is a political commentator and activist. In 2018, the Times dubbed her ‘the poster girl for the radical left’. A few weeks later, a video clip went viral in which she told a TV presenter: ‘I’m a communist, you idiot. … I’m literally a communist.’
Huw Spanner met her in the East End of London, a stone’s throw from Cable Street, on 11 September 2020.
Photography: High Profiles
I first encountered you on television in 2018, slapping down Piers Morgan.1youtube.com When I found you on Twitter,2twitter.com/AyoCaesar your bio said ‘Walks like a supermodel, fucks like a champion’ and I thought: OK, she’s a bit of a big head…
So, that was a joke from when I was at uni. You know when you’re really young and you enjoy being a bit shallow and flamboyant and you go out clubbing and you develop these kind of nicknames and myths for each other which are really tongue-in-cheek? I couldn’t walk in heels properly and I would fall over all the time, and ‘Walks like a supermodel…’ was this sort of sexual braggadocio which I didn’t necessarily really feel.
But then I got a bit bored of the jokes, and also that sort of hedonistic way of presenting myself just didn’t feel that authentic any more. So, I replaced it with ‘Kebab aficionado’.
You also now describe yourself as ‘Muslim’.
I always have!
Is that a cultural identity or a faith commitment?
A bit of both. So, every single person in my family has had a marriage which is mixed by religion or race – every single person – and my mum wanted to encourage me towards Hinduism, because that was my father’s religion and he wasn’t in our lives and I think she wanted me to feel a sense of connection. That never really worked, and one of the reasons why is because all the women in my family are Muslim and I saw them being strong, educated, funny, sexually progressive – and so I didn’t associate Islam with any of the patriarchal trappings which I know exist for lots of other people. There weren’t enough men in my family for there to be a patriarchal dynamic.
My mum was very much like: You only let a man fuck with you so much. You’ve got to make sure you aren’t financially dependent on a man ever or that will mean he has power over you
Then I went through that, like, late-teens I’ve-read-Richard-Dawkins-once kind of phase and I went: Nah, religion’s really stupid. I mangled the Marx quote about it being ‘the opiate of the peoples’ and I forgot the [preceding] bit, ‘the heart of a heartless world’.3The full quotation is usually translated ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’
And then, in my first year of uni, my godmother, who I adored, died of cancer – and suddenly you need faith. Suddenly, you need to feel that there’s a big love in the universe which is in charge of everything; and the name I give to that love is ‘Allah’.
You believe in God?
Yeah, I think I do. I think I do.
Do you pray, or is that going too far?
Sometimes. I pray, I meditate – it’s loosey-goosey, pick’n’mix spirituality probably, if I’m being honest with myself; but for me the name I can give to it is ‘Islam’.
I’m not a student of scripture… I mean, I like looking at these things as historical texts, which I know is not something you’re supposed to say. I won’t become an imam any time soon.
Were there any men who matter in your formation?
Yeah, my stepdad. He and my mum got married when I was about 11. He’s very clever – we politically butt heads all the time, because he’s a centrist – but he has taught me a lot and is important to me.
But in my formative years it was just all women all the time. I thought that parenting is something that women did alone.
What values did your mum instil in you?
Because of her own economic precarity and also because she was a social worker working with really dysfunctional families and long-term victims of abuse, my mum was very much like: You only let a man fuck with you so much. So, you’ve got to make sure that you aren’t financially dependent on a man ever, because that will mean he has power over you.
The other thing [she taught me] was about pride in your skin. When I was 13, she got me and my sister each a copy of Black Skin, White Masks.4The 1952 book by the French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon And whenever Naomi Campbell was on the cover of anything, my mum bought it and brought it home, including Playboy – she covered up the nipples! She wanted us to have an analysis of racism and what it does to you psychologically, but she also wanted us to have these images of pride, power, beauty and sexuality.
You’ve said in the past that you’re bolshie. Do you like provoking people? And is there a tension between that impulse and your desire as an activist journalist to persuade people?
There’s a value, I think, in certain kinds of provocation as a demonstration – [for example,] when you can animate a political dynamic that you’re describing by prodding it into action almost. [If you’re arguing that] there’s a culture war in this country whose purpose is to maintain a completely unsustainable organisation of wealth, you can say: ‘Look, here we go!’ I enjoy being provocative in that way.
They’re like: She’s brown, she’s a woman, she’s an anti-racist – she’s obviously going to take this very rigid, clumsy, unsophisticated identity-politics position
But when it comes to the self-branding as bolshie – and it is a self-branding: I’m as paralysed by self-doubt and anxiety as anybody else – it’s because when you’re moving in a world that is telling you that you shouldn’t be there, you need to have some armour for yourself. I think that’s what the clap-backs and the repartee are about – constructing that armour.
