McKay published his famous poem "If we must die" about the Red Summer of racist violence against black people in 1919. He became involved with a group of black radicals dissatisfied with both the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey and middle-class reformist black politics, which developed quickly in a socialist direction.

After coming to live in London, McKay used to frequent a soldiers' club in Drury Lane and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch. It was here that he met a number of famous British socialists including Sylvia Pankhurst. In 1920 the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article entitled "Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine", peddling grotesque sexual stereotypes about African people, but Lansbury refused to print McKay's reply. Instead, it was printed in Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers' Dreadnought, and McKay quickly became a regular contributor and then a paid journalist for the paper.

Together with the Workers' Socialist Federation which published the Dreadnought (the organisation grew out of the left-wing working-class-based women's movement in East London which had been expelled by the mainstream suffragettes), McKay was involved in the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain and he played an important role in the early Communist International.

The Mangrove Nine trial

A defining moment for the development of working-class anti-racism what was the trial of the "Mangrove Nine" in 1971. The Nine were black activists arrested at a demonstration in August 1971 against the harassment of Frank Critchlow, the owner of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. The Mangrove, which was a centre for community and campaigning organisations, had been repeatedly raided (supposedly for drugs) by Britain's political police, Special Branch, who regarded black activists as a threat almost equal to that of the labour movement and the Marxist left. When they were arrested, the protesters had already been under surveillance for a year.

The Nine were charged with a huge range of offences before a jury with only two black members. Yet, despite the desperate efforts of Special Branch, they were acquitted of 25 out of 31 charges, including the serious ones of riot and causing grievious bodily harm: five were acquitted and none of them went to prison. The jury split on class lines, with the middle class members more inclined to believe the police and favouring convinction, while most of the workers simply decided that the police were liars. The eventual acquittal on the most serious charges was a compromise between these two views.

After the trial ended, seven the jurors went out drinking with the defendants.

Three of the Nine conducted their own defence, refusing to shut up when told to and turning the trial into an indictment of the police's brutality and corruption and helping to win over the jury. The lesson of inter-racial working-class solidarity was summed up by one of them, the socialist and now well-known writer Darcus Howe put it: "This race thing, you have to be very careful how you deal with it because you can win people over."

From Grunwick to Gate Gourmet

Between 1976 and 1978, hundreds of mainly Asian women workers at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in North London fought a bitter dispute for union recognition, eliciting enormous solidarity from across the labour movement.

In the summer of 1976, the Grunwick workers joined the APEX union in order to pursue grievances over their appalling wages and conditions, as well as institutional racism in the firm, and were sacked by their employer George Ward. In response to the call for solidarity action from other unions, the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) refused to deliver Grunwick's post; they were sued by the right-wing National Association for Freedom, but later the local UPW branch simply refused to deliver the post anyway. As the dispute mounted, thousands of workers from around the country, including hundreds of miners from Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent, descended on Grunwick to prevent scabs from entering the workplace.

In the Imperial Typewriters dispute in 1974, Asian workers in Leicester had struck against racist discrimination in favour of white workers, and the bosses used racism to divide and weaken the workforce and defeat the strike. Grunwick showed that this sort of racism was not inevitable. This time too the bosses won, but it was because of bureaucratic betrayal, and in spite of magnificent solidarity rank-and-file trade unionists had shown.

More afraid of mass mobilisation than of defeat, the leaderships of the TUC and APEX demobilised this action and insisted that the workers rely on a purely legal strategy. Betrayed by their own leaders, the Grunwick workers were defeated. But nothing could erase the huge, multi-racial, anti-racist surge of working-class solidarity which their struggle had called forth.

Almost twenty years later, in the summer of 2005, another group of mainly Asian women workers fought a union-busting boss at Gate Gourmet, a catering company producing food for British Airways at Heathrow. Solidarity action from baggage handlers at the airport opened the possibility of victory, but once again the union leadership demobilised the action. Although, as in the Grunwick dispute, the Gate Gourmet workers also received widespread solidarity, the greatly weakened state of the labour movement since 1979 meant that this did not express itself in the same explosive mass action.

Although Grunwick and Gate Gourmet both ended in defeat, they are representative of the best in Britain's working-class and anti-racist traditions.

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