A line drawing from behind a of group of speakers, who are addressing a crowd at an outdoor rally. There are three men and three women on the platform.

Aliens at the Border


The 1905 Aliens Act, and the role of significant parts of the labour movement in agitating for immigration controls, forces us to think concretely about how racism changes.

In 2011, Walter Benn Michaels was interviewed for a Jacobin article titled, ‘Let Them Eat Diversity’. He argued, “Neoliberal economists are completely for open borders … [Milton] Friedman said years ago that, ‘You can’t have a welfare state and open borders’, but of course the point of that was ‘open the borders, because that’ll kill the welfare state’ … Because who’s for illegal immigration? … the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.”

Neoliberalism became a leftist epithet used to describe a laissez-faire form of capitalism as new markets opened up and commodity production further globalised. This transition saw social provisions cut in Western societies and increased movement of labour globally. It did not reduce the role of the state, it progressed its policing function. The failure to clearly distinguish between increased funding for carceral state functions and the defunding of welfare has been the basis for ‘oppositions’ to capitalism that are realised in defences of the nation. British Fire Brigade Union official, Paul Embery, wrote in 2018, ‘There was a time when support for open borders was a fringe position on the Left … having absolutely no control over the numbers of people entering your country was inimical to socialist planning around employment, housing and welfare.’

The failure to clearly distinguish between increased funding for carceral state functions and the defunding of welfare has been the basis for ‘oppositions’ to capitalism that are realised in defences of the nation.

Many right-wing anti-immigration conspiracies have been de rigueur among socialists for some time. Adolph Reed wrote in 2006: ‘open borders is a ruling class policy … no matter how emotionally appealing the “no borders” slogan is to some progressives’. Reed offers a technical case for borders from the left: ‘regulating immigration is no different from regulating workplace conditions, wage and hour rates, building codes, interstate commerce or international trade, prohibiting racial or gender discrimination, levying taxes, or any of the many other areas of life that government regulates’. Reed demonstrates the problem of viewing racism as a breach of individual human rights and nothing more. It is all very well prohibiting racial or gender discrimination for individual workers, but how do we account for borders discriminating between workers based on a change of place of labour? Sivanandan put it this way,

Racism is not its own justification. It is necessary only for the purpose of exploitation: you discriminate in order to exploit or, which is the same thing, you exploit by discriminating. So that any other system of discrimination, say on the basis of nationality, would – if available – do equally well.1

Sivanandan’s analysis of post-war Britain not only troubles grim social democratic ultimatums (‘open borders or welfare state?’) but provides a more complex account of race and class antagonisms. He refers to the 1950s as an ‘era of laissez-faire immigration’, with migrant workers from the colonies forced to search for work where they could get it – including within the institutions of the new welfare state. Racism functioned on the same ‘free market basis … not [to] debar black people from work per se … to deskill them, to keep their wages down and to segregate them in the dirty, ill-paid jobs that white workers did not want’.2 Sivanandan argues racism became more targeted after the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act: ‘Racialism was no longer a matter of free enterprise; it was nationalised.’3 This shift in policy is still felt today by the Windrush generation, who came without passports in the ‘laissez-faire era’ and were later deported.4 This also spurred the kinds of liberation and Black feminist theory featured in our last chapter. Sivanandan lucidly summarises:

During the laissez-faire period of immigration, racism helped capital to make extra profit off black workers (extra in comparison to indigenous workers) – and the state, in the immediate economic interests of the ruling class, was content to leave well enough alone. But in the 1960s the state, in the long term and overall interests of capital (as against its temporary and/or sectional interests), entered into the task of converting immigrant settler labour to migrant contract labour. One of the benefits of such labour, as has been shown, is that it is automatically subject to discrimination on the basis of nationality laws and inter-state agreements … Hence it resorted to a system of control which, in being specifically (though not overtly) directed against the ‘coloured’ Commonwealth, was essentially racist.5

