Why Marxists oppose immigration controls

Since the beginning of the crisis of 2008, anti-immigrant parties and movements have made headway in Europe and the United States. They have even managed to win over certain layers of the working class to their programme. This has led a section of the labour movement to adapt itself to these ideas, calling for stricter border controls, justifying its position with quotations from Marx. Such short-sighted policies have nothing to do with Marx or the traditions of the First, Second or Third International, as we shall demonstrate.

A very thorough treatment of this question in relation to Italy is available in Italian by Mauro Vanetti: Lotta di classe, mormorò lo spettro. Una miniserie in due puntate

Marx on Brexit

One of the main fields in which this discussion has played out has been on the question of Brexit. In particular, right-wing politicians have drawn the conclusion that the reason behind Brexit was that workers were racist and therefore we have to “listen to their concerns”. This also affected the trade union movement, where a number of leading union officials have come out in one way or another for more restrictions on immigration.

On 19 December, Unite the Union leader, Len McCluskey penned an article entitled “a second Brexit referendum risks tearing our society apart”. In general, the article is a sensible critique of the movement for a second referendum, which indeed does threaten to tear the Labour Party apart. However, in the article, McCluskey returns to the theme of border controls. He calls for an end to imported agency labour where it undercuts local term and conditions:

“The principle is simple – ensure that everyone is paid the rate for the job; that union agreements prevail, and an end is put to the scandal of agency labour being imported by unscrupulous companies simply because it is cheaper than hiring local labour. Migrant workers are not to blame for this, but the system that allows greedy bosses to abuse all workers. May is silent on this.”

This is correct. The Labour movement must fight against any attempts to undermine the positions it has already conquered. This includes the EU’s Posted Workers Directive, which has opened the door for what is effectively the import of strikebreakers from other parts of Europe. However, then he continues, and this is where he steps over a line from what is a correct position to a dangerous one:

“The working-class movement will always fight against racism – and exploitation too.  And any trade unionist will know that our strength always needs underpinning by control of the labour supply – a deregulated free market for labour power works no better than it does in any other part of life.”

This common sense rhetoric hides quite a pernicious demand: that we should allow the capitalists to determine the labour supply. He implies that somehow the trade unions could control the labour supply, but he doesn't even spell it out, because he knows that's not on the agenda. He’s referring to the bourgeois state controlling immigration, at the head of which at the moment is a very anti-union government. In reality, this is an appeal for the bourgeois to limit immigration, not for immigration control by the labour movement. If he was arguing for the closed shop, where only union members are allowed to work, a Marxist would find no reason to object, but that’s not what he’s saying here.

Of course, one could argue, if the Labour Party came to power, that would change things. However, it wouldn’t fundamentally change anything. The state would remain a bourgeois state, and the economic system would remain capitalist. The idea that the largely right-wing civil service would come up with a proposal for immigration levels to benefit the labour movement, as opposed to big business, is naive. In reality, McCluskey knows he’s on shaky ground, which is why he attempts to use Marx and anti-capitalist rhetoric to defend his position.

The art of selective quotations

On 24 December 2016, McCluskey published an article in the British Communist Party paper, Morning Star as part of his re-election campaign. The article is clearly directed towards Len McCluskey’s left opponent, Ian Allinson, who wrote an article a few days earlier supporting the rights of workers to move freely.

Among other arguments, Allinson cites the example of women in the workplace, and it’s a good analogy. The demand for women to stay out of the workplace and the unions was a reactionary, divisive demand, and helped bosses create different rates for women and men and thereby use women to undermine male workers’ pay and conditions. All the objections that are made to the presence of migrant workers were made about women workers in the past. There is no reason to treat immigrants differently.  

In order to defend his position, McCluskey quotes Marx’s address to the First International in preparation of the Lausanne Congress:

“A study of the struggle waged by the English working class reveals that, in order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force.”

From this little snippet, McCluskey is attempting to infer that Marx supported border controls. But if we read the full paragraph, we get a rather different picture:

“The power of the human individual has disappeared before the power of capital, in the factory the worker is now nothing but a cog in the machine. In order to recover his individuality, the worker has had to unite together with others and create associations to defend his wages and his life. Until today these associations had remained purely local, while the power of capital, thanks to new industrial inventions, is increasing day by day; furthermore in many cases national associations have become powerless: a study of the struggle waged by the English working class reveals that, in order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force. Given this state of affairs, if the working class wishes to continue its struggle with some chance of success, the national organisations must become international.” (Marx, On the Lausanne Congress)

Marx recognises the problem: that employers are using national divisions and borders in order to pit the working class against itself. However, his solution isn’t “managed migration”, but international organisation. Marx calls for increased cooperation between labour movements across borders. Indeed, the particular passage quoted is from the Lausanne Congress of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International), which Marx dedicated himself to building.

