Sociological Imagination, "Lived Theory" and Black Liberation: The Legacy of A. Sivanandan

Sivanandan, second from left, at the launch of A Report on Racism, 1986. via Ilankai Tamil Sangam.

First published at The Sociological Review blog.

The contribution of Ambalavaner Sivanandan to the anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle in Britain and beyond far exceeds the features of his legacy saluted in this short piece. His intellect was as inspirational in local community halls as across university campuses and lecture theatres. His writings were resources of resistance as much for the black urban dispossessed fighting police harassment and violence as for the black working class battling for human dignity in Britain’s service industries, foundries and factories. His later commentaries on the contemporary forms of racism and economic exploitation thrown up by technological development, the "war on terror" and rising nationalism were as pertinent as his classic accounts of the political economy of post-war immigration. Sivanandan was, as activist film-maker Daniel Renwick recently and rightly observed, "a giant" to those at the forefront of black radical struggle.

Reading Sivanandan’s extensive and path-breaking body of work proved pivotal for anti-racist activists up against state authoritarianism, Thatcherism, and an emerging neoliberalism. He recognised and explained daily racism in all its various forms as a problem stemming from politics, rather than personal prejudice or "hate," and, in doing so, empowered generations of campaigners to organise and resist accordingly. Inspired by the Sociological Imagination of C. Wright Mills, Sivanandan’s modus operandi was methodical and sophisticated: to capture the dire, demeaning and deadly consequences of state policies and practices on the ground, and to situate those specific experiences of racism within larger political, economic and historical processes. Or, as he succinctly put it in conversation with close ally Avery F. Gordon, to see "the wood and the trees and the trees in the wood." Sivanandan did just that. His sociological imagination was uncompromising in its consistency, remarkable in its clarity, and profound in its influence on black mobilisation against state-sanctioned racial oppression.

It was in classic essays like "Race, class and the state" (1976) and "RAT and the degradation of black struggle" (1985), both first published in the journal Race & Class, that Sivanandan went directly to the heart of the politics of racism. In the former piece, he detailed how Commonwealth Immigration and British Nationality laws together subjected black Commonwealth workers to greater degrees of economic exploitation (in comparison to white British labour), and divided the working class generally by creating hierarchies of race and nationality to mediate class conflict. In the latter piece, Sivanandan offered a scathing and memorable critique of Scarman-inspired Racism Awareness Training, which he hammered for reducing racism to a problem rooted in white personality, psychology, and culture. Racialism was what Sivanandan called the prejudiced attitudes and behaviours of individuals towards one another. Racism, however, was something he saw as an exploitative power relation between black communities and the structures of society, consolidated through the racist laws, policies and guidelines of a capitalist state. It was a crucial strategic distinction that would, rather frustratingly, be ignored in future formal acknowledgements of institutional racism.  

While Sivanandan led the way in contextualising everyday experiences of racism in a broader politics and history, he also spearheaded a dynamic relationship between theory and practice. Sivanandan’s legacy is one of a black revolutionary intellectual whose scholarship and aspiration was determined by the real, felt experiences of communities under constant attack from state racism and violence. And, with his thinking firmly grounded in the daily struggles for racial justice and equality, Sivanandan saw knowledge as a gateway to liberation. His sociological imagination spoke directly not to theoretical trends, but back to the grassroots campaigns against the racism of immigration laws, health and housing policies, stop and search powers, and the like — what Avery F. Gordon aptly termed "lived theory." In doing so, Sivanandan not only struck an admirable balance between analytical rigour and general accessibility, but he also revolutionised the Institute of Race Relations (of which he was the director) into more than just a think-tank. For it became, in his own typically sharp-witted words, "a think-in-order-to-do-tank."

It was Sivanandan’s long-standing and unyielding commitment to forging a mutual link between scholarship and the struggle against the lethal kinds of racism that stands out as arguably the definitive feature of his legacy. The complex and multi-dimensional relationship between race and class prompted Sivanandan to distinguish between "the racism that discriminates" against the black middle class, and "the racism that kills" mostly those from the black working class. It is a distinction that emerged from, and fed into, the fight against state policies and practices that, in their drive to maximise profit, dehumanise black bodies and devalue black lives to devastating and deadly effect. And, despite a regular stream of popular and political sentiments that celebrate Britain as an ultimately post-racist nation, it is a distinction that is as relevant today as ever before. Shoddy public housing towers like Grenfell, public executions and slayings like those of Mark Duggan and Rashan Charles by a hyper-violent and militarized police force, and the cruel, isolated, and degrading nature of deaths in privatized immigration detention centres are contemporary examples of the murderous sorts of state racism that shaped Sivanandan’s analysis and activism alike.

Sivanandan has left us with essays that must, and doubtless will, continue to serve as guidelines for foregrounding the politics of racial oppression, for seizing the spirit of black radical struggle, and for carving out the ground to develop militant strategies that combat the deadly and symbiotic processes of state racism and exploitation. It is in those essays that the intellectual brilliance, unwavering passion for political change, and visceral hatred for social injustice which Sivanandan harboured is so unmistakably apparent. It is also through the legacy of those essays that Sivanandan will continue to inspire, galvanise and politicise generations anew. And so, to borrow a quote from Stuart Hall’s introduction to a distinguished collection of Sivanandan’s writings called A Different Hunger, "I greatly envy those who are about to encounter them for the first time." 

Jasbinder S. Nijjar is a PhD student at Brunel University London, examining the relationship between institutional racism and the militarization of policing in London. He is the editorial assistant of the online open-access darkmatter Journal, and has written for academic journals including Sociological Research Online and Popular Communication. He also has an upcoming article in the journal Social Justice.