The Dialectic of Here and There

This is the abstract and first couple of paragraphs of an essay I have coming out in the journal Social Identities in January. I include it here because I’ve just heard that Sivanandan will speak at Goldsmiths on Oct 5 2005 (4pm).

The Dialectic of Here and There:
Anthropology ‘at home’ and British Asian Communism


Ethnographers in Britain seem to have by and large ignored left political activity among South Asian settlers on these islands. The lustrous career of South Asian communists active in the UK is however not to be romanticized and of course there were many more people not involved in class politics than can be registered in the annals of communist champions. But it is clear that the groundwork for many of the kinds of political positions taken for granted today were forged in adversity and struggle under scarlet flags. That this again means that not everyone is involved in left wing groups and causes today goes without saying, and again it should not need to be pointed out that an overly rosy view of the inheritance of South Asian politicals would be inappropriate and misguided (but all those slightly strange left wing uncles and aunties do have an influence). The point is that given the really existing conditions into which most South Asian youth are born in multi-racist Britain, and given the heritage to which they can, if they wish, lay claim, it should be no surprise that comprehension of the struggle is ‘imbibed as if with mothers milk’, as one informant described it to me. Why has scholarship singularly failed to register this?

Keywords: South Asian, communists, anti-racism, imperialism, history, Britain.

Anthropology ‘at Home’

‘labour in the white skin cannot be free if in the black it is branded’ (Marx 1867:301)

In a short story collected in Where the Dance Is, Ambalavaner Sivanandan tells the tale of a meeting of a Marxist study group in a pub in Hampstead, probably sometime in the 1970s. In this engaging story, (semi-autobiographical?) a Sri Lankan PhD student at the London School of Economics, going by the name of Bala, is invited to a meeting by Clarence, an acquaintance from home now resident in the ‘mother country’. Bala is uncertain as to just what is required of him:
I was not sure how to play my role: as a red insurrectionary or as black militant (Sivanandan 2000:48).

The four white comrades bought him drinks for both affectations, but when the discussion turned to the issue of immigration into Britain it was Clarence, the ‘senior immigrant’, who won the most approval, and a kiss from one of the women, for a position that should readily be recognised even amidst the smoke and fug of the mid afternoon local boozer. As the story tells it, Clarence ‘mumbled and spluttered incoherently about the responsibility of the mother country to its children and ended up declaring, “we are here because you were there”‘, something Bala had heard before. The meeting broke up, with the next Saturday scheduled as a discussion of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire.

The story goes on with various intricacies, the woman who kisses Clarence cooks a curry for Bala, Bala gets to know something of Clarence’s life in Britain, but the main point in retelling this scene is neither appreciation of Sivanandan’s accomplished literary talents, nor to rehash some scenario in mockery of the curry-cooking patronising white left woman Tessa, but to register the movement that Sivanandan always tries to effect: the complication and extension of thought beyond platitudes and slogans, achieved always also from an activist’s perspective. The formula ‘we are here because you were there’ may in fact have the ring of truth, and it makes an excellent chant, and must needs be said. But saying it for approval, saying it into the ether, saying it without consequence deserves critical attention too. Sivanandan questions the motives and context of sloganeering even in the very heart of a Marxist cell meeting discussion of immigration in the days when Compendium bookshop was still a fixture and visits to Cuba were the norm. Sivanandan shows us exactly where romantic attachments and the deceits of too easy acceptance only allow platitudes when more is required. As to what happens at the end of the tale, without giving the story away – its called ‘The Man Who Loved the Dialectic’ – a nuanced Marxism makes more sense of the predicament of contemporary life than that afforded in any other conception.

What then for writing about South Asians in Britain that would do more than rehearse either the trite axioms of identity politics or the romantic attachments of essentialist stereotype? On two sides there is a seductive danger and all too easy exoticist trap – playing the ethnic card and falling for ethnicist stereotypes have been the preserve of many who would write, with good intentions, the history of South Asains in Britain. On the one hand those who have appropriated the role of documenting Asian identities in the metropole, on the other metropolitan identities playing up to expectations. For convenience sake this essay identifies this double trap in the congealed positions of anthropologists writing on South Asians in Britain, and in their identitarian informants – and it uses the critical position of a British – South Asian communist history (the subject matter that stems from Sivanandan’s fictional study group) as the counterfoil that disrupts this duality.

The procedure of taking category and classification in advance of observation and discussion has reified and fixed a conservative set of stereotypes. To assume that caste, kinship, arranged marriages and religious tradition are the main keys to comprehension of the social and political experience of South Asians in Britain is a common delusion. A delusion born from the work of anthropologists bent on finding rural and village subjects conveniently replicated in metropolitan settings. This is a conservative anthropology in the extreme, owing more to allegiance to old categories found ‘over there’ than politics and experience of people with agency ‘over here’. Not to say, of course, that caste, kin and religion are or were unimportant, but, as we will see, equally worthy of attention could be workplace and neighbourhood organisations, trades unionism, political activism, socialist and communist party affiliation, rallies and other such associations. It can be argued that the organisational history of South Asians in Britain has been particularly obscured by a blinding culturalism attuned only to the exotic. The worst consequence of this exoticism is to reduce the ‘migrant’ worker to a timeless and rural pre-political unconsciousness – an imperialist oversight that replicates ethnicist fantasy and depoliticises by means of reified culture…..JH


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