Race, Nation and Class Formation: From Engels to the Present

by Gareth Dale

Class was never a homogeneous category in Marxist thought, some of the earliest works of which were sensitive to the influence of race and nationalism.

First published: 12 January, 2015 | Category: Class, Labour movement, Migration, Philosophy and Theory, Racism

Of the various charges that have been laid at the door of the Marxist tradition, among the strangest is that it has treated ‘class’ as a homogenous category from which questions of race and migration have been excised. Whilst the Marxist tradition hardly came into the world blessed with a rich and worked-out body of theory on class-race intersectionality, some of its earliest works were sensitive to the influence of race and nationalism on class formation. 

Engels, Marx and English abominations

Friedrich Engels’ first single-authored book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, takes as its subject the making and unmaking of the working class, with questions of race and nation figuring prominently. Its pages on Irish immigration are strewn with national stereotypes and yet simultaneously brim with admiration and sympathy for the Irish, who are identified as the most oppressed and most militant segment of Britain’s working class—the rabble that produces the rebel. In a typically paradoxical, rambunctious and racializing passage, Engels remarks that in Britain workers are able to ‘protest with most violent passion against the tyranny of the propertied class thanks to [their] education, or rather want of education, and to the abundance of hot Irish blood that flows in the veins of the English working-class’. He lauded the Irish Chartist leaders Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien for having breathed Irish flame onto Chartist coals and likened the Irish-English connexion to that of the French vis-à-vis Germans (the former stereotyped as ‘facile, excitable, fiery’, the latter as ‘stable, reasoning, persevering’). In this analysis of the role of the Irish within the British working class, one can see Engels sketching out his and Marx’s dialectic of proletarian revolution. Irish workers, in Engel's account, occupied a position of absolute immiserisation. They were agents of ‘demoralisation’ (in the archaic sense) of the working class and hence pointed toward the dissolution of bourgeois society tout court. Although an integral part of the working class, their peculiarly absolute oppression made fighters of them. They were the indispensable rebels.

Engels laid the groundwork for Marxist work on race and class formation in two respects. First, in his insistence that the British working class was polyethnic from its inception and that this was a distinctive and dynamic element in the process of class formation. Whilst not all Marxist accounts of class formation in Britain have emphasised this, a number have, notably Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, Dorothy Thompson’s Outsiders and Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (on which more below). Second, Engels formulated the Irish experience as exemplary of national oppression. ‘Irish history’, he wrote in 1869, ‘shows what a misfortune it is for one nation to subjugate another. All English abominations have their origin in the Irish pale’.[1] This last sentence alludes to a good deal of the sufferings of the world from around 1535 to the present. But it also exhibits a certain Anglocentrism; the decisive issue for Engels is the hobbling by colonial oppression and racism of the metropolitan working class.[2] It was Marx who began to move beyond this.

Like Engels, Marx played close attention to division of ‘the proletariat into two hostile camps’, though perhaps with a stronger emphasis upon ruling class agency in fomenting division.[3] Like Engels, Marx initially posited working class ascendancy in Britain, with Irish immigrants playing a pivotal part, as the instrument with which to unpick social oppression on both sides of the Irish Sea. From the 1860s, Marx began to advocate the general principle that national independence is an inalienable right of the colonised, and supported Irish secession, arguing that this should begin in Ireland itself.[4] This pitted Marx against English trade union leaders in the First International, a body in which there was no shortage of nationalists.[5] Against them, Marx proposed that if ‘social revolution in England’ is to be advanced ‘the great blow must be struck in Ireland’. This  gave rise to a broad current within Marxist political thought committed to the notion that a revolutionary ‘lever’ could be applied in less industrially advanced countries and that the struggles of oppressed nationalities plays a progressive historical role.[6]

Hobsbawm and Thompson

With Marxism converted into a vehicle of social-democratic and Communist state-building in the early and mid-twentieth century, Marxist historiography of the making and unmaking of the British working class altered. This was noticeable in the work of Eric Hobsbawm, and, more subtly, in that of Edward Thompson. Hobsbawm was sensitive—as a historian and in his own life—to the divisiveness of national and racist consciousness. But he believed the primacy of nationalism over class consciousness was an immutable fact of modern capitalism, and that if the fragmentation of the working class is to be overcome, the organised labour parties must unite with the middle classes and ‘national capitalists’ to gain control of the nation state.[7] In essays such as ‘Identity Politics and the Left’ he argues that British nationalism should be claimed by the left.[8] His histories of British class formation fail to recognise the role played by racialized outsiders in the advances associated with the New Unionism of the 1980s, and he pays scant attention to the role of the Irish within mainland Britain.[9] Moreover, he was witheringly critical of Irish nationalism, including even the republican and socialist leader James Connolly, whom he condemned for having sought to create a pan-Ireland labour movement, a strategy that, he claims, ensured the atrophy of the labour movement in north and south alike, and ‘the subordination of southern Irish labour to nationalism’.[10]

