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Ambalavaner Sivanandan 1923 - 2018. Photo: Verso Books

Ambalavaner Sivanandan 1923 - 2018. Photo: Verso Books

Siva’s understanding of race, class and imperialism, and of humanity in general, will continue to inspire resistance to injustice and hope for socialism

A Sivanandan, Siva to everyone who knew him, is a huge loss to the British, and indeed the international socialist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist left, but has left us a tremendous legacy in his great range of writings, the journal Race and Class, and the Institute of Race Relations. This last was once a government, and establishment body, but Siva and his allies famously staged a ‘palace coup’ (as he sometimes referred to it, although it was an exemplarily democratic process), and revolutionised it into the radical institution it has been since the early 1970s.

In the mid-eighties, during the demonization of radicals in general as the ‘Looney Left’, there were enough caricatures of anti-racism in particular flowing about that, as a teenager, new to London and the UK, I heard of Siva himself as some sort of self-important and threatening eminence. Not long afterwards, I was lucky enough to meet the man. The contrast between the generous, witty, and wise human reality and the slander could not have been greater. This was, if it were ever needed, a lesson in how figures on the left, and particularly an unapologetic black voicedenouncing racial injustice, are routinely denigrated in order to dismiss the importance of the cause.

The summary story Siva himself told of his life began as a boy in a Tamil village in Sri Lanka, then as a man coming to London in the midst of the ‘race riots’ of 1958 (racist riots, that is to say). His concerns were always to link the experiences of Empire and neo-imperialism to the nature of politics in the first world. The many peoples exploited and oppressed historically and in the present by imperial nations like Britain meant that for Siva ‘Black’ was a ‘political colour’ which ought to produce solidarities against the racist structures of capitalism.

Siva’s legacy is a rich one, which his many writings will continue to make accessible to a wide audience (see for example the essay collections, A Different Hunger, 1982, Communities of Resistance, 1990, and Catching History on the Wing, 2008). Siva’s writing encompassed a huge range of subjects, from economic analysis to the consideration of cultural figures, but of course the threads of race and imperialism tie them all together. His was an activist’s perspective, demanding that, as he said, we should think in order to do, not think in order to think. Yet his writing was hardly utilitarian in nature. Siva’s poetic inclination was evident in all his polemical and analytical writing, so it was no surprise when the novel on which he worked for many years, When Memory Dies, was published, it proved to be a triumph of sensibility and craft, a deeply realised historical portrait of racism and violence, but also of solidarities and hope, in Sri Lanka.

Siva was most widely known for his writings on racism and black history in Britain, and his and the IRR’s analysis of ‘institutional racism’ reached its widest recognition with the inclusion of a version, at least, of the concept in the Macpherson Report of 1999. Like so many examples of left-analysis, it might well be thought that this was more honoured in the breach than the observance, but it was an important moment in the recognition of the nature of racism in Britain. The point is not so much the existence of personal prejudice, but the social and state structures which create a racially unequal society.

He was thus a critic of ‘racism awareness training’ of the 1980s as it personalised the problem, and reduced a question of structural inequality requiring real changes to the economic structure of society, and to the nature of the state in Britain, to a question of individual psychology. It removed responsibility for racism from the state and society to the individual level. Thus he once explained that he did notwant white British people to feel guilt, but rather to experience shame for the racism of the British state and its history. Guilt, he elaborated, was something that was internalised and lead to paralysis at best. Shame, in contrast, was an outward looking emotion that could motivate someone to demand change and social justice in the outside world, and would not waste energy in internalised agonies. He explained all this in far more graceful and captivating terms than I am able to reproduce here, but I hope the wisdom of it is apparent.

Siva’s analysis of race was crucially bound up with class and imperialist structures, and resisted being reduced to the personalised or individualised. I recall him observing that the phrase of the 1960s, the ‘personal is political’ should be understood in the sense that the ‘political is personal’. When politicians make inflammatory comments about immigrants or about race, then the political becomes very personal to the victims of the racist violence which inevitably follows.

In the early 1990s he became an outspoken critic of the postmodernist turn of radical politics, in a trenchant and brilliant piece on the so-called ‘New Times’ analysis (‘All that melts into air is solid: the hokum of New Times’, Race and Class, vol. 31, 1990, pp.1-30). This tendency that emerged from the decaying Communist Party was a precursor of the Blairites, and indeed in many real senses prepared the ground for them amongst part of the left. Siva’s critique was therefore timely and incisive. Siva always recognised the subjective side of political struggle, once writing that there ‘is no set-back in history except that we make it so’ (A Different Hunger, p.68). However, here he clarified its limits, and demonstrated the continuing importance of the key elements of Marxist analysis to an analysis of capitalism and racism in the so-called new times of the 1990s.

Siva’s argument was clearly borne out as the years passed. Siva’s vision of solidarity against the structures of racism and capitalism, both among the masses within the imperial ‘core’ and within all the countries on the sharp end of imperialist violence and exploitation, has lost none of its urgency across the years. Siva’s understanding of race, class and imperialism, and of humanity in general, will continue to inspire resistance to injustice and hope for socialism.

Two interviews with Siva from November 2013 can be found at the IRR website:

Celebrating an Anti-Racist Institute and On Lived Theory

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He has been a Stop the War and anti-austerity activist in north London for some time. He is a published historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, a social history of medieval wonder tales

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