Longtime anti-racism campaigner John Molyneux breaks down the horrible history of racism in the ruling classes and why it is important in the fight back against particular forms of racism, such as anti-Travellerism, to understand where it comes from.
Liberals often tend to believe that racism is primarily a matter of ignorance and mainly arises among the uneducated working classes. Politicians who go in for racism are just being opportunist and courting racist votes. Socialists argue that racism comes from top of society; that it is spread, first and foremost by states, governments, bosses and the capitalist media as a weapon of divide and rule.
The historical evidence that racist ideology originated at the top of society and was then disseminated downwards is very considerable.
Racism against people of colour, especially against Black people arose in response to and as justification for the Transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth century onwards. Since capturing people on the West coast of Africa and forcibly shipping them to slavery in the Americas was manifestly a denial of their human rights it was necessary to develop the idea that black people were not fully human, or were inherently a lesser species.
This idea which obviously had a particular appeal to slave traders and slave owners was systematically developed in the 18th century, especially by the British who dominated the slave trade. The process is brilliantly described by Peter Fryer in Chapter 7 of ‘Staying Power’ his outstanding book on the history of Black people in Britain. A particularly influential role was played by the slave owner, Edward Long, in his ‘History of Jamaica’ (1774) which was overtly racist. Long maintained that White people were a different species from Black people [a now completely disproved theory] and that American ‘Negroes’ were characterised by the same “bestial manners, stupidity and vices which debase their brethren” in Africa and that ‘this race of people’ is distinguishable from the rest of mankind in that they embody “every species of inherent turpitude that can be found dispersed among all other races of men’.
It is important to understand that open racism was not then shamefaced as it is today but was the officially espoused ideology of society. It was to be found in the writings of the most prestigious philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. For example Hume wrote:
“I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”
And in Encyclopaedias such as the 23 Volume ‘Universal History’ (1760) which stated that ‘It is hardly possible to find in any African any quality but what is of the bad kind: they are inhuman, drunkards, deceitful, extremely covetous, and perfidious to the highest degree.’
Moreover this overt racism, in various forms, remained the dominant view espoused and propagated by the establishment right though the 19th and well into the 20th century. An example of how prevalent it was among the most cultured and well educated representatives of the upper and middle class is provided by the case of Governor Eyre of Jamaica. Faced, in 1865, with a rebellion by Jamaican farmers, Eyre sent his troops on a murderous 30 day rampage, killing 439 black people, flogging over 600 more, dashing out children’s brains and burning 1000 houses. When there were calls for his prosecution a Defence Committee was established, supported by Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Lord Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold, which said the Governor should be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords.
Even Abraham Lincoln, who was against slavery, was a racist and white supremacist. He wrote:
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality.”
Another example of ruling class racism is provided by Winston Churchill who called Palestinians “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung“, and in relation to Iraq said “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes” and said “I hate Indians“, explaining his actions as prime minister during the Bengal famine of 1943 that resulted in the deaths of between 1.5 million and 4 million people.
So when later politicians such as Enoch Powell in 1968 and Margaret Thatcher in 1979 played ‘the race card’ and presented themselves as ‘speaking up’ for ‘ordinary’ British people they were playing on and deliberately mobilising racist ideas that their class had been promulgating among ‘ordinary’ British people for centuries. And, of course, they did so because they believed it was in their interests to divert working class anger on to convenient scapegoats and to divide and rule, as well as bidding for racist votes.
But in addition to it being in the interests of the 1% to spread racism, albeit sometimes discretely, there is another deep connection between racism and the outlook of those at top, of the ruling classes, which explains what can be called the ‘the mic switched off’ syndrome. This is the tendency for politicians and, especially businessmen, who mind their manners in public, to engage in crude racism when they think ‘the mic is switched off’ and they are among their own. It also has particular relevance to attitudes towards Travellers in Ireland.
If you are rich and powerful, how do you explain and justify your wealth and power not only to the world but also to yourself? Do you say I understand that capitalism, by its nature, produces wealth at one pole of society and poverty at the other and I’m very lucky to be at the rich end? Do you say I made my wealth by exploiting the labour of those who worked for me? Of course not: you say I made my money and established my power by my hard work and my personal cleverness and superiority. Even if you know you inherited your wealth, you say that was because of the hard work and superiority of your forefathers. In other words you believe that social position and status is primarily determined by individual personal endeavour and ability. That those at the top are there because they are personally superior in one way or another than those at the bottom.
This is what Leo Varadkar and his Dublin 4 mates really believe even if they try not to express it openly. If 10,000 people are homeless, well that is because they are inadequate. That’s what Varadkar really means when he says he wants to “represent people who get up early in the morning”.
Let’s try to look at the world from this point of view: Isn’t it the case that most of the rich countries are majority white and most of the poorest countries are mostly black or people of colour? Isn’t it the case that most of the top scientists and inventors, writers and artists (or at least the one’s you’ve heard of) – Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Brunel, Edison, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Keats, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Joyce – are white? And are not the majority of ‘great’ leaders and statesmen white and the majority of jailbirds black. So must it not really be the case, even if political correctness stops us saying it, and even if the ‘anti-racism brigade’ don’t like it, that whites are superior to blacks and that there is some sort of ‘problem’ with blacks. And doesn’t everyone, deep down, really know this even if they are not brave enough to say so.
Such is the thinking of a good part of the establishment, of the upper classes in almost every country and it leads directly to racism. In fact the idea that people’s social position and achievements are a function of their innate characteristics and that social circumstances and social conditioning should be discounted underpins most forms of misogyny and bigotry.
Why are there so few women CEOs? Because women’s ‘nature’ makes them unsuitable to be CEOs. Why are women concentrated in low paid jobs? Because women are best suited for low paid work. Why are African Americans over represented in US jails? Because African Americans are by nature inclined to criminality.
Now consider the situation of Travellers. When the rich and privileged look at Travellers, they see people living in the worst conditions of any social group in Ireland; they see poverty, bad housing, low educational achievement, high rates of mental distress and suicide and, of course, issues with the police and the law. And their whole way of thinking stemming from their own privileged life makes them see these terrible conditions not as the result of centuries of oppression and exclusion, but as brought about by Travellers’ own failings. Hence the mantra from establishment that Travellers must address the ‘issues in their own community’.
And when the privileged and powerful see a people who don’t want to live in strict conformity to the established capitalist rules, regulations and customs but have the temerity to value their own culture, this further confirms their view that Travellers have something fundamentally wrong with them.
The now discredited myth, disproved by DNA evidence, that Travellers originated from people broken by the Famine and were somehow ‘failed settled people’ is a reflection of this attitude.
The fact that anti-Travellerism and other forms of racism, sexism and bigotry, originate at the top of society and express the outlook and interests of the rich and powerful, does not mean that they are confined to the upper ends of the social spectrum.
As Marx wrote:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it”.
It is very much in the interests of the ruling class that they persuade the working classes to accept these prejudices because it divides and diverts opposition to their rule, and enables them to pose, quite falsely, as the champions of ‘ordinary’ people—as the multi-millionaire Peter Casey did in the Presidential Election and as Donald Trump did before him. And of course their dominant position in society and their control of the media, education, the Church etc. ensures that they meet with some success in this.
But for socialists it is vital that we are not blinded by this relative success. We have to actively combat every form of bigotry and oppression, but in doing so we need to understand that the source is not the ‘ignorant’ masses but the highly educated ruling classes.