4. 13. 2022

“The Main Enemy Is At Home” Breaks Down for Migrants

Vincent Wong

When the German socialist Karl Liebknecht penned his famous leaflet
“The Main Enemy Is At Home!” in 1915, to expose how the German proletariat was being tricked and betrayed by its ruling class during World War I, he surely could not have known the staying power that the title of his intervention would continue to enjoy nearly a century later. Indeed, “the main enemy is at home” has been a mainstay of anti-imperialist and anti-war political organizing since the leaflet’s original publication.

This exhortation still has value, particularly when paired with Liebknecht’s other slogan “learn everything, don’t forget anything.” It reminds us of the self-interested nature of domestic ruling classes and their imperialist intrigues, particularly during times of war. Today, “the main enemy is at home” is often interpreted to mean that leftists ought to focus on the misdeeds of their own domestic governments and economic elites, and prioritize demands that those governments stay out of conflicts abroad.

It’s an important reminder. Naturally, however, as ideas travel further away from their original historical context, they become increasingly vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. A significant number of Western leftists now misuse “the main enemy is at home” to sideline criticisms of other regimes and their ruling classes, legitimize reactionary apologia for those regimes, and condemn any and all policy responses from those leftists’ own governments. In response, critics such as British-Syrian writer Leila Al-Shami have lambasted Western anti-war organizations that, through such invocations of “the main enemy is at home,” ignore the grim realities of a world with multiple imperial powers, and justify silence on Russian, Iranian, and other non-Western imperialism, along with the atrocities those states perpetrate within their own borders. For Al-Shami, this political orientation “combines identity politics with egoism,” disregards native voices, and extends solidarity even to tyrannical states instead of the social groups oppressed by these states.

Many socialist thinkers have attempted to rehabilitate Liebknecht’s prescription in the face of these abuses. For instance, the writer Luke Hawksbee reminds us that Liebknecht’s pamphlet was targeted specifically towards the German proletariat in a situation where Germany and Austria-Hungary were the actual aggressors in an imperialist war. According to Hawksbee, “The overriding lesson here is not ‘condemn your own government and ignore the misdeeds of others,’ but ‘speak out against all wrongs, focus your efforts on promoting a foreign policy of peace and solidarity in your own country, and work together with political allies abroad to do the same in theirs.’”


“Home” and Migrant Exclusion in Nationalist Canada

But where is “home”? And who are “we”? For many migrants and diasporic communities in Western countries, this is not a hypothetical question but rather one of immense practical importance. Migrant communities do not have the privilege of thinking only about what happens in one place and centring their local enemies in every situation. Members of those communities have family, friends, loved ones, colleagues, and comrades back in their countries of origin who are often in struggle against authoritarianism, capitalist exploitation, military aggression, and ultranationalist forces there. The governments of those countries may or may not be geopolitically aligned with the West. 

For many of these migrants, “home” can be located in the constant worry that relatives’ social media will be targeted for surveillance and repression, in middle-of-the-night check-ins to see if friends are safe from bombings, in remittances transferred to loved ones facing ethno-racial persecution, and in long hours spent scanning the Internet for ways to help comrades safely emigrate to another country.  

When organizing socialist politics here in so-called Canada, are we inclusive of and sensitive to these complicated, transnational concepts of home among our neighbours and comrades? Or are we reproducing “homey” forms of racialized exclusion – a kind of inverted Canadian nationalism that centres the Canadian state as the prism through which to relate to struggles beyond Canadian borders? 

I have observed, for instance, repeated examples of white activists in leftist spaces commenting that cultural genocide in China and authoritarian repression in Hong Kong have nothing to do with “us,” and that we should be focusing on our enemies at “home” – even while Chinese diasporic activists in those same spaces challenge this Western-centrism from a politically and personally grounded perspective. In the US, this trend contributed to the Democratic Socialists of America International Committee’s disgraceful refusal to condemn the forced disbanding of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which the Chinese and Hong Kong governments had brought about through intimidation tactics and prosecutions of union leaders. It is a bitter irony that in leftist organizations whose activists formally commit themselves to anti-racism, diasporic voices are displaced in favour of others advancing narratives in which only Western governments and their ruling classes determine the fate of peoples around the world.

The practical limitations of “the main enemy is at home” are also on display as the Western left seeks to respond to Russia’s imperialist aggression in Ukraine. A foreign invasion tends to bolster nationalist ideas and, as a result, internationalist leftists in Ukraine find themselves further marginalized as the Russian army advances. In Russia, leftists are jailed in the thousands, brutalized for speaking out against the war; independent media outlets have been shuttered, and new laws introducing hefty criminal penalties on any sort of opposition to or honest accounting of the war have been rammed through parliament. Given this horrendous repression, diasporic organizing in Canada and elsewhere can be a lifeline for those most affected by the war. Progressive diasporic voices must be uplifted by the left in the spirit of internationalist solidarity, not shut down.

How might we advocate for domestic working-class anti-war organizing that is responsive and accountable to the massive Ukrainian diasporic community – our neighbours – many of whom have loved ones at immediate risk of being displaced, immiserated, injured, and even killed by Russian aggression, and many of whom have escaped similar horrors themselves? How can we target our legitimate enemies at home without displacing the voices, concerns, and agency of our Ukrainian neighbours and comrades?


Diaspora Complexities and a Broader Conception of Home

As the migrant justice scholar and activist Nandita Sharma reminds us, home is “an idea that masquerades as a place” – one that has been “occupied by nationalist practices and colonized by nationalist imaginations.” Within the Canadian nation-state, to be “at home” is reflected not only by preferential treatment in immigration and citizenship law, but also by a “managerial sense,” as Sharma puts it, of belonging in Canada. In producing this sense of entitlement to national identity, whiteness, of course, plays a key role. 

As a result, leftist migrants who have suffered at the hands of regimes not aligned with the West often experience a double trauma of nationalist exclusion when they come to Canada: both in terms of the direct cruelty of borders and the racism, nationalism, and xenophobia of the states that those borders delimit, but also the indirect cruelty of voices erased and agency denied, when those migrants’ fights against oppression and injustice at “home” do not single-mindedly centre the perceived “main enemy” of Canadian anti-imperialist and anti-war activists. 

This is not to say that all the ideas of diasporic communities ought to shape socialist politics. Often it is the elite and sometimes reactionary elements in the diaspora that are elevated in the mainstream media. They can reflect politics that assert Western innocence, advance an essentialist “clash of civilizations” narrative, erase or diminish histories of Canadian colonialism and imperialism, and energize right-wing Canadian nationalism. Like most communities, diasporas are politically heterogeneous and diverse. Yet this heterogeneity represents an opportunity for the left to reach out and amplify progressive diasporic voices as a counterpoint to elite reaction, and to articulate links between the oppressions people are struggling against domestically and abroad. Only through this kind of outreach, and by a clear-eyed and truthful engagement with our different conceptions of “home” and how they inform our political priorities, can we lay a fertile ground for discussion, political education, and internationalist solidarity to take root and grow.

Vincent Wong is a lawyer and PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, where he researches racial capitalism and undocumented labour. He is also a board member of the Community Justice Collective (Tkaranto) and a member of the Lausan Collective (Hong Kong).