In July 2016, the ICC held an open discussion day on the topic of immigration, refugees and populism. We are publishing the following account, written by one of our close sympathisers who attended the meeting.
Held in London, July 2016, against the backdrop of the largest global ‘production’ of refugees since the end of WW2 and the accompanying rise of xenophobic political ‘populism’, the meeting attempted to understand these phenomena in both their historic dimension and in their present-day implications for the struggle of the working class. It was called by the International Communist Current which made two presentations and provided the input of comrades from three European countries. In addition the meeting was animated by representatives of the Communist Workers Organisation/International Communist Tendency; the Socialist Party of Great Britain; The Midlands Discussion Forum; an author and lecturer sympathetic to communist politics; an internationalist anarchist, former member of the Anarchist Federation; an individual concerned with the plight of refugees and several sympathisers of the ICC, some of them former members.
The atmosphere was fraternal, the discussion serious, with little evidence of sectarianism or ‘scoring points’ but saw a real attempt to clarify reality and understand different proletarian interpretations of it in order to effect change. It was a moment of face-to-face debate – real militant interaction - in an evolving discussion, producing some basic if essential affirmations but raising issues for further elaboration, some of which appear in the necessarily truncated account below.
The first (morning) presentation dealt in great length and depth with the historic aspects of economic migration and refugees from war, from the origins of humanity as an eminently migratory species (‘out of Africa’) to the evolving and dynamic specificities of the capitalist mode of production in both its formative and declining epochs:
In the ascendant epoch: above all, with and through violence - by forcing peasants off the land (enclosures, etc) and robbing them of a means of subsistence; through the kidnap and enforced migration of millions of black slaves - capitalism created the modern proletariat, a class without countries, a class with nothing but its labour power to sell: doomed to wander in search of employment, a migratory class par excellence. Emigration (eg to the ‘Americas’ or the British ‘colonies’) was encouraged by the state, an expression of capitalism’s continuing expansion.
In its epoch of decline: With quasi-permanent economic crisis and world-wide warfare, the rise of militarised borders, the restriction and even mass extermination of large parts of the labour force amid hysterical state-sponsored nationalism and pogroms and the creation of vast refugee populations fleeing increasing conflict or seeking decreasing opportunities to work. Capitalism is less able and has less need to integrate such masses into highly-automated production and emigration is largely subject to increasing restrictions and obstacles.
Some quotes from the presentation to give a flavour:
“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.) ....
“... 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.” ....
“...Today, we can see that migration from Africa and the Middle East falls entirely as a consequence of the murderous wars which have raged for over 40 years. There is no attempt to truly integrate these desperate people only to see them die, be used as pawns, in a cynical political game or at the best used as the very cheapest of cheap labour.”
The morning discussion emphasised that this global and historical approach was the only method capable of fully arming and inoculating the proletariat against the prevailing pogromist, nationalist, anti-immigrant hysteria and the leftist-liberal counterpart, a vision of capitalism without such excrescences - a contradiction in terms and in reality.
On the level of humanity as a species, the migration of hunter gatherers colonised the world; an entirely natural process accompanied by and the result of a development of profound social bonds and instincts - one for all and all for one: a necessity made more or less conscious. Humanity is a species of immigrants! As for the proletariat, it is the essence of a migratory class having been formed by an enforced rupture with the land and the products of its labour, obliging it to cross counties, countries and continents in a bid to sell its labour power. These are the realities behind today’s false claims that the working class is by nature racist and to blame for the rise of right-wing ‘populism’.
The CWO comrade, who agreed with and welcomed the presentation, pointed out that despite the historic tightening of borders, limited immigration was a ‘necessary evil’ for the bourgeoisie (pace Marx, quoted above) and that it wanted, needed, to a certain extent, ‘porous borders’. The dynamic of bourgeois attitudes depended on the state of the economy (ie the slave trade in ascendancy; the ‘import’ of labour from the ‘British colonies’ during the labour shortage after WW2). An ICC sympathiser said that ‘people smuggling’ was in itself a ‘growing business’, while an ICC member pointed out that, by its very nature as a class representing the continued revolutionising of the means of production within social relations restricted to the nation state framework, the bourgeoisie inevitably faced an ‘overproduction’ of labour power in certain sectors (in particular manual labour), while projecting chronic shortages in others: a real anarchy of production characteristic of capitalism and one only mitigated, not resolved, by the on-going development of state capitalism.
