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Anarchism in Interesting Times

The Anarchist Case Against Borders – A response to Angela Nagle’s ahistoric revisionism


Refugees from the Spanish Civil War at the French state concentration camp in Argelès-sur-Mer, 1939.

Argelès-sur-Mer is a pleasant little seaside town in the south of France. Today it is a magnet for sun worshiping holiday makers, but in 1939 it was the site of a refugee camp for Spanish anti-fascists and civilians who fled General Franco’s forces at the end of the civil war. There was little shelter and no sanitary facilities, but one hundred thousand people were crammed onto a beach enclosed by fencing. Thousands died, the biggest killers being dysentery and hypothermia. Thousands more died young over the intervening decades from maladies related to their internment.

These refugees, the desperate vanquished of a war against fascism, resolute internationalists, some veterans of a revolution that would have abolished borders had it succeeded, now had a choice; They could go back to Spain and face the wrath of Franco’s victorious fascist regime, as the French government repeatedly tried to get them to do, or they could remain on an open beach with no shelter amongst mounds of piled up decaying dead bodies. It is hard to imagine them, these leftists who had been forced to flee a nationalist dictatorship, who had experienced the solidarity of comrades who came from across the globe to fight for their cause, agreeing with tighter border restrictions.

Three years previously, less than two hundred kilometres south of Argelès, in Barcelona, some of those refugees experienced something entirely different. On the eve of the fascist coup, the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT, ensured that the working class of the city were armed to repel the nationalist rebels. With the prospect of war in the city looming, and fearful of both the armed working class and the uncertainty of the outcome of the coup, the capitalist class fled en masse, leaving the workplaces without management and the city without landlords. After successfully repelling the fascist coup on the 19th of July 1936, the workers, organised by the CNT stepped into the vacuum, abolished private property and took over the running of industry at the same time as organising volunteer militias to go to the front to fight the fascists.

The revolution, which spread beyond the confines of Barcelona to most of Catalonia and Aragon, aimed not just at defeating fascism, not at restoring the republic, but at abolishing all the authoritarian divisions of capitalism and statism, including borders and creating a confederation of autonomous regions organised from the bottom up. Despite the tremendous odds against them, the counter revolution, which came not through defeat by the fascists, but betrayal by those who were nominally on the same side, took the best part of a year to complete and was far from inevitable. Had, for example the nationalist army not taken Zaragoza, it is likely that the coup would have been defeated, or at least it would have confined it to the south of the country and given the revolution some breathing space to improve the armaments situation.

A successful revolution at that point in time could have altered the whole world situation, it could have spread to France, destabilised Nazi Germany before it was ready to fight a world war and encouraged the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. In other words, the antidote to nationalism, fascism and Imperialism, and the carnival of reaction that was spreading across Europe and was soon to claim millions of lives and extinguish the fire of revolutionary socialism for decades, was internationalism, the abolition of capitalist property relations and hierarchies and thus the abolition of borders. Instead, Stalinist counter-revolution and the subsequent victory of fascism left those who weren’t killed fleeing for their lives, and many of them being fenced in on that beach in a part of southern France, which is part of Catalunya, but separated from their homeland by the arbitrary French-Spanish border.

cnt vols

CNT Members in Barcelona during the revolution

Internationalism and the abolition of the nation state, in case you might have got the impression from Angel Nagle’s recent article in the far-right conservative journal American Affairs, was not just the standpoint of the libertarian (anarchist) left. The Russian Marxists under the leadership of the Bolshevik party who took power in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917, held as their aim a stateless, classless society. Their methodology proved a failure, as was predicted years before by the anarchist Bakunin and during the revolution by Malatesta (page 391), Goldman and others, but this was their aim nonetheless. In the years following the revolution, the newly formed comintern under the leadership of the Russian communists, attempted to spread the revolution across Europe, irregardless of borders.

“Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades are assuredly sincere revolutionaries and they will not be turning traitors-but they are preparing the governmental structures which those who will come after them will utilise to exploit the Revolution and do it to death. They will be the first victims of their methods and I am afraid that the Revolution will go under with them.”

