First Published: Lalkar, Janaury 2007.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the October 2006 issue of Workers, organ of the Communist Party of Britain Marxist Leninist (CPBML), there is an article entitled “Let’s have a working class debate on immigration.” The article, bewailing the high numbers of immigrants, states that “due to the increased supply of labour, wages in several unskilled and low-skilled job sectors have fallen, hitting the indigenous working class. The extra demand for housing has forced prices and rents even higher, and in many cities students now find it almost impossible to get part-time jobs to help them through college.” These two sentences in the opening paragraph mirror all the worst bourgeois influences that are drip-fed daily to workers in order to divide them along the lines of colour and/or nationality/race (and currently religion), i.e., workers from ’outside’ lower your wages, take your jobs, put up your rents, deny your children a decent education, etc., etc.
But is an “increase in the supply of labour” to be explained solely by citing immigration figures? Even if one only wants to ’play with numbers’ this is one-sided and takes no account of people leaving the country, death rates or those entering the benefits system through disability. Also, do not every pair of workers, indigenous or otherwise, who have more than two children under this simplified accounting system add to the expansion of the class? Yet no one is seriously suggesting curbs on procreation. What of technology? While not increasing the number of workers it can reduce the number jobs. Are we to follow General Ludd again? Then, of course, there is capital taken abroad, where it will be used to manufacture commodities cheaply (to be fair the CPBML do address this particular point later in the article but only in the sense that in taking British capital abroad the bourgeoisie are robbing British workers of work). The point, which the CPBML miss totally, is quite simple for those who choose to see it: it is the owner of the means of production who will decide who will work, with what technology, for what wages, where the work will be sited and what level of unemployment (surplus labour, indigenous or foreign) will be best for his maximum profit. That is not always an easy thing to explain in a country where the working class movement is so pitifully weak ideologically, yet that is what communists must do. It is the height of treachery to our class (remembering that the working class stretches far beyond Britain’s boundaries), blatant racism, opportunism and pro-imperialism to opt instead for a policy of blaming the immigrant for all British workers’ woes, even if this will strike a chord with the basest instincts of many workers. While we are on the subject of the “indigenous working class” just who are they? At what point does an immigrant family become an indigenous family?, if the answer to that question is never than even someone with the flimsiest grasp of British history would have to draw the conclusion that there are very few members of the indigenous working class about.
The question of house prices, rents, etc., being the fault of immigrants is pure bunk. Immigrants tend to be shoved into the lowest quality (if any at all) housing, unless, of course, one subscribes to the somewhat popular, but totally incorrect, view that “they come over here with nothing and are given the best houses and thousands of pounds” that can be heard in any working class area and is merely a reflection of the anti-working class pap that fills the pages of the gutter press. Workers do say these things and, if not shown the errors of these views, will tend to believe them. But that is no excuse for the CPBML to pander to these views or worse, to try to give these racist views credibility. Another point about housing is that if immigrants really are causing rents and prices to rise then one must suppose that this is due to a housing shortage, which would be alleviated by, yes, you guessed it, building more homes which would create jobs wouldn’t it?
The last part of the first quote from this grubby article concerns the seeming inability of students to get “part time jobs to help them through college”. Quite apart from the fact that students would be far better off if they were allowed to concentrate on their studies (a proper non-repayable grant is the very least communists should be asking for), surely, if the CPBML’s argument about immigrants bringing down wages is correct than wouldn’t masses of students seeking part time work also bring about the same thing? It is just a short step from there to arguing that if women stayed at home there would be more jobs at higher rates. In fact, this flawed theory can be used against any group, anything at all it seems except the political system of imperialism.
The article goes on to tell us that “three quarters of the population now wants far stricter limits on immigration numbers” adding that “…a further 11 per cent say there should be no more immigration.” No prizes for guessing to which of these two groups members of the CPBML belong, but pointing out the level of ignorance and backwardness in the working class, the atrocious level of disunity, should not be cause for celebration or smugness. The fact that this level of ignorance exists does not make it either right or desirable, it only goes to show the staggering amount of work that real communists have to do to bring education, enlightenment and unity to the working class in this country. Communists must not be afraid to take a minority position that is correct merely because it is unpopular with the working class at present.
