Racialization, Difference and the Politics of Working-Class Formation

by Geoff Eley

Though too broad as an historical category, ‘racialization’ is nevertheless very effective when applied to the contemporary period.

First published: 19 January, 2015 | Category: History, Labour movement, Racism

Satnam Virdee’s essay and associated book, Race, Class, and the Racialized Outsider, offer salutary reflections on the salience of racialized differences in shaping working-class formation since the late eighteenth century.  With Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class as a benchmark, Virdee wishes to explore ‘how inserting the presence of the minority worker into the history of the working class in England transforms our traditional understandings’ of this period.[1]  The histories of the ‘social and political struggles’ that helped ‘secure economic and social justice and democratize English society’ during that period will look profoundly different, he argues, if we approach them searchingly ‘through the prism of race.’

The force and ramifications of this argument – whether in terms of historiography or contemporary political and social discourse – cannot be denied.  But at the same time, there are difficulties.  Tilting against the more familiar origin story of the Empire Windrush, Virdee rightly invokes the far longer history of the English working class as precisely ‘a multi-ethnic formation’:

Former enslaved peoples of African-American and Caribbean descent, Irish Catholic labourers, African and Asian lascars, ayahs, servants and seafarers, along with Jewish migrants escaping the racist pogroms within the Tsarist Empire, all made their home in Britain at different moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and sometimes earlier.’

However, this conflates differences borne by diverse populations and social categories across a variety of contrasting conjunctures, merging them beneath a single explanatory rubric: that of racialization, as Virdee understands it.  The consequences of such heterogeneity for an argument about class formation – about the forms of collective solidarity that operate at the level of local or national governance and political action, let us say – varied drastically across the two centuries concerned.  It mattered not only how stable and reproducible class identities may have been at the level of the whole society and polity, but also how the complex social histories of class formation worked themselves out in particular places and at any one time (demographically, occupationally, residentially, culturally, institutionally, attitudinally, politically).  If we know anything from the wealth of social historical scholarship of the past several decades, surely it is the importance of building our arguments about working-class political agency around complex narratives that recognise the necessary distance between the ordinary outlook of workers on the ground and what becomes institutionalised into political organisations like the Labour Party, national institutions and traditions, or some type of generalised patriotism per se.  Whether at the local level of practical class belonging and collective self-identification (in neighborhoods, workplaces, communities, places of everydayness, containers of sociability of all kinds) or at the level of organised parties, unions, movements and campaigns – in other words whether from ‘above’ or from ‘below’ – we may then ask how far and in what forms specifically racial differences became operative and whether they impeded, enabled, or otherwise shaped the actually realised manifestations of working-class collectivity. 

Judging the political valence of such differences for any particular political formation of ‘working-classness’ during any one period, at different levels of the polity, and in a complex configuration and hierarchy of places, is a complicated task.  Citing the emblematic cases of black radicals Robert Wedderburn and William Davidson, Virdee acknowledges the apparently integral presence of minorities to the early nineteenth-century radical underground, just as the Irish presence is used to demonstrate the multi-ethnic character of Chartism later on.[2]  But Virdee then reinstates an older narrative of the post-Chartist decline.  This rests on classical arguments about cooptation and incorporation linked to redeployed claims about labour aristocracy, liberalism, and the effects of imperialism – all hardwired around the new master concept of racialization.  Central to this argument is the successive othering of the Catholic migrant Irish and the post-1880s Jewish immigration.

But it is one thing to cite Thomas Carlyle on the ‘squalid apehood’ of ‘uncivilised’ Irishness, along with the growing prevalence in the later nineteenth century of anti-Irish racial caricature.  It is quite another to translate this into a generalised description of working-class attitudes tout court.  It is not difficult to draw on the vast riches of the relevant historiography to complicate this picture.  As is well-known, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), became the iconic text of British literary socialism in the early twentieth century.  It was read by English socialists and labour movement militants, and by supporters throughout the following decades.  Yet its author, whose real name was Robert Noonan, was actually an Irishman born in Dublin who spent his early adulthood working in Cape Town and Johannesburg between 1890 and 1901.  There he crafted an outlook that was simultaneously class conscious, Irish republican nationalist and socialist.[3]  At one level, Noonan/Tressell might be said to fit Virdee’s interesting category of the ‘racialized outsider’.  But it is less than clear if a life and career such as Noonan’s shows the socialism of the 1890s and 1900s to have been ‘deeply structured by racism’ – a racism, moreover, that was ‘systemic... across large swathes of British society’.  Whether or not ‘racialization’ can serve as a convincing master category for thinking through an answer, or indeed whether ‘race’ and its fin de siècle meanings can be quite as straightforwardly presumed as the ‘racialization thesis’ seems to imply, will require more extensive explication than Virdee so far provides.

