Anarchists and the fight against racism

12 Nov 1999

Gregor Kerr


This is a talk given to a WSM meetings. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative in order to encourage discussion. Also it may be in note form and has not been further edited. Still I hope you find it useful. Other talks are here
Talk given by at 'Ideas & Action', November 13th 1999.

Given that today's series of meetings have been billed as a day of discussion for anarchists and activists, I would like to begin my contribution by outlining briefly why for us in the Workers Solidarity Movement - as anarchists - the struggle against racism is so important. We have been involved in both the Anti Racism Campaign and Immigrant Solidarity since their foundation and have invested a good deal of energy over the past couple of years in helping both of these campaigns and the general struggle against racism to develop.

This is for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the simple one of solidarity with people under attack - the principle of an injury to one being an injury to all, and the fact of not wanting to live in a society which treats people differently because of their nationality, the colour of their skin or their ethnic background.

The second reason why we see the fight against racism as important is that racism as an ideology is an inherent and integral part of the capitalist system. It is manifest most spectacularly in violent attacks on immigrants and minorities by fascist gangs. But perhaps more important to the long-term fate of immigrant and minority communities is the systematic and increasing discrimination to which they are subjected by capitalist states, manifest in attacks on the rights of immigrants, cuts in welfare services, and racist police and court systems.

Throughout the history of capitalist development, racism as an idea helped to justify slavery and empire. Racism as a form of discrimination or oppression facilitated high levels of exploitation.

Today both slavery and the formal empires have been overthrown. Racism however - as an idea and as a practice - continues to serve two key functions under capitalism. Firstly, it allows the capitalists to secure sources of cheap, unorganised and highly exploitable labour. Key examples are immigrants and minorities. Subject to racist discrimination, they form a segment of the working class that has been described as "super-exploited", providing high levels of profit for capitalists. In times of capitalist crisis these segments are most readily deprived of political and social rights, the first to fall in the overall assault on the working class.

Secondly, racism allows the capitalist ruling class to divide and rule the exploited classes. Racism is used to foster divisions within the working class, thus helping to keep the ruling class in power. Put at its most crude, it suits those who want to hold on to power if the poor and the unemployed are blaming refugees and immigrants for their poverty. In the Irish context, it is at least convenient for the political establishment if the deficiencies of the Celtic Tiger - in terms of homelessness, long term unemployment and the growth in the chasm between rich and poor - can be explained by pointing to the coloured or eastern European faces on the streets rather than looking into the vast growth in profits, the massive tax evasion and avoidance by the wealthy etc. etc.

So, as anarchists, we see the fight against racism as an inherent part of the fight against capitalism. Fighting racism is essential to the vital task of unifying the working class.

Which leads me to the second main point that I want to look at in this talk - What to do, what are the tactics we should be using in fighting against racism? And in looking at this question, the first and most obvious point to be made is that this struggle is somewhat different than many other campaigns and struggles that we might become involved in. As an example I want to use the campaign against water charges - a campaign in which many people here were centrally involved a number of years ago. There were a number of major differences between this campaign and the fight against racism. Firstly, the objective of the campaign - the abolition of water charges - was achievable in the context of capitalism. The same is obviously not true of racism. Unfortunately as long as capitalism remains, there will be exploitation, discrimination and exclusion. This is not to say that we should not take up the fight, but rather to point out that it is necessary for us to set ourselves achievable targets within the overall fight. Over the past couple of years we have had many highs and quite a few troughs - periods in which the campaign was kept ticking over but with no real growth. Then at times such as last Christmas when the threat of deportations was immediate, periods of frenetic activity which had the effect of drawing new people into the campaign.

And drawing people into the anti racism struggle provides us with yet another contrast with the campaign against water charges. In that particular instance, the motivation for people to get involved was fairly straightforward. The imposition of the charges effected people in their pockets, their abolition would have immediate and obvious benefits for those whom we were encouraging to get stuck in. Not quite the same immediate rewards, however, in the case of fighting racism. Here we are appealing much more to people's sense of solidarity with others and sense of right and wrong. That is why it is most important that we at all times attempt to make the struggle against racist policies of the government immediately relevant to working class people and communities. Thus as anti-racists we should get involved in campaigns around the issue of housing for example, using slogans such as decent jobs and housing for all to make the point that there is more to be gained by working class people by building links with refugees and asylum seekers than by looking to the differences between us.

In terms of the discussion here today, I think we should use the time we have to look at what achievable targets can be set by the anti-racist movement in the short term. Too often when campaigns are ongoing we never take time to stand back and have a look at the bigger picture and set ourselves medium to long-term goals so this is a chance to do just that.