But It Happened in Another Country.


The response to the killing of George Floyd has taken on vast and global proportions. From Los Angeles to London, from Portland to Paris, from Boston to Berlin: ‘Now is the time’, ‘We Can’t Breathe’. But with growing international solidarity comes a rabid and often violent defence of the existing national order. As the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century merchant and slave trader, was rolled by protesters into Bristol’s harbour, a reactionary backlash began. Social media platforms were flooded with inordinate replies of ‘anarchy’, ‘communists’, and ‘thugs’. Nigel Farage went as far as branding those local activists who toppled the West Country statue ‘a new form of Taliban’.

Many of those previously unaware of Edward Colston, his role in the slave trade, and local resistance to his statue, suddenly took earnest interest in Colston’s ‘city father’, philanthropist image. Right-wing forums promised the mobilisation of groups to standby for the desecration of war memorials. Local forums on facebook, populated by the nation’s white suburbia, showered their screens with angry emojis and quavering Daily-Mail-style captions, ‘DISGUSTING VANDALISM’, ‘WHERE ARE THE POLICE?’,

But along with seething backlash and fury, there has been an effort to demobilise. ‘But It Happened In Another Country’ has become a popular refrain among those too distressed by images of property damage to pause for a moment and reflect on the long murky history of police relations in the UK. It’s a response that denies two crucial, intertwined realities.

The first and unarguably most telling is the denial of racially targeted policing on British soil. Discriminatory stop-and-search practices, disproportionate levels of force, as well as disproportionate black deaths in police custody, reveal this comforting myth of ‘subtle British racism’ to be false [1]. Wail Qasim’s recently published article, ‘The UK is Not Innocent - Police Racism Has a Long and Violent History Here Too’, shows that ‘the UK certainly has its own case to answer for regarding police brutality’.[2]

But there is another implication in the hollow common sense of ‘But It Happened in Another Country’. Contrary to the logic at work here, progressive social change has rarely been sentimental on the question of state borders. In fact, it has repeatedly overrun them. The denial of this is not surprising. It coincides with the decades-long assault on trade unions across the globe and the detectable depletion of class consciousness (as noted in 2018, the UK witnessed its lowest levels of strike activity since 1893, despite the worst period of wage growth since 1815).

The results of the 2019 election reaffirmed (again) that the perceived antidote to structural downward mobility was in clinging desperately to a fetishized idea of ‘Britain’ and its past. Even internally, record-level wage stagnation failed to cut through forged boundaries that distinguished the working-class of the metropole from the working-class of the regional town.

The interaction between internationalism and social change has a rich and complicated history. Historians grappling with the origins of internationalism usually start with the writings of its early analysts, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the most obvious starting point is The Communist Manifesto. Written just moments ahead of the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848, the manifesto signed off with ‘WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!’.

In nineteenth-century Europe, struggles for better wages, for enfranchisement, for the eight-hour working-day, along with increasing opposition to absolute monarchies and landed aristocracies, had all become cross-national concerns. Just as commerce and capital rapidly expanded through old feudalist territory, the working class - now dragged towards the factory, mine and railway - appeared as ‘one huge [European] army’. [3] In other words, like their bourgeois employers, the shared material interests of workers cut through national borders.

In 1864, the call for workers to officially rally under ‘one flag’ was finally heeded to. Workers and intellectuals from across Europe gathered in St Martin’s Hall in London and established the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), a federation which, at its peak, had somewhere between 5 and 8 million members.

But it wasn’t just labour conflict in Europe that caught Marx and Engels’ attention. Nor was the idea of internationalism an abstract ideal. In the early 1860s, the abolitionist and runaway slave, Frederick Douglass, published ‘The Slave’s Appeal to Great Britain’. Its aim was to raise support for the pro-abolitionist cause of the North during the American Civil War. Douglass appealed directly to workers in the manufacturing districts of North West England, asking those working in the mills not to handle cotton produced by slave labour in the South:

‘You are suffering in your commerce and in your manufactures. Industry languishes, and the children of your suffering poor cry aloud for bread. God pity them! The calamity is great. But would any interference bring relief to these sufferers? You have shared with the American slaveholders the blood-stained products of slave-labour, preferring Carolina slave to India free, making Manchester a party to the slaveholding spirit of America. What else could have come of this but participation with us in a common retribution? [4]

This was a big ask. The Lancashire-based cotton industry and its workers had already been bitten hard by cotton blockades organised by forces loyal to the Union. Moreover, national chauvinism and popular imperialism prevailed among large sections of the English working class, including its trade unions. Yet Douglass’ appeal was read and absorbed widely among groups of workers in Northern England.