Does it worry you that the mainstream media only like you because you’re acceptably exotic and ‘extreme’?
Oh, absolutely it worries me – but [at least] you get your foot in the door.
They’re like: She’s brown, she’s a woman, she says she’s an anti-racist, she’s obviously going to take this very rigid, clumsy, unsophisticated identity-politics position. You’re a tap-dancing poodle to them and I think sometimes you’ve got to accept that. If you’re looking for dignity, you wouldn’t get into punditry.
As my Sixth-Form teacher used to say: All politics is communications, apart from communications, which is power. It’s no good to forfeit that terrain. But how you optimise your participation in that pageant – no idea. Ask me in 10 years!
You’ve said that politics should be ‘joyful and exuberant’. Do you really mean that or is that striking a pose? (And is that politics as in ‘the game’ or politics as in the struggle for justice and equity?)
Politics as in the struggle for justice and equity. I think about political spaces which aren’t draughty meeting halls, [such as] the Walter Rodney Bookshop, a radical black bookshop [in west London].5See nocolourbar.org/huntleyarch-walter-rodney-bookshop. What defined those spaces – as well as real radicalism and sincerity in their politics – was care, joy, affection, food, children being around, all of these things.
For me (and this is my weird, like, small-c conservatism) the society we live in is not an affirmation of family values, it’s the interruption, the destruction, of family values, because it [demands] all this stuff you have to do before you can love your child or your partner or your sibling. Whereas what I want – this might sound hippy-dippy – is a world in which that love has primacy over everything else and you can enjoy it.
Presumably you also feel angry about things?
Oh, yeah! All the time.
How do joy and exuberance sit with anger?
Well, we can feel more than one thing. And I think anger is important, but you’re not fighting for an angrier world, you’re fighting for a more joyful one – that’s the distinction.
How can we be joyful today when we are threatened by the coronavirus, and then recession, and then climate change and a catastrophic loss of biodiversity?
I don’t think that any other country could have produced someone this obnoxious – I think my sarcasm is 100-per-cent British. But I’ve also got a love for this country’s history and culture
Because the problem with miserablism is that it leads to inactivity. You’ve got to fight your nihilism all the time – that’s a part of being on the left.
Maybe it is the case that there’s nothing we can do, maybe it’s completely delusional to want a joyful politics; but it’s not naive. It’s not the [Extinction Rebellion] plastic-bag dance6Recorded here – you know, invite the police to come and join you (before they baton you in the head). It’s about saying ‘Things can be much better than this’ and holding on to that hope.
But if you don’t feel some element of fear – or even feel overawed – I think you’re not looking.
What does it mean to you to be Bengali? Do you consider yourself to be British? And how do those different identities sit together in you?
The thing is, I don’t see them as separate at all. My experience is of someone who was born in London and has grown up Bengali in London. I think that sometimes people in my position try to reach back for some kind of, like, authentic expression of ethnic identity, but I don’t think that really exists. You always have to conjure it into being, but it’s story-telling. And I don’t think that there is a Britishness which exists apart from all those histories as well, even if you’re white.
What does being Bengali mean to me…? The image that comes to me is very homely and family-oriented: it’s the rowdiness in my grandma’s house during Eid, where the table is groaning with biryani and there’s a particular humour that me and all the cousins share, which is being able to slip in and out of the accent when we’re, like, taking the mick out of our parents or my granny.
There’s also, of course, Bengali history and the way in which it plays out in my family. [My great-great-aunt] Pritilata Waddedar and her part in the Chittagong Uprising,7indianexpress.com/article my grandma’s experience when her father died when she was very young and she came to this country – all of those huge historical waves and currents play out in this really intimate way. And that is important to me, and I feel that there’s something that you’ve got to do with that history, you’ve got to act upon it in some way.
But, you know, I don’t speak Bengali, I haven’t gone to mosque or temple regularly. My mum and my grandma both, as divorced women, couldn’t stand that respectable, middle-class Bengali diaspora which exists in this country, because they found it shallow, status-obsessed, money-oriented and devoid of the values of solidarity which really motivated them. Their [circle of] friends was always more diverse – it included lots of Irish Catholics, lots of Caribbean and African people. So, there’s lots of ways in which my own sense of my Bengaliness doesn’t have the co-ordinates that other people share.