The actual proposal that McCluskey quotes in his article – to ban employers from importing labour without collective bargaining agreements – in reality doesn’t mean very much, but the rhetoric hints at much more than that. In reality the article is an attempt to establish a left cover for “managed migration”, by which he clearly means reduced migration. This has been the catch-all phrase for the Labour Party’s migration policy for at least two decades, from Tony Blair’s detention centres, to Brown’s slogan “British jobs for British workers” (launched at a trade union conference in 2007), to Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug.

McCluskey Image Flickr garryknightIn order to defend his position in favour of border controls, McCluskey quotes Marx very selectively, obscuring his main point about the necessity of internationalism and unity between local and migrant labour / Image: Flickr garryknight

What would be a correct demand, which McClusky did raise in his article on 19 December this year, is to ban bosses from employing foreign workers on a lower wage than workers already there. This was part of a programme approved by Marx.

One example, from the history of McCluskey’s own union, is the much-publicised Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes, where workers did precisely fight against undercutting terms and conditions by the Posted Workers Directive. In this strike, local shop stewards fought to maintain an internationalist point of view against the establishment racists, who were trying without success to take over the strike. The shop stewards demanded that all workers, regardless of nationality, should be subject to the same conditions. The struggle was won after winning over the foreign workers to the strike, something that could never have been achieved if there had been an ounce of xenophobia in the campaign.

The type of rhetoric that McCluskey employs would have made it more difficult to win over the foreign workers to the demands of the British workers. The trade union bureaucracy at the time, incidentally, was susceptible to the xenophobic slogan of the tabloid newspapers (picked up from Gordon Brown): “British jobs for British workers”. This slogan was picked up by then union leader Derek Simpson, who was supposed to be a left-winger. Clearly the workers, through their struggle, were able to develop a far better position on this question than the tops of the trade unions.

Incidentally, a section of the left, ever eager to find evidence of racism among the working class, labelled the strike racist and opposed it. Such ultra-left stupidity serves only the interests of the bosses, and would have pushed the less class-conscious workers into the hands of the establishment racists.

In this dispute, the workers were right and the union leaders were utterly wrong. This is no accident. The workers in struggle will discover the need to unite with their brothers and sisters from other countries. It’s the narrow-minded reformist mentality that leads the union leaders to always find a solution acceptable to the capitalists.

One might add that, in the late 19th and early 20th century, strike breakers were often imported from other countries. When Marx set up the First International, one of its main tasks was to fight such practices. How was this done? By winning over migrant workers to the union and building links between workers in different countries through the medium of the International.

The success that the First International had proved to the workers, particularly in Britain, the importance of internationalism. The same methods were employed by the Second International, with much success. It wouldn’t have crossed Marx’s mind to campaign for border controls. There’s a world of difference between arguing that all workers in Britain should be working under the same pay and conditions, and arguing for a ban or limit on foreign workers. The former serves to unite the working class, the latter to divide it.

The ethical-political problem of Zizek

Zizek always enjoys courting controversy. Sometimes he makes valid points, but his ability to see hypocrisy and contradictions in other people’s thinking is far greater than his ability to actually propose an alternative. This has also been true on the question of immigration.

For some reason, Zizek digresses into the question of immigration and refugees when writing an article about the French yellow vests:

“The same holds for our big ethical-political problem: how to deal with the flow of refugees? The solution is not to just open the borders to all who want to come in, and to ground this openness in our generalised guilt (‘our colonisation is our greatest crime which we will have to repay forever’. If we remain at this level, we serve perfectly the interests of those in power who foment the conflict between immigrants and the local working class (which feels threatened by them) and retain their superior moral stance. “

The analysis is only skin deep. Of course, there is petty-bourgeois moralising when it comes to refugees. A lot of charities love engaging with refugees, particularly when they are far away on some other continent. However, it is quite insufficient to note this and counterpose it to the question of class struggle. In reality, there is a great sense of solidarity between working class people of different backgrounds, and this was more important in the Refugee Welcome movement than any kind of ethical considerations or sense of guilt.