A PROPHETIC LETTER TO LUIGI FABBRI – Errico Malatesta, July 30th, 1919

After Lenin’s death, and the failure of the initial wave of revolution across Europe, in the struggle for leadership of the Communist Party and thus the Soviet Union between Trotsky and Stalin, one of the key areas of contention was over this internationalist position. Trotsky’s classical Marxist approach was opposed by Stalin’s revisionist position of socialism in one country. The idea that the Soviet Union should shore up its borders and respect the borders of the imperialist nations by engaging in international relations and statecraft was the one that was heretical from a leftist standpoint.


Workers of the World Unite! (Early Soviet May Day poster)

Indeed, the socialist and anarchist movements were full of exiles and refugees. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Élise Recluse, Malatesta, Rosa Luxemburg and thousands of less famous revolutionaries all made their homes in other countries. In fact Marx’s letter to Sigfrid Meyer that Nagle cites in her article is from a German man living in London, to a German man living in New York. It is one of the few parts of the article that has a basis in fact, and as you can see from even considering the nationality of the writer and that of who he was writing to, it is divorced from any historical context. To get a real grasp of how disingenuous Nagle’s use of this quotation is, it is necessary to quote a lengthy passage:

“Ireland is the bulwark of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of that country is not only one of the main sources of their material wealth; it is their greatest moral strength. They, in fact, represent the domination over Ireland. Ireland is therefore the cardinal means by which the English aristocracy maintain their domination in England itself.

If, on the other hand, the English army and police were to be withdrawn from Ireland tomorrow, you would at once have an agrarian revolution in Ireland. But the downfall of the English aristocracy in Ireland implies and has as a necessary consequence its downfall in England. And this would provide the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England. The destruction of the English landed aristocracy in Ireland is an infinitely easier operation than in England herself, because in Ireland the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority of the Irish people, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question. Quite apart from the fact that the Irish character is more passionate and revolutionary than that of the English.

As for the English bourgeoisie, it has in the first place a common interest with the English aristocracy in turning Ireland into mere pasture land which provides the English market with meat and wool at the cheapest possible prices. It is likewise interested in reducing the Irish population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that English capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with “security”. It has the same interest in clearing the estates of Ireland as it had in the clearing of the agricultural districts of England and Scotland. The £6,000-10,000 absentee-landlord and other Irish revenues which at present flow annually to London have also to be taken into account.

But the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes any honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.

England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”

(Link to the entire letter here)

Marx, as he usually was during that period, was writing about the prospects for communist revolution, through the lens of his own particular brand of materialism. He was of the belief that, England as the most industrially advanced capitalist country, was home to the most advanced working class and thus the vanguard of the international proletarian revolution. Even if we accept Marx’s contention that England was the most important country for the proletarian revolution, today there is no one country that fits the bill. Most of the world has met the historical materialist requirements for the objective conditions for that revolution. It is fairly clear from reading the letter in its entirety and returning it to its historical context, that while Marx attacks the divide and conquer tactics of the British establishment in setting the English proletarian against the Irish migrant, he never once posits the exclusion of the Irish from Britain as a solution. On the contrary he believed that only the emancipation of the Irish worker and peasant from the yoke of British Imperialism could resolve the antagonism between Irish and British workers and lead to the emancipation of the English proletariat; I.E. the struggles of working people across borders are dialectically interwoven.

Nagle, despite hinting at an understanding of what Marx meant, uses this to justify a ‘left’ position on immigration that is almost identical to that of the far right, albeit with differences in methodology. When she writes that “The importation of low-paid labor is a tool of oppression that divides workers and benefits those in power”, her solution is bringing in measures to discourage capitalists from employing migrant labour and get tough on immigration. To come to the conclusion that this is to make a “left case” is to airbrush the traditional response of socialists and anarchists within structures of organised labour; The divisions between the established local working class and migrant labour must be resolved by organising both to fight for better wages and working conditions, decreased working hours without loss of pay, thus providing not just employment for all but more leisure time to educate, organise and play together, and alongside that as Marx contended, overturning the social conditions that leaves little alternative to colonised people than to migrate.

It is also worth noting that the ruling class has never needed the appearance of migrant labour to divide workers to increase their share of the wealth. How would we apply Nagle’s logic to the situation in the six counties in Ireland? Encourage the catholic population to move south? Force everyone descended from Scottish and English planters to move across the water? Women are still paid less than men in the workplace. Is the solution to get them to stay in the home to look after children? Obviously the answer to those questions is no, so why should the answer to the arrival of migrant labour be to turn them back?

