“To punish the alien worker for the sin of the native capitalist is like the man who struck the boy because he was not strong enough to strike his father.” - ‘A voice from the aliens’, 1895
The arrival of newcomers is nothing new to the labour movement. What often strikes us when we read trade unionists opposing immigration is the absence of any class response, or even a trade union one, to foreign workers. Instead there is an expectation that the capitalist state will protect the ‘privileges’ of the native-born worker. At the beginning of the 20th century in Lanarkshire, there was much vitriol against Lithuanian newcomers. They were employed in the iron works and the coal pits, and they were accused of wage-cutting and scabbing. Nevertheless, the Lanarkshire County Miners’ Union, in the space of some 15 years, went from offering support to miners willing to strike against Lithuanian workers to demanding that Lithuanian miners in Lanarkshire should not be deported. During those 15 years, the Lithuanians had joined the union in large numbers and were active in it. Unionisation was the key to improved relations between the Lithuanian labour force and the LCMU. Once the Lithuanians began to respond positively to local strike demands, the other allegations made against them were simply no longer an issue. The adoption of a more class-conscious attitude and the strength of their new found loyalty to the union was in part due to the fact that the union had taken some very positive steps to encourage Lithuanian membership, such as printing the rules in Lithuanian and offering entitlement to claim full benefits. Also refreshing for those opposing immigration is to read “A voice from the aliens” published way back in 1895 and one of the earliest appeals against immigration controls (http://goo.gl/GIPkUV). Fear-mongering and divisive politics play well in creating more xenophobia and it has a long history. But those who fall for the propaganda should know that keeping out immigrants with a ‘fortress Britain’ (or a ‘fortress Europe’) has not and will not solve our problems and make us better off.
The Lithuanians were not the only immigrant population used as cheaper labour by the bosses. There were much Irish immigration. Indeed many in authority encouraged division and the bitter consequences are still felt today every time an Orange Walk takes place locally or when Rangers play Celtic.
The plea that immigration controls should be imposed and certain foreigners excluded should have no place in a workers’ movement that is calling upon the exploited of all the world to unite for their emancipation. Any policy for the exclusion of other suffering wage-slaves is more consistent with the attitudes of the callous capitalist class rather than of the movement whose proud boast it is that it stands uncompromisingly for the oppressed and downtrodden of all the world. Immigrants have just as good a right to enter this country as British workers have in exiting it. The Socialist Party will not sacrifice principle and jeopardise our goal for some immediate advantage. We will not spurn fellow workers lured here by the glimmer of hope that their burdens may be lightened by the promise of some improvement in conditions. If revolutionary socialism does not stand unflinchingly and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretence. If the Socialist Party risk losing support because we refuse to call for the border gates to be closed in the faces of our own brothers and sisters, we will be none the weaker for spurning such tactics to acquire false friends. All the votes gained would do us little good if our party ceases to be a revolutionary party, yielding to public opinion to modify our principles for the sake of popularity and membership numbers. When other supposed socialists abandoned the workers’ internationalism and embraced national chauvinism - with one group under HM Hyndman going as far to demonstrate their patriotic ardour by setting up a National ‘Socialist’ Party - we in the Socialist Party are the party of all workers, regardless of place of birth. We stand resolutely for world socialism and if this is too encompassing for some despite them paying lip-service to the claim - so be it. We shall leave them to their various national ‘socialisms’. Marx didn’t advocate open borders because at the time he wrote border controls didn’t exist. So no-one can definitively assert what he would have said back then (and fortunately for him nor was there any asylum-seekers legislation for political refugees), but Eleanor, his daughter, was particularly active in distributing the statement, “A voice of the aliens’.
It has been asked what Marx would have done. We can easily answer by describing what the First International, of which he was a member, did. They organised!
The International announced that “the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries” and that “Each member of the International Association, on removing his domicile from one country to another, will receive the fraternal support of the Associated Working Men”.
Furthermore, “To counteract the intrigues of capitalists - always ready, in cases of strikes and lockouts, to misuse the foreign workman as a tool against the native workman - is one of the particular functions which our society has hitherto performed with success. It is one of the great purposes of the Association to make the workmen of different countries not only feel but act as brethren and comrades in the army of emancipation.”
