Learning from Upton Park

September 29, 2014

British socialist Kevin Ovenden takes up questions of national chauvinism, the rise of the European right, the anti-racist resistance and the sources of working-class solidarity, after a nighttime encounter in East London at the Upton Park transit station near his home in the borough of Newham. This article first came about as a Facebook post and was later published by the website Left Flank.

I WAS inspired partly by an exchange of well-made points on my Facebook wall between two great friends, Jay and Paddy. But the main reason for taking time out to write this on a sunny Sunday morning in east London is because a funny thing happened on my way home last night.

I really hope that the three riotously drunken Romanian lads got back okay to Brentwood, Essex, and, even more so, their even more trashed friend and countryman to nearby Romford. He was the one I managed, with the help of a guy covered head to foot in campaign material for Imran Khan's political party in Pakistan, to just catch hold of and prevent from falling onto the track at Upton Park tube station.

Costica--or TTRR, as I christened him: the "Totally Trashed Romford Romanian"--and his three mates managed throughout to keep up a deafening (and they were tone deaf at any volume) rendition of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." That was interspersed with slurring something, which sounded suspiciously like a slur on the good folk of the city of Liverpool.

On the streets outside the Upton Park station in East London
On the streets outside the Upton Park station in East London (Indymedia-UK)

(Note to BENELS, or "benighted-non-east-Londoners": "Bubbles" is the anthem of West Ham United football club, whose stadium is approximately 257.25 meters from the front door of my flat.)

The four inebriated immigrants were wearing West Ham colors and had, like many thousands of others from the county of Essex (some with a bit of a longer connection to east London), travelled in to watch the Hammers annihilate Liverpool 3-1.

Dear TTRR--Costica--and pals,
On the off chance that you i) end up reading this, and ii) have any recollection at all of any of last night: you're not only very welcome, but you also have absolutely no idea just how much you already fit into this country--the part of it I live in, particularly.

Hope you got home ok. And maybe see you again--preferably not in a life-threatening situation.

Yours,
"Home Alone" (lol) Kevin--the British-Iranian guy with the catlike reflexes

(No--it's the other one who's Pakistani. But yes, I can't remember which of you said it; the two countries do share a border--well done! And thanks to Costica for refusing to believe that I am over 40 and for referring to me as "Costner" rather than "Home Alone"


FOUR 20-something Essex boys getting wasted (just like a significant proportion of east London last night) in celebration of a Hammers home win; getting a smile and a helping hand from two local guys (brown-skinned, like a large proportion of the neighborhood); then staggering off into the night making victory signs to anyone they thought was wearing claret and blue team colors, while in thick north Balkan accents cracking abusive jokes about an overrated northern English city on the banks of the river Mersey.

This is contemporary east London. And, increasingly, Britain. When I first moved to this part of the world, the fascists and racist right had a significant base of support at West Ham. It doesn't seem like that long ago when the chant from a section of the home crowd, on going 1-0 up against the opposition, would be "Tyn-dall! Tyn-dall." John Tyndall was the leader of Britain's main fascist party, the BNP, in the 1980s.

I recognize exactly what my friend Paddy recalls about some West Ham fans giving Hitler salutes to rival supporters of Tottenham, renown for a significant Jewish following.

But my mate Jay, who was born in east London, is also right about the danger of overgeneralizing (and also of not taking account of processes of change). It's not that racism has gone away in east London or at West Ham. Far from it. But it has been pushed back, and it continues to be. Markedly so.

Some of that is down to conscious, political effort by anti-racists. Some of it to the molecular, social interactions which no ideology can entirely foreclose and upon which a living anti-racist tradition is built: i.e. a Pakistani guy and me rescuing TTRR from frying himself on the electric rail at Upton Park station and, additionally, the very fact that there are Romanians on West Ham's terraces.

It leads to a general point I think is of value for the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement as we develop anew across Europe. Racism, chauvinism and anti-migrant xenophobia (all spiced with anti-Muslim prejudice and state policy) compete with the internationalist Left and working class organizations by providing a sense of false identity--the bigoted "us" against "them," the Other.

