mute column

Is Black History in Hackney?

By Benedict Seymour, 7 October 2010

Hackney Council in the East End of London plan to drop CLR James's name from a public library in fashionable Dalston. As the UK regime of austerity deepens, should we be fighting for symbolic concessions to those deleted or displaced by gentrification, or is it time for a more material response?, asks Ben Seymour

The CLR James Library in Hackney is due to be replaced by a new £4.4 million facility in Dalston Square next spring. However, the council has decided the new building will be named Dalston Library and Archives. The library will return, but the credit to James will not.

As Hackney Citizen explains, and as many Mute readers will know,

Cyril Lionel Robert James, [was] an Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist and social theorist, [who] spent his life campaigning against colonialism and increasing awareness of black struggles all over the world through lectures, essays and works of fiction.

James was also a Marxist and sometime critic of Lenin who discerned the obsolescence of the vanguard party in the wildcat strikes of the 1940s. He saw proletarian activity as primary, the labour, leisure and struggle of the multiracial working class constituting the germ of a new society. In a diverse area such as Hackney where over 20 percent of the population are black, a CLR James library should be a pretty special place. So it's shocking but not surprising to see that Hackney Council want to delete James from the landscape of an increasingly white and middle class Dalston.

Hackney Council is currently cutting services left, right and centre, while arguing for subsidy to maintain their propaganda newspaper, Hackney Today. A quick read reveals Hackney Today to be 20 percent constituted of threats to tenants and unemployed people, and 70 percent of attempts to cajole them into voluntary labour. There was NO news in this week's issue about the library name change, and clearly no thought about it. Not even a conscious desire to stamp out the memory of black and working class Hackney – for mayor Jules Pipe et al this kind of stuff is like breathing. Erase first, apologise later – but only if forced really hard. There's a page of Hackney Today dedicated to Black History month, of course, but its main purpose seems to be enabling continued amnesia about the material reality of black people's lives in Hackney. State-curated 'History' is all about forgetting.

Check out how much other apologising and arse covering Hackney Council have had to do lately: For example, after pulling up the trees planted by Charlie Collins to commemorate the 13 young people who died in the 1981 New Cross fire (at the same time the Council flattened the 4 Aces club – another piece of black proletarian Dalston that was deemed unfit for current purposes) the Council seem to have been forced to dedicate a token piece of private-public space to the victims' memory:

It's not the first time Hackney Council have given a black face some space on their website while squeezing actually existing black people out of the territory (remember Spirit Grant of Broadway Market? ). Local colour is always great in the propaganda, especially if you're simultaneously kicking them out of their homes and workplaces. But here there is also a symbolic gesture, a second-thought attempt at appeasement. In a sense it's almost as insulting as the initial act of destruction, but one can understand why Mr Collins might feel somewhat mollified and even willing to be included on the council website to help remind people about the events commemorated.

Seeing the likes of Dianne Abbot adding their voice to the protests about the name change is enough to make one see red, however. This campaign is in serious danger of becoming one more harmless display of nostalgia leftism, perfectly comfortable for today's post-new labour technocrats. We shouldn't forget CLR James but equally we shouldn't forget Abbott's complicity in the gentrification of Hackney and the broader Blairite project. Campaigns about memory provide politicians with ways to deflect us from the reality of the present situation. In this case a massive austerity programme of which Labour is as much the architect as the ConDems, despite their sudden outbreak of populist posturing as defenders of the services which they themselves loved so much to slash and privatise.

Maybe the Council will do a similar backpedal over the CLR James library as it did over Charlie Collins' uprooted trees, maybe a CLR James garden is coming to a corner of Gillett Square soon. But the fact that they pulled up the trees and knocked down the club in the first place is the real monument. The most salient reality to remind ourselves of is that there is indeed NO room for proles or poor blacks in the new Dalston, except as cheap or preferably volunteer labour. There will never be enough room in capitalist society for those James celebrated in his writings, the multi-racial proletariat which he described in Mariners Renegades and Castaways is still very much with us albeit in myriad different forms. Meanwhile the powers that be seem to be dropping any pretence that they can get a better deal in capitalist society.

In this sense even restoring the name of the CLR James library as the venue is relocated to a Dalston Square would be a lie. More than 'remembering' (and so desecrating) his name in some new gentrified and underfunded 'Idea Store' we need to remember the council tearing up the trees and knocking down the working class venues if we are going to live up to James' own idea of culture - i.e. culture as a school for revolt and social transformation whose current vanguard is, or should be, the dispossessed, not the submental elite currently running Hackney Council.

We need to remember the last 40 years or more and consider how much longer we want to play the game of pretending-to-expect-improvements. Instead, this might be time to get real about how much or how little to expect from petitioning the Council et al. Let's face it, the entire political class is united in a desire to eradicate 25-50 percent of our services, whether slowly and softly or brutally and abruptly. This isn't the time to ask for a few scraps back, instead we should be clear and vocal about the scale of the present destruction. James would have been no less.

And maybe now that the stakes of things are becoming so abundantly clear there's a chance that people will respond in an appropriately collective fashion. As a contribution to a wider movement, maybe it would be better to begin by occupying the current library and reopening it as a centre for anti-cuts organising? In the name of CLR James, of course.

Some links:

The petition to preserve the name of CLR James Library is online here:

More about James and his comrades Boggs, Castoriadis and Dunyevskaya:

And on James's conception of working class activity:

RIP Floyd. Sweet, obstreperous opponent of the forces of displacement, you fought for those not remembered in official commemorations, as generous with your advice, care and affection as the times were mean, worth a billion farmers' markets. We'll love you and remember you always.