The International consequently addressed fellow workers: “Help us, then, in the noble enterprise, help us to bring about a common understanding between the peoples of all countries, so that in the struggles of labour with unprincipled capitalists they may not be able to execute the threat which they so often indulge in, of using the working men of one country as instruments to defeat the just demands of the workmen in another. This has been done in the past, and seeds of discord and national antipathies have been thereby created and perpetuated. A part of our mission is to prevent the recurrence of such evils, and you can help us to achieve our aims.” Marx, in the name of the International, writes: “If the Edinburgh masters succeeded, through the import of German labour, in nullifying the concessions they had already made, it would inevitably lead to repercussions in England. No-one would suffer more than the German workers themselves, who constitute in Great Britain a larger number than the workers of all the other continental nations. And the newly imported workers, being completely helpless in a strange land, would soon sink to the level of pariahs. Furthermore, it is a point of honour with the German workers to prove to other countries that they, like their brothers in France, Belgium and Switzerland, know how to defend the common interests of their class and will not become obedient mercenaries of capital in its struggle against labour.” There is never an appeal to the capitalist state to impose immigration laws, but a call to the workers to unionise. Borders are a means by which capitalists protect their assets, which include us. It is immigration controls that give employers greater power over migrants, particularly new arrivals or those who are dependent on them for their visa status, a power they do not always have over native workers. Nationalism is a huge barrier to developing class-consciousness. Borders cause workers in countries to care less about the other workers in the world. Across the world, national states are imposing ever more restrictive immigration policies. Nevertheless, people have become more internationalised and are acquiring a cosmopolitan identity. Making the demand, ‘No borders’, reveals the importance of border controls to capitalist social relations - relationships dependent on the practices of expropriation and exploitation. The rights of property consist of the right to exclude others, while anti-nationalism is a part of a global reshaping of societies in a way that is not compatible with capitalism or of the state. Socialists must reject the concept of borders that are used as control devices over labour. By opposing the idea of borders we begin to perceive nation-states as ‘theirs’ and not part of ‘our world’. Here is another quote from the First International: “The poor have no country; in all lands they suffer from the same evils; and they therefore realise that the barriers put up by the powers that be, the more thoroughly to enslave the people, must fall.” Many years ago we would often hear seasoned trade unionists justify pay differentials between women and male workers by claiming they worked only for pin-money and stole jobs from those who had families to raise. The argument against migrants proves to be little different from those against these earlier ‘interlopers’ into the labour market. Nobodyhas tried to deny that supply and demand has an effect on the price of labour - which is a commodity, after all, to be bought and sold on the market. An example is in that the Black Death killed half of the population and consequently real wages tripled. In the US the demands for job equality of African Americans also had its own effect in slowing down wages. Should the labour movement have supported discrimination on the grounds of sex and race? Or shall we allot blame to those older workers who insist upon staying in their jobs, while youth unemployment soars? After all, young people do not possess the sort of savings, paid-off mortgage or upcoming pension that the elderly allegedly enjoy, do they? Let’s be ageist in our search for scape-goats!
It is often pointed out that immigration rules are largely in the interests of businesses - they let in workers from low-wage countries so they can be more easily exploited and used to drive down the wage levels of the locals. But we must realise that the only way to change this would be through a powerful working class movement which had the ability to force change upon the government. And if this were the case, then it could also force change on the concrete material issues which migration impacts on (low wages, less jobs to go around, lack of affordable housing) - and, of course, a united working class is much more effective at fighting for its own interests, as opposed to one divided along national/racial/citizenship lines. So we are more likely to actually achieve something by being internationalist in regards to immigration. The reasonable-sounding position that ‘There’s not enough to go around for everyone, so what we have should be kept solely for those first here’ is totally antithetical to a socialist perspective. A truly working class perspective leads us to resent not each other, but what causes the shortages of resources in the first place - capitalism. Migration, for sure, generates a lot of problems, but what is the alternative? Any attempt to simply curtail it leads to a lot of suffering and plenty of draconian policies. From a working class perspective, workers from another country are not qualitatively different from workers from another gender, younger workers or workers from a different area of the same country. We are socialists for one reason only - to remove the root cause of our social problems: capitalism. The solution doesn’t lie in withdrawing into these sectional interests of (simplistically put) ‘First here, first served’.