I was recently criticised, and indeed ‘unfriended’, by a British left-wing intellectual for supposedly mocking those on the left who say they are voting 'Remain' in the British referendum on membership of the European Union out of fear.
Now I should make it clear that I was in no way mocking those comrades, or those ordinary voters, who are feeling afraid of a racist, right-wing dominated Brexit. Much less those recent or less recent immigrants living in the UK and directly exposed to racist abuse. They indeed do have something to fear, whatever the result of the referendum.
My off-the-cuff remark was based on the observation that much of the opposition to Brexit seems to be based on emotion – rather than on any calmer and more rounded appreciation of the risks and opportunities in the given political situation. In many cases, blind panic would be a more accurate description. And underlying the fear, there is a deep pessimism and fatalism – the result, in many cases, of a series of disappointing splits and failures of the revolutionary left, but more fundamentally, of a loss of political confidence. Indeed, some thinkers on the Left have actually theorised and made a virtue of such pessimism.
That’s not to deny that there is some reason for pessimism, nor preach a blind optimism.
That many antiracists living in the UK are afraid of a victory for Johnson and Farage is understandable and legitimate. Who has never been afraid ? If we are human, and not sectarian robots, we all have feelings like ‘hope’ and ‘fear’. But of course, they are not necessarily conducive to understanding, or a good guide to action.
I remember April-May 2002. Here in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the first round of the presidential election, beating the Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin, and qualifying for the second round against the incumbent right-wing president Jacques Chirac. Like many people, I was genuinely concerned – to say the least – about the possibility of a fascist victory, or of the consequences of a big vote for the candidate of the Front National in the second round.
During the interval between the two rounds, many of my comrades announced they would abstain in the second round, playing down the possibility of a win for Le Pen, and playing up the dangers of a win for Chirac. No doubt objectively they were right, but the correctness of their prediction was based on the premise that the vast majority of left-wing and moderate right-wing electors would not follow their example.
What would have happened if, instead of a few thousand – at best – people had had access to our propaganda, with a handful being convinced by our arguments, we had had a mass press, access to the media and so on ? Comrades were pleased with the purity of their political position, but fortunately nobody was listening. The mass of sincere antiracists, and indeed ordinary decent-minded folk, turned out to vote for the old crook, Chirac, knowing full well who he was, but preferring the lesser – but more importantly, the qualitatively different – evil.
In the event, of course, it turned out that Le Pen’s vote went down, and Chirac was reelected with 82 per cent of the vote. Some comrades said 'We told you so'. Others breathed a sigh of relief. No doubt, the result did not strengthen the Left. But the latter did not disappear, either. Chirac did not usher in fascism, in the way the conservative presidents of the Weimar Republic did. Nor did the threat from the Front National go away. All was, and is, still to play for. In any case, the result was infinitely better than a victory for Le Pen, or even a close call.
So, back to the referendum. The prospect of a victory for Johnson and Farage is hardly a welcome one – though the disarray in Tory ranks may open up opportunities for the Left. But a referendum is not a presidential, or even a parliamentary, election. In 2002, there was at least a hypothetical possibility of a genuine fascist coming to power as a direct result of the voters’ choice. Personally, I would not have taken the risk, if I had had a vote, of handing over power to Le Pen, even though I knew that, in the long run, bourgeois democracy and parliamentary elections are no protection against the threat of fascism.
But in 2016, a victory for the Brexit would not have the same immediate consequences. It could have many different results, depending partly on what the Left did, especially if it could overcome its divisions. And in any case, even if he is a nasty piece of work (like his ex-school chums Osborne and Cameron), no serious socialist believes Johnson is a fascist and, unless British comrades have changed their minds on the question recently, neither do they believe Farage is one.
The word ‘fear’ has also cropped up in anther context in the vocabulary of left reformists and progressives, for whom a victory for Remain represents the triumph of ‘hope over ‘fear’ – meaning not the fear of right-minded people of Johnson/Farage, but ordinary people’s fear of immigration.
I believe this approach is wrong – and not only because it is difficult to imagine any way in which propping up the European Union could provide any sort of hope (the days when the ‘European ideal’ seemed credible and progressive have long gone - only to be temporarily ressuscitated by some of the soft-Left Remainers).
Fear may, indeed, be a widely felt emotion amongst people who perceive immigrants as a ‘threat’. But it isn’t really an appropriate term when talking about racism. Hard-core racists are certainly not motivated by fear. Theirs is a feeling of superiority, or hate, perhaps with deep-rooted psychological causes (no doubt the assassin of Jo Cox was both an ideologically committed fascist and mentally deranged). But we don’t try to win them over by providing ‘hope’ or succour. We have to neutralise them, crush them.
On the other hand, the majority of ordinary people hold contradictory ideas, and are inspired by different emotions. They may be – and rightly so – afraid of being unemployed, afraid of precarity, of losing their homes, of getting into debt, afraid for their children’s prospects, afraid of déclassement. But, except in exceptional cases, they are not afraid of immigrants or immigration as such. Indeed, often their personal experience of immigrants is directly opposed to any such fear. Just ask most users of the National Health Service if they are ‘afraid’ of immigrants.
The notion that soft racists are principally inspired by fear of immigration – or even worse, a fear of ‘loss of identity’ – is wrong and dangerous. Dangeous because it can lead to the idea that we need to assuage their fears by controlling immigration, limiting migrants’ rights or establishing what the FN in France calls ‘national preference’ in employment and housing. It leads to the idea that multiculturalism is dangerous because it is perceived by the ‘white working class’ as a threat to its ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’.
The problem is not 'fear', but the idea that immigrants, not the bosses, are the cause of the very real problems working people face at the best of times, but especially in a period of UK government/EU-inspired austerity. Which is why socialists have to be put the fight against racism right at the centre of their political activity.
For socialists, the starting point in the fight against racism has to be, not the fear of immigration, but the strength of the working class when it is united.