Zizek Image Flickr Secom UnBLike so many middle-class intellectuals, Zizek conceives of workers as uninterested in international solidarity or theoretical aspects of the class struggle / Image: Flickr, Secom UnB

Like so many middle-class intellectuals, Zizek basically conceives of workers as uninterested in international solidarity or theoretical aspects of the class struggle, and only interested in their next paycheck. In their treatment of this subject, such intellectuals reveal their low opinion of the working class. It is, for a related reason, also incorrect to pose the question as fundamentally an ethical one, and declare it a distraction, as he does in the lines:

“The moment one begins to think in this direction, the politically correct left instantly cries fascism – see the ferocious attacks on Angela Nagle for her outstanding essay 'The Left Case against Open Borders'. Again, the 'contradiction' between advocates of open borders and populist anti-immigrants is a false 'secondary contradiction', whose ultimate function is to obfuscate the need to change the system itself: the entire international economic system which, in its present form, gives rise to refugees.”

Zizek is, of course, correct that, fundamentally, the main struggle must be to change society. But in this struggle, the issue of refugees and immigration will only become obfuscating if the question is posed in the wrong way. In a sense, that is precisely what his own article does. Immigration and refugees are a very important matter that must be addressed, but the question must be given a socialist answer, not an ethical one.

Marx and the Irish national question

Zizek refers to an article by Angela Nagle in the conservative American Affairs in November, entitled “The Left Case against Open Borders”, which has faced much criticism, and some praise, from the left. It is noteworthy because, again, it attempts to use Marx to justify opposition to immigration. The passage that Nagle has chosen is a letter by Marx to two US members of the First International:

“Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.

“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

This is a very clear analysis where Marx points out that the Irish migrants were pitted against English workers in England in the second half of the 19th century and that this division was to the detriment of the class struggle in England. The fact that Marx pointed this out should not really surprise anyone. What should interest us here is not Marx’s observational skills, but the solution he proposes, something Nagle doesn’t see fit to include:

“England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence, it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.” (Emphasis in original)

This really gets to the heart of the matter. Marx is arguing for the English workers to unite with the Irish workers by supporting their cause for independence, and for the First International to take up this cause. Thereby, the English and Irish workers would be united in struggle against English capital and English Imperialism. It should be noted as well that he puts the onus on the English workers to take up this call, in order to win over the Irish workers to their side. This is completely different than arguing for border controls.

Marx and Engels at Hague Congress Image public domainThe policies of Marx and the First International had nothing in common with the provincialism of the current union tops / Image: public domain

Nagle appears to have simply copied the quote from an article by David L Wilson in Monthly Review. In this article, he argues that it would be wrong to belittle those worried about the role of immigration in depressing wages, which is correct in so far as it goes. However, this argument, without further clarification, could easily be used to justify something quite reactionary. Wilson doesn’t do that. Instead he uses the quote appropriately, to argue for unity of workers across national boundaries: that we need to take up the opposition to US foreign policy and to unite migrant and non-migrant workers. This is correct. He also argues against a couple of particularly pernicious policies of the US government against migrant workers. Yet, he leaves the fundamental theoretical question of borders unresolved.

Such a lack of clarity opens the door for other interpretations. Angela Nagle follows Wilson in arguing for action against the “root causes of migration”, which she finds in US foreign policy, multinational corporations and poverty. However, whereas Wilson argues against immigration controls as being detrimental to the unity of migrant and non-migrant labour, Nagle takes the opposite position.

For Nagle, it appears that the mere statement that a conflict exists between migrant and non-migrant labour is an argument for immigration controls, whereas in reality it’s an argument for the opposite. In a peculiar twist, Nagle uses the quote where Marx is urging for the defence of Irish workers’ democratic rights to argue for more punitive measures against migrants:

“With respect to illegal immigration, the Left should support efforts to make E-Verify mandatory and push for stiff penalties on employers who fail to comply. Employers, not immigrants, should be the primary focus of enforcement efforts. These employers take advantage of immigrants who lack ordinary legal protections in order to perpetuate a race to the bottom in wages while also evading payroll taxes and the provision of other benefits. Such incentives must be eliminated if any workers are to be treated fairly.


“Just like the situation Marx described in the England of his day, politicians like Trump rally their base by stirring up anti-immigration sentiment, but they rarely if ever address the structural exploitation—whether at home or abroad—that is the root cause of mass migration. Often, they make these problems worse, expanding the power of employers and capital against labor, while turning the rage of their supporters—often the victims of these forces—against other victims, immigrants. But for all Trump’s anti-immigration bluster, his administration has done virtually nothing to expand the implementation of E-Verify, preferring instead to boast about a border wall that never seems to materialize. While families are separated at the border, the administration has turned a blind eye toward employers who use immigrants as pawns in a game of labor arbitrage.”

