Multiculturalism, racism and class in Britain today

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2007 - 9:45 Author: Camila Bassi

By Camila Bassi

Three phases mark the history of multiculturalism in Britain. The first starts after the period of immigration from the Commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s.

The newly emergent black and Asian populations occupied certain labour market positions, lived in particular areas and faced particular forms of racism. People from Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Caribbean were some of most oppressed and exploited sections of the working class (they had the worst working and housing conditions). In general terms, they have remained there and been at the sharpest edge of racial tensions.

During these decades a New Right discourse emerged, famously summarised in 1968 by the then Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South-West, Enoch Powell, in his "Rivers of Blood" speech, depicting Britain as swamped with uncontrollable waves of immigrants which were throwing the country into impending doom. It was in this context that A Sivanandan (from the Race and Class journal) says multiculturalism first began to be used as a political policy and term (the phrase has other origins). This first phase (from the 1970s onwards) was, he says, partly a counter-Powellism built through grassroots, united anti-racist struggles and was based on a genuine respect for Britain's diverse cultural groups.

From the early 1980s an official stance emerged which said Britain's racial tensions were a result of disadvantage faced by ethnic minorities, fuelled by the consequences of individual prejudice. The Home Office commissioned Scarman report into the 1981 "race riots" offered such a conclusion and, to a degree, paved the ideological way for the local government appropriation of multiculturalism.

This new orthodoxy of citing ethnic minority disadvantage and individual prejudice - the underpinning rationale then to an appropriated multiculturalism - diverted attention away from the issues of class inequality and institutionalised racism, and rather conveniently left the bourgeois, predominantly white, status quo both out of sight and reach.

By the 1980s Britain had followed in the footsteps of Canada and Australia (countries that had first initiated policies of multiculturalism in the 1970s). Incidentally, the approach typically followed by the rest of Europe was that of encouraging national minority groups to assimilate to the national identity.

This then was the heyday of multiculturalism - when local governments promoted a celebration of cultural diversity, which was and is effectively devoid of anti-racist politics and which has opened up select aspects of discrete ethnic minority cultures to the capitalist market (aka "the united colours of capitalism").

But let's not be too crude here. The local government funds which did become available for specific ethnic minority initiatives were often a positive thing. Still, the consequence of such funding has been to pit one self-defined ethnic minority group against another, breeding resentment within the non-white populations and resentment from a by-standing white ethnic majority. Local government multiculturalism began a process that marketed and depoliticised cultural diversity, and which focused on getting a series of "communities" and "community leaders" to join the ranks. Fundamentally, it has shifted us away from being people affiliating to one another, first and foremost, on the basis of being workers.

In the 1980s, layers of the left (in part infected by a postmodern identity politics) came to embrace multiculturalism as a tool for social progress. One of the most well-known examples of such a leftist approach is that of Ken Livingstone: from his early days in the Greater London Council to his more recent exploits as the Mayor of London (hosting the sexist and homophobic Islamist cleric, Al-Qaradawi).

However, other sections of the left have long opposed multiculturalism on the basis that it ignores the socio-economic conditions that foster racism, decentres anti-racist politics and descends into a crude, apolitical cultural relativism.

Trying to uphold the "tradition of the Enlightenment" some on the liberal left regard multiculturalism as going against its principle of the universality of humankind. Socialists too are in favour of a universality of humankind - not to be mistaken for a forced cultural homogenisation, but a coming together of people (previously separating themselves on the grounds of ethnicity, "race" religion, nationality and so on) on the basis of their class. Indeed an international workers' culture would entail a far greater degree of cultural differentiation, more fluid cultural differentiation, as opposed to the fetishisation and solidification of cultural difference that multiculturalism engenders.

Multiculturalism does, of course, also have its critics on the right; the Conservative Party, for example equated it with "political correctness gone mad" and a threat to national identity and cohesion.

