Refugees, solidarity and anti-racism

refugees_hungaryTens of thousands of refugees have organised and triggered a wave of social solidarity which in some countries is unprecedented writes Kevin Ovenden. Originally published in Counterfire.

Do you know what every European political leader would do if they cared remotely about Syria? They would not, a la Cameron, be conniving to bomb it further.

They would go to Munich right now – home to a hub of Nato, incidentally, and an annual gathering to discuss “security” – meet at the Hauptbahnhof with the local citizenry; welcome the new arrivals; hold a press conference and say: “Wir sind alle Flüchtlinge.” (“We are all refugees.”); and then unblock the escape routes to sanctuary.

We should be very clear about one thing at the end of this summer – of course there are anti-immigrant and racist attitudes in society. There is a serious threat from racist populism and the far right, taking many forms across the continent.

But both of those have purchase only insofar as they receive an official imprimatur, in so far as governments and states racialise through exclusion, though the security state, the barbed-wire borders and all the rest of the imperial paraphernalia.

If there were no backing from the elites, no elitist scapegoating of “others”, then anti-immigrant feeling would be confined to the margins. And those spewing bigotry or worse would seem like flat-earthers.

The causal relationships in the formation of racism and racist public policy have become sharply exposed over this summer. In the course of that, we have seen how a militant anti-racist politics and movement can start to make the running in Europe.

Without in any way underestimating the scale of suffering on the borders of Fortress Europe, the discrimination and authoritarianism within, or the salience of scapegoating arguments – we have good grounds to be confident in building an effective anti-racist movement.

A central reason for that is the self-activity of the refugees themselves. In July Germany’s Angela Merkel was captured on film reducing a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, Reem, to floods of tears in the depressed east German city of Rostok. She was to be deported, back to the camps in Lebanon.

“We just can’t take everybody – you’re one of tens of thousands…” said the iron chancellor, oblivious to what it meant for any leader – particularly of the German state – to say such things. Oblivious to what “a camp” in Lebanon means to any Palestinian. There was an outcry. Merkel’s government quietly reversed the decision.

The same month, as the Troika enforced surrender on the government of Athens, resources were found by the cash-strapped Greek state and its Macedonian neighbour to stiffen the barriers on their border. Petty nationalist chauvinism might separate the state structures on both sides of it, but they were united in preventing the onward movement of those fleeing war and disaster.

Then in August, on the holiday islands of the eastern Aegean, Greek residents and tourists in large number did what the state authorities would not – organise rescue at sea and support on land. A glance at social media revealed a curious thing – there were so many examples of, and so many likes for, holiday-makers, Greek and non-Greek, with humble stories of what they had done to “do the right thing”, “be hospitable”, “help these people”, “show what we are really like”.

The truth is concrete. In this truth, let me be as brutal as falling slabs of concrete. Those who prefer to debate upon the comments within the margin of the text about the real… those who claim to see in these actions this summer some “white saviour complex” are not mistaken radicals. They are reactionaries.

You can deconstruct and reassemble this narrative to suit the twisted conclusion of “white chauvinism”, should you choose. Bravo. Human beings are extraordinarily creative. But the truth is that ordinary people, refugee and non-refugee are on the move literally and metaphorically. And there is nothing more radical than the independent movement of ordinary people in the interests of ordinary people.

The organisation by Greeks and holiday-makers this summer supplemented the fact that the refugees have organised. They pressed with cogent arguments directly to the media. No need for spin-doctoring filters. They pushed, physically to the island ports, to the ferries, onto the boats, to Piraeus and to the mainland of Europe.

They kept on battling. To the north. To the border with Macedonia. And with their bare hands they tore down the razor wire and, in effect, opened the border themselves. Through to Hungary, despite the fence erected by its hard right government.

At the rail station in Budapest they refused to play the role of pitiable object. They spoke the language of global solidarity and they organised. They forced their way onto the trains.

