Friday, November 13, 2015

Marx on Mass Immigration and Capitalism

Just for all you Marxists out there.

Here are Marx’s comments on mass immigration into Britain in the 19th century in a letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in 1870:
“But the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, 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.

And most important of all! 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. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes any honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.

England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”
Letter of Karl Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870
There are two fundamental points here. First, I have some brief thoughts on it, and, secondly (and more importantly), I want to see Marxists apply this analysis to modern capitalism.

Personally, I think the argument here is exaggerated, even if there is some truth to some aspects of what Marx says. Marx and Engels were clearly very angry that the most industrialised nation in the world – England – was at the same time highly impervious to communism.

So the passage above is Marx’s rationalisation of this.

What is true here? I suspect that it is probably true that Irish immigration had some tendency to hold down real wages in Britain. It is no doubt true that this Irish immigration exacerbated some ugly and disgusting ethnic tensions in the 19th century UK, sometimes fueled by a reactionary press. But as the major explanation of why the revolution never happened in England? I think it is grossly exaggerated.

I think Marx and Engels just couldn’t face the fact that after 1848 violent revolutionary movements died off in Britain and even with the labour violence of the 1880s and 1890s the Marxists and other extreme left-wing agitators could never build up enough support. The English labour movement was reconciled to some degree to capitalism by the increased living standards and even by the granting of the vote to some of them in the Representation of the People Act 1867.

Moreover, Marx enters into conspiracy theory territory in these ideas:
But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes any honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.
Even worse for Marxism, it was eventually the British Labour Party, which emerged just as much from Fabian socialism, that was to capture the British working class vote.

But, anyway, let us move on to my second point.

A question for Marxists: can any of you modern Marxists apply Marx’s analysis above to mass immigration in modern capitalism, especially in the European Union? I’d be very interested to see it.

There are of course other passages in Marx’s writings that mention the issue of immigration.

Here is another from with an interview with Marx in the New York World, July 18, 1871 on strikes and immigration:
“To give an example, one of the commonest forms of the movement for emancipation is that of strikes. Formerly, when a strike took place in one country it was defeated by the importation of workmen from another. The International has nearly stopped all that. It receives information of the intended strike, it spreads that information among its members, who at once see that for them the seat of the struggle must be forbidden ground. The masters are thus left alone to reckon with their men. In most cases the men require no other aid than that. Their own subscriptions or those of the societies to which they are more immediately affiliated supply them with funds, but should the pressure upon them become too heavy and the strike be one of which the Association approves, their necessities are supplied out of the common purse. By these means a strike of the cigar makers of Barcelona was brought to a victorious issue the other day.”
Marx, “Our Aims Should Be Comprehensive,” interview with New York World, July 18, 1871


  1. It's well understood that the fragmentation of the working class serves capital, yes. The passage you've quoted highlights both that aspect of capitalism, and a practical view for where to focus revolutionary efforts.

    Typically Marxists these days acknowledge that social democracy is the ideology of the "labor aristocracy," which consists of better-paid (usually intellectual or managerial) labor, who are able to comprise a greater stratum of society chiefly through the functioning of imperialism -- i.e., net exploitation at the international level. For example, what Robinson referred to as the "beggar-thy-neighbor" free trade policies are one example of this, though there are others as well -- particularly warfare.

    Thus, some of the working class is effectively "bought off" with a higher standard of living, such that their material interests become aligned with the preservation of the ruling class.

    Typically, Marxists hold the view that the "weak links" in the chain of global capitalism are thus the more exploited nations, which are far more likely to stage worker revolts. The resulting loss of client states abroad means that the class struggle would be brought back into the fore within the first world.

    Marxists have said much on the question of racism/immigration in the EU, but not usually separate from the question of imperialism/dependency theory, since the phenomena are viewed as intrinsically related. As long as virulent or pseudoscientific racism can be used to propel the international working class into conflict, then the engine that might otherwise lead to a proletarian revolution can end up fueling nationalist fascism instead.

    1. So, what, are you saying that Marxists support huge mass immigration to the capitalist West as a way of furthering the "class struggle"? Even though Marx didn't seem to see it that way?

    2. No. I'm not sure how you got that from what I wrote.

    3. Then tell me what is your modern Marxist position on mass immigration? (assuming you are one). To restrict it? Or what?

