Lindsey German on the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact
We saw the very ugly face of British politics on Saturday. Thousands of fascists rampaged around central London - allegedly there to protect the statue of Churchill and the cenotaph from the Black Lives Matter movement, but in reality attempting to derail one of the most successful movements of recent times through creating a supposed ‘culture war’.
While government talks of opposing both ‘extremes’ of left and right, in reality its politics give succour to the far right. This is true in general terms – the hostile environment to migrants, the Grenfell scandal, Windrush and the impact of black and ethnic minorities to the coronavirus all lay the basis for racist ideas to grow. It is also true in the specific. Boris Johnson moved quickly from showing some supposed sympathy for the BLM at the beginning of last week to open hostility by Friday, when in a series of tweets he said that BLM had been hijacked by extremists and implying that statues were under threat.
There is nothing accidental about the timing and the tone of Johnson’s message. He, the government and the police have been put on the back foot by the huge wave of support engendered by the mass movement in the US following the death of George Floyd, by the very large demonstrations here in London and elsewhere over the past fortnight and by the awareness about racism which has sprung from them. The toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol last week was hugely important symbolically, highlighting the centrality of slavery to the development of British capitalism and triggering the taking down of a number of other statues to slave owners and dealers.
Johnson signalled on Friday that he wanted to stop this sympathetic reaction and to reassert a defence of British imperialism and of the status quo. He knew that the fascists were mobilising (but still in relatively small numbers), that the police were intending to portray this as a battle between the two groups of extremists, and that the BLM organisers of the Saturday demo had been persuaded to call their protest off because of fears of violence. This gave him a chance to shift the balance away from sympathy for BLM and that’s what he tried to do.
It has to be said that the organisers calling off the Saturday demo was a mistake. They allowed the fascists to dominate the streets which only last week were the scene of massive anti-racist protests. It demobilised and fragmented the anti-racist movement and allowed the right to portray the issue as about protection of statues and war memorials, rather than being a protest about racism. Saturday will have emboldened the far right and we have to ensure that our side regains the initiative.
That shouldn’t be too hard. The fascists don’t seem to realise that doing Hitler salutes at the Cenotaph is never going to be the greatest look. More importantly, they are very isolated in terms of their hard-line arguments. In contrast, big BLM demonstrations continued around the country with thousands in places like St Albans, Huddersfield, Liverpool and Newcastle. But we need to build on this in trade unions and workplaces and by taking up the arguments in every community and isolating the racists. We also need more protests which make it clear that many white working people – who have formed a sizeable part of demos both here and the US – support anti-racism and the rights of black people to be treated equally.
The news that the British economy collapsed by a fifth in April presages an autumn of unemployment on a wide scale and misery for many. The right will be looking to divide working people, and the left has to be mobilising to put forward demands which do not scapegoat others, but which demand that the employers and the state guarantee decent incomes and jobs for all. Johnson fears any such unity, especially as the economic crisis deepens following the Covid 19 pandemic. In a situation of mass unemployment, the instinct of the Tories will be to carry on regardless of the cost to ordinary people, to divide and rule, turning different groups of workers against each other. I was struck by how casually Johnson described the virus as a mugger that had to be grappled to the ground. The term is full of racial connotations, and he is perfectly comfortable with that, just as he is with earlier remarks for which he has never apologised. He will continue to use this sort of language when it suits him.
I’m afraid that Labour has yet again not stepped up to the mark. Starmer said that toppling the Bristol statue was wrong and has failed to confront the right-wing backlash. Labour has little to say to this movement, apart from having reviews of statues and street names in Labour run authorities. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle but it really shouldn’t become a political diversion. There are major questions of institutional racism to confront, not least about the police, and these have to be at the centre of the movement. There is also the question of how we come out of the crisis, and who pays for it. There is no sign that Starmer et al will do anything to challenge the priorities of capital. The fight will increasingly be outside established parliamentary politics, and we must connect the fight over racism to the wider trade union movement.
The abuse of history
Knowing about the past helps us to understand the present and to decide our future. History should be a central point of discussion in our society. It isn’t. The school curriculum is frankly appalling, missing out loads of important areas -including Britain’s role in the slave trade and the development of empire. The Tudors and the Nazis seem to be the main focus of much history – and both represent a narrative which suits the British ruling class.
None of this should surprise us – as Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ Marx also said the ruling ideas in any society are those of the ruling class. So their history defends what they did in the past in order to justify their rule now. In Britain, this means portraying the empire as a force for good, of minimising Britain’s role in slavery, and of ignoring the hundreds of years of struggle for democracy and equality.
It is so important therefore that the exploited and oppressed begin to learn and understand their history and to see that there are very different viewpoints on history depending on class, race, nation and so on.
The hagiography of Churchill is a strong element of right-wing attitudes to history in Britain today (paradoxically much more so than when I was growing up when he was still alive). Many have pointed out Churchill’s racism and white supremacism, along with his attacks on workers. All worthy of being the subject of an honest debate. But we should also question his wartime role. Churchill was in strong contrast to the appalling Chamberlain government of appeasers and was welcomed as a war leader who wanted to prosecute the war with Hitler, rather than make a deal with him. Churchill did so because he understood the threat to the British empire posed by Hitler.
But it is simply wrong to say that he ‘saved Europe’ or that he won the Second World War. He did nothing of the sort. The mass civilian mobilisation in 1940-41 which saw off Hitler’s bombing campaign and ended the threat of invasion was not mainly Churchill’s doing, but often happened in spite of his policies. His obsession with protecting routes to the empire led him to prioritise war in the Mediterranean at the expense of the second front which eventually happened on D day. The war against fascism involved brave resistance across occupied Europe, including the Italian, French and Yugoslav partisans, as well as the Russians who fought the battle generally regarded as the turning point in Stalingrad, and lost 20 million people.
The cult of Churchill ignores all this, and the increasing discontent in the colonies of the empire. When we hear Johnson say that toppling statues is to lie about our history, let’s remember where the real lies come from.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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