The most recent phase of multiculturalism is still unravelling and, to some extent, signifies a new dual existence of continued lip service to "cultural diversity" alongside that of calls for assimilation to the national identity.

A number of things happened in 2001 which prompted a government policy shift away from multiculturalism toward that of assimilation: the riots in the northern cities of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford; the Home Office commissioned Cantle report; the media hysteria over asylum seekers (echoing the earlier New Right discourse of Britain being "flooded"); and, of course, 9/11. The Cantle report summoned up the language of "community cohesion", and concluded that the problem of Britain's "race relations" is one of barriers between different cultures and a lack of civic pride, and that the solution is one of bringing Britain's ethnic minorities into the fold of its national institutions.

Similar to multiculturalism, "community cohesion" bypasses the very roots of racism, poverty and class inequality. The subtle difference between the two being that whilst the former suggested that Britain's "race relations problem" was borne out by ethnic minorities suffering from too little opportunity to express their cultures, the latter supposes that ethnic minorities have been given too much cultural expression and that this, in itself, has led to racial segregation.

This new parameter of the debate has realigned populist "race" pundits, for instance, Trevor Phillips (the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality) calls for the multiculturalism project to be abandoned on the basis that it has bred separateness. The latest policy offering by David Cameron's Tory Party (a Policy Exchange report which attacked multiculturalism and promoted "community cohesion") is in the same vein. Now Sivanandan (a staunch critic of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s) defends a form of multiculturalism in the face of what he describes as government talk of integration which in reality, he says, spells assimilation, monoculturalism and nativism.

Lenin and the National Cultural Autonomy Debate

In the early nineteenth century the growing prominence of the national question led to forms of Marxist accommodation to nationalism, notably, in the form the advocation of "extra-territorial, national cultural autonomy". First advanced by the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer and later by, for example, the Bund (the General Jewish Workers' Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia), the policy of national cultural autonomy argued that the attainment of national rights within a decentralised, federal state was a central socialist goal.

In Critical Notes on the National Question, Lenin offered an insightful critique of what he termed the "programme vacillations of [these] Marxists and would-be Marxists". It remains an important compass for thinking about multicultural Britain today.

Lenin argued the Marxist position on the national question should be focussed on delivering consistent democracy. There should be no privileges for any one cultural or national group. Lenin cites Switzerland as an example of the great possibilities that come to pass when privilege is done away with and the principles of consistent democracy are applied. In the case of Switzerland, the imposition of one national language disappeared. In Switzerland, not one but three official languages flourished, but the population voluntarily adopted one in common since it was to their advantage.

For Lenin, workers' democracy must oppose any form of nationalist squabbling over such things as language, by raising to a higher platform the demand for "unconditional unity and complete amalgamation of workers of all nationalities in all working-class organisations [s] in contradistinction to any kind of bourgeois nationalism". Lenin insisted that it is only this kind of unity and amalgamation that could democratically serve the interests of workers and their struggle against capital.

It is on this notion of unity and amalgamation, also referred to as assimilation, that Lenin was challenged by those advancing the call for national cultural autonomy. For instance, the Bundists claimed that in Lenin's counterposing of national culture as bourgeois and international culture as democratic and of the world proletariat, he promoted a nonsensical, non-national, assimilated, pure, homogenised culture.

Lenin responded by spelling out that the rudimentary elements of a democratic, socialist culture already exist in all national cultures, because all nations possess a working class. However all nations possess a ruling class culture which is "not merely of 'elements', but of the dominant culture". The Bundist failing was that they promoted the idea of a classless national culture, thus they effectively served the interests of the dominant, ruling class. Lenin:

"In advancing the slogan of 'the international culture of democracy and of the world working-class movement', we take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements; we take them only and absolutely in opposition to the bourgeois culture and bourgeois nationalism of each nation."

Thus when Lenin put forward the call for an international working class culture - through workers' unity, amalgamation, and assimilation - it was based on the understanding that such a culture would draw from many cultural forms and practices; i.e., it is and would be a radically differentiated culture.

