‘In a sense, before I became black, I became white.’ It is a surprising comment from someone who has been widely regarded as among the fiercest of black radical thinkers in Britain. A Sivanandan (he has long used only the initial of his forename), director of the Institute of Race Relations and founding editor of the journal Race and Class, is sitting at his desk at home surrounded by handwritten drafts of his second novel. Now in his eighties, for much of the past 40 years Sivanandan (‘Siva’ to his friends) has been one of the major influences on black political thinking in Britain.
A pamphleteer and an organiser, rather than a writer of books of theory, he is best known for a series of trenchant essays published from the early 1970s onwards, each focused on the immediate political priorities of the day. But implicit in all of his work has been a set of coherent and powerful ideas on culture, imperialism and political change.
Sivanandan has been receiving renewed attention since the recent publication of a collection of his non-fiction writing, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation (Pluto). At the heart of it is a visceral sense of the painful experience of racism and imperialism.
‘There is all sorts of personal pain in a colonial society,’ he says. ‘Especially when you have an English education and you come from a poor village where hardly anybody speaks English.’ Yet the absorption into European culture that at first alienated him from his people also provided the basis for his political activism. ‘I was able to articulate the pain of imperialism with the language that the Englishman gave me. I have taken the tool from the system to fight the system with.’
Sivanandan was born to a Tamil family in a small village in the north of Sri Lanka, then a British colony and known as Ceylon. His father had risen from a poor, tenant farmer background to become first a postal clerk and then a postmaster. But his Gandhian politics got him into trouble with his British bosses, who punished him by assigning him to one malaria-infested country post office after another.
To avoid this disruption, Sivanandan, the eldest of five children, was sent off to stay with his uncle in the capital Colombo, where he was able to enrol at a top Catholic school on discounted fees. ‘My uncle lived very close to the school but in a more or less slum area. So I played around with the slum boys and went to school with the petty bourgeoisie.’
Encountering Marxism as a student in 1940s Colombo, Sivanandan felt a resonance with some of the things that his father used to say. ‘Anything that is bad has a good side. Anything that is good has a bad side. In other words, there are contradictions. Nonetheless, life moves in terms of those contradictions. Life examines you and that is how knowledge grows.’
Still, activism with any of the Marxist sects did not appeal and Sivanandan was soon working as the manager of a large bank, firmly ensconced in the elite society of newly independent Ceylon and somewhat notorious for marrying across ethnic and religious lines – he was a Hindu from the minority Tamil community, his wife a Catholic from the majority Sinhalese. Then, in 1958, state communalism led to an eruption of anti-Tamil pogroms – the first salvo in the civil war that has continued on and off to the present day.
Disillusioned, he came to London. Soon afterwards, his marriage fell apart. And racial discrimination relegated the former bank manager to the lowly status of a tea-boy at a north-west London public library.
These two experiences – of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and racism in Britain – became the twin poles of his politics, his ‘double baptism of fire’. One inscribed in his soul the dangers of ethnic separatism, the other brought home the need for a black politics autonomous from the established left.
It was these, potentially conflicting, demands that drove his political creativity in the following decades. A perennial question would be how to steer a course between an inward-looking separatism on the one hand and oppressive absorption into another political culture on the other. Because that same question lies behind current debates on multiculturalism and globalisation, even his early work still has continued relevance.
For Sivanandan, culture is a vehicle for political and personal growth and ‘no culture grows except through bastardisation – a pure culture is a dead culture’. As he says of himself, ‘I am a bastard – culturally!’ Through colonialism, ‘the Portuguese have messed me up, the Sinhalese have messed me up, and so have the Dutch and the British. And I find myself a rich man because all these cultures are sitting inside of me.’
Coming from the north of Sri Lanka, where, as he puts it, ‘nothing grew, except children’, he has made ‘organic’ growth the touchstone of his thinking. He introduced the idea of ‘disorganic development’ to refer to the imposition of a capitalist economy on a feudal society, which is thus unable to produce the kinds of ameliorating social democratic tendencies that emerged with European capitalism. Breaking with the left dogma that took the western class struggle as the sole, legitimate progressive politics, he argued that, in conditions of disorganic development, political struggles emerge that take the form of mass resistance to the state and to imperialism with culture and religion rather than class as the rallying cries. Moreover, new technology had dispersed the hard edge of capitalist contradiction from the European factory floor to the imperial periphery.
In the process, the western labour movement had lost its political radicalism and become vulnerable to racial prejudice. The then common practice on the left of subsuming the question of race to that of class – on the grounds that once you have a classless society it will also be a raceless society – needed to be rejected. ‘We had to have a different politics,’ he says.
The creation of that ‘different politics’ – carving open an intellectual and institutional space on the left for anti-racism – has been Sivanandan’s most important contribution to this country. Ironically, with the waning of the class struggle itself from the mid-1980s, he was forced to defend that space from more narrowly conceived forms of ethnic identity politics, which effectively piggy-backed on the opening up of left dogma that he himself had helped foster. Throughout, Sivanandan maintained his insistence that only in the symbiosis between race and class struggles could a genuinely radical politics be found.
Ultimately, what has remained constant in Sivanandan’s thinking is its morality rather than its politics. ‘It is a faith that you have in human beings. I love human beings. I hate the power they have. But they are necessary for me. All the contradictions, the hate, the love, the quarrels, the coming of wisdom, the losing of wisdom – all that comes in the process of growing. That is organic. We don’t need great philosophers to tell us all this. It’s there in what a village boy who became a postmaster had to tell me.’
Arun Kundnani is a former editor of Race and Class.