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11 July 2018

Putting revolution back on the agenda: the calls for radicalism we need to listen to

Liberalism continues to fail us. If systematic oppression is to be genuinely overhauled, the “divisive” politics of identity must begin to lend itself to a more universal solidarity.

By Billie Esplen

“How do we save those children from dying? That is the question.” With what reads like a wonderful politicisation of a very famous line, Kehinde Andrews stills his audience at the Tate Britain. The children he is talking about are the children of impoverished families in Africa, one of whom dies every ten seconds. He is promoting his new book, Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, in which he redefines the Black radicalism which came to prominence through the work of Malcom X during the civil rights movement against a whole host of ideologies with which is it constantly confused. Black radicalism is not, he tells us, simply “a tradition”: we need to understand it “as its own political ideology”, and a blueprint for major change. Afua Hirsch, author of the acclaimed Brit(ish), a friend of Andrews who is interviewing him, reads out what she wrote on the front of the first manuscript: “I have been waiting for this book all my life.” 

Crucial to Back to Black’s argument is a call for a radical overhaul of what we understand by the term “radical”. That it is not the same thing as “extremist”, but quite the opposite. As Andrews explains, extremism is taking the founding principles of a methodology as far as they can go, an example of this being Islamic State militants with Islam. Radicalism, conversely,  is the stripping away of preconceived ideas and pre-existing structures and “grasping things at the root”, as academic Angela Davis explained in her 1990 essay “Let Us All Rise Together” . In the context of racism, this manifests itself as a drive to treat the problem rather than its symptoms.

And the problem is that Western government is founded on racism and the idea of white supremacy. (Andrews capitalises “Black” and “White” throughout his work in a move fundamental to his views: it reframes what Hirsch describes as the “woolly, contemporary talk about blackness” with an understanding of how race goes deeper and has more power than simply individuals’ skin colour. Whiteness is an inextricable part of our institutions. The White House is both white and White.)

Liberalism… is the most violent system that has ever existed on the planet. The West is founded on the genocide of 80 per cent of native people in the Americas. Once they had exhausted the native population they then brutally enslaved Africans for three centuries, murdering tens of millions of people.

Atrocities such as the Holocaust are an expression too, according to Andrews, of this same “logic of Western imperialism, the collective system that created race in order to facilitate conquest.”

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And racism is not just part of our history: we are still living off what he calls the “teat of imperialism”. The smartphone, something that has been praised as an aid to protest movements, is constituted from raw materials mined in Africa often by exploited young children at risk of injury or death, and used to the direct profit of companies in the Western world. Multi-national organisations such as the UN are controlled entirely by the wealthy Western powers that profit off this kind of exploitation. 

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After Britain abolished slavery it paid former slave-owners the equivalent of £2bn in loss compensation. The fact that it was the owners and not the slaves who were compensated is of course horrifying in its own right: but the sum demonstrates just how lucrative slavery was during the foundational eras of capitalism. As Andrews puts it, “the banking sector has so many links to slavery that it may as well sign over all the companies to Black people.” If the powers of the world were to even try and make financial reparations for the damages caused by slavery to black people, the world economy would collapse. The black population in the US are owed an estimate of up to $14 trillion alone. And this is the point: the system itself is founded upon such violence and wrongdoing that it could not even uphold systematic reimbursement.

This is why, Andrews argues, we need a total revolution. Not necessarily destruction, but radical re-structuring. The impossibility of black independence in a world dominated by white powers is exemplified by the condition of Jamaica, which, despite becoming independent in 1962, is still dependent on white western tourism for 30 per cent of its GDP, meaning it has no economic autonomy. Andrews cites the smartphone as an example of what Audre Lorde called “the master’s tools”, which cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house. Black radical revolution would not mean “abandoning oppressive instruments like the smartphone, but building a political connection that can transcend its limitations.” Africans and black people in the diaspora need not separation in the form of their own nation states, but independence. 

Andrews, a professor in sociology at the University of Birmingham, is not the only academic to have noticed that existing systems are fundamentally at odds with racial equality. Michael G. Hanchard’s recent study The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy argues that exclusionary politics have been central to democratic practice since Classical Athens. The West uses race, he argues, in the same way Athenians used autochthony (the system in which only male descendants of “original” Athenian males were able to gain citizenship): “Slavery was rationalised as a necessary institution that allowed citizens to fully participate in civic life without material constraints. Slavery, according to its proponents, made Athenian democracy practicable.” Andrews argues that our reverence of liberal capitalist democracy is part of an academic institution which privileges white, racist thought patterns. The idea that a subset of society – one often dictated largely by the fiction of race – has to suffer in order for the system to exist is the thought we need to dismantle.

History has seen, as Andrews demonstrates, a complex web of black thought, and numerous different and sometimes conflicting black ideologies. These are, one by one, shown to be either unworkable or not radical enough. An example is Black Nationalism – the idea that all black people belong to one nation, and should resist white supremacy as part of a nationalist agenda – which presupposes an investment in the idea of nationhood itself, and the current geopolitical system of division (“we take for granted the reality of the nation state and believe, because we are told, that the millionaire bankers in the south of Britain are connected to the poor migrant workers picking cockles on the beaches in the north”). This is also, in turn, an investment in imperialism and thus can never be radical.

When asked by a black member of the audience what he thinks about reclaiming the label of “British” as a kind of victory prize for succeeding in a nation where the odds are so stacked against you, Andrews replies: “if you think you’re British, and you have been brought into the system, you have literally lost your mind.” He describes Theresa May’s refusal to accept those refugees arriving on the shore of Europe as a policy which directly causes black deaths. In the book he explains how, from the viewpoint of Black radicalism, “the plight of refugees is not the problem, it is a symptom of the wider structural issues.” The idea that liberal identity politics – a politics largely focussed on getting legislation changed and funding re-routed – is merely curing the symptoms is one central to the book. We need to eradicate, or, rather, radically derascinate the heart of all this darkness: the system itself.

