Ironically, only a few days ago I unearthed a faded photocopy of Sivanandan’s brilliant 1985 article, ‘RAT and the degradation of the black struggle’. Struggling to understand the demise of the Left today, I had gone back to reacquaint myself with its searing critique of post-modernism. In the mid-1980s I regarded it as an eye-opening seminal text. In 2022 my memory was not to be disappointed.
Lo and behold, this morning I got a message from Phil Scraton, informing me that a website had been created, containing all of Siva’s remarkable output.
ABOUT SIVA – his life’s journey
A.Sivanandan was one of the most important and influential black thinkers in the UK, changing many of the orthodoxies on ‘race’, heading the Institute of Race Relations for almost forty years, founding the journal Race & Class, and writing the award-winning novel, When Memory Dies, on his native Sri Lanka
As I opened up the website I was almost overwhelmed by the riches therein. For now, because grappling with contemporary identity politics is high on my agenda, two excerpts from the KEY SAYINGS page jumped out at me. More broadly I can only encourage you to explore, muse and act upon its contents.
Who you are is what you do
The politics of identity which led individuals to use an innate aspect (their gender, colour etc) as ipso facto a right from which to judge others, could itself become a way of setting up a hierarchy of oppressions. He opposed all forms of identity politics which did not reach out to try to transform society, for, not just the self, but for all. The transformation of the individual would take place in the process of a larger collective struggle but a politics based in the self would not open out in that way. Identity would not be confirmed in isolation. ‘Who you are is what you do’.
The personal is not political, the political is personal
In his take on the personal v. the political, Sivanandan was starting from the position that racialism, i.e. attitude or prejudice, was not what was meant by racism, which was structural, institutional and /or systemic. Whereas many people concentrated on discussing attitude, language and symbols as manifestations of racism, he felt that it was the effect, the impact of racism on people’s lives and life chances which should be the focus in a fight against racism. Attitudes and prejudices were a reflection of the way that the state had put its imprimatur on racism (especially through immigration controls, policing and the operation of the judiciary) and not vice versa. (And in the Information Society, which he located from the 1980s onwards, the role of the media and social media had become crucial in determining the narrative on race.) Techniques like awareness training which spoke to a supposed white racial unconscious bias could instil feelings of guilt rather than further a larger political struggle for justice.
End but not ending …
Siva was in poor health for some years, though still contributing remotely to the IRR and the journal. He died at his home in Hertfordshire on 3 January 2018. A celebratory memorial event was held on 23 June 2018 at Conway Hall to discuss how to take his principles on into the future. To find out more about how he impacted on a range of people – from the grassroots to the ivory tower, and across continents – look at the tributes page http://www.irr.org.uk/news/a-sivanandan-1923-2018/ and also the longer essays produced in a special issue of Race & Class to mark his 75th birthday, ‘A world to win’, (41/1and2) July 1999.