My personal engagement with internationalism began in the late 1960s. As a teenager with a keen interest in politics, I felt that any vision of progress had to take into account the life-or-death struggles against apartheid and people’s subjection by neo-colonial regimes. The emergence of free nations able to pursue their own visions of equality and well-being seemed then to be the key to all our hopes for a better world. Internationalism meant declaring our solidarity with them in their fight for freedom.
There’s a price to be paid when we become indifferent to racism and injustice. The dangers came home to me in a very practical way when news of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ filled the news channels in April 1968. With frightening eloquence the Tory politician told us that a reinvigorated nationalism needed to be made the organizing principle of our community life, and that would mean hatred of people of colour.
At that time, I was growing up in north Liverpool, which was almost 100 per cent white. It seemed that with that speech, everything I thought was bad about the world had come knocking on my front door. London dockworkers had gone on strike in support of the speech and rumours spread that they were travelling to other port cities urging similar action from their colleagues.
But concern about international injustice resonated with aspects of youth culture in those days. The Vietnam war, African de-colonization, Latin American dictatorship and civil rights struggle in the United States were all of interest in Britain. So it was not difficult to get a band of like-minded internationalists together to leaflet the pubs and the gates along the Liverpool Dock Road, calling on local dockers to reject the call to give support to Powell’s racist speech.
It was a long time ago, and I was young, but my memories are of hearty greetings by men old enough to be my father, who took our smudgy tracts and declared, ‘No worries – we’ll have none of that here.’
This to me was what I took to be internationalism in action: working people refusing to be divided into ethnic or nationalistic tribes, who nurtured the hope, however far off in the distance it may be before it was realized, that their true interests lay in fellowship across all the borders of geography and the mind.
I have held a strong belief in practical and down-to-earth internationalism ever since. Stints of work as an active trade union official, and then a career that has taken me through community organizing and the provision of legal advice services before coming to rest as a long-time campaigner for the rights of migrants and refugees, has shown me that the battle for social justice requires an approach to internationalism that is close to the lives of ordinary working class people. This means solidarity that underscores the experiences working people have already learned from life, building on a refusal to be divided, and articulating the need to forge links with people across the world.
Our current epoch of uber-globalization, climate change, and planet-wide poverty have affirmed every intuition I ever had back in my teenage years that progress means a strengthening of internationalism among ordinary people. Looking at the rising generations in the towns and cities that I move in today, I know that so much of their personal experiences connect them to worlds that exist beyond the borders of the country of which they are citizens. The values they hold and the sense of justice that they are nurturing make it clear to me that this strengthening of internationalist responses is well underway.
It is being carried forward with its own logic and energy. With a sharpened focus that takes it into the realm of politics and challenges to the exercise of power, it will yet achieve its potential to change the world.
Don Flynn is the director of the Migrant Rights Network
The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI’s 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.