Socialism and the defence of the free movement of labour
Britain’s pseudo-left groups have all condemned US President Donald Trump for his anti-Muslim travel ban, denouncing the assault as reactionary, discriminatory, divisive and racist. Yet, when it comes to the issue of the free movement of labour, there is little to distinguish between the far-right oligarch in the White House and the supposedly liberal or “socialist” left in Britain.
From the Labour Party and the trade unions to the Socialist Party, the Stalinist Morning Star and others, all are united in their demand to reinforce border controls in the UK. Support for restricting immigration exists irrespective of these organisations’ standpoint on Britain exiting the European Union.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for a Remain vote in the referendum last June and who supports continued access to the European Single Market, has accepted restrictions on free movement, supposedly out of respect for the Leave vote. “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle,” he has said.
His stance was welcomed by leading Remain campaigner Paul Mason. Free movement is not “a principle of socialism,” he argued in the Guardian. “It has undermined social justice and must be modified,” he added, calling for a “temporary suspension of free movement” within the EU for 10 years.
Labour must recognise that what “drives opposition to free movement among progressive, left-minded people” is that, in addition to suppressing “wage growth at the low end, it says to people with strong cultural traditions, a strong sense of place and community (sometimes all they have left from the industrial era) that ‘your past does not matter.’”
Mason elaborated on the theme that immigration restrictions are necessary to foster respect for “culture,” “community” and traditions. This is an argument that could have come straight out of Trump’s mouth, proving that fake-left opportunists who denounce the US president for their own ends today will not have to travel far to align themselves with an overtly right-wing programme tomorrow.
As for the pro-Brexit pseudo-left, in the referendum they sought to provide “socialist” window dressing for a Leave campaign spearheaded by neo-Thatcherites from the Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). The Socialist Equality Party warned at the time that behind their efforts to give nationalism a “left” twist, “[T]hey are subordinating the working class to an initiative aimed at shifting political life even further along a nationalist trajectory, thereby strengthening and emboldening the far right in the UK and across Europe while weakening the political defences of the working class. Having helped release the genie of British nationalism, they are politically responsible for its consequences.”
Their unpardonable toying with “left populism” as a supposed antidote to the right has now hardened into outright support for anti-migrant restrictions.
Former Labour MP George Galloway notoriously joined platforms with Nigel Farage in the Brexit referendum. He praised the then-UKIP leader as his ally and authored the slogan “Left, Right, Left, Right, forward march to victory…”
Farage is now the favourite Briton of Trump, who describes his own “America First” agenda as “Brexit plus, plus, plus.”
Nowadays, Galloway spends his time attacking the “idea that, in a capitalist society, it’s some kind of principle that we should allow as many workers to join the queue for a declining number of jobs,” or baiting the pro-Remain Scottish National Party for believing “we have more in common with Bulgaria and Romania than with Britain.”
The Stalinist Communist Party of Britain provides the political hymn sheet from which the “left” nationalists attempt a pose of theoretical legitimacy. The Morning Star has run a series of articles on free movement, mostly berating the “left” and young people, in particular, for defending it.
Typical was an article by columnist Julian Jones, who wrote, “By being so positive towards EU free movement, sectors of the left are naively, or willingly, falling into a trap of their own making…”
Defence of free movement “is not, and should not be, the position of the organised left,” he continued, complaining of “the young, in particular” who “have been duped into thinking that free movement of people is a near-socialist principle.”
Jones cynically uses the fact that many young migrants working in the UK have effectively been forced out of their countries by EU austerity to claim that border controls are in their own best interests, as well as that of “low-skilled workers” in the UK.
The Unite union’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, in an op-ed on December 16 made a feint of opposing “impractical” demands to “pull up the drawbridge” on migrants. But his bottom line was that “we are well past the point where the issue of free movement can be ignored.”
“Let’s have no doubt: the free movement of labour is a class question,” McCluskey wrote.
He continued: “Karl Marx identified that fact a long time ago. ‘A study of the struggle waged by the British working class,’ he wrote in 1867, ‘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.’”
McCluskey’s article is typical of the rank dishonesty that characterises the pseudo-left’s attack on free movement. His citation of Marx is taken from an 1867 statement of the International Workingman’s Association, under the heading “On the Lausanne Congress.”
