Joshua Virasami is an anti-racist activist and tenant union organiser. He is the author of ‘How to Change it: Make a Difference’, a handbook for young activists, published with Stormzy and Penguin’s #Merky Books. He has also written for the Guardian, Independent and Novara Media, and contributed a chapter on anti-racism to ‘Futures of Socialism’. He has been involved with many grassroots initiatives, including London Black Revolutionaries, Black Dissidents and Black Lives Matter UK, climate justice collective Wretched of the Earth, and is currently head of organising and training at the London Renters Union.

EDEditors of Notes From Below

JVJoshua Virasami

EDSince the 2020 George Floyd uprisings in Britain, what has worked in anti-racist organising, and why?

JVIt depends on what working means to you. Our intention was to use the mobilisations as a means to highlight the systemic nature of racist state violence within capitalist society and insert this into the huge conversation taking place in the public sphere.

In that regard, there have been both successful and challenging aspects to the movement following the uprising, often two sides of the same coin. For example, the catapulting of race issues into public discourse and the reckoning many institutions have had with racism has been positive. However, the absence of an organisation and body politic to lay claim to this energy has often meant a watered-down antiracist politics. What Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee have called ‘antiracism from above’ has managed to take hold.

I think what worked was the street mobilisation. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) mobilisations, along with the large Palestine solidarity mobilisations in 2021, were massive, electrifying moments. They represented the ability of these movements to intervene seriously through street heat, but street heat is a dangerous commodity without organisations to bank it.

The other side of this was the opportunity that a wide, open movement acting as a flexible container, decentralised and driven by slogans and ideals, could create. For instance, the organisation I’m a part of, BLMUK, has a legacy and could intervene with confidence to shape the narrative. Unlike in the US, there wasn’t any Black Lives Matter infrastructure to report to when we were setting up. Whilst that infrastructure might make sense for them in the US, looseness here allowed more flexibility and for people to be drawn to us. This helped us gain widespread reach and mass participation, and by making it newsworthy and sparking public conversations it allowed for our narrative to be put forward.

The necessity to be prepared for crises was an essential learning from 2020. Philadelphia’s Youth United for Change spoke about this in an interview with Daniel Denvir on the Dig podcast. They describe the need to build containers and have them ready to collect water when the storm arrives. The containers are a metaphor for programmes, members, and presence. It was important for us that we were ready to harness that moment in 2020. We came out of that moment with £1.2 million fundraised that we have been able to inject back into the wider movement. You can try and create a crisis under our current conditions, but often these things are unpredictable. Instead, we make history in the moment, rather than choosing our own moments. It’s never too late to get prepared, even though it feels morbid, for the next state killing.

At that moment, we were there, and we were able to assert ourselves in the conversation. Asserting ourselves as a legitimate voice was vital to setting out our progressive narrative, but this was also divisive to some, particularly for anti-communists and anti-Marxists. Whilst the organisation saw itself as part of the black radical tradition, it was not automatically a Marxist organisation. Even so, the whole BLM movement came under scrutiny due to its affiliations with BLMUK. As footballers took the knee in support of the movement, the news media began to question why footballers were wearing a slogan linked to Marxism. This made building a broad coalition complex.

This complexity reflected the diversity of the Black British community. Our community isn’t homogenous and includes a significant black middle class with a divergent set of self-interests, many of whom don’t want a radical Marxist approach and are swung by the counter-narrative. In some ways, it might have been better if we had built a more cohesive and broad movement. But I still think it’s crucial that the movement remains anti-capitalist. This focus brought radical issues like health care discrimination and the disproportionate deaths of black women in childbirth to the forefront. We also needed the space to affirm our experience and ourselves. The resurgence of literature focusing on anti-racism and the black radical tradition has been important to this process. I’ve suggested some readings at the end that I think recapture the heart of our Black anticapitalist tradition.

EDHow can we understand the contemporary organisation of work, social reproduction, and the political sphere to challenge racial capitalism effectively?

JVIn many ways, this is a question about crisis, or interlocking crises produced by racial capitalism, and how we understand the conjuncture which produced them, and how we move strategically from that place of understanding. How we understand it is not a simple answer, because these are, as Gramsci taught us, determined by many factors, cultural, political and, of course, economic. What’s important, though, is that we choose to understand the conjuncture in the first place.

I think when faced with a crisis, many grassroots organisations on the left tend to be reactive, lock into familiar coalitions, or mobilise in the same ways. A friend of mine who is an educator in movements has been working with the LA Tenants Union on experimenting with how collective conjunctural analysis can produce a better political strategy. I think this kind of work is essential.

We’re also talking about building working-class power in a time marked by disorganisation and a left in retreat. It’s important to grapple with the differentiation of class and try to pull away from an unhelpful universal character of “the working class” that, especially in Britain, is quite a difficult thing for lots of parts of the left to pull away from. By that, I mean the stereotype of the traditional industrial white male working class. It’s also really important for us to take stock of the different ways that class is formed, aligned, and dealigned. Especially how it interacts with border regimes, the various ways that racialisation shows up, and how social reproduction in this age of austerity works. You can do that through collective consciousness-raising, through discursive and focused conversations with each other. It’s important to undertake these discussions, through workers’ inquiry or other forms of collective inquiry between ourselves in groups or as members in branches. But I think another important way of working these things out is through being in struggle.

