The following speech was given by the mover of the resolution on immigration. It followed over a year of inner-party debate on the topic
I would like to thank the party for opening up this debate as it has done. Unfortunately for us all, the issue of immigration remains the Achilles’ heel of our movement, just as it was in Marx’s day, when he and Engels noted that the antagonism between Irish and English workers in England was the key to the impotence of the English working-class movement, despite the latter’s high level of organisation.
If we are serious about becoming the type of party that is capable of leading a revolutionary struggle to overthrow British imperialism, it is imperative that our party members are able to see clearly on this, the most divisive of issues, and are confident in thoroughly refuting all the bourgeois prejudices that have been so carefully inculcated in our minds via school, literature, the media, etc.
One of the main prejudices that seems to dog the left-wing movement is that, since immigration helps capitalists make profits (by ensuring a steady supply of cheap labour and keeping wages down), then progressive people ought automatically to be opposed to the free movement of labour under capitalism. This argument seems to be given further strength by the fact that, under socialism, a country might well feel the need to apply border controls.
This second point, however, is a red herring. What a workers’ government might need to do under particular conditions (ie, of capitalist encirclement) has no relevance to what workers demand under conditions of capitalism.
For example, we would not demand unemployment benefits for healthy people under socialism, because we know they would have ample opportunity to work. The same logic cannot be applied to the capitalist system, however, since capitalism denies the right to work to huge numbers of workers.
If we return to the main point (ie, that immigration is good for capitalism), we find a similar sort of confusion. To argue that anything that is good for capitalism must automatically be opposed by workers is to oversimplify and confuse the matter.
To take the most basic example, it is only through employing workers that capitalists can make profits through the extraction of surplus value; should we therefore call for total unemployment in order to starve capitalists of their profits?
Seen in this light, the argument becomes absurd. Of course, we call for full employment, despite the fact that, under the conditions of capitalism, employment means wage slavery for those employed and the further accumulation of profits and power to the employers.
There are other examples of the double-edged sword of progress under conditions of capitalism. The introduction of universal education, for example, was a great benefit for workers, and one that communists fully supported and fought for. Nevertheless, under conditions of capitalism, the bourgeoisie has found ways to turn this step forward to its advantage, injecting bourgeois philosophy and prejudices into every subject, from history to art to science.
Does this mean we should fight for the abolition of education in order that workers’ minds might not be so tainted? Of course not. Educated workers, no matter how inferior the education they receive by socialist standards, are in a much better position to make a scientific analysis of the world than those who have received no education and are therefore prey to all manner of superstition.
Of course, no matter how good our education, under capitalist conditions, we cannot help but be imbued with bourgeois prejudice, but an educated mind has more chance of combating these than an uneducated one – and being able to read is a basic prerequisite for accessing the science of Marxism Leninism.
Education, women’s emancipation, employment, the vote – these seemingly progressive steps are all stunted and twisted benefits to workers under the conditions of capitalism, limited in scope, tainted in execution, and often serving to embellish illusions of bourgeois freedom. They will only blossom to complete and unfettered maturity once we have attained a higher level of society.
Nevertheless, we fight for them for the simple reason that, even in their limited, bourgeois form, they are steps forward that help to create the conditions in which workers will be able to organise themselves to throw off the shackles of capitalist society.
The same is true of unfettered immigration.
Under conditions of capitalism, mass migration can no more be stopped than can wage slavery itself. From the very earliest days of capitalist society, people found themselves forced to move from the countryside to the towns in order to find work and support their families. In present-day Britain, many people are forced to leave their homes in the regions and look for work in London and the South East.
Should workers demand a halt to all this kind of migration? Where would we draw the lines? Should there be border controls at the edge of every county? Of every town? Again, seen in this light, the argument seems absurd, yet there is essentially no difference between this kind of migration and the international kind. In both cases, people are forced to move to find work. In both cases, contradictions arise between incoming and local populaces. In both cases, capitalism benefits from the free movement of labour.
As soon as capitalism went global, so did its contradictions. Conditions of life under imperialism force many people all over the world to head from the global hinterlands to the centres of imperialism in order to support their families.
Since we cannot stop immigration under conditions of capitalism, what we should instead turn our attention to is the effect such immigration has on our movement; on workers’ struggles for pay and conditions under capitalism, and on the struggle for socialism.
Anti-immigrant legislation and propaganda all serve to whip up racist hysteria among working people, keeping them divided and impotent. This racism is still the most important weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and should therefore be the main target of the working-class movement.