Throughout the early twentieth century, to take a different illustration, politics on Merseyside remained ordered around a distinctive Tory democracy embedded locally within a deeply institutionalised religious divide, the origins of which owed everything to a sectarianism derived from Irish history.  For several generations, that particular structure of collective identification and allegiances remained the overriding continuity in Liverpool’s politics.  This left little space for an independent presence based on the labour movement, with the result that it was not until 1955 that Labour finally won control of the Liverpool city council.  Liverpool was, between 1860s and 1950s, one of the largest urban locations of the ‘Irishness’ around which Virdee builds his argument on the nineteenth-century.  Yet is not clear how far concepts of race, racism, and racialization help make sense of this complex local history.[4]

Thus, I have some doubts about Virdee’s ‘racialization thesis’ as it stands.  It detracts nothing from seeing the efficacy of racialized ideas and practices inside the working class if we argue for their complex variability.  In some times and circumstances they had neither the salience nor the same forms of articulation as at others.  Nor were the meanings of ‘race’ itself invariate.  If we take Virdee’s time span as a whole, then racial formations present themselves very differently in, say, the last third of the nineteenth century than, say, the first half of the twentieth, let alone in the 1950s or in the contemporary era since the 1960s.  I would prefer to historicise processes of racialization in this way, showing how they shift in relation to class and other categories and markers of collective self-understanding.  If, as Virdee’s ‘racialization’ framework suggests, we accept that race exists materially in social relations and practices, and not just culturally as markers of difference, or imaginatively as ideas in the head, then it becomes possible to build up a map of its prevalence that can be sensitive to all of the unevenness, contingencies and volatility, while still appreciating the deep embeddedness and subtleties of its appeal.  In those terms – precisely as an instance of Virdee’s dynamic of racialization – we need to focus our attention on the very distinctive features of the present. 

For me, Virdee’s thesis works best for the period beginning in the mid-1960s and ushered in more strongly by the sharpened socio-political antagonisms of the 1970s, on which Virdee lays great emphasis.[5]  That history was especially violent in Britain, but it affected much of the rest of Europe, including since the 1990s the east of the continent.  During the earlier 1960s new transnational migrant labour markets became increasingly institutionalised across western and northern Europe, where states drew partly on historic connections to colonial and postcolonial parts of the world (the Dutch, French, and British cases), partly on bilateral agreements with the Mediterranean world for labour importation (in the cases of the Netherlands, West Germany, Belgium and Austria), and partly on regional pacts such as the 1954 Nordic labour agreement.  The resulting regime of regulated labour migrancy, increasingly generalised on a European scale, was transformed and intensified in the 1990s – on the one hand via the EU enhancements of 1992-94, on the other hand via the end of communism and the reckless advance of neoliberal globalisation.  To the employment-driven labour migrancy, moreover, was now added a convergence of large-scale refugee displacements.  The Yugoslav wars were soon joined by a set of violent ethnic conflicts on Europe’s southeastern edges (Serbs/Albanians, Bulgarians/Turks, Armenians/Azeris).  Already in the early 1990s, then, the regulated migrancy of the EU capitalist countries became dramatically overlaid and augmented by new movements of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Displaced and impoverished peoples likewise began travelling vast distances from the non-European world in Europe’s direction, extruded by the descent of African polities into ruinously persistent civil wars, and by the chronic geopolitical instabilities of the entire Near Eastern and Central Asian region.  These migrations conjoined with the emergent forms of exploitation now structuring western European labour markets since the deindustrializing of the 1970s and 1980s, the functioning of which presupposed precisely such an insecure and highly mobile reserve army of labour.  As Europe’s capitalism became restructured, the growing prevalence of newly precarious and demanding conditions of work – minimum wage; de-qualified and de-skilled; disorganised and deregulated; de-nationalised, de-unionised and de-benefited; illegal and semi-legal – now systematically stripped workers of security and organised protections in a new system of stratified and segmented employment for which the new migrants became perfectly fitted.  Thus the complicated dynamics of the restructuring of labour markets, rising unemployment, loss of security, and social decay worked together with the visible ethnicising of large areas of urban social topography to produce repeated flash points of socio-political conflict.  Given the legacies of colonialism and earlier patterns of the kind Virdee detects deep in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, the tendency to address these tensions using the languages of ‘race’ became endemic.  Since the early 2000s, in the wake of capitalist restructuring and its social effects, including the devastatingly far-reaching recomposition of class, each of these processes has been radically extended – through EU enlargement; the continuing Central Asian and Middle Eastern fallout from the Afghan and Iraq wars; massive destabilizing of the Mediterranean, Saharan, and sub-Saharan African worlds; the seemingly unstoppable ratcheting forward of neoliberal globalisation; and now, increasingly too, the demographic consequences of climate change.