They demanded safe travel, not the suffocating coffin of a truck run by officially-sanctioned gangsters, of the kind that was discovered on the side of the motorway in Austria with 70 dead people crammed in the back. And many Austrians agreed. About 30,000 people took to the streets of Vienna demanding refugee rights and in outrage at the 70 deaths on their soil.

And so the trains this week left an east European capital to bring refugees westwards – to Munich. To Germany.

I lived in the city 20 years ago. A friend of mine described the scene on Tuesday at the main rail station:

“There are thousands here, mostly as families. The children have done paintings and signs saying welcome in every language you can imagine.

“The police have been directed to help and they are. Yes – you remember the Bavarian police and how often you were stopped on the S-Bahn? Well today they are genuinely helping. It shows what they could be set to work doing.

“We formed human chains to get all the food, toys, clothing and so on piled up in good order [yes – this is Germany!] for the civil organisations to collect. The city authorities say the response is overwhelming.

“This is just the start. We can’t stop here. This has to go on and ensure that there is no space for the racists to build up. They do exist, but we can completely isolate them if we do this right.

“You know I’m an internationalist. But today I am quite proud also to be a Municher.”

The same Angela Merkel who told a Palestinian girl in July that she would be deported has now had to take to the airwaves saying that Germans must welcome the refugees (it may be 800,000 who come). It has caused a rift with her hard right support. That has opened up dangerous opportunities for the far right and fascists to organise.

No one should be indifferent to that. And we need a specific political response to the fascists, as we have in Britain and in Greece where I’m writing this from now on a break from the general election campaign.

But the fragmentation on the right and the openings for organised racism and for fascism cannot be allowed to overshadow the possibilities on the left. And I mean the possibilities over the interlocking questions of refugees, immigration, racism and Islamophobia, not some narrower preoccupation about who might get elected to something.

For far too long, these questions have either not been taken seriously by too much of the left in Europe or, when acknowledged, have been seen as defensive fields of struggle. That is to say – seen only as areas where we try to minimise the advances which the right can make. The forms of struggle and kinds or arguments we put are then composed accordingly, with moderation the over-arching key.

In contrast, we are to push ahead over other questions, where things can be more propitious. Less difficult questions. Just for tactical reasons, you understand.

That was the thinking back when I lived in Munich in the early 1990s and was a member of the Social Democratic Party. It was on the cusp of its version of what happened to the Labour Party in Britain under Neil Kinnock in the 1980s and then accelerated by Tony Blair in the 1990s. In Germany it was Scharping and Schroeder.

It was about to trade some principled stands in return for a pragmatic, seemingly only tactical, more “professional” focus. That was the argument at the time. Later it became more explicitly neo-liberal. So the party dropped its longstanding commitment to the absolute right of asylum in Germany. The working class core of the SPD had been so proud of that policy, though it was not naturally popular in society as a whole.

I met elderly people who had stayed with the party under the Third Reich. They burnt their party membership documents publicly [It being Germany, you didn’t get a membership card, I got a book – with room for lots of stamps to prove all the meetings you attended!]. Their faces spoke of a pain which even the Nazis had not inflicted on them.

Now only a fool would take no account of the balance of forces, of the need for arguments to build unity and to press where is most advantageous at any one time. In other words, for strategy and tactics.

But the problem lots of us in the SPD argued back then was that the supposed tactical abandonment of the refugee policy would end up as a strategic surrender. And so it did. And that is what led a decade or so later to the emergence of Die Linke as an alternative; and, on the other hand, to a grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU/CSU, against whom we had struggled so mightily on the streets of Munich.

There is now an opportunity to throw, what in German they call, that devil’s circle into its virtuous opposite.

Of course, there are political contradictions at the top of the European Union. It is because Germany is the favoured destination for those coming to Europe that Merkel has led the way in trying to get a common policy – of quotas – which will limit the numbers going there but also allow more to go elsewhere.