However the over-arching dynamic of capitalism remained clear: the system in its decadence and decomposition doesn’t stop creating vast waves of human misery – economic migrants and those fleeing wars - on the contrary. But its ability to integrate these masses has been more and more restricted over the past 100 years, despite periods of reconstruction such as that post WW2. Ethnic cleansing; mass exterminations and the creation of rigid borders were the hallmark of the 20th century and this dynamic only accelerates in the 21st, a process unfolding before our eyes and the root cause of today’s social and political upheavals. The economic and social crisis that the bourgeoisie of the major metropoles has for decades attempted to push to what it considers ‘the peripheral parts of the planet’ returns to the centre in the form of financial dislocations, viruses and diseases long thought banished and terror on the streets of Istanbul, Brussels, Paris, Nice and elsewhere.
At the dawn of capitalism, the dispossessed peasantry flooded into the towns which became ‘human drains’, over-crowded cities riven with squalor and disease, before a growing industrialisation – which required this ‘surplus population’ for the reproduction of capital – and the consequent geographic extension of capitalist social relations, together with the epic migration this implied, tended to ‘mop up’ this mass of humanity. This whole process took 200-300 years or so.
But in the space of the past 100 years – particularly since the end of WW1 - while wars and crises created ever-more tides of migration and refugees, increasing barriers have been raised on cross-border movements, with militarised zones, the building of walls, etc. These developments were designed to control the movement of labour (in the former Eastern bloc, to prevent its mass migration to the West) and to a certain extent, to police the population internally. At the same time, masses expelled from the unprofitable agriculture of the land tended less and less to be integrated into capitalist production with the consequent the swelling of the world’s cities, turning large parts of many of them into burgeoning slums.
Whereas in the late 19th century the bourgeoisie was taking strides to ‘clean up’ its environmental act in major European metropoles (eg the sewer systems of Victorian London), today, millions of dispossessed Chinese peasants whose labour power is surplus to the world market’s relatively saturated requirements are stranded in misery while many newly-built cities remain empty ‘ghost towns’. The hideous degradation of the environment implied in the transfer of production to areas of ‘low-cost labour’ – the ‘race to the bottom’ – is a notable reversal of tendencies in the late 19th century and makes a mockery of lying lip service about ‘mitigating climate change’.
In the lifetime of most comrades at the London meeting, the reality of a society closing in on itself was evident. In the 60s, treks to Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush and elsewhere, were possible. Though travel to and within the former Eastern imperialist bloc was difficult, the collapse of this bloc in 1989 promised a golden epoch of ‘open borders’. Today, despite the EU, whole areas are rendered impassable by war (the Balkans, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Mid-East, increasing swathes of Africa, etc) while ‘fortress Europe’ constructs vast camps – the ‘safety nets’ - where tens of thousands of human beings are caught (i.e. between Greece and Turkey; and on the borders of Europe with Africa). 4000 migrant souls drowned in the Mediterranean in the first 6 months of 2016 alone! All this and the land-mine militarization of walls and borders across the Mid-East:... “this is living barbarism.” The deteriorating situation in Turkey – “a worrisome, country running the risk of sinking into civil and external war” ... such a situation is “a nightmare for humanity.”
Finally, on the morning session, an essential notion for the working class: migrants are not merely ‘victims’ but ‘have agency’ and are able to defend themselves and, through their struggle, a struggle of the proletariat, are able at certain moments to contribute to an alternative, politicised, internationalist perspective for humanity. There are many examples of this - from the immediate defence of immigrant communities from racist attacks in this or that country to the struggles of the Amsterdam workers in Holland during WW2 to prevent the deportation of Jews to extermination. But... in today’s situation, such limited initiatives are no longer enough. If the basic resistance to racism and anti-immigration – like the essential defence of immediate proletarian demands – is one element, the development of communist consciousness is even more important. Today, given the gravity of the historical situation, only large-scale movements in the direction of the mass strike and the proletarian revolution offer any real alternative perspective to capitalist barbarism.
