Europe has long been a land of struggle and honey in the mind of the much-battered American left, and today Britain takes on that role. The Democratic Socialists of America sung hymns to Jeremy Corbyn at their recent conference in Chicago and they were right to do so. But it is time now to reckon with the demons that prosper in good times for the left. Mimicry is chief among those demons; paradoxically, when the left’s arguments find an increased hearing, the impetus arrives to scrap some of our arguments, to echo the arguments of others who have long been more popular. Frequently this is an effect of amnesia; we find ourselves thrown into the ring for the first time in decades and we forget how to move, how once we fought and thought. There are few better examples of that trend than the confusion and vacillation on the European left over the question of immigration. Across British politics 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” – Bolshevism’s buried treasure, its enduring gift in 2017.
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”. Corbyn 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 stalled 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.
That backdrop makes one recent development all the more baffling and depressing. 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. 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 for the Labour leader.
It was only a decade ago that the Conservatives ran an election campaign on a promise to attack immigrants and lost. 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. 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, embarrassingly. The new Labour Campaign for Free Movement seeks a more distinctively socialist bent and certainly deserves support, 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.
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 choice 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.
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 recent months, largely South American cleaners have won better pay for their British-born colleagues too.
Here, then, is a socialist language for speaking about immigration drawn from the distant past. We all have in common that capital fucks us. That is its premise. We might add that all of us can 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. The battle for migrants’ rights is thus a class battle; its advances can benefit many besides migrants.
Proletarian internationalism today means directing our indignation at the lethal network of state power which torments 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 nothing more than seeking to feed themselves. They are the wretched of the earth. They must be our constituency. 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.
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, assuming 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 James Connolly did elegantly in 1909.
That bid to rethink alliances of interest, to crack open the coalition of white identity politics by bringing its dispossessed members into alliance with migrants – that is the hard work sometimes overlooked in America as well as in Europe today. The two cases are mirror images of one another. Whereas the European left sometimes sells migrants down the river in the naïve pursuit of speedy victories among native-born workers, here in New York we march and shout for immigrants’ rights and all too often the enemies we imagine as we raise our fists are beleaguered and Trump-backing steelworkers in Pennsylvania. They are, after all, that part of the right’s base most often relayed in the sneering, patronising, clueless pages of the New York Times. Ensconced in the purism of defeat and minority status that fuels American liberalism’s sense of superiority, Americans choose the moralistic course and not the coldly “pragmatic” one popular among mass parties in Europe. A false choice today defines debates about migration. It posits a battle between nominally beneficent liberalism and the hard-nosed politics of interests, which would succumb to xenophobia to champion white workers. To speak properly of class is to smash that miserable binary.
(A longer version of this article first appeared at Salvage, a quarterly journal of the British left.)
Barnaby Raine is a PhD student in History at Columbia University.