    4. I'm "sort of" one. Maybe I should say I'm "closeted," so to speak.

      No, I am not aware of any Marxist who calls for restricting immigration, but nor are any (to my knowledge) calling for mass immigration for its own sake. Where one lives is a decision left up to an individual, and no one should be criminalized for where they were born. However, structurally, it needs to be noted that many wealthy nations' policies ultimately contribute to the poor conditions that lead many in the developing world to emigrate.

      So I guess a fuller statement of my position would be that people should be free to live where they choose, but that's not enough by itself; we also should work to prevent desperation from being a central component of that choice.

      I don't know if you'll find Marxists who disagree with me, but the more "out" ones I know definitely don't.

    5. Well, I am afraid that it would appear to me that if you are a Marxist and honest, then the most sensible position would be that mass immigration just smashes up and breaks up working class movements and solidarity, and severely prevents any working class radicalism. E.g., just look at what is happening right now in Europe as some working class people even desert the mainstream left for right-wing populist parties.

      You should be all for independent Third World economic development free of imperialism (through industrial policy and import substitution), not mass immigration to the West that is absolutely loved by capitalists as they get a new army of reserve labour.

    6. I can see where you're coming from to say so, but doesn't that position also presuppose that there's no way different peoples can overcome national or cultural chauvinism? That integration or cultural diffusion is not even possible?

      When people start to holler that "foreigners took our jobs," this seems to be a great opportunity to point out that maybe the problem is that the number of jobs is limited in the first place, and able-bodied people who want to contribute to society are not even given the opportunity. That, to me, is the mark of a profoundly flawed society. When they really stop to think about it, I think most people would agree.

    7. Europe has already tried national integration. You know, the EU and Eurozone? Basically, it's called smashing the population with neoliberalism.

      More and more of the national populations want out of it.

      "When they really stop to think about it, I think most people would agree."

      And Marxists are doing really well with that strategy, aren't they... what with about 0.4% of the vote in, say, Britain:

    8. I'm not sure the EU is a productive sort of national integration in the first place. And that's a position consistent with Marxists and PK's alike:

      "Some day the nations of Europe may be ready to merge their national identities and create a new European Union – the United States of Europe. If and when they do, a European Government will take over all the functions which the Federal government now provides in the U.S., or in Canada or Australia. This will involve the creation of a “full economic and monetary union”. But it is a dangerous error to believe that monetary and economic union can precede a political union or that it will act (in the words of the Werner report) “as a leaven for the evolvement of a political union which in the long run it will in any case be unable to do without”. For if the creation of a monetary union and Community control over national budgets generates pressures which lead to a breakdown of the whole system it will prevent the development of a political union, not promote it."

      So it's fully understandable that national populations want out. This is not an indictment of multiculturalism or international unity per se, but rather the particular neoliberal form of it Europe has adopted.

      As for the vote thing, that's aside from my specific point. I'm 99% sure you yourself would agree that the very existence of involuntary unemployment is a serious indictment of the system we have. And given the thing I was saying above about the labor aristocracy (to say nothing about decades of ideological warfare and propaganda), it stands to reason that there would not be a large portion of the voting public taking the position in imperial core nations. But nations of the imperial periphery have much more active socialist movements. They just swept the elections in Kerala, for instance.

  2. "Just for all you Marxists out there."

    All ten of them?

    Joking aside I'm very worried about the direction the "far-left" will take after Noam Chomsky passes away or becomes too old to continue his work. Yes, his social anarchism may be quasi-utopian, but even he acknowledges we shouldn't abolish the government tomorrow, that the very idea of "Marxism" is a bizarre concept, that the communist states were totalitarian (except for his brief out-of-charcter doubt of Pol Pot's madness in the 70's), and that postmodernism is a bunch of bunk. Who will fill the void he leaves behind? The totally insane Slavoj Zizek and the much lazier anarchist "thinker" Naomi Klein.

    If the far-left has to exist I would rather it was made up by people like Chomsky who actually has interesting insights because the Marxists are just wasting everyone's time. And right now Chomsky is probably the largest intellectual voice keeping the postmodernists at bay, and I'm worried they'll make a comeback if he's not around to smack them down every now and then.

    1. Will Feret,

      A wonderfully sensible comment. I agree with virtually everything.

      One thing: I think Postmodernism is dying. It has become a stale orthodoxy in the academy and new generations of students are starting to rebel against it, just as they always tend to rebel given the contrarian spirit that tends to infect the young.

      Regarding Slavoj Zizek, yes, he is a clown and buffoon, and the fact that people on the left think he is some big intellectual is really a sign of terrible intellectual collapse on the left.

