Unity with whom?
SWP’s Stand Up To Racism represents the politics of popular frontism, argues Eddie Ford
Over the weekend there was a series of demonstrations across Britain organised by the Socialist Workers Party’s latest campaign front, Stand Up To Racism. According to Socialist Worker - therefore expect a degree of exaggeration - “big” anti-racism marches “sent a message of defiance and unity” on March 17 with “around” 20,000 demonstrating in London, 1,500 in Glasgow and 500 in Cardiff - backed by “dozens” of trade unions and other organisations (March 20). Given the appalling weather, such a turnout is far from disappointing. The marches, that also took place in Europe, were ahead of the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination on March 21 (originally established in 1966 to mark the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 of 69 protestors against the South African apartheid laws).
In what was a typical display of hierocracy the UN general assembly wanted to be seen to be on the ‘right’ side. The message to the black masses in South Africa was that their natural allies were the states of the world; that deliverance would come via diplomatic negotiations, not violent revolution. Today things are little different. The UN says it is promoting “tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity” and, of course, this goes hand in hand with the so-called ‘free market’ and neoliberal economics.
Nonetheless, the SWP sees a chance to court respectability and therefore gives a platform to those who seek to promote the UN line. Hence, speaking from the platform in London, rightwing Labour MP David Lammy patriotically attacked the usual suspects:
To Rees-Mogg, to Nigel Farage, to Britain First, to the xenophobes, to the racists, to those who would be seduced by this extreme rhetoric … We are standing up for the Britain that we love and that we believe in and, my god, we are sending a message to the arch-chief of this tide of prejudice that is sweeping our world: Donald Trump.
Lammy also said that people should stand up to Theresa May’s pledge, when she was home secretary in 2012, to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented immigrants.
Other speakers in London included Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, Aron Kelly of Friends of the Earth, Shahrar Ali of the Green Party, Mohammed Kozbar of the Muslim Association of Britain, Talha Ahmad of the Muslim Council of Britain and Sally Hunt from the Trades Union Congress. In her address, Abbott stated that “the far right are rising across Europe” - they are “anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and homophobic”, and therefore “we stand with all communities they target and must oppose the politics of hatred”
TheGuardian’s editor-at-large, Gary Younge, told the marchers: “we’re here because racism will not go away by itself”, as it is “not just about bad individuals, but about a bad system”. He promised that “if they build a wall 50-foot high, I will build a ladder 51-foot high and will help anyone that wants to cross it”.
As for Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, he declared that his union was a “proud sponsor” of SUTR, because “we defeated the National Front and the British National Party and we are pleased the leaders of Britain First are in jail”. But, he added, “we’re also scared”, as “we’ve see the growth of the Football Lads Alliance and the ‘Punish a Muslim’ idea” - meaning the “responsibility is on us individually and collectively” to challenge racism.
SUTR said demonstrators were taking to the streets to protest against a “massive rise” in racism in Britain and across the rest of the world: “Rampant institutional racism is being felt through a spate of deaths in police custody, the tragedy at Grenfell and systematic discrimination in employment and housing.” It went on to state that “Trump’s Muslim ban, his racist ‘wall’ project and equivocation over white supremacist and fascist marches have led to a climate of racism and fear across the US.” The statement added: “If we are to defeat the rise of racism, we need a united movement of everyone who opposes it.”
Quite clearly, SUTR is being heavily promoted by the SWP in the wake of several splits and the Martin Smith rape scandal. The organisation - rather ironically, given its history - was getting no-platformed on university campuses by student unions - with pickets outside SUTR anti-racism conferences on the grounds that they were ‘rape deniers’, and so on. Then again, if you live by ‘no platform’, you might die by ‘no platform’.
Obviously, whatever the ideological ornamentation, SUTR is the SWP’s preferred front - at least for the time being - because it seems safe. Yes, true, the absolute loony racist right is not quite so fringe as it used to be, thanks to the rise of parties like the Northern League in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Front National in France and prominent ‘alt-righters’ like Steve Bannon in the United States - even if he has fallen out with Donald Trump.
But, having said all that, the vast bulk of the establishment is committed to the UN’s official ideology of anti-racism - making nonsense of the idea that we are seeing “rampant institutional racism”, as claimed by SUTR. But, of course, the SWP actually knows this, regardless of what it might say in Socialist Worker, and wants to build the widest coalition possible in a manner reminiscent of ‘official communism’ - which too in the shape of the old CPGB wanted to build the broadest front imaginable, ranging “from bishops to brickies, from non-Thatcherite Tories to revolutionary socialists” (Morning Star March 25 1983).
