The Politics of Class and the Long Shadow of Racism

by Satnam Virdee

The English working class has long been a multi-ethnic formation, shaped by both racism and anti-racism.

First published: 16 December, 2014 | Category: History, Labour movement, Racism

Over the next few weeks, New Left Project will be publishing a series of articles on the history and politics of race and class in Britain, based around Satnam Virdee's new book, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider.  We begin the series with this, the first part of a two part essay, in which Satnam Virdee explores the part played by racialized minorities in English working-class history and assesses the significance of both racism and anti-racism in its formation.


Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider is a study of working class efforts to secure economic and social justice and democratise English society over the longue durée (covering a two hundred year period between 1780 and 1990).  Unlike other studies of the English working class, it investigates these social and political struggles through the prism of race – through the eyes of racialized minorities who were present, and often played a formative role, in those struggles.  By insisting that race has been central to the way class works in England, it provides a corrective to both  liberal and socialist accounts of working class struggles that have largely ignored racialised minorities and thereby contributed to a whitewashing of working class history.[1]

This whitewashing of working class history has not only been historically widespread but disappointingly continues into the present.  As the writer and performer Anna Chen has observed: ‘People of colour like me have been painted out of working-class history’.  The left is as guilty of this as the mainstream.  Chen gives as an example the recent film made by Ken Loach, The Spirit of 1945, a celebration of the radical changes effected under the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee.  It’s a film that reminds socialists and radicals of a conjuncture prior to neoliberalism where the Labour Party contributed to the construction of a welfare settlement underpinned by principles of full employment and common citizenship.  Yet, despite its undoubtedly moving portrayal of working class life, as a brown Englishman I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment that a socialist – in 2013 – had constructed a portrait of a post-war working class that was wholly white.  I didn’t see my grandparents in the portrait that Loach painted, nor the Caribbean labourers my grandfather worked with and lived beside.  In fact, there wasn’t a single black or brown Briton in the entire film. 

It is this overly narrow portrayal of working class history that my book rejects.  Most people know today that at the height of the British Empire the UK governed more than one quarter of the Earth’s land territory and over one fifth of its total population.  What my book shows is that the same web of social and economic networks that bound the colonies to Britain, and ensured that everyday foodstuffs such as tea, coffee and sugar came to form a staple part of our diet, also brought men and women from all corners of the world to Britain.  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.  Significantly, most entered the ranks of the working class in England, confirming that it was a multi-ethnic formation long before the Empire Windrush – with its 493 passengers from Jamaica – docked at Tilbury in Essex in the summer of 1948. 

Racism in English working class history

Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider explores the part played by racialized minorities in English working class history across two centuries, and, assesses the significance of both racism and anti-racism in the making of the English working class.  From the moment when the English elites learnt to rule in a more consensual manner in the mid-Victorian era to the bipartisan consolidation of the welfare settlement in the 1940s and 1950s, a series of influential social and political reforms such as the incremental granting of the franchise (to working class men) and trade union rights accompanied by the delivery of sustained periods of economic security facilitated the incorporation of ever larger components of the working class into the imagined nation as active members of an imperial state.  Significantly, racism – in all its variegated forms – accompanied this process of working class integration.  As early as the 1850s and 1860s, the inclusion of the ‘respectable’ working class of craft workers and others went hand in hand with the consolidation of racism against Irish Catholics.  The even earlier association of the English with Protestantism was over-determined in this period by an increasingly influential understanding of themselves as members of an Anglo-Saxon race.  Irish Catholics – long excluded from the nation as a result of their Catholic faith – found themselves doubly disadvantaged as both Catholics and alleged members of the Celtic race.  The arch-Conservative, Thomas Carlyle – who along with Charles Kingsley, would go on to support Jamaican Governor Edward Eyre’s suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion[2] – provides a striking example of the promulgation of such racism.  In the course of one particularly savage attack on the migrant Irish in England, Carlyle raged how:

Crowds of miserable Irish darken our towns.  The wild Milesian [Irish] features, looking with false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on all highways and byways.  The English coachmen, as he whirls past, lashes the Milesian with his whip, curses him with his tongue; the Milesian is holding out his hat to beg.  He is the sorest evil this country has to strive with.  In his rags and laughing savagery, he is there to undertake all work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back…The Saxon man, if he cannot work on those terms, finds no work…he has not sunk from decent manhood to squalid apehood…the uncivilised Irishman drives out the Saxon native, takes possession of his room.  There abides he, in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder.[3]