Using a single letter Marx wrote in 1870 to justify any position on migration today is nonsensically ahistorical. When we look to the history of our movement for inspiration, we should be mindful of the historical context, analyse which tactics succeeded and which failed and learn the lessons of the lived experience of those who came before us. The difference between the two approaches is akin to the difference between studying the development of modern feminism by looking at the social conditions that lead to the formulation of intersectional theory and seeing what worked tactically and what theory and tactics of past movements apply to the current situation on the one hand; And on the other hand taking a single tweet from someone who was part of that movement and present it as representative of that movement as a whole, with no context applied whatsoever.  

Marx lived in a time when the kind of borders we are corralled by today didn’t exist in most of the world and where they did they were a relatively new thing. He couldn’t possibly have had a position on something he didn’t understand. His position on the nation state was also flawed in that it stemmed from his philosophy of historical materialism, which at the very least in the way he applied it, should now be discredited.

Marx thought that the development of civilisation progressed in an upward curve whose causal premise was the economic base. In his view, capitalism in its infancy was a progressive force, colonialism in certain contexts was justified as a civilising force, the people of Africa and Asia were either primitive or in some cases, too different to bother trying to comprehend; Chinese history contradicted his historical materialism, so he wrote a few lines about the “Asiatic mode of production” and left it at that. He also believed that you could scientifically ascertain someone’s intelligence and character by the measurement and shape of their skull. These attitudes made Marx a product of his class, his place of birth, and his time. The science, economics and anthropology he based his theories on were of the 19th century, produced by wealthy white men to justify colonialism and white supremacy, though Marx himself would have just seen them as the most advanced ideas of his day. It should go without saying that those ideas were totally discredited and we shouldn’t shy away from describing them as abhorrent.

This approach of looking at what Marx wrote on a particular day in 1870, freeze the frame and disregard a century and a half of experience of organising resistance, historical and anthropological research and scientific breakthrough is misleading, even if it had been correctly applied to the present situation. This particular letter was written months prior to the war that created the German state and the events of the Paris commune, which were to change Marx’s view on the importance of England and on the state in general (see The Civil War in France). To pluck these words out of context and write a lengthy piece in a right wing journal that attempts to find points of unity between left and right on immigration is at the very least an arrogant, reckless and hamfisted endeavour in self promotion and controversy from someone who clearly knows nothing about the history of the international labour movement, or it is a deliberately disingenuous ploy to draw people whose politics lean left, towards the right. I won’t double down on either but it is something for those who have thus far been apologists for Nagle’s hot takes to consider.


Hot takes from 1902 – Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, a Phrenology handbook

That there are people who consider themselves to be on the left that hold views close to Angela Nagle’s though, makes a thoroughly compelling case against ‘the left’ as a term that is useful in any meaningful sense. Though poorly argued and full of historical holes, her position is the logical end point of statist social democracy. If your aim is to take state power and use it to introduce reforms, then you have to defend the integrity of the state and that includes its borders. The current darling of the British left, Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly stated his intention to get tough on immigration and provide British jobs for British workers. That leaves the other left, that has refused to abandon socialist internationalism and anti-capitalism with little in the way of points of unity with the ideological leadership of that current.

Those of us who count ourselves among the tradition of revolutionary internationalism must walk our own path and present our case for the abolition of borders on our own terms. While Angela Nagle would paint us as flighty but angry brick wielding hippies who are unsuspecting dupes for neoliberal capitalism, we have a century and a half of experience, access to knowledge uncovered by modern anthropology and science and a more thorough understanding of history than the 19th century socialists and those for whom the end of theory came with either, Marx or Stalin or Trotsky or even Kropotkin.

We know, for example that the social democratic compromise between classes of 20th century Europe and America were bought and paid for through the colonial plunder that is at the root of 21st century migration patterns, both economically and environmentally. Despite this Angela Nagle calls for immigration controls to protect social programmes of the same kind for those who are lucky enough to be born within arbitrarily drawn borders. Inside this line, you are deserving of healthcare and social programmes, outside of it you are undeserving. We know that unions, under the influence of anarchists and revolutionary socialists progressed beyond the role of willing dupes for the divide and conquer policies of the ruling class, to the much more successful tactic of  uniting workers of all ethnic backgrounds to fight for a better quality of life. We know that the looming environmental catastrophe will not respect borders and that there is no national solution to the greatest of global problems. If capitalism’s growth imperative is the source of man made climate change, then capitalism has to go and with it the borders it has drawn. These are the principles that we need to reaffirm, and to clearly state that when we call for the abolition of borders, it is a qualitatively different position to the capitalist free trade one of importing cheap labour.

