Lenin, Communists, and Immigration (1973)

Gérald Bloncourt, Strike and Occupation of the Girosteel plant in Le Bourget, February 24, 1972.

A translator’s introduction to this text can be found here

To the Editor-in-Chief of L’Humanité:

Dear Comrade,

I have just read, with the rest of the readers of L’Humanité, the historical article [chronique historique] by Jean Bruhat, “On Immigrant Workers,” which gave us a chance to collectively reflect on a question of urgent actuality for communists everywhere: this is why I ask you for the opportunity to make several remarks on the same subject in the pages of your paper.1

Beforehand, if I may be permitted, I want to commend the quality and political orientation of Bruhat’s piece: defiantly grasping the history of the workers’ movement from the perspective of struggle, he brings us critical information for understanding our present situation more adequately. He offers an exemplary contribution to our ongoing political education by showing us the path of Marxist and Leninist critical analysis and the effective tendencies within the history of the workers’ movement. 

To return to the question of immigrant workers: Jean Bruhat explicitly limits his factual research to the first (initial) period of the history of industrial capitalism, contemporaneous with the formation of the international workers’ movement. What new forms has this issue taken since then? We can add several texts to the ones cited by Bruhat, notably those of Lenin. 

Lenin and Immigration

In October 1913, Lenin published a little-known article, on “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration.” He argues that capitalism

has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries. Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners. 2

From this observation, Lenin is compelled to make the following remark: 

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth. 3

Lenin then examines the economic basis of immigration, as constituted by the unequal development of capitalism. Citing immigration statistics from the U.S. and Germany, he shows that the growth of worker immigration has continuously expanded, but that its structure had changed beginning with the decade from 1880-1890. Whereas in the preceding period, European immigration had primarily come from the “old civilized countries” (England and Germany) where capitalism had developed fastest, now it was the “most backward countries” (led by Eastern Europe) that provided America and other “advanced” capitalist countries with increasing numbers of skilled workers. In these conditions, “the most backward countries in the old world, those that more than any other retain survivals of feudalism in every branch of social life, are, as it were, undergoing compulsory training in civilization.”4

Moving from the economic level to the political level, Lenin then notes that if Russian workers are in this sense the most backward, they are more advanced in the struggle against bourgeois attempts at division along racial lines: “But compared with the rest of the population, it is the workers of Russia who are more than any others bursting out of this state of backwardness and barbarism […] and more closely than any others uniting with the workers of all countries into a single international force for emancipation.”5

Immigration and Imperialism

I have quoted the article from Lenin at length in order to better show the twofold problem that immigration primarily poses: the problem of its economic causes and their transformation within the history of capitalism, and its political effects on the proletarian struggle. 

It is enough to re-read Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism to be convinced of the enormous importance of these problems. In that work, Lenin analyzes – in a much more extensive manner – the tendential reversal in the emigration of workers as a fundamental aspect of imperialism: the stage of “the parasitism and decay of capitalism,” in which there are simultaneous contradictions in the progress of the productive forces and a transformation in the class structure of the imperialist countries (marked by the formation of the “labor aristocracy” and the relative fall in the number of producers). These characteristics are organically connected, and drive Lenin to again highlight their political consequences, understood as negative consequences (the “tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement”).6

Lenin’s analysis is all the more timely since it opens up a series of theoretical and practical problems without definitively resolving them. It forces us to consider immigration – the living and working conditions of immigrant workers – starting from the theory of imperialism, outside of which the contemporary forms of immigration remain unintelligible. The concrete knowledge of the causes and effects of immigration is, reciprocally, a guiding thread towards an understanding of imperialism, that is to say, the present stage of capitalism. 

Jean Bruhat, citing Marx, shows the importance of competition between the workers themselves since the origins of industrial capitalism; but this competition is not a passing or secondary phenomenon, it is the very basis of capitalist relations of production, which oppose the mass of individual laborers, “free” sellers of their labor-power, to the owners of the (increasingly concentrated) means of production. Competition is the basis for the wage as the mode of exploitation of labor-power, and will only disappear with it, through the revolutionary development of new relations of production, communist relations of production. 

It is true that the forms of this competition are historically transformed: but this transformation only substitutes, for the periodic hiring practices in neighboring countries where the “national wage rate” is lower,7 a more complex, actually international, “organization” of the labor market, where great masses of workers, with varying, unequal levels of “qualification,” are positioned alongside one other, some against others. This transformation is only the very development of capitalist relations of production. 

