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Between Nationalism and Moralism: Immigration and the Limits of Social Democracy

Alexander Prähauser

August 25, 2022

Right now, a deep split is running through the ostensibly socialist left along lines of the culture war. One of its incarnations is in the question of “open borders,” with one side represented by conservative social democrats and nationalists such as Angela Nagle, Catherine Liu, and Sahra Wagenknecht, and the other by anarchists and non-Stalinist communists, such as Noam Chomsky, Nathan J. Robinson, and Adrian Rennix. There seems to be no middle ground or even basis for dialogue between the sides. Indeed, any discussion on the topic is undermined from the start by the argument that to even contemplate the question “endangers refugees.” This is clearly insufficient, given that the idea of open borders is extremely unpopular with the general public.

However, an impromptu debate came up on the topic as part of a discussion between C. Derick Varn and Kuba Wrzesniewski about Alexander Dugin on the This is Revolution podcast. It is a sad statement that this is one of the only good faith exchanges on the topic taking up any practical considerations relating to the issue.

Wrzesniewski’s argument was, roughly speaking, as follows: The working class will not accept open borders, so, if socialism is ever to have a chance of succeeding, “it needs to have some response on immigration other than [open borders].” Varn’s counterargument was that an acceptance of immigration restrictions would also serve to reinforce nation-states, which “aren’t viable. . . without excacerbat[ing] the need for refugees to move.”[1]

The View from Europe

Of course, intense debates pertaining to immigration are not restricted to the United States. It has also a hot-button issue throughout the world. In Austria, for instance, it has repeatedly served to ensure the success of anti-immigration conservative and right-wing populists. Significantly, on the left, only the Communist Party holds a pro-open-border position. Its position on immigration consists of five points: voting rights for everybody who has lived in Austria for more than a year, annulment of all discriminatory practices in the jobs market, safe flight routes to Europe, and legalization of all people living in Austria. The social democratic “Socialist Party of Austria” SPÖ is split. On one side, there is an energetic and youthful base that generally favors open borders and, on the other, an establishment that opposes them for reasons both of practicality and of publicity, and so tries to avoid the issue, opening itself up to criticism by conservatives. This difference can, for instance, be seen by comparing the policy papers of the Socialist Youth with the official positions of the party.

Such tensions over the question of immigration policy are not unique to the SPÖ. The fate of the Austrian Green party is instructive in this regard. In response to the immigration crisis in 2015, it took up a strongly moralistic open borders position until, after an internal split along culture war lines during the 2017 elections, it lost its position in the national parliament. Subsequently, the Greens pivoted to cultural conservatism, returning to parliament in 2019 with 13%, their best election result ever. They are now the junior partners in a coalition with the conservative Austrian People’s Party, which is now, somewhat ironically for the Greens, reopening coal power plants in response to the energy crisis brought about by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the Greens might not be counted among the left, public perception notwithstanding, this development mirrors a similar division that emerged in a more resolutely socialist party, Germany’s Die Linke.

In this case, too, there emerged a split between a more conservative faction, led by Sahra Wagenknecht, who led the party in the Bundestag between 2015 and 2019, and a progressive youth faction, that ultimately won out in a struggle for the leadership of the party. It should be noted that the defeated conservatives have not (yet) tried to build a new party. Wagenknecht remains a Die Linke parliamentarian, despite lacking the means to bring it under her control. She continues to critique from within the party line on cultural issues, including immigration, most notably with her book Die Selbstgerechten (“The Self-Righteous”).

“The Self-Righteous”

Wagenknecht’s critique of open borders is tied in with a more general critique of what she calls the “lifestyle Left” and the formulation of a position of a “traditional Left.” This critique, which in some ways parallels Liu’s Virtue Hoarders, is particularly appealing as it comes from someone who is popular, generally accepted as very capable (particularly as an economist), and holds a firm anti-NATO-position in contrast to much of the progressive left.