    2. I'm not as forgiving of Chomsky as either of you, and think his whitewashing and dishonesty have been well documented. But I take your point. He is at least a serious man. As for the far left, I already see apologias and blame shifting for yesterday's attacks in Paris.

    3. As for the far left, I already see apologias and blame shifting for yesterday's attacks in Paris. "

      Ken B, you don't need the far left for that. The mainstream left and mainstream conservatives are perfectly capable of doing it.

    4. Mainstream conservatives? Have some examples? The Ron Paul crowd of course, but they are not mainstream (thank heavens).

    5. Try again.

      He blames ISIL and uses the term evil.

      I remember a man mocked for talking about evil-doers btw.

    6. Ken B,

      I am referring to things he's said the past. Read here, which also describes other conservatives too.

    7. OK, yes. That kind of bullshit is sadly ubiquitous. The refusal of mainstream parties to be even remotely serious about these things is what feeds the rise of le Pen and others on the fringe. And may well elect her.
      Merkel is another example.

    8. Indeed. In Europe, these populist right-wing parties are soaring in popularity. It is not just over this issue of course, but the (correct) perception that EU is grossly anti-democratic, robs countries of economic sovereignty, and imposes open doors immigration that is more and more hated.

      Merkel's 800,000 was arguably the last straw. Even the EU-loving Cameron balks at this.

      Sweden may well be ruled by the Sweden Democrats, Geert Wilders may be prime minister of the Netherlands, and (possibly, though it is less probable) Marine Le Pen may become president of France in the near future. The Danish People's Party is already in coalition government in Denmark and the Swiss just elected a anti-immigration party. But ... we aren't seen nothing yet.

      The left's unfathomable idiocy and incompetence will be one of the major causes of this, if it happens.

    9. Bernie Sanders
      Making David Cameron look good!

    10. Political parties only learn from losses. It will take a loss to Wilders or Le Pen or the like. I am beginning to hope it happens. I'd prefer Wilders myself, but Holland might be too small to teach the lesson.

    11. Ann Althouse are you serious? She's a law professor who thinks she's a military general and is an utter conspiracy nut.

      However on that post in partcular the only thing Sanders said that was really wrong was that the invasion of Iraq led to the rise of "AL-Queda". But I'm honestly not sure how she can simply guffaw at the idea that the Iraq invasion led to the rise of ISIS. Ba'ath generals are now running the military for ISIS and it's the reason they're so effective.

      Again climate change being more of a danger in the long-term threat than terrorism (that was the original question) may look silly now because we don't see the immiediate effects of climate change but it's not an indefensable position. That seems like an appeal to emotion as well.

    12. Well Will, I cited it for the link, not Althouse, who is irrelevant to the point. Did she edit the tape?
      We will have to disagree about Althouse, but I will insist she had nothing to do with what Sanders said.
      Sander's answer is pretty bad. This is about climate change? It's exactly an example of the stuff we are discussing.

    13. This is on topic, and insightful.

      Side note. This does not mean I endorse everything Pipes ever said.

    14. Ken B,

      Fair enough. On that link, yes, anyone sensible knows there's a bizarre PCness about this issue. Though I have to say, I don't need Pipes to tell me this (I disagree with a lot of his other stuff; maybe you do too, or don't... anyway, it's not really an issue).

      It's gotten so bad comedians have been making fun of it for some time now:

    15. Actually, left-wing atheists (of which I am one) do call this B.S. all the time. E.g., Sam Harris and Dawkins.

    16. Yes. Coyne too,and Maher. Some rightist too. Not enough of either. Obama was awful today on this.
      Pipes? Often insightful. I don't read him often so don't know his views in detail. Hes with the ones you name on thiz topic though.

  3. "...ISIS has nothing to do with the reality of Islam." - John McCain.

    In fairness that was before the Paris attacks but I think it's still relevent to the conversation.

    What are we defining as "shifting blame" though? If somebody says "France had it coming because the West is evil and oppressing Muslims, an eye for an eye blah blah blah" then they're obviously crackpots. If somebody says "There's nothing wrong in the Islamic world and Islamism is not relevent to the conversation" then they're still being cowardly and intellectually dishonest.

    But if somebody says "Maybe if the West had a more non-interventionist policy in the Middle East it would reduce the number of terrorist attacks by making the West less of a target" than, regardless of whether of not you agree with that, it's a much different sentiment.