‘Populism’ - Presentation
The second half of the day’s meeting, concerning the current situation and the rise of ‘populism’, began with a presentation from an ICC comrade:
“The [UK] Brexit option was not an isolated incident but another example of the growing international problem of populism. You can see it in the support for Donald Trump in the battle for the US Presidency; in Germany with the appearance of political forces to the right of the Christian Democrats (Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland); in the recent presidential elections in Austria where the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats were eclipsed, and the contest was between the Greens and the populist right; in France there is the continuing rise of the Front National; in Italy there is the Five Star movement; and there’s also the governments of Poland and Hungary.
“Populism is not another player in the games between the parties of left and right; it exists because of widespread discontent that can find no means of expressing itself. It’s entirely on the political terrain of the bourgeoisie, but is based on opposition to elites and ‘the Establishment’, on antagonism towards immigration, distrust of left-wing promises and right-wing austerity, all expressing a loss of confidence in the institutions of capitalist society but not for a moment recognising the revolutionary alternative of the working class.” (Growing Difficulties for the bourgeoisie and for the working class).
Populism is therefore not merely a weapon of the ruling class but a product of a social impasse – neither the bourgeoisie nor the working class can offer a way forward to society which meanwhile experiences growing poverty, war and social dislocation. This populist trend is an expression of demoralisation, despair, of anger; in its demonization of bankers, of elites, as well as of its scapegoats, ‘the refugees’ the migrants, the Muslims, the ‘others’. It offers a personalisation of a system that is apparently incomprehensible.
For the ruling class, this situation marks a retreat from its claim to uphold traditional, ‘liberal’, ‘enlightened’ values. It’s a reinforcement of borders, not a ‘global community of ‘free capitalism’.
The ruling class in Great Britain made a mess vis-a-vis the recent referendum on EU membership because they thought that expressions like UKIP only represented a small minority alongside the ‘Eurosceptics’ in the Conservative Party. Former Prime Minister David Cameron and his clique underestimated completely the scope of this phenomenon in this period. One result: both main UK parties suffered. Labour Party still undergoing severe convulsions; leadership challenges; legal actions, a split between Parliamentary Party and grass roots activists, etc. The Tories were thrown into disarray, with back-stabbing, but showed a capacity to make a coherent response, to find a way of creating the facade of healing the wounds with the resignation of Cameron, a new cabinet and new PM Teresa May’s policy of addressing the ‘healing of divisions’ between right and left, rich and poor, black and white.
However the point is that they have been obliged to act out something the more intelligent factions of the bourgeoisie did not want: an exit from the European Union. In the immediate aftermath, the UK economy has suffered with fluctuations in the value of sterling, a new round of ‘quantitative easing’ (ie the electronic printing of money) and this, coupled with the slowdown of the Chinese economy, and threats to the Italian banking system, etc, has further imperilled the world economy.
Also on the international level: the UK EU referendum result has given a boost to other populist demagogues: Trump in the US, Le Pen in France. The ruling class, in order to deal with the crisis over the past 30 years, has evolved organisations to control the movement of labour and capital, and the populist move tends to wreck these and reinforces national isolationism. On the imperialist level, being outside the EU makes it harder for the United Kingdom to present itself as a dominant power, makes it more difficult to influence events in Europe as it and the US wanted it to do.
For the working class, this does not create a situation beneficial to the development of consciousness. On the contrary, it’s poisoned the atmosphere, fostered racist divisions; divisions over whether to leave or to stay in Europe; anti-populism, which is strong (eg the London ‘March for Europe’) which presents the idea that the way to oppose this racist poison is to stand up for state capitalist Europe. Also: the emphasis on the generations (with many of the older generation voting to leave), between London and the regions. It got people involved in the bourgeois democratic process – it even affected parts of the anarchist milieu and this represents a capitulation to bourgeois democracy. So this poisoned, nationalist atmosphere has strengthened the difficulties already faced by the proletariat.
Balance of Class Forces
Is the ICC saying the working class is defeated? “We certainly think since 1989 it has suffered a series of blows, of impacts on its consciousness. Having thrown off the counter-revolution in the ‘60s, since 89, it has faced campaigns about the ‘death of communism’; globalisation; has seen the decimation of whole sectors of industry that were foci of militancy – cars, mines, shipbuilding, etc.” These were global phenomena and Britain exemplified the ruling class’s response: the ‘Thatcher solution.’
