Race Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow

Joe Lowndes

At forefront of radical antiracism and libertarian Marxism in the seventies and eighties, Race Today provides crucial lessons and insights for twenty-first century antiracists.

Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today Anthology
Edited by Paul Field, Robin Bunce, Leila Hassan, Margaret Peacock
Pluto Press, 2019
304 pp | $25.00

Late one night in 1973, a group of young radicals seized the printing equipment of a liberal foundation-funded “race relations” publication in central London and brought it to a squatted building in Brixton in the heart of the UK’s largest working-class black community. A new project, led by Trinidadian-born Darcus Howe, began with the proposition that Black Britons were not victims, but protagonists who should play a central role in the liberation of the entire working class. Thus began an extraordinary experiment in libertarian Marxism and radical antiracism: Race Today, a magazine that was also a leading force in campaigns around housing, immigration, racist policing, fascist street attacks, women’s liberation, and labor exploitation. A new volume, Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today Anthology, is a selection of the magazine’s reports, political analyses, and cultural criticisms from the UK and across the postcolonial world, including pieces by Mala Sen, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and C.L.R. James. It is a vivid snapshot of an era, one that offers critical lessons about how we might practically respond to related challenges in our own time.

The course of Race Today’s run (1974-1988) was a tumultuous era in British politics, a time of mass unemployment, frequent strikes, incendiary campaigns by the IRA, and the rise of both the far-right National Front and Thatcherite Toryism. Race Today analyzed all of these phenomena in their relationship to black immigrant communities. In the UK, the term “black” then referred to people of African, Asian, Arab, and Caribbean descent — a definition since largely rejected by young Britons of color. At the time, however, such identification reflected not only the reality of racist exclusions in British society, but also a capacious counterstrategy of welcoming anyone targeted by racism within a shared political identity. The magazine thus spoke for the children of the first major wave of immigrants from across the colonial world. The so-called Windrush Generation, who began arriving in the country in 1948 to fill labor shortages in the post-war era, had endured substandard housing, low wages, police abuse, and racial hostility from white Britons. The children of these migrants, who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, were inspired by the black freedom movement in the United States and shaped by their own legacies of colonial resistance.

As an antiauthoritarian Marxist organ, Race Today reflected C.L.R. James’s orientation toward independent political action, self-organization, and the democratic proposition that “every cook can govern.” Indeed, James was an in-house intellectual, spending the last decade of his life upstairs from the magazine’s offices. Collective members held weekly “basement sessions” where they read a wide range of texts, from Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral to E. P. Thompson. Race Today consistently called for working-class revolt against capital, but in doing so, argued that the distinct experiences and militancy of the colonized could and should inspire white Britons as well. This perspective is well-captured in a 1977 editorial titled, “What’s To Be Done with [Enoch] Powell.” In it, Darcus Howe insisted that the defeat of far-right nativism in the UK would only happen “when white workers recognise, as a contribution to their own struggles, the power, the method, the very mood of blacks who make a move on the streets of Notting Hill, in the Asian ghettoes of London, on the shop floors of factories, in the industrial centres of Babylon.”

Significantly, Race Today did not rely on vanguardist formulas or Leninist abstractions Rather, it set out to “record and recognise” the everyday struggles of the immigrant working class as fully as possible. A 1974 issue featured first-hand accounts of South Asian workers engaged in a series of strike actions. Another piece explored the working conditions of black nurse’s aides through in-depth interviews that starkly illuminated the intersecting relationships between gender, race, and class that intensified discrimination in the workplace. An account of a wildcat strike by Caribbean and South Asian workers was based almost entirely on assembly-line workers’ diaries. In the aftermath of the notorious 1981 Brixton riots, Race Today interviewed scores of participants, asking why they rebelled, and how they had organized themselves. In these ways, the magazine became in its own words, “a voice of the dispossessed,” speaking on behalf of communities that were considered alien in British society, if considered at all.

This attention to the everyday experiences of immigrant communities extended logically into the role of culture. Early campaigns in which collective members played key roles included the 1976 defense of Notting Hill Gate Carnival, a spirited Caribbean festival in West London routinely attacked by police and threatened by politicians. Creation for Liberation, the cultural arm of Race Today, sponsored tours by writers and performers from across the diaspora including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange; and Jamaican poets Jean “Binta” Breeze, Michael “Mikey” Smith, and Oku Onuora. When Mikey Smith was stoned to death in Jamaica after heckling a speaker from the right-wing Jamaican Labor Party, Creation for Liberation and the Race Today collective organized a picket at the Jamaican High Commission and released an international appeal for protest directed to Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga. Voices of support, from radio and television figures in the UK, to radical intellectuals in Europe, to trade unions in the Caribbean flooded Seaga’s office.

