The racism evident on both sides of the recent EU referendum campaigns, as well as the huge rise in racist attacks following the result, shows the need for a strong, united, radical and popular anti-racism. Jonas Liston offers 12 thoughts on where we are post-referendum and how to build the movement we need.
1: I don’t think we can have an absolutist assessment of the referendum result that dismisses the contribution of either racism and nationalism, or class. This referendum result was a racialized vote against the consequences of decades of neo-liberalism and a hated political class, channelled to some degree through a nationalist set of politics.
2: The left, whatever your position in the referendum, can’t downplay the rise in racist attacks over the last few days. 57% is the reported rise. On the one hand, hard racists will have been emboldened by the result, on the other, those looking for racialized solutions to their economic and social misery will feel their explanations politically vindicated, and far less so than the hard racists, be prone to racist lash-outs and outbursts, rooted in despair.
3: This isn’t automatically fascism, for what it’s worth. We’re not, yet at least, seeing an emboldened, cohered and violent street-based movement, akin to the EDL, re-emerge. We beat them back. You might see the South-East Alliance now and then, or something of a similar variety, but we have consistently neutralized them or held them off (not without difficulty). This isn’t to say those fragmented forces won’t feel more confident now and won’t start calling stuff more frequently. They probably will, and we will have to respond in full physical force. But what we have seen, is a surge in essentially lone-wolf-style, terrorist attacks, akin to Britain First, but less aimed toward immediate right-wing symbolism, and more toward racially-motivated violence.
4: The Leave campaign polarized and pulled this referendum debate to the right, there is no denying that. The Remain campaign, the organizers of the hardest state racism we’ve seen in the past decade, happily played ping-pong with that, and further legitimized that pull. When David Cameron talks about ‘intolerance’ towards the surge in racially-motivated attacks, the left can’t fall in behind that. We must call out his hypocrisy.
5: Left and trade union leaders who made concessions to attacks on ‘Freedom of Movement’ should not be let off the hook. They’re going to keep on that as a rightwards pull on Corbyn, and as part of a long tradition of Blue Labour, UKIP-triangulation, ‘they have genuine concerns’ argumentation. Whether it be ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ or ‘Immigration Control’ mugs, the right and centre of Labourism have contributed a hell of a lot to the situation we’re in now. No ground can be given to that by the radical left. None whatsoever. We need to be 100% anti-racist – principles, strategy and tactics. It’s a must.
6: We’ve been fighting on the terrain, by and large, of state racism over the last couple years (police murder, Yarls Wood, Prevent). In the last year, refugee and migrant solidarity has also been central. There has also been the invaluable experience of consistently and heroically pushing back UKIP in places like Kent. How can/does that contribute toward the kind of anti-racism we need now? I think a lot.
7: Right now, most importantly, the development of a popular ideological angle, with concrete demands, in defence of, and in solidarity with, all migrants and refugees, needs to be developed. When I say demands, I mean something along the lines of ‘right to remain for all refugees and migrants currently living in the UK’. When I say popular, I mean gigs, carnivals, street parties. I mean avowedly anti-racist electoral mobilizations against UKIP and those to their right. I mean mass demonstrations across the country against racism. Fundamentally, I mean an anti-racist counter-culture akin to that which developed in the seventies. Can an anti-racist movement get Corbyn, Stormzy and Boy Better Know on a stage together in Victoria Park in front of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, celebrating anti-racism?
8: Whilst we should absolutely acknowledge how uphill this struggle is going to be, we also aren’t starting from scratch. The left in this country has decades of experience in grassroots, popular, strategic and responsive anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle. As was witnessed on the recent Altab Ali Park demo and as we have seen in the demonstrations at Yarls Wood, there is a few thousand strong milieu of anti-capitalist anti-racists who want to fight; we now have an enlarged Labour Party membership with an organizational accompaniment like Momentum which is capable of mobilizing thousands on short notice; there’s the migrant and solidarity networks across the country; there exists a fighting, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and left-wing NUS with a radical left, Muslim woman as it’s president; and we also have a trade union movement that has been forced to mobilise in the past few decades against racism. None of this is to skip past the problems – a weakened labour movement; Labourism’s inability to mobilize beyond questions of internal or electoral struggle; fragmentation and sectarianism on the radical left – but we have the raw materials from which we can construct a fighting anti-racist movement if we’re serious about pushing back reaction.
9: We need to cross-fertilize. How can the struggles that exist, in spheres that aren’t automatically anti-racist struggles, be injected with anti-racism, or given a popular anti-racist edge? Racism will need to be confronted in economic struggles, especially when sections of the left and the trade unions, are talking about ‘legitimate concerns’, we can’t shy away from confronting that. But also, how can anti-racist struggles be strengthened with the power of the working-class movement? Imagine if the fighting Junior Doctors organized a contingent at every anti-racist mobilisation in the country? What impact would that have on people’s thinking? Imagine if the Junior Doctors rejected the deal and beat back Hunt’s NHS plans? A multi-racial workplace struggle beating back the Tories and delivering a substantial blow to those who want to destroy the NHS, in the context of the overwhelming public support for their strike, could be a momentous contribution to the anti-racist struggle.
10: The last point matters in relation to varieties of anti-racist struggle as well. Shutting down Yarls Wood and pushing back Prevent weaken the legitimacy of the other side’s strategies and practice, and emboldens our arguments in the movement of popular anti-racism. The capitalist state is a central organizer of racism, and that has been a crucial orientation and lesson developed and learnt by anti-racists in the past few years. Priorities will be priorities, but other terrains of struggle shouldn’t be abandoned.
11: For those of us on the anti-capitalist left, we have to maintain our principles whilst building broad alliances. It’s a constant tension and it’s something we have either failed at drastically or achieved with success. The articulation of arguments such as ‘No Borders’ are more important than ever, and whilst they are minoritarian ones, we shouldn’t be afraid about injecting them into the anti-racist movement. The milieu that was out on the Altab Ali Park demo are a massive counter-weight to liberal/soft anti-racism and, if strategically and tactically inclined, more than capable of winning sharper arguments in the movement.
12: We are in the crisis years, and the last week of fast-paced events has hit that fact home. This raises the question of what kind of anti-racism we need. To my mind, in the current moment, the only effective anti-racist pole, is a popular, militant, anti-systemic, proletarian anti-racism, rooted in the realities of a beaten-down, multi-racial working-class which is fed up as fuck, and full of hate for the ‘political class’. Liberal anti-racism won’t cut it, and racist triangulation is partly responsible for this mess. If the growing anti-migrant racism in Britain reflects both a racialised anger at austerity, deprivation and alienation, and the attempt to legitimate further forms of racism, be they xenophobia toward Eastern Europeans or Islamophobia, then the radical left needs to challenge and break apart those two overlapping, but distinct axes of popular racism. In the long-term, this by itself won’t be enough, but in the absence of a left-wing counter-hegemony, it is an absolutely necessary priority.