Migrants and Refugees: Victims of Capitalist Decline

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Introduction: Economic migration and refugees from war throughout the history of capitalism

From its ascendence

For thousands of years people have been forced to flee from war, persecution, famine and forces of nature such as floods, droughts, volcanoes etc.  But these movements were not a permanent phenomenon and they mostly involved only a small part of the population. After the beginning of agriculture, with the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, humanity lived for thousands of years on the same spot. Under feudalism the peasantry were attached to the land and serfs stayed, from the moment they were born until their death, on the same land, which belonged to their feudal lord. But, with the onset of capitalism around the fourteenth to fifteenth century this changed drastically.

Capitalism spread by conquest, by intense and massive violence across the globe. First in Europe, where enclosures drove self-sufficient peasants from communal land into the cities to work in factories.  Marx described primitive accumulation as the process of “divorcing the producer from the means of production. … great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and ‘unattached’ proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process” (Marx, Capital Volume I, Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation). This separation of the peasant from the soil, from their means of production, meant uprooting millions of people. Because capitalism needs “the abolition of all laws preventing labourers from transferring from one sphere of production another to and from one local production centre to another” (Marx, Capital Volume 3, Chapter 10.)

At the same time as capitalism in Europe was compelling the peasants to sell their labour power, it began to spread its colonial rule by invasion and conquest around the globe. And for centuries slave-hunters kidnapped millions of people, mostly from Africa to supply cheap labour for the plantations and mines mainly in America. When slavery ended many slaves working on plantations were replaced with indentured labour (1).  All along its expansion capitalism uprooted and displaced people, either from the countryside forcing them to sell their labour power to a capitalist, or by robbing labour power and turning them into slaves to be sold on another continent. In the same way as capitalism needs the biggest, if not unlimited mobility for its commodities and free access to markets, it also imposes the biggest mobility and access to the work-force. Capitalism “must be able to mobilise world labour power without restriction in order to utilise all productive forces of the globe – up to the limits imposed by a system of producing surplus value. This labour power, however, is in most cases rigidly bound by the traditional pre-capitalist organisation of production. It must first be ‘set free’ in order to be enrolled in the active army of capital. The emancipation of labour power from primitive social conditions and its absorption by the capitalist wage system is one of the indispensable historical bases of capitalism.” (The Accumulation of Capital, Chapter 26; Rosa Luxemburg). Mobility has a particular significance within capitalism. “Capitalism necessarily creates mobility of the population, something not required by previous systems of social economy and impossible under them on anything like a large scale” (Lenin The Development of Capitalism in Russia “The ‘Mission’ of Capitalism”).

The proletarian is thus forced to move incessantly, always in search for an opportunity, for a place to sell his labour power. Being a wage earner means being forced to move large and small distances, or even to move to another country or continent, wherever a worker can sell his labour power. Whether in violent forms or through ‘mere’ economic coercion capitalism from its beginning has drawn its work-force from the entire planet, it has been global, international from the start. In other words: the working class – by the nature of the conditions of capitalism, is a class of migrants – and this is why workers have no fatherland. However the distances a worker has to migrate depends on the economic situation and on other factors such as famine, repression or wars. 

During the nineteenth century, the ascendant phase of capitalism, this meant migration occurred mostly towards the areas with expanding industries. Migration and urbanisation went together. In many cities in the 1840-80s in Europe the population doubled within a period of 30-40 years.  Within a few decades or, often, within an even shorter period, small towns centred on coal mines, iron mines or new factories, swelled into huge cities.

To the twentieth century 

At the same time, since capitalism always runs into economic crises, a ‘surplus’ of labour power regularly crops up with masses of unemployed workers looking for jobs. In the ascendant phase of capitalism economic crises were mainly cyclical. When the economy entered into a crisis, many workers could emigrate, and, when a new boom phase began, additional workers were needed. Millions of workers could emigrate without any major restrictions - mainly because capitalism was still expanding - in particular to the USA. Between 1820 and 1914 some 25.5 million people from Europe emigrated to the USA; altogether some 50 million left the European continent. In every year between 1820 and 1915, more than half the increase in the British population simply emigrated (2). But these waves of mainly economic migration slowed down considerably with the First World War, when the global historical conditions changed and in particular when  the economic crisis was no longer just cyclical but became long-lasting, if not permanent. From massive and almost unhampered, migration became filtered, selected and more and more difficult, if not illegal. From World War I a period of stricter border controls began to be imposed on economic migrants.

The decadent system produces an endless number of war refugees

And yet we need to distinguish economic migration from wars: every refugee is a migrant, but not every migrant is a refugee. A migrant is someone who leaves his residence in search of a place where he can sell his labour power. A refugee is someone whose life is at stake in an immediate way and moves elsewhere to find a safe place.