Here, Nagle tries to present herself as being on the side of the workers, by asking employers to be fined. But in reality, as Wilson points out in his article, these types of fines and requirements only make migrant workers even more vulnerable to exploitation by employers. The creation of an underclass of super-exploited migrants is precisely what legislation and policing achieves. Employers use unsavoury subcontractors to get around such measures. These proposals will solve nothing, and in reality, they amount to fundamentally the same reactionary position as the old anti-Chinese laws of 1882, which Nagle cites almost approvingly when discussing the inglorious chapters of the past of AFL.

Nagle is here leaving it in the hands of the capitalist class the question of the control of the flow of labour. If the capitalist class determines that more labour should come in, legally or illegally, they will let more in, if not, they won’t. The idea that this will strengthen the bargaining position of the working class is short-sighted to say the least. This reflects the hope of the trade union bureaucracy for an easy life.

Such a policy would drive a wedge between legal and illegal workers and likely create an even more tiered workforce, where some have more rights than others. Over the past few decades, the AFL-CIO, to their credit, have campaigned against the migration laws and in favour of pathways to citizenship and right to remain for migrants. This is correct, and it corresponds with the programme adopted by Second International, precisely because it grows out of the need of the labour movement to level out the rights of the working class, in order to unite.

However, Trumka, and other AFL-CIO leaders continually insist on the fiction of abolishing ‘illegal’ migration, which is more-or-less what Nagle is arguing for as well. They pay too much attention to the rhetoric of the bourgeois and not enough to what they are actually doing. The whole purpose of giving migrants different rights, whether it’s right to remain only under certain conditions or complete illegality, is to bring down wages and conditions, and to create a super-exploited section of the working class. Precisely for that reason, we can not expect the capitalist class, or their state apparatus, to create a pro-worker migration system.

The myth of the liberal bourgeoisie

In order to cover their own opportunism, many left advocates of immigration controls profess their opposition to liberalism. In order to attempt to justify their divisive policies, they invoke a phraseology of class conflict, and being opposed to “liberal elites”. In reality, these liberal elites don’t exist.

Nagle quotes the Mark Zuckenberg’s campaign Fwd.us as supposedly being aligned with left-wing proponents of an open border, but in reality, their programme is not for open borders, but more “humane” and efficient borders. For example, Fwd.us, along with the Cato Institute, argue that detention is too expensive and approvingly cite the use of “electronic ankle monitors, telephone checkups that used biometric voice recognition software, unannounced home visits, employer verification, and in-person reporting to supervise participants” (Alternatives to Detention Are Cheaper than Universal Detention, Cato Institute). Phase two of this programme began in 2010, two years into the Obama administration. It’s not a bad illustration of the differences between the policy of the Republicans and the Democrats. The former advocate detention centres, the latter advocate electronic tagging, because it is cheaper.

Hillary Clinton 10 Image Flickr Gage SkidmoreHillary Clinton insisted that Europe must curb its migration / Image: Flickr Gage Skidmore

On 22 November, Hillary Clinton insisted that Europe must curb its migration:

“I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” (Hillary Clinton: Europe must curb immigration to stop rightwing populists)

In other words, we have to defeat the far right by adopting their programme.

Another darling of the establishment, Tony Blair, agrees:

“You’ve got to deal with the legitimate grievances and answer them, which is why today in Europe you cannot possibly stand for election unless you’ve got a strong position on immigration because people are worried about it… “You’ve got to answer those problems. If you don’t answer them then … you leave a large space into which the populists can march.” (Clinton, Blair, Renzi: why we lost, and how to fight back)

Blair, being a skilled bourgeois politician, never says anything clearly on these questions, but only drops hints. We need “a strong position on immigration” – but he doesn’t say what that would be. It should be remembered that Blair’s immigration policy – ‘managed migration’ – involved setting up private detention centres where immigrants were treated worse than criminals. His party used to hand out leaflets bragging about reductions in the number of asylum seekers etc. Much of the so-called hostile environment that asks doctors, teachers, lecturers, banks and landlords to police immigration existed in embryonic form during the Blair years. So one can presume that he proposes more of the same.

Blair’s grasp of the question of electability is somewhat limited. Last year’s Labour election manifesto was the most pro-migrant for many years with its opposition to the ‘hostile environment’ and indefinite detention. This, in spite of its support for what seems to be a points-based immigration system, was a clear departure from the thinly veiled flirtation with xenophobia during Blair, Brown and Miliband. On the basis of this manifesto, Labour had its best election result since 1997.

Merkel is often touted as a friend of immigrants, but she’s nothing of the sort. Admittedly, during the refugee crisis, she allowed more refugees into Germany than were allowed anywhere else, but that was not out of general approval of immigration. In reality, she was attempting to stop Freedom of Movement from breaking down completely in the European Union. Borders were being erected between member states and this was a way of easing the pressure while she was working to stem the flow of refugees. In the end, a deal was struck with Erdogan, where he accepted €6bn to keep the refugees, at gunpoint, in Turkey. Such is the great humanitarianism of the European Union.

