English and Jewish Opposition to Controls

Fortunately for the communist movement today, there is an alternative socialist tradition in relation to the Aliens Act from which we can learn. There were pockets of protest against the agitation for immigration control from within the emergent socialist movement and, to an even lesser extent, from within the labour movement as a whole. However, such protest was relatively small and could not swim against the tide. The most honourable example of this was the Socialist League, which split from the S.D.F. in 1885, and whose most well-remembered figure is William Morris. The League's journal, Commonweal, showed a totally principled position in its opposition to anti-semitism and immigration control. In one article—sarcastically called "Blarsted Furriners"—the journal attacked the other Left groups for their chauvinism and anti-semitism, asking them:

"Are we then to allow the issues at stake in the struggle between the robbers and the robbed to be obscured by anti-foreigner agitation?" (28.4.1888).

The same article also then offered solidarity to the Aborigines, Maoris, American Indians and black people everywhere, against their exploitation by the colonising English. In another article, John Burns of the I.L.P. was criticised for claiming that "England was for the English" (23.8.1890). However, the League and its journal ceased to exist in the early 1890's—unable and unwilling to compete with the increasing chauvinism of its rival organisation. Nonetheless, individuals and individual branches within the S.D.F. and I.L.P. occasionally kept the torch of protest alight. Again, individual trades unionists occasionally tried to speak out. Thus there was some opposition on the London Trades Council to Tillett and Mann—Mr. Taylor (a lithographic artist) spoke out against restriction and in favour of the "solidarity of the workers international brotherhood" (London Evening News 19.6.1891).

It must be said, that with the honourable and important exceptions of the Socialist League and odd individuals, the remaining opposition to immigration control by the English socialist and labour movement was not only spasmodic, but was despite itself, and was the result of pressure put on it by its Jewish members. This was certainly the case with the S.D.F.—where it was essentially only its London East End branch (that is, its Jewish branch) which organised activity against the Act. In May 1904, the East London S.D.F. convened a conference composed of "delegates from the Jewish trade unions and others" to plan some disruption of Parliament over the proposed Act (Jewish Chronicle 6.5.1904). After the Act became law the East London S.D.F. organised a meeting of protest in the Wonderland, Whitechapel Rd. The meeting was conducted in Yiddish and English (Jewish Chronicle, 19.9.1905). In fact the S.D.F. meeting, where Hyndman had turned up and spoken in favour of control, had been organised by its East London branch as a meeting against control. Likewise, the I.L.P. held protests—but again apparently only through the pressure of its Jewish members. Labour Leader reported a protest meeting in Tib Street in Manchester and advised those who wanted to follow up the protest to get in touch with the I.L.P. through J. Deschman, who was secretary of the Jewish Tailors Union in Manchester (3.6.1904).

The only organised trade union opposition which included British trade unionists, was when Jewish workers took the initiative. The major example of this was the meeting attended by over 3,000 people, organised in the East End by the Federated Jewish Tailors Union of London, where the speakers included W.P. Reeves of the Women's Union League, Margaret Bondfield, secretary of the National Union of Shop Assistants and Frank Brien of the Dockers Union (Eastern Post, 20.9.1902). The way in which at least some English workers were forced into action against anti-semitism by the independent initiative of Jewish workers is obviously mirrored today, when women and black organisation have placed sexism and racism on the political agenda of the Left.

Given the backward role of most of the English labour and socialist organisations, Jewish workers were compelled to take independent action against the agitation for immigrant control. An Alien Defence League was established by Jews to fight control and was based at 38 Brick Lane in London (Jewish Chronicle, 24.1.1902). Moreover, Jewish trade unionists took initiatives that were directed specifically against the anti-semitism of the English labour movement. In 1895, Jewish trade unionists in London circulated a leaflet called The Voice of the Alien which attacked the T.U.C.'s support for immigration control. This was written by Joseph Finn, a Jewish socialist from Leeds (see his letter to the Jewish Chronicle, 14.2.1902). Alongside this, Der Arbeiter Freund (The Worker's Friend, a Yiddish anarcho-communist journal) consistently attacked the English labour movement for its chauvinism and anti-semitism. It correctly understood the alignment of forces when it attacked the T.U.C. and "its papa—the State" (17.4.1903 quoted in Immigrants and the Class Struggle by Joe Buckman).

It could be argued that this Jewish fight-back, within and against the English labour movement, did have some limited success, in that one or two trade unions did alter their position. Thus, by 1903, Manchester Trades Council had become simply indifferent to the question of control and had ceased to campaign for it (Manchester Evening News, 28.1.1903). A similar neutralisation occurred with respect to Leeds Trades Council. Again, in 1905, James Sexton, the President of the T.U.C. personally denounced control at the T.U.C. conference (1905 T.U.C. Annual Report).

In conclusion, there are two points which can be made. Firstly, it was all far too little and too late. Only one or two labour movement bodies actually stopped campaigning for control. The T.U.C. was not one of these. No organised union body ever campaigned against control. In any event, after 1901 the working class movement for control had taken to the streets with a vengeance, under the leadership of the British Brothers League. Secondly, insofar as one or two union organisations did ameliorate their position, it was more due to the (belated) recognition that the militancy and high degree of unionisation of Jewish workers were actually helping raise the living standards of English workers than the result of Jewish opposition to control. For instance, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett were prepared to speak at the inaugural meeting of the Federation of East London Labour Unions in 1889. G. Kelley, secretary of the Manchester Trades Council, explaining why the Council no longer supported control, emphasised the good example that the Jewish Tailors Union in Manchester had set for English workers (Manchester Evening News, 28.1.1903). In other words, even this small group of labour organisation did not renounce anti-semitism. Rather they concealed it behind a newly discovered economic identification with Jewish workers.

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