I prefer to reserve the concept of ‘racialization’ in its strong and most ambitious form for this distinctive contemporary conjuncture, beginning in the 1960s and lasting through the present day.  There will of course be ways in which it can be used more modestly to describe the tendencies and particularities of earlier periods and contexts too.  But in characterising a main logic of society, it works best for the time since the 1960s, not least because the earlier salience of ‘class’ as a category of socio-political understanding has undergone such profoundly extensive damage, leaving a beckoning field for other kinds of collective self-identification to do their work and develop.  Indeed, the opening of that space is precisely what has allowed new racialized understandings to flourish.  In its noisy vociferousness, in fact, the very presence of an anti-immigrant movement has succeeded over time in drawing the overall climate of public policy relentlessly to its own ground.  In the three decades separating the Smethwick by-election and Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech from the public stigmatizing of aslyum-seekers in the 1990s, the boundaries of acceptable discourse in British public life on questions of nationality, citizenship and immigration lastingly shifted.  Whether or not ‘race’ supplied the polite and accredited languages of official discussion, and despite all the ways in which it continued to be forthrightly and successfully contested, racial recognitions had become nonetheless textured into the discursive arena.  Once again, the same story has also recurred with distressing regularity around Europe more generally – ‘even in Sweden,’ as the title of a powerful book by the late geographer Alan Pred regrets.[6]

Just as the key to earlier forms of racialized understanding will be found in the imperial matrix and the geographically distributed formation of an imperial working class, as Virdee rightly observes, so in our contemporary moment we will need to refer to the far wider dynamics of globalised working-class formation.[7] If I have emphasised the importance of historicising the shifting specificities in order to distinguish how racialization works in the present, then Satnam Virdee has given us an excellent basis for beginning to think about these questions.

Geoff Eley is Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


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


[1] Virdee, Race, Class, and the Racialized Outsider, 12.

[2] Ibid., 17-31.  That in much older historiography the ‘racial’ identity of Wedderburn, Davidson, and Cuffay went largely unmarked eloquently makes one of Virdee’s main points.

[3] See Jonathan Hyslop, ‘A Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and the Empire: Robert Tressell in South Africa,’ History Workshop Journal, 51 (Spring 2001), 65-86; F.  C.  Ball, One of the Damned: The Life and Times of Robert Tressell, Author of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973).

[4] See Joan Smith, ‘Labour Tradition in Glasgow and Liverpool,’ History Workshop Journal, 17 (Spring 1984), 32-54; Philip J.  Waller, Democracy and Sectarianism: A Political and Social History of Liverpool, 1868-1939 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1981).  Tressell/Noonan was buried in Liverpool: John Nettleton, ‘Robert Tressell and the Liverpool Connection,’ History Workshop Journal, 12 (Autumn 1981), 163-71.

[5] For more detailed argumentation, see the following: Geoff Eley, ‘The Trouble with ‘Race’: Migrancy, Cultural Difference, and the Remaking of Europe,’ in Rita Chin, Heide Fehrenbach, Geoff Eley, and Atina Grossmann, After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 137-81; Eley, ‘Historicizing the Global, Politicizing Capital: Giving the Present a Name,’ History Workshop Journal, 63 (Spring 2007), 154-88; Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 384-404; Eley and Keith Nield, The Future of Class in History: What’s Left of the Social? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 139-201.

[6] Alan Pred, Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[7] For the imperial matrix, see Geoff Eley, ‘Imperial Imaginary, Imperial Effect: Writing the Colony and the Metropole Together,’ in Catherine Hall and Keith McClelland (eds.), Race, Nation, and Empire: Making Histories, 1750 to the Present (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 217-36; Catherine Hall and Sonya O.  Rose (eds.), At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Modern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?