We Are All Foreigners

“What happens to workers anywhere is the business of socialists everywhere” 

Borders have been around for so long they seem natural. People can’t imagine a world without them and they’re told it would be impossible, although once upon a time there were no borders in the modern sense of the word. Even today millions of people cross borders without permission, or they overstay their permission; they work in countries where the government says they can’t; they don’t believe that they have any less right to go to a part of the world. Historians point to the fact that around the world human beings have always moved. Yet, in the nationalists’ view, people are seen as ‘rooted’ in certain lands.

Migration has become an increasingly important part of people’s survival strategies for gaining access to much-needed resources. These may be a chance for a new livelihood or escape from untenable situations, such as persecution or war, as well as the more mundane purpose as an opportunity to experience new people and places. While millions of people move about, only certain people are classed as “migrants.” This is not simply to do with the length of stay: a tourist may only be resident for a short period, but then, so may a temporary worker. Backpackers and ‘ex-pats’ are not usually construed as migrants.

Throughout the world, governments use borders as an excuse to violate rights. A person’s actions may be harmful, or even criminal. But what is criminal about migrating? All undocumented immigrants have done is travel to a new country to live, work and support their families. That’s no crime. Properly understood, migration is part of what makes a free society flourish. Moreover, the majority of immigrants held in detention centres have not been convicted of any crime. Although, those who do detain immigrants have engaged in a litany of violent crimes enabled through state authority. States throughout the world kidnap, cage, torture, and deport migrants and refugees, but the brutality of immigration restrictions doesn’t end there. Borders trap people under oppressive governments, preventing them from fleeing violent atrocities. For example, many lesbian and gay refugees flee homophobic repression only to find themselves ensnared in the coercive clutches of immigration bureaucracies. Immigrants are often smeared with accusations of criminality but the real crimes in immigration policy are perpetrated by states.

Borders don’t protect people; they are a means by which governments and capitalists protect their assets, which include us. One’s wage rates, access to employment, to civil rights, to welfare benefits, are all bound to one’s recognised legal residence in particular places. Thus people are territorialised and turned into subjects of a specific sovereign power. It is immigration controls that give employers greater power over migrants, particularly new arrivals or those who are dependent on employers for their visa status, a power they do not have over native workers. The original Poor Laws in England were designed both to control the mobility of peasants fleeing their newly-privatized commons and stop them being a cost to the parish. Curbing mobility was a way of enforcing labour discipline upon the expropriated in order to turn them into productive workers.

Presently, nationalism is a huge barrier to developing class consciousness. National barriers cause workers in countries to care less about the other workers in the world. Across the world, national states are imposing ever more restrictive immigration policies. Nevertheless, people have become more internationalised and are acquiring a cosmopolitan identity. Making the demand ‘No Borders’ reveals the centrality of border controls to capitalist social relations, relationships dependent on the practices of expropriation and exploitation. The rights of property, consist of the right to exclude others while anti-nationalism is a part of a global reshaping of economies and societies in a way that is not compatible with capitalism or the state. Socialists should not only confront the question of the border but must reject the concept of borders that are used as control devices over labour. By rejecting borders we once more view the nation as ‘their’ nation, not part of ‘our’ world. We challenge those who describe national sovereignty as a necessary evil.

Trade unions must cross the divide created by the state between nationals and foreigners in order to secure higher wages and better working conditions for any worker. Many unions have not given up on their nationalism with a focus on achieving better immigration laws, seeking legal and legislative reforms, on making it more ‘fair’ by placing migrants into the regulated categories of ‘guest workers.’ While organising those immigrants currently within the national state, unions continue to demand that future migrants be shut out. Labour solidarity is seen as a threat by some trade unionists who try to curtail free migration with immigration restrictions.

Migration, for sure, generates a lot of problems, but what is the alternative? Any attempt to simply curtail it leads to a lot of suffering and draconian policies. From a working-class perspective, workers from another country are not qualitatively different from workers from another gender, younger workers, or workers from a different area of the same country. Women entering the workforce helped push down the wages of male workers. But why stop there? You could blame elderly workers, for staying in employment when others are more in need, without their sort of savings, mortgage or upcoming pension. There will always be someone to scapegoat for the lack of social infrastructure and arguing over who is the more deserving will just change the identity o the victim. As socialists, we do not set the interests of one part of the working class against another. It is rather to improve the lot of the working class as a whole. So as with women entering the workforce, the best thing to do about immigration is not to argue against it on the basis of it causing unemployment or low wages for male workers, it is to organise together to fight for better wages for all, and against job losses.