Such racism was readily absorbed by parts of the English working class through the popular press, magazines and other forms of written and visual paraphernalia.  Curtis in his remarkable work Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature (1971) documents how cartoonists in particular absorbed many of the key tenets of scientific racism, and then reflected them in the comic weeklies produced for a working class audience.  In the minds of the racists, understandings of Irish peasants as slowly descending the evolutionary ladder from the human to the gorilla rungs, and Irish militants as sub-human creatures, became commonplace.  Anti-Irish racism was amplified by the popular press who formulated a persistent caricature which

...emphasise[d] the prognathous features of the Irish labouring class: a bulge in the lower part of the face, the chin prominent, the mouth big, the forehead receding, a short nose, often upturned and with yawning nostrils: the simianising of the Irish.[4]

Significantly, parts of the working class and its institutions were active agents in the production of racialized difference.  From the late nineteenth century, successive waves of socialist-led industrial and political action pursuing economic and social justice for those parts of the working class excluded from the earlier reforms justified their claims with reference to a racializing nationalism.  Take for example the instance of the new unionism of the late 19th century.  This was one of the most pivotal moments in trade union history where attempts were made to organise the unskilled working class or those elements that the elites disparagingly referred to as the ‘residuum’.  Significantly, socialist activists, organised in various political formations including the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, played an influential role in the new unionism, including within the 1888 match girls' strike, and the contemporaneous attempts by gas workers and dock workers to organise themselves into unions.  As a result, it’s not surprising to find that socialist historiography characterises this period as one marked by a ‘recrudescence of revolutionary utopianism’.[5]  Or as Engels put it, the working class had finally awoken from its forty-year slumber with 'the grandchildren of the old Chartists stepping into the line of battle.'

What Hobsbawm, Engels and others ignore, however, is the extent to which this socialist organising of the unskilled was deeply structured by racism.  It is rarely mentioned, for example, how the migration of Jews escaping the racist pogroms in the Russian Empire coincided precisely with this moment of rising class conflict.  More significantly still, these Jewish migrants settled overwhelmingly in areas that were the epicentre of the working class revolt – east London, Leeds and Manchester.  By exploring the new unionism from the perspective of those Jewish workers, it was found that leading socialists such as Ben Tillett – the dockers’ leader – along with most other socialist leaders of the period, including John Burns and Will Thorne, shared the racist presuppositions held of Jews in English society more generally.  As a result, throughout the period of the new unionism, socialist support for Jewish workers attempting to organise themselves remained lukewarm at best.  It was shaped by a pragmatic, instrumental collectivism which only recognised the need to curtail expressions of overt antisemitism because it risked fatally undermining the broader class solidarity forged in opposition to the employers.  Tillett was typical of this standpoint.  When referring to the Jewish workers engaged in collective action he declared: ‘yes, you are our brothers and we will stand by you.  But we wish you had not come’.[6]  On some occasions, these socialist nationalists couldn’t restrain their latent antisemitism, such as in the months of May and June of 1891, when Ben Tillett and Tom Mann – the so-called Anglican communist – sent letters to the London Evening News demanding immigration controls against Jews.  Tillett used this opportunity to formulate a proto-fascist discourse that not only called for the removal of Jewish workers from English soil, but blamed the plight of the English worker on the failure of the English ruling class to stand up to the power of Jewish bankers:

Our leading statesmen do not care to offend the great banking houses or money kings…For heavens’ sake, give us back our own countrymen and take from us your motley multitude.[7]

Similarly, in late 1891, in Keir Hardie’s newspaper – Labour Leader – was to be found the astonishing claim that imperialist wars were being planned to suit the interests of Jewish finance:

Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear and change and calamity, you may be sure that a hooked-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of these circumstances.[8]

Large parts of the English socialist movement were complicit in the production of such racism, including this well-worn trope of the ‘Jewish conspiracy’, because by the late nineteenth century, socialist arguments and struggles to organise English workers and secure economic and social justice for the excluded, had come to be ideologically located on the terrain of the nation.  The idea of the nation operated as a power container, limiting the political imagination of most representatives of the exploited and oppressed.  While the conceptions of national belonging that underpinned the vision of socialist activists in the Social Democratic Federation, and later the Independent Labour Party (ILP), were undoubtedly broader than those forged by the elites of the time, and in that sense sought to democratise society, they nevertheless attempted to do so by identifying new racialized others.  In this case it was the Jews, who could be imagined as un-English by virtue of their alleged race and religion.  Indeed, this expanded understanding of national belonging gained growing legitimacy among the unorganised working class precisely because it was able to portray elite conceptions of national belonging as unjust due to the exclusion of those like themselves who were also English and Christian, and therefore deserving of fair and equal treatment.  As a result, each time the boundary of the nation was extended to more members of the working class, this was accompanied and legitimised by a racialized nationalism that excluded more recent arrivals. 

