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by Beth Pullman
“THEY WENT because their open eyes could see no other way.” So rang the words of Cecil Day-Lewis in the ears of many last week, as a photograph emerged online showing International Brigadiers in Northern Syria sending solidarity to the RMT Southern Rail strike.
RMT guards are striking on Southern Rail — which has been chosen by the Department for Transport as a battleground to smash the transport unions — to defend passenger safety and to keep a second safety-critical member of staff on board trains.
The newly formed unit of the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) are fighting the war against Islamic State (Isis) just 30 miles from their stronghold in Raqqa, and have taken the name of the late RMT general secretary Bob Crow for their banner.
Comprised of British and Irish volunteers the brigade, who will serve a minimum six months’ military service, have assisted the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in making significant territorial gains in the area.
Their aims are to defend the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination, to defend the revolution in Rojava and to combat the fascism of Isis.
They have decided to honour Bob Crow in this way because he was a working-class hero, and the inspiration for a generation of socialists and trade unionists. He inspired all of them.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Steve Hedley, senior assistant general secretary of the RMT, said: “Bob would have been honoured that young people from Britain would fight the forces of evil in his name.
“A great admirer of the international brigades that fought in Spain, Crow would of course have drawn the parallels with the new international brigades fighting clerical fascism and defending Yazhidi, Muslim and Christian workers from slavery and persecution.”
Speaking to the partner of a British volunteer, it is evident that this is a precarious and dangerous time. Like any family mindful of a loved one, there is fear and worry, but also great love, pride and hope. “Having someone close to you in such a dangerous place, on the front line fighting Isis, is obviously worrying. I am however very proud of my fiance, he is brave and dedicated in fighting against all forms of fascism, including the mysogynistic and oppressive Isis.
“The Rojava revolution is a women-led struggle in a region where women’s rights are few. So as a feminist and a socialist, I understand the importance of the international volunteers and the support they provide to the revolutionary struggle.”
Although the legal status of volunteering is unclear, all of the brigade were inspired to answer the call put out by the IFB last year, and comparisons between the International Freedom Battalion of today and the Brigadas Internacionales of 1930s Spain are not lost on the volunteers either.
As communists and anti-fascists, they understood clearly the threat of fascism posed by Isis and the need to defend and spread the social revolution taking place in Rojava.
The communist international put the call out in the 1930s to defend the Spanish republic from fascism, and they have answered the call to fight fascism today in the same spirit.
Although the Rojava revolution has taken hundreds of volunteers over the last four years, YPG commander Cihan Kendal says they want to teach brigaders more than they have previously.
As a result, on top of military training, all recruits now study at least a month of Kurdish language, history and culture, and political and ideological classes. Classes are also taught by the women’s movement on their ideology and organisations.
Kendal says: “It is true that there are not so many female volunteers at the moment, but this will change… The main force of this revolution is the women’s movement and their ideology; so more women have to come, have to see it, and take part in their own emancipation.”
As the spectre of fascism looms large on the global stage, Gary Oak left a parting statement with a rousing message for us all.
“We must hold our values and analysis to be completely true at every step of the way. We must tell the people that our thought liberated us in the past, will liberate us now from confusion and dismay, and will ultimately liberate the whole of humanity; and we tell them by actions that demonstrate we believe this.”
He says it is no longer enough to traipse miserably through the rain, with placard in hand bemoaning our lack of power. It is not enough to sullenly sulk at the state of things. We have answered the call, and we answer it gladly, proud of our opportunity and our place in this struggle.
We must take our convictions in hand, and give dutily what is required, we must not fear or falter, we cannot let slip now — we must be the left that history demands of us.
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