In the decades following World War II, the UK, in a dialectic of empire, was a hub for anticolonial thinkers and future postcolonial leaders across the Anglophone world, such as Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, Julius Nyerere, Michael Manley, and Eric Williams. In the 1970s, Race Today brought this legacy forward and connected it to emergent immigrant struggles in England itself. Reports came in regularly from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Grenadian revolutionary Maurice Bishop contributed articles about the New Jewel Movement, as did other radical figures whose circuits ran through the UK. As editor Leila Hassan describes it, “[Guyanese historian and revolutionary] Walter Rodney would come into the offices and sit in the chair, and just have a dialogue with us about what was going on in Ghana. Someone would come from South Africa. We had that international connection, which was kind of organic really. We didn’t have to make it. It made itself because of the time we were living in. People would seek us out.”

Race Today’s anticolonialism extended to the Irish Republican conflict, a commitment that was reciprocal. In 1981, Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands submitted a short story to the magazine, which, Howe averred, “had little literary merit.” But when it arrived, Sands had begun the hunger strike that would end his life, and solidarity obliged them to publish it. The gesture was meaningful. When Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was allowed to visit London in 1983, he met with Race Today in Brixton while police helicopters thrummed overhead. Race Today would later publish parts of Adams’s memoir, Falls Memories, introducing the excerpts through recognition of shared struggle: “[Adams’s] ‘Aunt Jane’ describes a childhood which so many of us experienced in the far-flung colonies; his ‘Pawn Shops and Politics’ carries some elements of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s; ‘The Union and the Unions’ and ‘Linen Slaves of Belfast’ could be retold by millions of colonial workers in Africa, India and the Caribbean.”

Yet Race Today’s domestic commitments were just as important. From its presence on Brixton’s frontline, the collective supported local youth harassed by police under the notorious “sus” laws; and helped organize Bangladeshi youth to monitor and defend their neighborhoods from racist attacks. The publication also sponsored a speaking tour that gave the wives of UK miner’s strike activists the opportunity to tell their stories in London.

Race Today’s political efforts in the UK peaked with its response to the deaths of thirteen black youths in a house fire during a teenager’s birthday party in January, 1981. The incident was widely believed to have been a racist act of arson in an area notorious for National Front activity. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee organized a national Black People’s Day of Action in March, 1981, in which 20,000 people marched from New Cross to Hyde Park. The march was a watershed moment in the UK, finally bringing national attention to the reality of racist brutality.

A journal of racialized struggle, Race Today is also a document of its time. Its fourteen-year span traces arcs of both victory and defeat. Born at the center of a declining empire at the apex of anticolonial revolt, it bore intimate witness to a complex, and often tragic, trajectory of postcolonialism and postsocialism within its own community of contributors. There was Mikey Smith’s murder by right-wing thugs in Jamaica; Walter Rodney’s assassination by car bomb in Guyana; and Maurice Bishop’s execution by firing squad in Grenada. In this sense, it was a chronicle of the destruction of revolutionary possibility in the postcolonial world, or what Jamaican social theorist David Scott calls “ruined time.”

At home in the UK, the conditions that supported the rise of Toryism could not be overcome. Thatcher capitalized on the myriad crises of the 1970s to argue that the British state was too centralized, bureaucratic, and unresponsive. Through its radical democratic lens, Race Today also interpreted those crises in relation to centralization, bureaucracy, and alienation. But the exit it imagined from the grim stalemate of the postwar welfare state was toward collective social liberation, not market individualism. Their efforts, at the very least, helped alter the terms of non-white citizenship. As Linton Kwesi Johnson told me, “Before the 1980s black people had been on the periphery of British society; we were marginalized. We come into the mother country, and were treated like fucking third-class citizens, you know what I mean? But by the end of the 20th century we were closer to the center than the periphery.”

The lessons of Race Today are valuable today for a Britain caught in a downward spiral of xenophobia and destructive nationalism. They are no less instructive for the United States where the inevitable expansion of migrant border flows demands not merely a principled embrace, but an understanding that newcomers necessarily transform the inflection of political struggle. In this context, Here to Stay, Here to Fight provides us with critical analyses, strategies, and principles.