By Nicola Lawlor writing in the August 2016 issue of Socialist Voice, published in Dublin by the Communist Party of Ireland
The left must embrace the debate about immigration from a working-class viewpoint and not run away from it, or shout over it, or ignorantly paint all workers who have fears and concerns as racists.
The recent British referendum has revealed a number of serious weaknesses of the left, and consequently a lot of working-class anger and frustration is expressed though right-wing groups.
The social-democratic left jumped to the defence of the European Union, a regional political, economic and social structure of monopoly capital, largely Franco-German, while the self-proclaimed “radical” left spent much time calling for “open borders” as a counter to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the leading Leave campaign groups. There were, of course, exceptions to this, in the RMT Union, NIPSA, the Communist Party of Britain, and the daily Morning Star.
The social-democratic position has obviously failed workers, and humanity, in that it allies itself with the very forces exploiting and abusing workers, creating increasingly violent and uncontrolled divisions and wrecking the environmental system that we require to sustain our lives. It seeks to defend the free movement of labour, which in reality is the freedom to exploit. It is the creation of an internal EU reserve army of labour, which drives down wages and divides working-class organisations.
But the “radical” left position is equally destructive to working-class unity and to building an actual working-class movement in opposition to capitalism.
“Open border” policies when monopoly capitalism remains the dominant social order will only benefit monopoly capital, economically in its greater access to cheaper labour within core economies but also politically, when inevitably workers will be further divided along racial lines and racism will be used to manipulate, control and disrupt organised fight-back.
It will be different when monopoly capitalism is being challenged seriously by socialist states, with military back-up, and by socialist international structures. But that is not, sadly, the present balance of class forces. The socialist policies of transformation and struggle towards socialism have to be very different from the socialist policies of a socialist hegemonic, or near-hegemonic, order.
Samir Amin, quite rightly, sees the movement we must build as being both anti-imperialist and anti-liberal.
Our task is to give new life to workers’ internationalism. Workers and working people ought to unite at all levels, both within their countries and across borders, and stop competing with each other. This can only happen on an anti-imperialist basis, working with an anti-liberal strategy.
The cornerstone of liberalism as an ideology, and also of monopoly capitalism as practised through a managed technocratic system within the EU, and dominant globally, is the free movement of capital, goods, services, and labour. An anti-imperialist and anti-liberal strategy needs to challenge all four of these points, at both the national and the international level, by progressive movements but also progressive states, where the workers’ movement has gained hegemony within a state or even become the ruling class within a state.
While Marx favoured free trade and the growth of capitalism, that was in the context of breaking down old feudal structures and ideology, when capitalism was still in its progressive phase. It has now, of course, moved well beyond that, and so our policies must too.
Again, Samir Amin sees this strategy based within national boundaries but with an obvious international dialectic.
A precondition is to restore priority to national policies over international ones. Nations need self-determination—not just for cultural reasons, nor because they are black or white, Christian or Muslim, but because of their political history. A high degree of national independence is necessary to reduce inequalities between nations in the world today. That’s how we must define working-class unity.
This debate must come from the grass roots. I see no contradiction between national and international levels, but I think that no progress will ever be made on the international level as long as there is no progress on the national level. Things always start to happen through a bottom-up process, and essentially this means on the national level.
While it is fair to say that the media and establishment politicians wanted the Brexit debate centred around immigration and not democracy, public services, the environment, war, workers’ rights, or real economic sovereignty, the left still failed to engage in that immigration debate from a solidly anti-imperialist and anti-liberal standpoint.
Workers have fears, concerns, and worries. Some are perceptions, some are based on ignorance, some are manufactured; but some are legitimate, and the roots of these views are real. This talk of Leave voters from some on the left as being racists or misled is itself deeply ignorant as well as being politically arrogant and obnoxious enough to turn people off the left altogether, which indeed it does.
This argument was brilliantly espoused in a post-Brexit article headed “The demonisation of the working class shames our nation” by Paul Embery, regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union in Britain, published in on Huffington Post,where he wrote:
A group of people, the most exploited within our society, are under attack . . . Few among the political class really understand them. These people live in modest homes in the grittier parts of the country. They work in factories, call centres and on building sites . . . They like football and watch Coronation Street . . .
They are the people who tipped the balance to lead us through the EU’s exit door. They are the new scapegoats. They are the working class . . .
The sneering contempt displayed towards these and all 17 million who voted Leave by the resentful new alliance of metropolitan liberals, know-all academics, no-mark “celebrities” and know-nothing-yet students should trouble us all . . .
The opprobrium heaped on working-class voters post referendum demonstrates just how little their critics know of their lives . . . They considered their own lives, the perpetual strains they were under, the financial hardships, the impact of near decade-long austerity, the lack of affordable housing, the ravages of deindustrialisation, the challenges of mass and unrestricted immigration in their communities and its resultant pressure on wages and local services, and they concluded that the elite in neither Brussels nor Westminster gave a fig for their predicament . . .
So the backbone of the nation, the people upon whose labour we rely, the section of society which creates the wealth, stands condemned, vilified by the pro-EU liberal intelligentsia, voiceless and without a political party it can truly recognise as its own.
A recent survey showed that only 35 per cent voted leave on the basis of immigration issues or concerns. But for this 35 per cent, do we write them off, or do we engage in a real conversation and with a solidly based position on immigration and borders that can help to educate but also be a fundamental principle of internationalism and national sovereignty?
Firstly, we should listen. Brexit has shown that the social-democratic left and many trade unions are largely out of touch with and irrelevant to most of the working class. They are not the political influencers or leaders of our class in Britain, and the same can be said for Ireland.
Capitalism is a barbaric and inhumane system that remains hegemonic because it is based on a political and media structure that creates division, sows hatred and fear, and does not always present the working class or the left with simple questions, or questions as we would like them presented. While Rosa Luxemburg’s proposition, “socialism or barbarism?” is ultimately correct, that is not the immediate political question.
So we must face questions like Brexit in a form and a way presented to us by the establishment. We have to tackle questions such as immigration in the context of a barbaric system and how it creates these contradictions. As Julian Jones wrote in the Morning Star:
The grim economic reality behind this free movement is in essence a free exploitation of a primarily young European work force with no job security and no prospects . . . Quite simply, those at the bottom of the pile are more likely to have witnessed the basic principle that if a boss can use a cheaper foreign work force, they will do so.
The economic structure of monopoly capitalism today includes an openness of borders within politically defined areas for the purpose of the exploitation of working people, cultivation of a bigger, more mobile reserve army of labour and driving a race to the bottom as well as a closed approach to borders for defined areas “outside,” where immigration policy can pick and choose as a form of brain drain from peripheral regions within the global economic order.
Indeed Marx noted that the English bourgeoisie “exploited the Irish poverty to keep down the working class in England by forced immigration of poor Irishmen . . . Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class . . .”
The policies we must put forward on immigration during the struggle for socialism are different from the absolute policies that would be pursued under socialism. It is the right of all sovereign states, and an essential part of the transition to socialism, to control their borders as regards capital, labour, goods, and services.
This is a vital distinction. If the political left doesn’t realise it soon it will move further and further away from the working class and hand influence and the leadership of our class to the right, with all the dangers this presents.