Polemics with the LRP

Leninism & Immigration

Reprinted below is a letter to the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) on the question of the Marxist position on immigration.

30 May 2003


In the report on your 10 May debate with the Spartacist League (SL), you note:

Two other left organizations took part in the discussion, both founded by former SL members: the Bolshevik Tendency and the Internationalist Group. One BTer complained that the LRP had manufactured differences that don t exist by bringing up the Spartacists chauvinist position on immigrants. A handy evasion: the BT shares the SL line and has every reason to be ashamed of it. Not to defend the right of immigrants to enter the imperialist countries is a very big difference that does indeed exist.

LRP Trounces SL in Imperialism Debate

The IBT [International Bolshevik Tendency] has a record of consistently defending the rights of all immigrants, including the right of immigrants to enter the imperialist countries. We had imagined that our essential programmatic difference on immigration was largely resolved by your renunciation of the petty-bourgeois utopian call for open borders ( Correction on the Slogan Open the Borders , Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2002). This slogan had been rejected 28 years earlier by the then-revolutionary Spartacist League for reasons we elaborated in a 1988 polemic with Workers Power:

Workers Power s hysterical denunciation of our Marxist position on immigration/emigration as potentially reactionary and based on a racist fantasy reveals in a particularly stark fashion the substrate of petty-bourgeois moralism which underlies so many of the MRCI positions. In the interest of political clarity we will nevertheless attempt to unravel some of the key elements in your argument.
First, your statement that it is a racist fantasy to assert that there can be cases where a mass influx of people from one country (unspecified) into another (unspecified) can jeopardize the right to self-determination of the host population, is a deliberate smear. Anyone who takes the trouble to read what we actually wrote can see that we specified three historical examples of situations where such migrations have in fact occurred: Zionist immigration into Palestine in the 1930 s and 1940 s; French colons immigrating to New Caledonia in the past several decades and Han immigration into Tibet in Maoist China. To imagine that such scenarios could be repeated in the future is neither fantastic nor racist. It is obvious that your attempt to label it as such is due only to your political inability to deal with our position.
Secondly, you allege that we reject the democratic right for the free movement of workers across all countries. Again, if the comrade who concocted this nonsense had taken the trouble to read the document he polemicized against, he might have noticed that it very clearly states that we support the basic democratic right of any individual to emigrate to any country in the world. We uphold the democratic right of individual emigration, while recognizing that it is neither categorical nor absolute. In some cases it could abrogate other democratic rights, as in the examples cited above or it may conflict with a higher principle, such as the defense of the deformed and degenerated workers states.
Finally, you suggest that we pose as the immediate answer to fight a particular aspect of imperialist policy racist immigration controls the revolution. Once again we have to refer you to what we actually wrote:

In the U.S. we defend Mexican workers apprehended by La Migra. We oppose all immigration quotas, all roundups and all deportations of immigrant workers. In the unions we fight for the immediate and unconditional granting of full citizenship rights to all foreign-born workers.
Trotskyist Bulletin No.3

What very big difference does the LRP have with this? We note that the Proletarian Revolution article claims:

Our position has nothing in common with those of the Spartacist League or its spin-off debris, which oppose Open the Borders on chauvinist grounds. These groups advocate instead full citizenship rights for all immigrants that is, only when they get here. The Spartacists say they oppose open borders as liberal utopianism unachievable under capitalism, which is true enough. But their real reason is that they are against ending all immigration restrictions by imperialist powers. Here is the Spartacist argument, presented over 25 years ago and repeated often:

However, on a sufficiently large scale, immigration flows could wipe out the national identity of the recipient countries...Unlimited immigration as a principle is incompatible with the right to national self-determination....
Workers Vanguard, Jan. 18, 1974

There is nothing chauvinist about this observation it is simply a truism, as cases like Palestine or Tibet illustrate. But you insist that these sentences constitute evidence of some sort of chauvinist cover-up:

That is, a tide of poor proletarians from third world countries endangers the national identity of the advanced capitalist countries. This is obviously a cover-up for a national chauvinist position. The SL and its offspring defend the right to self-determination of the imperialist U.S. which means the suppression of the national rights of people across the globe. Communists, in contrast, defend resisters and refugees against imperialism. As framed by the Bolsheviks, the right to self-determination distinguishes between oppressed and oppressors.

You can offer no evidence beyond bald assertion that the SL or any of its offspring have ever failed to defend resisters and refugees against imperialism. The SL is guilty of many things but it is not, to our knowledge, guilty of this; nor is the IG. It is not a good practice to make serious allegations without proof.