A left cover for the bourgeoisie

The myth of the liberal bourgeoisie exists on both the pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant left. Paul Mason, although he has changed his position multiple times, in 2016 argued that Labour must form an alliance with the “globalist section of the elite” for a soft Brexit. One also finds this attitude across the entire pro-EU British left. They are constantly referring to the EU as some kind of progressive institution, and, although they might not use the same phrase as Mason, they argue for precisely the same: a cross-class alliance between the workers and the bankers of the city of London, the vast majority of whom supported remain.

In the US, this popular frontism takes the form of support for the Democrats. Yet the Democrats, although not quite as far right as Trump, still defend most of his programme. Their main criticism is that he makes it look bad. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is fine, but children should be deported together with their parents, not separately. In the same interview as quoted above Hillary Clinton says: first you deport criminals, threats to national security and “bad actors”, and then give those who have been in the US for a long time a proper process and a queue to wait in. “For people who then keep coming, you turn them back, unless they qualify for asylum”. One can only presume that she’s referring here to the migrant caravan. It’s no accident that, at the first meeting of the “Progressive” Caucus of the Democrats after the November elections, the assembled congressmen and women couldn’t give a straight answer to what their position was on ICE, and in reality they abandoned their opposition to ICE in the summer.

To pretend that the bourgeoisie can in any way be a friend of the migrant workers or an ally of those that want to struggle against racism and xenophobia is to provide a useful service to the bourgeoisie, giving them a left, ‘progressive’ cover. As Marxists, our role is to unmask the reactionary motivations behind both the section of the bourgeoisie that conceals its interests behind progressive, democratic colours, and of the section of the bourgeoisie that pretends to be on the side of the native worker against the foreign.

Our real traditions

1907 Stuttgart Congress was the most important congress of the Second International. It discussed the colonies, the war, imperialism, women’s suffrage, trade unions and migration. This was not accidental: it was on these questions that opportunism was showing itself most clearly.

The right opportunists at the congress, mainly from Britain, the US and Germany, argued in favour of colonies as a “civilising” force, against a firm line on war, against immigration from countries “too far behind in their development”, in favour of “neutral” (i.e. apolitical) trade unionism and in favour of compromise on the question of women’s suffrage, in particular prioritising male suffrage over female. In the end, the left won the votes.

It is worth going into some detail on the question of immigration, as the arguments raised during the debate were very similar to those now being put forward by Nagle and McCluskey. Trömer, a delegate from the Australian Labour Party put it like this:

“The capitalists therefore endeavour to bring in more Asian workers to depress wages. The incoming white workers organise themselves swiftly and do not drag down the conditions of Australians. The Australian Labor Party therefore wishes to keep out certain workers who are not expected to adopt the conditions of whites. This means the Asians. [He believes that] these policies of the Australian Labor Party do not contradict socialism. […] Of course we all want a general brotherhood of peoples, but until we achieve this we must look after the workers of our own country, so that they are not offered up to the capitalists without resistance.” [1]

The same sentiment was expressed by US delegate, Hillquit:

“The capitalists import such workforces, that by nature must be cheaper and in general serve as unwitting strike-breakers, and who are dangerous competition for native workers. Nowadays these workforces are Chinese and Japanese, the yellow race in general. We have absolutely no racial prejudice against the Chinese, but we must state that they are completely unorganisable. A people can only be organised for the class struggle when its development has already progressed quite far, as is the case with the Belgians and Italians who have migrated to France. The Chinese however are still too far behind in their development to be organised. Socialism must not be mere sentimentalism. We are in the middle of an open struggle between capital and labour. Whoever stands against organised labour is our enemy. Do we want to achieve a sort of privilege for foreign strike-breakers, that native workers will have to fight against? If we take no measures against the import of Chinese strike-breakers, then we will roll back the socialist workers’ movement.”

With the exception of some of the language used, we have here exactly the same phenomenon as with Nagle and McCluskey. Under cover of internationalist and class struggle phraseology, these delegates were advocating attacks on the rights of a particular group of workers. Not immigrants in general, of course (where would the US be without immigrants?), but a particular group of workers that was considered to be undercutting wages.

It’s not an accident that the group that the US members were particularly concerned with was Asian migration. The US Congress had, just five years earlier, made the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 permanent, which not only banned further immigration from China, but removed a host of rights from migrants of Chinese origin. The act was shamefully backed by the AFL, as well as construction unions in California, whereas the left-wing IWW actively opposed the Act. In this regard, the US and Australian delegates were following the lead of the US ruling class.