McCluskey omits what comes immediately after his citation, where Marx states, “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.”
The distortion of Marx’s position is not accidental. McCluskey writes that “of course, all socialists must ultimately look forward to a day when people can move freely across the world and live or work where they will.” He goes on: “But that is a utopia removed from the world of today, and would require international economic planning and public ownership to make a reality.”
McCluskey is an opponent of the working class as well as the class struggle and socialism. He has no intention of attaining a world where people “can live or work where they will.” His sole concern is to justify the existing capitalist “reality,” which means recognising the exigencies of labour “supply and demand.”
What is required, he argues, is a “straightforward trade union response” to the issue of immigration such as Unite has proposed, whereby “any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining.”
The same line is taken by the Socialist Party, formerly Militant. Welcoming the Leave vote as a working class revolt, their Socialism Today argued: “The socialist and trade union movement from its earliest days has never supported the ‘free movement of goods, services and capital’– or labour–as a point of principle, but instead has always striven for the greatest possible degree of workers’ control, the highest form of which, of course, would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy.”
Taking trade union cretinism to extremes, they compare support for immigration controls to the trade unions’ previous support “for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace, a very concrete form of ‘border control’ not supported by the capitalists.”
Like McCluskey, the SP’s reference to a future socialism is window dressing for their accommodation to the requirements of capital in the here and now. They insist that it is impermissible to defend the right to free movement because it would “alienate the vast majority of the working class, including many more long-standing immigrants, who would see it as a threat to jobs, wages and living conditions.” It was on this basis that they notoriously backed protests at the Lindsey oil refinery in 2009 demanding “British jobs for British workers.”
Karl Marx and socialist internationalism
These efforts to transform Marx and the socialist movement into border guards–trade union members, of course–cannot be allowed to stand.
These organisations have nothing in common with the founder of scientific socialism. Their support for immigration controls is the outcome of their perspective of national economic regulation under capitalism, which is diametrically opposed to the perspective of revolutionary socialist internationalism.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels explained the revolutionary character of capitalist production which, in its drive to constantly expand the “market for its products, chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.” Through the creation and exploitation of a world market, they explained, the bourgeoisie “has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
In words that could have been directed against McCluskey et al, the great revolutionaries continued: “To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood… In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations… National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature…”
The truly revolutionising character of capitalist production was expressed in its creation of the international working class–the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie. “The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations; modern industrial labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character. Law, morality, religion are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
The working class has “nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property… The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
The watchword of the socialist workers movement for Marx and Engels was, “Workers of all Lands, Unite!” This perspective flowed from the scientific analysis of capitalism that was developed by Marx on the basis of historical materialism.
The pseudo-left cite Marx’s analysis of the “industrial reserve army” or “relative surplus population” to justify their support for border controls. But once again, they distort this analysis beyond all recognition.
For Marx, this phenomenon was not a temporary aberration, but intrinsic to capitalist accumulation. This is because capitalist industry consists of two parts–machinery and workers–the ratio between which is called the “organic composition of capital.” The number of workers in employment is “variable.” It is dependent on whether or not it is profitable for the capitalist to employ workers to run the machinery, the “constant capital.” And this, in turn, is affected by the growth of technology, which requires a smaller number of workers to produce greater quantities of goods, as well as the state of competition within an industry. [For detailed analysis, see Capital Volume 1, Chapter 25].
Marx wrote, “The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production.”
For Marx, “Every labourer” belonged to the surplus/reserve army of labour “during the time when he is only partially employed or wholly unemployed.”
In a devastating critique of modern-day calls for immigration controls, Marx insisted that this problem was not to be solved by “the folly… now patent of the economic wisdom that preaches to the labourers the accommodation of their number to the requirements of capital.”
In fact, “The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, all the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army.”
The solution, Marx insisted, was cooperation between workers to protect their common class interests in combination against the bourgeoisie. In the inaugural address of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) in 1864, Marx concluded, “Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incites them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.”
Praising the struggle by the Lancashire cotton textile works who, against their own bosses and the British Empire, and on pain of starvation, agitated in support of the North in the American Civil War and for the abolition of slavery, he continued, “If the emancipation of the working classes requires their fraternal concurrence, how are they to fulfil that great mission with a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs, playing upon national prejudices, and squandering in piratical wars the people’s blood and treasure?”
