Beyond refugees: What the Left needs to say and do about Afghanistan

Pictured: The German language version of the newsletter Fascism, published to fight against the Nazi and Fascist regimes by the International Transport Workers Federation.

Calls on Britain and other wealthy countries to take in Afghan refugees are absolutely correct. And those refugees should not be limited to people who worked alongside British soldiers and diplomats. Anyone at risk from the Taliban regime should be allowed to come live in our countries.

But is that the only thing that socialists can say? I think we need to be a bit more ambitious. Here are some ideas:

First of all, socialists have a role to play in the public debate. While mainstream politicians led by Biden and Johnson have demanded of the Taliban only that they deny bases to terrorist organisations and that they allow Afghans to leave, we on the Left should demand much more.

We should be rejecting the idea that there is some kind of “Taliban 2.0” and that they deserve a chance to show that they’ll be much more respectful of human rights, and in particular women’s rights, than they did the last time they were in power.

We must tell the truth. We must say loudly and clearly what every Afghan already knows: the Taliban is a clerical fascist movement and whatever small changes it may make to its rhetoric — especially when talking to the West — it will never be anything other than a murderous criminal gang. I hope that I am wrong about this, but I fear that this is the case.

While most European countries are at least pretending to care about the fate of the Afghans left behind, there is nothing of the sort going on in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. The Russian, Chinese and Iranian regimes will be falling over themselves to win influence in the “new Afghanistan”. Those on the Left who still maintain some kind of links with those regimes — such as George Galloway and others who regularly appear on state-supported Russian and Iranian television channels, or the pro-Beijing Morning Star newspaper, should be called out.

And we are not limited to words. There is much that we in the labour movement can do to fight against the Taliban regime and support the Afghan people, even after the evacuation from Kabul. And I am not talking about returning foreign troops to Afghanistan any time soon. However, we can draw inspiration from our movement’s history.

During the darkest days of the Second World War, at a time when Nazi Germany occupied all of Western Europe and was allied with the Soviet Union, trade unionists played a leading role in building resistance among working people on the European continent.

As the legendary Edo Fimmen, head of the International Transport Workers Federation, wrote on the eve of the war: “If a war proves inevitable, we shall take up arms, not for love of our own rulers, but for love of our own class, and of our own country, which we desire to make a real home for those who work.”

Led by Fimmen and others, exiled union leaders now based in London made radio broadcasts targeting workers who lived under Nazi rule. They sent in union activists to help organise and stimulate resistance — including sabotage and intelligence gathering. They helped extract working class leaders who faced the danger of arrest, and brought them over to Britain. They persuaded sailors at sea not to return to their home ports, and instead to turn their ships to Britain, as many did.

Their story, which is still not widely known, is a remarkable one as pretty much the entire trade union movement in the world (the Stalinists excepted) rallied to the anti-fascist cause.

It should inspire us to think beyond the relatively easy gestures of solidarity and to focus on what contributions we in the labour movement can make to defeating the Taliban’s brand of fascism today, just as our comrades did eighty years ago.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.