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Why Socialists Have Always Fought for Open Borders

In what President Trump has hailed as a “clear victory”, the Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for a limited version of Trump’s de facto travel ban on Muslims.

Nathaniel Flakin

June 27, 2017
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In what President Trump has hailed as a “clear victory”, the Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for a limited version of Trump’s de facto travel ban on Muslims. The court plans to hear arguments for the travel ban in October, a decision that of itself is a partial endorsement of the Trump administration’s assertion of its vast powers over who crosses the border.

Despite the limits of the temporary travel ban approved by the court, it threatens to deny the possibility of refuge to those stranded in difficult and dangerous situations created by US foreign intervention, while also lending credence to Islamophobic claims coming from the White House.

Trump, Brexit, Le Pen – the question of migration is a motor of new right-wing phenomena across all the imperialist countries. Sectors of the working class, who have seen their standard of living under attack for decades, are looking to xenophobic answers – as if immigrants were responsible for stagnating wages. This rightward shift is only possible as a result of the decline in workers’ organizations and international solidarity.

The capitalists and their states use migration to divide workers and increase the rate of exploitation. But workers have no interest in limiting the movement of their class sisters from other countries. As the history of capitalism has shown, restrictions on migration don’t really stop anyone from moving – xenophobic laws simply deny immigrants their rights, and therefore lower wages even further.

Socialist traditions

The socialist movement has been debating this question for more than a century. Over 100 years ago, an international congress categorically rejected all border controls. A resolution passed by the majority of the delegates at the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart from August 18-24, 1907 declared categorically:

The congress does not seek a remedy to the potentially impending consequences for the workers from immigration and emigration in any economic or political exclusionary rules, because these are fruitless and reactionary by nature. This is particularly true of a restriction on the movement and the exclusion of foreign nationalities or races.” [1]

The resolution included the demand:

Abolition of all restrictions which prevent certain nationalities or races from staying in a country or which exclude them from the social, political and economic rights of the natives or impede them in exercising those rights. Extensive measures to facilitate naturalisation.

A right-wing minority at the congress wanted to only place limits on deportations, proposing the amendment: “Regulation of the expulsion of foreigners, which must not be ordered for political reasons, and not by administrative means either, but only by court order.” But this was rejected in favor of opposition to all border controls.

The German socialist Karl Liebknecht – later world-renown for his brave opposition to the imperialist war – spoke a month later at the congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in reference to this debate (our translation):

Down with the Damocles sword of deportation! This is the first condition for foreigners to stop being predestined to squeeze wages and break strikes. The discussions with the question of migration is a glorious chapter of the International Congress. The problem, however, has not yet been decided. The Stuttgart Resolution is just a first step in this area.” [2]

Liebknecht spoke for the then left-wing majority in the Socialist International. V.I. Lenin, writing in 1913, similarly argued that “only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations”. The Russian revolutionary observed how migration was “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”. [3]

Stringent opposition to all restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement – this is the Marxist tradition. When the capitalists and their states use immigrant workers as wage squeezers and strikebreakers, our answer is to fight for equal rights and common organizations for all, with or without papers.

The CWI’s adaptation to chauvinism

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is the international tendency to which Socialist Alternative (SAlt) in the USA is affiliated. The CWI has dropped the traditional socialist demand for freedom of movement. Instead, they argue for a “socialist” form of border controls. As Clive Heemskerk, leader of the Socialist Party (CWI in England) has argued:

The socialist and trade union movement from its earliest days has never supported the ‘free movement of goods, services and capital’ – or labour – as a point of principle but instead has always striven for the greatest possible degree of workers’ control, the highest form of which, of course, would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy. It is why, for example, the unions have historically fought for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace, a very concrete form of ‘border control’ not supported by the capitalists.” [4]

What can we say? There are at least as many mistakes in this passage as there are sentences. First of all, it is factually incorrect. As we’ve shown above, the majority of the Socialist International did in fact argue against all border controls. Heemskerk is presenting the position of the right-wing minority of the socialist movement – the same reformists who were in favor of colonialism and just a few years later lined up behind the imperialist war. Obviously the CWI does not identify with this social-chauvinist tradition – except, unfortunately, on the question of borders.

