Brexit has made immigration an impossible subject to avoid, and in several trade unions and the Labour Party socialists are divided. Three schools of thought predominate. They are all rotten. Each of them borrows from enemy arsenals rather than recovering the left’s lost language of ‘proletarian internationalism’. It is a coarse, imperfect dialect from the early years of the twentieth century, the language of Lenin and his comrades. It seems often hopelessly outdated now but in speaking about migration its central innovations – stressing that modern politics is a contingent and a necessarily transnational affair – make for a refreshing contrast with the certainties that only later froze into premises for our own stale debates.
The tactical view
Jeremy Corbyn has resuscitated politics. When Labour leapt to the left and saw its vote rise for the first time in twenty years, the message was that the political sphere existed; the space of democratic deliberation, of persuasion and change had not entirely given way to the limitless sovereignty of ‘the market’. He was supposed to be crushed, and he wasn’t. He proposed turning the page on decades of economic and foreign policy orthodoxy and he found a hearing – albeit not yet enough to win. In the delayed aftermath of 2008 and amid decades of stalling living standards it should be unsurprising that ructions and ruptures are on the horizon now, but this was not all predetermined. There is again some contingency in the universe, and agency too. And so an old expectation, long dormant, is almost back: capital overdetermines indeterminacy, by bringing into existence rival social forces with opposed interests and the will to fight for them it dictates a time of unpredictability. It is this anti-inevitabilist zeal that saw Lenin and Walter Benjamin alike revolt against calcified Marxist schemas of fixed, unbendable epochs. Now it is a quiet, flimsy, thin connection between 1917 and 2017, but a connection that matters nonetheless.
Before Corbyn, Ed Miliband spent five sad years as Labour leader devoid of this faith in politics. He was no neoliberal shill, but he tried to fit social democracy to an austerity banner woven by the right and his lack of ambition killed him at the ballot box. By accepting the basic picture of our national challenges offered by Conservative welfare-bashers and state-shrinkers, his offer to the electorate could do no more than water down existing policies. Unsurprisingly those who chose to vote chose the genuine article over the half-hearted imitation, the Tories over Labour. Corbyn’s different rhetorical strategy has been to posit a different set of problems, above all inequality as a package of spiralling crises from pay to education to housing. Miliband hoped to do that too, but Corbyn has been more assertive in brushing aside a political conversation honed by the right. Theresa May called an election on Brexit and Labour barely talked about Brexit. Where past Labour leaders have coveted tabloid endorsements, Corbyn ran a campaign that virtually ignored the print barons. The shocking revelation has been the fragility of the consensuses that petrified social-democrats for so long. Seven weeks of speeches in a bullish election campaign and now top Conservative ministers hint at the possibility of scrapping university fees, a promise once thought so radical that even the National Union of Students ran from it. Whatever happens next, this has been an antidote to fatalism on the left.
That backdrop makes one recent development all the more baffling and depressing. Immigration was a textbook case of Miliband’s craven acquiescence. His Labour Party stamped its promise to control migration across menacing breakfast mugs. Shoring up xenophobia as a national consensus was, of course, a gift to the right. As he launched his bid for the Party leadership Corbyn made a point of rejecting that legacy. He took the stage at a pro-refugee demonstration and later told audiences we should celebrate record net migration figures. Here as elsewhere he was unabashed and unapologetic, an almost dizzying break with the past. Now his lines have changed. He tells the nation that the free movement of people from Europe undercuts wages, and it should go. It marks a significant change in tone from the Labour leader.
Is this all just a Brexit plague? Certainly Brexit has heightened the pressure. Materially it demands the hasty design of an independent British migration policy, so immigration shifts from a rhetorical slanging match to (also) a set of real political choices. And Brexit has offered a depressing picture of the ideological state of the nation, a slapdash portrait of miserable xenophobes from Thurrock to Hull relayed by every journalist and commentator in the land. But ceding ground on immigration is not new on the left, and paradoxically moments of strength – when the left’s arguments begin to cut through, as happened in the last general election – only increase the temptation to drop our own commitments opportunistically as electoral prizes come into view. Advances present challenges. The first serious political cost of having Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was the practical difficulty of mounting a significant left Leave campaign; Corbyn was imprisoned by Labour’s overwhelming Europhilia, and any left-wing campaign opposing Corbyn’s stated position in this context was never a realistic proposition. Brexit was handed to the right, which defined sovereignty as a national question and its enemies as migrants, but the left has a splendid history of prizing popular, democratic sovereignty against both bosses and bureaucrats. That tradition should form the starting point for a confident Labour line on Brexit, neither mourning for Brussels nor collapsing into xenophobia. Momentum caught something of this spirit when they launched their own ‘Take Back Control’ tour, stealing a slogan from Johnson and Farage. If empire is the lost grandeur whose memory seeps implicitly into the mind of Brexit Britain, Momentum was really saying, ‘that is only one possible framing through which to conceive the experience of dispossession and instability’. It is not our framing. So long as politics is understood through binaries like ‘liberal/populist’, ‘open/closed’, ‘hard Brexit/soft Brexit’, the appeal for a life beyond extreme vulnerability to unaccountable forces will be represented as a nostalgic appeal to fortify old, steady markers of status and power: whiteness, masculinity, the Union Jack and the bobby-on-the-beat. It is the task of the left to demand power and security by alternative means. Ultimately that involves an account of Britishness of the kind James Baldwin once sought for America, where all the sweated, foreign labour that built this imperial colossus is neither denied nor understood as a threat but reinterpreted as one piece of our identity, one piece in a story of exploitation whose happy ending must be happy for all its historic victims or else none will be at peace.
