The word ‘pogrom' was most often used to describe mob attacks on Jews in mediaeval times, often fomented by the state authorities as a means of deflecting popular anger away from them and onto an easily recognisable scapegoat. The persistence of anti-Semitic pogroms in Czarist Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century was often pointed to as an example of the extremely backward nature of that regime.
Today, however, the spirit of the pogrom is probably more widespread than it has ever been. Only a few months ago, in Kenya, following a disputed general election result, supporters of government and opposition, who are divided along tribal lines, carried out gruesome massacres of ‘rival' ethnic groups in which hundreds of people lost their lives and many more were made homeless.
In May the most advanced country in Africa, South Africa, was convulsed by a whole series of attacks on immigrants in shanty towns in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and other cities. Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Congolese and other immigrants were ‘necklaced' and hacked to death, their homes burned. Over 40 died in the violence and at least 15, 000 driven from their homes, often forced to seek refuge in churches and police stations.
"Yesterday we heard that this thing started in Warwick and in the (Durban) City centre. We heard that traders had their goods stolen and that people were being checked for their complexion; a man from Ntuzuma was stopped for being ‘too black'. Tensions are high in the city centre. Last night people were running in the streets in Umbilo looking for ‘amakwerkwere'. People in the tall flats were shouting down to them saying ‘There are Congolese here, come up!'". Statement by Abahlali baseMojondolo, an organisation based in the Durban shanty towns, on the xenophobic attacks (www.zabalaza.net).
The justifications for these attacks were familiar: there are too many immigrants, they are coming here and taking our jobs. They are all criminals, drug dealers, muggers and thieves.
It is not hard to see that these horrible events are rooted in the extreme poverty faced by the majority of the population in South Africa, for whom ‘liberation' from apartheid has not brought much improvement in job prospects, wage levels, housing and social security. With more and more people, including both ‘native' South Africans and those fleeing war and terror in Congo or Zimbabwe, being pushed into insufferably cramped and unhealthy shanty towns, with the prices of basic necessities going through the roof, it is not difficult to stir up tensions between different ethnic groups.
But the pogroms have not been restricted to Africa, where poverty is perhaps at its most extreme. In Naples, in April, following reports that a young Roma girl had been accused of trying to kidnap a baby, local residents of the suburb of Ponticelli attacked two Roma squatter camps with Molotov cocktails, forcing their inhabitants to seek protection from local police. This was just the tip of the iceberg: racist parties have been gaining ground in Italy, where blaming immigrants from Romania, Albania and elsewhere for rising crime levels has become an easy route to election success. The anti-immigration Northern League and the ‘post-Fascist' Alleanza Nazionale made considerable gains in recent national elections pledging to tackle illegal immigration, while in Rome, Gianni Alemanno, also of the Alleanza Nazionale, was elected mayor on a pledge to expel 20,000 people.
In Britain, violent racist attacks are still mainly the work of small groups or isolated individuals. But for years now a pogrom atmosphere has been slowly building up as the right wing press increasingly leads with articles that blame immigrants for ‘taking our jobs' and ‘sponging off the welfare state', while the official parties vie with each other to prove that they are the most committed to reducing immigration and the toughest on Islamic terrorism, which is invariably linked to the immigration issue. A particularly widespread element of this campaign is the lament for the so-called ‘white working class' which, we are told, is being made to feel a ‘stranger in its own country'. This is meat and drink to groups like the BNP, who claim that the Labour party has lost touch with its roots in the ‘white working class'.
The danger facing the working class
For the working class, there is nothing more shameful than a pogrom. It is the absolute negation of everything that the workers' movement has stood for from the beginning: the unity of all workers against exploitation, regardless of colour, country, or religion. That yesterday's victims of apartheid in South Africa should single out people who are "too black", that proletarians in Italy whose forebears suffered under fascism should be drawn into attacks on a hate figure as old as the Jew - the ‘gypsy': these are terrible testimony to the power of the exploiter's ideology in the minds of the exploited. They point to a very real danger facing the working class and the oppressed masses all over the world: that faced with the evident collapse of the capitalist social system, the proletariat, rather than uniting its forces against the dominant order, will be divided into an infinite number of ethnic and national groups, tribal or local gangs, and driven into fratricidal violence which leaves the real sources of poverty and misery untouched. If this happens, there will be nothing to prevent capitalism from plunging into the ultimate depths of barbarism and self-destruction.
So what is the alternative?
In South Africa, spokesmen for the church and the state, like Archbishop Tutu, President Mbeki and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela have condemned the pogroms, arguing that this is a terrible blot on South Africa's reputation in the world, even saying that those who commit such crimes are not ‘real South Africans'. But the answer to an openly racist version of nationalism is not a kinder, more human version of nationalism, because both varieties serve to obscure the only perspective that can really provide an answer to divisions among the poor and the oppressed: the development of class solidarity in the struggle for class demands. And if, in a moment of terrible danger, immigrants fleeing persecution have had little choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of the local police, they can have no illusion that the police force can offer them any real protection, since on another day it is precisely the police who are harassing immigrants and the inhabitants of the shanty towns and reinforcing the bosses' law and order. The only real defence for workers lies in uniting with other workers, whether in the workplace or in the working class neighbourhoods, whether ‘immigrant' or ‘native', whether black or white, whether in fighting against attacks on jobs and wages or against repression by police and racist gangs.
The old slogan of the workers' movement - ‘workers of the world unite' - is often ridiculed today, when every opportunity is seized upon to argue that working class solidarity is a forlorn and outdated hope. But the working class was being written off in the 1960s, when it had allegedly been bought off by the ‘consumer society'. The events in France in 1968 - the biggest mass strike in history - provided the most eloquent response to that argument. And today when workers' struggles are again slowly but surely taking on a massive character, from France to Egypt and from Vietnam to the USA, when time and time again so many of these struggles have reasserted the need for solidarity and put it into practice, the hope of a proletarian alternative, with its perspective of fighting for a society without nations or borders, is by no means forlorn. In fact it is the only real hope for the future of humanity, while the promises of the bourgeois politicians, whether openly racist or falsely humanistic, serve only to mask the utter bankruptcy of the system they defend. Amos 6.6.08
 For a more detailed account of some of these struggles, see our website: ‘Workers' struggles multiply all over the world' (WR 314), ‘One class, one struggle' (ICC online), ‘Against the world wide attacks of crisis-ridden capitalism: one working class, one class struggle!' (IR 132)