Secondly, the demand for a closed shop has a contradictory history in the workers’ movement. It can be used to cement the power of workers’ organizations – but just as easily, it can be used by chauvinist bureaucrats to exclude black workers, women or other oppressed groups from employment. Turning Britain into a “closed shop” – closed to workers without British passports – was one of the driving forces behind Brexit. And the Socialist Party tried to form the left wing of this reactionary campaign, instead of fighting for an independent class position.

Thirdly, Marxists argue for workers’ control of production – the proletariat must seize the means of production to open the road to a classless society. However, Marx argued that workers cannot simply take over the existing state apparatus, i.e. the police, the army, the border regime, etc. Workers’ revolution must smash the state and replace it with organs of self-organization (councils, militias etc.). This is why Marxists reject all demands for “workers’ control” of the capitalist state as illusory. However, the CWI, in contrast to Marx and Lenin, thinks that the working class should fight for democratic control over the capitalist state apparatus.

Differences within the CWI

This explicit rejection of “open borders” is the position of the CWI in Britain, which is the largest and leading section of the international tendency. Interestingly, this does not appear to be the position of the entire CWI. In September 2015, the national office of the CWI’s German section (SAV) published a position paper on the refugee crisis for discussion in their organization. They tried to develop this demand as well (our translation):

Decisions by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees regarding asylum applications should be subjected to democratic control, right of veto and final determination by local, democratically elected committees of trade unions, neighborhood and migrant organizations.

This demand stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the document, which also called for “tearing down the border fences” and “no to fortress Europe.” But without border fences, there would be nothing for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees to decide about. And that is not the only logical difficulty.

How would this “democratic control” work in practice? A “workers’ asylum committee” would decide if a refugee could stay? And in the case of a negative decision, this person will be handed over to the border police? Or would a workers’ deportation squad need to be democratically elected?

How would this asylum committees be constituted? Should Turkish nationalist workers be allowed to sit on a committee deciding the fate of Kurdish refugees? Should it only include citizens, i.e. should it exclude refugees from basic democratic rights granted to the rest of the population? Or should immigrants have the same right to participate? But then on what basis should their right to stay be questioned?

Millions of people gave practical support to the refugees arriving in Germany in 2015, organizing demonstrations, donating food and clothes and offering German classes. Should we call on them to instead process asylum applications? What a bureaucratic nightmare!

The Bolsheviki had a much simpler answer to this question, as described in the constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic:

In consequence of the solidarity of the workers of all nations, the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic grants all political rights of Russian citizens to foreigners who live in the territory of the Russian Republic and are engaged in work and who belong to the working class. The Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic also recognizes the right of local soviets to grant citizenship to such foreigners without complicated formality.” [5]

After the SAV leadership published this document, a number of members objected to this demand publicly on social media. We published a debate on the question on Klasse Gegen Klasse. [6] After a discussion in their broader leadership, the point was – correctly – dropped and any mention of it was removed from the web site. Good.

However, if CWI members reject such a demand for Germany, why do they raise it for the UK? Should an international tendency have (apparently) opposing positions on this central question?

Is the demand scary?

The reason that the CWI rejects the traditional socialist demand is their adaptation to the consciousness of the majority of workers, and especially to the “labor aristocracy” and the trade union bureaucrats. This consciousness – especially in times of Trump, Brexit and Le Pen – is infected with chauvinism of all kinds.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued again and again that Marxists must swim against the stream, with a program that reflects the objective needs of the workers’ movement, not the momentary prejudices of sections of the class. Yet the Socialist Party takes the opposite route, as they decided at their 2013 congress:

Given the outlook of the majority of the working class, we cannot put forward a bald slogan of ‘open borders’ or ‘no immigration controls’, which would be a barrier to convincing workers of a socialist programme, both on immigration and other issues. Such a demand would alienate the vast majority of the working class, including many more long-standing immigrants, who would see it as a threat to jobs, wages and living conditions.” [7]

But what could a “socialist program on immigration” look like if it restricts the movement of workers simply for not possessing the right documents from a capitalist state? Yes, some workers feel threatened by migration, due to the endless scapegoating by the bourgeois media.