Wars and pogroms are not new phenomena. Any war means violence, forcing people to run away from the confrontations to save their life. Thus war refugees are as old as wars themselves, and war refugees appeared a long time before capitalism forced workers into economic migration. However, the number of wars also took on a different size and quality with the First World War. Up until then the number of war refugees was relatively small. And also the number of victims of pogroms as the ones against the Jews in Russia (or elsewhere) began to change with World War I. In earlier centuries the refugee problem was mainly a temporary and limited phenomenon. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, with the onset of the decadence of capitalism, with each world war and, after 1989, with the period of ‘local’, ‘regional’ but often endless wars, the question of refugees has taken on a new dimension. Both the number of war refugees and economic migrants depend on the respective historical conditions – whether there is an economic crisis and how much war has become dominant.

We plan to publish a number of articles on the question of refugees and migration, which look at the questions from different angles. We have already published an article on migration  and plan to take up this question in more detail soon. We begin this series with the development of the spiral of violence in the twentieth century and the consequences for the scope of flight from wars, taking up in more detail the different phases from the First World War to the Second World War, and its aftermath, before taking up the period from the Cold War up to the present day. In another article we will also look more closely at the policy of the ruling class and what consequences flow from this for the struggle of the working class.

Heinrich 3/10/15

1914: a new era of violence against populations

“One thing is certain. The world war is a turning point…The tempo of development has received a mighty jolt from the eruption of the volcano of imperialism. The violence of the conflicts in the bosom of society, the enormousness of the tasks that tower up before the socialist proletariat – these make everything that has transpired in the history of the workers’ movement seem a pleasant idyll”. Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet, 1916

The brutal and violent impetus inherent in decadent capitalism, evoked here by Rosa Luxemburg, has been strikingly confirmed by the tragic fate of the civilian populations in the 20th century who have been subjected to imprisonment in camps, to displacement, deportation and liquidation en masse. The combined effect of wars, economic crisis and oppression in declining capitalism gave rise to an irrational dynamic of blind violence, of pogroms, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and unbridled militarism. The 20th century was one of the most barbaric in history.

The year 1914 and its chauvinist hysteria opened a whole spiral of violence. In the past of course wars led to massacres and oppression, but this was usually on a local scale; they didn’t result in massive exoduses, the displacement of whole populations and the near- paranoid obsession to control them on the part of the state. Modern warfare has become total war. It mobilises, over a period of years, the entire population and the economic machines of the warring countries, reduces to ashes decades of human labour, sacrifices the lives of tens of millions of human beings, hurls hundreds of millions into famine. Its effects are no longer limited to mere conquests, with their train of rape and pillage, but gigantic destructions across the whole globe. On top of the uprooting, the rural exodus brought about by the introduction of capitalist social relations, total war adds the militarisation of the whole of civil society in the service of the battle fronts.  This was a real qualitative step. Populations of entire countries, and above all the youth, are forcibly displaced to become soldiers, compelled to engage in a mutual bloodbath with those from rival countries. The civilians at the rear are bled dry by the war effort and the first camps are made up of the prisoners from enemy nations. Although during the First World War there were no extermination camps, we can still talk about mass imprisonments and deportations. Any foreigner immediately became a suspect. In Britain for example foreigners were stuck in the Newbury race course or on the Isle of Man. In Germany, the camps at Erfurt, Munster or Darmstadt were used to imprison masses of civilians. In France, 70 internment camps were in service between 1914 and 1920 on the west coast (in the vicinity of Brest for example) and in the southern departments. At first they were existing buildings or perimeters surrounded by barbed wire and closely guarded. Transfer from one camp to another was done with cattle wagons and any revolt was met with violence. Useless to point out that any communist militant was subject to imprisonment as were women who had “compromised with the enemy”. A camp like the one in Pontmain was made up of Turks, Austro-Hungarians and especially Germans. This was indeed a prefiguration of the concentration camp universe that was set up in the 1930s and reached its summit during the Second World War. At the same time as xenophobic prejudices were being whipped up, the indigenous inhabitants of distant countries were dragged towards Europe by the recruiters, enrolled as sacrificial lambs in the war. From 1917-18, under orders from Clemenceau in France, 190,000 North Africans were sent to the front. 170,000 West Africans, the famous “Senegalese sharpshooters” were for the most part mobilised by force. Chinese people were also mobilised by France and Britain. Britain also sent Africans and Indians to the slaughter (1.5 million from the Indian sub-continent alone). The belligerent powers – and this also included the Russians with their “savage divisions” from the Caucasus – used all these “natives” as specialised cannon-fodder for the most dangerous military operations. As well as the soldiers displaced, more than 12 million Europeans were compelled to flee from the war, to become refugees.