The article goes on from those figures to state that “This popular pressure against unlimited and uncontrolled immigration may force the Government to impose limits on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria when the two countries join the EU on 1 January.” The picture is being painted of the Government trying to follow EU diktat (the article states further on that “the British Parliament has no real control over issues such as immigration and so a first step to controlling it would have to be withdrawal from the European Union.”) and yet having to impose controls and limits due to “this popular pressure”. This notion is very far from the truth. The Government is actually responsible for much of the “popular” anti-immigration feeling that is expressed, as a working class divided along national and racial lines is no threat to imperialism, and the government can also claim that “popular pressure” led it into the limits and controls - controls that will not stop immigration but will illegalise much of it. It is illegal workers that are necessarily pliant, unorganised and cheap, it is illegal workers that help make the maximum profit. Lift the illegality off their shoulders and you have workers who will organise and strive for higher wages and conditions. That the Government does foster much of the anti-immigrant feelings can be seen from the words of two Ministers quoted in the article: “Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, told the BBC that migration would be ’properly controlled’. Home Secretary, John Reid, said, ’I don’t believe in the free movement of labour: I believe the situation should be managed. You hear the same thing from the ethnic minorities. There’s nothing racist about it.” The point that the Workers article is trying to make is that these utterances by these two Ministers are only being made by them as a result of “popular pressure” against immigration. But many more such quotes can be found from the majority of the Government members and many of them much more candid in their opposition to immigration. If the CPBML care to look they will find that there is nothing new in this (see the article in the March/April and May/June 2006 issues of LALKAR entitled ’Capitalism and Immigration’). All bourgeois politicians have indulged in attacks on immigrants and immigration for years. It is necessary for them to have a scapegoat to blame for the ills of the political system that we live under and the immigrant, present throughout history, has always served as such a scapegoat.
The article ploughs on, stating that “immigration is and has always been a mechanism for depressing wages and undermining working class organisation.” And further that “West Indian immigrants who came here in the fifties and sixties were invited to take the low-paid jobs that British workers could not afford to take. This helped to maintain the low wages of those jobs, although to the credit of the unions these workers did become organised.” It has to be pointed out that wages and conditions for employees of British Rail, one of the main recruiters from the West Indies at that time, went from strength to strength as the workforce organised not solely “to the credit of the unions” but because these workers saw the need to organise to better their wages and conditions (which have taken a hammering since the disuniting effect of privatisation). The idea that immigrants can only have a negative effect on wages, etc., is strange in a year when we remember the 30th anniversary of the Grunwick dispute where immigrants, many first generation, organised themselves and fought courageously for reinstatement and union recognition, being defeated only through the treachery of trade union leaders and the Labour Government of the day. Yet, even in defeat, these immigrants achieved higher wages and better conditions for those left inside the Grunwick’s plants. While on the subject of trades unions the following quote from the article is instructive of the way that the CPBML not only condones racism among workers but justifies and encourages it: “sometimes unions such as the Knitwear and Hosiery Workers Union, as it was then, would insist that highly skilled knitting jobs be ring-fenced for British workers in order to maintain wage rates while low-paid, less skilled jobs jobs would be reserved for immigrants who would be outside the union. This is history – workers’ defence of their skills and livelihood in a bad situation.” This cannot be passed off lightly (as the CPBML try to) as “workers’ defence of their skills and livelihood in a bad situation”. For a start at that time ’British’ was a euphemism for white; a white Canadian immigrant would have been allowed to join their union and would have been accepted in the skilled job. The workers at Imperial Typewriters at that time were at least more honest, if no less racist, when they went on strike demanding work for whites only. Yes this is our history but it is nothing to be proud of and it is certainly nothing that should be repeated.
The next ’gem’ that is doled out by the Workers article serves further to defeat its own arguments. Showing their concern for foreigners and foreign countries it says “of course migrants aspire to a better life, but they should fight for it in their own country – or how will it ever make progress. Poland’s economy, for example, is being hamstrung by a shortage of workers. Even drafting in convicts to do essential work is not plugging the gap. And the situation in some African countries is even worse”. Re this ’advice’ to immigrants to go back to their own country and fight for improvements there, it is a good job that the CPBML were not around when that immigrant Karl Marx arrived on these shores! If, as the article suggests, our industrial strength channelled through our trade unions is what makes Britain better for workers, and trade union strength is expressed in its unity and organisation, just how much unity and organisation is created by telling foreign workers to go home!
