Freedom of movement - workers of all countries unite!
Being a socialist also means being an internationalist. While it is easy to condemn the outright racism and xenophobia of the Tories or UKIP, or the soft-soap ‘civic nationalism’ espoused by the SNP, some on the left fall into the trap of calling for freedom of movement to end in the event of Brexit. This would only mean that a Labour government would commit itself to the worsening of the utterly de-humanising system of borders and immigration controls, and the division of workers along national lines. The class interests of workers are the same the world over - we have more in common with our comrades across the world than we do with a boss or a landlord here in Scotland. Some of the more common arguments on the left against existing freedom of movement go as follows:
- ‘Foreign’ labour is used to undercut the wages of ‘British’ labour by bosses
- We need a fair immigration system and to end Fortress Europe
- We need to listen to genuine concerns about immigration
Firstly, it simply isn’t true that migration depresses wages. Studies have shown time and time again that migrants are net contributors to the economy (not that we should be measuring people based on their economic worth) and that some of the lowest-paid areas of the UK are those with the least immigration.
Are wages too low? Yes! However, it is also a falsehood to see a distinction between native-born and migrant workers in terms of who we fight for. Using national divisions to pit workers against each other is a trick as old as the book itself:
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” - Karl Marx, 1870
Labour is the party of our class. Labour is the party of all workers. Workers who migrate here are just as much a part of the British working class, and it only serves the bosses to perpetuate an arbitrary distinction. The solution to low wages is to organise and unionise - a struggle in which many migrant workers have played a key part, such as the Tres Cosas campaign by the IWGB union. To do this, we need to repeal the anti-trade union laws going back to Thatcher to let the labour movement fight without our hands being tied behind our back. It is true that freedom of movement does benefit bosses by having a larger pool of workers to pick from.
All Marxists understand that capitalism has been a historically progressive force compared to feudalism, and as Tressell wrote in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, has created a world in which the ‘necessaries of life’ exist in abundance and yet are hoarded by a few. Not everything which is in the interests of the bourgeoisie runs counter to the interests of the proletariat. We should no more argue for the ending of FoM and the re-establishment of border controls in Europe than we should argue for the smashing of the machines and the reversal of the Industrial Revolution.
Is it not bad that migrants drown daily while trying to reach Europe? Yes, currently existing freedom of movement privileges those in Europe over those further abroad, but it simply defies logic to think that curtailing the rights of hundreds of millions of workers on the continent will somehow improve the lot of workers elsewhere. We must fight the racist immigration policies of the European institutions by building international solidarity.
Making things worse for Polish workers will not make things easier for Indian workers, but it is likely to strengthen the system of border controls which hurt both. Make no mistake, ‘tougher controls’ is a phrase that is used deliberately to elide over the harsh reality of immigration raids, detention centres, and deportations. A Labour government should play no part in such a disgraceful system but should open the borders for all.
Last but not least, it has been suggested that Labour should pander to reactionary sentiments. If many people believe migrants to have lowered their wages, placed too much pressure on the NHS or schools, taken our jobs (even if none of these things are true) then we are duty-bound to listen to them and act.
Socialists are primarily persuaders and convincers, and living in a society where capitalism is the dominant ideology means that we are in a minority, and must increase class consciousness to win support for our platform. We cannot do this if we are dishonest about our beliefs and ‘triangulate’ like New Labour, nor if we simply tail the labour movement rather than by leading it. If people have accepted right-wing ideas peddled by the press, we should challenge them and change their mind.
As Eugene V. Debs put it scathingly in 1910:
“It is utterly unsocialistic, reactionary, and in truth outrageous, and I hope you will oppose with all your power. The plea that certain races are to be excluded because of tactical expediency would be entirely consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have no place in a proletariat gathering under the auspices of an international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation [...] The alleged advantages that would come to the Socialist movement because of such heartless exclusion would all be swept away a thousand times by the sacrifice of a cardinal principle [...] Let us stand squarely on our revolutionary, working class principles and make our fight openly and uncompromisingly against all our enemies, adopting no cowardly tactics and holding out no false hopes, and our movement will then inspire the faith, arouse the spirit, and develop the fiber that will prevail against the world.”