The Armenian genocide and the persecution of minorities

This was the case for the Armenian populations, one of the most striking tragedies of the war, and seen as the first real genocide of the 20th century. Even during the 19th century, Armenian aspirations for independence, like that of the Greeks, resulted in persecution by the Ottomans. A political movement known as the “Young Turks”, which adopted an extremely nationalist Pan-Turkish ideology, prepared the massacre. Having become scapegoats during the war, especially after the defeat by the Russians, the Armenians were subjected to a well-planned massacre between April 1915 and the autumn of 1916. Having initially arrested a number of intellectuals, the rest of the Armenian population was systematically deported and decimated en masse by the Turkish state. Women and children were transported in boats and many drowned around the coasts or were sold like slaves. The Baghdad railway was used to carry out massive deportations to the desert or to camps, some of which were already being used to exterminate people, A large number of Armenians died of thirst in the Mesopotamian desert. Those who managed to escape the slaughter became impoverished refugees, including thousands of orphans. They were to make up a real diaspora (many for example went to the US where a sizeable community still exists). All this of course was very quickly forgotten by the ‘great democracies’ not long after this tragic event. And yet over a million Armenians had been killed!

The collapse of the last great empires during this terrible war gave rise to a multitude of nationalist tensions which had equally disastrous consequences for other minorities. The formation of nation states after the First World War was the result of the fragmentation of the old moribund empires. This was particularly the case with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires that had been composed of a mosaic of populations that were preyed upon by the hungry vultures that were the European imperialist powers. By struggling for their own survival, these ruined empires had tried to fortify their frontiers, conclude desperate military alliances and carry out population exchanges which gave rise to sharpened divisions and forms of “ethnic cleansing”. The Greek-Turkish conflict, which is often presented as the consequence of the spontaneous reaction of crowds of Turks, was highly orchestrated by the new state run by its modern leader Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. The new state he founded was to wage a long and murderous war against the Greeks. During this conflict, the Greeks also engaged in pillaging, with armed civilian bands burning Turkish villages and committing all kinds of atrocities against their inhabitants. Between 1920 and 1923 the Turkish forces also carried out a whole number of cruel massacres against Greeks and Armenians. From the beginning there were wholesale transfers of populations, of Greeks who had been living in Turkey and vice-versa (1,300,000 Greeks left Turkey and 385,000 Turks left Greece). In 1923, the Lausanne Treaty put the seal on these violent measures with a number of administrative procedures. Thousands of Greeks and Turks were expelled through this official exchange and good number of them died during the course of this exodus. More generally, in such conditions, with the displacement and concentration of hungry populations across the continent, it was not surprising that pathogenic infections proliferated. Central and eastern Europe was soon hit by typhus. But more spectacularly, the world was swept by the “Spanish flu” which claimed 40 to 50 million victims in populations weakened by the years of war. Before that the worst epidemic had been cholera in the 19th century. You would have to go back to the Middle Ages and the Black Death to find an epidemic on such a scale (30% of the European population was wiped out by the plague).

This whole barbaric reality was only possible because the working class had been dragooned by nationalism and soiled by patriotism. But faced with these atrocious conditions, the proletariat did raise its head, demonstrated that it alone was capable of blocking the war machine and putting an end to the carnage. It was after the mutinies of 1917 and the revolutionary wave which began in Russia and with workers’ uprisings in Germany (the sailors’ mutiny at Kiel and the revolts in big cities like Berlin) that the main belligerents were forced to sign the armistice. Faced with the threat of world revolution, the war had to be brought to a rapid end.

The counter-revolution: manhunts and pogroms

The ruling class had one obsession faced with the problem of desertions, demobilisation, and above all the risk of social conflict: it was vital to crush the focal points of the communist revolution. The Entente Powers, driven by powerful class hatred, encircled Bolshevik Russia. The terrible civil war was launched by the “White” armies, backed up by the armies of the capitalist states of Europe and the USA. All this resulted in countless victims. An economic blockade provoked a major famine in Russia. But to crush the proletariat, a new wave of violence had to be unleashed. The proletariat had become the common enemy of all the capitalist powers. Faced with the proletarian danger, they had to cooperate. But in contrast to the victorious countries, the bourgeoisie and especially the petty bourgeoisie in the defeated countries like Germany was to develop a deep feeling of having been “stabbed in the back”, of having been humiliated by the “enemy within”. The drastic conditions of the Versailles Treaty precipitated the hunt for scapegoats, leading to the development of anti-Semitism and a real man-hunt against communists, who were also made responsible for everything that had gone wrong. The culminating point was the crushing of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in 1919 and the series of savage massacres that followed: “The butchers set to work. Whole buildings collapsed under artillery fire, burying entire families in the ruins. Other proletarians fell in front of their homes, in schools, in stables, shot dead, beaten to death with clubs, pierced by bayonets, most often denounced by anonymous informers. They were put up against the wall singly, in twos, in groups of three or more, or finished off with a bullet in the back of the neck, in the middle of the night, on the banks of the Spree. For weeks, the river was throwing up corpses.” (3)

A succession of defeats for the working class was punctuated by the murder of great figures of the movement, the most celebrated being Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In the 1920s, ferocious repression against any form of opposition was made all the easier because the Stalinist counter-revolution was carrying out expulsions and murders, creating labour camps and prison camps, the Gulags, hunting down revolutionaries and systematically locking up workers suspected of “sedition”.