A revolutionary transitional program against this bourgeois propaganda is easy to understand: We need a united struggle of all workers – with or without papers – for equal rights. We need unions that organize all workers. We need decent jobs and housing for all, regardless of origin. And we need to force the capitalists to pay for this program. Yes, the demand for open borders might alienate some workers with chauvinist prejudices – just as the demand for “socialist” border fences will alienate immigrant workers.

Trotsky argued that the Marxist program was not a reflection of the “outlook of the majority of the working class,” but rather the lessons of the last 200 years of workers’ struggles:

We have repeated many times that the scientific character of our activity consists in the fact that we adapt our program not to political conjunctures or the thought or mood of the masses as this mood is today, but we adapt our program to the objective situation as it is represented by the economic class structure of society. The mentality can be backward; then the political task of the party is to bring the mentality into harmony with the objective facts, to make the workers understand the objective task. But we cannot adapt the program to the backward mentality of the workers, the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor – the prime factor is the objective situation. (…) This program is a scientific program. It is based on an objective analysis of the objective situation. It cannot be understood by the workers as a whole.” [8]

Adapting to chauvinist prejudices of sectors of the proletariat is no “transitional demand” – it is simply a capitulation. Trotsky expressed this uncompromising view in a 1933 letter to South African revolutionaries:

The worst crime on the part of the revolutionaries would be to give the smallest concessions to the privileges and prejudices of the whites. Whoever gives his little finger to the devil of chauvinism is lost.” [9]

A revolutionary method

Outside of a revolutionary situation, genuinely socialist demands will never be supported by the majority of the proletariat. In times of a rightward shift, demands like expropriating capital, smashing the capitalist state and forming a world socialist republic can also be alienating for broad swaths of workers. But as socialists, we are organizing revolutionary fractions within the workers’ movement who can fight for the rights of all oppressed people and oppose every division in our ranks – these uncompromising revolutionary factions are necessary to win the majority of workers in the decisive historical moment.

Should workers who live here decide on the basic democratic rights of workers from other countries? That would only mean accepting the divisions the bourgeoisie has imposed on our class, and even cementing them.

V.I. Lenin, writing during the First World War, was totally unsympathetic to socialists who did not support the traditional socialist demand for complete freedom of movement:

In our struggle for true internationalism & against ‘jingo-socialism’ we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America, who are in favor of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907, & against the decisions of Stuttgart). We think that one can not be internationalist & be at the same time in favor of such restrictions. And we assert that Socialists in America, especially English Socialists, belonging to the ruling, and oppressing nation, who are not against any restrictions of immigration (…), that such Socialists are in reality jingoes.” [10]

Since it appears that the CWI is divided on this question, with at least some groups opposing the British section’s adaptations to chauvinism, we hope that CWI comrades will fight to correct this position at the international level. It is time to take up the uncompromising position of Liebknecht and Lenin: “Down with the Damocles sword of deportation! Freedom of movement for all workers!


1. Resolution of the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International. Translation by Ben Lewis.
2. Karl Liebknecht: Fort mit dem Damoklesschwert der Ausweisung! (Our translation.)
3. V.I. Lenin: Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration.
4. Clive Heemskerk: Corbyn’s Brexit opportunity. In: Socialist Today 201.
5. 1918 Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.
6. Wladek Flakin: Debatte: Offene Grenzen oder „demokratische“ Abschiebungen?
7. British Perspectives 2013: a Socialist Party congress document.
8. Discussions with Trotsky on the Transitional Program.
9. Leon Trotsky: Letter to South African Revolutionaries.
10. V.I. Lenin: Letter to the Secretary of the Socialist Propaganda League. “Jingoism” was a popular term at the time for extreme national chauvinism.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.


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