It was the duty of the working classes “to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; when unable to prevent, to combine in simultaneous denunciations, and to vindicate the simple laws or morals and justice which ought to govern the relations of private individuals, as the rules paramount of the intercourse of nations.
“The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes.
“Proletarians of all countries, unite!”
Marx on Ireland
Britain’s pseudo-left distort Karl Marx’s analysis of the “industrial reserve army” or “relative surplus population” in order to smuggle in a racial and nativist criterion that, in fact, belongs to the far right.
This is underscored by the fact that, in support of their position, they frequently cite Marx on the issue of Irish migration to England in the 19th century, quoting from a letter in which he wrote, “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.” [Marx letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, April 9, 1870]
The divisions cultivated between Irish and English workers were notorious and by no means confined to the 1800s. Many people today remember only too well the “No Irish, No Blacks, No dogs” signs that frequented rented accommodation in the UK right up to the 1960s.
Once again, the pseudo-left omit the remainder of Marx’s letter, which excoriates the backwardness of the English worker, who “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.”
Marx continues: “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 USA… 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… It is the special task of the Central Council [of the First International] 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.”
For Marx, prejudice amongst English workers against their Irish brothers and sisters was the occasion for a ruthless political struggle to establish their common class interests against the British bourgeoisie—not, as with the pseudo-left today, an excuse for justifying nationalist reaction.
Lenin and the fight against opportunism
Far from opposition to border controls not being a “socialist principle,” the controversy over this issue was to take on life and death dimensions within the Second International.
The issue of immigration restrictions arose in the run-up to the 1907 Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, the Seventh Congress of the Second International. The US state was targeting Chinese and Japanese workers. Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, halting the entry of Chinese immigrants into the country. In 1908, Japanese immigration into the US was also banned.
On behalf of the US Socialist Party leadership, Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger proposed a resolution calling for a campaign against “the willful importation of cheap foreign labor calculated to destroy labor organizations, to lower the standard of living of the working class, and to retard the ultimate realization of socialism.”
This stance was opposed by the left wing within the Socialist Party, with Eugene Debs attacking it as “utterly unsocialistic, reactionary, and, in truth, outrageous.”
The Stuttgart Congress rejected the resolution. Lenin, who attended the congress as one of the Bolshevik party delegates, welcomed the defeat. Support for immigration restrictions represented an “attempt to defend narrow, craft interests” and was the outcome of the “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.” [Lenin Proletary, No. 17, October 20, 1907, The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart]
Lenin returned to the issue of “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration” in his article of that title in Za Pravdu, October 29, 1913. “Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations,” he wrote, forcing hundreds of thousands of workers to “wander hundreds and thousands of versts” for employment.
“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…”
Noting that the most backward countries of the world were thrust into the “ranks of the advanced, international army of the proletariat,” he wrote, “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.”
The anti-migrant proposal was indicative of the growth of opportunism within the Second International, in which the trade unions were to play a particularly significant role.
Opportunist elements also argued in favour of colonialism, on the grounds of its “civilising role.” Most notably, several delegates raised the demand to support working class “national defence” in times of war.
Though defeated at the 1907 Congress, these tendencies were to plunge the working class into a fratricidal slaughter in 1914. This betrayal of socialism by most of the leaders of the Second International, Lenin wrote, “has been mainly caused by the actual prevalence in it of petty-bourgeois opportunism, the bourgeois nature and danger of which have long been indicated by the finest representatives of the revolutionary proletariat of all countries.”
Lenin continued: “The opportunists had long been preparing to wreck the Second International by denying the socialist revolution and substituting bourgeois reformism in its stead, by rejecting the class struggle with its inevitable conversion at certain moments into civil war, and by preaching class collaboration; by preaching bourgeois chauvinism under the guise of patriotism and the defence of the fatherland, and ignoring or rejecting the fundamental truth of socialism, long ago set forth in the Communist Manifesto, that the workingmen have no country; by confining themselves, in the struggle against militarism, to a sentimental philistine point of view, instead of recognizing the need for a revolutionary war by the proletarians of all countries, against the bourgeoisie of all countries; by making a fetish of the necessary utilization of parliamentarianism and bourgeois legality, and forgetting that illegal forms of organization and agitation are imperative at times of crises.” [Lenin, The tasks of revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War, 1914]
In opposition to the capitulation of the Second International, the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin, came out against the war and launched the fight for a new Third International. This was to be built on the basis of an uncompromising struggle against the opportunist national chauvinist tendencies that had revealed themselves as the agencies of imperialism within the workers’ movement.