In terms of Britishness, I don’t think that any other country could have produced someone this obnoxious. I think my sarcasm is 100-per-cent British. But also I’ve got a love for this country’s history, I’ve got a love for this country’s culture. I did English literature [at university] because I love it.
Can you talk about the legacy of the Bengal Famine of 1943?8See wikipedia.org/Bengal_famine_of_1943. I can imagine that it looms in Bengali people’s consciousness just as much as the Holocaust does in Jewish and Romani people’s. Does that affect how you regard your fellow Brits?
It is a presence in my mind, but it has never been reinforced in British culture in the same way that the Nazi genocides have been, because there at least you’ve got some shared recognition of the suffering – and that’s really important. Instead, you always have, like, some schmuck saying: ‘Oh, Churchill really did want to help the Bengalis.’ Like, did he? Or did he think that we were dirty, we reproduced like rabbits and the famine is what we had coming?
Famine was a weapon of the British Empire, right? It wasn’t a glitch, it was a feature. From Ireland to India, it was a way of suppressing native populations. You know, my great-grandfather was starving. He was starving. You look at the images from that time and you don’t just feel angry, you feel a rage at the lack of recognition – that whenever it comes up in a conversation about the Empire, people excuse it. That is the really hard thing. You know, Brits are raised to think that they didn’t have an empire – or if they did, it was a good one.
Can white people ever really grasp what it feels like to be on the receiving end of racism?
No, they can’t. But that’s not important. What I want from the white people in my life is an ability to listen, so that even if they don’t understand what it’s like to experience racism, they do know me and there can be contact and affection and support and empathy [on] that basis.
But they don’t know [what racism feels like] – they think it’s a form of extreme impoliteness. It takes time to develop the tools of racial literacy to get beyond that. My partner is getting there.
Your partner is white?
Oh, as white as they come.
We went on holiday to Cornwall recently – me, him and two friends who are both white – and we literally arrive in this really quaint village and we dump our stuff and we’re walking down to the beach and someone yells from a passing car: ‘Paki, go home!’ And I can see that the people [with me] are trying to work out what to do. My partner is like: Ash’s feelings are hurt, so I’ll comfort her. Someone else is like: This is really rude, so I’m just going to say that – but then, to try and make it better, my friend says, ‘You know, we’ll get that a lot, because they don’t like tourists here.’ And I’m like: ‘Ah, but they didn’t shout “Tourists, go home!”, did they?’
What my partner had to learn is that I’m not necessarily going to cry – although I am hurt – but I’m really angry. And that anger is important. I spoke to my mum about it later and she was like: You need that anger, otherwise all you’ve got is the humiliation. So, he had to learn how to be around a really angry person.
Not, like, smashing things or anything…
I’ve just been to north Norfolk. When I was a boy, you never saw anyone there who was not white, but this time there were lots and I found myself thinking: It’s really nice to see black and brown people here at the seaside! And then I thought: But that’s really patronising! And then I thought: I can’t even work out what I’m meant to be feeling.
But you know what? It’s not that deep: you can smile at people and think nice things. That’s all right.
Like, in the town where my partner grew up in South Yorkshire you get people [in their] seventies and eighties and they clock me right away and they’re trying to convey a sense of warmth and welcome by smiling or just saying something extra-nice to me. One time, we were in the pub watching a Spurs match and there’s a really old man in a flat cap who turned his chair to look at us and smile, because he was like: An interracial relationship! And the girl likes the football! Like, wow!
I don’t find that patronising. I find that a really sweet way to convey something that is super-generous and lovely.
When you look inside yourself do you find racial prejudice?
The first time I had an avalanche of threats and abuse, I was 24. I couldn’t sleep – like, the brain isn’t meant to process that much violence
Does such prejudice matter only when it’s allied with power?
It matters more, but of course it matters. And also I’ve got all kinds of power. For one thing, I’m in the West – and this is one thing which I think today’s anti-racists really hate thinking about: we talk about our experiences here, but our tax money is funding a military-industrial complex which is droning the shit out of people [in other parts of the world] whether we like it or not. I don’t think that ‘check your privilege’ really works in that context.
I also have power because I’ve got over a quarter of a million followers on Twitter and I’m on telly all the time. And so my blindspots, particularly when I’m claiming to speak for the left or for anti-racism, really do matter. And they’re there all the time, about who I think is in charge and, you know, who I think of as clever or worthy – you know, my instincts there are still very, very Eurocentric.
I was shocked to read about the amount of racist and misogynistic abuse you receive.
The first time I had an avalanche of threats and abuse, and my work address being tweeted and all that kind of thing, I was 24. I couldn’t sleep – like, the brain isn’t meant to process that much violence, so you don’t really know what to do with it.
