Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The invention of the 'white working class'

'The Bethnal Green poor...are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.'

Which pompous reactionary said this? Was it perhaps some miserable pro-war hack like Nick Cohen, who famously said of 'the Bethnal Green poor' after they dared to vote for the anti-war socialist party Respect, 'once again, we find a slice of the electorate in a poor part of Britain that is so lost in identity politics and victimhood that it will vote for those who stoke their rage, no matter how worthless they are'?

No. The quote in fact comes from the conservative Saturday Review of 16 Jan 1864, so 140 years ago, a time when 'the Bethnal Green poor' was well, on the face of it, almost entirely 'white'. Yes, the rulers of the country at the centre of British Empire may have portrayed itself to outsiders as a white country carrying out 'the white man's burden' of civilising the natives (to quote Kipling), yet when it came to describing the English working class they found themselves quite unable to see them as somehow worthy of being called 'white'. As the writer in the Saturday Review continued, 'the English poor man or child is expected always to remember the condition in which God has placed him, exactly as the negro is expected to remember the skin which God has given him. The relation in both instances is that of perpetual superior to perpetual inferior, of chief to dependent, and no amount of kindness or goodness is suffered to alter this relation.'

Nor was this one bigoted writer alone. As Kenan Malik has shown in his book The Meaning of Race(1996) (where a lot of these quotes are from), one only needs to read some of the Victorian middle class writers on 'the social problem' as they described the state of the poor in cities like London during this period to see the widespread contempt for the English labouring poor. As Henry Mayhew noted in London Labour and the London Poor (1861), the 'street folk' of 'outcast London' were a 'race apart' from the 'civilised' and 'respectable'. The official report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain used the same words 'residuum', 'refuse', 'offal' to describe the sewage waste which led to the sanitary problem as well as the human waste which constituted the social problem.

Things got worse after a local uprising against colonial rule in Jamaica in 1865 - the 'Governor Eyre' controversy. As the Marxist historian VG Kiernan observed in The Lords of Humankind, 'discontented native in the colonies, labour agitator in the mills, were the same serpent in alternate disguises. Much of the talk about the barbarism or darkness of the outer world, which it was Europe's mission to rout, was a transmuted fear of the masses at home.' As one writer, Edwin Hood, put it, 'The negro is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very often nearly a savage with the mind of a child.' Or to quote the Saturday Review again, a black person 'is neither ferociously cruel nor habitually malignant. He often does cruel and barbarous things; but then so do our draymen and hackney-coachmen and grooms and farm servants through want of either thought or power of thinking'.

How positively ghastly it must have been to have had to put up with such servants. The Daily Telegraph on 21 August 1866 certainly thought the working class of Southampton was quite out of control, and had forfeited their right to be considered 'white'. 'There are a good many negroes in Southampton, who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is the proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party.'

As the European imperialist 'scramble for Africa' began in earnest, things continued in the same vein. In 1883, George Sims in How the Poor Live noted that there exists 'a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office...the wild races who inhabit it will, I trust, gain public sympathy as easily as [other] savage tribes.' In 1890, William Booth asked 'as there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest England?' Within 'a stone's throw of our cathedrals and palaces' Booth continued, exist 'similar horrors to those Stanley has found in the great Equatorial forest...the two tribes of savages, the human baboon and the handsome dwarf, who will not speak lest it impede him in his task, may be accepted as the two varieties who are continually present with us - the vicious, lazy lout, and the toiling slave.'

In fact, the British working class, the 'toiling slaves', only began to be considered 'white' by the English upper and middle classes during the 20th century - and an outline of how this happened can be found in Alistair Bonnett's excellent book White Identities (2001). In short, after the Boer war showed the physical weakness of many British troops, the imperialist elite realised there was a need for social housing and educational reforms to nurture what Lord Rosebury, leader of the Liberal Party, termed an 'imperial race' fit for fighting colonial wars in the future. Many erstwhile socialists of the Fabian variety also threw themselves into building such a project - as I have discussed on my blog before with respect to the Coefficient Club drawing out some parallels with their latter day equivalents, the Euston Manifesto Group.

As a result, by the First World War, the British ruling class took a different view. Bonnett quotes Lord Milner, who was part of the Co-efficients Club, on seeing soldiers washing during the Battle of the Somme, which took place 90 years ago this week, remarked that 'I never knew the working classes had such white skins'. It was now the Germans in the First World War who were to be portrayed not as 'white' but as some sort of racial 'other', the barbarous 'Hun'.

Bonnett instead locates the rise of the 'white working class' in Britain with the steady rise of state-managed capitalism at the expense of Victorian laissez faire liberalism. The Welfare State in Britain - orientated around ideas of a new 'national community' - was not just a hard won reform won by the working class movement but also a way of Labour politicians articulating welfare in the context of the nation-state.

As Bonnett notes, 'as the chasm of class identities apparent in the Victorian period was narrowed, the marginalisation of the working class from whiteness became untenable. In this new British social formation, racial and national identities once centred on the elite became available to the masses.' Yet the problem was that things like the National Health Service (NHS) which were built up by black migrant labour after the Second World War in Britain could also be 'used' by racists who talked of defending 'our NHS' against 'outsiders' (ie other migrant workers). One sees this today in racist headlines of the Daily Express which declare 'It is the National Health Service - not the International Health Service'. Indeed, Labour politicians also used - and use - racism in this way. 'Immigration has dragged us back twenty years' argued the Labour deputy mayor of Deptford, a working class London borough, in 1964. In February 2005, Roger Godseff, Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath said that 'I don’t believe economic migration is any longer necessary, and I also don’t think it’s going to be good for the future of race relations in this country.' Little changes.

The invention of 'the white working class' therefore cuts both ways today. When capitalism is booming - as in the 1950s after the Second World War - a strong Labour Party benefits as it is able to deliver social reforms which help improve lives for ordinary working class people. The issue of race rarely raises its head. Yet when capitalism stops growing, or goes into crisis, then Labour politicians play the race card against immigrants, declaring that maybe the white working class has been "left behind" by immigration and multiculturalism, which legitimises scum like the Nazi BNP. The result of the BNP being able to pose as champions of the 'white working class' and 'our' council homes against New Labour who are now selling off and attacking the Welfare State is BNP gains in Barking and Dagenham.

Yet the other side to the coin is this. Thinking about 'whiteness' as an invented category allows us to point out how recent the history of the term 'the white working class' is. Of course, as Doug Nesbitt has pointed out, there are fundamental problems with many 'whiteness' historians that Marxists should take issue with. Yet, I believe that Marxists should champion the best of this new 'race history' - as for example Neil Davidson does when he calls Theodore Allen's The Invention of the White Race an 'important work'. As my quote at the beginning about the Bethnal Green poor hopefully shows, fundamentally the rich and powerful - and their defenders in New Labour - detest and fear ordinary people - because if ordinary working people of whatever background realise their collective strength and unite then another world is truly possible. The clear division in Britain - and internationally - today remains that of class not race, despite the disastrous 'war on terror' and its champions such as Nick Cohen. It is up to socialists to show that working class people on estates like Barking and Dagenham have more in common with working class people of Bethnal Green and Bow - and fundamentally more in common too with the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran than they have with New Labour millionaires like Margeret Hodge or fascist scum like the BNP. That is why building a socialist alternative like Respect is so critical in the coming months and years.

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At 2:40 pm, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

The one trap socialists should not fall into however is to think "class" is the answer to everything and ignore or downgrade issues of racism or sexism.


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