Transnational Solidarities: Will the Pandemic Change Ways of Social and Political Struggle?

By Sana Tannoury-Karam [1]

Between 1936 and 1939, thousands of volunteers came flocking into Spain to fight against the fascist forces of General Franco. Palestinian volunteer, Najati Sidqi, who joined the International Brigades and arrived in Barcelona in 1936, narrated in his memoirs the reason for his travel to Spain: “I am an Arab volunteer, I have come to defend Arab freedom on the front of Madrid […] to defend Damascus in the Valley of Rocks (Valdepeñas), and Jerusalem in the fields of Cordoba, and Baghdad in Talitala (Toledo), and Cairo in Andalusia, and Tétouan in Burgos.”[2]

In our current pandemic-stricken world, Sidqi, as well as thousands of other volunteers would not have been able to travel from all over the world and gather in Spain.[3] Since the covid-19 virus spreads primarily through direct human contact, the most obvious response to this characteristic of the virus has been the practice of social distancing which entails individual confinement and isolation, and has since limited human mobility and interaction. Confinement rests on two oppositional premises, of being a selfless act performed for the greater social good, while at the same time fostering a liberal individualist tradition that creates obstacles for political and social struggle. This duality within which the pandemic seems to function has put into question the nature of future social and political movements, particularly transnational solidarities that aim to transcend borders and boundaries. Those like Najati Sidqi who travelled to Spain to fight fascism not only had to endure the hassle of travel, but also had to transcend individual self-interest towards a belief in a unifying human struggle.

Given the limitation on human mobility across borders and the emphasis on liberal individualism that this current pandemic creates, will the nature of transnational and international solidarity change? Moreover, with increasing restrictions on the human body and states’ scramble to discipline it, how will future acts of solidarity and resistance to these states look like? More so, with the restriction of the attention span of people to the immediate area around their bodies, how will solidarity with distant groups and causes look like?

While this post does not claim to answer all these questions, its purpose is rather to acknowledge these particular dilemmas posed by the pandemic. More importantly, in this post, I will draw upon historical accounts of transnational and international solidarity movements, similar to the Spanish Civil War cited earlier, that could illuminate the path and provide useful lessons for continued political and social struggles in these challenging times.

The League Against Imperialism, a transnational organization founded by anticolonial activists and nationalists during the interwar period, was one of the largest, most inclusive international groups of its kind. [4] On February 10, 1927, 174 delegates from 31 different regions around the world gathered in the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels. By the end of the five-day congress, those gathered decided to establish an international organization that would work towards fighting imperialism across the colonized and semi-colonized world: the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence. They also elected an Executive Committee of the League that was comprised of representatives from China, Mexico, India, the Philippines, North Africa, South Africa, Egypt, Persia, Japan, Puerto Rico, and Korea, as well as all of the major European states.[5]

Figure 1. The Executive Council of the League Against Imperialism elected by the First Congress in Brussels in 1927. Source: IISH archives.

The League Against Imperialism was a culmination of a long tradition of anticolonial activism by nationalists and leftists to counter imperialism around the world. The delegates that came together to found the League had been organizing committees, demonstrations, and campaigns since the early 1920s – the “China in Revolution, the Cruelties in Syria, and the International Working Class” demonstration in Berlin in December 1925, the Hands-Off China Campaign, and the Against the Cruelties in Syria Committee. Between 1927 and 1937, the League had established national branches in Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Palestine, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, San Salvador, South Africa, the United States, and Uruguay.

This international organization that built solidarities across racial, national, and regional lines, and particularly its meetings and congresses that brought together people from across continents, could only have been possible in a world with no or limited restrictions to human mobility. However, the experience of the League could teach us to realize the difficulties that transnational activists face, and therefore the need to work against certain odds as part of this activism. The League did not exist without obstacles, nor without internal differences and conflict for that matter. The delegates present at the Brussels meeting in 1927 and at subsequent meetings of the League faced numerous impediments to their participation in League activities. Those arriving from the colonies faced visa and travel restrictions, and often imprisonment and/or exile upon their return. For those anticolonial activists residing in the metropoles, colonial surveillance and harassment intensified during their activism within the League.

