Socialist Worker

Beating their divide and rule

by Hassan Mahamdallie
Issue No. 1675

WORKERS 'have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!' So rings out the magnificent internationalist declaration at the end of The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels 150 years ago. It is a message more relevant than ever today. Politicians are always trying to divide workers on the basis of 'race', religion, 'ethnic group', or some other supposed difference.

In recent weeks in Britain home secretary Jack Straw and his Tory counterpart Ann Widdecombe have competed over who can be the most vicious to refugees. This week Straw is enforcing rules that will see asylum seekers forcibly 'dispersed' around the country. If they refuse they will be made destitute. This and the assault on refugees in Dover earlier this year show that politicians are quite capable of stoking up hatred against people on the basis that they are somehow 'different' from 'us'.

Yet, as Marx noted 150 years ago, capitalism also constantly brings ordinary people across the globe together. Today people move across the world in numbers and ways that past societies could never have dreamed of. In medieval times peasants never moved far from where they were born and rarely saw 'strangers'. Today the media can show us images of countries and cultures at the flick of a switch. You can go to any big city in the world and walk amongst people from every corner of the globe. On the London tube you could be seated next to someone from Japan, China, Latin America, India, Africa, Europe or the US. You don't feel that person sitting opposite is in essence different from you at all.

Capitalism also tends to break down local customs and cultures. We may speak different languages but we all (for good or bad) wear Nike or Adidas trainers or their cheap substitutes. The same popular music fills the airwaves and we watch similar adverts on our television screens. If workers from different countries get together they have common concerns and a common 'language' - about pollution, world affairs, overwork, the 24 hour society, fat cat bosses, childcare problems and low pay. This was graphically shown this week as workers in different countries demonstrated against capitalism and the World Trade Organisation.

Historically whenever a workers' movement has taken off it has drawn in those from all backgrounds, even those previously regarded as 'immigrants'. In the 1977 Grunwick strike in London white workers joined mass pickets in support of Asian women fighting for union rights. In France's 'Hot December' of 1995 the mass demonstrations were totally integrated, with white, black and Arab workers and students marching together. On a smaller level, the recent bus strike in west London has seen white, black and Asian workers picketing together.

Our rulers are never slow to recognise that workers are pulled together in the workplace and trade unions. That is why they resort to racism and scapegoating to divide us. The revelations at Ford Dagenham reveal how management were quite happy to have bullying foremen, many of whom were racist, dole out 'special treatment' to Asian workers. In the textile mills of Lancashire the bosses deliberately divide the workforce. Asian workers are given different shift patterns, put on different floors in the mill and even paid less. The mill bosses use race to divide Asian from white so as to extract profits and maintain rule over both.

Britain's ruling class are past masters at this approach. In the 18th and 19th centuries they pitted one ethnic or religious group against another, such as Muslims and Hindus in India, to keep the ruled-over population across the British Empire at war with itself. But such divides can be overcome in periods of struggle and can even backfire sharply. So in 1919 in India, revolt against British rule exploded after British troops massacred unarmed demonstrators in Amritsar. Muslims and Hindus publicly drank from each other's hands as they rose up.

Just a few weeks ago in Ford Dagenham black and white united in strikes against the bullies and the racists. Such basic unity is, as Marx argued, central to a strong working class movement. A working class weakened by racism is about as much use as a boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back. When Straw and Widdecombe's scapegoating double act goes into action we must argue that all workers stand side by side with our brothers and sisters under attack. As Marx says, all we can lose are the chains that bind us all.

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Sat 4 Dec 1999, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1675
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