Today, we can look to the example of 20th century revolutionaries and labour organisers who themselves were migrants, exiles and refugees. The story of the 20th century left and it’s experience of migration and the positions it came to adopt because of that is mirrored in the personal story of Simón Radowitzky, a Ukrainian anarchist who was involved in the 1905 revolution, which I relate to you via Osvald Bayer’s book, “Rebellion in Patagonia”. After the defeat of the revolution he fled Russia  and ended up in Argentina where he immediately got involved in labour organising. He was a member of the anarcho-syndicalist FORA union, the most successful organisation of it’s kind after the CNT, and was imprisoned for assassinating the proto-fascist, anti-worker, anti-immigrant figure Colonel Falcón. The FORA itself was noted for organising immigrant workers and militant opposition to anti-immigrant government policies.

Radowitzky was freed in 1930 after campaigning by the anarchist movement, but fled Argentina after a successful nationalist coup and took up organising in Uruguay where he was imprisoned again.  Upon gaining his freedom he moved to Brazil, undeterred by his experiences he continued to be active in the anarchist movement until another right wing coup caused him to flee again. Upon leaving Brazil he went to Spain to fight fascism in the Spanish civil war and after the defeat of the revolution and the republic he fled to France where he ended up in a concentration camp at Saint-Cyprien, neighbouring Argelès-sur-Mer. Escaping Europe shortly before the Nazi invasion of France, he lived out his life in Mexico where he continued to participate in anarchist politics.


Comrade Simón Radowitzky

For those of us who follow in the tradition of Radowitzky, opposing racist immigration policies is not just a matter of “abstract moralism”, as Nagle contends, but the result of a century and a half of struggle against capitalism and hierarchy and the theory we have derived from those experiences. On the contrary, Nagle’s decontextualised ahistoric revisionism leads her to an abstract ‘pragmatism’ of the kind that has time and time again lead leftists who adopt such positions into the arms of the right. It’s a position that reduces human beings to the status of statistics to be moved around a spreadsheet. If we are to take this approach and apply it to research that suggests that a small nuclear war could buy us some time in the race against climate change, we’d call for the US to go to war with North Korea. The population of the Korean peninsula would just be collateral damage and we westerners, far away from the fallout would benefit. That position would however, be at odds with everything the left has historically stood for. 

Today we watch in horror as ICE agents put kids in cages, US border guards fire teargas across the frontier with Mexico at those attempting to enter the country, asylum seekers in Ireland are forced to live in substandard conditions in direct provision, as refugees drown in the Mediterranean trying to get into Europe, but instead of offering charity, we stand in solidarity, we organise, we agitate and offer as a solution the overthrow of the capitalist system and its associated hierarchies before it is too late to turn back the tide of environmental catastrophe that is going to cause many more people to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live. Tighter border restrictions won’t stop that, they just increase the possibility of war. All the while we support the struggles of those like the forces of Rojava and Chiapas who fight to liberate their home territories from the forces of imperialism, patriarchy and capitalism.

The real left position on borders is and has always been to abolish them, to overturn the property relations that create the conditions that make people emigrate, and to call for something that should not be controversial for a left worth its name to proclaim: “Workers of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Marx said it, so it must be correct.

Dedicated to the memory of Simón Radowitzky whose heroic life story inspired me to write this piece. 

If you want to see more of this kind of thing, maybe follow me on twitter.

if you tolerate

Madrid. The ‘Military’ Practice of the Rebels. If you tolerate this your children will be next. (Art.IWM PST 8661) image: The dead body of a young girl, with numbered labels for identification, against the background of a clouded sky across which aeroplanes fly in formation. text: MADRID. THE ‘MILITARY’ PRACTICE OF THE REBELS. 4 – 21. 35. IF YOU TOLERATE THIS YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE NEXT. MINISTERIO DE PROPAGANDA. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

One comment on “The Anarchist Case Against Borders – A response to Angela Nagle’s ahistoric revisionism

  1. Pingback: Real World Immigration Debate- Open Borders | HS Impact

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This entry was posted on November 28, 2018 by in Anarchism, Borders and tagged , , , , , , .
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