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Cliff Slaughter

Race Riots: the Socialist Answer

From Labour Review, Vol. 3 No. 5, December 1958, pages 134-137.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.

The race riots in Nottingham and London came like a bolt from the blue to most ordinary men and women in Britain, just as they did to the Press, that self-styled watchdog of the public conscience. The Observer , usually more far-sighted than most newspapers, spoke of the race riots as something which a few days earlier seemed a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. So long as we look only at the surface of social life, so long as we try to deal with each question separately as it arises, we shall continue to find ourselves bewildered by events like the race riots. But they are no nine days’ wonder. This must be clearly understood by every worker in the country.

Every member of the working class must endorse the condemnation by the Trades Union Congress of racial discrimination and violence. But this is not enough. Only if we can trace the social roots of racial conflict shall we be able to weed them out and with them those who profit from it. The starting point for the working class must be unity and solidarity against the employers and their political representatives—in the first place the Tory Party. All the problems the working class now faces—growing unemployment, the housing shortage, rent increases, the rising cost of living, attacks on wages and working conditions, and, above all, the threat of an H-bomb war—all these can be solved only by the unity and determined action of the working class. It is no accident that the steady growth of unemployment over the last year has been accompanied by an insidiously growing campaign around the slogan ‘Keep Britain-White’.

The crux of the matter is that the workers are under attack from the employers. The Cohen reports have openly declared that a further dose of unemployment is necessary for economic advance, and that wage increases must be curbed. The capitalist Press has for years been complaining that the trade unions have too much power. In London the busmen were chosen for attack and forced into a prolonged strike. When the dockers applied for a wage increase leading elements in the employing class decided that it was better to settle for a 7s. 6d than to take on this determined and vital section working class, whose solidarity with others has assured them of wide support in any struggle they undertake. The employers’ strategy is to divide the workers in order to break the pattern of full employment and regular wage increases. This is why unity must be preserved and strengthened and all attempts to split it smashed. This is why the TUC General Council must be condemned for its failure to draw other workers into struggle behind the London busmen, who were singled out by the bosses.

This need for united action means that the workers must smash fascists or anyone else who attempts to divert their attention towards coloured people as ‘the cause of all the trouble’. Cultivation of race prejudice, the colour bar, persecution of West Indian, Nigerians and Pakistanis, serve the same purpose as Hitler’s murder of millions of Jews. Racialism distracts the workers’ attention from their real enemy the capitalist class, and enables its agents to proceed more easily towards the real objective of breaking the workers’ organizations and bringing down living conditions.

The Press is full of spurious explanations and sham solutions for the ‘race problem’, as though it were problem separate and apart from the other problems of the working people. Much of this propaganda is very subtle. Under the guise of liberal, tolerant, ‘fair play’ attitudes it succeeds in misleading the working class, whose real need is to stand firmly on the principle that white and coloured workers have identical interests against the boss and that the Labour movement must therefore actively defend the coloured workers from attack. Unless this principle is made the basis of immediate working-class action the air will continue to full of moral bleatings while the police remain free to contribute their share of violence against the coloured workers.

Middle-class solutions to the problem of civil violence ail-ewe one thing in common—they grant more power to the police.


Concluding a leading article on September 3, the Manchester Guardian suggested that the Prime Minister ‘can say unequivocally that each of us must uphold the dignity of other citizens in this country, regardless of colour. Still more effective, in killing the immediate germs, would be a broadcast from the Queen.’

Father Trevor Huddleston, whose good record in the South Africa struggle is well known, replied to a television interviewer on September 1 in a similar tone. He gave the impression that race hatred is natural to every man, and that only an individual ‘act of faith’ can preserve us from this evil.

These, and all statements like them, are based on an unscientific view of society. Although they are intended to sound noble they are worse than useless to the working class, white as well as coloured. Race hatred is not natural or inborn. It comes from the capitalist system. Race riots are not a natural disaster like an earthquake. They are the reflection of something rotten at the heart of modern capitalism. The black and brown peoples of the world will not be free until colonial rule is ended. If Britain were ruled by a foreign power, would not British workers recognize clearly the need to overthrow their foreign rulers? Would they be content with assurances that they were being ‘educated towards self-government’?

Young British workers are conscripted to fight the battles of the profit system in Africa and other colonies. They are trained to treat the native peoples as ‘wogs’, as inferior beings. If you are going to enslave a man, torture him, burn down his home and deny him the most elementary democratic rights as well as a decent living, then you cannot permit yourself to think of him as a human being.

Imperialism is the basis of race prejudice. As it developed, imperialism fostered and nurtured the idea that non-Europeans were somehow inferior, more primitive, less than human. For the defence of profit soldiers were required who accepted ideas of this kind.

For decades British workers have been put into uniform and sent overseas to shed their blood for Britsh capital in the name of Queen and country and white supremacy. They have returned home to civilian life and the natural round of capitalist society—a period of full employment and tolerable wages followed by slump, depression, forced idleness and poverty. Now the moralizing hypocrites of the capitalist Press fill the air with wailing about the behaviour of the Notting Hill mob. Their own system is responsible for training this mob. Their own system asks uniformed mobs to do worse things to coloured people every day in the ‘Commonwealth’.

