Rather like Arctic explorers throwing chunks of meat off the sledge to distract the pursuing wolf pack, British governments during the 1960s and 1970s enacted a series of immigration laws designed to assuage a racist appetite which was threatening to devour quite a few parliamentary seats. Whatever else was said about them, it was black immigration the Acts were intended to reduce. It was argued that for the government to be seen to be doing this would take the sting out of the racist propaganda that Britain was about to be engulfed in a human flood from Africa, Asia and the West Indies. Another way of putting this would have been to argue that passing racist laws would actually reduce racism. All three big parties were clear at the last election that there is no going back to the days of free immigration for anyone from the old colonies. The Tories, as might be expected, promised tougher curbs on entry; the Alliance said they accepted the need for immigration controls; and the Labour Party dressed up their betrayal of their supposed principle of international solidarity in a promise to run a system of "firm and fair" controls. As a sop to any anxieties caused by the Immigration Acts and the human cost of this attempt to appease racism, Race Relations Acts were introduced, supposedly to ensure that those immigrants who were allowed to come here should be free of discrimination.
The first immigration Act was passed in 1962 and the first Race Relations Act in 1965. But just as laws cannot eliminate poverty or slums or disease so they fail to abolish prejudice. It is no longer legal, for example, to end an advertisement for accommodation with the phrase "Sorry, no Irish or coloureds" as was once common – but that should deceive nobody. A recent series of TV programmes exposed the different treatment received by two journalists in Bristol, obviously related to the fact that one was white and one black. Anyone with an interest in the subject does not need such programmes to inform them that prejudice still festers; they do not need to witness the sickening bigotry of the man in the Bristol pub who intoned "There's a nig-nog on the fireplace" when the black journalist came quietly into the bar. The anger and disgust which this kind of behaviour provokes could persuade many people that they should be out "smashing" racism, breaking up demonstrations, driving racists off the streets and outlawing their organisations. It is not that simple; for just as racist ideas cannot be blanked out by legislation neither can they be affected by attempts to outdo the racists in repressive tactics. Anyone who relies for their kicks on regular punch-ups with National Front skinheads may find this boring but if we are able to tackle racism effectively it must be through understanding its dimensions, its background and its place in this society.
In the days when racism meant the Nazis trying to wipe out the Jews, or the Ku Klux Klan's grisly madness in the Deep South, or the white minorities in countries like South Africa and Rhodesia holding down the black majority, British politicians often took comfort in the assumption that it was not happening here, not through any special enlightenment among British people but because their tolerance was not being out to the test. In any case the omens were not promising, in view of the prejudice against Jews which had long operated in this country. When the Commonwealth immigrants began to arrive here, starting with the West Indians in the early 1950s, working class racism proved to be easily stimulated, with the additional factor that these victims of discrimination were so easily identifiable. It is not possible, in 1988, to argue that the situation is any easier; apart from the prejudice there is also a lot of persistent racial violence in large towns with a large black population.
Violence often springs from panic – a frantic, impulsive, incoherent response to difficulties which are imperfectly understood. For example, the slogan "Britain for the British" is easy and punchy – good for demonstrations and carrying a clear implication of violence and repression. It expresses the theory that life in Britain would be a lot better – less poverty, better housing, more accessible medical care, full employment – if only British people were allowed to live here, But who are the "British"? How are they defined? What would be the practical effects of keeping out everyone who did not fall into the definition and even if that were possible, when we had a country inhabited only "British" people would they in fact own it? The slogan, trumpeted so confidently on many a racist march, betrays a deep misunderstanding of society, of how it works and why.
Working class panic in this matter has been mirrored by that among their political leaders. Perhaps the most notable example was the reaction to Enoch Powell's infamous speech in April 1968. This ex-professor of Greek, with his supposedly ice-cold logical mind, spouted fanciful images of dear old ladies cowering receiving parcels of excrement through their letter boxes and of the River Tiber foaming with blood. Powell's speech received a reception among some workers which bordered on the rapturous. This man who prided himself on his uncommon aloofness was suddenly in touch with the common people; gangs of dockers and market porters marched through the streets to testify to the fact. Less glamorously, the speech touched an unhappy chord in the Labour Party's memory, of the loss in 1964 of the parliamentary seats at Smethwick and Leyton, apparently because of their reputation for being soft on immigration. Their reaction was to rush through another Immigration Act, clearly aimed at hampering the influx of Asians from Kenya and Uganda , which could be done only through the redefinition of British nationality. The Labour Party had come a long way, since the days when Hugh Gaitskell so vehemently denounced the Tory 1962 Immigration Act, comforting his members with the implication that their party would never stoop to any similar denial of international solidarity.
It says a great deal about the "values" of this allegedly civilised society that an idea as widespread and destructive as racism exists without any strong theoretical support. To begin with, if the theory of race – that human beings are divided into distinct groups with varying abilities and behaviour – is at all valid it should be possible to say what constitutes a race, what are the limits and what decides which race a person belongs to. In fact there has never been any agreement on this, which is why the "experts" have differed so widely in their estimates of the number of races in existence. Are the "British" a race on their own, which would indicate that there are an enormous number of races in the world, or are they part of a larger, more widespread race? People who do not profess to any expertise on the subject, but are sure of the validity of racism, operate on a rather cruder level. Some complain that black people are lazy while other resent what they see as blacks taking over "white" jobs. Jews were once sneered at for a supposed deficiency in martial eagerness; the recent activities of the Israel armed forces has caused that particular myth to be replaced with another, about their innate belligerence.