Thompson was less inclined to defend British nationalism than Hobsbawm, yet his magnificent The Making of the English Working Class is, as its first reviewers noted, coy about nationalism, and carries a slightly sentimental air (doesn’t the title sound antiquated now?). On occasion, Thompson slips into the irritating English habit of eliding the smaller nations: O’Connor is spoken of as English, and Belfast is lumped alongside the likes of Birmingham and Bradford as a specimen of English conurbation.[11] Thompson’s treatment of Irish immigration is not the strongest thread within his book. In part, this reflects his focus upon skilled and semi-skilled workers (woolcombers, weavers, croppers, etc) rather than unskilled occupations (navvies, spademen and domestic servants). In part, it is due to his tendency to assume the object of study to be the ‘English’ working class, with the Irish characterised as ‘an unsettling element in the formative working class community’.[12] Nevertheless, he is at his critical best when identifying connexions between Irish nationalism and movements of the English poor, notably during the 1790s—with a strong Irish presence in the London Correspondence Society and the United Englishmen—and the Luddite revolts.[13]

Stuart Hall and postcolonial theory

While writing his classic, Thompson was closely associated with Britain’s New Left. Of its six founders he was the only non-hyphenated Englander. It is no coincidence that his subject was the making of the English working class, while that of Stuart Hall was its unmaking: the fragmentation of Britain’s class structure, the disintegration of inherited expectations, the formation of identity through racism and the resistance to it, the plasticity of social identity, and in particular ‘the end of the essential Black subject’.[14] Hall’s ideas were formed in the 1950s-70s, an era of tumultuous world-changing movements: decolonisation, mass migration characterised by the ‘inward journey’ from ex-colonies to the metropolitan core, and the civil rights movement in the US which in turn inspired a global upturn in social-movements ascending through the 1960s, and faltering in the 1970s before collapsing in the 1980s. This was the moment of postcolonial theory, and saw questions of migration, and the ‘colonial encounter’—with its associated concepts: diaspora, hybridity, displacement, intersectionality—move from the margins to the centre of social theory. Stuart Hall was at the heart of it all.

For Hall, migration and the social movements of the oppressed had destroyed the ‘logic of identity’ that had once underwritten dominant social myths of boundedness and stability, enabling a new cultural politics to emerge ‘which engages rather than suppresses difference’.[15] He, and others, announced the dawning era as ‘New Times’—and it quickly became a fad, promoted zealously by the Eurocommunist periodical Marxism Today. One aspect of the hoopla to which Hall contributed, if rather hesitantly, was a metaphorical stretching of the meaning of migration. The migrant has become a ‘pedagogical figure’,[16] as Hall put it, their odyssey representative of the general social experience, as the terrain of culture shifts ‘toward the decentring of old hierarchies and the grand narratives’, with in particular a ‘decentring of the western narrative’.[17] Unlike in the past, when cultures were ‘originary’,[18] postmodern culture was seen as syncretic, diasporic and diverse. Migrants, postcolonial theorists proposed, are uniquely alive to the postmodern condition of heterogeneity and flux; in an age marked by difference and displacement the migrant (or nomad) becomes the archetypical figure. Culturally displaced, they lead nomadic lives and are possessed of hybrid (or ‘creole’) identities. Ceaselessly engaged in cultural translation, they are sensitive to hybridity, complexity and turbulence, and to the ultimate incommensurability of cultural difference; their consciousness is ‘relational’ rather than ‘fixed’. Some went further, positing the migrant as the indispensable irritant to the world system; the grain of sand to the oyster. ‘A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration’, announced Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, with ‘desertion and exodus’ coming into view as the new forms assumed by class struggle ‘against imperial postmodernity’.[19]

This diagnosis ran into a number of difficulties. In the hands of some postcolonial theorists it ballooned into a vacuous celebratory aesthetics of globalised hybridity and diaspora. Some mistook their own group-reaction against the nationalism of orthodox communism for a fundamental socio-structural shift. Many forgot that delineating the current conjuncture in terms of the transitory, fugitive and contingent is as old as Baudelaire. A mythology of the pre-1980s ‘past’ was promoted, with its cultural stability and fixity, ethnic homogeneity and mythologised workers who ‘drank the same beer, wore the same clothes, went to Blackpool for their holidays, watched the same TV programmes and talked about them at work the next day in huge factories and mines’.[20] Some theorists came to believe in the myth of the US melting pot as a progressive instantiation of hybridity, when it was better described, as Partha Chatterjee pointed out, as ‘a pedagogical project of homogenisation into a new, internally hierarchised normative American culture’.[21] Others, noting that international migration flows are largely determined by the internationalisation of capital, believed that celebrating the former should imply at least a whispered approbation of the latter—the path followed by Nigel Harris in The Return of Cosmopolitan Capital.

