Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

That old racist game

(February 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.117, February 1989, p.13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE DEPORTATION last month of Viraj Mendis suddenly raised once again the whole question of immigration controls. Unfortunately, the way most of those who appeared in the media to argue against the deportation dealt with the issue by saying that they supported immigration controls in general, but that this was an exception.

Socialists should approach the issue in a very different way. For immigration controls are, first and foremost, about class – or rather about how the ruling class divides and controls the rest of us.

Capitalism is based upon immigration. Its whole history has been one of moving people wholesale from one geographic location to another. Sometimes this has been done forcibly, as with the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, the Scottish clearances or Stalin’s deportation of whole nations to places thousands of miles from their homelands.

More often the mechanism has been one of economic compulsion. The market or state action (Enclosures Acts, collectivisation) have destroyed traditional ways of making a livelihood leaving people little choice but to move in their millions to new centres of capital accumulation.

The concentration of the resources of the world into burgeoning industrial cities has necessarily been accompanied by the dragging of people to those centres from far and wide.

Britain’s cities in the 19th century were all immigrant cities, populated by first or second generation migrants from the countryside, whether in Britain, Ireland or Europe. In the 1880s, half the population of London had been born elsewhere. The United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia all developed with populations which were 90 percent or more immigrant. It is not surprising that capitalist ideology was at the time opposed to immigration controls.

But by the end of the century problems were besetting capitalist states.

The growth of the great industrial centres had led to an accumulation of social problems – housing shortages, pollution, disease – which it was feared could all too easily give rise to political discontent.

Capital also tended to require a more skilled and more committed workforce than previously. Its state had to intervene to ensure minimum education and health facilities, and to provide the minimum income necessary if workers were going to remain potential sources of labour power through long bouts of unemployment. But it was enormously expensive to grant these things to all workers.

Hence its reaction when, around the turn of the century, agitation began against the “dangers” which particular groups of new immigrants posed – in Britain agitation against Jews from eastern Europe, in the US opposition to both Chinese and eastern and southern European immigrants. After a brief period of resistance to such agitation it caved in to the demand for immigration control.

The agitation had shown how easy it was to deflect attention from the problems which beset workers in the great cities by playing on ethnic divisions. New immigrants were forced into the worst shuns, the most polluted districts, the lowest paid jobs. It was all too easy to identify such conditions in the minds of older established workers with the immigrants, to blame the latest victims of the system for the conditions which they were forced to endure.

The passing of measures like the Aliens Act in Britain gave legal sanctity to such notions. They sought to establish an ideological division within the working class between those deemed as “nationals” and those as foreigners – even though the “nationals” were themselves usually the children or grandchildren of previous Waves of immigrants.

Immigration controls did not stop immigration. But they did divide the working class.

The pattern has been repeated many times since then. In Britain, the Aliens Act did not apply to the “British territories” of the empire. Both Labour and Tory governments took advantage of this to draw in extra labour power to fuel the great post war boom. But then, unable to do anything substantial about conditions in inner city areas, they rapidly surrendered to demands raised originally by the fascist right and agreed to end “large scale” commonwealth immigration.

In the US it is impossible to stop millions of desperate people fleeing from devastating conditions in Central America finding some way of crossing the two thousand mile long Mexican border. But the pretence of sealing the border turns them into “illegal” immigrants, denied normal workers’ rights, who are prepared to work for miserable wages.

West German capitalism depends on an enormous amount of immigrant labour. But immigration controls enable it to divide that labour between those workers who can claim, to be “ethnic Germans” and those “foreigners”, consigned to “guest worker” status.

In Russia, cities like Moscow continually need labour from the Caucasus and the Asiatic republics. The internal passport system restricts many of those workers to a temporary status, forced to live in barrack-like hostels and subject to racial attacks. In the great cities of China, immigrants from the countryside remain “temporary” workers for decades, denied welfare benefits.

We live in a world system which pumps the wealth that can provide humans with a livelihood into a few great centres of capital accumulation. Immigration controls are directed at those whose only way of making a living is to follow the flow of capital to these centres. They never stop the movement of labour. What they do is turn older established groups of workers against newer ones. As such they are vital to the system’s political survival. The argument against them is a vital part of socialist arguments for world working class unity.

Last updated on 7 May 2010