Some of those who argue for immigration controls point out that immigration rules are largely in the interests of businesses so that workers from low-wage countries can be exploited, by being denied citizenship privileges, so if they get ‘uppity’, they can get deported. Yet the only way to change this would be for a powerful working-class movement which had the ability to force change upon the government. And if this were the case then it could also force change on the concrete material issues which migration supposedly impacts (low wages, unemployment, etc) – and of course, a united working class is much more effective at fighting for its own interests as opposed to one divided along national/racial/citizenship lines. So we are more likely to actually achieve something by being internationalists. The solution doesn’t lie in withdrawing into ever more tightly knit localised ‘communities’ as some have suggested. There’s no point withdrawing into these sectional interests, for we have to realise that the only way we can fight back is together with collective demands and collective solutions.

The ‘reasonable-sounding’ position that ‘there’s not enough to go around for everyone so what we have should be kept solely for those first here’ is totally antithetical to a socialist perspective. A truly working-class perspective leads us to resent not each other, but what causes the shortages of resources in the first place.

All nation-states are criminal enterprises, and borders are among their most dangerous weapons. Socialists reject borders and nation-states. We are about changing minds and not chaining minds. You can’t pick and choose solidarity based on when or what is convenient at the time.

Brothers and Sisters All!


The First International had to deal with the issue of migrant workers and they sought solutions not in appeals to the capitalist state for immigration laws but they looked to organise practically.

The General Rules of the First International first explained “That all efforts aiming at the great end hitherto failed from the want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labour in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries; That the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries”

Citizen Schily called attention to the necessity for facilities being provided whereby the workmen of different countries in removing their domicile would receive assistance and also that the secretaries in different places should be able to assist workmen, members of the Association, to obtain employment.(1)

Therefore the draft provisional statutes of the First International contained this resolution in Section 10:
“Each member of the International Association, on removing his domicile from one country to another, will receive the fraternal support of the Associated Working Men.” (2)

The First International took steps to thwart the use of foreign scabs

“(b) To counteract the intrigues of capitalists always ready, in cases of strikes and lockouts, to misuse the foreign workman as a tool against the native workman, is one of the particular functions which our Society has hitherto performed with success. It is one of the great purposes of the Association to make the workmen of different countries not only feel but act as brethren and comrades in the army of emancipation.” (3)

“Help us, then, in the noble enterprise, help us to bring about a common understanding between the peoples of all countries, so that in the struggles of labour with unprincipled capitalists they may not be able to execute the threat which they so often indulge in, of using the working men of one country as instruments to defeat the just demands of the workmen in another. This has been done in the past, and seeds of discord and national antipathies have been thereby created and perpetuated. A part of our mission is to prevent the recurrence of such evils, and you can help us to achieve our aims.” (4)

Marx himself wrote of a situation where:

“Some time ago the London journeymen tailors formed a general association 120 to uphold their demands against the London master tailors, who are mostly big capitalists. It was a question not only of bringing wages into line with the increased prices of means of subsistence, but also of putting an end to the exceedingly harsh treatment of the workers in this branch of industry. The masters sought to frustrate this plan by recruiting journeymen tailors, chiefly in Belgium, France and Switzerland. Thereupon the secretaries of the Central Council of the International Working Men’s Association published in Belgian, French and Swiss newspapers a warning which was a complete success. The London masters’ manoeuvre was foiled; they had to surrender and meet their workers’ just demands.

Defeated in England, the masters are now trying to take counter-measures, starting in Scotland. The fact is that, as a result of the London events, they had to agree, initially, to a 15 per cent. wage rise in Edinburgh as well. But secretly they sent agents to Germany to recruit journeymen tailors, particularly in the Hanover and Mecklenburg areas, for importation to Edinburgh. The first group has already been shipped off. The purpose of this importation is the same as that of the importation of Indian coolies to Jamaica, namely, perpetuation of slavery. If the Edinburgh masters succeeded, through the import of German labour, in nullifying the concessions they had already made, it would inevitably lead to repercussions in England. No one would suffer more than the German workers themselves, who constitute in Great Britain a larger number than the workers of all the other Continental nations. And the newly-imported workers, being completely helpless in a strange land, would soon sink to the level of pariahs.

Furthermore, it is a point of honour with the German workers to prove to other countries that they, like their brothers in France, Belgium and Switzerland, know how to defend the common interests of their class and will not become obedient mercenaries of capital in its struggle against labour.” (5)

The International could correctly conclude that:

“The poor have no country, in all lands they suffer from the same evils, and they therefore realise that the barriers put up by the powers that be the more thoroughly to enslave the people must fall.” (6)

(1) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1865/london-conference-minutes.htm
(2) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/rules.htm
(3) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1866/instructions.htm#01
(4) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1866/appeal-british.htm
(5) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1866/warning.htm
(6) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1866/to-paris-students.htm