In the framework of decadent capitalism and of the counter-revolution, hatred of communism and its assimilation with the rootless Jew led to a qualitative change in anti-Semitic pogroms. In the 19th century, there had already been a series of pogroms against the Jews, especially in Russia after the annexation of Poland. Outbursts of violence against the Jews had already been recurrent in Odessa in the early part of the 19th century. But between 1881 and 1884 pogroms led to real massacres. Local populations were incited and encouraged to pillage, rape and murder. In 1903 a terrible series of pogroms struck the city of Kishinev. In a totally irrational and obscurantist manner, the Jews were accused of practising ritual murders. Between 1879 and 1914 nearly 2 million Jews became refugees. At the beginning of the 1920s, there was a new upsurge of pogroms. During the civil war in Russia, thousands of Jews were massacred by the White Armies, especially those led by Denikin. Following these pogroms, our comrade MC, for example, had to take refuge in Palestine with part of his family (see International Review 65 and 66). During this period, pogroms in Russia resulted in 60,000 deaths.

The defeat of the proletariat in Germany generated growing tensions against the Jews, as in other parts of Europe, producing a fresh wave of refugees. The programme of the Nazi party, dated 24 February 1920 had already stated that “To be a citizen, you must have German blood, religious denomination is not important. Thus no Jew can be a citizen”.

The central role of the state: towards the totalitarian control of populations

With the preparation and entry into the war, a new epoch had opened up: that of capitalism in decline and its universal tendency towards state capitalism. From now on, each state, led by its executive and its armed wing, would exert a bureaucratic control over the whole of social life. As a result of the war and in the name of the military needs or security of the state, there was a tightening of border controls and increasing control over and exactions against exiled populations and refugees.  Unlike the period before the First World War, migrations were now subject to restrictions. It was at this moment that the main tools of administration were put in place. The displacement of populations during the war led states to establish a real police control over identities, to systematically place all foreigners under suspicion and to search hem. In France for example, “the creation of identity cards in 1917 was a real reversal of previous police and administrative habits. Our mentalities have today taken on board this individual stamp whose police origins are no longer seen as such. It is not however neutral that the introduction of identity cards first concerned foreigners, with the aim of surveillance in a full-on state of war” (PJ Deschodt and F Huguenin, La République xenophobe, ed JC Lattès). From the start, armies recognised that the displacement of civilians – whether spontaneous or provoked – was a real threat, an “encumbrance” for troop activity and military logistics. States thus tried to give evacuation orders, instrumentalising civilians and refugees to use them as weapons of war, as was the case during the Greek-Turkish conflict concluded by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923.  The “solution” that was resorted to more and more was the multiplication of internment camps, as we saw above. When refugees had to flee from combat zones (as was the case with the Belgians in 1914 when the country was invaded by Germany), even though they sometimes benefited from the help of voluntary associations, a large number of civilians were directly placed under the control of the authorities and ended up in camps. Prisoners were divided up according to nationality and “dangerousness”. These were decisions of states out to defend their sordid capitalist interests, with the most “democratic” ones to the fore, and ready to take entire civil populations hostage.

In the aftermath of the war, following the physical and ideological defeat of the proletariat, the spirit of revenge took a new step and an even more murderous and barbaric conflict was being prepared.  Facing a pile of ruins, the states of Europe were in a difficult situation with so much labour power having been destroyed. Accords were signed to allow economic emigration. In the 1920s, France for example recruited Italian, Polish and Czech immigrants, the prelude to new xenophobic campaigns brought about the economic crisis and the terrible depression which followed, opening the course towards a new world war. 

WH 28/6/15


The outbreak of a second world holocaust would take barbarism to unheard of levels for civilian populations and refugees. We will look at this tragic development in the second part of this article.



(1) Frölich, Lindau, Schreiner, Walcher, Révolution et contre-révolution en Allemagne, 1918-1920, Ed Science marxiste

(2) Indentured labour means an emigrating worker signs a contract in his county of migration, according to which for a period of 5 or 8 or 10 years he has to work in that country. The wages are fixed, he cannot ask for an increase and he cannot cancel the contract. Between 1830 and 1930 this involved around 5 million Indians and 5-6 million people from other Asian countries – so as many as 12 million people were indentured labourers.

(3) A passage for a European migrant to the USA cost relatively little because it was not illegal,