From International Socialism (1st series), No.29, Summer 1967, pp.31-33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Frequently, books by comrades of the Centre Left fare worse in IS reviews than those of our outright opponents. Here is a book  that deserves better: it is probably the most complete treatment available of a crucial area of conflict – the class struggle for housing. More than that, the book describes in a comprehensive, way the new forms the struggle assumes in an area of considerable immigrant settlement. It should be read by all those who are working in tenants’ associations, trade unions, and in Labour Parties, where housing is a political issue.
But before it is read certain points should be made: The book, and the research work that preceded it, is seen specifically as a contribution to the theories of urban sociology, and particularly it is aimed at developing the perspectives of Park and Burgess (the Chicago School of the 1920s). These studies suggested the model of the City as a series of zones revolving around a central business area. These zones they identified as the sub-communities of the lodging house zone, the zone of working-class houses, the middle class area and the commuter suburbs. Rex and Moore are concerned to develop this model and to incorporate the idea of a struggle for placement in the City in which three groups (the upper and lower middle classes, and the working class) are ‘... differentially placed with regard to the possession of property, become segregated from one another and work out their own community style of life’ (p.8). Put explicitly ‘... there is a class struggle over the use of housing, and ... this struggle is the central process of the city as a social unit’ (p.273). In this sense, the book is concerned above all else to insert a dimension of conflict into a branch of sociology where previously the structural-functionalist interpretations have held sway. In this aim the book is a considerable success.
It is against this background of conflict over housing that the authors turn to areas of interest to political man. Long chapters on the reactions of the host community, the Birmingham City Council and the organised political parties demonstrate once more the ambivalence of bourgeois and proletarian Britain to coloured immigrants and their problems. The by-now notorious five-year rule of the City of Birmingham’s Housing Management Committee is ruthlessly examined, and the conclusion (... ‘it is quite possible under the present arrangements to discriminate without a policy of discrimination ever being publicly admitted’ (p.27)) would be astonishingly reticent, were it not known that the Council’s legal representatives would be waiting outside W.H. Smith’s on publication day. Few organisations or individuals emerge creditably from this long account.
But this kind of material is not new to us. What we need to consider is the theoretical perspective offered by Rex and Moore.
‘Once we have grasped the idea of urban society as a number of overlapping and sometimes contradictory systems of social relations, it soon becomes clear that the commonly used vocabulary of race relations which includes such words as “assimilation,” “integration” and “accommodation” is inadequate. Such vocabularies assume a “host-immigrant” framework in which the culture and values of the host-society are taken to be non-contradictory and static and in which the immigrant is seen as altering his own patterns of behaviour until they finally conform to those of the host society.’ (p.13)
This is not what is happening in the city: what is happening is the precarious coexistence of many systems of fundamentally antagonistic social relations in a market situation. The immigrant communities, their opportunities blocked by the official and unofficial agencies, are developing their own property relations. That is, in the area the white working class has left (for the council estates), the lodging houses are being bought and let out by immigrant landlords. These are the ‘twilight zones’ – one step away from slums and even one-race ghettoes but still humanly habitable. The immigrant landlord is fulfilling a function which the official agencies, with the connivance of official Labour, have abdicated. If only by default, say Rex and Moore, landlordism is the solution for the immigrant brothers of the British working-class. By implication, the internationalist has to go hand in hand with the landlord and the property-owner.
At least, the internationalist has to think twice before applying received ideas to a strange situation. There are racketeers among the Sparkbrook immigrant landlords, and the Birmingham Housing Committee annually goes through the ritual of prosecuting the worst of them. But this ritual is functional only for the racialist and the Council bureaucrat. The rehousing of the immigrant is not allowed seriously to enter this discussion. The modernisation of Sparkbrook has been rejected by the Council on the grounds that it would involve the rehousing of 600 immigrant families. Thus it was, say Rex and Moore, that ‘it was left to those who were “moral outsiders” to work out a form of housing of any kind that would put roofs over other people’s heads and obviate the necessity of having large numbers of people sleeping on the park benches’ (p.260). The alternatives to the rented accommodation provided by the wealthier compatriot or immigrant are not clear. The exit to the suburbs is possible only to the pools-winner; the move to council accommodation only for those who are prepared to wait five years to qualify for the housing list, and then more for actual provision (which will most likely be near-slum property in the old working-class central zone anyway, and not council-house accommodation).