This was the second time, incidentally, that delegates from the Socialist Party of America had raised this issue. At the Amsterdam Congress of 1904, Hilquit had put forward a similar motion, calling for an end to the importation of workers from “backward races”. The resolution was opposed by other SP delegates at the time, and like the resolution of 1907, it was withdrawn. Yet, the majority of the SP was thoroughly opportunistic on this question, and had played the immigration card in Debs’s presidential campaign of 1904, in spite of Debs’ personal repudiation of the Stuttgart resolution.

At Stuttgart, delegates from the US Socialist Labour Party (led by Daniel DeLeon) opposed the policy:

“[The speaker, Julius Hammer, criticised] in particular the third point of Hillquit’s resolution, that allows for a potential limit on immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers. That is completely un-socialist. A statutory limit on immigration must be dismissed. Nothing for socialism can be achieved through the legislative path in cooperation with the bourgeois parties. [The speaker gave several examples] of how racial hatred in America blinded the workers and incited them to violence. The Japanese and Chinese could be organised very well. There are no workers so uneducated as has been suggested. They come to understand capitalism very well, and understand how to fight it too.”

This was echoed by the Italian delegates:

“One cannot fight migrants, only the abuses which arise from emigration. The Italian party and trade unions are always mindful of this. We are against controls on migration, because we know that the whip of hunger that cracks behind migrants is stronger than any law made by governments.”

Essentially, these arguments are just as applicable to the situation today. The position taken up by the opportunists at this conference is completely analogous to the position taken up by the proponents of migration controls today. The resolution that was agreed at the Stuttgart Congress reiterated the same point:

“The congress does not seek a remedy to the potentially impending consequences for the workers from immigration and emigration in any economic or political exclusionary rules, because these are fruitless and reactionary by nature. This is particularly true of a restriction on the movement and the exclusion of foreign nationalities or races.” [2]

Instead of migration controls, which it regarded as “reactionary by nature”, the Second International proposed a series of measures to strengthen the labour movement in the recipient country:

“1. A ban on the export and import of those workers who have agreed on a contract that deprives them of the free disposal over their labour-power and wages.

“2. Statutory protection of workers by shortening the working day, introducing a minimum wage rate, abolishing the sweat system and regulating home working,

“3. Abolition of all restrictions which prevent certain nationalities or races from staying in a country or which exclude them from the social, political and economic rights of the natives or impede them in exercising those rights. Extensive measures to facilitate naturalisation.”

In addition, it was decided the trade union movement must remove all restrictions on migrants becoming members, and do their utmost to facilitate their involvement, as well as work to establish an international trade union movement and strengthen the trade union movement in the country from which the migrants came.

This internationalist programme stands in sharp contrast to the provincialism of the present leaders of the labour movement.

It is clear that the role that migrant labour plays in capitalist society has not fundamentally changed. There are constant attempts by the capitalist class today, as there were a hundred years ago, to use migrants to undercut wages and conditions. How far they are successful one can always argue about, but even if one draws the conclusion that migrants do undercut the pre-existing workforce, it does not follow that one must support immigration controls. Quite the contrary. The role of the trade unions and the political parties must be to integrate and educate non-unionised labour in order to strengthen the labour movement. As such, one must fight against all discrimination and different rights for migrants and non-migrants, including giving migrants the right to remain, independent of their employment.

Lenin and the Third International

Unsurprisingly, Lenin was on the side of the left at the Stuttgart Congress. He expressed concern about the strength of opportunism in the labour movement:

“This vote on the colonial question is of very great importance. First, it strikingly showed up socialist opportunism, which succumbs to bourgeois blandishments. Secondly, it revealed a negative feature in the European labour movement, one that can do no little harm to the proletarian cause, and for that reason should receive serious attention.”

The colonial policy resolution had been won with a narrow majority, with the smaller nations outweighing those of the imperialist colonial nations. He attributed the strength of opportunism to imperialism, something he was to return to in his book Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. He made the same point in regards to the question of immigration:

“A few words about the resolution on emigration and immigration. Here, too, in the Commission there was an attempt to defend narrow, craft interests, to ban the immigration of workers from backward countries (coolies—from China, etc.). This is the same spirit of aristocratism that one finds among workers in some of the ‘civilised’ countries, who derive certain advantages from their privileged position, and are, therefore, inclined to forget the need for international class solidarity. But no one at the [plenary of the] Congress defended this craft and petty-bourgeois narrow-mindedness. The resolution fully meets the demands of revolutionary Social-Democracy.” (The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart)

Lenin agreed with the resolution and associated the opposition to the rights of migrants with support for imperialism. His attitude on this question as in all other was that of internationalism. The attitude of a layer of the working class in the imperialist countries was detrimental to this unity. As Lenin puts it, they are “inclined to forget the need for international class solidarity”.