    1. Good comment. The bizarre PC inability of most leaders to discuss Islamism infects both mainstream left and right.

    2. Yes and unfortunately it gives the far-right a leg to stand on. If the mainstream politicians think they are helping Muslims by not addressing Islamism they are dead wrong, because the far-right will beat them over the head with it and if they get into power they will be far more brutal in their treatment of Muslims, and they won't very worried about differentiating between moderates and Islamists either.

      That's not even getting into the fact that most victims of Islamism/Wahhabism are other Muslims, whether they are being oppressed by a recognized theocracy (Saudi-Arabia, the Taliban) or attacked by terrorists (Al-Qaeda, ISIS). The mainstream left/right have to get it through their skulls that they aren't protecting Muslims by not addressing Islamic fundamentalism and its tenants.

      I think the best way to frame the debate is to regularly (and accurately) call it the "ultra-conservative" and "furthest right" interpretation of Islam, so liberals understand that what we're talking about here is the Muslim worlds answer to the extreme right and that they are extreme opponents of liberalism/pluralism just as Christian Dominionists are.

    3. Again, good comment.

      But look at how far things have gone already. The popularist right is rising all over Europe, e.g., Sweden Democrats, Danish People's Party, Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), French National Front, and UKIP.

      Their rise is a symptom of how useless and stupid the left is. It's not just that the left is neoliberal and supports the anti-democratic EU but it is also because more and more people -- even on the left -- whether rightly or wrongly, don't like mass immigration.

      Although it might be unpopular to say so (you might vehemently disagree), I am afraid Merkel made a terrible mistake to allow in 800,000 migrants. The evidence suggests (1) most of them aren't from Syria (and even worse, many who claim they are actually have fake passports) and (2) most are them aren't even refugees but are economic migrants.

      This mistake was a gift to right-wing popularist parties.

    4. I think the Syrian refugees should have been screened then accepted because of how extreme that situation was (I'm not so sure about the economic migrants) but the mass immigration before that should have been addressed long ago when people were clearly fed up with it, then it would have just been an exception and not more like the straw that may have broke the camel's back. However the left has become weirdly obsessed with open borders, even though it was once a fringe, utopian libertarian idea.

      In the US Bernie Sanders came out against open borders for entirely legitimate reasons and the "left" freaked out. Vox called his views "ugly" and on twitter Noah Smith called him a "nativist".

      It's beyond bizarre because there are already alternative left-wing proposals put forward by the likes of Dean Baker to address poverty in Third-world by exempting Developing nations from IP claims and allowing them to afford generic drugs, computer software, etc. ( Yet the left doesn't seem interested in these proposals that benefit the global poor at the expense of wealthy corporations instead of at the expense of the common worker they are supposed to represent.

    5. Yes, Ralph Nader also had a sensible, humane left-wing opposition to mass immigration. It seems Sanders is in that tradition.

    6. Some great comments. I disagree with Will's term for the ISIS version of Islam though, as trying to tie it to our political spectrum. Fundamentalist perhaps.
      IMO, truest to the sources though.

      if anything you are too soft on Merkel. She did after all double down after the situation got out of control.

      You won,t like it, but the solution involves intervention. ISIS must be destroyed, militarily. I think you and most here are very wrong, Merkel scale wrong, on what intervention should and should not aim for. I will try to write up my thinking and give you a link to my blog.

  4. Marx was prone to conspiracy theories. Here's one:

    But the idea that the Irish question played a role in international politics between the US and Britain in the 19th century is by no means a conspiracy theory.

  5. It seems to me everyone's missing the second point in the 1870 letter: "This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class" isn't so much a reflection on migration as on the antagonism, which exists because of the wider character of the relationship between Britain and Ireland.

    If we separate the two phenomena - migration and antagonism – the antagonism exists with or without the migration. Marx's solution is Irish independence, not a halt to migration (which we might imagine could be accomplished more easily, though not without opposition).

    In similar vein is the observation on the US South. Black workers aren't streaming in to compete with white ones, the slave trade ended 60 years earlier: rather the issue is the legacy of the economic and legal subjection of a large segment of the population.

    And what a year later is the International's response to cross-border strikebreaking? Not to oppose migration itself, but to urge solidarity with the strikers.

    So the problem isn't movement of workers, it's their division that serves the ruling class. No division, no problem. That's why we used to have a thing called solidarity.

  6. you’ve gotta stop psychoanalyzing people you disagree with (“clearly, Marx and Engels were very angry”) and just read their arguments, man. i badly want your blog to be better because i want smart social democrats to argue with (as a communist) and there’s some potential in yours, but it’s marred by these jejune, undergrad-ish comments that simply avoid the actual issues at stake.