From the days of the slave trade, when tens of millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic in conditions so appalling that a large proportion died before reaching America and the West Indies, to the modern system of cheap labour and racial persecution, the peoples of the colonies have suffered untold misery and repression at the hands of British imperialism. This is the reality that the politicians and the Press want to hide so that British workers may be prevented from recognizing their identity of interests with their coloured brothers. Those MPs, whether Tory or Labour, who call for restrictions on immigration in the name of planning and sweet reason, are guilty of the same deceit. The fact is that people are leaving the countries of the Empire because of the consequences of British rule—starvation wages, the chaos of slum dwelling and unemployment.


Aneurin Bevan rightly opposes such proposals, but he too is guilty of spreading dangerous illusions. In the News of the World (September 7, 1958) he described the awful consequences of restricting coloured immigration. The trouble is, he suggests, that it would mean restricting the white members of the Commonwealth too. ‘In all probability the ties that link the members of the Commonwealth together would be broken and the greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations would have come to an end.’

The ‘Commonwealth’, however, is not an experiment. It is the substantial remains of the oldest and strongest system of imperialist exploitation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From open military domination and plunder imperialism has been compelled to retreat in some places and to make deals with the new middle classes of colonial countries or with the new bourgeoisies of the white Dominions. But wherever there is a real threat of ending white privilege, imperialist profit or strategic bases, it continues to resort to traditional methods of oppression. War in Malaya; the hounding into concentration camps of the independence fighters in Kenya; torture, curfew and arrest without warrant in Cyprus; suspension of the Constitution in British Guiana and the dispatch of gunboats; military intervention in Suez: these are the realities behind Bevan’s ‘greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations’.

The coloured peoples are the victims of generations of exploitation and repression. What about the British people? The employing class that is opening its attacks on the workers of this country today is the same class which invaded Suez and which profits from Malayan rubber. We all have the same enemy, and to talk about preservation of the ‘Commonwealth’, as Bevan does, only helps that enemy. Our unity with the coloured workers is class unity against British imperialism, not the constitutional unity of the ‘Commonwealth’.


Those Tory and Labour MPs who propose to solve the problem by restricting immigration are guilty of supporting the programme of the fascists, whether they know it or not.

Fascism is a movement financed by big business which seeks support from the ‘middle classes’ and the most backward workers. Fascism’s real aim is to provide a mass basis for the smashing of workers’ organizations by a State machine which permits no democratic rights and rules with the whip and the torture chamber.

To succeed, fascism must detach from the working class discontented elements who can be persuaded that something other than big business is their real enemy. This is why the fascists have recently returned to one of their favourite themes—racialism. Fascists were prominent in the Notting Hill riots and will cash in wherever they can on anti-coloured feeling. They will try to create a mob ready to use violence and to attack any scapegoat rather than the workers’ real enemy.

Any Labour leader who does not condemn fascist ideas root and branch must be disowned by the Labour movement. Instead of discussing projects for controlled immigration, Labour leaders should be outlining an active joint strategy of struggle against the employing class. Although the TUC General Council passed a resolution against racial prejudice which everyone is prepared to endorse in general, its president viciously attacked trade unionists who fight the employers with the workers’ only real weapon, the strike.

Fascism is not a strong movement in Britain, but the working class cannot afford to ignore it. There is always plenty of money from the rich for fascist movements. There are other ideas abroad besides race prejudice which will be used by the fascists. Ever since the first unemployment benefit was paid out the Conservatives have harped on the old theme that ‘the workers abuse the benefits’ and ‘there are parasites on National Assistance’.

In a television programme, ‘Does Class Matter?’ on September 1, Christopher Mayhew interviewed a group of ‘middle-class’ spokesmen. These people were ripe for fascist propaganda. They spoke of the need for definite independent organization and action on behalf of the middle class against the working class. Their view was that the prosperous, hard-working, god-fearing and thrifty sections of the population (themselves) were being milked to support the arrogant idlers of the working class with their powerful trade unions. Asked what kind of action should be taken, one woman proposed a campaign to stop the payment of National Assistance to the wives and children of men on strike. It is no coincidence that the ‘abuse of National Assistance’ is one of the ‘crimes’ also laid at the door of the coloured immigrants.

The Labour movement must smash the incipient fascist groupings and defeat all those in our movement who do not put up a determined resistance to fascist ideas and activities. Unemployment is increasing. Even if there are no immediate large-scale racial outbreaks, as there may well be, there will be a fertile ground for racialist propaganda. Only if the Labour movement really moves into action against the Tory government on unemployment and every other issue will there he a basis for decisively defeating the racialists.