In his 1913 article Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, he makes a similar point:

“The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. Class-conscious workers, realising that the break-down of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries.”

In 1915 he returns again to the subject:

“In our struggle for true internationalism & against ‘jingo-socialism’ we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America, who are in favor of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907, & against the decisions of Stuttgart). We think that one can not be internationalist & be at the same time in favor of such restrictions. And we assert that Socialists in America, especially English Socialists, belonging to the ruling, and oppressing nation, who are not against any restrictions of immigration, against the possession of colonies (Hawaii) and for the entire freedom of colonies, that such Socialists are in reality jingoes.” (Letter to the Secretary of the Socialist Propaganda League)

Lenin’s position is abundantly clear. There can be no talk of arguing for restrictions on immigration. Such a position is “jingo-socialism” and fundamentally opposed to an internationalist policy. Lenin makes a further point about the beneficial effects of immigration in the 1913 article:

“There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.”

Lenin 10 prof Image public domainLenin’s position is abundantly clear. There can be no talk of arguing for restrictions on immigration. Such a position is “jingo-socialism” and fundamentally opposed to an internationalist policy / Image: public domain

The problem of migration must be posed from the point of view of the international working class. Migration, although often deeply traumatic and tragic for those being forced into it, plays a historically progressive role, in that it serves to break down national barriers, prejudices and habits. In the long run, such a development will only serve to strengthen the working-class movement nationally and internationally.

The Third International also made a statement on the question of migrant labour at its fourth congress. In the Theses on the Eastern Question, one can read the following:

“In view of the threatening danger, the Communist parties of the imperialist countries – the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, and Canada – are obliged not to limit themselves to propaganda against the war but also to make every effort to eliminate the factors that disorganise the workers’ movement in these countries and make it easier for the capitalists to utilise national and race antagonisms. These factors are the questions of immigration and of cheap Coloured labour.

“The chief method of recruiting Coloured workers today on the sugar plantations in the southern Pacific today is the contract system, which brings in workers from China and India. This fact has led workers of the imperialist countries to demand the passing of laws against immigration and against Coloured labour, both in the United States and in Australia. These laws deepen the antagonism between Coloured and white workers, fragmenting and weakening unity of the workers’ movement.

“The Communist parties of the United States, Canada, and Australia must wage a vigorous campaign against laws that restrict immigration, and explain to the proletarian masses of these countries that they too will suffer harm because of the race hatred stirred up by these laws.

“The capitalists oppose such anti-immigration laws because they favour free importation of cheap Coloured labour as a means of driving down the wages of white workers. There is only one way to successfully counter the capitalists’ intention to go over to the offensive: the immigrant workers must be admitted into the existing trade unions of white workers. At the same time, the demand must be raised that the wages of Coloured workers be brought up to same level as white workers’ pay. Such a step by the Communist parties will expose the capitalists’ intentions and also demonstrate clearly to the Coloured workers that the international proletariat does not harbour any racial prejudice.”

Again, there is no questioning the fact that the capitalists attempt to import labour to lower wages, but this can be “dealt with in only one way – the immigrant workers must join the ranks of the existing trade unions of white workers” (my emphasis). Demanding the levelling up of migrant workers’ wages will “expose the intentions of the capitalists” and, one cannot emphasise this enough, “graphically demonstrate” that “the international proletariat has no racial prejudice”.


The left proponents of migration controls occasionally justify immigration controls by reference to international solidarity. Surely migration is bad for the countries where people are emigrating from, and shouldn’t we be in favour of improving conditions there instead? This sounds pleasant enough, but the question is how we should improve conditions? Furthermore, given that the working class is not actually in power, what demands would serve to get us to that point?

For all the pious phrases of the world leaders, they always look after their own interests first. Trump advocates borders for both goods and migrants. The whole purpose of protectionist barriers on goods is to export unemployment to other countries. The same applies to migrants. By keeping migrants out, the US ruling class is helping stave off the class struggle at home, at the expense, of course, of Mexico and Central American countries. Then the US ruling class attempts to use the Mexican state to police the streams of migrants coming from Central America, and settle them in Mexico. This is also the policy, if less explicitly, of the Democrats and the so-called liberal establishment. Much the same policy as the EU has towards Turkey. This is how imperialism works.

migrant boat Image GgiaNagle correctly puts forward US military adventures as one of the main drivers of migration streams, but that is only part of the story / Image: Ggia

In an even more outrageous statement, Germany’s Africa Commissioner Günter Nooke proposed that European countries lease land in Africa in order to build cities that could absorb migrants and develop the economy, i.e. a return to colonialism. A similar proposal was put forward by the reactionary President Lobos in Honduras. Fundamentally, this would just be a more naked expression of what the Imperialist powers are already doing, in Special Economic Zones. For all the nice phrases about development, such a policy serves no one but themselves.