As has been highlighted by David Featherstone, it was this significant working-class support for the North that helped block the plans of Lord Palmerston (the then British Prime Minister) to provide military backing for the South.[5] It was also this largely forgotten transatlantic exchange that in part contributed to the founding of the IWA. Indeed, Marx himself took note of this display of internationalism and the triumph of what he described as ‘pressure from without’ applied by the mill workers.[6]

Fast forward to the twentieth century, and perhaps one of the most paradigmatic examples of ‘internationalism’ was the case of the Spanish Civil War. In Spain the rank-and-file of Europe’s labour movements and socialist tendencies came together in one common cause against the rise of continental fascism. Approximately 35,000 international volunteers joined the Republican effort in Spain, forming co-ordinated battalions under the banner of the ‘International Brigades’.[7]

The Brigaders’ arrival in Spain was not only motivated by the fight against fascism. It was also to defend the future possibility promised by the revolutionary and reformist experiments that had flourished under the Republic. Indeed, the means by which Brigaders fought Franco in Spain actively prefigured a new world. For example, access into Spain did not hinge upon the Brigaders' passports issued by their respective governments, but by their trade union and party cards. This was a bold challenge to the conservative and fascist state-building agendas enveloping Europe at the time - as were the ninety-odd African Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the first American military unit (ever) to be organised on non-segregated lines. But the Spanish left weren’t uniquely or wholly averse to nationalism. In fact, in rebuking Franco’s claim to speak for Spain, the Republican left (communists and anarchists included) forged their own nationalist myths. At this stage, the Spanish left had not established a serious anti-colonial discourse. As Martin Baxmeyer has noted, a culture clash emerged between ideals of global proletarian solidarity and a deeply embedded racist fear of the Moroccan soldiers serving in Franco’s army.[8] This fear, engrained by years of colonial war in Africa, translated “the moor”, in highly racialised tones, as the embodiment of “anti-Spain”.

The Civil War of course ended with Franco’s rebels as victors. Resistance against Francoism would merge with the Europe-wide Resistance of 1939-1945 - but in the end, anticipation of Franco’s removal by anti-fascist forces was collapsed by Western countries’ continued policy of non-military intervention. By the mid-1950s, the terror underpinning Franco’s regime was, for the West, smoothed over externally by Cold War realpolitik. In this context, Franco was given the status of anti-communist ‘sentinel’ of the West - the ‘Spanish Question’ was now largely answered by American defence needs. In 1953, the US handed the dictatorship a major financial package in exchange for access to military bases. The end to previous diplomatic and economic embargoes led Franco to declare that, ‘at last, I have won the Spanish Civil War’.[9]

After the dust from 1945 began to settle, the backdrop of the Cold War ignited a new phase of internationalism. As indicated above, the post-war era was struck by a lingering sense of there being ‘unfinished business’ – this was epitomised not only by Franco’s survival, but by continued colonial occupation and aggression in the global South. For example, protesting France’s occupation of Indochina, French dockers, organised by the CGT, refused to load war materials on ships heading to Vietnam. Throughout the year 1950, there were few ports in France that could rely upon dockers for the transportation of arms. In the midst of this increasing anti-war atmosphere, there was also the infamous L’affaire Henri Martin, which showed that the demand for decolonization had even reached the Fourth Republic’s own military ranks. After witnessing the French shelling of Haiphong in 1946, Henri Martin, a French sailor, distributed anti-war propaganda among his comrades at the Toulon Navy base, and led a shipboard mutiny.

The anti-war mood took on greater proportions during the 1960s, converging within the ‘New Left’, an international youth and student movement, and anti-colonial struggles erupting across the globe. Pegged onto the ‘New Left’ were the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, the anti-racist movement, the civil rights movement (both in the US and in Northern Ireland), the labour movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and various anti-imperialist movements. These movements were not always in direct conversation with one another, but there was a significant degree of cross-pollination, cultural transfer, and exchange. As if choreographed behind the scenes, but in fact quite independent from another, a certain dialogue could be detected between student occupations in Berkley, guerrilla Marxisms in the global South, the freedom rides in Mississippi, and worker-led factory occupations in the Mai ’68 revolts in France. In all of this activity a transnational emphasis was placed on participatory forms of democracy, of social change in action.

‘But It Happened In Another Country’ is thus a cynical piece of manoeuvring. This kind of nationalism blinds us to the power of history from below. At the root of this, perhaps, is that those detractors of the Black Lives Matter movement have been taken by surprise.

From a historical perspective, there was little in this moment suggesting propitious conditions for an international, multiracial rebellion. The defeat of Corbyn and Sanders, followed only months later by a global pandemic, suggested a lengthy period of melancholy and reflection. But with national lockdowns came buckling health provision and mass joblessness, the worst effects of which have fallen indisputably on the global BAME population.

But History has a way of accelerating and gathering pace. How this emerging internationalism can solidify beyond moments of protest and rupture will be a pivotal question for the coming decade.

Jessica Thorne is a doctoral researcher working on anarchist resistance to Franco in prison and exile.

[1] Gazelle Mba, 'On The Fallacy of Subtle Racism', Verso Blog, 06 July 2020 https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4780-on-the-fallacy-of-subtle-racism.

[2] Wail Qasim, The UK is Not Innocent: Police Racism Has a Long and Violent History Here Too, Novara Media, 1st June 2020 https://novaramedia.com/2020/06/01/the-uk-is-not-innocent-police-brutality-has-a-long-and-violent-history-here/.

[3] Friedrich Engels, Preface to the German edition of 1880, in (ed.), Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 2014) p.310.

[4] Frederick Douglass, The Slave’s Appeal to Great Britain, 1862 https://www.tota.world/article/1103/.

[5] David Featherstone, Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (London: Zed Books, 2012). p.2.

[6] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975).

[7] Helen Graham, The War and Its Shadow (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2012) p.76.

[8] Martin Baxmeyer, “Mother Spain, We Love You!”: Nationalism and Racism in Anarchist Literature during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in (ed.), Constance Bantman and Bert Altena, Reassessing the Transnational Turn: Scales of Analysis in Anarchist and Syndicalist Studies (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[9] Paul Preston, Franco (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p.622-3.