And then there is the question of whether or not Leninists uphold the right of all nations to self-determination, or only some nations. In your report on the recent debate (addressing the question of interpenetrated peoples) you observe:

Of course, the SL can find quotes where Lenin says that all nations have the right to self-determination. It would never have occurred to Lenin to say otherwise, because oppressor nations already had their self-determination; it was the oppressed who needed it.

Very true, which is why communists today spend no more time campaigning for self-determination for France, Russia or the United States than the Bolsheviks did 90 years ago. Lenin (and Trotsky) insisted on the strict equality of all nations, a position that conflicts with your own despite your attempts to prove otherwise at the debate:

[LRP spokesperson] Richardson pointed out that Trotsky also addressed the question of Lenin s attitude toward the rights of oppressor nations. In a discussion of Ukrainian self-determination, Trotsky wrote:

The right to self-determination, i.e., to separation, Lenin extended to the Poles and the Ukrainians alike. He did not recognize aristocratic nations. To any tendency to be silent about or to put off the problem of an oppressed nationality, Lenin related as he did to expressions of Great-Russian chauvinism.
On the Independence of Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads, our emphasis [LRP]

As Cde. Richardson stated, Let those words ring in the ears of every Spartacist today: Lenin did not recognize the rights of aristocratic nations, and any tendency to put off the rights of the oppressed he condemned as great-power chauvinism!

If you look a bit more closely you will find that this quotation does not say what you would like it to. Contrary to comrade Richardson, Trotsky did not claim that Lenin did not recognize the rights of aristocratic nations. What he said was that Lenin did not recognize aristocratic nations, i.e., he considered all nations equal, with an equal right to self-government. Lenin was, of course, well aware of national privilege and national oppression, but he rejected (or refused to recognize) the legitimacy of such disparities, just as he rejected the notion that some people (aristocrats) are entitled to special social status.

In 1997 our British comrades, then members of Arthur Scargill s Socialist Labour Party, began publication of the Marxist Bulletin. Each issue featured A Marxist Programme for the Socialist Labour Party that clearly stated: The SLP calls for the scrapping of the Asylum Act; we should extend this to all other immigration laws.

The third issue of Marxist Bulletin published an article on the hotly debated question of immigration controls:

Many comrades from South London, Manchester and Birmingham put forward a number of amendments to this policy of keeping humane and non-racist immigration controls. They rightly pointed out that given the historical legacy of British colonialism and imperialism it is impossible to have humane exclusion or to have non-racist discrimination. One Asian comrade powerfully stated she had left the Labour Party precisely because it supported immigration controls, and she expected the SLP to oppose all the capitalist parties immigration laws.
Comrade Brian Heron defended the existing policy against the amendments, arguing that Cuba had immigration controls, and that Britain would need them, citing a hypothetical mass exodus of rightist white South Africans escaping a workers revolution there. This seems to almost deliberately confuse the question that was being debated. Does the SLP defend or oppose the British capitalist state s immigration laws? Yes or no? Socialists clearly do not advise the capitalist class in Britain how best to keep foreign-born workers out. This is ABC for any socialist! The SLP should loudly and proudly oppose all capitalist immigration laws.
On the other hand there is Cuba, a deformed workers state. Socialists defend Cuba from capitalist counter- revolution and attack. Cuba belongs to the international working class, despite its leadership. It has the right to defend itself and this means it must tightly police its borders as it is encircled by hostile capitalist enemies led by the US. This means restricting immigration and more importantly emigration of its trained professionals and skilled workers.
The SLP should be against all capitalist Britain s immigration laws, and for the right of Cuba to defend and police its borders. There is no contradiction here, as Britain and Cuba are two different, antagonistic, types of state. In capitalist Britain all immigration controls are necessarily discriminatory, racist and anti-working class.

. . .

We oppose the capitalists immigration laws for many of the same reasons the capitalists support them. Our interests are opposite. Most people who try to come to Britain are refugees from terror or economic migrants escaping poverty at home. They are mainly working people, and they will strengthen our class here. They will strengthen our links with workers and socialist parties in such places as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. The capitalists oppose their entry because they are poor, and if they don t require the extra labour see them only as a drain on their economy.
We do not demand the right of rightist, white South Africans to come en masse to the UK. The SLP would not be pleased about such possibilities. But it is not socialists job to design ideal immigration laws for the bosses. We do not run this country. We would rather campaign for real solidarity, such as blocking armed intervention against a South African workers state.
The SLP should be very clear on opposing capitalist immigration laws and harassment of our foreign-born comrade workers. Any SLP local councillor who does not oppose any sacking or police roundup of so-called illegal immigrants, however humanely or non-racially , should be denounced and expelled immediately as a traitor. Any future SLP MP who does not oppose all capitalist immigration laws, however liberal , should also be denounced and expelled immediately as a traitor.