In the hall of mirrors which is the Brussels world of the EU there has been an alliance between the Greek and German governments on this matter, as without an agreed redistribution of refugees and people migrating then they would be trapped in Greece, the first point of call for most.

Those are the high politics. They are still operative. But at the start of summer (you remember when one boat after another was going down with all hands?) they seemed the only politics.

It seemed that that provided the parameters within which all the other false choices and failed policies of the elites would have to be calibrated – in or out of the EU; Greece’s relationship to the institutions; the limit upon migration and asylum.

But now the parameters have been burst. It is not Angela Merkel’s policy to welcome so many refugees to Germany. It is that those who with great fortitude, courage, skill, and wit have managed to escape death in the Levant have battled their way to Germany, trotz alledem (despite everything): so Merkel must change her policy.

You see what has happened here? The policy of Berlin has had to change. This is the Berlin that in the conventional warfare against Athens proved so victorious. The Berlin of “mentally water-boarding” the prime minister of Greece. Of making Alexis Tsipras an offer he could not refuse.

That Berlin. The one which people who remind me of the terribly clever careerists in the SPD 20 years ago tell us we must concede to, trim our sails, tack, be tactful, cautious, politic. To live today, only so as to run away another day.

In the asymmetric warfare of the migration question, Berlin’s Siegfried Line has not proved so sturdy.

There is a great lesson here. All the conventional calculus on this question leads the left to defeat. We need smart tactics, of course, arguments which can bridge between the principled stance and some popular confusion, which can re-present the issue drawing out the common interests of working people. But all that needs to be organised under an anti-conventional, insurgent strategy.

Without that, to quote the great Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu, “tactics are but the noise before defeat”.

We have just had an important strategic advance in Europe. Tens of thousands of people who were meant to be reduced to an atomised and impotent status have organised. Just look at “the refugees”; what you see on account of the material obstacles of getting to Europe is collective bands of people. Extraordinarily compact. Often combative. That has triggered a wave of social solidarity which in some countries is simply unprecedented in recent decades.

The politicians are simultaneously trying to arrogate to themselves the kudos for any humanitarian undertakings and also to reassert the policy of exclusion against the “non-genuine”, and not to lose their hard right outriders either.

So there is a huge amount to do, particularly in Britain, where our responses are not yet as developed as in Germany on this question.

It will not be done with the kind of conventionalism which has led Alexis Tsipras, who I remember a couple of years ago just meters from me proudly wearing his Palestinian keffiyeh, signing a military alliance with Israel.

It will be done with the kind of radicalism which has three indispensible features:

  1. It is radical in its political positions, and because of that they are cogent and convincing.
  2. It is radical in how it argues for them and takes initiatives to make them realisable.
  3. It is prepared to wager on those radical moments when ordinary men and women change things and open up new possibilities.

I remember making arguments along those lines at a national conference of the Jusos, the SPD youth section, over two decades ago.

A rising star of the party answered sharply (in its cleverness: he was very comradely): “The problem with what our comrade from Munich argues is that that kind of gambling in 1919 gave the city over to reaction and to Hitler.” [A reference to the short-lived Red Republic in Munich.]

“True,” I heckled, “But it was your kind of ‘waiting for a platform ticket’ politics which gave the whole country to him 15 years later.”

The Syrians have not waited for a platform ticket. They stormed the trains in Budapest.

In systematically countering the anti-refugee propaganda we must deploy are all manner of arguments and registers. The human stories. The political-economic facts, which overwhelmingly support the case for open borders. Galvanising the anti-establishment popular reaction on the basis of internationalist class solidarity.

Calling forth all those instruments into a well-conducted and overwhelming symphony requires having an overall tonality, a structure, a strategy sense.

A part of it is this – we, the working class movement, are all the stronger, not just in the longer term, but right now in our battles against the elites, through the comingling in our ranks of people with the fighting capacity to cross the Aegean, the Balkans and central Europe. And who can force Berlin to change its mind.

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