Asad Haider, in his recent publication Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, makes the same case for radical change over liberal progress. However, his stance is not black, but socialist. Andrews states in his interview that “all politics is identity politics” and that Black radical investment in Marxism doesn’t work because it forces the black community to rely on the agency of those outside of their independent entity. He also critiques Marx’s definition of capitalism as a distinct stage in world development from colonialism, whereas in fact the former is a direct product of the latter. By contrast, Haider sees the ideology of race as at odds with universal emancipation.

Slavery, Haider argues, “is a form of forced labour characterized by the market exchange of the labourer itself.” He cites twentieth-century American Marxist thought that racism was a tool invented by the bourgeoisie in order to neutralise working-class malcontent, and Bacon’s Rebellion (in the New World, 1676), an insurrectionary alliance of European and African labourers which led to the invention of a racial divide by the ruling classes. 

Haider’s critique of contemporary identity politics is convincing. He is right: it is not revolutionary, and it is not “the answer”. Because, as Andrews shows, the liberal paradigm of civil rights and legislative change is not conducive to any radical change. The problems go, desperately, deeper. Identity politics can be seen, therefore, as a methodology for intermediary measures: a form of what the Black Panthers termed, in 1971, “Survival pending revolution”. The problem is, that for many the revolution has been taken off the agenda. 

The left has, as Haider rightly says, become somewhat attached to its own impossibility. He describes experiencing, as a student, a collective sadness and an inability to cultivate a “spirit of youthful and rebellious optimism”: 

Not only has the idea of universal emancipation come to seem old-fashioned and outmoded, the very possibility of achieving anything beyond the temporary protection of individual comfort seems like a delusion.

In such conditions, it is not surprising that people see calls to what Andrews refers to as “the struggle” (“they used to die for the people and now we want to protect our annual leave”) as a request to contravene affirmation of their own individual security and recognition for the sake of a goals that lies beyond their powers of achievement.

He believes, like Andrews, that the philosophy of the West needs to pay tribute to the part paid by slavery in the foundation of the West, and the part they played in founding slavery. The difference is that Haider chooses to see slavery not as part of what Andrews terms the “psychosis of Whiteness” – the manifestation of white supremacist thought patterns – but of the mindset of capitalism. When he says that “a political formulation such as whiteness cannot be explained by starting with an individual’s identity”, through “reduction of politics to the psychology of the self”, he is tapping into the same radical sentiment as Andrews. They both understand that the problems go back so much further and down so much deeper than that. As Andrews says in his interview, “our problems are not in our minds – they’re in our streets, and our schools.” Both writers make a call for waking up to reality.

As Haider explains: 

Universality does not exist in the abstract, as a prescriptive principle which is mechanically applied to indifferent circumstances. It is created and recreated in the act of insurgency, which does not demand emancipation solely for those who share my identity but for everyone; it says that no one will be enslaved. It equally refuses to freeze the oppressed in a status of victimhood that requires protection from above; it insists that emancipation is self-emancipation.

If there is ever to be this sort of radical change, he proposes, too, that “we need to be attentive to the lines of struggle that lie outside the boundaries of the state”: only then does “universal emancipation appear on the horizon”. His image of change is not just one in which radical black solidarity forces the reconstruction of the entire system, but one in which universal solidarity does. Both Haider and Andrews are making a call for change to be forced, but they both envisage that call coming from different places. 

When asked by Afua Hirsch if he thinks there is a sufficient ideology in place for a revolution to happen, Andrews replies with the single word “no”. When asked about his views on socialism, he states the belief that we don’t need to rely on “experiments” in the progression towards radical overhaul. His work is one which formulates the blueprint not for any specific revolutionary occurrence but for the reclaiming of an ideology that would lead to developed discussions about what happens next. Haider, on the other hand, believes that the future beyond the revolution is a socialist one.

Their differences are acute, but they meet where it matters: both express the conflict between spending our energy dealing with the situation we have inherited and spending it blowing up the terms; both believe that the only true emancipation is universal.

For debates about global inequality and injustice to progress, we need writers like Kehinde Andrews. He, as Russell Brand puts it, represents a desperately needed progress beyond the “timid, liberal bullshit” that has created next to no tangible change. We can only hope Back to Black will inspire many more radical thinkers: at the very least because, as Andrews says, even if not fully succeeding with the full radical agenda, “Black radicalism changes the nature of the debate”. Femi Nylander, one of the voices behind the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford, predicted that Andrews’ book would provoke and gain him adversaries within both the black and white communities, purely “because of the home truths it exposes.” Sure enough, his recent appearance on BBC Newsnight in which he explained how “the West is built on racism” sparked sizeable social media backlash – but also a huge amount of gratitude and support. These are truths we need to be hearing: especially those of us privileged enough to be exempt from the system’s day-to-day oppression.

On founding the Organisation of African-American Unity in 1964, Malcom X said: “Africa will not go forward any faster than we will and we will not go forward any faster than Africa will. We have one destiny.” This is true of all of us. Whichever angles they take, and whichever revolutionary methodology they follow, calls for radical change must continue to grow – and they must reach wide audiences. Haider writes: “Our world is in dire need of a new insurgent universality. We are capable of producing it; we are all, by definition.” With works like these, we could be closer to reaching this solidarity than ever before.


Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century

Kehinde Andrews

Zed Books, 360pp, £16.99


Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump

Asad Haider

Verso, 144pp, £10.99