A Stranger in Europe

I feel like a stranger in the world, especially Europe. Over the past week or two I have travelled across Europe, from east to northwest, and stayed in different places. It is turning out to be intimately familiar and disconcertingly strange.

Why? After some discussion, it seems as though these are some of the features.

Everywhere it seems as though people are obsessed about refugees and immigrants, no matter what the political persuasion. It is not merely the right-wing groups and parties who make this an issue: nearly everyone seems to feel it is the main problem facing Europe today. But if we take a Marxist approach, then the concern with migrants is a diversion, if not a symptom of the main problem: economics and class.

So let me use this lens to interpret what I see and hear:

  1. A major plank of EU economic policy is a ‘free labour market’. What this really means is that people seeking work from poorer countries will drive down incomes and conditions of those in the richer countries. In other words, the migrant labour situation is standard EU policy. This situation creates the scene for a number of responses:
  2. The recasting of this policy in light of the strange framework of a scarcity of jobs: with limited jobs in the richer countries, the increasing number of migrants seeking work means greater unemployment, crime and so on. Very strange: if workers in the richer countries were prepared to take jobs with lower pay and less conditions, wherever such a job might be, they would still have work – in line with EU policy.
  3. The narrative of the various ‘right-wing’ parties is that migrants from the Middle East are taking jobs.
  4. The narrative of the social-democratic parties is that cheaper labourers from eastern Europe are taking jobs and social welfare.
  5. Speaking of social welfare, the implicit xenophobia of the welfare state reveals its face. Such welfare is only for the deserving within a state, not for the EU as a whole, or indeed wider.
  6. And those who see themselves as middle-class progressives can now blame the workers for being racist and reactionary.
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Refugee Train across Europe

(I posted this one over at Voyages on the Left, but thought I would post it here too.)

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

A Marxist map of European history

Today the snow came down, so my bicycle stayed warm and inside while we set out for the DDR shop! The real find was the following, a map of European history between 1476 and 1648 – from the perspective of class struggle.

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The two major centres of bourgeois revolution took place first in the Netherlands (the bigger the flag the larger the revolution):

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And then in England where capitalist manufacturing took off after the Dutch had laid the groundwork in agricultural capitalism and trade:

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In fact, much of western Europe is covered in bourgeois revolutions:

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Meanwhile, in the rest of Europe class war was underway, with the red triangles signalling peasant class struggle:

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There was a fair bit of that going on:

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But the real flashpoints came with the Peasant Revolution, marked by a white triangle and flag within a red square:

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Thomas Müntzer, a leader of the peasants and key ‘theologian of the revolution’ (as Bloch called him) was, of course, one of Luther’s students who took his teacher’s points to their logical conclusion. Who said Protestantism doesn’t have radical revolutionary potential? Luther was horrified, backtracking from what he had instigated and – to his eternal shame – calling for everyone else to kill, crush and destroy any peasant they might meet.

Ah, they don’t make such maps as much as they used to. Time for a revision of the high school history curriculum.

(ht cp)

Did Stalin impose communism in Eastern Europe?

That is the common picture: at gunpoint, the Red Army under Stalin’s orders forced unwilling states to accept communist governments. As our teller of tall tales, Winston Churchill, put it in his infamous ‘iron curtain’ speech of March, 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities … lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and are all subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence, but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow … The Communist parties … have been raised to preeminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.

Like his ‘history’ of World War II, this account is somewhat gilded, more notable for its rhetoric than adherence to what was actually happening. It also provided the screen behind which former Nazis were given senior posts in Western Europe, since they were, after all, reliable anti-communists.

But let’s look at a few statistics concerning communist party memberships across Europe to gain a sense of how popular the communists were:

Country Pre-war membership Post-war membership
Albania 1,000 12,000
Austria 16,000 132,000
Belgium 10,000 100,000
Bulgaria 8,000 427,000
Czechoslovakia 80,000 1,292,000
Denmark 2,000 60,000
Finland 1,000 25,000
France 340,000 1,000,000
Germany 300,000 805,000
Greece n/a 100,000
Hungary 30,000 608,000
Italy 58,000 1,871,000
Netherlands 10,000 50,000
Norway 5,000 22,000
Poland 20,000 310,000
Romania 1,000 379,000
Spain 250,000 35,000
Sweden 11,000 48,000
UK 15,000 50,000
Yugoslavia 4,000 250,000

Apart from Spain, all communist parties across Europe made significant to phenomenal gains in membership, the highest being in Romania, with a 379% increase. Given that for every one person who joins a political party, ten more sympathise, these figures reflect a truly mass shift. It is also worth noting that the support was by no means restricted to Eastern Europe, for Italy and France experienced massive growth. Even the small Scandinavian countries saw significant rises in membership. This is far from a small cadre of crazed revolutionaries imposing their will on the masses.

Why? During times of severe and genuine crisis, communism typically gains mass support. The key, as Lenin tirelessly pointed out, is that the communist movement needs to be thoroughly organised and prepared for such situations. Of course, it helps if the Red Army is keeping order, but that, to my mind, is far preferable than the Americans or, in our time, NATO. To be added here is the fact that the Right, embodied by fascism, had been largely discredited in the popular mind after the war and that the most resolute opponent of fascism was communism. The result was an image of the communist as a straight-talking, trustworthy and resolute fighter for freedom. Even today in Russia, people tell me of a communist father or grandmother, who was precisely such a person: you knew where you stood; no mucking around; absolutely reliable.

Lenin the unwitting prophet: Backward Europe and Advanced Asia

In a piece from the time of the communist international, called ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’:

The comparison sounds like a paradox. Who does not know that Europe is advanced and Asia backward? But the words taken for this title contain a bitter truth.

In civilised and advanced Europe, with its highly developed machine industry, its rich, multiform culture and its constitutions, a point in history has been reached when the commanding bourgeoisie comes out in support of everything backward, moribund and medieval.

Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 99

The European Exception

The European tendency to make the constitutive exception a key philosophical concept gives voice to the semi-conscious awareness that Europe itself is an anomaly in world history. It may be Freud’s unconscious, Lacan’s Real or objet petit a, Žižek’s dialectical inversions, Badiou’s event, Benjamin’s or Jameson’s rupture, Agamben’s exception or Negri’s kairos, or … (fill in the blank), but they all trade on the constitutive exception. I would suggest that this is an ideological trace of history itself. For, as Diakonov argued in his little read The Paths of History, European economic history is an anomaly in terms of world history, a crucial anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless. However, this constitutive exception has also produced a fundamental problem, if not a gross error, for the European path has been taken as the norm of world history. Only now, with Europe and its satellites trying to hang onto a mythical golden age now suddenly in the past, is Diakonov’s insight being realised.