That fake "us" can and must be undermined in all sorts of ways. The attack on it and the assertion, the creation, of a genuine "us" of working people and the oppressed comes broadly from two directions.

First, and most important, it comes from a bigger "us," a wider field than the narrow furrow of racist and chauvinist identities. There is the "us" of a European working class facing the same policies of economic exploitation, divide and rule, a right going feral, state repression and obscene inequality.

All that is presided over by a political caste ("la Casta," they say in the Spanish you'll hear on any London bus these days). It is wholly out of touch and increasingly lacking legitimacy.

Further, it is an "us" in Europe, and a "European us." Throughout the continent, there are large immigrant communities from across the globe. And the divide between the obscenely rich and those who create the wealth exists globally. So, too, therefore, does the "us" at the bottom whose interests coincide and whose common identity must be forged.

Secondly, the anti-racist offensives can and should be mounted from territory seemingly more narrow than racist bigotry, more local than the "localism of fools," which is what national chauvinism amounts to.

Rallying to the flag of West Ham is not incompatible with rallying to the Union Jack. But nor does it necessarily sit comfortably with doing so.

That is especially so when on the pitch and terraces, and behind the local windows and shop fronts sporting West Ham colors, are people from all over Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa...People who evidently make up the local, but whose presence as such is a standing rebuke to national and racist myth.


NOW, IMAGINING you can defeat the growing threat of racism and fascism by abstractly appealing to "global solidarity" on the one hand and/or "local pride" on the other without confronting the spurious racist arguments, the myths, the actual fascist organizations and the state policies fuelling all of it is at best a liberal illusion. At worst, it is cowardice--moral and political.

It's good to hear the homespun wisdom that "I have more in common with my neighbors than with them up there." We want to encourage that sentiment. It is the rudimentary consciousness of working people as a class that can do things for the benefit of humanity, not just have things done to it by the inhuman pharaohs of global capitalism.

But for the anti-racist movement, we must seize every opportunity to elaborate beyond any conceivable ambiguity what we mean by "our neighbors"--Pakistani, Polish, Bangladeshi, Bulgarian, Romanian, Roma, Irish, Italian...and they are nurses, plumbers, cleaners, teachers, kids in your child's class, bus drivers and--yes--some of "them" unemployed, like some of "us."

It is not good enough to leave matters with the admirable starting point that in Europe, indeed the world over, "they" want "us" to blame each other. By "they" (in Britain, of course), we mean above all the British boss class and their political henchmen.

We are with the Greek progressive forces against Greek fascism. But we should never allow that to give space to a British government to trivialize the reality of racism here or whitewash its own divide-and-rule policies by mouthing condemnation of "Greek fascists," "Russian homophobes" or "Indian sexism." Our biggest chauvinist menace is British nationalism. The main racism is at home.

And by "us," we mean explicitly the internationalist "we." We consciously destroy, utterly, any space for that silky evasion in which an undefined "us" sits easily alongside "but not them over there," "not them lot--you know what I mean." That kind of "us" is not an iron wall against racism. It's a rickety old fence designed historically by dodgy characters from the right of the labor movement. It can even be used as a stile to herd people across from class to race, from left to right.

To defeat racism and fascism we have to...well, we have to confront them with a specific political effort and consciously directed movement of social forces. Imagining otherwise is, to borrow a phrase from the great Black agitator and political thinker Frederick Douglass, to "want rain without thunder and lightning; [to] want the ocean without the roar of its many waters."

If we embrace the "many waters," however, the headwaters, streams and rivulets which make up the movement of us, the immense majority seeking to act in the interests of immense majority, then potential pitfalls can be turned into stepping stones, danger into opportunity.


GLOBAL CAPITALISM has globalized its metropolis. There is space, sure, for the elites of old imperial cities, such as London, to play out within their geographical limits the divide-and-rule policies they perfected in a previous, colonial phase of empire. A case of divide et impera, orbem et urbem. [TTRR: I really don't think that my bits of Latin will enable me to "do Romanian as good as me," but thanks for the encouragement.]