The transition to neoliberalism in Britain concentrated state powers in nationalised forms of border control. In the USA, this worked differently. The critical approach to borders is not to accept what neoliberal economists say they believe, or to bean count human beings, but to reject the inevitability of these violent institutions. Trite theories of neoliberalism that get sucked into open borders conspiracies, far from enabling a critique of capitalism, more often becomes a nationalist substitute for one. Future movements must address the border as a central organising problem – one that improves our understanding of race, class and gender questions. Sivanandan called immigration controls the ‘loom’ of British racism. The British styling of ‘immigration concerns’ has also allowed for subtler racist manoeuvring in the centre and distortions of anti-racist history on the left. British centrist ‘anti-racists’ today have successfully instrumentalised their ‘love of Jews’ to attack socialists and anti-racists, while supporting immigration controls at every step. The way antisemitism was instrumentalised for a factional war within the Labour Party (despite the philosemitism and antisemitism of the right and centre) strengthened an absurd counterweight from the left: that the Labour Party is ‘proudly anti-racist’. Nothing could be further from the truth.6

Trite theories of neoliberalism that get sucked into open borders conspiracies, far from enabling a critique of capitalism, more often becomes a nationalist substitute for one.

The Aliens Act, our focus this chapter, forces us to think more concretely about how racism changes and new forms are established on the basis of new relations of production. Britain’s first modern immigration controls were passed by Arthur James Balfour’s Conservative government in 1905 and implemented by the succeeding Liberals.7 They submitted Britain’s working-class Jewish population to the threat of deportation. Nadine El-Enany has shown how Britain imitated measures taken by its white settler colonies in Canada, Australia and Southern Africa, where early immigration laws took on the appearance of ‘race-neutrality’ while producing ‘racialised effects’.8 What Satnam Virdee calls ‘socialist nationalism’ crystallised during this period.9 As the labour market nationalised so did the identity of labour. British socialist nationalists were willing to work with, and demand violence from, the bourgeois state to police foreign – and British-born – proletarian Jews. They agitated for ‘alien control’, in part, to regulate the more radical, internationalist elements of the working class.

Agitating for Restriction

‘New Unionism’ was catalysed by the economic crises of the 1870s. Britain abandoned the free trade regime its hegemony was built on, seeking to protect profit margins at the expense of working-class conditions. Unemployment soared in major industries. Precarity became more widespread as automation ate into craft worker privileges. Piecework became the norm. This anticipated a structural sea-change in working-class organisation. Previously excluded workers – women, Irish Catholics, ‘unskilled’ and casual labourers of the so-called ‘residuum’10 – began forcing their way into the institutions of the working class, developing their own organisations and becoming players in national politics. The main break was with craft union exclusivity. A ‘skilled’ labour aristocracy had gradually managed to negotiate wage increases and voting rights (for themselves). These conservative workingmen, unprepared and complacent, saw the unskilled masses lay siege to movement hierarchies. Pushback against the ‘deserving’ section of the nation’s working class ripped up their respectability politics playbook and cosy dealings with the Liberal Party top brass. There were demonstrations and riots against unemployment and for Irish Home Rule in 1886 and 1887. Then came victory for the matchwomen, followed by the gasworkers and dockers in 1889. Within a year, nearly 200,000 unskilled workers had been organised into unions. Working-class socialism had arrived as a force. But the rupture of New Unionism also contained within it an embrace of the nation-state.

A ‘skilled’ labour aristocracy had gradually managed to negotiate wage increases and voting rights (for themselves). These conservative workingmen, unprepared and complacent, saw the unskilled masses lay siege to movement hierarchies.

In 1892, President of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), John Hodge put it:

What is the use of spending thousands of pounds on building beautiful workmen’s dwellings if the places of our own workpeople, the backbone of the country, are to be taken over by the refuse scum of other nations? In the interests of the health and well-being of the nation at large, the standard of civilisation, prosperity, and comfort should be raised to as high a level as possible. But, as the lower organism would always kill the higher, it was the duty of every section of the community to endeavour to protect and foster the highest civilisation we could possibly have in the country.

