Ambalavaner Sivanandan was a scholar-activist and novelist who lived between 20 December 1923 and 3 January 2018. Sivanandan made a distinctive contribution to political and intellectual life in Britain. Indeed, as Colin Prescod explains, “There is a generation of Black British community activists who emerged politically in the heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s for whom Sivanandan is possibly the most original influence on their lives.” And yet Sivanandan’s scholarly writings have not always been given the attention they deserve. For example, Stuart Hall once commented that Sivanandan’s “…essays deserve to be better known…They have acquired…a remarkable ‘underground reputation’: thumbed over, read and reread, argued about and debated wherever these issues are taken seriously. They have also, frequently, been plagiarized – which is its own kind of recognition.”
Born in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, Sivanandan was educated at Saint Joseph College, before graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Ceylon. After graduating, Sivanandan taught in the Ceylon ‘Hill Country’ and became one of the first ‘native’ bank mangers while working for the Bank of Ceylon. Upon his arrival in Britain, Sivanandan found banking work hard to come by, so he retained as a librarian, going on to work for several public libraries, as well as the Colonial Office Library. Sivanandan was appointed as the Chief Librarian at the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) in 1964. Six years later, he would play a leading role in transforming the IRR. In taking over the IRR, Sivanandan and his colleagues sought to focus in on the struggle for civil rights and social justice. This is captured in one of Sivanandan’s famous maxims: ‘The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for’. Indeed, Sivanandan’s writings were never detached from a concern with the nature of subaltern struggles both in Britain and around the world. To this end, Sivanandan authored a number of pieces on the political situation in Sri Lanka ‘from British colonial rule to the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009’, as well as making a substantial number of contributions to activist magazines such as the CARF (Campaign against Racism and Fascism).
The historical legacies and evolving nature of capitalism and imperialism, especially changes in productive forces, and their implications for socialist politics, were often inextricably connected themes in Sivanandan’s writings. In ‘Imperialism and disorganic development in the Silicon Age’ (1979), Sivanandan offered a re-reading of the ‘classic centre-periphery relationship’, locating his analysis of the base- superstructure relationship in a discussion of neo-imperialism. For Sivanandan, “The economic development that capital has super-imposed on the peripheries has been unaccompanied by capitalist culture or capitalist democracy. Whereas in the centre, the different aspects of capitalism (economic, cultural, political) have evolved gradually, organically, out of the centre’s own history, in the periphery the capitalist mode of production has been grafted on to the existing cultural and political order…Hence revolutions in the periphery are not necessarily class, socialist revolutions – they do not begin as such anyway. They are not even mass nationalist revolutions as we know them. They are mass movements with national and revolutionary components – sometimes secular, often both, but always against the repressive political state and its imperial backers’ (p.124).”
The impact of technological advancement on the evolution of imperialism and class relations were also central to his 1989 essay, ‘New Circuits of imperialism’. Here Sivanandan argued that: “Changes in the production process…have freed industrial capital…from spatial strictures, given it mobility of plant and flexibility of production, enabling it to move the factory to the market, custom-build the product for the consumer or, as in the garment industry come back to its home-base when the design, lay-out and cutting techniques have become incorporated into a computer and do not need the cheap labour of the periphery anymore. Machina volente, capital can take up its factory and walk any time labour gives it trouble or proves costly…If these are the new circuits of imperialism made possible by the revolution in the productive forces, it is that same revolution that allows us to break the circuit and move towards socialism. The liberation of the productive forces must mean the liberation of man and woman kind – all men and women in the Third World, the First, wherever, not the greater liberation of a few at the greater cost to the many. But to do that we have got to seize the technology, put ourselves in command of it, not let it run away with itself into capital’s terrain” (in Race & Class 30(4), p.3& p.17).