It is also true that working-class struggles and the growth of their organizations tend to counteract the effects of competition, and force capital (of which the bourgeoisie is only the instrument) to constantly search for new methods of hiring, selection, labor utilization, new sources of labor-power: in other words, the development of capitalist relations of production is precisely the result of the everyday, ongoing class struggle. 

Immigration and Technological Revolution

It is necessary, however, to go one step further: as Bruhat indicates again, the struggle around the wage (reduction of wages for some, the protection of wages for others) is a primary fact. But this is not all: for the development of capitalist exploitation closely combines pressure on wages, the lengthening of the working day, and the (technological) transformation of the mode of production itself, which makes possible both an increase in the productivity and the intensity of labor. We hit upon here one of the most urgent questions of the present moment: the effects of the permanent “industrial revolution” of capitalism, specifically the labor of OS workers8 in the mechanical and electronics industries. 

Here lies an important point: we should not examine separately, in an eclectic fashion, the present aspects of exploitation which are connected to mechanization, the “parcelization” of labor, its intensification, and those aspects which are connected to the international competition between workers, to immigration. These aspects reciprocally condition one another. What is required, as recent struggles have proven, is an apprehension of the aspects of the same overdetermined process. It is no coincidence that in most of the major imperialist countries, the majority of immigrant laborers work on manufacturing and assembly lines, at construction sites, and in public works, where labor-power is intensely exploited and utilized with a frightening speed, and requires an accelerated turnover. In a remarkable investigation, Jacques Frémontier has eloquently shown (or rather, he let the workers themselves demonstrate) that the division between skilled workers and semi-skilled workers, often very slim or artificial at the level of real professional qualifications or even working conditions, derives its persistence from the fact that it massively redraws the division between “national” and “foreign” workers, here understood as the political or cultural gaps which come to reinforce and perpetuate this division.9

From this point, it is therefore a matter of understanding how the characteristics of imperialism, at the level of international relations of production, are necessarily reflected in the immediate process of production, the forms under which capitalism transforms the existing productive forces, the complex form of class struggles [la forme complexe des luttes de classes] that are inscribed within the very core of production. 

Communists and Immigration

Despite the brevity of these remarks, we can now understand the radical political importance of the problem of immigration for the proletariat and its organizations. 

In the new conditions of our epoch, the presence of immigrant laborers and their struggle render internationalism, more than ever, the very condition of struggles for workers’ liberation, as consistently explained and supported by Marx and Lenin: they claimed that this internationalism always asserts itself through the most concrete, organic means. The futures of workers in all countries depend on it, and henceforth they no can longer fight the same adversary in a merely parallel fashion, everyone for themselves, but must establish everywhere “detachments” of a single, combined, amalgamated force. Thus the development of imperialism leads to a new, higher form of internationalism, and a new stage in the history of the workers’ movement. 

Moreover, by bringing to our attention the successive forms which make it possible for capital, against workers’ struggles, to foster competition among workers as the basis of their exploitation, the question of immigration shows us why, once again and on a concrete basis, the workers’ movement must lead a constant struggle against the pitfall of economism: giving the trade-unionist struggle its proper and indispensable place, it demonstrates at the same time the absolute necessity of the united political struggle of national and immigrant laborers for socialist revolution, which alone will open the possibility for the destruction of all forms of exploitation.

I will cite Lenin for a final time, from October 1917 concerning the revision of the Bolshevik party program: 

Having thus concluded our analysis of Comrade Sokolnikov’s draft, we must note one very valuable addition which he proposes and which in my opinion should be adopted and even developed. To the paragraph which deals with technical progress and the greater employment of female and child labour, he proposes to add the phrase “as well as the labour of unskilled foreign workers imported from backward countries”. This addition is valuable and necessary. The exploitation of worse paid labour from backward countries is particularly characteristic of imperialism. On this exploitation rests, to a certain degree, the parasitism of rich imperialist countries which bribe a part of their workers with higher wages while shamelessly and unrestrainedly exploiting the labour of “cheap” foreign workers. The words “worse paid” should be added and also the words “and frequently deprived of rights”; for the exploiters in “civilised” countries always take advantage of the fact that the imported foreign workers have no rights. This is often to be seen in Germany in respect of workers imported from Russia; in Switzerland of Italians; in France, of Spaniards and Italians, etc.10

We see here, through Lenin’s view, that it is ultimately on the terrain of political struggle and organization that workers of all nationalities can forge their necessary unity. But this unity is not spontaneously acquired, it must be won against the relations of exploitation developed by imperialism, and at the price of a difficult political and ideological struggle. More than ever, this is the primary objective of communists who, according to Marx’s slogan, “in the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries…point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality”; and “in the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”11

