Anna Chen accuses John Rees of racism

July 18, 2013 at 12:05 am (blogging, ex-SWP, Guardian, history, Jim D, John Rees, Racism, SWP, workers)

Above: Rees has many faults, but seems an unlikely racist

Ex-SWP’er Anna Chen, who blogs at ‘Madam Miaow Says’ is a writer and performance artist of Chinese-British extraction. She recently wrote a piece, re-published and/or quoted on various blogs, criticising Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of  ’45 for ignoring black people. My personal view is that while she has a point, she possibly overstates her case, given the film’s concentration upon the 1930s and ’40s, before large-scale black immigration into the UK. But Loach’s dismissive response on Radio 4, “That’s how it was. That’s the record of the time” does him no credit.

Anna has a Comment piece in yesterday’s Guardian  (print edition) in which she again criticises Loach’s film for only showing white people, and she also makes some well-aimed criticism of Maurice Glasman and David Goodhart (both said to be influential in Labour Party thinking on race, immigration and “community”).

But Anna also makes an extraordinary allegation against ‘Counterfire’ and People’s Assembly big-wig John Rees:

“The blind spot that so irritated Orwell is alive and well on the left today: in one shocking example, John Rees – a former leading member of the SWP (and now the People’s Assembly leader) – argued that ‘it’s British workers who count, not Chinese’ soon after 58 dead Chinese migrants were found dead in a truck in 2000.”

Let’s be clear: Anna is accusing Rees of racism: there can be no other interpretation placed on her allegation. Anna does not provide the full context of Rees’s alleged words, but it’s difficult to conceive of any context that would make such words acceptable.

I have not always considered Anna an entirely reliable source of information in the past and, indeed, the Guardian piece contains at least one howler: since when has the Grunwick dispute been considered a “famous victory”?

The charge against Rees is about as serious as it gets, and presumably the Guardian‘s lawyers cleared it. But does anyone know when, where and in what context Rees is supposed to have made that comment? As regular readers will know, I don’t have much time for Rees and his degenerate ‘Counterfire’ outfit, but I have to say I find Anna’s allegation against him difficult to credit. And if she can’t back it up, she ought to withdraw it.


NB: I see that the online version of Anna’s article (linked to above) omits the alleged quote from Rees and carries the following disclaimer:

• This article was amended on 17 July 2013 following a complaint from John Rees, an organiser of the People’s Assembly and a former member of the SWP, to remove remarks which he denies making.


  1. Mike Killingworth said,

    In other words: AC is a loose cannon on the deck who neither checks her facts nor thinks through her arguments because she is always right about everything and doesn’t need to do either of those things. (Someone remind me of the proportion of people of Chinese origin who think of themselves as “black”. Someone else remind me why that proportion is too low…)

    As to Loach, a far better criticism from the perspective of anti-racist activism, surely,is that he chose to make a film about a time when Britain was as near as nothing ethically homogenous – energy which he could have spent in confronting racism. What the likes of AC really mean is that Loach is a racist because he’s white.

    As for myself, I’m more interested in whether or not the writers of this blog subscribe to the view that, in order to be racist, it is first necessary to be white. (Hint: whatever you say, someone will regard it as grounds for despising you!)

  2. Andrew Coates said,

    This might explain the context of the charge: What Next? 2003.

    “Too many antiquated attitudes are being swept in under cover of the war, with power relations found under capitalism thriving unchallenged in far Left organisations. The SWP are fond of espousing anti-racist sentiments. And yet, for example, a District Organiser can insist that because ‘all’ Chinese supposedly work in catering and are therefore atomised, we must all be petit bourgeois: the deadliest insult in the far-Left lexicon apart from ‘fascist’. When I questioned this at a meeting, Rees barked that ‘The Party’ doesn’t do any work with the Chinese because ‘it’s British workers who count, not Chinese’. We apparently experience no racism because ‘the axis of racism is black and white’.”

    • dagmar said,

      Will Bob Pitt be getting a letter from John Rees’ bourgeois lawyers, or does Rees make the complaint himself?

      In any case, it’s not just in that What Next? article that Anna Chen has made this claim re. Comrade Rees, but on many occasions over on Cardinal Newman’s site.

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    There’s this as well, “Dear Red Pepper,

    Given that John Rees, national secretary of the Galloway ‘Respect’
    Unity Coalition (RUC) and leading member of the Socialist Workers
    Party’s central committee, is standing as a Respect candidate in
    Birmingham for the June European elections, and given that Birmingham
    has one of the biggest Chinese communities in Britain, I wanted to
    share with you my experience of both his and the SWP’s views on UK

    During a 1999 organisers meeting of the SWP’s annual Marxism
    conference, I objected to an SWP District Organiser’s assertions
    that ‘all’ UK Chinese work in catering, were therefore atomised, and
    were therefore petit bourgeois – one of the most damning terms in the
    socialist lexicon. Rees refused to refute his District Organiser’s
    view. When I pointed out that a new generation of British Chinese
    were becoming increasingly politicised (in 2001 we would successfully
    protest against the smearing of the community in the Foot and Mouth
    Disease outbreak, and many of us oppose Blair’s wars), Rees stated
    that ‘we don’t work with the Chinese because it’s British workers who
    count’, and that he wasn’t concerned with racism against the Chinese
    because ‘the axis of racism is black and white’.