My friend said: ‘Why don’t we both get “PG” tattoo’d on us?’ (because we’d grown up in Palmers Green). ‘No one can ever say you don’t belong here ever again, unless they’ve literally got their neighbourhood tattoo’d on them as well.’ So we did, and that did make me feel much better.
I suppose the abuse affects me less now, or it affects me in a different way. My coping mechanisms are better: I have a support network – not that I use them as, like, a free therapist or anything, it’s more like you can go out and forget about the box of hate that is your phone and just enjoy yourself.
After your spat with Morgan went viral, you told the Guardian: ‘I’m recognised most places I go, but everyone’s unerringly lovely and just wants to chat about politics.’ Does Twitter give us a totally false idea of what British society is really like? Or is it more that actually you’re moving around in a real-world bubble?
Well, I live in London, right, which is young, diverse and left-wing, and so, yes, that’s a bubble. It’s not representative of the rest of the country.
Twitter is not representative of British society, but it is where – if racism is a really core part of your identity, Twitter becomes a battleground and so you’re so active on it. If you are an American white nationalist or maybe on the Polish far right, this is a space where [people like] you can come together and create this deafening noise. And it does have an impact on the real world, right? You know, [the man] who murdered Jo Cox was partly radicalised online.9The Labour politician was shot and stabbed to death on the street in 2016, barely a year after her election to Parliament. Her killer reportedly shouted: ‘This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!’
If you only use words that are not scary to people, the realm of acceptable discourse gets narrower and narrower. I think you’ve got to fight for the position you actually hold and take the time to explain
People like to think that what’s on social media is not real, it’s not going to harm you, it only affects you as much as you let it, and sure, you can limit your exposure in lots of ways; but it takes one person to beat the crap out of you. It affects how you move through public space, how you view strangers – like, before meeting you today I was like: OK, I’ve got to make sure that he’s not some far-right crazy who is going to kill me.
You say you’re a ‘huge’ Spurs fan and that you ‘love terrace culture’. Tell me what you mean by that. Not recreational violence, I imagine.
I went to the football on Boxing Day with my mum (because she’s a Spurs fan, too) and part of me was, like, a little bit nervous – like, what if there are far-right football hooligans? And someone came up behind me and planted a big kiss on the top of my head and I thought: You know, I’m actually really safe here.
And, I don’t know, I think there’s something about the expansiveness of terrace culture, the singing, the noise, the collective emoting – you know, it’s really cathartic.
Supporting a football club is about tribalism. Is politics also for you tribalistic?
No, because Labour isn’t a part of my identity. I think that the history of the Labour Party is [as much] about the preservation of capital as it is the disruption or distribution of it. You know, that’s kind of what social democracy is about.
I think that Labour presented a hope for something better – and maybe it still does.
You identify yourself as an ‘anarcho-communist’. Is that the ‘ism’ that accords best with your values, or the one you think could actually work best in practice?
So, the ‘anarcho’ bit for me is a really good critique of the state and state power. However, the state is the only vehicle we’ve got in which to organise and achieve something, so I think that bit has become less and less important for me in terms of applied politics.
The ‘communism’ bit, I think, is the more contradictory element, being honest, because you have to reckon with the history of the Soviet Union and Maoism, that history of authoritarianism which is completely at odds with the values I hold, which are values of democracy and freedom. And yet you look around you at a world which is boiling itself in order to generate more wealth for a handful of billionaires and you think: But this isn’t freedom either.
It comes back, I think, to questions of ownership of resources, how wealth is generated and distributed, the relationship of people to the work that they do. And that, for me, comes back to communism again and again.
The problem is that ‘anarchy’ and ‘communism’ are two of the biggest boo words in the British vocabulary.
I know – and so is ‘Muslim’, you know? And the fact is that if you only use the words that are not scary to people, you stay within that realm of acceptable discourse, which gets narrower and narrower. You know, now James O’Brien,10LBC’s liberal talk-show host, interviewed here in December 2018 who is as liberal and centrist as they come, is seen as the cousin of Karl Marx! So, I think you’ve got to fight for the position that you actually hold and take the time to explain.
In 2018, you were described as ‘Britain’s loudest Corbynista’. What was it that appealed to you in Corbynism? Was it simply that it’s the furthest left Labour has been since the 1980s, or was there something in the character of Jeremy Corbyn11Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015 himself that appealed to you?