Struggle allows us to build an appreciation for our different backgrounds and experiences. It’s about finding a balance between creating moments of togetherness and recognising our differences. It’s about making ourselves politically unremarkable, a lot of being in struggle is a togetherness that is about an important flattening of our subjectivity. But then also being in struggle, and trying to think and work through these things, is about building an appreciation of the different ways we come to one another. It’s important to do the thinking and theorising collectively or through the study, and then engage in a praxis of coming together in struggle to build a radical collective solidarity. Creating an understanding of how we might have that flattening.

EDAre there specific examples within the struggles around social reproduction that demonstrate this flattening of subjectivity?

JVI think it starts with making intentional efforts. Sometimes, people assume that unity will naturally occur, but when intentionality is lacking, it can hinder progress. While some aspects of this unity are built into the DNA of an organisation like a tenant’s union, it’s still not the primary focus. Nevertheless, it does happen. People from diverse backgrounds, including those without access to public funding, immigrants, single mothers etc, come together through struggle and organise collectively. They learn about differentiation and build meaningful solidarity, not ignoring differences, but sharpening our understanding of each other and forming common demands and goals.

However, when it comes to developing a more structured and strategic approach to these issues, I don’t see it happening within most organising efforts. Many organisations engaged in community or workplace organising tend to lack a strong political culture. Although movements tackling these issues can organically be highly political, the more specific strategic and theoretical discussions around understanding the current conjuncture in the organisation of work and social reproduction often stay underdeveloped. This deficit of political analysis and education, in my opinion, can often lead to a crisis in many organisations, where the recurring question of “what are we doing and why” can be really disorientating and destabilising. Without that confidence in your purpose, action becomes harder to take. I think this shows there is a significant lack of political confidence at the moment.

EDConsidering the lack of political confidence among organisations, how can we develop confidence through material struggles?

JVThe movements that I have come from that are very organically political and thinking about political questions are more like anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements, and then maybe what they lack is that impetus to be in the workplace or community.

Acknowledging the importance of political confidence is the first step. London Black Revs, a group I was a part of, were really politically confident. What we had in that organisation was cadre and the production of cadre, with varying success. We saw ourselves as revolutionaries. We read and discussed together and inserted ourselves into the wider movements around borders, housing, education - this was our training. We were young, black, working class and middle class, Marxist, feminist revolutionaries, who had very lofty, ideal visions of what society should be like. Developing that confidence in your politics as a collective then allows the organisation to work with confidence. I think, within the organisations that I organise with now, we don’t really have individual political leadership that might instil political confidence into the organisation. So, in lieu of that, you need to have that layer of cadre that is personally politically confident, that train one another and insert themselves into the wider movement and lead.

Struggles like fighting for wage increases or rent reductions can be pivotal moments for building political confidence. As activists, we need to communicate the importance of these struggles within our communities and show how they connect to larger revolutionary objectives. By framing these struggles as part of a broader tradition of resistance and emancipation, we can inspire political confidence and commitment.

Political education and training are essential for engaging with the politics of confidence. The work of teaching and learning, of building confidence, requires practice and repetition, just like any other skill. Alex Kelbert and Amit Singh have just been running a summer school with Connected Sociologies for young people and teachers. Gargi Bhattacharyya and many other comrades have just been running one at the Bishopsgate Institute. This work of teaching and learning is so important in the part of the anti-racist left I come from.

But in other parts of the British left, there seems to be an idea you can do political education after you’ve done political organising, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. Something I learnt through doing karate as a kid was that by drilling and repetition, things become naturalised, and that growth requires discipline. By drilling and practising political actions, we can instil confidence within our members. Creating a culture of political consciousness-raising can be instrumental in fostering political confidence and developing a revolutionary spirit within our organisations.

EDWhat do you think the role of revolutionary politics and revolutionary horizons plays within communist organising and in building political confidence?

JVIt’s a complex question, but there are opportunities within activism to nurture political confidence. One aspect is the idea of being a revolutionary. Declaring oneself a revolutionary is a liberating act. It signifies a rejection of capitalist realism and a belief in the possibility of a different world. But I also really want to try and suggest that there is a necessary ordinariness to being a revolutionary. Fred Hampton’s invocation is a powerful example of this: “I am a revolutionary”. This can, of course, be really cringe and clichéd, and I think there’s been a concerted effort to water down the meaning in the mainstream. But this is still really important. Not least because it’s about liberating oneself. By embracing revolutionary politics, we are actively rejecting the insidious aspects of capitalism within ourselves. You really have to believe another world is possible. Fred Hampton didn’t do that call and response to be cool, he did it to reflect a mutual commitment to changing the world. “You might not have read everything, but if you’re going to come with me on this journey, you need to say those words”. It’s not about being a chauvinist either, it’s about adopting a specific structure of feeling that allows us to confront and dismantle capitalist ideologies within ourselves. Steve Biko used to say, ‘there’s nothing more powerful in the hands of the oppressor than the minds of the oppressed’, revolutionary politics and horizons are the hallmarks of a mind escaping Babylon, and of a person acting confidently.