There have been important movements of the working class this century– in France, Spain and elsewhere - but in the last five or so years there has been a regression in combats and above all in consciousness. One of the consequences of capital’s decomposition is the refugee crisis, posing immediate problems for the proletariat, raising concretely the question of internationalism to a class that’s under the cosh and doesn’t have an immediate answer. Fundamentalism, terrorism, all pose problems, allow channels through which the prevailing trends of bourgeois barbarism seep into the working class, threatening definitively to derail its alternative project for humanity. Still, the organisation has stated that they don’t think the working class has yet reached this point, despite all the difficulties.
Revolutionaries are against the stream: only a tiny political minority held on to principles to oppose the either/or of the UK referendum. Faced with a situation that’s confusing, perplexing, revolutionaries need to develop analysis, coherence. And if that means criticising ourselves, our past positions, so be it. Defence of internationalism is key. In the face of the referendum, as in the war in Syria, we’ve seen sizeable chunks of the Anarchist milieu call for support for one side or the other (eg supporting the ‘revolution in Rojava’). The need for the defence of those who are facing repression, for the unity of the working class, is paramount. If the political minorities of the working class can’t say this, there’s no one else. Revolutionaries must talk about revolution, must insist that the problems can’t be resolved inside this system, these social relations. Well-meaning concepts and phrases like ‘No Borders’ won’t cut it.
Discussion on Populism and the Present Period
One fundamental strand of the discussion concerned the class and social origins of today’s populist movement. Various views were forwarded about the origins, from the ‘populist peasant revolts of the Middle-Ages’ to anti-elite populism in early 20th century America. Perhaps most succinctly, a comrade (S from The Midlands Discussion Forum) argued that contrary to the ICC’s presentation, populism did not arise from civil society but “comes from and serves the bourgeoisie.”
He dated the beginning of populism as a programme of national renewal to, perhaps, Mussolini in the 1920s and Peron in the 40s and 50s, both of whom used populist ideology and promoted or represented the corporatist state. These were the ideological forbearers of today’s populism which then as now, expresses divisions inside the ruling class, used against the working class.
This was clearly seen during the UK referendum in which both sides argued for bourgeois solutions. Rather than arguing that the Remain camp represented the most intelligent, far-sighted factions of the ruling class, implying that the Brexit camp was most reactionary, S believed they represented the big and petty bourgeoisie respectively. The big bourgeoisie is connected to countries that trade internationally, common standards, currencies, whereas the petty bourgeoisie is by definition local; the ‘rules’ are just an encumbrance. So these divisions reflect how the different factions of the ruling class deal with the world. 73 % of the population rallied to this Referendum. They have been enrolled into bourgeois politics, the defence of the nation state, and this is evidently of use to the ruling class. Seen in this light, Populism in its more extreme sense (Farage) could be seen as a deliberate political orientation of the bourgeoisie in order to get people involved in the myth of the nation. Populism has to provide an explanation for things that are happening to a working class angry due to the fall of living standards. Populism is a deliberately distorted explanation: a deliberate policy of the ruling class.
There was significant disagreement with central elements of this view from various sources. For many ICC comrades, populism was not just another ideology dreamed up and used by the bourgeoisie: the situation was more serious than that, presaging a prolonged agony of unfolding violence within society, one which the ruling class is unable to adequately control. It’s not just the working class that can’t see a way forward. If today’s populism was merely a tool of the ruling class, how was it that all the major sections of it in the West opposed the Brexit campaign, for example, or the rise of Trump in the US, whilst being apparently unable to prevent either? Something more profound is at work here and it’s this underlying dynamic we need to uncover.
It was necessary not to blur the period of Mussolini and Peron – products of a defeated working class – with the specificity of modern populism which has developed in the past two decades in the context of the stalemate between the classes and the collapse of the imperialist blocs.
In 1989 our rulers promised prosperity and peace. But the result has been major wars, a terrifying financial crisis, the influx in Europe of cheap labour driving up competition for jobs and the price of housing, accompanied by a sense of fear for the future and the reality of violence on the streets in the immediate. There has evolved within populations a profound distrust of and disgust with existing institutions and parties – a helplessness and hopelessness, expressions of rage, fear and anger against ‘the elite’ - not just within the proletariat but also vast swathes of the middle class. Can we reduce this reaction to a mere ploy by the ruling class?