    So not only is there no such thing as a British Chinese worker but
    the Chinese are defined as the ‘class enemy’ on the basis of our race
    and irredeemable ‘otherness’.

    Given these views, it is perhaps a little easier to understand why
    Respect’s founding conference on 25 January – packed to the rafters
    with SWP members – rejected a call for the legalisation of all
    migrant workers, committing the coalition to New Labour’s racist and
    restrictive immigration policies. Less than two weeks later, at least
    20 Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe Bay revealing once again
    the appalling exploitation and victimisation suffered by immigrant
    workers left vulnerable by these policies while capital is free to
    move around the world.

    Respect and equality for whom, precisely?

    • dagmar said,

      The difference between the likes of What Next? and Red Pepper And Revolutionary Worker Uncle Tom Cobbley And All Bi-Monthly (New Series), and the Guardian, is that John Rees, true to his political roots in the SWP, doesn’t read the ‘sectarian’ press, so probably isn’t aware of what they write (about him).

      As he is also largely against the internet, again, standing in the SWP tradition (Counterfire’s use of it can only therefore be tactial) he doesn’t google himself either. Obviously not.

      Or maybe the main point is that the left press would tell him to eff off (…and sue?) or print a no doubt strongly worded right to reply from Ms Chen alongside his own right to reply, continuing ad absurdum.

  4. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Re 1945 I have little time for Ken Loach but so few blacks lived in Britain at that time that in my mothers town people would literally travel for miles to see the lone black American airman at the local airfield.

    This is precisely why we consider the arrival of the Windrush on 22 June 1948 to be so significant.

    Now Ken could have included this as happening during the Attlee government but hardly without bringing in all of the other rather more troubling context about how under Labour Britain still ruled over and exploited hundreds of millions of black Africans and West Indians (and managed to oversee a million Indians getting killed in the most horrific ways imaginable in the process of their leaving the Empire – not to mention the 3 million Bengalis who starved to death while Labour was in the wartime coalition government) – which would hardly have fitted into a positive narrative.

    So this seems a bizarre accusation – why not also lambast Land and Freedom for failing to play proper tribute to the role of Basque Nationalists in the Republican struggle or for that matter to pinpoint the troubling role of Franco’s brutal Moorish colonial auxilaries.

    Propaganda is not history – it has to radically simplify in order to radicalise.

    As for Rees his and the 68-er pseudo-left’s perennial problem is that actually the further away a country and its inhabitants the more it romanticises and idolises them – precisely because our own poor broken working class are too close and too familiar for us to have any glowing illusions about them.

    And for that very reason I can’t see even him really being so crass as to dismiss an act of mass murder on British soil perpetrated by British capitalists just because the victims are Chinese rather than British workers.

    That axis of racism quote (who signed that letter BTW?) does sound silly enough to come from him though….

  5. Rosie said,

    I haven’t seen The Spirit of ’45, but Loach used footage, didn’t he? Was it old newsreels or documentaries? Anyway, I would imagine that the producers of the day would not have focused much on a non-white face.

    Unlike these days. I was on a Pedal on Parliament demo in Edinburgh. The picture in The Guardian shows in the foreground a black guy, a couple of black children and a Chinese woman.

    Yet Edinburgh is a very white city and there were only a handful of non whites on the demo. I would guess that a film maker in the 1930s and 40s would have skipped over a non white face, whereas a photographer today would zoom in on multi-ethnicity to show approval.

    I would have thought the significant minority of the 30s and 40s would have been Irish, rather than black or Chinese. Were there Irish voices on the soundtrack?

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Prior to The Windrush and the phase of mass immigration it started you simply had relatively few non-whites in Britain and they tended to be concentrated in port cities like London and Liverpool.

      But – and this is important – racism did not prevent Indian MPs (all Parsees interestingly enough) being elected – a liberal in Finsbury, a tory in Bethnal Green and a communist (Shapurji Saklatvala) in Battersea.

      Also worth noting that the Eurasian (half-Indian, half-Swedish) R (for Rajani) Palme Dutt was a leading member of the CPGB (and general secretary during the period when even Harry Pollitt wobbled over the Hitler-Stalin pact) for many years.

      And when Gandhi visited London for the 1931 conference he stayed in the East End at a left-wing community centre and was cheered every time he walked the streets.

      So its dubious to project back working class racism into the 1940s or beyond.

      Real populist racism tended to be indeed focused on the Irish (and Jews particularly in the East End) as a current BBC Radio Scotland series on Britishness (episode 3 which will only stay on iplayer until Wed 24th lunchtime) points out in the 1920s unionist politicians and protestant ministers in Scotland were still spewing invective against the Irish not because as you’d expect they were Papists but because they were an ‘inferior race’.

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