Race, class, and politics: the intertwining contexts

New Beacon Books was both a symptom and an outcome of shifts in the intertwined politics of race, class, and black culture in Britain during the late 1960s. As has been well-documented, post-war immigration from the Caribbean provided labour to secure Britain’s post-war recovery. Successive waves of immigration following the first “Windrush” generation of the late forties led gradually to an expanded black population, though there had been a settled black population in Britain for much longer than this (Fryer; Anim-Ado; and other historians). Housing and education were often difficult, as newcomers faced challenging realities of discrimination. In response, the late 1950s saw riots in Notting Hill and the formation of the West Indian Standing Conference, which campaigned for certain rights, while many black people also sought to join existing political parties and organised labour movements.

John La Rose had moved to Britain just before the 1962 Immigration Act which placed strict limits on levels of immigration. In the latter half of the decade black political activity became increasingly militant and organised in response to increasingly widespread racial discrimination, combined with a lack of government response to that situation (Phillips). Groups such as Michael X's Racial Action Adjustment Society and the Universal Coloured People’s Association organised protests. The sense of potential transformation was bolstered by visits to Britain of Malcolm X in 1965 and Stokely Carmichael in 1967 and the media noise surrounding the Black Panthers (Phillips, 223-241). These movements were related in complex ways to the rising strength of radical student politics internationally: Maoism, Trotskyism, international socialism, and reactions to the Cold War context, which came to a symbolic head in the student protests of May 1968. These events reverberate through the archives at the George Padmore Institute as ongoing discussion traced how political change and instability met new responses in the post-independence, English-speaking Caribbean. Writer and teacher Merle Hodge described her students in Trinidad as “effervescent & self-opinionated to a degree that we never dreamt of, and seething with protest” (MH to JLR, 8.4.71, LRA/01/0386). In Guyana there were rebellions against the government of Forbes Burnham. In London, John La Rose, Eric and Jessica Huntley, and many others who had been politically active in the Caribbean before moving to Britain were involved in protests and organised the important 1965 Guyana Symposium in response. Elsewhere Jamaica was hit by protests following the government’s banning of Walter Rodney in 1968 on charges of sedition, while Trinidad faced widespread unrest in 1970-71, triggered by arrests of West Indian students at a Canadian university (see Walmsley, 217).

In Britain, Enoch Powell’s incendiary “Rivers of Blood” speech on 20 April 1968 epitomised a racist rhetoric that set the tone for the new British Conservative government of 1970. During the following decade’s economic recession, their policies included a series of Immigration and Race Relations Acts that imposed new legally sanctioned discrimination. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, writer and director of the Institute of Race Relations, writes of the changes that took place in the 1970s:  

The race scene was changing – radically. The Immigration Acts, whatever their racialist promptings, had stemmed from an economic rationale, fashioned in the matrix of colonial-capitalist practices and beliefs. They served, as we have seen, to take racial discrimination out of the market-place and institutionalise it – inhere it in the structures of the state, locally and nationally. So that at both local and national levels ‘race’ became an area of contestation for power.  (18)

Throughout the post-war period, the relationship between black politics and the established left-wing political class in Britain was uncertain, facing moments of conflict and consensus. These tensions continued unabated through the 1970s and into the 1980s (Gilroy, 1987; 2002). Brian Alleyne writes that:

The framework within which the ideas and work of the New Beacon circle should be placed initially is one where relationships between anti-racist and left/radical politics in Britain were built, a space where the classic Old Left met the New Left and the different tendencies of Black radicalism which arose in the wake of Black Power. (30)

La Rose was aware of the lived complexity of race and class in the radical politics of the period through his involvement in local community activism. He was also particular attuned to the international co-ordinates of often contradictory political positions in Britain. He wrote to Kamau Brathwaite, describing the London scene:

The Trotskyists and Communists and other assorted left are making a bid to behead the Black Peoples Movement. It’s all becoming very clear over the solidarity movement with Angela Davis and The Soledad Brothers and the mass meeting of solidarity with Amilcar Cabral and Guinea Bissau. It’s like what happened with Steelband in a different context. They will march about Vietnam and everything else, but what happens here to Black people is too close to the bone. The Mangrove 9 is not seen as what it is – police terror against Black people because our resistance is to the whole society. (JLR to EKB 24.10.71, LRA/01/0143/4)

As the decade progressed, the anti-war and women’s liberation movements provided contexts in which local activism expanded, though the fault lines between these radical principles were rarely straightforward. Brian Alleyne writes:

That many people know New Beacon only or mainly as a ‘Black Bookshop’ is indicative of the reductionist way in which everyday as well as sociological understanding of radical political activity involving any significant number of Black people is often transformed into ‘Black politics’ and the radical element is jettisoned. (41)

La Rose was consistently opposed to exclusive forms of black nationalism and saw New Beacon’s work as part of a fundamental (that is, radical) change in the organisation of society and culture. Black consciousness movements, such as Black Power and Rastafarianism, together with Marxist ideas fed into his thinking. His humanist orientation was sympathetic to the work of these different currents, without aligning itself totally with any single ideology. He wrote to Andrew Salkey in 1977:

We have to engage as we did in CAM and we become vulnerable to each other. Because of the religious background of most people it becomes a kind of religious transformation, though most people would scarcely describe it that way. Ideological conviction is harboured at a deep level of belief and communion. That’s why the squabbles appear so vicious. It’s the core of a man […] which is at stake. (7.1.77, JLR to AS, LRA/01/0698/1 Pt 2)