Imperialism and History

Socialists, Marx in particular, correctly emphasise the need for a consciousness of history, so that we may learn from it. However, socialist historians have simply ignored the Aliens Act which has led to a serious gap in the understanding, not just of anti-semitism, but of imperialism. It is obviously not possible to appreciate the history of immigration controls without understanding the Aliens Act, nor is it possible to understand how false ideology penetrated both the trade union movement and large sections of the early socialist movement. Indeed the struggle for immigration controls against Jews is a classic example of how imperialism, particularly English imperialism, works in practice. It is a crystal clear instance of how the English ruling class repeatedly attacks immigrant masses, whether they be Jewish, Irish or black—through an alliance not only with the English masses but through attempted alliances with the leaders of the immigrant community. Hence there were three major social forces which were attacking the Jews.

The first such force was the English bourgeoisie who won English workers away from their class interests by the false consciousness of 'national interests'. The Prime Minister of the Tory government which passed the Aliens Act was Arthur Balfour. Balfour is regarded by zionists as a major friend of the Jewish people as it was his Declaration in 1917 that promised a Jewish 'national home' in Palestine. To regard Balfour as a friend of the Jewish people reveals much about zionist philosophy. Balfour was an anti-semite who wanted to exclude Jews from England on the grounds that, as he stated in the 1905 debate on the Aliens Act, Jews were not

"to the advantage of the civilisation of this country"


"they are a people apart and not only hold a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen but only intermarry amongst themselves".

Again, Joseph Chamberlain M.P. is well known in history books for his 'social imperialism'. This was his attempt to win British workers over to imperialism by offering social reforms. He is famous for his unsuccessful campaign for protectionism and import controls against 'foreign' goods but there seems to be little knowledge that he combined this with propaganda for 'Jew controls'. Moreover, the Liberal government of 1906, combining as it did massive social reforms with the enforcement of immigration controls against Jewish people, is a variant of social imperialism.

Exactly the same can be said about the post-1945 welfare state and about the ideology of 'welfarism' itself: it combined social reforms with increasing immigration controls against black people. The battle for these politics had been won decades earlier over the struggle for the Aliens Act. The welfare state has now taken this one stage further against black people through the implementation of internal controls by the Home Office or by the 'caring' agencies of the state who assess entitlement to welfare benefits through the criteria of nationality and residence.

The second element in the attack on the Jewish masses was the Jewish establishment, who were won over by the British ruling class. The Jewish communal leadership in this country did not immigrate here as an already formed block, but was created through its treacherous alliance with the British bourgeoisie. Class interest was stronger than any 'communal' interest. The Jewish establishment policed the Jewish masses on behalf of the British ruling class, by pressurising them into assimilation and anglicisation. Moreover, major sections of the Jewish leadership actually advocated immigration control.

Benjamin Cohen was an M.P. and President of the Jewish Board of Guardians. In 1894 he told the annual general meeting of the Board that:

"Jews should make it clear not to endeavour to oppose any action which the responsible advisors to the Crown may deem necessary for the national interests which we are as desirous to protect as our fellow citizens" (quoted by Gartner in The Jewish Immigrant in Britain).

Cohen was created a Baronet in the Resignation Honours of 1905, immediately after voting for the Aliens Act. Harry Samuels, another Jewish M.P., spoke on the same platform as the British Brothers League, at a rally organised by them in the East End which attracted an audience of 4,000 (East London Observer, 18.1.1902). Samuels declared his "intention to discharge his duties as an English citizen". Also speaking at this meeting was Arnold White—who manifestly regarded Jewish Tory M.P.'s like Samuels, and British trade union militants, such as Tillett, as equal allies in his restrictionist crusade.

Actually, the Jewish establishment did not need the Aliens Act—it was quite prepared to use its own initiative and send Jews back to Russia and to further pogroms. Lionel Alexander, Secretary to the Board of Guardians, told the House of Commons Select Committee on Immigration in 1888 that:

"My Board does not favour unwarranted immigration but ·do their utmost to check it by warnings rather than prohibitions ... it is one of our largest operations sending people back who, having wandered here, prove useless".

In other words, a section of the Jewish leadership was prepared to do the dirty work for the British ruling class and to police the Jewish community as an alternative to legislative control.

Of course some elements of the Jewish bourgeoisie did take a principled opposition to the demand for control and the anti-semitism that stimulated it. However, this was tiny. There were few communal organisations that came out in opposition, and those which did were reluctant and only acted under pressure of the Jewish masses. It took the Jewish Chronicle until a few weeks before the Act became law to recognise the strength of grassroots Jewish opposition and to suggest that it might be amended through a 'write-in' campaign to Members of Parliament (Jewish Chronicle, 9.6.1905). Propelled by the activities of Jewish workers, this obviously fell well short of what was required.

The third element in this story is the role of the English working class. This is the concern of the present book. It is undeniable that the working class played an important role in the agitation for controls; it is arguable that without their intervention controls would not have been introduced. Certainly, the campaigning of the organised labour movement and the British Brothers League was far in excess of the demagogy of the bourgeois politicians and their press. It was as though the working class agitation assumed a relative autonomy of its own. Behind this, 'socialist' groups such as the S.D.F. and the I.L.P. provided false rationalisations. All this is important today—not least because the present Labour Party was constituted precisely on trade union affiliation and was supported by organisations such as the I.L.P. and the Fabians.

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