Founder and leader of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Henry Hyndman, was a successful businessman, a former Tory with family wealth partly accrued from the slave trade. He founded the SDF in the early 1880s based on his own peculiar interpretation of Marx’s theories.12 Hyndman’s conceptions of capitalism and imperialism were steeped in antisemitism from the start, sometimes couched in Christian morality and traditional Judeophobia, but also conspiratorial explanations for modern economics and world affairs. The SDF’s journal, Justice, edited for decades by Hyndman’s great ally Harry Quelch, consistently trafficked in nativism and antisemitism.13 ‘Jew moneylenders now control every Foreign Office in Europe’, Justice published in 1884. In 1890, it said Jewish ‘control’ of Britain’s press was ‘in accord with their fellow capitalist Jews all over the world’. Many of the era’s significant Left figures passed through the SDF on their way to forming breakaway parties, or joining the non-Marxian Christian socialists of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), or later the Labour Party itself.

The ILP exemplified the gains of New Unionism. It integrated Irish-descended workers, but was no better than the SDF when it came to Jews. The party tended to frame questions of class exploitation as national questions. Leonard Hall wrote in Clarion, in 1895: ‘There is scarcely a town of any dimensions in the country in which the foreign element has not menaced and injured the position of the local workman.’ Hall, President of the ILP’s Manchester and Salford branch, described immigration control as ‘legitimate self-preservation’.14 Bruce Glasier was one of the ILP’s founders, along with Keir Hardie and future Labour Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald. He later took over from Hardie as editor of ILP journal, Labour Leader, writing of Jewish immigration:

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.

Harry Snell’s15 1904 pamphlet, ‘The Foreigner in England: An Examination of the Problem of Alien Immigration’, outlined the ILP position on the mooted introduction of controls. The author eventually errs against the legislation, but not out of solidarity with Jews: ‘[The] rich jew … has done his best to besmirch the fair name of England, and to corrupt the sweetness of our national life and character,’ Snell wrote, ‘the alien problem in Whitechapel and Stepney is in the main a Jewish problem … let him go where he will the Jew is always an alien.’ Snell added: ‘As a Labour Party we are not called upon to contend that all anti-alien feeling is necessarily immoral.’ An early airing for the argument: ‘it’s not racist to have concerns about immigration’.

From 60,000 in 1880, Britain’s Jewish population ‘approximately quintupled’16 in 40 years as a result of persecuted Ashkenazi Jews escaping famine and pogroms in the ‘Pale of Settlement’.17 But Jews never constituted more than 1 per cent of Britain’s total population. Carrying little more than the clothes on their backs, Yiddish-speaking Jews largely settled in three concentrated areas: Manchester, Leeds and, overwhelmingly, London’s East End. A space of profound poverty, with chronic housing shortages and unemployment, East London was also a ferment of working-class militancy. These new arrivals, though, found themselves excluded by employers and unions. As the great historian of the radical Jewish East End, William Fishman, put it: ‘ “Britons first” was the normal response of masters and trade unionists.’18 And antisemitism extended to the most militant. In 1891, two leaders of the Great Dock Strike, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, sent letters to the London Evening News calling for controls against Jews.19 Another hero of that strike, John Burns, demanded: ‘England was for the English!’ A decade later, at a ‘Stop the War’ rally in Battersea Park, Burns (by then an MP) blamed the Boer War on the ‘financial Jew’.20 Despite widespread railing by trade unionists about Jewish culpability in that conflict, the TUC supported Britain’s war. Tillett was a particularly virulent antisemite throughout his political life, spanning his trade union days to membership of the Fabians, the ILP and SDF, before two stints as a Labour MP.

Out of Place

Tillett blamed ‘foreigners’ for living and working conditions. His class concerns and ‘immigration concerns’ were indistinguishable: ‘[an] influx of continental pauperism aggravates and multiplies the number of ills which press so heavily on us’.21 Beatrice Webb, driving force behind the Fabian Society, echoed the sentiments of many in Britain’s workers movement, claiming Jews had ‘neither the desire nor the capacity for labour combination’. This despite the already significant organising among Jewish workers in Britain. Webb went further: ‘the love of profit distinct from other forms of money earning’ was ‘the strongest impelling motive of the Jewish race’. For her, Jews were ‘deficient in … social morality’. Here was an attempt to unify figurations of ‘rich Jew’ and ‘poor Jew’, concluding that proletarian Jews were against integration and worker solidarity. They were merely, inherently, capitalists-in-the-making. The TUC formally committed to a position against ‘alien’ immigration. Resolutions supporting controls were passed at 1894’s Cardiff conference and a specially arranged congress on ‘alien’ control the year after. They even sent a delegation in 1896 to meet with the Tory Home Secretary and register their demand for controls.22

Beatrice Webb attempted to unify figurations of ‘rich Jew’ and ‘poor Jew’, concluding that proletarian Jews were against integration and worker solidarity.