In this situation, the authors are prepared to support classic radical anti-landlord politics only if the housing policy of the Council changes, and the political context with it. The politics of anti-landlordism could amount otherwise to eviction and final rejection of immigrants who really have nowhere else to turn.
It is at this point that the emphasis placed in the book on the conflict over housing, and the city as a social unit in itself, becomes a little problematic. The radical sociologist, or the Left reformist, or even the revolutionary, has to develop political demands which fit the total situation. Now it may be, as Rex and Moore have it, that the class struggle (or the market situation as they describe it, following Weber) does, not end at the front door, but goes on inside the lodging houses too. But the implied relegation of other forms of struggle here is crucial. And it might incidentally raise again the relevance of the idea of the sociology of the urban unit, as compared with that of the total society (the sociology of industrial and mass society). The work-a-day experience of the Sparkbrook working class in the Midlands factories here is seen as affecting the process of manoeuvre and the accumulation of capital which places men in a certain relationship to accommodation opportunities. And, the argument continues, then the real struggle begins (that is, the struggle most meaningful to the local working class). In a situation of relative industrial prosperity and full employment but poor housing opportunity, such as that in the Midlands, this might appear plausible. Racialism is not rampant in factories and workplaces where there are jobs for all and strong (relatively militant) trade unions: at worst, racial stereotypes and prejudices are borne in mind (usually outside the workplace) ready for activation in a time of local slump (in the workplace). Thus, it makes immediate sense to make reformist proposals now on the housing question, which, if implemented, would blunt the edge of racial conflict in the only area where it is immediately dangerous. Documents and research papers sent to leftish Ministers, and activities in CARD, follow on logically.
But this does not tackle the questions that might have arisen, had the research looked more enquiringly at the industrial experience of the Sparkbrook residents. Or at least, it is important to say that the political perspective of the book is one which is developed without much knowledge of that area of conflict, and it should be recognised that this must affect conclusions about the total community situation, including that of the work situation. Most of the immigrants had come to Birmingham to find work, or else because they knew they had a job with relatives – and, in a very important sense, their disappointments were as much a result of their ‘lower-paid worker’ status in jobs as they were to do with the policies of the City Council. The creation of an ‘under-class’ of lower-paid workers (of British stock and of various national origins – first or second generation) is the breeding-ground of racialism in the working-class as a whole – and a situation which will be exploited by the local and national employers as much as it will be by the residents at the ‘nicer’ end of Sparkbrook. In the final analysis the only way that the progressive segregation described in the book can be stemmed is by some kind of radical political solution arising from the ‘twilight zones’ themselves. If it does not, the process will not be stemmed by parliamentary or by council action. The demand for the support of the law against all discriminatory practices, or for immigration visas equivalent to the number of job opportunities, reform of various Housing Acts – all these take on a very marginal importance if and when the squeeze on housing intensifies or the job situation changes. Neither of these eventualities are unlikely in Labour Britain. So the admission of the authors that they did want to study industrial conflict in the area, while not reprehensible in the sections which aim to contribute to the sociology of the City, is a pity when they come to discuss ‘policy alternatives’ and the political perspective. Perhaps this omission is not entirely accidental or circumstantial. With one notable exception (the 1959 Labour candidate), the authors appear to have given up hoping about the British Labour Movement. Much greater prominence and favour is bestowed on the social work ethic than on the politics of Labourism. In particular, the activities of the Sparkbrook Association (a local community association, united only on the slogan of ‘Towards a Fuller and Happier Life,’ with representatives from the leaderships of host and immigrant bodies), are given a long and sympathetic consideration. The Association ‘... represented a dignified response by dignified people to a humiliating and demoralising situation’ (p.229). The Labour Party, by contrast, is dismissed with references to the refusal of its leadership to canvass openly for immigrant votes, and the powerlessness and compromise of its Councillors. It is no apology for Labour reformism or Labour racialism to suggest that the party in Sparkbrook remains a more significant area of struggle than the Sparkbrook Association. For the Association is seen in terms of conflict resolution, or, at most, as a pressure group. The authors themselves complain that the Association ‘could have formulated a non-party-political but still political viewpoint. And this it failed to do’ (p.226); and they describe its failure to act effectively (because of internal controversies over immigration control). It surely is problematic whether an organisation of this sort is useful in the politics of race and class conflict, even by the authors’ own criteria. Phoney assimilation or accommodation is not what the authors are really talking about, and they say so. They stress the need for immigrants to organise themselves alongside the most exploited of their fellow Brummies. But the queries remain: is the insertion of such a political movement, or anything approaching it, to be found in the mystificatory world of the social worker and the local committee men and women? Or is it to have relevance hopefully to the wider conflicts of the ‘market situations’ of advanced capitalist society? A polite invitation to reply is extended to the author of Key Problems of Sociological Theory on this crucial question. Mrs Jennifer Williams’ chapter on The Younger Generation in Sparkbrook is relatively weak, and tells us only that she found that racial stereotypes had been formed by British kids at an early age, a finding which contradicts many other research findings. Unconvincing explanations relating to the structure of Sparkbrook and the City are offered: they could apply elsewhere too (where there have been other findings).
Doubts and quibbles apart, this is a book that deserves the widest reading on the Left. Much of it relates not only to immigration from the ‘coloured Commonwealth’ (cosy Tory phrase) but also from Ireland (the tinkers coming in for a lot of hammer – for they are the real deviants!). The picture that emerges bears comparison with the Wilmott and Young studies of the East End of London (with cosmopolitan spice). We discover, for example, that immigrants arriving in Britain for the first time are in fact not prepared for the rejection they are to receive, and that many are saving now to return – away from the pressures of white foreman, boss, neighbour and landlord.
The book would not be complete without a discussion of the ‘White’ Paper. Paul Foot has already described in Immigration and Race in British Politics how the White Paper was a response and a surrender to racialist pressure. There was speculation at that time on the Left that the effect of the White Paper would be to encourage the extreme Right to further activity, and that the results would be threatening to the international soul of the Labour movement. Rex and Moore argue that this is not what has happened exactly. The Right of the Tory Party, with the racialist entrists, was acting as a vanguard for racialist solutions, but was in fact only prepared to go so far: that was, to have it accepted that the immigrant population was responsible for the overstraining of the social services, and particularly housing. This dictum was accepted in the White Paper; the official Tory vanguard were satisfied and the entrists rejected. Official ideology had assimilated its perpetual, inbuilt scapegoat.
This book demonstrates the irrelevance of immigration to the inadequacy of housing provision in the large cities (in Birmingham emigration over the last 10 years exceeded immigration), and the relative deprivation of the social services generally. But the racialist lie is still part of the official consensus. Rex and Moore argue that this lie can only be nailed by taking the argument away from immigration control to attack instead the only partially disguised racialism of British society – and that the real threat is the acceptance of the situation as it exists now. Speculation about the future growth of fascist movements or about the relaxation of the entry restrictions could so easily be a substitute for real inaction, unforgivable in the international socialist.
Whether they are here demanding a class policy or a social work ethic is in doubt, and whether the forms of political action demanded are those readers of IS would accept is in fact a matter for considerable discussion. Such a discussion would be a fitting sequel to the authors’ scholarly attempt to bring sociological understanding to the aid of our common struggle.
1. John Rex and Robert Moore, Race, Community and Conflict – a study of Sparkbrook, Oxford for the Institute of Race Relations, 1967.
Last updated on 6 May 2010