Space, too, for right-wing political adventurers and charlatans of all types--from Nigel Farage, "the establishment's anti-establishment xenophobe" to fascist barbarians.

That same space--the cosmopolitan city--is home to another potential, however. That is the possibility of the direct encounter and solidarity between working people from across the globe.

Where once calls for common interest and shared destiny had to cross borders--on maps and in the imagination--now they may also be made real directly: in the street; in places of work; schools; universities, football matches, collections for disaster relief (tsunami in Sri Lanka, earthquake in Kashmir, imperialist onslaught in Palestine)...and on drunken Saturday nights in an east London "Tube Station at Midnight," whose outcome doesn't have to be the alienated kicking and city of nightmare so well captured by Paul Weller and The Jam.

"All politics is local," quipped former U.S. Sen. Tip O'Neill. In the epoch of the cosmopolitan city, all internationalism is local; but so, too, must all local solidarity, if it is to be genuine solidarity, express its internationalism, organically--unforced, but deliberately.

The general thinking of the broad left in Europe over these matters has often been defensive. Sometimes, it has acquiesced to the hierarchical mindset that is so valuable to our rulers: "The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed," our prince Steve Biko cautioned us. Rarely have these "questions" or "problems" been seen in fact as "answers."

The "Rising of the Women" in the U.S. a century ago was not a diversion from the labor and working class movement, a sideline, mark-time struggle until the "real" class struggle broke out. It was a fructifying part of the proletarian struggle to emancipate itself and perforce humanity. The great Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg did write about the mass strike, the trade unions and socialist political parties. She also admonished not the out-of-touch labor leaders, but the very rank-and-file militants of the trade union and socialist movement for not seeing, in the homeless who froze to death one particularly cold Berlin winter, fellow soldiers of liberation.

When working women marched, it shook up an ossified trade union movement. Arcane and sometimes less-than-unifying slogans were ditched, radicalized or transformed to voice the interests of wider layers representative of the working class as a whole: "Chicago will be ours!" became one simple labor slogan, as it is rendered in Sinclair's novel The Jungle (that's Upton Sinclair--sorry, folks, especially on Merseyside).

African-Caribbean bus drivers striking against the color bar in Bristol, England, enriched the largest union, the TGWU. The inner-city riots of 1981 and 2011 were an aspect of our struggle. They were crying out for more effective methods, true, but they were part of our struggle nonetheless and conducted by young people who are of us, not separate, still less beneath.

The Bangladeshi strawberry pickers in Manolada, Greece, whose foremen opened fire on them with shotguns for going on strike over unpaid wages, are not part of the "migrant question". They don't comprise an "immigration problem," which the left has to minimize the impact of and to bury from the news because it will be of benefit only to the right. They are part of the Greek working class--an outstandingly heroic part, alongside the Pakistanis who protested, almost alone, against internment by the Greek state and Latin-America-style disappearances at the behest of Britain's MI5 and MI6.


BORDERS--MATERIAL and mental--are reappearing within the European continent. On its periphery, they never went away. Indeed, even in the so-called good years of European integration, higher and higher rose the barbed wire separating this "civilized" continent from the rest. So now Black and Brown bodies wash up on the shores of Andalusia, Malta, Lampedusa or the West bank of the Evros River separating Greece and Turkey, Europe and Asia, "civilization and barbarism."

Immense suffering and exploitation do indeed lie to the south of Europe and to the east. So much of it is authored by the pharaohs of global capitalism, resident in such number within Europe--does anyone count the dead now in Libya, once the cameras have moved on and the warplanes are roaring over other countries?

But south, east and all points in between lie something else as well. South are the masses of Tunisia and Egypt, who did overthrow their discredited presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak. In Europe, we have yet to turn our words into such action. East is Palestine, the beating heart of resistance and the symbol of the global struggle for justice.

The people there are not a problem. Nor is their presence here. Indeed, we should be glad to have the lions of Tahrir Square and of Gaza in our ranks, literally--on our marches, in our rejuvenated mass organizations--as well as on the worldwide figurative stage. In east London, Athens, Madrid, Paris...alright, yes, okay--and even in Liverpool. :)

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