This sounds, some will sneer, like pie in the sky. It was only a decade ago that the Conservatives ran an election campaign on a promise to attack immigrants and lost, but now nationalist hostility is thought so permanently entrenched that no attempt to combat it is worthwhile. Just when their adoration for the European Union prompts some Labour moderates to defend free movement within its barbed-wire borders, some on the left have imbibed the moderates’ old insistence that elections are won only by mimicking racists.
That view underestimates the play of contingency and agency in politics, but its most bitter error is in thinking Labour can win on Tory terrain. Tailing enemy claims doesn’t win arguments, at least not on this issue. Socialist politics lives or dies on the strength of class solidarity, it wilts when workers are persuaded that loyalties to hierarchical communities like the nation should win out. This is precisely how the right wins over the exploited: by encouraging their investment in lines of collective interest and antagonism other than class. If fears about immigration guide pencils in polling booths, Labour has already lost. The contingency of politics under capital is importantly not an anarchic place where absolutely anything is possible. If the battle is over who best can revive roseate visions of the 1950s, the right will romp home. This is not to say that opposition to migration and some form of antagonistic class sentiment are in theory irreconcilable, only that in practice the two tend to serve as alternate options for defining working-class political identities. Only if ire is redirected at the wealthy will voting Labour seem intuitive. And so Corbyn’s 2017 strategy of changing the conversation offers more hope than Miliband’s 2015 flop. If only Corbyn knew it.
The nationalist view
Not everyone articulates opposition to free movement as a tactical concession. To some it is a socialist principle, and they may have the ear of the Labour leader. Unite and the RMT are two highly significant unions; the first because it is a benevolent behemoth whose leader often wields his considerable power to sustain Corbyn, and the second because its militancy has long offered a rare and welcome example of industrial victories. These unions are frequently heroic, but the leaders of both clamour for heightened border controls. Unlike the right they do not complain of foreign languages spoken on public transport, but they hope to stem the flow of immigrant labour undercutting wages. There have been calls too to institute a closed shop exclusively for migrant workers, which would mean socialists demanding vastly increased state snooping and control over some workers on the basis of their national origin while ushering in employment discrimination through the back door by making migrant workers the most expensive to hire. Undercutting is fine, it seems, as long as only certain people are doing it. ‘Such socialists are in reality jingoes‘, Lenin long ago wrote.
The protagonists of these arguments are not racists, but they echo the anti-structural thinking that defines conspiracy theorists and right-wing anti-capitalism alike, where nefarious individuals are imagined as the full extent of the problem. Their sin, in other words, is to misunderstand and underestimate the logic of capital. Where they see isolated national economies with a supply of labour easily regulated by the state, they forget that capital’s nimble, sweeping potency outwits clunking bureaucracies. Attempts to pull up the drawbridge only further stratify workers and encourage a race to the bottom. The evidence from America is that those who enter the country illegally find themselves outside the law’s limited protections, easy pickings for undercutting employers. Many more are imprisoned by closed borders in low-wage regions, unable to strike by leaving as capital roams freely. Even if a siege economy were feasible, non-unionised workers undercutting wages need not in principle be foreigners. And reducing the labour force also means shrinking the demand for other workers’ labour. All this suggests that closing borders offers scant protection to native-born workers whose quest to identify and expunge every threatening competitor is an endless, impossible, even counter-productive task. Such is the genius of a social system constantly chasing new avenues to support ever-expanding accumulation. Only by organising as many workers as possible and all on an equal basis can unions undercut the ultimate undercutter.
None of this is new. Ten years before the first immigration controls were introduced in Britain to keep out Jews from the Tsar’s miserable empire, the Trade Union Congress passed its own ‘Anti-Alien Resolution’ in 1895. Jewish migrant workers in Britain composed a superb response, their Voice from the Aliens. Stressing that all workers sought decent pay and conditions and that employers not migrant labourers revelled in cutting wages, they wrote:
To punish the alien worker for the sin of the native capitalist is like the man who struck the boy because he was not strong enough to strike his father.