This was the critical preparation for the revolutionary eruptions that were signified by the outbreak of imperialist war and the breakdown of the nation state system. It was on this basis that Lenin, alongside Leon Trotsky, was able to prepare the Bolshevik Party and the most advanced sections of workers and youth for the seizure of power in October 1917 and the establishment of the first workers’ state in the world.
Lenin returned to the issue of border controls at the height of the war in a November 1915 letter to the Socialist Propaganda League (SPL), a left-wing formation within the US Socialist Party that broke with the Socialist Party after the October Revolution to form the US Communist Party.
Lenin wrote, “In our struggle for true internationalism and against ‘jingo-socialism,’ we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the SP in America, who are in favour of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907, and against the decisions of Stuttgart).
“We think that one cannot be internationalist and be at the same time in favour of such restrictions.”
The pseudo-left: the modern day “jingo-socialists”
The global integration of capitalism has reached an unprecedented level since Marx and Lenin’s time. In combination with the spectacular developments in science and technique over the last 30 years, it has made possible a rationalisation of production and facilitated the ability of the bourgeoisie to drive down wages and conditions to an ever-diminishing global benchmark.
However, the cause of this process is not the globalisation of production, as the national opportunists would claim, but capitalism itself. The tremendous achievements to be derived from the progressive unification of the globe and its resources are perverted by private ownership of the means of production and the division of the world into antagonistic nation states.
In Europe, the bourgeoisie seized upon the 2008 financial crash as the pretext to turn the clock back centuries through the imposition of austerity. From Greece to Spain to Britain, social democracy, the trade unions and their pseudo-left apologists have played a key political role in this process.
As a result, thousands of workers, especially young workers, are forced to move around looking for work. But once again, this migration is not the cause of low wages in the UK, or anywhere else. The cause is the subordination of the world economy to the profit interests of the corporate and financial elite.
Even in the surveys routinely cited by the right wing, supposedly revealing the impact of EU migration on wages in semi-unskilled employment, the impact is minimal—calculated at between 0.5 percent and 1.0 percent. Yet wages fell by 10.4 percent in the UK between 2007 and 2015, a drop equalled only by Greece within the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
This fall is the result of a deliberate political strategy on the part of the bourgeoisie to pauperise the working class, one in which the Labour Party and the trade unions play the key role.
These organisations are completely incorporated into the bourgeois and corporate state apparatus, enforcing austerity, wage freezes and wage cuts. Their justifications for this are the same as those they employ in favour of border controls: Nothing can be done to alter the scarcities created by the monopolisation of global wealth by a tiny financial elite. Instead, the working class must make sacrifices, especially the migrant workers who are to be told there is no place for them.
This accounts for the grotesque spectacle of Labour and the trade unions spouting forth on the need for immigration controls so as to “protect” labour standards, even as they collaborate with the government and corporations to destroy these standards in order to make British capital more competitive.
The pseudo-left are an integral part of this labour bureaucracy and constitute the bulk of its leadership. From Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to the heads of numerous unions to the Syriza government in Greece, the pseudo-left function as a special anti-working class detachment of the bourgeoisie.
While Trump declares for “America First,” Corbyn demands import controls against China and similar protectionist measures, while the pseudo-left repeat the specious claim that strong national borders, economic protectionism and tighter immigration laws will benefit the working class. Their support for the strengthening of the nation state is wholly reactionary. As history has proven, it leads to the intensification of the attacks on the working class at home and support for imperialist war abroad.
Against the national chauvinism of the pseudo-left, the absolute principle of socialist-minded workers and youth must be to oppose the efforts to divide native-born and migrant workers. The right of all workers to live and work in the country they choose, with full and equal rights, is not for sale.
Only in solidarity with its class brothers and sisters—irrespective of colour, language, religion and nationality—can the working class successfully struggle against globally mobile capitalist corporations and advance its own independent solution to the world economic crisis: the reorganization of the global economy to meet social needs, not the drive for private profit.