Poor Jewish migrants arriving in Victorian Britain had, like many migrants and refugees today, few options as to how they might reproduce their own existence and that of their families. Most drew on hometown or family connections to find accommodation and work as pedlars or down backstreets as:

sweated labour: often outworkers in the clothing industry – sub-contracted by Savile Row tailors – employed for limitless hours either in their own cramped dwellings or on the fetid premises of some ‘master’ who earned little more than they, which, in 1890, was rarely as much as 1 pound a week.23

Super-exploitation existed before poor Jews arrived, much like finance has never been the sole preserve of Jews. Nevertheless, both were personified as ‘Jewish problems’, made clear by an 1888 East London Advertiser editorial:

competition is … at the bottom of all this evil – foreign competition for the most part. The swarms of foreign Jews who have invaded the East End labour market are chiefly responsible for the sweating system and the grave evils which are flowing from it … If this foreign immigration can be checked half the battle against the sweating system will be over.24

Jewish workers came to personify the ‘grave evils’ of capitalist exploitation, in contrast to a national moral standard of respectability around work. The ‘sweated’ trades were once populated by women and children. Mechanisation of former craft trades coincided with the transition to a nationally formalised ‘free labour contract’, fought for by unions to supersede ‘master and servant law’, where employers could sue and jail workers for not honouring contracts. New Unionism’s birth was determined by the parochial nature of industry and employment, composed of diverse forms of manufacture and local disputes between workers, magistrates and industrial bourgeoisie. Jewish migrants arrived at a transitional moment in British capitalist development. Trades unions appealed to concepts of equality and exchange in the market to finally defeat the legal bond between master and servant and generalise a labour identity.25 Jewish workers were caught in the imperial grip of a national polity emergence. British antisemitism was centuries old, embodied in Protestant morality and liberal reformism. Proletarian Jews were subject to relations of production and forms of exploitation that a labour movement seeking moral enfranchisement and respectability sought to overcome. Imperialist competition, economic crisis and war were on the horizon, creating opportunities for nationalised workers prioritising the welfare of a ‘race’ of workers above the mass of the working class.

Jewish workers came to personify the ‘grave evils’ of capitalist exploitation, in contrast to a national moral standard of respectability around work. The ‘sweated’ trades were once populated by women and children.

Popular support for purging Jewish workers followed. Anti-immigration movements emerged, with rich donors. The British Brothers League (BBL), formed in 1901, held rallies and protests demanding controls. Targeting the East End, it held packed meetings and demonstrations numbering in the thousands,26 only ending its activity once the Aliens Act passed. A petition in Tower Hamlets demanding alien exclusion garnered 45,000 signatures,27 giving voice to nativist concerns about the supposed effect of immigration on housing, wages and jobs. The BBL’s prime mover was Tory MP for Stepney, Major William Evans Gordon, who referred to the East End’s ‘Hebrew colony’ as a ‘race apart’, drawing on abounding discourses of inassimilable Jews ‘invading’ and displacing ‘natives’. The BBL had substantial cross-class support,28 helped by the involvement of local newspaper owners.29 Colin Holmes described ‘an alliance of East End workers and back- bench Tory MPs’.30 Supporters carried banners declaring ‘Britain for the British’31 and chanted ‘wipe them out, wipe them out!’32

This is a very lightly edited version of part of chapter four of Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics, which is published by Pluto Press. New Socialist £3 and above subscribers can get 35% off Fractured and any other books from our comrades at Pluto.

  1. A. Sivanandan. [1976]. 2008. Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation. London: Pluto Press, 2008. p. 77. 