The list of speakers - as we have seen above - consisted of religious functionaries, trade union bureaucrats, career MPs and well-meaning leftwingers who are committed to unity, unity, unity. And, of course, that includes Lindsey German and Weyman Bennett.
That bring us to Glasgow, where the demonstration was treated to a speech by Anas Sarwar, the MSP for Glasgow Central, who just happens to be the viciously anti-Corbyn Scottish leadership candidate who lost out to Richard Leonard. Sarwar’s family was a big employer in Scotland - and not exactly known for paying massively generous wages to its employees.
What was Sarwar’s message at the march? Yes, he has just launched a cross-party group in Holyrood to unite against the evils of racism and Islamophobia. Furthermore, we were told that there was racism in Scotland, which is undoubtedly true. We were also told about the evils of sexism, which in Sarwar’s opinion men have a responsibility to fight - also undoubtedly true. Ditto homophobia, which straight people should take the lead in opposing. Anti-Semitism too is bad, we discovered - but, Sarwar said, “only if we stand together, united as one community, one society and one nation, can we build a country free of prejudice, free of hate”.
Talking about anti-Semitism, amongst those listed as a sponsor of the Glasgow march was the Confederation of Friends of Israel Scotland - who like everybody else are opposed to racism as well as anti-Semitism. But what does COFIS mean by “anti-Semitism”? As Tony Greenstein reports (see opposite), it means people who criticise the actions or very legitimacy of the Israeli state. As comrade Greenstein and others have more than adequately demonstrated in the pages of the Weekly Worker, if you go to a country and expropriate their land - making the indigenous population foreigners and turning them into refugees - that is by definition racist, at least according to most conventional or normal uses of the term.
When people objected to the presence of COFIS on the Scottish SUTR march, however, the SWP said its exclusion would weaken the unity of the movement. This is the craven politics of popular frontism, not class. Indeed, what was a rightwing Labourite doing on the platform at Glasgow? The SWP should be speaking of the need for working class politics, but, of course, that would be to court controversy - something that the SWP wants to avoid like the plague in its so-called ‘united fronts’ like SUTR. Janus-like, on the one side, the SWP pursues naked popular frontism, but, on the other side, the front page of Socialist Worker published for the SUTR marches posed left - “Bring down borders,” read its main headline (March 13). You could classify that as a utopian position under present circumstances, but is perfectly true there would be no national frontiers in a communist world. All human beings inhabit the same planet and should be allowed to live anywhere they want on this globe.
What communists stand for now is the free movement of people, which is certainly not crazy or utopian. Border controls were only introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, you could walk from one end of Europe to the other unhindered - having a Great Britain and Ireland passport just meant you were under the theoretical protection of one of the most powerful countries in the world, but it was not needed in order to move from country to country.
The only country that had border controls was tsarist Russia, as hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the pogroms: going to US, Britain, Germany, Austria, etc. It was the Tories, shamefully backed by the TUC, who agitated for immigration controls and anti-alien legislation, finally getting what they wanted in the 1905 Aliens Act - whose prime target, naturally enough, were the incoming Jewish migrants. At the time, speakers at rallies and demonstrations protested about Britain becoming “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe” - a Manchester Evening Chronicle editorial raved about the “dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil”. The TUC passed a resolution saying the problem with Jews is that they are “natural capitalists”. Talk about the socialism of fools.
Although we support free movement, that does not mean communists are indifferent to mass migration. Jewish or other people fleeing Russia did not go to the US or Britain just because they seemed attractive places - they were desperate, facing death and discrimination. Most of the time, it is usually a combination of physical threat, political oppression and poverty that forces people to leave their native land - meaning that this is not a straightforward question. Migrants to another country might get a better life, but only because life back home has become unbearable.
Instead, communists look to the role played by the First and Second Internationals. They stood for international working class solidarity that at times included persuading workers not to come to a country in order to scab. The First International helped to stop Irish workers going to Manchester to break a strike. The Second International had exactly the same position. Eleanor Marx, as we know, campaigned tirelessly against the 1905 Aliens Act. We want proper trade union rights, which means we oppose workers being shipped in by the bosses to undermine present-day terms and conditions.
For communists this is all part of the fight for a levelling up, not levelling down. If you get a levelling down, then anti-migrant sentiment is inevitable. This has to be fought - but not by screaming ‘racist!” SWP-style at a worker struggling to make ends meet and looking for solutions.