If we stay with the Black Panther party and Fred Hampton, they had some of the most rigorous training, developing political confidence by engaging with revolutionary theory. In some organisations I’ve been part of, there’s been a reluctance to embrace Marxism or revolutionary politics. This comes from a healthy suspicion, from seeing “Marxist” organisations trampling over our organising in the past. But coming to it now, when people might dismiss something as “Western Marxism”, I feel like it’s really important to say that Marxism is a third world tradition. Communism is a third world tradition. Some of the largest and most important communist/socialist parties in the last century come from the global South, and the contribution of those movements and thinkers is limitless. There’s a deep resonance with working people; it’s our tradition. But we have to think about how we communicate this thing in our communities. We have to say, “It’s your tradition”. It’s a tradition that’s been hidden away from you. Assata Shakur has a great line on this: “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” And it turns out a lot of our radical histories are tied to communist organisers!

EDYou’ve noted before that “freedom is a dream in motion”. Can you speak to the importance of the role of utopian dreaming?

JVI want to first talk about this idea that I’m a bit obsessed with. It’s the idea of a pragmatic utopianism which characterised anti-colonial scholar Aimé Césaire’s approach to emancipatory politics, and in some ways, it relates to this question of utopian dreaming, and when dreams are able to happen.

Gary Wilder recently wrote that Cesaire’s political pragmatism, confronted by the complexity of colonial emancipation and national liberation, was not about compromise or opportunism, as pragmatism is commonly understood. Instead it is a philosophical commitment to a non-dogmatic and experimental approach to means and ends. It reckons with the fact that fighting for freedom is a dynamic process, and there are very few pre existing formulas. His utopian dreaming meant not taking the most radical route, but the most effective. He argued for French departmentalisation as a person who believed in colonial emancipation; this didn’t look like emancipation to many people, but it may have been a dream happening. I think left politics can play out as a game of ‘who’s more radical’, where “radical” has a lot of unhelpful dogma about revolution and reform. Dreaming about utopia and the road to it in this more pragmatic way can be rewarding.

Returning to the question more explicitly, I actually spoke about freedom as a dream in motion for an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, reflecting on the theme of joy and protest. I was specifically riffing off of Robin Kelley’s notion of freedom dreams, and suggesting freedom dreams are in motion, as Kelley himself often suggests. That joy, radical joy, is something we offer each other and ourselves in moments of direct action, where protest and defiance offer an antidote to neoliberalised versions of being and being with one another.

Gargi Bhattacharyya often talks about this dissolution of the self in protest and the redemptive ecstasy that comes with the collective connectivity; a “massifying” effect. I think when I said, “freedom is a dream in motion”, I was trying to suggest that we’re building instincts, practising parts of our politics when we struggle together. And it’s not to be cliche and say it’s not about the destination, but I’m saying, in those moments of action and experience, we’re arriving. And you can taste it, sometimes, when you really get into a piece of fiction, or you get into a piece of music, or you get into a poem, you really want this to be your forever.

In this Wellcome exhibition, I recall going into this Sisters’ Uncut protest, and they were playing Kendrick Lamar’s “We gonna be alright”. We were out together, stomping, saying that shit. I was thinking, I really feel like we’re gonna be alright! The solidarity in that moment was electric. So that’s one of the most important bits for me, that space in direct action that produces that “massifying” effect.

I also talk about activism as world-bridging work, and how BLM’s politics of abolition and emancipation find deep resonance with young people today because it offers a vision of a world beyond violence and dispossession, beyond climate catastrophe and business as usual. I think there’s a profound, confident, creativity in direct action, and in the kind of imagining abolitionist politics engenders. In many ways, the dream is happening from the moment we begin to take action for these futures. As the Marxist abolitionist geographer Ruth Gilmore writes, “we need to rehearse the social order coming into being”, or as the radical collective Healing Justice London put it, “we need to rehearse freedom”.

Suggested reading from the interview:

  • Arun Kundnani, What is Antiracism

  • Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee, Race to the Bottom

  • Emma Dabiri, What White People can do Next

  • Gargi Bhattacharyya, Rethinking Racial Capitalism

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Joshua Virasami

Joshua Virasami is an anti-racist activist and tenant union organiser. He is the author of ‘How to Change it: Make a Difference’, a handbook for young activists, published with Stormzy and Penguin’s #Merky Books. He has also written for the Guardian, Independent and Novara Media, and contributed a chapter on anti-racism to ‘Futures of Socialism’. He has been involved with many grassroots initiatives, including London Black Revolutionaries, Black Dissidents and Black Lives Matter UK, climate justice collective Wretched of the Earth, and is currently head of organising and training at the London Renters Union.