Liberalism or class politics?
The appeal of jingoistic socialism is explained partly by the available alternatives. Unlike those migrant militants in 1895, today’s defenders of free movement all too often sugar-coat the realities of immigration. They praise it for generating growth and quote studies claiming it has no net effect on wages – both evidence, in part, that increased labour market competition reduces wages marginally at the bottom and concentrates ballooning surpluses at the top of businesses, which pay senior staff more and so boost GDP. These are the mores of capital, radicals need not deny it. Many laud free movement as a coveted right, speaking as if the same phenomenon covers British students studying in the Italian sun and Romanian construction workers held as modern day slaves while they erect London’s skyline. ‘We Are All Immigrants!’ declaim American liberals; if that means glossing over differences between the Mayflower and the slave ship, it is very far from radical politics. The new Labour Campaign for Free Movement seeks a more distinctively socialist bent and is well worth supporting, but its founding statement retains this tone. Some on the contemporary left borrow a fashion for celebrating the ‘agency of the oppressed’ and apply it here, forgetting that most of the agency in migration rests with uneven geographical development and the social forces that sculpt it. Most importantly, taking GDP figures or humanitarian pity for refugees as their standpoint moulds only a hopelessly partial, dismally selective support for migrants among political moderates. These purported cosmopolitans are not implacable tribunes of the oppressed but champions of their own nations, hoping to boost domestic prosperity or their country’s philanthropic credentials by welcoming select migrants. And so they celebrate the European Union, which has turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard.
Insights long ago central to the radical left are worth reviving. In an 1870 letter Marx’s response to Irish immigration prioritised battling the colonial injustices provoking the exodus. It is a point not often enough stressed now. Lenin in 1913 highlighted the compulsion involved in modern mass migration, like Marx reading it as a bitter escape from concentrated immiseration. Their common premise is that capital is a global foe whose violence shakes and shatters lives everywhere, so that locking people into its cruellest corners is no answer but nor is migration a happy right and a free choice easily segregated from the gruesome experiences of asylum-seekers. Most migrant workers, given the alternative of work where they live, would rather not be migrant workers. And their experience of privation and compulsion involves an encounter with an antagonist known to native-born workers too. That point was put best by the Irish revolutionary leader James Connolly in 1909:
The wage worker is oppressed under this system in the interest of a class of capitalist investors who may be living thousands of miles away and whose very names are unknown to him. He is, therefore, interested in every revolt of labour all over the world, for the very individuals against whom that revolt may be directed may – by the wondrous mechanism of the capitalist system – through shares, bonds, national and municipal debts – be the parasites who are sucking his blood also. That is one of the underlying facts inspiring the internationalism of labour and socialism.
To Lenin in his 1913 piece, migration represents a golden opportunity to make good on that internationalism, forcing workers from all over the planet to labour, learn and struggle together. He admits to some optimism that Russian immigrants might bring with them cultures of militancy much needed and all too absent among American workers. That is precisely the humility required now, where British trade unionists should see migrating workers as potential teachers in struggle and not just potential obstacles; in beating back employers across London in the last two months, largely South American cleaners have won better pay for their British-born colleagues too.
Internationalism tends to melt away once electoral politics becomes the prime terrain of socialist activity; in such a setup only those who live and can vote within a given polity form the constituency for socialist politics, so the appeal of transnational blocs is dampened. We have today been de-globalised. Electoralism ensures that even when we think of our antagonists internationally we rarely imagine our own collective agents in terms that reach beyond national borders, where our agents of historic transformations vote. That is a challenge alien to the first proletarian internationalists, whose strategic transnationalism followed from a vision of anti-capitalist agency being exercised through insurrections not elections. But the acknowledgement that capital binds together workers across oceans and neighbourhoods in involuntary alliances of interest might bridge the gap between internationalist aspirations and national imperatives in electoral politics.
Here, then, is a socialist language for speaking about immigration drawn from the distant past. We should read migrating proletarians not as objects of our charity but as subjects of our politics, as part of our constituency. Unlike moralising liberals we should cherish the populist faith in interests and enemies, but our conceptions of both should traverse borders. That is the lesson of dusty, dead Marxists. We all have in common that capital fucks us, they insisted. We might add that all of us ultimately benefit from dismantling the two-pronged race to the bottom sustained by border controls that abandon an undocumented underclass to hyper-exploitation in the metropole while turning poorer countries into holding pens for trapped workers. That second point is not often enough made by a left whose optic is not often enough transnational. In seeking to do battle with capital, we should think of it as a mobile social relation that utilises or ignores national borders but is rarely captured within them, so that the politics of class necessitates meeting global capital with a global antagonist and so posits an aggressively different political community than the one suggested by the politics of national allegiance. We can still value the local and the particular, but not as a set of political loyalties that crowd out border-traversing class oppositions – instead we should learn from the likes of Lenin, Luxemburg and Bukharin whose analysis of imperialism saw place as an integral axis of domination by reading the particularities of different regions as conditions of possibility for the reproduction of a capitalist ‘world system’. On this view only worldwide battles can save cherished local patterns, strangled by their incorporation within social processes that span continents. To speak of the universal is not to obliterate the particular but to rescue it.
