In the latest Militant newspaper, the organ of the infinitesimally small and monumentally bizarre SWP, there’s a swipe at a position defended in last week’s edition:
The labor officialdom in the United States and the different capitalist countries in Europe have refused to carry out the fight for working-class unity over decades, instead joining with each of their bosses’ governments in advancing a nationalist and protectionist course. Workers everywhere have to chart a new road forward.
It’s different than a general call to “open the borders,” as an editorial in last week’s Militant put forward. That’s a utopian demand, and, if adopted under capitalist rule, would lead to increased competition among workers, unemployment, lower wages and social misery.
This is not the first time such a correction has been made. Usually it can be attributed to Jack Barnes reversing himself on previously held positions. This never happened when I was in the SWP in the 1960s and 70s and probably reflects the descent of this sect into ever more increasingly uncharted waters with an unstable cult figure at the helm.
As it turns out, this is not the only cult-sect that is opposed to open borders because it is “utopian”. The Spartacist League that SWP’ers used to laugh at for its weirdness issued a reply to a reader’s letter that sounds like it could be an editorial in the Militant at this point:
The call to “open the borders” and its variants are hopelessly utopian. The modern nation-state arose as a vehicle for the development of capitalism and will remain the basis for the organization of the capitalist economy until the world capitalist order is shattered through a series of workers revolutions. Policing its borders is vital to the very existence of the capitalist state power. Moreover, “open the borders” can have a reactionary content, from advancing imperialist economic penetration of dependent countries to obliterating the right to national self-determination.
This, of course, is an odd use of the term “utopian”, which in Marxist theory generally refers to beliefs that small-scale experiments in collective ownership can lead to socialism. It would be clearer if the two sects would use the word “unrealistic” instead of “utopian” to avoid confusion. But then again, that would lead to some interesting questions about other demands that cannot be realized under capitalism. Perhaps there is something deeply conservative about this hostility to open borders even though the head men at the SWP and Spartacist League love to throw the ultraleft verbiage around.
If you take the trouble to Google “Open borders” on the Militant website, you’ll see that the group favored it in the past. Last week’s Militant erred only by assuming that the party line was in force until it would be changed by the democratic vote of the party at the next convention. Since the cult operates on the whim of the Dear Leader nowadays, the line can be changed any time he decides to change it. Who needs democracy when the group is led by the Lenin of today?
There were 58 results on a search for “open borders” on the Militant and all of them except for the one cited above defend them. For example, the Swedish group that is part of the SWP’s global network ran an election campaign that made such a demand.
In 2010, when I was still a part of the Swans Magazine collective, I wrote an article on the passport system for a special issue on immigration. I reproduce it below in the hope that people get a better idea of where Marxists stand on this issue.
(Swans – October 4, 2010) When I learned about the decision by the good folks who publish Swans that they intended to produce a special issue on immigration, I saw this as an opportunity to investigate the origins of the passport and visa system — something I regarded as a recent phenomenon. After reading John Torpey’s very useful The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, I was disappointed to discover that such documents have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Upon further reflection, I might have realized that this was the case since state formations — be they feudal, capitalist, or bureaucratic socialist — have been around for over a millennium. The only exception to this rule has been primitive communal societies or nomadic herders. Ironically, it will be up to an aroused and enlightened humanity to reintroduce communal social forms but based on advanced technology to finally put an end to the dungeon that such papers represent.
It is a sign of how little we have progressed that the Roma being persecuted across Europe today for their refusal to abide by the norms of “citizenship” were being persecuted for the same refusal in the 16th century. A police ordinance from 1548 Prussia stipulated that “gypsies and vagabonds” (Landstreicher) had to be issued passes to travel within the feudal state. Furthermore, in all feudal entities the lower classes needed traveling papers, a way of tying a serf to his lord’s manor.
Despite Britain’s reputation for being freer and more “enlightened,” things were not much different. A 1381 statute prevented anybody but aristocrats from leaving the kingdom. (A point on terminology: passports are required to leave a country; visas are needed to enter one.) Britain also had the same determination to keep the peasant tied to his master’s land. A member of the lower classes could migrate from one part of the kingdom to another only if he had a certificate issued by a court official or a cleric.
While Czar Peter the Great had the reputation of being a “Westernizing” progressive, the reality on the ground for the average Russian was one of slavery to documents. Since Peter had the ambition to create a large and powerful army, it was necessary to put obstacles in the way of a peasant who sought to flee this oppressive “duty.” A 1719 edict required someone moving from one village to another to have the proper papers. It is not difficult to understand why Stalin would reintroduce such restrictions during the 1930s since in many ways his regime was a mixture of Czarist autocracy and state planning.
The first blow delivered to such feudal encumbrances was the great French Revolution of 1789, or at least that was the hope. A delegate to the Estates General pleaded that each citizen “must be free to move about or to come, within and outside the Kingdom, without permissions, passports, or other formalities that end to hamper the liberty of its citizens…” Such hopes were in vain since the bourgeois republic reflecting the class interests of those who made it retained passports as a means of controlling the poor who were pouring into Paris.
It was not just the poor who were kept on a tight leash. When King Louis XVI was caught trying to flee the country disguised as a valet, the republicans cracked down. Anybody trying to flee the country without authorization would be subject to arrest, thus making the sublime sentiments of the conclusion of Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca ring a bit hollow.
Worries over counter-revolution did not only stem from flights from the country. There was also a consensus that foreigners might find their way into France harboring subversive ideas. Subversive in this context, it should be added, meant a belief in the divine rights of Kings. France eventually resolved this problem by abolishing internal passports — in deference to the hopes of the democratically minded and a burgeoning capitalist class in need of “free” labor while institutionalizing them at the border. Henceforth, the concept of “foreigner” would be enshrined in the piece of paper that defined one in relationship to the bourgeois republic.
By and large, the 19th century was marked by a more permissive attitude toward the right to travel without restriction since a capitalist industrial revolution would not be possible without mobile pools of labor, in the same way that California agribusiness relies on an ample supply of Mexican stoop labor today.
Prussia, a state that symbolized absolutism, enacted legislation in 1817 that permitted its citizens to “travel freely and unhindered” without papers, but only within its borders. Leaving the country without a passport was strictly verboten, however.
If Prussia’s restrictions mirrored its inability to break cleanly with the feudal system, how does Britain — an exemplar of liberal free trade — stack up by comparison? As was always the case with Britain, the right to emigrate was joined at the hip to the capitalist economy. An economic downturn in the period 1810 to 1820 prompted bread riots by the poor. In face of such troubles, the ruling class decided to relax restrictions. That explains the enormous migration to Australia and other former colonies that would follow.
Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) also led to increased mobility by the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.
Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate a sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.
While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.
The fact that some sectors of the capitalist class favor labor mobility today as a way to undermine trade unions in places like the United States and France, just as was the case in Germany in the 1860s, should not stand in the way of our call for freedom of movement.
Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, he wrote:
Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.
Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement, and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.
There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.
If anything, Lenin’s observations ring truer than ever. Globalization and advanced communications technology have broken down “national barriers” as anybody who has ever made a call to get technical support from Dell Computers would attest.
Unfortunately, labor solidarity has not kept pace with bourgeois solidarity that forges ahead with trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO. In the coming decades, labor will either face up to the task of realizing the old slogan of “workers of the world unite” or else it will fall backwards into greater and greater restrictions of the sort that typified feudal Europe. There is no turning back.