The British Transport Commission is insisting on economy cuts in all services. There will be sackings on the buses and the railways to which the unions will be asked to agree. In the absence of consistent political work for unity, racial prejudice will be utilized on these issues. The BTC was itself responsible in April 1956 for sending agents across the Atlantic to Barbados to recruit 1,000 workers. The British Hotels and Restaurants Association, unable to attract enough British workers at the low wages offered, also sent to Barbados for 200 men and women during 1955. Recruits have been made to nursing, another poorly-paid profession, in the same way.

Now many of the employers concerned will be among the most vociferous in calling for restrictions on immigration. Capitalism exists for profit, without regard to the human consequences. When the employers could not find enough workers to keep the wheels turning they encouraged immigration. Now jobs are getting short and the agents of the ruling class heartlessly try to divert the blame on to the people who have been driven to this country by the consequences of the same system in their own countries.

Unemployment, like all the other issues facing the workers, is a matter for the working class to settle by its organized strength in struggle against the employers. And in this struggle the coloured workers are a natural ally and not an enemy.


If the workers content themselves with mere professions of tolerance, racialism can become the safety valve of capitalism. The rioting mob of Notting Hill was certainly led by fascists, but the readiness of thousands of young men to follow them is a warning signal.

Young people are brought up in a decaying capitalist society. The glamour of Hollywood, the false presentation of sex and the appeals to violence which fill the cinema and television screens and the horror comics are directed especially towards young people. Furthermore, whether they realize it or not, young people today are frustrated and confused by the contrast between the wonders of modern science and wealth, and the humdrum working-class existence to which they must reconcile themselves as they grow up. And over all hangs the sword of Damocles in the shape of the H-bomb, a permanent source of insecurity and incitement to hysteria.

Which way will young people go in a period of unemployment and struggle? This is a question the Labour movement must face. If young people do not see a clear, irresistible alternative to capitalism, if some are easily led into mob violence behind fascist slogans, the blame lies on the milk-and-water policy of the Labour Party and trade unions.

Presented with an uncompromising socialist policy, with the real initiative in the hands of the workers themselves, young people will not turn to the fascists. Before the race riots it was apparent that there was no strong anti-coloured feeling among young people. Their whole cultural life, with jazz music at its centre, belies the myth of Negro inferiority. The riot mobs were groups of young people looking for excitement, anxious to find an outlet for energy which capitalism asks them to suppress more and more as they grow up. The second night of trouble in Nottingham, for instance, involved groups of young whites and no coloured people at all. When the police intervened they were set upon by both sides. Some months ago, near Nottingham, there was an outbreak of fighting between police and so-called ‘Teddy boys’. When asked what they were fighting about, these youths said: ‘Nothing—we just wanted a fight.’

It is up to the Labour movement to show young people how to fight and what to fight for.


Although it is true that both white and coloured workers will finally solve their problems only by defeating imperialism, and that racialism will cease to present a serious threat to working-class unity only when the Labour movement transforms itself into an active socialist movement of the rank and file, we must nevertheless take steps now to stem the racialist tide.

To curtail immigration or to deport coloured people is no solution. Will it cure unemployment? Alan Birch at the 1958 TUC forecast some 750,000 unemployed by next January. There are only 200,000 coloured people in the country, including women and children. Labour workers must condemn those Labour MPs who propose entry restrictions and deportations, and demand their expulsion from the party. Such measures not only provide no solution, but raising them distracts Labour from the real issues and serves the ruling class in its policy of ‘divide and rule’.

Throughout the Labour movement there must be active propaganda against the lies of race hatred. In the factories and in working-class organizations any instance of racial division must be exposed and condemned. All workers’ organizations should make approaches to coloured workers’ groupings with proposals for joint campaigns of defence and propaganda. In every town and city the colour bar must be smashed by an open challenge of coloured and white together.

In the areas already affected by rioting, the Labour Parties and trades councils should be urged to raise funds for the compensation of those who have been attacked. This will help to build unity. Whether or not the official organizations can be made to act, local defence squads should be formed composed of white and coloured workers.

The slogan of the Labour movement in all areas where coloured workers live must be: ‘Protect the coloured people.’ This must be seen not as an act of charity, but as an elementary measure of self-defence for the whole working class. Where outbreaks have not yet occurred defence committees must be prepared to move into action at the first sign of racial persecution or as soon as the fascists show their faces.

Such defence committees of white and coloured workers, representing the organized working class, are the only guarantee against violence. Those who call for extra police powers, expecting the laws of the capitalist State to operate in the interests of the working class, are guilty of spreading dangerous illusions. The powers of the police will be turned against the workers; and everything in the history of the Labour movement indicates that the police will discriminate against the coloured people and their defenders.

There must be a vigorous demand for the outlawing of the colour bar and all racialist propaganda, and the Labour movement must insist on the banning of all overt fascist organizations and publications.

But the real answer is action by the working class itself. Wherever a fascist shows his face he must be defeated by the only method the fascist understands. Anyone who attempts to spread fascist ideas in the Labour movement must be repudiated and driven out. Everywhere the working people, and especially the youth, must mobilize for the defence of the coloured people. This is the only way to defeat the racialists; it is also a step in the creation of a working-class force capable of repelling the employers’ offensive and advancing to working-class power.

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