Militant universalism today means directing our venom at the lethal network of state power whose claws clasp and torment migrants at every turn. It drives them into seas and drowns them there; it hands them to the most vicious undercutters by refusing them legal status; it intimidates and humiliates families with deportation raids, bullying bigoted vans and workplace snooping; it throws them into prison cells, punished like many before them for seeking to feed themselves. They are the wretched of the earth. The fantasy that our borders are porous and our states are lax should find no heed on the left. We should organise all workers, demanding legalisation, the closure of detention centres and full political rights for migrants including the right to vote, and yes we should bring back a reimagined closed shop – not a 1970s corporatist lash-up but an opportunity for workplace democracy and for all, not just those with funny accents. This is what the politics of class looks like, sharply distinct from the politics of nationalist particularism and liberal faux universalism.
Proletarian internationalism emerged as a minority sport. As the twentieth century dawned leading lights in contemporary Marxism favoured scrapping Marx’s insistence that the working class ‘has no country’. It seemed an inappropriate remnant from a pre-electoral age to all but the revolutionary globalisers. Then at Stuttgart in 1907, socialists from across the world assembled for a Congress of the Second International. A depressing alliance of Americans, Australians and South Africans proposed shutting out immigrants with darker skins, lest they undercut the wages of white workers. The conference opted instead to fight undercutting by demanding fully equal conditions for all workers, but the anti-migrant argument burned on. It deployed the same rationale that saw early craft unions resolutely oppose allowing women into the workforce.
This is labour politics as a cowardly, desperate and hopeless game: a bid to win for some workers by costing others dear. It only succeeds in concentrating attention on the vulnerable and not the villains, feeding a bitter narrative in which mobility is the origin of a threat to workers. Hence we get a debate where migration is abstracted from its social form, where support or opposition to migration on the terms of capital is expressed (in the policies each side proposes) as support or opposition to migration itself. This is how border walls strangle class politics, not only by hastening a race to the bottom but also by generating misdirected fire in political life that lets capitalists off the hook. That is their long-run reward. They need not conspire consciously to sow xenophobia, as in the crudest socialist imagery; they reap the rewards regardless. Immigration legal or illegal will never disappear, so militarised borders and politicians’ grumbles only help make it a permanent and convenient anxiety of the exploited and the insecure. Workers can go on worrying about other workers forever.
Making enemies out of migrants or women is so offensive because it misidentifies the constituency of socialist politics, it assumes that some among the marginalised can be our cannon fodder. There is a moral betrayal there. Marx’s revelation is that opposing such tendencies need not be a moralistic exercise, an appeal for altruism from the native or the male. His claim is that in the proletariat there exists a particular demographic whose ultimate collective interests align with the universal interest, so that properly universalist politics can begin from group interests and not only from abstract visions of the good.
This fortuitous alignment of self-interest and high principles should be a weapon to socialists; we should win people to internationalism by speaking to common interests, as Connolly did in 1909. Imagining interests is the work of politics, and it is contested terrain because multiple different configurations are plausible and workable. Whether metropolitan nationalism is a passable construal of (some) working-class interests remains unclear. The strong claim here is that capital’s transnational undercutting logic and the distorting effects of xenophobia on political life combine to ensure anti-migrant politics ends up costing those indigenous workers it purports to champion. The weaker claim is that it might raise some wages, even save some jobs for a while, but that it is not the only path to defending the beleaguered. The internationalist alternative involves grander aspirations and a more robust roadmap to deliver for longer.
That argument deserves rediscovering. Brexit demands changing the form of immigration policy – ‘taking back control’ by resuming national sovereignty over borders – but it need not involve changing the content to keep out immigrants. The Corbyn programme presents an opportunity to halt that drift towards border-mania. 2017’s return of political economy as a battleground in British elections can hammer nails into the coffin of xenophobia. All that is required now is a little faith in politics, in our ability to shift consensuses. Corbyn could argue that migrant workers should be organised, not abandoned by illegality and immobility to the nefarious hands of capital. Any short-term boons that offers will endure only for bosses, he could say. ‘Capital fucks us all’ seems a better slogan than old chestnuts like ‘British jobs for British workers’. Labour’s maxim today is ‘For the Many, Not the Few’. A plunge into the margins of old-fashioned Marxism reveals how empty, how sterile, how tragically ineffectual are those words unless they mean solidarity with the border-crossers.
Barnaby Raine is a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he studies modern European political thought.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.