Jackie Walker, writer and trainer, explains how the historical struggles of black people are integral to the fight for human liberation.
In discussions with CLR James in 1939, Leon Trotsky made it clear that black people were, ‘the most dynamic milieu of the working class’ destined to be ‘a vanguard of the working class’. He had good reasons for saying this.
The Roman Empire was built on conquest and enslavement. While ruthless in their ambitions, the Romans felt no need to frame one set of peoples as being biologically inferior to any other (an African could and did become Emperor of Rome). War, enslavement and conquest were happily endorsed by Roman religion and culture as thoroughly honourable pastimes. All spoils of war rightfully belonged to the victors.
Before the 15th century few Europeans had contact with other continents. There was curiosity and xenophobia but not what we would recognise as racism. All this changed with the ‘Voyages of the Discoverers’ in the late 15th century. To ‘legally’ appropriate the wealth of the Americas and Africa while conforming to Judeo- Christian ethics, Europeans categorised billions of peoples as subhuman, re-imagining whole continents as empty lands awaiting their discovery. Rough estimates say something between 20-80 million Africans were transported, about half dying on the way. The majority were young, male and skilled. In Europe these people were described as savages. This process of racialisation of peoples could not have occurred without a transformation in thinking, but this racialisation begged a fundamental question; if there are people who are subhuman, what does it mean to be human?
By the end of the 18th century around 10% of Londoners had some African heritage. This, coinciding with the struggle for emancipation, ignited an explosion of radical thought and action that challenged the status quo. The emancipation movement radicalised the populace, becoming part of an awakening consciousness of humankind. This change in awareness was widespread and inextricably joined to the struggle for working class rights.
The activist revolutionary Thomas Spence, author of The Rights of Infants (1776) and leader of the Spencians, campaigned vigorously against the slave trade, making emancipation inseparable to his demands for parliamentary reform. Thomas Paine, famous for his work The Rights of Man (1791) is earlier credited with writing African Slavery in America, the first article proposing the emancipation of African slaves in America and the abolition of Iroquois slavery. Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), argued that women were not naturally inferior to men but appeared so because of lack of education. This helped frame similar arguments defending the rights of African peoples. By the 18th century, efforts to establish trade unions had become part of the struggle for emancipation. Unable to vote, petitions to Parliament were the most effective tool working class people had to express their views. In Manchester (at the time a city of 75,000) more than 20,000 people signed a pro-emancipation petition. Hundreds of other pro-emancipation petitions flooded into Parliament from all over the country.
Black activists like James Wedderburn and William Davidson, along with the writer Olaudah Equiano, joined radical movements such as the London Corresponding Society, an organisation for parliamentary reform founded by Thomas Hardy. Blacks contributed their experience of oppression and resistance to these burgeoning workers’ groups. Speaking to massive meetings, Hardy declared that the rights of liberty for blacks and whites were indivisible.
In common with other corresponding societies, the London’s membership was predominantly working class. John Thelwell, perhaps the most feared radical of his time, was a well known member. Travelling through the provinces speaking of slavery and the British parliamentary system he made his view clear: ‘The root of oppression is here, and here the cure must begin.’
Of all the radical groups in the 18th century, the Spencians were the most revolutionary. Spence did not believe in a centralised body of control. Instead he encouraged the formation of small groups that could meet in local public houses. He argued that, ‘if all the land in Britain was shared out equally, there would be enough to give every man, woman and child seven acres each’. Revolutionary Spenceans encouraged riot as a way to seize control of government. William Davidson, like his comrade James Wedderburn — a Jamaican and Spencian — was eventually beheaded and hanged with four fellow Spencian, white antimonarchists for organising insurrection. Wedderburn was imprisoned and released for his radical activism. After the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 he told an audience that all working men, ‘should learn to use the gun, the dagger, the cutlass and pistols’ in order to defend themselves from state tyranny.
We too often forget that the experience and presence of black peoples and activists was crucial in the development of socialist thought.