The populists say in answer to this generalised anger and fear “the boat is full, we are going to throw refugees out.” In Germany, Pegida, they say they want to shoot refugees. In France, the party of Le Pen advances. In Poland, rising nationalism and the formation of a part-time guard is directed as much against an imagined invasion of refugees as against resurgent Russia on its borders. Trump’s attitude to Mexicans and Muslims offers the same perspective. The specificities are different in each country, but populism announces a new chain of violence: pogromism, against refugees, and within society in general.
Higher echelons of the ruling class don’t want to concede the monopoly of violence yet. It’s a cancer developing within society, not imposed from above. Hence the concerted campaign against Brexit, against Trump, by the US security forces and even from within his own party.
Revolutionaries are used to showing how state capitalism invades every aspect of life – sometimes this leads to the assumption that any social manifestation is the result of the state’s will and role. But the state also responds to what is going on in society. The unease within the heart of the bourgeoisie at the rise of Populism, the concerted if failed attempts to block Brexit and Trump, are expressions of the fact that the ruling class is losing control over its own political apparatus.
For revolutionaries, today’s situation points towards a polarisation: for the politicisation and the development of consciousness of the working class, for understanding, for analysing, for pointing towards solidarity – or towards populism, scape-goating, every man for himself, violence. The ruling class has hitherto used democracy, elections, to channel discontent but the wearing out of existing strategies implies this may not be enough to confront the populist tide. In all events, there will be no quick outcome, and an increasing social agony in the interim.
Regarding the 30s, fascism and the mobilisation of the petty-bourgeoisie, certain analogies could perhaps be drawn, but only if the specificities of today’s period are firmly acknowledged. In the 30s the working class was physically decimated and its revolutionary consciousness crushed. The petty-bourgeoisie’s anger and rage could be harnessed by the bourgeoisie for its war aims. Today, though cowed by unemployment and in part infected with the poisonous dominant ideology, the working class is not yet defeated; the bourgeoisie is not organised for a global war and large portions of the petty bourgeoisie are as disenchanted with the elite as are the working class. It’s too simple to equate Trump, the millionaire, with Hitler, the “Bohemian corporal”, as Hindenberg contemptuously called him. The petty bourgeoisie may be crushed between the two major classes but its ideology of revolt without perspective both infects the working class and is not at all helpful in the present situation to the mainstream of the bourgeoisie which can’t easily control its expressions, of which widespread support for incoherent populism is one.
The future of the nation state
A sympathiser drew attention to the break-up of the imperialist blocs - the ‘Soviet Empire’ under Russia and the ‘Western Bloc’ under US hegemony - since 1989 and the repercussions today. The erosion of organisations like the EU and NATO should be linked to a decline of US power, an expression of decomposition, with countries tending to break free of organisations that previously held the western bloc together. This centrifugal tendency encouraged certain countries – ie India, China and Turkey – to ‘go their own way’ though vis-a-vis Turkey, the results are proving disastrous. This situation is also encouraging a more bellicose response from Russia, all this giving rise to fierce clashes (ie Balkans, Syria, Crimea, Ukraine); with more refugees, fuelling the Populist pyre.
There was, indeed, an important secondary discussion about the future fate of the nation state: for the CWO, in the recent past, capitalism had outgrown this framework and organisation like the EU represented the tendency for a reformation of the imperialist blocs which transcended nations. The Brexit result, apparently in contradiction to this, would have to be further discussed, the comrade said. For the ICC, the EU was never an imperialist bloc – e.g. the imperialist interests of Germany and Poland were widely divergent – but a trading organisation precisely to enable nation states to survive increasing global turmoil. Historically, the nation state – the basic unit of capitalist organisation - has indeed outgrown its usefulness but remains intact, whatever temporary alliances and federations it enters into. No bourgeoisie willingly gives up its sovereignty, its imperialist appetites. No nation state has in reality voluntarily dissolved itself.
For this public meeting, there were many issues that could not be immediately explored – including how best and on what level to promote a working class defence against racist propaganda and attacks: the concretisation of ‘solidarity’ - or only superficially touched upon. However the main questions raised around the origins of this present, gigantic wave of refugees from war and economic migration must be pursued, for they largely determine the immediate and medium term evolution of the world situation. Within the ICC, the discussion regarding Populism is only at the beginning. A text will appear in a forthcoming edition of the International Review. Other discussions provoked by the above-mentioned article in World Revolution appear in the Discussion Forum of this website.