Remembering Sivanandan: social justice activist and thinker

By Savi Hensman
January 13, 2018

Ambalavaner Sivanandan, an activist, thinker and novelist, died on 3 January 2018, aged 94. What he said and wrote on class, race, oppression and resistance influenced many people internationally.

For several reasons, he is an important figure for people of all faiths and none. He was passionate about economic and wider social justice, a key theme in Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other traditions. Other strands of belief might emphasise overcoming greed, hatred and delusion: it could be said that he helped to pinpoint the concrete forms these took in the modern era.

Though sometimes dismissive of religion, he had a keen sense of the spiritual in the broadest sense. His vision of human flourishing was far removed from the rather dry approach of some on the Left; poetry, music and imagination were important to him. His friends included theologians such as the late Ken Leech (and Pauline and Dick Hensman, my parents).

His style was usually lively, his writing and conversation easier to understand than that of many intellectuals. He combined deep seriousness of purpose, and passion about his beliefs, with humour and a hint of playfulness. And, whether right or wrong, he was usually thought-provoking.

In recent years the far right has become frighteningly powerful, the risk of nuclear and ecological disaster has intensified and faith has often been outflanked by fundamentalism. It may be worth returning to his work (with that of other significant twentieth-century thinkers) to try to make sense of this and respond effectively.

Turbulent times

Born in the colonial era, Siva (as he was widely known) witnessed a shift towards apparent national freedom and racial equality, yet marked by a subtler form of imperialism and profound differences in power. Though he worked for a while in a bank as a young man in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), he failed to conform, including marrying a Sinhalese woman despite being a Tamil.

In 1958, the country was racked by race riots orchestrated by politicians. They escaped with their children Tamara, Natasha and Rohan, to London, which was also deeply racist and riot-torn. He was in a low-paid job in a library when the marriage fell apart and found himself a single parent. Later in a perceptive interview by Melissa Benn in the Guardian, he described how “At night, after I had put the children to bed, I would sit, writing in my notebooks, listening to Schubert and Mozart - that angelic anguish! - I would drink, smoke my pipe, cry. Then I would take my poetry volumes down from the shelf and read."

At the same time he was conscious of the struggles faced by his fellow-immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa and black British people, as well as others who were poor or victimised. In 1964 he became a librarian at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). A few years later, he played a key part in transforming this from an organisation wedded to the status quo to "a think-in-order-to-do-tank for black and third world peoples." There he also came to know and love another anti-racist activist, Jenny Bourne, who would become his wife and anchor him in his later years.

His priority was combating the “racism that kills” rather than discrimination against middle class black people. (The term ‘black’ was used by a number of activists in Britain in a way similar to ‘people of colour’ in North America and still sometimes is.) Many white people were willing for someone else to do shiftwork and cleaning but did not want ‘coloured’ neighbours.

Though laws combating racial discrimination began to be introduced from the mid-1960s, trade unions were often slow to act. State agencies were often neglectful or outright hostile, including the police. Racist attacks were often not properly investigated, while victims seeking to defend themselves were arrested, and some officers were brutal and did not hide their sympathy with far-right groups. Siva documented this turbulent period in ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain’, in the IRR journal Race and Class in 1981.

Sivanandan was a complex character. He was often warm and kind but could be hot-tempered. Though he was passionately committed to liberation for all, he was sometimes patriarchal and overbearing. I think he would have been (maybe is) less keen to be hero-worshipped than to inspire others to do what they can in the quest for a better world, whatever their strengths and shortcomings.

Injustice and diversity

He was critical of those on the Left who sidelined everything but class struggle, despite people’s actual experiences of suffering and resistance in a divided society and world. However he also grew increasingly concerned by the tendency in some quarters to focus on culture only, without, in his view, taking enough account of the economic change which influenced this, linked largely to new technology. He feared that a narrow form of identity politics could lead to fragmentation and fail to deal effectively with the forces driving various kinds of oppression, environmental devastation and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

In 1990, in ‘All that melts into air is solid: the hokum of New Times’, he verbally blasted a movement in which his old friend Stuart Hall played an important part. Though sometimes exaggerated, Siva’s criticisms contained a kernel of truth. He acknowledged “new social forces” which “raise issues about the quality of life (human worth, dignity, genuine equality, the enlargement of the self) by virtue of their experiences as women, blacks, gays, etc., which the working class movement has not just lost sight of but turned its face against.”

But if not “opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism – as between blacks versus women, Asians versus Afro-Caribbeans, gays versus blacks, and so on – which pulls rank, this time, on the basis not of belief but of suffering: not who is the true believer but who is the most oppressed…

“Equally, what is inherently socialist about the issue-based new social forces such as the green and peace movements is the larger questions they raise about the quality of the environs we live in or whether we live at all. But to the extent that the green movement is concerned more, say, with the environmental pollution of the Western world than with the ecological devastation of the Third World caused by Western capitalism, its focus becomes blinkered and narrow and its programmes partial and susceptible to capitalist overtures… So, too, does a peace movement which does not, for instance, see that to preserve the world from a holocaustal nuclear war also involves preserving the Third World from a thousand internecine wars sponsored and financed by the arms industry of the West.”

An emphasis on individualism and consumption, he warned, played into the hands of the right-wing Conservatism which had taken hold and losing a crucial ethical dimension: “the self that New Timers make so much play about is a small, selfish inward-looking self that finds pride in lifestyle, exuberance in consumption and commitment in pleasure”, while stark exploitation continues. It was vital instead “to open one's sensibilities out to the oppression of others, the exploitation of others, the injustices and inequalities and unfreedoms meted out to others” and build “new communities of resistance that will take on power and Capital and class.”

Meanwhile the tangled situation in Sri Lanka had led to death and displacement on a massive scale. Sivanandan explored this in a novel, When Memory Dies, published in 1997; it was perceptive and sometimes gripping, if not quite critical enough of a Tamil nationalist movement which often echoed the worst excesses of a Sinhalese-dominated state. It won the Sagittarius Prize and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

A collection of short stories followed, Where the Dance Is. A collection of his essays, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, appeared in 2008. In his final years, despite failing health, he took an ongoing interest in social issues as well as family and friends.

Hope and the quest for justice

Like all thinkers and activists, Sivanandan did not get everything right. But I believe there are valuable learning points arising from his work, relevant to people of faith and others concerned about the state of Britain and the wider world today.

A focus on culture by some thinkers has produced work which is valuable but often inaccessible to those engaged in grassroots struggles. Campaigns have sometimes improved attitudes to, and rights for, women and minorities. But austerity has left many highly vulnerable, while hostility has surged towards women, disabled people, minority ethnic or religious groups, lesbian gay, bisexual or transgender people.

People of faith have sometimes focused on opening up ministry to a more diverse set of leaders, caring for people in need and emphasising that God is with them in their suffering. These are all worthwhile, yet the vision of hope, in various traditions, for personal and social transformation is also needed at this time.

Renewed efforts are perhaps required to expand compassion and solidarity among those who care about different aspects of justice, the environment and peace. A call to dialogue, imaginative reflection and action may be part of Siva’s legacy.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

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