Monday, 6 May 2013

Book Review: Black British Rebels

From LSHG Newsletter # 49 (May 2013) 

Black British Rebels: Figures from Working Class History
by Hassan Mahamdallie
Bookmarks London 2012 40pp £3
ISBN 978 1 9051 9297 7
In the aftermath of the riots that rocked British cities in the summer of 1981, the veteran Trinidadian Marxist historian C.L.R. James was asked to comment on their historic significance. James pointed to the leading role played within them by the young black British working class:

‘British capitalism went to Africa and bought slaves chiefly to work on sugar plantations. Then, after many years, the British economy needed some labour to do special work in Britain. So British capitalism went to the Caribbean and brought workers to Britain. Capitalism creates its own gravediggers. Now there are two or three millions of them in Britain, and the recent upheaval in this country shows that they are a tremendous force in the struggles against this society.’

James added that ‘the method by which I work emphasises those connections’. Hassan Mahamdallie’s recent pamphlet, Black British Rebels, coming as it does in the aftermath of the riots that rocked England in the summer of 2011, attempts to build on the method pioneered by figures like James to discuss what he eloquently calls the ‘unique and rich phenomenon – the black radicals that led British workers into the struggle for freedom, justice and a better world’.

Taking ‘black’ in its broader political meaning to include South Asian activists alongside those whose ethnicities are Black African or Black Caribbean, the pamphlet consists of biographical portraits of six of the perhaps most well-known but doubtless critical figures in the tradition of ‘black British radicalism’, the African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, the mixed heritage Jamaican agitator Robert Wedderburn, the black London Chartist leader William Cuffay, the Indian Communist Shapurji Saklatvala who was elected MP for North Battersea in 1924 and was imprisoned during the British General Strike, the Trinidadian Communist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival Claudia Jones, and Grunwick strike leader Jayaben Desai, who hailed from northern India but led a critical and inspirational class struggle in north London during the 1970s. ‘All of them combined the fight to end racism with the wider fights of the working class movement’, Mahamdallie notes. ‘All of them understood that the two arenas were not different forks in the road, they were the same road that had to be travelled by all. Quite simply, while one soul is in bondage, none of us can be free’.

Mahamdallie clearly illuminates some of the potentialities and possibilities for black and white unity in modern British history, though there are a number of weaknesses that some scholars might with justification level at such a brief popular pamphlet as this. The research undertaken for this seems distinctly dated in places, and overall the pamphlet is overly reliant on older accounts presented in general histories of the black experience in Britain by the likes of Ron Ramdin. Scholars of black British radicalism may therefore be a little disappointed that there is not more evidence of engagement with recent findings and important work relating to these six inspiring figures that has appeared over the last decade or so.

A number of minor errors aside from the inevitable other limitations and weaknesses also creep in. For example, the Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791-1804 (not 1791-1794 as claimed on page 4). According to Marcus Rediker’s fine 2007 work The Slave Ship (which is sadly not cited despite the fact it contains a finediscussion of Equiano’s experiences), approximately 14 million men, womenand children were transported from Africa to the slave plantations of America and the West Indies, with only 9 million surviving the crossing to the New World – a far cry from the ‘as many as 30 million transported’ suggested here (page 5).

Nonetheless, such criticisms notwithstanding, this work could not be more timely, given David Cameron’s attacks on ‘multiculturalism’ (and for that matter Ed Miliband’s recent disgraceful attack on migrant workers). Though it could have perhaps done with a conclusion summing up the historical experience, making the links with struggles today –perhaps highlighting the 2011 riots - and pointing towards some possible future political directions for ‘black British radicalism’, overall Black British Rebels fulfils its aim and purpose as an introductory pamphlet admirably.

Much of the content originated from a series of clearly and powerfully-written articles dating from the 1990s while the author worked as a journalist on Socialist Worker and personally I can still remember reading one such article on Wedderburn years ago with a sense of wonder at both the revelatory contentand the clarity and passion of the writing.

The pamphlet’s value as an educational resource also owes much to the fact that it is attractively designed, with each biographical sketch accompanied by photographs and other relevant images (often highlighting the racism faced by these activists), and it includes a guide for further reading. If the 2011 riots –together with the role played by black trade unionists in the recent campaign against austerity and the Tories great pension’s robbery - signified that a new generation of ‘black British rebels’ is in the process of emerging amidst the greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s, this pamphlet couldfill a useful vacuum in pointing some of these activists towards the rich and inspiring ‘hidden history’ of struggle led by those who came before them.
Christian Høgsbjerg

[A version of this review first appeared in the Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter #63, July 2012]

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