Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews
From ‘Refugee Blues’ by WH Auden
The free movement of labour is a basic freedom to be defended by all workers
against those who seek to divide us.
The French revolution of 1789 was the first to be fought under the banner of
human rights. For the French revolutionaries the freedom to go where you wanted
was as basic as the freedom to say what you thought. They were right. They were
fighting against a regime that wouldn’t let common people move from one part of
France to another. The motive then, as now, was to control the movement of
labour. In particular the King didn’t want peasants running away from their
overlords to work in the towns. So he controlled the movement of people so as to
help the aristocracy keep commoners where they could screw them.
Two hundred years ago Alfred Lord Byron wasn’t asked for his passport when he
was swanning round the Mediterranean countries. The rich did the ‘grand tour’,
moving easily across borders. Of course, they had money. More importantly,
between 1815 and 1930 over fifty million people left Europe to find a better
future. They went to the ’empty lands’ of the Americas and Australasia. These
countries were empty partly because of the massacres of the original
inhabitants. Nobody tried to stop them leaving, or entering. Less than fifty
years ago (white) British people were paid to migrate to Australia. Migration
was believed to be good for the receiving countries and good for the sending
nations. Certainly it was good for the migrants. They went of their own accord.
They went in search of a better life.
At the time the great migration began, Britain was generally reckoned to be
overcrowded. Its population at the battle of Waterloo was about 10 million. Then
as now, ‘overcrowding’ is measured by the ability of the productive forces to
keep the population adequately fed, watered and housed. As Marx puts it, "every
method of production that arises in the course of history has its own peculiar,
historically valid, law of population."
Of course there were frictions between new arrivals and established workers.
The recent film, ‘The gangs of New York’, depicts the battles between ‘native
Americans’ and Irish immigrants. After the US Civil War it became fashionable to
sneer at Swedish migrants instead. Twenty years later Swedish Americans were
regarded as fellow North Europeans to be appealed to in the battle against South
Europeans, such as Italians, and Jews – who were all dirty, lazy and lived in
warrens like rabbits. In passing, one of the most depressing aspects of
researching this background is to find out how utterly unoriginal all this
racist rubbish is. The same abuse is passed down from generation to generation,
and just hurled at the latest lot of incomers, whoever they happen to be.
It is worth noting that immigration controls have existed in this country for
less than a century! It was in fact only at the turn of the twentieth century
that all over the world, we started hearing the clanking sound of drawbridges
being pulled up. The era of unrestricted migration was coming to an end. In
Britain, the Aliens Act of 1905 was the first general law restricting
immigration into Britain. Immigration control is a monstrosity in a land formed
by wave after wave of people looking for a better future for themselves and
their families since at least the time of the beaker folk, thousands of years
The passing of the Aliens Act was accompanied by violent ant-semitic
agitation against Jews fleeing from the pogroms in Russia. Here’s a (British)
rant from the time. "Jewish power baffled the Pharaohs, foiled Nebuchadnezzar,
thwarted Rome, defeated feudalism, circumvented the Romanovs, balked the Kaiser
and undermined the Third French Republic". There’s not a word there that Hitler
couldn’t agree with. What cut across this attempt to divide workers was the
militant action of Jewish immigrants, particularly a series of strikes by the
Jewish Tailors Union which the Manchester Trades Council saw as setting a good
example for the ‘locals’! And the bosses knew it. Here’s the London ‘Evening
News’ from 1891, "The advance of Socialistic and anarchical opinion in London is
commensurate with the increased volume of foreign immigration." The more, the
The years between the Wars were crisis years in Europe. Mass unemployment was
an almost permanent stain. They didn’t need immigrant labour to threaten the
existing work force with – the dole queues were quite enough. Migration was
strictly controlled. More to the point, it didn’t happen. Workers had nowhere
with jobs to move to.
The years after the Second World War, by contrast, were golden for
capitalism. Steady growth and relatively full employment in all the advanced
capitalist countries was a feature of the era. The problem the bosses confronted
was labour shortage. They solved it by lifting the controls and actively
encouraging immigration. In my own area of West London at the end of the War,
Wolfe’s rubber company started to lodge adverts in the Punjab for vacancies.
This was the beginning of the mass movement of Sikhs and others into Southall.
People of Asian origins now make up 90% of the population in central Southall.
Speaking personally, I think they have improved the tone of the place no end.
Capitalism is an endlessly flexible system. Unfortunately, this flexibility
is provided by the suffering of the working class. During the 1930s, while
traditional industrial areas such as South Wales were gripped by despair, new
industries were opening their gates in areas such as West London, including
Southall, and Slough, particularly when rearmament began in preparation for the
Second World War. What we saw was a transfer of workers between the regions. So
far from getting on their bikes, like Norman Tebbitt’s dad, families actually
walked all the way from Wales to London in search of work, sometimes pushing all
their worldly goods in a pram.
