Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Every Migrant is a Potential Socialist

Politicians and the media have declared that Britain is about to be “swamped” by a “deluge” of workers from Bulgaria and Romania who will cause untold misery to the “indigenous working class”; an example of the much-used politics of “divide and rule”. Politicians have long used immigration to split the working class against itself as it has successfully done so with the artificial divisions between old and young workers over pensions and competition for jobs; between those on benefits and those who are receiving low pay; and between those working in the public sector and those employed in the private sector.

One political group, Britain First, whose leadership is made up from members of “a former patriotic political party”, claims that “white workers” are “second-class citizens in their own country” and that that immigration is “a time bomb” about to “explode”. A particular vulgar leaflet has recently been published by this group, called “England for the English”. The group’s xenophobic content is anti-immigrant, in fact it is anti-anyone who cannot trace their lineage back to Celts, Belgians, Basques, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Normans and other migrant groups whose footprints have long since vanished from the shore of human history. As a slogan, “England for the English” is incoherent and meaningless. The “English” is an artificial and mythical social construct; an empty abstraction much like the “Aryan race

Socialists do not distinguish between workers living in one part of the world from those living elsewhere on the planet. All workers and their dependents, male and female, black and white, are all members of the working class and they all share the same social problems and the same interest in replacing capitalism with Socialism. There is no “indigenous white working class” as though workers born in Britain have some stake in British capitalism and warrant special treatment by employers and politicians. They don’t. They are a subject class just like the rest of the world’s working class.

And there are no “British jobs for British workers” just as there are no artificial distinctions between workers exploited within the wages system. Capitalists are quite happy to exploit cheap foreign labour under the banner of “free markets” and “flexible labour” markets” while moving production abroad to exploit even cheaper labour. But that is what capitalism is all about; exploitation of the working class and the production of more social wealth than the wages and salaries going to workers. Workers living in Britain and migrant workers both belong to the same class. What does exist is a world working class confronting the world capitalist class over the ownership of the means of production and distribution. And the class struggle knows no national boundaries.

Workers might be born in a particular geographical region of the world but they enter into definite social relationships over which they have no control. And for the majority of the population of the planet it means being born into the working class; forced to enter the labour market for employment, competing for jobs, housing and resources with other workers; exploited in the production process; sacked if not profitable to employ; replaced by machines if it is advantageous to employers; and forced by economic circumstances to migrate to other countries in order to find work.

At the end of the working week or month, workers receive a payment for alienating labour working for an employer which signifies nothing more than their wage slavery. And instead of acting in their own interest and getting rid of capitalism; the cause of their poverty, workers in their political ignorance blame other workers for the misery of their social existence. First it was workers from Ireland, then Jewish migrants, then Afro-Caribbean’s, then Ugandan and Kenyan Asians, then political refugees from what was once Yugoslavia and now it is workers from Eastern Europe – an endless blame-game; a blame-game which the working class lose time and time again.

The world working class does not own the means of production and distribution. It does not own raw resources and nor does it have trade routes, spheres of influence and markets to protect. The focus of political action for the working class is to become a Socialist majority working within a principled Socialist political party. Without a Socialist majority, Socialism is impossible and the social problems workers face, like poor housing, will persist from one generation to the next.

A cursory glance at the history of migration into Britain from the 19th century to the present day shows a repetitive reaction to a non-problem. And migration is a non-problem for the working class because the real problem derives from having to sell their ability to work for a wage and salary. The problems workers face is not from other workers but from their subservient class position.

Marx and the Irish working Class

An attack on immigrants is not new. Marx and Engels were both aware of racism towards the Irish working class living and working in Britain. In a letter to two comrades, Meyer and Vogt, living in the US, Marx wrote:

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.

Marx went on to point out that this racial prejudice was:

…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

And he delivered this important observation about racism:

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” (Marx to Meyer and Vogt, April 9, 1870, Marx and Engels, SELECTED CORRESPONDENCE 1971 p. 22)

Racism persisted in Britain against the Irish working class but towards the end of the 19th century another group; Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, were identified for racist attack. Through the process of immigration, racism against the Jews became pronounced in many of the advanced capitalist countries. Some Socialists thought that this type of racism was a hangover from the past and would die out as more and more workers from different nation states met, worked and lived together.

This was the belief of Frederick Engels. In his essay “On anti-Semitism” (GERMAN ESSAYS ON SOCIALISM IN THE 19TH CENTURY ed. F. Meckenberg and M. Stassen p. 251-253), Engels wrote:

Anti-Semitism is the characteristic of a backward culture…; anti-Semitism is nothing but a reaction of declining medieval social strata against modern society

Unfortunately, Engels’s optimism about the gradual eradication of anti-Semitism was misplaced. Capitalism caused racism through social problems such as high levels of prolonged unemployment, competition by workers with other workers for jobs and poor and often sub-standard housing. An indigenous non-socialist working class would turn against any perceived external threat to their means of existence or employment.

The first response in the East End to Jews arriving in Britain to escape pogroms was one of sympathy. This was at a time when there were good economic conditions and little unemployment. However, by the mid-1880’s, during what has been called the Long Depression, racist attacks started to take place in the East End of London as bankruptcy increased among small shop-keepers and unemployment levels rose for the workers.

To gain support from the working class, local MP’s and journalists took the side of the “respectable worker” whose job, it was claimed, was “threatened” by immigrant labour. Between 1887 and 1888 pressure mounted sufficiently for the government to agree to a Select Committee of Inquiry into the issue of immigration. Local trade unionists shared platforms with Conservative politicians, with both decrying the “Jewish threat”. In 1892, the Conservative Party, in an attempt to get working class votes, agreed to an Aliens Bill (see B. Schwarz, Conservatism, nationalism and Imperialism in POLITICS AND IDEOLOGY ed. J. Donald and S. Hall 1986).