This dual process of democratisation and racist exclusion was to be repeated throughout the twentieth century.  For example, from the perspective of a colour-blind class politics, the 1940s and 1950s were a moment of unprecedented working class advancement.  However, when investigated through the eyes of migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean we find not the spirit of solidarity, collectivism and commitment to social justice, but a systemic racism across large swathes of British society; racism which contributed to positioning those migrants and their British-born descendants overwhelmingly at the bottom of the class structure for two generations.[9]  Alongside the racism they faced from the state and the main political parties, migrants also faced enforced discriminatory practices from trade unions on the grounds that they were not white and thus could not be classed as British.  Racist quotas and colour bars were commonplace, and when such practices were breached, some white workers – including most notably on the buses in the West Midlands transport industry – were happy to take industrial action to reinforce them. 

While the racialization of British nationalism was not new, what distinguished this post-war period above all was the extent to which the British state, employers and workers had come to share a common British nationalism, underpinned by a shared allegiance to whiteness.  Such racism and nationalism profoundly scarred English society, and the working class within it.  Its effects can be traced through the political and cultural spheres as well as the economic.  From the creation and consolidation of a stratified division of labour in the workplace, to the informal regulation of intimate social relations in the community, racism’s reach was all-encompassing.  And over time, such racism became institutionalised.  This meant it no longer always required active enforcement because the structures and institutions of society came to reflect this distorted understanding of the world.  It became, in Bourdieusian terms, an integral component of the English habitus – the cluster of resilient and unconscious dispositions acquired by social groups over time.  The working class re-imagined itself as a racialized class, such that race became ‘the modality in which class [was] lived, the medium through which class relations [were] experienced, the form in which it [was] appropriated and ‘fought through’.[10]

The durability of such racism in almost every sphere of social life also had important implications for those political projects that identified the working class as one of the primary agents of progressive social transformation.  It led some to conclude that ‘[t]he Proletariat of yesterday, classically conceived or otherwise, now has rather more to lose than its chains’,[11] while others went onto identify racialized minorities as the key agent in any collective struggle against racism.[12]  While the significance of the autonomous agency of racialized minorities in combating racism is unquestionable, in the second part of this essay I will draw attention to another form of activism – that of racialized minorities within socialist movements who played an instrumental role in trying to overcome the problem of working class racism by aligning struggles against racism with struggles against class exploitation.

This is the first part of a two part essay.  The second part is available here.

You can buy a copy of Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider here at a 20% discount using the code AF15TWENTY.

Satnam Virdee is Professor of Sociology at the University of Glasgow and Deputy Director of the ESRC-funded Centre for Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) based at the Universities of Manchester and Glasgow.

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

[1] see for example Thompson, E.  P. 1963/ 1991.  The Making of the English Working Class.  London: Penguin; Hobsbawm, E. 1984.  Worlds of Labour.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson; Savage, M.  and Miles, A. 1994.  The Re-Making of the British Working Class, 1840-1940.  London: Routledge; Joyce, P. 1991.  Visions of the People.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Hall, C.  2002.  Civilising Subjects.  Oxford: Polity Press.

[3] cited in Thompson, D. 1982.  ‘Ireland and the Irish in English Radicalism Before 1850’ in J.  Epstein and D.  Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience.  London: Macmillan, pp.143-144.

[4] Saville, J. 1987. 1848: the British State and the Chartist Movement.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.38

[5] Hobsbawm, E. 1967.  ‘Trade Union History’ Economic History Review.  20: 2: pp.358-364.

[6] Meth, M.1972.  Brothers To All Men?  London: Runnymede Trust, p.5.

[7] cited in Cohen, S. 1984.  That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic: an Anti-Racist Analysis of  Left Anti-Semitism.  London: Beyond the Pale Collective. 

[8]  cited in Cohen, S. 1984.  That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic: an Anti-Racist Analysis of  Left Anti-Semitism.  London: Beyond the Pale Collective, p20.

[9] Daniel, W.  W. 1968.  Racial Discrimination in England.  London: Penguin Books.

[10] Hall, S. 1980 ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance’ in Sociological Theories: race and colonialism, Paris: UNESCO, p.341.

[11] Gilroy, P. 1987.  There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.  London: Hutchinson, p.246

[12] Sivanandan, A. 1982.  A Different Hunger.  London: Pluto Press; Sivanandan, A. 1990.  Communities of Resistance.  London: Verso.

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