Our focus should therefore be on calling for the abolition of immigration controls as a progressive step that would help to eradicate the poisonous racism that hampers our movement, and would also bring in many more workers to both the trade union and the revolutionary movements (and, incidentally, workers who bring with them much that is revolutionary, having suffered at the sharp end of the imperialist system). The best way to stop ‘illegal’ immigrants from lowering conditions and wages for British workers, for example, is to fight for the removal of their illegal status as the first step to bringing them into the unions etc and demanding decent pay and conditions for all!
As to arguments that incoming migrants put an ‘intolerable strain’ on the welfare system, and that since ‘our taxes’ pay for them, it is ‘unfair’ for people to come from abroad and ‘take advantage’, these are myths put about by bourgeois media and politicians to fuel anti-immigrant racism.
It is well known to our party members that the social provision that was provided in all western imperialist countries after the second world war was the product of a very special set of circumstances, most particularly, the threat of revolution following the devastation of Europe and the victories of, and example set by, the workers’ government of the USSR.
It is not the level of immigration but the decline in fortunes, albeit temporary, of the world anti-imperialist movement that has led western governments to feel confident in attacking the level of social provision. Only a strong working-class movement will have the power to reverse that trend. And, ultimately, only a working-class revolution will make such provision a permanent, as opposed to a temporary, feature of life for working people.
That is the message we should be taking to working people: capitalism will never put their interests first, and will only provide the minimum that it can get away with at any particular time. Only socialism will put the needs of the people first and use society’s resources to meet those needs.
Moreover, social provision in the West – housing, health care, education, unemployment benefit etc – has ultimately been paid for out of imperialist superprofits. Just because a small part of these superprofits has found its way into the pay packets of ordinary workers and then been used, via taxation, to make various kinds of social provision, this does not change the fact that the ultimate source of the income is not only the ‘hard work’ of British workers but also the even harder work of the superexploited peoples of the rest of the world.
So how can we accuse these people of ‘taking advantage’ if they find themselves forced to come here to try and make a living?
Comrades, I move that we adopt the text proposed in the resolution into our party programme and take our analysis into the movement in order that we can get on with the vital work of countering the racist lies and dispelling the bourgeois prejudices that cripple our movement and stand in the way of the revolutionary task we have set ourselves, that of smashing British imperialism.
This congress notes:
1. that the issue of immigration remains the Achilles’ heel of our movement, just as it was in Marx’s day, when he and Engels noted that the antagonism between Irish and English workers in England was the key to the impotence of the English working-class movement, despite the latter’s high level of organisation;
2. the wide-ranging and comradely debate that has taken place since the last party congress on the issue of immigration.
This congress believes:
1. that if we are serious about becoming the type of party that is capable of leading a revolutionary struggle to overthrow British imperialism, it is imperative that our party members are able to see clearly on this, the most divisive of issues, and are confident in thoroughly refuting all the bourgeois prejudices that have been so carefully inculcated in our minds via school, literature, the media etc;
2. that as the capitalist crisis of overproduction deepens and conditions for British workers grow worse, the ruling class will undoubtedly attempt to whip up racism and anti-immigrant hysteria to an even higher pitch;
3. that our party must take a very clear position on immigration if it is to be in a position to refute the bourgeois propaganda onslaught and help British workers to do the same;
4. that the world situation makes this an urgent task for our party, and that failing to adopt a position now could seriously hamper our party’s work over the next two years.
This congress therefore resolves to adopt the following into the CPGB-ML’s party programme:
This party firmly believes that immigration is not the cause of the ills of the working class in Britain, which are solely the result of the failings of the capitalist system.
Immigration and asylum legislation and controls under capitalism have only one real goal: the division of the working class along racial lines, thus fatally weakening that class’s ability to organise itself and to wage a revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of imperialism.
These controls have the further effect of creating an army of ‘illegal’ immigrant workers, prey to superexploitation and living in dire conditions as an underclass, outside the system, afraid to organise and exercising a downward pull on the wages and conditions of all workers.
The scourge of racism, along with all other ills of capitalism, will only be finally abolished after the successful overthrow of imperialism. But since immigration can no more be abolished under capitalism than can wage slavery, our call should not be for the further control and scapegoating of immigrants, but the abolition of all border controls, as part of the wider fight to uproot racism from the working-class movement and build unity among workers in Britain, so strengthening the fight for communism.