Among those who have tried to legalise racial boundaries confusion has reigned; at the beginning of the century in the Southern states of America the legal definition of a negro varied from state to state, so that a person could change their skin colour by crossing a state boundary. More recently, the attempts of the South African government at race definition end, somewhat despairingly, in the formula that a white person is someone who in appearance is obviously white or generally accepted as white but excludes any person who, although in appearance obviously white, is generally accepted as coloured. Perhaps this is a clear, workable definition to the lawyers and politicians of Pretoria but other people may well find it an impenetrable muddle.
All this makes the entire concept of racial purity, that favourite object of all racists, look decidedly shaky. Racial purity could come about only through a group keeping themselves genetically exclusive, which would mean living in rigid isolation and breeding only within the group. To achieve that would mean a separation from the mainstream of human activity – which is, after all, so much a matter of migration. It is true to say that humans have always been migratory. In primitive times they spread over the earth in search of sources of food; later there was the enforced migration of slavery; and later yet the movement from one country to another to meet a demand for labour. Today, under modern capitalism, rapid travel and communications answer the needs of developed industry and commerce. So human migration, with its consequent cross-breeding, is a fact of life; to stand apart from it means to stagnate – which is another way of saying that genetic mixing has been, and is, beneficial to human society. In Britain, whatever the National Front may think, the situation is beyond recall for this is a country with a long history of exporting and importing people. It is nonsense to talk about the "British race" in the sense of a group with an exclusive, unmixed genetic background. The "culture" which racists are so ardent to defend is the outcome of centuries of cross-fertilising among humans, in response to their material situation; it has nothing to do with our genetic construction.
Why then is racism so potent a political force? Why, to give a most recent example, did Le Pen win such support among French workers in the last presidential election? To answer these questions we must begin with the fact that the present social system is responsible for a world disfigured with impoverishment and insecurity. For the majority of people getting a living means submitting to exploitation through employment – holding down a job. Their poverty compels them to compete for work, for housing, for social services. They are frustrated and angry about the difficulties in the business of survival, which they sense would be simpler and happier and in the same way they know that most of our current problems are avoidable. Not unreasonably, they think in terms of simple solutions, such as alleviating poverty with extra resources. But the knowledge that there are obstacles to this provokes their frustration, which can be most easily worked off by passing their own responsibility for what happens in society onto some scapegoat or other. Thus modern capitalism seethes with prejudice – against women, children, the disabled, the old, the unemployed – and most prominent among these is the bigotry of racism.
The man in the Bristol pub would probably die rather than agree to it, but his crude racism was really an expression of his need to understand why he has to live as he does. In that sense, he inherits the centuries-old problem of how to justify racism. The slavers amassed enormous wealth from their pitiless human trade (which did so much to make Bristol the thriving port it once was) and the slaves suffered so terribly on the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas and then on the plantations, that there had to be theories about the inborn inferiority to excuse it all. Religion was not reluctant to help out in this, giving divine solace to any consciences which could not be settled through a perusal of the balance sheets. It was the same for the white minorities in Africa, who protected their sumptuous privileges and disproportionate political power by reasoning that the blacks were simply not fit to rule and therefore benefited from having white people on their backs. Slave labour was also at the root of the ruthless persecution of negroes in the Deep South, which continued on its savage way a long, long time after the slaves had been theoretically set free. The imperial expansion of British capitalism (another of history's examples of migration) depended on the annexation of territory backed by an overwhelming military force. Huge fortunes were made a few people from this repression of millions. Little wonder that they excused it all as an historic example of an advanced, cultured people selflessly carrying enlightenment and progress to a primitive rabble.
So racism is not the ordered theoretical structure which its proponents would have us believe. It has no sound basis and its concepts are laughably inconsistent. It is not rooted in genetic inheritance but springs from material surroundings, a part of social history. It should be enough to leave the matter there, except that racism flourishes as a malign obstacle to human progress. It can be more than a matter of, say, a British worker getting angry at what is seen as immigrants taking over "our" towns, "our" shops, "our" dole offices . . . The memory of Nazi Germany's meticulous rounding up, transportation and murdering of millions of people is too clear for that. This is what racism at its extremities is capable of but at all levels it is a denial of the reality that there is only one useful division to draw among the human race and that, in this society, is based on class. Capitalism's social structure has a minority owning the means of life and maintaining their position through exploiting the majority. Exploitation – working for the owning class – is the majority's only real means of living; they depend on paid employment and that is the source of their poverty which, if they cannot be employed, can attain a desperately low level. On each side of the class divide there is a unity of interests, even though it is not always realised or operated. Capitalists of all "races" or nationalities have the same interests and this goes for the workers as well. The interests of each class however are antagonistic to those of the other; the division is not then between black and white or Jew and gentile or whatever, but between capitalist and worker.
Workers who don't understand why capitalism condemns them to impoverished lives are all too ready to blame their problems onto other workers, from other towns or from other countries or of other "races". This is an exercise of blind futility for after all the misconceptions, after all the efforts to reform capitalism into a problem-free system, it is clear that the need is for a radical change; nothing less than the abolition of class society will do. This is perfectly possible but it requires a united resolve among the world's working class, reflecting the fact that their interests are as one, to establish a society based on common ownership of the means of life. Socialism will be world of freedom and co-operation, in contrast to capitalism's repression and conflict.
Nothing should be allowed to obscure working class unity nor to hamper its struggle to set up the new social order. We know enough of racism, and of what it does to human beings, to reject it as a destructive, anti-social force. There is a better way; we have a world to win and little time to lose.