In the current conjuncture, when some academics, journalists and politicians have romanticised post-war welfare capitalism and the deleterious effects of deindustrialization and globalization, Sivanandan’s 1981 essay, ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain‘, tells an altogether different story. Indeed, Sivanandan punctures the ‘left behind’ narratives of today by painstakingly mapping various forms of ‘black protest’ in Britain between 1940 and 1981. The working class for Sivanandan was not just white; it was multiracial. Charting the organisational and ideological origins of different strands of anti-racist and anti-imperial struggle, including their networks and action-repertoires, Sivanandan records a rich history of resistance to the far right, to the far right, the state and mainstream political party racism, particularly that enacted by successive Conservative and Labour governments in the form of the 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Acts and the 1965 White Paper on Immigration from the Commonwealth, not to mention institutional racism within various branches of the state apparatus (i.e. education, housing and policing). Moreover, Sivanandan painstakingly records a detailed history of industrial militancy and opposition to workplace and labour movement racism, as well as opposition to racism in working class pubs, clubs, dance halls, neighbourhoods and schools. Sivanandan’s analysis of these struggles was never inhibited by methodological nationalism. Instead, Sivanandan offered a method of analysis which drew out the connections between these struggles and other struggles beyond Britain’s shores, especially Black Power in the United States and various struggles in demand of decolonisation.
It was amidst these struggles that Sivanandan would theorize and advocate for unity in struggle around what is commonly known as ‘political blackness’. That is, a political identity appropriated by Black and Asian activists, thus transforming what was once a pejorative and disparaging term used to denigrate people of African descent by ‘infus[ing] it with a new ideological meaning out of which were fashioned “communities of resistance”(Sivanandan 1990, cited in Virdee 2014, p.121; see also Shukra 1997).
In his 1976 essay ‘Race, class and the state: the black experience in Britain’, Sivanandan theorised the political economy of immigration. For Sivanandan, the presence of people racialized as non-white in Britain could not be understood without recourse to the country’s imperial history of empire and an analysis of global capitalism. In doing so, Sivanandan produced an in-depth class analysis of state, structured racism, predicting that: “Within ten years Britain will have solved its ‘black problem’ – but solved in the sense of having diverted revolutionary aspiration into nationalistic achievement, reduced militancy to rhetoric, put protest to profit and, above all, kept a black underclass from bringing to the struggles of white workers political dimensions peculiar to its own historic battle against capital (p.65).”
Following the 1981 Scarman Report, Sivanandan (CARF, 1998) would later further extend his analysis of the state in response to police racism, thus defining institutional racism as that “…which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.”
Towards the end of the 1990s, Sivanandan developed the concept of ‘xeno-racism’. Rejecting colour-coded forms of racism, Sivanandan identified the overlapping, dialectal relationship between racism and xenophobia: “It is a racism that is not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at western Europe’s doors, the Europe that helped to displace them in the first place. It is a racism, that is, that cannot be colour-coded, directed as it is at poor whites as well, and is therefore passed off as xenophobia, a “natural” fear of strangers. But in the way it denigrates and reifies people before segregating and/or expelling them, it is a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism. It is racism in substance, but “xeno” in form. It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white. It is xeno-racism.”
There is much in Sivanandan’s concept of xeno-racism that can provide insight into the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.
Sivanandan’s scepticism with regard to the gains that can be achieved through collaboration and engagement with the state are also evident in ‘RAT and the degradation of black struggle‘ (1985). Here Sivanandan discusses the growing adoption of Racial Awareness Training (RAT), especially within the public sector and Labour Party controlled local authorities. For Sivanandan, RATs focus on the attitudes and values of the individual only served to divert attention away from the institutional and the structural. Sivanandan also believed that any positive changes as a result of RAT were likely to be short-lived, especially at a time when racism was being authored and sanctioned by the state.