Not everybody welcomed the Welsh, or the Punjabis. Famously the same walls in
Southall that had held anti-Welsh slogans in the 1930s were adorned with similar
greetings to the new arrivals in the1960s. But were the men who came to Wolfe’s
after 1945 really ‘taking our jobs’? Well, if they were, ‘we’ were pleased to
give them up at the time. Working with rubber is hot, nasty work and the ‘locals’
were pleased to move on to lighter and better-paid employment. After the War
workers from the Caribbean staffed the health service and the transport system,
invariably starting at the bottom with work that nobody else was prepared to do.
Asian workers likewise went to northern cities in decline, took up work in
industries such as textile production that were already low paid and where the
locals were already leaving in despair for the future.
These immigrants were invariably of working age. They came and put in long
hours and, in the process, put in a great deal more money to the Treasury kitty
than they got out. It also remains the case that more people leave the country
than come in. And those that enter, come here to work. By contrast Britain
exports the economically inactive. Hundreds of thousand of pensioners head out
for countries such as Spain for the winter, (to cut down on their central
‘It’s a small country,’ we’re told, as if the entire 1½ billion or so
population of the Indian subcontinent were all going to turn up at Heathrow and
Dover on the day we tore up immigration controls. Well – if that happened, we
socialists would have a problem. But is it likely? Some Welsh people came
to West London in the 1930s. The majority stayed in Wales, even though the
economic situation was desperate. Why? Because people are not economic
calculating machines. Maybe they have folk to drop round on and look after.
Perhaps the kids have settled down in school and made a good group of friends.
People have got roots that they are unwilling to just abandon them. Why did they
have to pay people to go to Australia? After all the living standards are higher
than here – and the sun shines sometimes – and they have a more successful
cricket team than us. Why should people from ‘abroad’ be any different from us?
Not everyone left Europe in the nineteenth century. Most countries
(except Ireland) saw their populations rise continually despite the emigration,
and millions were migrating from the villages to the cities to become workers
throughout the period. In Britain, the population continues to rise to this day,
and it’s not because of immigrants. Mass migration into this country ceased with
a series of laws starting with the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962.
For under capitalism the good times don’t last forever. During the 1960s it
was clear that the golden age of the post-War economic boom was coming to an
end. The 1970s was a decade of crisis all over the world. In one country after
another the pattern of the inter-War years was repeated – fortress Britain and
fortress Europe. And inevitably this meant harrying the hapless folk who just
wanted to move here so as to work hard and do the best for themselves and their
families. And, related to the economic crisis, the world showed signs of
cracking up. For the first time since the Second World War we have seen armed
conflict on the European continent. The inevitable result is waves of refugees
streaming to what they see as safe havens. As for Africa, it has been riven by
permanent economic crisis for the past thirty years. This has produced grisly
wars and civil wars all over the continent
This repeated pattern proves the lie of the racists, when they say that
immigration causes unemployment. There was mass unemployment in the 1930s and no
immigration. Why should anybody want to come to a country when they can’t get a
job? The bosses eased immigration controls when they wanted cheap labour.
Immigration is associated with a tight labour market.
Actually some migrants did try to get to Britain in the 1930s – German Jews
fleeing Hitler. But the Tories didn’t let them in – effectively conniving at the
Why can’t we have non-racist controls? Many people in the labour movement who
have swallowed the "we’re a small island" argument’ are never the less horrified
at the brutality of immigration control. But the one produces the other.
Immigration controls are necessarily racist. The movement of labour occurs
because different countries have different standards of living. When the Aliens
Act was promoted, the phrase "undesirable immigrants" was used in the
legislation. But the word ‘Jews’ was used on the streets. Under the present
controls there is a ‘primary purpose’ rule. It queries whether the primary
purpose of somebody getting married is to enter the country. In fact it is coded
racism against Asians, who are most likely to contract arranged marriages. This
is surely a cheek in a country ruled by a royal family with a severely shrunken
gene pool as a result of hundreds of years of arranged marriages! Immigration
controls are always racist.
What about capital movement? Capital goes to wherever it makes the highest
Here’s the economist Ricardo, regarded as one of the most hard-nosed
representatives of the capitalist class in his time. "Experience shows that the
fancied or real insecurity of capital… together with the natural
disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and
connections… checks the emigration of capital. These feelings, which I should
be sorry to see weakened, induce most men of property to be satisfied with a low
rate of profits in their own country rather than to seek a more advantageous
employment for their wealth in foreign nations." (Principles of political
economy and taxation, 1817)
The reader can see at once that Ricardo’s sentimental nationalism has been
replaced in the bosom of present day capitalists with a resolute, implacable and
heartless internationalism. They will go anywhere if there’s more profit in it
Capital can move whenever and wherever it likes. Capital controls in this
country were literally put on a bonfire in 1979 by Thatcher. She knew whose
interest she was serving! So capital always goes where the wages are cheapest?