The arguments made by the CPBML in this quote totally ignore the reality of imperialism and treat countries as equals when they clearly are not. The picture is presented of immigrants coming here to live because we British workers have made life in our country so wonderful through our organisation and principled struggle. What nonsense! An imperialist country does not only export capital, it sucks the very life from the weaker countries that it holds in bondage and pays a portion (albeit a very small portion) of that wealth created by the super-exploitation of vassal countries to its own workers to keep them mollified and create feelings of superiority and national chauvinism. If we then look at the CPBML’s concern for the economies of “Poland” and “some African countries”, it needs only to point out that the basis of the article is that immigrants swell the labour force and consequently wages go down. Yet now we are told that a shortage of workers has “hamstrung” the Polish economy. Surely, if we subscribe to the CPBML’s simplistic view of economics, then a shortage of labour should push up wages creating a rush of immigrants to that country? But of course the Polish bourgeoisie are only a subject bourgeoisie whose position is dependent upon the rape of their country by imperialism (although they harbour dreams of becoming an imperialist power themselves). The real power lies with the imperialist countries that feed off of the Polish workers and take away the wealth of that country. Of course immigrants flock to the imperialist countries; they are following their own wealth. The working class of imperialist countries by ignoring the super-exploitation of foreign workers (and in some cases condoning it) side with their imperialists and turn on fellow workers who are foreign, seeing them as a threat, a rival for work, while treating their own bourgeoisie as kith and kin. We suggest a very thorough and repeated reading of Lenin’s ’Imperialism’ to CPBML members if they really want to understand this question of immigration and the connection with imperialist exploitation of weaker countries and the source of Britain’s wealth.
So as not to appear racist (heaven forbid anyone should think that of them), the CPBML include this paragraph in the article: “People who squeak that racism is the core of the opposition to an unfettered movement of labour need to look at some of the consequences. White teachers from Commonwealth countries get preference over mature Londoners (Black and White) who would otherwise be fast-tracked into teaching. Some of the inner London boroughs have unemployment levels (mainly black people) of over 8 per cent, yet jobs are going to EU migrants (mainly white). What can be more racist in our context than denying someone indigenous work by importing overseas labour?” At a time when there are shortages of teachers in this country due less to the level of wages then the actual very stressful conditions of work, it is a red herring to cite an increased use of trained teachers from certain commonwealth countries or anywhere else.
Also, does anyone really believe that the percentage rate of unemployment (necessary to capitalist economics) would fall if all immigration ceased? And yet again we ask, as the plight of black British workers has been raised, at what point does the CPBML turn immigrant families into indigenous families? This question has to be constantly asked as it is on the basis of indigenous worker versus immigrant worker that the CPBML, Labour Party, Conservative Party, Lib-Dems, UK Independence Party and the British National Party are trying to turn worker against worker. Just where does this twisted logic that they put forward stop? Should someone from Barnsley be allowed to apply for a job in Brighton if someone living in Brighton is prepared to do it? If people from the South of England start to migrate North for the cheaper housing, should we drive them back at Watford Gap telling them to go and fight for cheaper housing in the South? When British dockyards, with the full backing of their workforces, compete with each other for shipbuilding contracts and try to win work to their area away from other workers in Britain does this not usually involve bringing down wages and conditions? The anti-immigrant argument, apart from freeing the bourgeoisie of all responsibility for the things that they actually have control over, is not just silly but very dangerous. There are many nationalities within Britain many of whom suffer discrimination whether they be first generation immigrants or born here. The type of arguments and nationalistic sentiments expressed by the CPBML encourage further attacks on all of these workers and must be challenged.