From the turn of the century, anti-immigrant organizations appeared in the East End, most notably the British Brothers’ League, which held its first public meeting –packed to capacity- in Stepney in May 1901. The intensity of the movement forced the government to appoint a Royal Commission on the Aliens Bill in 1905, which empowered the Home Secretary to expel any aliens found to be criminal, vagrant, impoverished or who lived “under insanitary conditions due to overcrowding” (see Gainer, B. THE ALIEN INVASION: THE ORIGINS OF THE ALIENS ACT OF 1905 a book that does not mention the SPGB or its important principle on the emancipation the working class as a precondition for the emancipation of all society, irrespective of sex or race).

What of those Conservatives today who want to restrict migrants from coming to Britain in fear of losing votes to UKIP? They are simultaneously supporters of the free market but against the free market. John Redwood a supporter of economic liberalism and flexible labour markets now decries migrants as causing low wages (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 9th January 2014). Yet if you believe in free markets, including the labour market, you want competition for jobs among workers to drive wages down; that is what the free-market is all about; reducing costs including the wage bill. Ideology versus political reality is sorely tested against the needs to be re-elected.

Unemployment, Racism and Capitalism

By 1900, the rate of unemployment, as a percentage of all trade unions making returns, was 2.45%. Two years later with unemployment getting worse, Cathcart Watson, the Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland asked in Parliament: “What is the use of spending thousands of pounds on building beautiful workman’s dwellings if the places of our own workpeople, the backbone of the country, are to be taken over by the refuse and sum of other nations?” (INDEPENDENT 7 January 2014) Just where were these “beautiful workman’s dwellings”? In fact, the 1900 Housing of the Working Classes Act had seen only 24,000 Council houses built by 1914 most of which were spatially mean and visually utilitarian. By 1904 the unemployment figure had risen to 6% (Board of Trade, Seventeenth abstract of labour statistics [Cd 7733] BPP, 61 (1914-16), 322 in K. D. Brown, Labour and Unemployment 1971).

Unemployment increasingly became a constant feature of working class life and politicians, from the Tories and Liberals to the Social Democratic Federation, courted the unemployed feeding off their fears or promising them unattainable policies of social reform, such as “the right to work” (The capitalist left, like the Socialist Party, still follow in this failed politics today). It is within this changed historical context, that the reference to race found its way into the fifth clause of the Party’s DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of 1904, ironically published in the same year that Galton founded the Eugenics Society whose social consequences were not seen until some forty years later in Germany.

The clause stated:

That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex

The meaning of the clause was quite clear. Capitalism had not always existed and, subject to the conscious and political action of a Socialist majority, would not always exist. All past social revolutions up to and including the revolutions which established capitalism had been revolutions displacing one ruling class for another. This would not be the case with a future Socialist revolution. The working class by its own efforts had to free itself from the wages system from which its poverty derived.

To make sense of social problems workers first had to understand the class context in which these problems are generated. Such understanding will not be found in the deliberations of social reformers, journalists and political commentators like Ms Alibhai-Brown of the INDEPENDENT newspaper who wants the impossible; capitalism without the effects of capitalism. Only the framework of the common ownership and democratic control of production and distribution by all of society can ensure decent homes are produced for everyone and that production and distribution is used solely to meet human need.

Social Reform or Revolution?

In Alibhai-Brown’s recent article on the subject of Immigration she rightly opposed those denigrating migrant workers but then went on to say that the social problems facing the working class – unemployment, poverty and poor housing were the result of greedy bankers and government policy (INDEPENDENT 6th January 2014).

Ascetic bankers wearing sackcloth and ash and a Labour Government filled with like-minded Ms Alibhai-Brown’s is her solution which is no solution at all. When has a Labour government ever prevented an economic crisis or solved the pressing problems of housing and poverty? As for Labour politicians and their contribution to xenophobic hysteria, who can forget Bob Mellish in 1976?

We cannot go on like this. I do not care what those on this side of the House, or the Opposition side or anywhere else, say. Problems at local level will become worse and worse for our own people unless something is done. All Hon. Members know that people come to their surgeries describing the most distressing conditions—terrifying conditions. People born and bred in their own constituencies have been on the housing waiting list for as long as six years. But, on the points system, one must give immigrants preference...People cannot come here just because they have a British passport—full stop,_Baron_Mellish

And of course there are others in the Labour Party who defend “people born and bred in their own constituencies” against migrants to protect the votes they receive from non-Socialist workers. Already David Blunket and Jack Straw have embraced the Bob Mellish line and there will be others like them in the parliamentary Labour Party the nearer the next General Election approaches. Then it is back to support for free trade and free markets, including a free and flexible labour market.

In fact, periodic economic crises, poor housing and poverty are the consequences of capitalism and a class divided society. Economic crises arise out of the anarchy of commodity production and exchange for profit while poor housing and poverty occur because of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution. In short; these social problems take place because of the anti-social priority of capitalism to make profit, accumulate capital and expand value.

Once the capitalist cause of social problems is understood, the direction of conscious and political action of the working class would be away from the destructive influence of the xenophobes and the futility of the policies of the social reformers and, instead, towards social revolution. For Socialists, all workers have the same potential to become Socialists no matter where they live or where they come from.

Workers coming to this country from abroad are just as welcome to attend our Socialist meetings and join our principled Socialist party as are workers already living and working here. Socialists do not discriminate. All that we ask from those considering joining with us to establish Socialism is that they are prepared to agree with and defend the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES within which we take political action. Only the emancipation of the working class by a Socialist majority will “involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex”.

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