Anti-Alienism or Anti-Semitism?

Bourgeois historians—and these are the only historians who have hitherto examined this subject—have argued that the struggle for the Aliens Act was based on xenophobia against all foreigners rather than on anti-semitism. Colin Holmes in his book Anti-Semitism in British Society argues that:

"It is more important to categorise the 1905 Act as anti-alien rather than anti-semitic"

and that:

"The legislation was aimed at aliens rather than specifically at Jews as Jews".

According to this viewpoint, it was just bad luck and coincidence that Jews were restricted—it could have been any foreigner. Now this attempt to deny the specificity of immigration controls is extremely reactionary. Exactly the same argument is used in relation to the current Immigration Act—where attempts are constantly being made to deny its specific anti-black racism by the assertion that it keeps out all foreigners. As socialists we should oppose all immigration controls. This is precisely because any immigration control is inevitably based on national chauvinism—namely the belief that foreigners are in some way inferior to the English. It is crucial to appreciate the political dimension of controls, that they are never brought in against the whole world, in the abstract, but are always brought in against a specific non-English victim group, through the use of specific imageries.

Obviously, one aspect of the movement for the Aliens Act was a generalised chauvinism against all foreigners. England is the imperialist country par excellence and therefore popular ideology is inevitably chauvinistic. Many examples of this can be found within the early socialist movements. Bruce Glasier of the I.L.P. argued in Labour Leader that:

"Neither the principle of the brotherhood of man nor the principle of social equality implies that brother nations or brother men may crowd upon us in such numbers as to abuse our hospitality, overturn our institutions or violate our customs" (3.4.1904).

Such phrases as "our institutions" clearly substitute a chauvinistic analysis for a class one.

However, it is inadequate to regard the Aliens Act as being simply based on such general chauvinism against all-comers. This underestimates the strength of anti-semitism and misunderstands the history of immigration control—and thus fails to understand the real relationship between the two. The Aliens Act was aimed specifically at Jews by invoking specifically anti-semitic imagery. In essence, running right through the movement for control, were variants of the theory of the world Jewish conspiracy. Moreover, much of the actual imagery used by 'socialists' was of the basest anti-semitic kind—harking back to medieval Christianity and looking forward to Nazism. The frequent reference in The Clarion to Jews as "The Nose" (1.9.1892) is not a trivial example. Again, much of the language used to describe alleged Jewish capitalist domination was itself of a classic anti-semitic mould. A.J. Hobson's writings are typical. Hobson was a well-known radical journalist of the day, who later became prominent in the Labour Party and made his name covering the Boer War as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian. It was his opinion that the Transvaal was controlled by "Jew power" and

"those who came early made most and then left leaving their economic fangs in the carcase of their pray" (Contemporary Review vol LXXVII).

The image of the Jew as parasite and bloodsucker is an historical constant within anti-semitism.

The history of immigration control, itself, illustrates the nonsense of regarding the 1905 legislation as being simply the product of an anti-alienism, to which anti-semitism was peripheral. The significant point is that prior to 1905 England had never had serious immigration control (at least since the expulsion of the Jews by Edward 1st). Today, it is difficult to appreciate that a century ago immigration control was a novel concept, and it needed the struggle against the Jews to legitimise it. Even this required a prolonged struggle which lasted nearly two decades—1885 to 1905. A comparison between the response to Jews and to other immigrants is illuminating. Irish immigration into England throughout the 19th century was greeted with almost total hostility. Anti-Irish chauvinism was as enormous as it is today. In one way, the Irish were even more vulnerable than the Jews—their own country had been devastated and colonised by the English. But whatever else it did, the agitation against the Irish did not lead to immigration control.

Similarly, at the same time as agitating against Jews, some parts of the labour movement were agitating for controls against non-Jewish workers. For instance, Keir Hardie, a founder member of the I.L.P., gave evidence at the 1889 House of Commons Select Committee on Immigration. He spoke on behalf of the Ayrshire Miners Union and the Scottish Labour Party. As well as opposing Jewish immigration save for those fleeing persecution—these organisations were opposed to Polish Christians being allowed to come and work in the mines, in iron and steel mills and on British ships. The essential objection to this was the importation of scab labour to work these industries in times of industrial unrest. However, no legislation was ever introduced against immigrant strike-breakers. This was in spite of the fact that Hardie, who incidentally himself voted against the Act, introduced an amendment to the Aliens Bill calling for the exclusion of immigrant strike-breakers. In the end the only controls enacted were those which were aimed at Jews.

Of course, particular reasons can be advanced as to why the bourgeoisie did not exclude other groups. They had no material interest in excluding scab labour and they did have a material interest in the use of manual Irish labour. Moreover, if one were to look at the matter purely from the point of view of imperialist material self-interest, then the bourgeoisie should not have included the Jews—as Jews organised whole sections of the garment and footwear industries. However, such an economically deterministic approach to history simply ignores the role of ideology as a factor in politics.

Thus it was anti-semitism which was the ingredient necessary to popularise the ideology of immigration control, so that such control became politically viable. This is no coincidence and relates in part to the nature of anti-semitism. All movements for control against any foreigner invoke the image of the alien horde taking over Britain. What distinguished anti-Jewish agitation was the conspiracy theory. This asserted that the Jew had a conscious plan to take over, not simply Britain, but the entire world. This was an extremely comprehensive and therefore powerful justification for control. In the end it was irresistible. In other words anti-semitism, far from being simply an example of, or peripheral to, anti-alienism, was the force which ensured anti-alienism would be given statutory authority for the first time.

The legitimisation of immigration control has had enormous repercussions in the 20th century, not least because it kept out tens of thousands of Jews from England in the 1930's—thus resulting in their deaths. It also meant that the equally racist agitation for controls against black people was successful, in a relatively rapid period. It took just four years after the race attacks in 1958 in Notting Hill and Nottingham, before control was legislated. The labour movement did not campaign either for or against it: controls were accepted as "natural" and being based on "common sense". It was the active, if forgotten, struggle for controls by the labour movement over 60 years earlier, which had legitimised them.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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