Immigration: xenophobia right and left

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Across the globe there is a ‘great debate’ about immigration. Mostly it consists of arguments about how to restrict it. Immigration is presented as having a harmful effect on vulnerable economies, as undermining a country’s culture, as making our lives worse.

Against these arguments there are those who say that economies always get a net benefit from newcomers, that cultural diversity is enriching, and that, in more affluent countries, there is a responsibility to welcome those who are fleeing from persecution, poverty and war.

Every day you can read new headlines that play with these themes:

  • In the US President Obama proposes to reinforce border security while holding out the prospect of citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  • In the UK Prime Minister Cameron outlines further restrictions on and deterrents to potential immigrants.
  • In Australia the current government adopted the policies of its Labour predecessor (which reintroduced the offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea) and extended them, for example by putting the military in charge of asylum operations.
  • In Switzerland, a referendum rejected proposed measures to severely reduce immigration – the opponents of the restrictions arguing that it would be bad for the economy.
  • In the Mediterranean there are regular reports of rescues and drowning of refugees and migrants in boats on their way to Italy and Greece
  • Internationally Amnesty International has criticised the “pitiful” response of the wealthiest countries in the resettlement of the millions of refugees from conflict in Syria.

The ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie are dominated by the idea of a foreign threat and the need to strengthen frontiers and deter invaders. As a form of nationalism it promotes the idea of a national home which risks impoverishment, alien influences, and cultural dilution. From the openly Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece to the rise of the UK Independence Party in Britain and the electoral resurgence of the Front National in France, there are a range of right wing parties which express racist ideas in ways that were not previously respectable in normal democratic discourse. In return, liberals and the left offer state repression (bans and restrictions on parties, criminalisation in some instances) and their own versions of nationalism. The Scottish independence referendum had international coverage and many of those who supported the proposed split-off of Scotland did so on the grounds of national self-determination. Over the last century this has proven to be just a left version of the same nationalist poison. Bourgeoisies across the world were envious of the way the UK bourgeoisie was able to stage this democratic confrontation between varieties of nationalism.

Is racism only natural?

Admitting that there was a “certain amount of xenophobia” in the ‘debate’ on immigration, the Mayor of London said that “All human beings are prey to that feeling. … It’s part of human nature. It doesn’t mean people are bad people, ok?” While this is a typically off-the-cuff remark it does convey something that the ruling class wants us to believe. It’s supposed to be only ‘natural’ to have prejudices. The lie is that we’re born with suspicions of anything that’s different or unfamiliar.

In reality, while there have been periods when immigration has been actively encouraged by the capitalist state[1] – and even today the ‘talented’ or ‘hard working’ are still nominally welcome everywhere – the competition between national capitals in its current stage has prompted the capitalist class to step up the familiar campaigns against foreigners. Sometimes this takes the form of the immigration ‘debate’, sometimes blatant racism, and sometimes against the threat posed by other religions.

The arguments that point out the benefits of immigration are still made on the basis of the national economy. Immigrants are not a burden; they are of value to the capitalist economy.

Another aspect of the bourgeoisie’s campaign is the trick of ethnicity. While denouncing the nationalism of the capitalist state and its supporters, there are those who encourage people to take refuge within ethnic groups. In practice, most national censuses have questions about ethnic background, showing an appreciation that, while people will not necessarily declare their loyalty to the capitalist state, they are often prepared to declare an identity that separates them from others.

Anti-racism is another phenomenon that the bourgeoisie uses against the development of class consciousness. Anti-racism constantly calls on the state to curb racism, tackle racists, and uphold justice. Look at the protests in the US against the killing of black people by white cops. The call is always for justice. And yet the state remains the apparatus of the ruling capitalist class and it’s only a united working class that can confront and destroy it.

A classic example of the reality of state anti-racism was the UK Labour government of the late 1960s. People familiar with the period think of Enoch Powell and his 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech foreseeing future ethnic conflict. In reality the Labour government had come to power in 1964 with a manifesto commitment saying that “the number of immigrants entering the United Kingdom must be limited” – and showed what this meant in 1968 with draconian restrictions on Kenyan Asians fleeing persecution. Another commitment in the 1964 manifesto was to legislate against racial discrimination and incitement in public places” which led to the 1965 Race Relations Act and the setting up of a Race Relations Board (subsequently the Commission for Racial Equality). The state could say that it was committed to dealing with racism, while at the same time practising racist policies against different groups of immigrants attempting to settle in the UK.  The state could have its cake and eat it.

Morality of the working class

The idea that xenophobia is somehow natural goes against the actual experience of humanity. If you examine the tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer society before the advent of farming and social classes, it is clear that relations based on mutual solidarity were at the root of survival in primitive communist society. Furthermore, humanity would not have gone beyond the stage of the horde if particular communities had not developed ‘exogamic’ relations with other human groups. 

But while a social instinct is at the heart of what makes us human, the fragmentation of humanity, the alienation, individualism and nationalism fed by the capitalist system have brought to the fore other aspects of the human personality. Marxists have rightly shown what capitalism is responsible for: a system of exploitation that has led to imperialist wars and genocide. But while we can show the revolts, rebellions and revolutions against capitalist class rule, we also have to recognise the weight of conformity, obedience and acceptance of capitalism and its ideologies. The propaganda campaigns around immigration do have an impact; people often do believe that there is a threat that must be confronted, and the ‘foreigner’ in our midst is often the first scapegoat blamed for our miserable conditions.

The working class is often deeply divided by these prejudices and ideologies. But this does not detract from its historically unique nature. It is a class exploited by capitalism and subject to the weight of capitalist ideology. It is also a revolutionary class with the capacity to overthrow capitalism and develop new relations of production based on solidarity. The revolution of the working class is not just a revolt compelled by deprivation and repression; if it is to succeed it must have a consciousness of the world we must leave and the prospect of communism. As such, the working class view is not just a critique of society; it is also a moral view, in which the immediate needs of sections of the class are subordinated to a wider and more historic goal. Both classic racism and the anti-racism of the bourgeois left create illusions and cause divisions within the working class. For the working class to make a revolution it needs a unity that comes from a consciousness of its common interests internationally. Against racism, nationalism and xenophobia the working class offers a perspective of communism, a society based on association, not on the enforcement of separation. 

Car  6/12/14

[1]. For an in-depth article on many aspects of the question of immigration see ‘Immigration and the workers’ movement’ at