The working class is a class of immigrants

Printer-friendly version

The attacks on Muslims don’t let up. Politicians say that the veil is threatening. Islam is evil, say the BNP, and the pope possibly agrees. Muslim ‘communities’ are supposed to be hot beds of terrorism, ready to inflict further atrocities such as 9/11 and 7/7. Muslims are accused of not integrating into or embracing British culture. Ministers say they should expect to be stopped and searched more than other people.

Muslims aren’t the only minority that are being attacked as an ‘alien presence’. More than half a million immigrants from eastern Europe have come to Britain since 2004. The press accuses them of taking jobs and benefits and undermining wages. The government is already preparing to crack down on future immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. There are scare stories about the numbers of illegal immigrants in the country. The press wails that not enough asylum seekers are being sent back. Where once it was only right-wing politicians like Thatcher who would talk about Britain being “swamped by an alien culture”, and then Blunkett who said that the children of asylum seekers were “swamping” schools and should be taught separately, it is now OK to say things that were once seen as unacceptable or even racist.

This is not something that’s limited to Britain. In France the government is expelling more and more immigrants every year, and continually pushing for Muslims to integrate into French society. In the Netherlands the recent general election continued the focus on immigration that had dominated the elections of 2002 and 2003, and the Burka is to be made illegal! In the US, although the legislative proposals that would have expelled 12 million people did not go through, there are still plans to extend the barrier on the Mexican frontier for up to 2000 miles, which will involve an army of 18,000 border guards.

Everywhere you can hear the chatter about the ‘clash of civilisations’ as nations close down their frontiers and demonise minorities, whether Muslims, asylum seekers, or immigrants.

Capitalism ‘frees’ workers to sell their labour power

Current estimates suggest that there are as many as 200 million people living outside the country they were born in. With more than 4.5 million British passport holders officially living abroad, to take one example, the world figure is probably much too low. People move for many reasons: because of famine and draught, war, disease, poverty and persecution. But wherever you go you can’t escape capitalist barbarism.

The movement of population 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”). In the early history of capitalism, its period of ‘primitive accumulation’, the first wage labourers had their ties with feudal masters severed and “great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process” (Marx, Capital volume 1, Chapter 26). Marx gives the example of the great English landowners dismissing their retainers and these “tenants chased off the smaller cottagers etc, then, firstly a mass of living labour powers were thereby thrown onto the labour market, a mass which was free in a double sense, free from the old relations of clientship, bondage and servitude, and secondly free of all belongings and possessions, and of every objective, material form of being, free of all property: dependent on the sale of its labour capacity or on begging, vagabondage and robbery as its only source of income” (Grundrisse Pelican 1977 p507).

In this process we see the migration of workers from agricultural areas to the towns. Although essential to the process of capitalist development, this massive rural exodus that ripped the peasant from the land brought people into towns and cities where life expectancy was lower, disease more widespread, exploitation more intensive and living conditions worse.

For capitalism in the 19th century migration was an essential factor in its development. Between 1848 and 1914 some 50 million workers left Europe, 20 million between 1900 and 1914, mostly for America. Initially, until the 1890s, emigration was heaviest from the more industrially developed countries, such as Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Later there was greater emigration from the less industrialised countries of southern and eastern Europe which had suffered agricultural crises: less skilled workers that took whatever jobs were available at lower wages.

But while for most of the 19th century this population movement contributed to the development of capitalism, subsequent emigration has been essentially driven by negative factors, by persecution, by the need to escape conflict, by the flight from famine and poverty.

It is true that in the period after the Second World War countries of western Europe needed labour from the ex-colonies to use in the process of reconstruction, but by the end of the 1960s governments had started introducing a whole range of restrictive measures.

Many bourgeois spokesmen still say that another wave of migration to western Europe is needed to fill the gaps left by  a declining and aging population. But at the moment the dominant campaign involves the demonisation of immigrants. In the context of wars, economic crisis and social problems, it is not the capitalist system that is being blamed but the immigrants who are ‘flooding’ the country, as well as those who are here who won’t integrate.

False alternatives from the left

On the left of the Labour Party and in the various leftist groups there is a perpetual outrage against bigotry and the scapegoating of minorities by the government and media. Yet they have nothing to offer except further diversions.

For example, the fraud of multiculturalism is every bit as divisive as the right wing campaigns on alien invasions that it echoes. The basic idea of multiculturalism is that every one has a basic identity, whether religious or ethnic, that comes before all other considerations. You might be a worker or a boss of a multinational, but the multicultural ideology insists that you are a Muslim, Hindu or Christian first, or Irish, Somalian or Pakistani before anything else.

This idea is not limited to liberal anti-racism, but is found in Trotskyist groups like the SWP. They ridicule the idea that the veil, for example, is in any way oppressive, arguing that it’s a statement of identity against rising Islamophobia. Fundamentally the identity politics of the left agree with the racist ideas of the right in their intention to divide up the working class into a set of religious and ethnic ghettos. Yes, it’s true that there are many cultural differences within the population of most countries. In London for example more than 300 languages are spoken. But the workers’ movement at its healthiest has always been able to incorporate workers from all backgrounds, regardless of language or national background.

Another aspect of the response to the current campaigns is anti-racism, in particular focussed on groups like the BNP. The story is told that these people are fascists with a particularly extreme ideology, and that all decent people should unite against them to ensure they’re kept from power. This rather ignores the reality of all the capitalist governments that have been quite capable of imposing repressive legislation, restricting immigration and whipping up racist intolerance, all within the framework of democracy.

There’s also a quaint variety of anti-racism that sees it as unbritish. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said, after a recent case involving the BNP leader, that “Nick Griffin’s remarks were lawful, but not respectful. He is British, yes, but his behaviour is alien.” This apostle of moderation sees the problems facing society as coming from the ‘alien’ extremists, the fascists and Islamic fundamentalists. If only everyone could just fall in with the example of the Labour government, talking of ‘empowerment’ while reinforcing repression.

But the most harmful idea from the left is that the verbal and physical attacks on minorities can be dealt with through changes in the law. After the Morecambe Bay deaths of Chinese cocklers, for example, the SWP thought it outrageous that there were no controls on gang-masters. It didn’t actually take long for the Labour government to introduce regulations, nor to see how little conditions have changed for those living on the margins. Or, as another example, there is the idea that immigration laws can be repealed. You can be sure that if the laws are changed it’s because it’s in interests of the capitalist ruling class. In the 1950s workers were recruited from abroad for the NHS and transport industries without any legal obstacles. Subsequently there was a Labour-Tory consensus on introducing restrictive laws.

In France there have also been suggestions as to how the state could change things and reduce the potential for rioting in the Paris banlieus. It’s been suggested that the police should be better trained, in particular in dealing with racism in its ranks. A change in the way that public sector housing is allocated has also been proposed.

Everywhere that frontiers are closing down and bigotry is becoming more and more respectable there is a left wing alternative. But the left’s idea that the state is somehow neutral, goes against the experience of the working class. In capitalist society the state defends the interests of the ruling capitalist class.

The working class has been a class of migrants since the first serfs and villains were torn from the land. It is a class marked by a solidarity that has nothing to do with sentimentalism but stems from the shared experience of exploitation by a capitalist system that now covers the world. Against capitalist attempts to divide us into religious and ethnic segments, it is necessary to struggle as a class, to forge a consciousness of our class interests, of our class identity, of the perspective for the development of the struggle. Against the racists of the right and the reformism and identity politics of the left we insist that the working class has no country and that the workers of all countries need to unite in defence of their interests.   WR. 2/12/06