Anti-Racism and the Fight Against the Bosses Immigration Controls, Marxist Bulletin No. 3, August 1997

A statement by our German comrades (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 8, February 1999) stated unequivocally: The struggle against state racism must be directed against all immigration legislation and deportations and must demand full citizen rights for all immigrants. In an article discussing the question of strategy for anti-fascists, our German comrades noted:

At officially sponsored trade-union demonstrations, the demand for Bleiberecht (the legal right to remain) dominates the banners and speeches. Many left groups capitulate to the union bureaucrats at best half-hearted defense of immigrants by uncritically taking up this slogan.

. . .

While the call for open borders is more radical than the union bureaucrats demand for Bleiberecht, it implies that the German bourgeoisie can be pressured into redressing the wrongs done to people victimized by imperialism by permitting unlimited immigration. Communists generally uphold the democratic right of individuals to live where they choose and oppose laws limiting immigration into imperialist countries. But we do not attempt to transform liberal sentiments into a utopian/reformist answer to the gross inequities of the capitalist world order.

German Reunification Fuels Fascist Terror, 1917 No. 11, 1992

In a 21 January 1945 letter from prison, James P. Cannon observed: Lenin said: It is very hard to find a conscientious opponent. That was in Russia. In America it is impossible. We would like to be able to consider the LRP an exception to this rule, and to this end, suggest that you either substantiate your allegation that we have a chauvinist position on immigrants which we have every reason to be ashamed of, or withdraw it.

Yours for debating real differences,
Samuel T.

The LRP replied with a lengthy letter, dated 8 August 2003, which can be read on their web site (www.lrp-cofi.org). Their letter began with a correction:

You say in your letter of May 30 that the International Bolshevik Tendency stands for the rights of all immigrants, including the right of immigrants to enter the imperialist countries. You provide us with evidence from your British and German publications, which we were unaware of before receiving your letter. We acknowledge that, in the literature of the IBT, you have defended the rights of immigrants in relation to the imperialist countries in more sweeping terms than has the Spartacist League. Therefore, we now correct our unequivocal statement that you share the [Spartacist League] line opposing that right.

The LRP however reiterated their allegation that a 1974 article by the Spartacist League (SL) on the question is openly chauvinist, and cited the following passage:

If, for example, there were unlimited immigration into Northern Europe, the population influx from the Mediterranean basin would tend to dissolve the national identity of small countries like Holland and Belgium.

Workers Vanguard [WV] No. 36, 18 January 1974

There is no suggestion in this passage, or elsewhere in the article, that such a hypothetical development would necessarily be a bad thing. All it states is that a sufficiently large-scale change in the ethnic composition of the population of a particular territory must inevitably change its national character. This is simply a fact. The LRP asserts that the next sentence in the WV article shows that the SL regards massive immigration as a real danger :

In reality, of course, long before immigration would actually affect national identity, a chauvinist reaction, penetrating even into a traditionally pro-socialist working class, would cut off further inflows.

However much we might wish that this was not true, there is considerable historical evidence to the contrary. This is why in 1917 No. 24 we observed:

...Marxists must oppose, as a matter of principle, all bourgeois immigration controls, but also remain sensitive to the ways in which large-scale population transfers can be used by reactionary demagogues to promote chauvinism and undercut class consciousness.

The LRP asked for an explanation of this statement. It means that, on the one hand, Marxists must attempt to neutralize such backward appeals by crushing fascistic/ xenophobic activity in the egg, while, on the other, pedagogically addressing the anxieties of plebeian layers who may be susceptible to such demagogy. In their interventions in the struggles of workers and the oppressed, revolutionaries must seek to underline the fundamental identity of interests between indigenous and immigrant workers. Only in this way will it be possible to forge a leadership in the proletariat committed to the wholesale expropriation of capital, which alone can lay the material basis for an egalitarian, socialist society the precondition for eliminating antagonisms based on race, ethnicity or national origin.

from 1917 no. 26, 2004

Posted: 18 April 2004