This indeed follows in the tradition of Marx, specifically, ideas contained in Grundrisse that capitalism drives a cultural differentiation in the commodified form which enables workers to access to newer and wider cultural influences; and the use value of such commodities can be a positive development - a "civilising influence" - whereas the exchange value and system of exploitation is a constraint to be overcome.

In other words global capitalism can lay the basis for the promotion of a cosmopolitan culture, it can spread learning and knowledge about the world, put workers in touch with and give them a desire for broader horizons.

In the case of what Lenin considered "the most oppressed and persecuted nation - the Jews", while half were forcibly kept as a caste in Galicia and Russia, the other half represented "the great world-progressive features of Jewish culture". Therefore, the Bundist demand for Jewish national cultural autonomy was seen by Lenin as a turn backward, in the company of the bourgeoisie and rabbis. What he recognised in the Jewish question was a more general dialectical trend:

"Developing capitalism knows two historical tendencies [Š] The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the break-down of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of
capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc."

Accordingly, a Marxist approach to the national question needs to deal with both tendencies, firstly, by advocating "the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect (and also the right of nations to self-determination [Š]" and, secondly, "the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind".

For Lenin, there could never be reconciliation of Marxism with nationalism - "even of the 'most just', 'purest', most refined and civilised brand". That said:

"It is [also] the Marxist bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is a largely negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the 'positive' activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism."

For example, as Lenin elaborates in The National Programme of the RSDLP, Marxists are not duty bound to vote for national secession "but to vote for the right of the seceding region to decide the question itself"; and that doing so does not mean pandering to the reactionary interests of bourgeois nationalism (an erroneous argument previously maintained by Rosa Luxembourg), "since the recognition of the right does not exclude either propaganda and agitation against separation or the exposure of bourgeois nationalism".

Finally Lenin was not a dogmatist on these questions, demanding absolute central party discipline. In The Position of the Bund in the Party Lenin says the central Party programme should advance the general, fundamental questions that all workers have in common, whereas the various organisations of the Party should have some autonomy, the specific questions should be carried out in light of the range of specific conditions - "depending on local, racial, national, cultural, and other differences".

But Lenin thought that the federal decentralism of the "national cultural autonomy" advocates would fuel political isolation, separatism and fragmentation. So, for instance, the consequence of extra-territorial, national cultural autonomy for schooling would in practice be a detrimental move away from the general Marxist programme demanding absolute, secular education for all.

A socialist response to multiculturalism

A socialist position on both multiculturalism and community cohesion must be based on the principle of consistent democracy, i.e., that no one cultural group should be awarded privilege over and above any other.

On this basis we can critique local government multiculturalism as having established competition between several cultural groups for limited pots of money, which in turn has lead to privileged 'haves' and unprivileged 'have nots'.

Moreover, this privilege not only operates between different cultural groups but also within cultural groups (via internal hierarchies such as the elevation of so-called community representatives).

On "community cohesion", our critique can start by questioning what one is being asked to integrate to, the answer being assimilation to one privileged national culture.

Given that, as socialists, we strive toward a universality of humankind - specifically, an international workers' culture - we should be positively in favour of a multicultural Britain. To be clear here, we must distinguish between multicultural and multiculturalism; the former simply refers to the make-up of British society of many different cultural groups, whereas the latter serves to reinforce such groups as solid, separate entities.

Multicultural Britain is a place to draw democratic and socialist elements from a plethora of cultural forms and practices, but in uncompromised opposition to its bourgeois and reactionary, dominant elements; and the basis on which we do so is through workers' solidarity and struggle.

We do not naively and passively celebrate a range of diverse cultures in some liberal lefty vein, nor do we go along with an uncritical accommodation to bourgeois calls for integration. Instead we recognise all culture as the battleground of divergent class interests and hence we advance the interests of our class, wherever it lives, works and goes to school. It is an international working class.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.