Not necessarily. Other things being equal, capital will always vote for cheap
labour. But other things are seldom equal. The City of London is still a bigger
destination for capital out to make money than the whole of Africa. Capital is
free to go where it likes, for it is owned by the boss class. The movement of
labour is controlled in order to subordinate it to the bosses.
In the revolutionary year 1848, Marx made a speech in Brussels on what
attitude the workers should take in the debate on free trade and protection. He
asked, "what is free trade under the present condition of society?" and
answered, "it is freedom of capital". He went on, "the most favourable
condition for the worker is the growth of capital." And he concluded, "the free
trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the
antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. It is in
this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade."
Free trade presupposes the free movement of labour and capital. This is all
part of the free market system hymned by the apologists of capitalism. But the
capitalist state lets capital move freely, yet controls the movement of labour.
Capitalists (unlike their ideologues) are actually suspicious of markets.
Markets mean that the bosses are not always in control. Since the dawn of their
system the boss class has worked to negate the fact that markets can sometimes
tilt in favour of the workers. Marx called the instrument they use the
industrial reserve army.
We don’t need to look in detail as to how Marx applied this concept to
nineteenth century conditions in ‘Capital’. How widows, orphans, the disabled
and other unfortunates made up a disadvantaged section of the working class who
found it very difficult to hold down a steady job. They in turn were used
against the claims of the active workers.
This is what the industrial reserve army does for capital. "During the
periods of stagnation and average prosperity, the industrial reserve army
presses upon the army of active workers; and during the periods of
overproduction and boom, the former holds the claims of the latter in check.
Thus relative overproduction is the background in front of which the law of
supply and demand works. Relative surplus population restricts the activities of
this law within the limits which are convenient to capitalist exploitation and
capitalist domination." So, "the condemnation of one part of the working class
to enforced idleness of the other portion, and the converse, become means for
enriching the individual capitalist."
In effect the capitalists are able to tap a reservoir of labour in times of
need. They are in a position to control the supply of labour. The starkest
instance of this was apartheid South Africa. Blacks were supposed to live in
Bantustans, homelands where in reality nobody could make a living. They were
drawn out to the mines and industrial towns as needed and thrown back on these
scrapheaps when judged superfluous to requirements. The beauty of the Bantustan,
from a capitalist point of view, was that it didn’t cost them a penny. The
workers were left to their own devices to survive.
In Switzerland some economists have discovered a wonderfully flexible labour
force. There is a core of native-born Swiss workers, who don’t have to be very
flexible. Most have a job for life. Then there are the gastarbeiters, foreign
workers drawn in when needed. Most are adult males living in compounds and
sending most of their earnings hundreds of miles back home. They have no rights.
When recession bites, they are unceremoniously sent packing. Lovely!
The Labour government has announced a ‘liberalisation’ in the rules allowing
some categories of asylum seekers to work. Guess what? They are workers with
skills we are short of, and workers who will do seasonal work of harvesting for
rates of pay no ‘native’ worker would put up with. This scheme is really a step
towards controlling the movement of labour – in the interests of the bosses.
On the industrial reserve army, Marx concludes, "but if a surplus working
class population is a necessary product of accumulation… on the other hand
this overpopulation becomes a lever promoting capitalist accumulation, and is
indeed a necessary condition of the capitalist method of production." Capitalism
is using migration to reproduce an industrial reserve army in the receiving
countries. The solution, Marx goes on, is for the workers to "discover that the
intensity of competition among themselves is entirely dependent upon the
pressure of the relative surplus population" and to "endeavour by trade unionism
and in other ways, to organise a purposive co-operation between the employed and
the unemployed, in order that they may avert or diminish the ruinous
consequences that arise for their class."
But if it is a fantasy that several billion impoverished people will up
stakes and head for Britain the moment immigration controls are lifted, it is
true that some people will make the move whether it’s illegal or not, and
despite all the hardships and dangers. If the movement of labour is criminalised,
then snakehead gangs will profit from it anyway. Unfortunates up to their necks
in debt are dropped off the back of a lorry in the middle of the night – often
not even knowing what country they’re in.
So the question is: what attitude does the labour movement take towards the
working class victims of the immigration control regime when they’re here?
Asylum seekers are criminalized: if they try to get a job they can be deported.
So they go underground and get sucked into the grey or black economy, working
long hours for what we see as starvation wages and without any of the basic
protection we take for granted. Is that what we want? If workers can be
threatened with deportation when they kick up a fuss, the bosses have got a
pliant labour force. This is the hidden reality portrayed in the film ‘Dirty
pretty things’. The immigration regime is an obstacle to workers in Britain to
protecting immigrant workers – and ultimately themselves.
The labour movement was built on the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to
all’. Now, more than ever, that must be our watchword.