Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 4, 2010

History of the passport system

Filed under: immigration,swans — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Che Guevara's false Uruguayan passport

(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.

Read full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy64.html


  1. B . Traven’s “The Death Ship” describes, among other things, the tightening of the passport-visa system after World War I.

    A gripping book in other ways, too.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — October 4, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

  2. Anyone who has ever lost their passport while travelling away from their home country might better appreciate the value of these documents. I know that I certainly have changed my attitude over time.

    For many years I sort of made a point of taking shabby care of my passport, trying, I suppose, to express a certain disrespect for the government which issued it, and which assumes it has the right to determine where I may go and with whom I may spend my money. Friends in various countries remarked somewhat incredulously why I so openly demonstrated such disrespect for a document which offered me a certain kind of protection and ability to come and go.

    Last year, while passing through Mexico City on my way home from Cuba to Los Angeles, my passport mysteriously vanished in the Mexico City airport. A replacement was issued to me within one hour on payment of $100.00 and provision of fresh photos, to the US embassy there. I had to prove who I was, which wasn’t difficult with a driver’s license, credit cards and other such documentation.

    The replacement was only good for one year, and they told me I’d need to re-apply for a permanent passport before the end of the year and, if I took care of the replacement without difficulty, I’d get a new permanent one. Now I have that. And I’m taking very, very good care of it this time around.

    Having certain kinds of passports can be a nuisance, too. Cuban friends tell me that if they travel abroad in some places they get WORSE treatment with a Cuban passport. One friend told me she had been forbidden to leave the Orly Airport in Paris, France while people with other passports were free to come and go while stopping over in transit. Not long ago I invited a Cuban friend to visit me here in the United States. She’s eighty years old, and had visited the US back in the 1990s and stayed for six months.

    Not long ago the Spanish government under Socialist President Jose Luis Zapatero passed a law enabling individuals born abroad who could prove relationship to Spaniards going back a certain number of years could obtain a Spanish passport. Thousands in Latin America, including Cuba, have been applying for and receiving Spanish passports.

    Two or three years ago I met Mirta Ibarra and Jorge Perugorria, two of the best-known actors in Cuban movies. They were attending the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Unlike some Cubans who’ve not been permitted to attend US cultural events, they had no trouble because no visa is necessary for Spanish citizens, and Ibarra and Perugorria hold Spanish passports.

    If Lenin were alive today and able to observe modern life, where xenophoba is widespread in the so-called advanced capitalist countries as well as in more backward places like South Africa, I’d like to think he’d be a bit more cautious than to sweepingly generalize that capitalism is “breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries”. The reality is a bit more complex than that. Citizenship has its conservatizing sides, as the hostility which some workers express toward their less fortunate, undocumented brothers and sisters, rather obviously demonstrates.

    As long as the world is going to be divided into nation-states, a prospect not likely to be ended in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog today, passports will inevitably be necessary. While the system of passports and visas may be used to restrict intellectual and political life in some places, like the United States, in less powerful countries they can also be used to keep troublemakers out.

    So it really all depends on who’s doing the restricting and why.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — October 4, 2010 @ 11:35 pm

  3. Grumpy Old Man will find something about B. Traven and passports in Jonah Raskin’s “Immigrants on My Mind” in the current release of Swans. com.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 5, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  4. Presumably what is novel historically is the trend towards every single human being requiring documentation, and every single human being being marked as belonging to this state or that. Its interesting to also register the complexities that emerge when people try and claim dual citizenship etc. I do remember reading a social theorist (perhaps it was benedict anderson) recounting the tale of some peasants from eastern europe who arrived at Ellis Island and genuinely had no idea what state they belonged to, and just kept repeating the name of their village. Apparently still common in the first decades of the 20th century.

    Comment by johng — October 7, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

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