Confronted with the development of struggles led by immigrant workers in their nascent form and with all their difficulties, “left opportunism” wants to see in immigration the “true” proletariat, the realization of a mythical idea of the proletariat: it extols [exalter] the divisions, and reinforces them to the ultimate benefit of capital. On its own side, “right” opportunism denies the reality of these divisions, these contradictions developed by imperialism in the working class itself, either to leave the immigrants to their fate, or to consider that they pose a simple problem of economic, juridical, and social inequality, only calling for the betterment of the lot of the most “disadvantaged.” As for us communists, we see all the better these contradictions right in front of us, in order to identify their objective causes and limits, which every one of our actions seeks to overcome. We know that the entire working class can thus expect a tremendous release of revolutionary energy, a great leap towards its emancipation. 

– Translated by Patrick King

This is a translation of “Lénine, les communistes, et l’immigration,” in Cinq études du matérialisme historique (Paris: Maspéro, 1974), 195-201.


1 Translator’s Note: I was not able to obtain a copy of Bruhat’s letter. In other works, Bruhat focused on the presence of immigrant labor in the initial class struggles in France that broke out with the uneven onset of industrial capitalism in the wake of the French Revolution, when the preservation of guild structures, local traditionalisms, and ideologies concerning the dignity of labor often meant that workers saw resistance against the employment of “foreign” workers as the sole solution to issues of social rights and unemployment. Bruhat cites in his historical studies examples from the 1830s, where engravers, masons, and stone breakers demanded that their bosses not hire workers from other regions or provinces, or even expel them. See Jean Bruhat, Histoire du mouvement ouvrier français (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1952), 223. We also do not have the space to recount the entirety of Bruhat’s (1905-1983) own fascinating personal history here. He was a major intellectual voice within the PCF for some years, a historian who wrote on many topics of French labor history and defended the role of political engagement in the academy. Hailing from a working-class family, he joined the party in the Nantes region all the way back in 1925. He taught at the Lycee Buffon, the Sorbonne, and then Paris VIII-Vincennes. He drafted his first historical article for the Cahiers du bolchevisme in 1933, on the topic of Marx and the Paris Commune, taught extensively at the Party schools and participated in the Cahiers du contre-enseignement prolétarien, and was a frequent contributor to l’Humanité’s “Doctrine et l’histoire” section, which presented the “illustrative function” of historical examples and case studies to elaborate the political line of the party. See on this topic, Marie-Cécile Bouju, “L’Histoire dans la culture militante communiste en France, 1921-1939,” Cahiers du CRHQ (2012): 1-23. Bruhat wrote numerous studies of French working-class life and political radicalism, often for the PCF imprint Editions Sociales: Histoire du mouvement ouvrier français (1952); L’Europe, la France et le mouvement ouvrier en 1848 (1953); a biography of Marx and Engels (1970); a profile of Gracchus Babeuf (1978); a political memoir, Il n’est jamais trop tard (1983); and several co-authored works, including La Commune de 1871 (1970), and histories of trade unions and the First International (1964) as well as the CGT (1958), both of which were written as popular tracts for workers’ education courses. Bruhat’s soutenance for his doctoral thesis was published in a 1971 issue of La Pensée: see Jean Bruhat, “Science historique et action militante,” La Pensée 160 (November-December 1971): 34-43. For more biographical information, see Jean Bouvier’s obituary in the Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine: Jean Bouvier, “Nécrologie: Jean Bruhat 1905-1983,Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine 30, no. 2 (1983): 322-323.
2 V.I. Lenin, “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration,” in Collected Works, Volume 19: March-December 1913 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963), 454-57.
3 Lenin, “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration,” 454.
4 Lenin, “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration,” 455.
5 Lenin, “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration,” 457.
6 V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline, in Collected Works, Vol. 22: December 1915-July 1916 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 185-304.
7  See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), chapter 22 on “National Differences in Wages,” 701-706. 
8 TN: OS, or “ouvrier specialisé,” means “semi-skilled” or “unskilled” worker (as opposed to an ouvrier professionalisé); in the leftist discourse of 1970s France this term largely referred to immigrant workers, often various manual labor occupations.
9 Jacques Frémontier, La forteresse ouvrière. Renault: une enquête à Boulogne-Billancourt chez les ouvriers de la Régie (Paris: Fayard, 1971).
10 V.I. Lenin, “Revision of the Party Programme,” in Collected Works, Volume 26: September 1917-February 1918 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 168.
11 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Marx & Engels Collected Works, Volume 6: Marx and Engels 1845-48 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 497.

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.