Workers’ rights and open borders

There has been an interesting debate about open borders in the letters column of the British left-wing paper Weekly Worker in recent weeks.  All the letters on the subject have been put together in the current issue.  Below we are reprinting some extracts from some of the letters supporting workers’ right to free movement:


It has been asked what Marx would have done. We can easily answer by describing what the First International, of which he was a member, did. They organised!

The International announced that “the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries” and that “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”. Furthermore, “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.”

The International consequently addressed fellow workers: “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.”

Marx, in the name of the International, writes: “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.”

There is never an appeal to the capitalist state to impose immigration laws, but a call to the workers to unionise.

Borders are a means by which capitalists protect their assets, which include us. It is immigration controls that give employers greater power over migrants, particularly new arrivals or those who are dependent on them for their visa status, a power they do not always have over native workers.

Nationalism is a huge barrier to developing class-consciousness. Borders 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 importance 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 societies in a way that is not compatible with capitalism or of the state. Socialists must reject the concept of borders that are used as control devices over labour. By opposing the idea of borders we begin to perceive nation-states as ‘theirs’ and not part of ‘our world’.

I’ll end with another quote from the First International: “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.”

Alan Johnstone


. . . . the control of immigration is a control on labour, which in turn is part of the exploitation and subjugation of the working class. The influx of cheap European labour has not depressed UK wages: UK capitalism has.

. . . Quite apart from Marx’s internationalism (“Workers of the world”), Lenin’s theoretical revolution makes it abundantly clear that in the epoch of imperialism there is no such thing as a national working class. This is not just an idea in Lenin’s head: it is also reality. Today, the working class and the reserve army of labour are international realities, just like capital flows.

Of course, anyone is free to continue to see things from the point of view of market-town parochialism. But there are consequences. You start by defending national borders against the incoming tide of cheap labour, motivated by the purest of socialist principles, and one day you find yourself patriotically supporting your country’s right to defend its front lines in some far-off country.

Something to meditate, as August 4 approaches.

Susil Gupta


. . . I have found a Lenin quote, from 1915, in a letter to the Socialist Propaganda League in the USA: “In our struggle for true internationalism and against ‘jingo-socialism’, we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the SP in America, who are in favour of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907, and against the decisions of Stuttgart). We think that one cannot be internationalist and be at the same time in favour 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, against the possession of colonies …, that such socialists are in reality jingoes” (

Phil Kent

For the full text of all the letters, pro- and anti-open borders, see here.