Yet despite the severity of these obstacles to solidarity, perhaps what this historical experience can teach us the most is resistance to a liberal individualist tradition that has permeated people’s understanding of the self as independent and separate from the interests of the rest of earth and its inhabitants – a social, political, and ecological relationality. Members of the League recognized the interconnectivity of their struggle against imperialism; their unity was dedicated to exposing imperialism as a systemic, global problem that needed to be eradicated everywhere through the activism of colonized and non-colonized people. At the end of the Brussels congress in 1927, Indonesia’s Mohammad Hatta explained that “however colorful and diverse the races and political colors, in purpose and aspiration, people, we are of one mind.”[6]

This pandemic has exposed, more than ever before, the interconnectivity of the world and all of its inhabitants. It has revealed the absurdity of borders and nation states, just like it has uncovered the weaknesses of international organizations and transnational unions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and its parent institution the United Nations, as well as the European Union (EU) for that matter. The pandemic has furthermore uncovered the failures of states to provide for their citizens and these states’ calls for reopening of markets often at the expense of public health. It has notably spread unequally along racial and class lines, laying bare the persistent inequalities that plague our societies.

To this end, the League Against Imperialism was in fact intended, in its purpose but also more obviously in its name, as a mockery of the League of Nations, the international organization that fostered colonialism and mandated it rather than fought against it. It mocked the ‘fake’ internationalism of the League of Nations and the unequal power relations that were built into that institution from its very inception. We need to be willing to reckon with these ‘failed’ structures and institutions that have disguised as transnational cooperation in the past few decades, and to take into account the need for an interconnectivity and an intersectionality of struggles beyond the nation-state paradigm.

These examples and lessons are in no way intended as a call for ignoring the severity of the pandemic nor for continuing transnational struggles and activism at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing. However, this is an opportunity to reflect upon perhaps new and innovative ways to transcend borders and boundaries for the sake of imagining and working towards a better future and a more just world. In fact, it is worth noting that despite the pandemic, various local struggles and uprisings have persisted, although in various forms and with alterations, such as in Iraq and Lebanon.[7] Some uprisings have also erupted during the Covid-19 pandemic, most notably the antiracist uprising against a long history of police killings of black Americans in the United States of America that erupted in Minneapolis, Minnesota with the murder of George Floyd on May 25. This uprising has since spread across almost all major US cities and has started to erupt in some European cities, in an affirmation to the resilience of global social justice solidarities.

Figure 2. Two Syrians paint a mural to commemorate George Floyd in Idlib. Syria. Photo: Mohamad Jamalo


References

[1] The author would like to thank Samer Frangie for his feedback on this essay.

[2]  “Khamsat Ashhur fi Isbaniya al-Jumhuriyya: Muzakkarat ‘Arabi Nadala fi al-Jaysh al-Umami”, al-Tali‘a 3, no.9 (1937), 796.

[3] The story of Najati Sidqi and his family is narrated in Amal Ramsis, dir., You Come from Far Away (Tunisia: Klaketa Árabe, 2018).

[4] For the latest and most comprehensive account yet of the League Against Imperialism, see Michele Louro, Carolien Stolte, Heather Streets-Salter, and Sana Tannoury-Karam, eds., The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2020).

[5] International Institute of Social History (IISH), League Against Imperialism Archives (LAIA), List of Organizations and Delegates Attending the Congress Against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, 1927. The delegates decided that the headquarters for the newly established League and its International Secretariat would be based in Berlin. The international secretariat and the headquarters would be moved to London after a Nazi raid on the Berlin headquarters in 1933.

[6] Michele Louro, Comrades Against Imperialism: Nehru, India, and Interwar Internationalism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 77.

[7] Also it is important to note that the changing nature or magnitude of these uprisings may also be attributed in each case to other reasons/conditions than the covid-19 pandemic.


Sana Tannoury-Karam is an incoming EUME fellow for 2020-2021. She is a historian of the modern Middle East and is currently an Early Career Fellow at the Arab Council for the Social Sciences and a lecturer in History at the Lebanese American University. Her co-edited volume The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives is forthcoming in September 2020 with Leiden University Press.


Citation: Sana Tannoury-Karam, Transnational Solidarities: Will the Pandemic Change Ways of Social and Political Struggle?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24182.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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