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.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.
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
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