Reviewed by Margarita Aragon
In the Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson famously argued, ‘The working class made itself as much as it was made’ (1991: 213) In a book which will be of relevance to those interested in the sociology of race and racism, historical sociology and labour history alike, Satnam Virdee reworks Thompson’s thesis to bring to the fore the ways in which both racism and anti-racist resistance fundamentally shaped this process. At a time when both populist and mainstream political discourse continually seem to invoke the British working class as inherently white, Virdee’s insistence that, firstly, the working class has always been a multiethnic formation and that, secondly, the formation of race in Britain has been central to the formation of class is a timely one.
A central aim of Virdee’s revision of English working class history is to excavate the presence of activists of racialized backgrounds in the working class movements of the 19th and 20th centuries from the historical record and to examine their efforts to forge multi-ethnic class solidarity. Virdee refers to these men and women as ‘leavening agents’, political actors who nourished and catalyzed the struggles of the wider working class (2014: 164). Given their unique political subjectivity as outsiders, such individuals, Virdee argues, had a tenuous relationship to the British nation that frequently insulated them against the siren call of nationalism. Further, their experience in subaltern struggles uniquely positioned them to attempt to broaden the particularist scope of English working class struggle, democratizing and universalizing its claims away from the narrow, and often oppressive, confines of nation, empire and race.
Racialized outsiders did not only shape the making of the working class as subjects of history, Virdee argues, but as ‘objects of antipathy.’ Their presence often provided the foil against which the white working class could delineate their claims for inclusion, in the recurrent process of expansion and restriction of the realm of national belonging that accompanied class struggles in this period. Indeed, as Virdee illustrates, from the mid 19th century onward, each time the accepted imaginary of the nation expanded to include more of the working class, it also hardened and constricted elsewhere to deny the inclusion of various groups of perceived outsiders and aliens. Thus the incorporation and assimilation of the working class within the bounds of national citizens has been facilitated through an ever-evolving national racism.
Virdee argues, contra the established historical wisdom, that in the early 19th century, a period which has been dubbed the ‘heroic age of the proletariat,’ the largely disenfranchised working classes often remained ambivalent to the elite’s efforts to asphyxiate class antagonism through the inculcation of British nationalism. After the defeat of the radical Chartist movement, however, the mid-nineteenth century became a turning point in which racializing nationalism began to permeate the working class imagination. From the mid 19th century onward, as working class leadership increasingly exchanged collective action and autonomy for negotiation and alliance building, they also increasingly began to stake their claims for a place in the national polity on their Britishness, a quality defined in contra-distinction to, variously, Irish Catholics, Jews, Asians and people of African descent. At the end of the 19th century, steeped in the discourse of virulent scientific racism as well as the celebratory narratives of Empire, which percolated through the lower class in school books, popular music and public exhibitions, British self-conceptions congealed around the construct of whiteness. Virdee argues that a ‘shared allegiance to whiteness’ crystallized in the post World War II period among all strata of society as well as the state. Thus, Britain’s ‘golden age’ of welfare capitalism was also its ‘golden age of white supremacy’, marked by both the legal encodification of racism and racist collective violence waged by white workers against black and Asian immigrants (98-99).
Virdee’s nuanced analysis of this shifting sense of white British identity in the seismic post-colonial upturn the decades following the Second World War is particularly relevant for the present conjuncture. He notes that the racism of the late 1960s, captured for posterity in the violent dread of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, marked a distinct permutation from the confident superiority of imperial era racism. ‘Seething at the loss of Empire’, Powell’s speech illustrates a ‘defensive racism’, focused not on the domination but the expulsion of racialized others from the body of the nation, ‘thereby eras[ing] them and the Empire from…collective memory’ (114). This defensive posturing has made a powerful resurgence in not only populist but also mainstream political discourse of recent years, with multiculturalism, ‘political correctness,’ immigration, and Islam being posited as forces both eroding ‘Englishness’ generally and ‘endangering’ the white working class in particular (Ware, 2008) .
Within the often-violent racist tides of the mid 19th through late 20th centuries, Virdee argues that there were important moments shaping the formation of the working class in which in workers resisted and rejected – with varying degrees of success- the pull of racialising nationalism. This resistance was spearheaded by racialized outsiders, from the Irish Catholic and black radicals who invigorated the British anti-slavery and Chartist movements, to the Jewish socialist activists who fought against increasing nationalism and racism within the Socialist mainstream during the buildup to World War I as well as those who lead the battle against Oswald Mosely’s fascists at Cable Street, to the black and Asian workers who waged a ‘heroic but lonely struggle’ against racism solidified almost uniformly across white British society in the post World War II era. Opportunities for the emergence of anti-racist solidarity, Virdee argues, opened during key moments of conflict in which workers’ frames of analysis could be shifted. Within such moments of systemic crisis, Virdee asserts that it was the relative prominence of socialist leadership, particularly socialist internationalist leadership, within the working class, which became ‘crucial in determining the scope and scale of anti-racism likely to emerge’ (7).
