Apr 2005 Journal

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Racism: squaring the circle

It has been a received wisdom of politics that racism is a key weapon in the armoury of the far right. The Dreyfus scandal in France and gory events in Ukraine and Hungary in 1919 amply bear this out.

But the far left too has not been averse to exploiting racial or nationalist resentment. Certain early socialists - Proudhon, Bakunin, even Marx - viewed Jews as precursors of capitalism. When, post-1917, Lenin expropriated factories and banks, he emphasised that their owners had largely been foreign - British, French and Belgian - capitalists.

The year 1923, the most hectic one of postwar Germany, saw a bizarre Communist attempt to bridge the right-left divide by way of racist incitement. The KPD leader Ruth Fischer told a meeting of völkisch rowdies: 'You already battle the Jews on ethnic grounds; go one step further and target them as capitalists!' (It may come as a surprise that she herself was Jewish!)

Meanwhile, inside Russia Communist policy vis-à-vis the Jews underwent several transformations. While the Yevsektsia closed down synagogues and yeshivot, the Kremlin sponsored a Yiddish theatre and created Birobidzhan as a 'socialist Zion'. After the Second World War, however, Stalin lapsed into paranoid antisemitism, persecuting Jews as rootless cosmopolitans.

But Jews weren't the only deliberately disadvantaged minority inside the Soviet bloc. Czech gypsies suffered painful discrimination, and in Russia itself the Crimean Tartars, victims of wartime deportation, were barred from returning to their previous homes. The Yugoslav situation was particularly bizarre: during Tito's lifetime the Croat Tudjman and the Serb Milosevic acted as his loyal lieutenants - but after his death they plunged the area into a fratricidal bloodbath.

Throughout the Cold War the Soviets projected themselves as standard bearers of internationalism and the West as deeply racist. How mendacious this propaganda was became painfully obvious after the reunification of Germany, when many more Vietnamese and Africans fell victim to racially motivated murder in the East than the West. This had a lot to do with the DDR's policy of ghettoising guest workers in segregated hostels and freezing all inter-ethnic intercourse. Likewise, the Soviet authorities created the Lumumba University specifically for African students, but took great care to locate it some distance away from Moscow to avoid ethnic tension and miscegenation.

Meanwhile, one of the great changes transforming the world in the mid-twentieth century - decolonisation - was proceeding apace. Now decolonisation is, by its very nature, leftwing; nonetheless it resulted in new forms of racism, making their appearance in the Congo region, Uganda and Sudan.

Idi Amin expelled 70,000 Uganda Asians, crippling the country's economy, and huge inter-ethnic tragedies played themselves out a decade ago in Rwanda and, more recently, in the Darfur Region.

An interesting example of left-right convergence in Africa is Zimbabwe. Mugabe's policy of expropriating white farmers is simultaneously anti-capitalist and imbued with racist overtones, while the neighbouring countries' collusion with his dictatorial rule smacks of 'my colour - right or wrong!'

In the interim, the allegedly hyper-racist United States has appointed an Afro-American woman to its top diplomatic post, and a Hispanic lawyer to the post of Attorney-General. Meanwhile, what of the country from whose name the term Hispanic derives?

Spain was the one major country in Europe where a Fascist dictatorship remained in unchallenged power for a full three decades after the demise of Hitler and Mussolini. It was only with the dictator Franco's death - in bed - that the transition to democracy started. Subsequent governments modulated from centre-right to provocatively left - both in foreign and home policy. The current administration has withdrawn troops from Iraq and favours (in a traditionally Catholic country) legal recognition of same-sex unions. For all its outstanding left-wing credentials it has, however, not bothered to lay the ugly ghost of racism on the football pitch.
Richard Grunberger

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