Alongside the relevance of his critique of RAT with regard to the proliferation of ‘unconscious bias training’ and ‘implicit attitude testing’ in Higher Education, Sivanandan’s 1977 essay, ‘The liberation of the black intellectual’, raises important questions of identity, struggle and intellectual engagement, particularly for black intellectuals in the colonial motherland, which remain relevant today. Here Sivanandan charts the journey which he felt that black intellectuals must travel: that is, ‘from race to class, from “taking conscience of himself” to coming to consciousness of class’. For Sivanandan, “For the black man…the consciousness of class is instinctive to his consciousness of colour. Even as he begins to throw away the shackles of his particular slavery, he sees that there are others besides him who are enslaved too. He sees that racism is only one dimension of oppression in a whole system of exploitation and racial discrimination, the particular tool of a whole exploitative creed. He sees also that the culture of competition, individualism and elitism that fostered his intellect and gave it habitation and a name is an accessory to the exploitation of the masses as a whole, and not merely of the blacks (p.17).”
In Catching History on the Wing (2008), Sivanandan goes on to argue that: “We do not have to be at the barricades to be revolutionaries, we do not have to be grassrootists to be radical. To apprehend the social consequences of what we ourselves are doing and to set out to change it is in itself a revolutionary act’ (p.XIII).”
Sivanandan lamented the downturn in class struggle, and the way in which the anti-racist movement shifted away from class politics and towards ‘a fight for culture’ during the 1980s. The decline of political blackness and the subsequent fragmentation into various, if not an ever-increasing number of, ethnic categories marked a critical turning point. For Sivanandan ‘culture itself was evacuated of its economic and political significance to mean lifestyle, language, custom, artefact’ (cited in Gidley 2018). For Sivanandan, this period signalled the ‘degradation of black struggle’. As Ben Gidley notes, Sivanandan also resisted the turn to what he felt were forms of social theory increasingly disconnected from political struggle, which he viewed as being all the more impoverished for this. In ‘All that melts into air is solid: the hokum of New Times‘, Sivanandan offers a robust critique of Stuart Hall and others in and around Marxism Today for making ‘no attempt to rethink Marxism itself or the basis of the new liberatory revolution of the production process’, as well as the Labour Party’s re-orientation and compromise with centre ground politics in the face of Thatcherism’s hegemony (p.20).
Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s vast body of scholarly and activist writings have great deal to offer scholars and activists committed to resisting racism both inside and beyond the boundaries of higher education. In particular, Sivanandan leaves us with a method and praxis for thinking through the evolving nature of racism in the midst of the current crisis of neoliberal economics and political governance. He also forewarns us of what can happen when anti-racist work is co-opted and institutionalised, as opposed to being rooted in local communities and across national boundaries.
Sivanandan, A. 1982. A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance. London: Pluto Press.
Sivanandan, A. 1990. Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism. London: Verso, 1990
Sivanandan, A. 2008. Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation. London: Pluto Press.
Further Reading & Resources:
Sivanandan, A. 2007. When Memory Dies. Arcadia Books Limited.
Sivanandan, A. 2008. ‘Race and Resistance: the IRR story’, Race & Class 50(2), pp.1-30.
Race & Class, a leading journal on racism and imperialism in the world today, produced by the IRR.
Film: Institute of Race Relations. 2015. Catching History on the Wing – Ambalavaner Sivanandan in conversation with Colin Prescod. London: IRR.
CARF, the magazine of the Campaign against Racism and Fascism (1991-2003).
How useful is Sivanandan’s work when it comes to helping us understand the relationship between racism, class and capitalism today?
With reference to ‘From resistance to rebellion’ (Sivanandan, 1981), what are the similarities and differences between the forms of Black protest enacted between 1940 and 1981 and the types of anti-racist resistance that we see today?
Compare and contrast Sivanandan (1990) and Stuart Hall’s writings on Thatcherism, racism and class?
In what ways can Sivanandan’s writings help us connect ethnic and racial studies on the one hand, and migration studies on the other?
To what extent can Sivanandan’s critique of racial awareness training be applied today in a context which has seen employers increasingly turn to ‘unconscious bias training ’ and ‘implicit attitude testing’?
In context of recent campaigns such as ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, and various ‘Decolonize’ campaigns, as well as the campaigns for the public university and the rise of knowledge exchange/ impact agendas, what lessons can the current generation of scholar-activists extract from Sivanandan’s essay on ‘The Liberation of the black intellectual’?
Submitted by Stephen Ashe