  2. Sivanandan. [1981/2]. Catching History on the Wing. p. 91. 

  3. Sivanandan. [1981/2]. Catching History on the Wing. p. 99. 

  4. For one of the most compelling accounts of Britain’s modern border regime see the essential and harrowing, Luke de Noronha. 2020. Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

  5. Sivanandan. [1976]. Catching History on the Wing. pp. 77-8. 

  6. Recent attacks on the left have pushed these histories down for fear of embarrassment or manipulation. How this history is reconciled with future movements in Britain remains an open question. For more see, Michael Richmond, ‘Philosemitism: An Instrumental Kind of Love’

  7. Balfour was central both to Jewish exclusion through the Aliens Act and gave his name to the 1917 Declaration affirming Britain’s notional support for Zionism (the first of any major power to do so). 

  8. Nadine El-Enany. 2020. (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. p. 45. 

  9. Satnam Virdee, Racism. 2014. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 5. 

  10. Victorian ruling-class pejorative for the growing urban underclass produced by industrial capitalism. 

  11. See Giovanni Arrighi. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century. London: Verso. pp. 247–335. 

  12. Engels on the early SDF, “What can you expect of a set of people who take in hand the task of instructing the world about matters of which they themselves are ignorant? There is not a single burning question which they know how to tackle; Hyndman combines internationalist phraseology with jingo aspirations.” Yvonne Kapp explains: ‘[Hyndman] had read the French edition of Capital before he met Marx but “did not at the time” – nor ever after – “fully grasp all the significance of his theories”. ’ Yvonne Kapp. 2018. Eleanor Marx: A Biography. New York: Verso. p. 162. 

  13. Lloyd P. Gartner. 1960. The Jewish Immigrant in England 1870–1914. London: Simon Publications. p. 127. 

  14. Both quoted in Steve Cohen. 2003. No One Is Illegal: Asylum and Immigration Control Past and Present. Stoke-On-Trent: Trentham Books. p. 83. 

  15. From poor rural beginnings in the East Midlands, Snell moved to London, spending time in the SDF, ILP and the Fabians. He served as Labour MP and in government under both Ramsey Macdonald and Churchill. He was later ennobled, becoming Baron Snell. 

  16. Gartner. The Jewish Immigrant in England. p. 280. 

  17. For more on this history see Gartner. The Jewish Immigrant in England

  18. William J. Fishman. 2004. East End Jewish Radicals 1875–1914. Nottingham: Five Leaves. p. 79. 

  19. Virdee. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. p. 51. 

  20. Anthony Julius. 2010. Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 275. 

  21. Quoted in Fishman. East End Jewish Radicals. p. 77. 

  22. Cohen. No-One is Illegal. p. 82. 

  23. Kapp. Eleanor Marx. p. 660. 

  24. Quoted in Colin Homes. 2016. Anti-Semitism in British Society 1876-1939. p. 14. 

  25. Legal Historian Marc W. Steinberg offers a detailed investigation into ‘the place of law in Marxist analysis’ using concrete examples of British ‘master and servant’ law and how it was enforced. See Marc W. Steinberg. 2010. ‘Marx, Formal Subsumption and the Law’, Theory and Society 39, no. 2. pp. 173–202. 

  26. Cohen. No-One is Illegal. p. 61. 

  27. Fishman. East End Jewish Radicals. p. 241. 

  28. David Rosenberg. 2011. Battle for the East End: Jewish Responses to Fascism in the 1930s. Nottingham: Five Leaves_. p. 23. 

  29. Gartner. The Jewish Immigrant in England. p. 62. 

  30. Colin Holmes. 2016. John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society 1871–1971. London: Routledge. p. 70. 

  31. Cohen. No-One is Illegal. p. 61. 

  32. Jews were blamed for rising crime, including sex trafficking and the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. They became signifiers for hygiene discourses about disease or ableist discourses about ‘lunacy’ and ‘idiocy’. The case for bordering was fortified as a racialised form of disease control. 


Michael Richmond (@sisyphusa)

Michael Richmond was a co-editor of the Occupied Times and of Base Publication. He has written for publications including OpenDemocracy, New Socialist and Protocols.

Alex Charnley (@steinosteino)

Alex Charnley was illustrator and co-editor of the Occupied Times and of Base Publication.