Continuing, the CPBML give us a “few ideas to throw into the debate about what should be done.” These “ideas” include “restrict the free movement of labour to Britain from Romania and Bulgaria,…insist that all immigrant workers require permits, which would only be issued if the employers agreed to take on and train local workers to replace immigrant labour when they qualified or became indentured…the immigrant labour would the be required to leave the country when this process was complete,…secure our borders. The concept of an amnesty for illegal immigrants is foolish if we don’t have control of our borders, as it would be followed by another wave of immigration.” Much more is included on ’work permits’ and under what conditions “immigrants would be required to leave the country” and, it has to be said, that a brief run through the BNP website could find nothing worse than this Workers article – either in terms of policy or emotive language (for what else does “another wave of immigration” mean if not to strongly suggest being flooded, overcome etc?). On the security of borders, the article, a bit further on, states that “to secure our borders we should bring British troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan to help create a border, security and customs force along with existing agencies and maybe a strong unit to enforce anti-slavery and immigration laws.” Bringing British troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan certainly won’t be challenged in this paper but what about the British troops in Ireland and elsewhere around the globe doing imperialism’s dirty work? And what of these repatriated troops? Do we really want this huge collection of armed racist thugs, for that is in reality what the British army is, given the job of roaming our borders and streets to deal with immigrant workers in the fashion that they have become accustomed to dealing with foreign workers in Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
It must be confessed that the article also calls for withdrawal from the EU (mainly on the grounds that the organisation involves foreigners telling us what to do rather than trying to undermine an imperialist bloc) and does put forward the notion of controlling “the export of capital” although this cannot be done without challenging the very ’right’ of imperialism to exist, i.e., through socialist revolution (a fact the article itself alludes to) – something which cannot be achieved by turning workers against each other on the grounds of place of birth etc.
The article also brings up the subject of slavery, referred to in the previous quote, in the following paragraph: “If a ship repair yard employer on Tyneside brings in a Polish workforce on the National Minimum Wage rather than the rate for the job, houses them in cabins inside the yard, and rotates them every ten weeks for a new workforce to prevent unionisation, that’s slavery. People smugglers, gangsters and gang masters, and the new breed of employment agencies are the new slave traders, and illegal immigrants working in sweatshop conditions are the new slaves.” The first point to be made is that if these Polish workers have to be housed “in cabins within the yard” isolated and rotated “every ten weeks” in order to “prevent unionisation”, that rather blows a hole in the CPBML argument that immigrants bring down wages and conditions through lack of organisation doesn’t it? Surely the article is telling us that these workers, given the chance, will organise and fight for higher wages and better conditions? If this is the case, isn’t it the job of communists, socialists, trade unionists etc., to find ways of giving them that chance rather than just telling them to go home and make things better there?
The second point is that the “people smugglers, gangsters and gang masters” etc., rightly condemned as dealing in slavery, only have power over their slaves while they are made ’illegal’. As soon as the illegal status is lifted from these workers, having no fear of deportation, they will organise industrially and fit in with the ’indigenous’ workers. Our common enemy is imperialism. Imperialism needs ’illegal’ immigration as this really does provide slave labour helping to secure ’maximum profit’ and we must stand with our fellow workers against British imperialism and fight against making foreign workers (our real kith and kin) illegal!
We have a job to do to educate all workers to realise the need to destroy imperialism and build socialism. We have to recognise the role that struggles like the ones waged by the Iraqi and Afghan resistance play in helping to undermine our imperialists and making them a bit weaker, along with others who stand up to our imperialists throughout the world in Ireland and Zimbabwe, to name two, and the magnificent stance of the people of the DPRK who stand in opposition to all imperialists at the sharpest point. When we make things hotter here we will also be helping those struggles, but the struggle against imperialism in this country will remain dormant and a sham while ever we play the bosses’ game and turn workers against each other. The CPBML should either join us in the work of trying to unite all workers against imperialism or at least have the honesty to rename themselves the British National Workers’ Party which would be a true reflection of their despicable position.
Since the Workers’ article was published the government have announced restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers holding down ’legal’ jobs here, which drives those workers straight into the hands of those organising illegal work (slavery). In a new twist, the Home Secretary, John Reid, has announced that ’illegal’ workers can be fined up to a thousand pounds if caught, which punishes the slave for being a slave while at the same time making the grip of the ’slave-owner’ upon the ’slave’ even tighter. Government sources say that they have bowed to the pressure of the media. The CPBML will say that the Government have bowed to “popular pressure”. In reality the Government have been ’led’ to exactly where they wanted to be. When two million people marched against the invasion of Iraq, there was no bowing to “popular pressure”, or any pressure from sections of the media that echoed (for their own reasons) that opposition.
A campaign must be built around the slogans that ’no worker should be declared illegal for wanting to work’ and ’imperialism is the main enemy of all workers’. It is the system of capitalist production that produces unemployment, homelessness, destitution and crumbling social facilities, not to say incessant wars – not workers, be they ’indigenous’ or foreign.
 Not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), CPGB-ML, who are supportive of this paper and its views and in return whose policies are supported by this paper.