In the popular imagination, of course, charitable organisations and foreign aid serve the purpose of helping the impoverished masses of the world. In reality, charities mainly line their own pockets and those of corrupt government officials around the world. The workers and poor have to settle for crumbs. At best, charities cover up for the damage that is done by the armies and banks of the imperialist nations.

Nagle correctly puts forward US military adventures as one of the main drivers of migration streams. Indeed, the destabilisation of the Middle East has led to millions of people being deprived of their homes and livelihoods. On this we are in full agreement. One precondition must be an unequivocal opposition to US imperialism.

But it isn’t only war or political repression that causes migration. One of the contributing factors to the migrant caravan is the price of coffee. Imperialism has made much of Central America dependent on coffee for export. As the Brazilian Real has fallen, Brazil’s coffee competitors have been hit hard. The $2 per kilo of arabica coffee beans do not cover the production costs. As there is no other source of employment, coffee farmers are pushed into migration. At the same time, companies like Starbucks sell their coffee for $50 per kilo. This is the role that multinational corporations play in the world economy, and their contribution to the flow of migration.

In reality, it’s no good talking about changing the conditions in the former colonial world without challenging capitalism and imperialism itself. The whole of the 20th century shows the futility of anti-imperialism without anti-capitalism and socialism. Precisely because imperialism is intrinsically linked with capitalism, so the struggle against imperialism must be linked to the struggle against capitalism. Any other proposals, particularly coming out of the labour movement in the imperialist countries, would merely be providing a left cover for imperialism. The workers of the imperialist countries need to unite with workers in the former colonial world by fighting against their own imperialist bourgeoisie. This is real international solidarity.

A new period

migration 3Our programme is not about achieving accommodation with the capitalist class, but unity of workers across borders in defence of conditions, against cuts and for a socialist revolution / Image: public domain

It’s one of the peculiarities of the present period that the labour movement in the west is infected with nostalgia for a period that has passed. Under the pressure of cuts to public services and attacks on pay and conditions, many workers look back at a previous era as one of stability and welfare. A time when the capitalists and trade unions made agreements about wage rises, not wage cuts, and when political parties promised – and delivered – reforms. A time when the word ‘reform’ actually meant improvements in the condition of the working class, not attacks and cuts. But that period is gone and will not return.

The crisis is not due to migrants, nor bad ideas (‘neoliberalism’), but the limits of capitalism itself. This has certain implications. The reformists and trade union leaders fall into the trap of basing their approach to migration on the number of migrants that capitalism can afford. How many migrants can come without causing downward pressure on wages? How many migrants can we fit in schools, housing and hospitals? This was wrong in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s a disastrous logic in a period of capitalist decay. The answer is that capitalism can not afford to maintain the existing wages and conditions, whether there are migrants or not. Closing the borders, even evicting migrants, does not fundamentally alter this fact. It’d be like attempting to quench your thirst with salt water.

The reality of capitalism in the present period is that there is the money to provide housing, schools etc for all the refugees in the world, but it’s in private hands. The resources to provide a decent living standard for all the world’s inhabitants exist, but they are concentrated in the clutches of a tiny handful of billionaires and multinational corporations. This inequality is only getting worse.

Our programme is not about achieving stability and accommodation with the capitalist class, which would only be at the expense of the working class, migrant or not. Our programme must be one of uniting workers across borders in defence of conditions, against cuts and for a socialist revolution. The resolution put forward by the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International actually contains the most important elements: defence of collective bargaining agreements, terms and conditions, a struggle for an improvement in the conditions of all workers, the granting of the same rights to migrants as non-migrant workers, including residency, health care, social benefits, housing etc. Furthermore, we must insist on building links between unions internationally and the strengthening of ties between working-class organisations across the world. Such an approach will be the best defence of the existing conditions of the working class, against the onslaught of the ruling class, but it is also the best preparation for a worldwide socialist revolution.


[1] A translation from this debate can be found on Medium: https://medium.com/@simonhannah/debate-at-the-stuttgart-congress-1907-on-immigration-9971f565da90.

[2] English version: http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/away-with-damocles-sword-deportation.

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