Anti-capitalism from the nooks and crannies

It is against the backdrop of the literature discussed so far that the significance of Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider should be understood. Virdee’s approach de-metaphorises the migrant experience without devaluing its newly-won position within social theory. His theoretical apparatus draws judiciously upon the literatures outlined above, especially from Hall’s Gramsci-inflected reading of class as constructed through racial (and other forms of) differentiation.[22] It utilises an understanding of the nation as an ideological structure through which different modalities of racism are successively shaped, of ‘racialization’ (similar to Robert Miles), and of colonialism as a transnational process—a site of encounter between colonising societies and the colonised. Equipped with these heuristics, Virdee traverses the history of the English working class, exploring its making (its coming to collective self-consciousness, with emphasis upon the part played by racialized minorities), but simultaneously its unmaking, its self-abnegation and fragmentation through national and racist consciousness. He analyses in unsparing detail the embrace by workers (including the bulk of the socialist tradition) of a British national identity formed in explicit or implicit opposition to a racialized other, and those moments when socialist nationalists re-imagined one racialized group (e.g. the Irish) as an integral part of England’s working class even as they excluded another (the Jews). Virdee's account also celebrates the moments of workers’ militancy—principally the 1790s, 1840s and 1970s—at which political unity between racialized minorities and the white majority fed into general anti-systemic movements, to the horror of the ruling class. 

Virdee’s most important contribution though is to reinsert the presence of racialized minorities into the history of the working class in England.  He discusses, for example the centrality of Irish Catholics to the Spithead Mutiny, to the founding of the first trades union (NAPL) and the National Union of Dock Labourers, as well as Irish and black immigrants to the Chartist movement (fully half of Bradford Chartists were Irish). Virdee highlights in particular the disproportionate role played by ‘racialized outsiders’ within the small current of socialist internationalism. Here he draws on Isaac Deutscher’s essay on the ‘Non-Jewish Jew’. Deutscher sought to explain why such a remarkable number of revolutionaries of modern thought were Jewish.  His answer: the fact that they lived ‘on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations’, an experience which promoted a sensitivity to social change and contradiction.[23] Virdee broadens this insight to racialized outsiders in general, arguing that they are more likely to be alive to the particularisms through which capitalist society is constructed; a necessary, if insufficient, condition for the elaboration of an internationalist socialist outlook and strategy.

If leftists set out from nationalist premises, immigration can appear to divide the working class, making the formation of socialist movements more difficult. A more accurate and more radical premise is that such divisions stem from the nation state system and imperialism. That being the case, it is no wonder that racialized outsiders have been central to keeping socialist-internationalist flames alive.

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. His publications include The European Union and Migrant Labour (1999) and Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market (2010).


This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.



[1] Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx, 24 October 1869.

[2] Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 116.

[3] Ibid., p. 148.

[4] August Nimtz, ‘Class struggle under “Empire”: in defence of Marx and Engels’, International Socialism 96 (2002).

[5] Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 124.

[6] Ibid., pp. 144, 148.

[7] Eric Hobsbawm, Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), p. 60.

[8] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Identity Politics and the Left’, New Left Review 217.

[9] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Palgrave, 2014).

[10] Eric Hobsbawm, Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), p. 63. Hobsbawm’s attitude to small nations may have been influenced by the discussion of this subject by Marx and Engels – a hare set running in 1848 that should have been shot in 1849 but instead ran on and on, and in the early twentieth century resonated particularly strongly with Jewish-heritage socialists in Central Europe.

[11] See e.g. E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin, 1968), p. 296.

[12] Thompson’s phrase is unintentionally ironic. It was the British who settled Ireland, in the process unsettling Irish livelihoods. In turn, Irish people migrated to Britain, where they contributed to the making of the British working class – not least because that process required an unsettling of dominant ideologies.

[13] The UE, an offshoot of the United Irishmen, was co-founded by Edmund Despard. The scion of an Irish landowning family, Despard fought as a British naval officer in the West Indies. His biography is a reminder that by no means all Irish leaders of the British labour movement were themselves workers. Bronterre O’Brien (son of a wine merchant) and the landowner William Thompson are significant examples.

[14] Stuart Hall, ‘New Ethnicities’, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Post-colonial Studies Reader (Routledge, 1995).

[15] Ibid., p. 226.

[16] Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Composition’, Interview with Julie Drew, 1998.

[17] Stuart Hall, ‘What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?’, in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge, 1996), pp. 466-8.

[18] Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Composition’, Interview with Julie Drew, 1998.

[19]Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 213.

[20] Nicholas Costello, Jonathan Michie and Seamus Milne, quoted in Neil Lazarus, Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 40.

[21] Partha Chatterjee, ‘Empire After Globalisation’, Economic and Political Weekly, Special Articles, 11 September, 2004.

[22] Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’, Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10.2 (1986).

[23] Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and other essays (Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 27.

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