Corbyn is a totem for lots of different left-wing values and traditions – some of which don’t cohere together at all, but they could be held together in this, like, one quite idiosyncratic old dude. Some of it was a reckoning with Britain’s geopolitical place in the world, a confrontation with the legacies of empire and imperialism.
[And then,] as well as his anti-austerity politics, you had a longing for really transformative economic policy spearheaded by [the then Shadow Chancellor] John McDonnell, supported by a left-wing thinking ecology which included Common Wealth, IPPR and Autonomy,12Respectively, common-wealth.co.uk, ippr.org and autonomy.work which meant that it wasn’t just about turning the spending taps on – which anyone can do – it was about actually democratising our economy, giving people a stake and a say in it. It ranged from community wealth funds to a ‘green new deal’ to a four-day working week, perhaps a pilot of [a universal basic income] – all things that break with what we’ve got now. It [would have been] a rebalancing of human value, dignity and joy against the demands of the market – and that was really important to me.
Corbyn was able to hold those two things together. It was a deeply flawed project but, when you look at those four years [from 2015 to] 2018, I really think that we could have done it. I think there was a hair’s breadth in it – but [after] 2018 it was game over.
They got it so nearly right. And then so catastrophically wrong. You’ve got to look very honestly at both those things.
The left is always accused of being more interested in purity than in power. Is that true of you?
I go back and forth, if I’m honest. I was thinking about it on my cycle here – and I wish I could have thought about other things than Kier Starmer! But I was like: Well, he’s polling well amongst older people, polling well in towns. That could win an election. But then I was like: But on what politics? And the fact is that it’s a set of politics that I fight for, not a team.
So, rather than trying to resolve that, I go: Well, what’s my role in holding Starmer’s feet to the fire on the issues that I really care about while he makes his pitch to more socially conservative voters?
I genuinely feel this sense of obnoxious, flag-waving pride when I think about this country’s cultural output – and in particular the creativity that comes from working-class black and Asian people
Everyone forgets that Labour won 40 per cent [of the national vote] in 2017. Its electoral coalition had been in steady decline from 2001 (and was completely obliterated in 2019), but in 2017 Corbyn was able to produce a surge. So, for me the question is: How did that happen? Could that be done again in a different way? What’s the strategy?
So, you’re not in despair now?
I am in – You know what? My despair’s something else. My despair is that I look at the values that are dictating the shape of elections – negative solidarity (‘I don’t want anything better if it means that someone undeserving gets a bit more, too’), a certain nastiness, a hatred of the vulnerable and of people who have got nothing and are no threat to you – and I find that hard to deal with.
I’m sorry we haven’t talked about literature and film, which I know are your first loves…
Tell you what, I’ve got something for you and it’s optimistic. I love this country’s pop culture! Grime, drill, house music – all that club culture – plus I think we do the best theatre, I think we make the best novelists. I genuinely feel this sense of, like, obnoxious, flag-waving pride when I think about this country’s cultural output, and in particular the creativity that comes from working-class black and Asian people. I just think that it’s this ferocious engine of originality.
I think that what elevates it above American pop-cultural output is that we’ve got that bit of wryness, self-deprecation and irony which you see all the time in grime and you would never, ever see in American rap. That’s something which I find, like, exciting and emboldening. You know, the left might be feeling in despair but here are these leaders in our generation who operate with swagger and intelligence and have this confidence about who they are.
And also are unapologetically left-wing.
[ + ]
|3.||⇑||The full quotation is usually translated ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’|
|4.||⇑||The 1952 book by the French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon|
|9.||⇑||The Labour politician was shot and stabbed to death on the street in 2016, barely a year after her election to Parliament. Her killer reportedly shouted: ‘This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!’|
|10.||⇑||LBC’s liberal talk-show host, interviewed here in December 2018|
|11.||⇑||Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015|
|12.||⇑||Respectively, common-wealth.co.uk, ippr.org and autonomy.work|
Ash Sarkar was born in north London in 1992 and educated at Enfield County School (now Enfield County School for Girls) and the Latymer School in Edmonton. She read English literature at UCL, and gained a master’s degree there in 2014.
She joined the independent media organisation Novara Media as a senior editor in 2015. Her current contributions include her irregular #AshWednesday YouTube polemics.
In 2017, she taught global politics at Anglia Ruskin University as an associate lecturer.
She currently teaches an experimental master’s degree course on film, graphic design and propaganda at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam.
Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian and the Independent.
Her poetry has been anthologised in City State: New London poetry (2010) and The Salt Book of Younger Poets (2011). She has ghostwritten autobiographies by two rap artists.
She joined the Labour Party in late 2019.
Up-to-date as at 1 September 2020