The most successful manifestation of the efforts of socialist internationalists and racialized minorities to infuse anti-racist consciousness and practice into the mainstream of the working class and, indeed, the wider British society manifested in the last years of the 1970s. Alongside the emergence of prominent organizations Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, among the most powerful moments recounted from this period is that in which the same London Dock Workers Union who in 1968 had walked out in support of Enoch Powell, chanting ‘Back Britain, Not Black Britain’ came to stand in solidarity with the predominately Asian women strikers at Grunwick in 1977.
While the movement wound down, Virdee highlights how in the following decade black and Asian workers were able to insist on the right for self organization within National and Local Government Officers’ Association and later the trade union movement more broadly, ensuring that those who bore the brunt of racism would determine the unions’ strategies to fight it. As a result of these efforts, activists were able, Virdee argues, to open up key sectors of employment heretofore closed and thus transform the structural positioning of black and Asian workers. Thus, even in the dismally inhospitable climate of Thatcherism, black and Asian activists were able to ‘institutionalize the durable current of anti-racism’ that been fostered in the previous decades.
Virdee’s arguments make important interventions within the sociology of race and racism as well as raising questions for future researchers. The relationship between racism and class remains under theorized, perhaps in part because many theorists of race and racism have been wary of deterministic arguments which may treat race as an epiphenomenon of class. By frequently analyzing race and class in isolation from each other or debating the primacy of one over the other, there is a danger of implicitly reinforcing the common sense notion that class inequality is the mode of oppression which affects white people while racism is what determines the position of those who are not. However, Virdee’s analysis of racism as a key structuring force within class formation also implicitly points to the importance of class antagonism in the formation of racism. The theoretical picture, then, is not one of autonomous forces but of complex mutual constitution, in which racism profoundly shapes the positioning and self-conception of the white working class and in which class struggle remains central to the lives and positioning of racialized minorities.
Virdee’s arguments also pave the way for further theoretical inquiry. Writing of the same period in the American context, Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2002) has argued that racialized ideals of masculinity were both central to claims for citizenship and forged in contradistinction to women, as well as racial others. How then did structures of gender also shape class formation in Britain? Did women workers generally, and racialized women workers in particular, have a political subjectivity honed towards radicalism due to their double oppression in both the workplace, where they positioned among the lowest ranks of the working classes, as well as the home? The inclusion of a number of prominent women among the outsiders Virdee discusses is certainly suggestive. Furthermore several of the workers’ struggles he highlights as critical in the period were spearheaded by groups of uncompromisingly radical women workers, notably the mostly teenage match makers who self-organized strike sparked similar action from previously unorganized workers across East London as well as the aforementioned Grunwick strikers, whose steadfastness went so far as to see a number of them go on hunger strike outside the headquarters of a vacillating Trade Union Council to demand more resilient support for their strike.
In conclusion, Virdee’s contribution is particularly important at a time when political discourse frequently pits the white working class against not only immigrants but seemingly all ethnic minorities in a zero sum game of rights and recognition. Virdee’s work provides a highly useful historical foundation from which to approach the task of explicating, politically and theoretically, more recent linkages between the economic violence of growing class inequality and the racisms with which it is fundamentally intertwined – a task made all the more urgent as so many seek to cultivate the politics of white working class resentment and morbid nationalist defensiveness. As we consider the current political context, it is useful to remember that while Virdee’s account of the frequently irresistible – but never inevitable- pull of nationalist and racist division on the white working class paints a picture that is often bleak, it is not one without hope.
Margarita Aragon is an Associate Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College. Her research focuses on the history of United States racisms and the experiences of Mexican and African Americans, particularly within the early 20th century.
Glenn, E. N. (2002) Unequal freedom: how race and gender shaped American citizenship and labor. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Thompson, E. P. (1991) The Making of the English Working Class. London, Penguin.
Ware, V. (2008) ‘Towards a Sociology of Resentment: A Debate on Class and Whiteness’. Sociological Research Online, 13(5).
Readers may also be interested in the following TCS material:
‘Ordinary Cosmopolitanisms: Strategies for Bridging Racial Boundaries among Working-class Men’
Michèle Lamont and Sada Aksartova
Theory, Culture & Society, August 2002; vol. 19, 4: pp. 1-25.
‘Joined-up Politics and Postcolonial Melancholia’
Theory, Culture & Society, June 2001; vol. 18, 2-3: pp. 151-167.
‘Race’s Recurrence: Reflections on Amin’s ‘The Remainders of Race’’
Theory, Culture & Society, January 2011; vol. 28, 1: pp. 112-128.
‘The Remainders of Race’
Theory, Culture & Society, January 2010; vol. 27, 1: pp. 1-23.