The argument against open borders that Wagenknecht puts forward in Die Selbstgerechten is based on a distinction between refugees seeking asylum and economic migrants. She keeps her focus on the latter, arguing that they undermine the legitimate claims of the former. She also distinguishes between legal and illegal immigration. However, she argues both are detrimental to the health of developing countries — legal migration since it is used as a means for industrialized countries to import the most educated and capable sectors of the working class of developing countries, and illegal immigration since it drains away the middle class, the ones who can actually afford a to hire a smuggler.

Moreover, she argues, many migrants undertake the journey to the West based not on realistic expectations, but on an idealized image shaped by imperialist propaganda. Once they arrive, they are ripe for exploitation and used to undermine the position of domestic workers in the labor market as well as to dissolve their solidarity. In the end, the cost of immigration is felt disproportionately by the poorest sectors of the domestic population whose problems, such as rising prices of housing and degenerating infrastructure, are neglected, while the upper middle class, the primary constituents of the progressive faction of the left, is able to isolate itself.

Meanwhile, this economic price is also paid by the countries from which immigrants migrate. For instance, a significant proportion of immigrant earnings end up as remittances, sent back to the family. This influx of money, without a corresponding development of domestic means of production, creates dependent economies prone to inflation.

Wagenknecht is careful not to emphasize the cultural debate favored by the extreme right. However, she does mention the problems in schools with a majority of non-native speakers, including dwindling resources to deal with the problem as well as the fracturing of society into ethnocultural cells. She declines to address incidences such as the spontaneous eruption of, primarily but not exclusively, sexual violence at Sylvester in Cologne 2015 or the violent suppression of a Kurdish demonstration by Turkish immigrants in 2020 on Austrian soil. Others, like Slavoj Žižek, had fewer qualms about dwelling on these cultural issues.

Nationalism and Climate Change

In some ways, this argument is made compelling by the progressive reaction to it. This reaction was exemplified by one guest on the popular German leftist YouTube channel 99 ZU EINS, who, after a praising of her expertise on economic matters, went on to accuse Sahra Wagenknecht, who had the spelling of her first name changed to reflect her Iranian heritage, of racism. This moralistic response mirrors the one directed against Nagle brought forth by Nathan J. Robinson and Adrian Rennix in their article “Responding to ‘The Left Case Against Open Borders’”.

Yet, how would a bystander not be forced to conclude that it is the conservative faction of Wagenknecht and Nagle who have actually thought matters through? They have faced up to the realities of attempting to implement social democracy on a national level. In contrast, while championing a similar set of welfarist policies and seeking to implement such a program within the framework of the nation-state, the progressive faction has nothing to offer as an answer to genuine questions, nothing, that is, but feel-good rhetoric.

This leads to the absurdity that a nationalist position, at least to a casual observer, appears to be the most reasonable. Yet, the reality is that it has in fact never been as insufficient as it is now.

As noted by Doug Lain in his critique of both Nagle and Robinson, to understand these contradictions, it is necessary to take a step back and consider the problems with the national framework itself, which has been embraced by both Wagenknecht and Nagle.

It is here that we turn our attention to climate change, a threat to human society caused by capitalism that has exposed the inadequacy of nation-states to deal with international problems. Since politicians of any particular country are incentivized to prioritize domestic national interests, they often maximize short-term gain over long-term considerations. Moreover, since there exists no project powerful enough to guide international development, industrialization is often realized, especially in the developing world, in the dirtiest and most destructive form possible. This reality makes confronting climate change and global environmental degradation nearly impossible.

In other words, climate change, which, by rendering parts of the globe uninhabitable as well as further immiserating the poorest sectors of the global population, will necessitate large-scale migration. This is another negative indicator of the necessity of a left politics that goes beyond social democracy in both its conservative and progressive incarnations. While Wagenknecht may criticize the progressive left, her promises to incentivize international development through changes in international trade policy ring hollow. Indeed, many countries in the Global South will not have the option of developing as they become increasingly unlivable, and their development would quicken the pace of their destruction, essentially wasting resources that could be used to build up infrastructure in livable areas they could migrate to.

Furthermore, the millions of people in places likely to be most affected by environmental crises, such as Bangladesh, will not remain passive. A solution must be found to deal with this problem, and the program of the nationalists, when taken to its conclusion, would be simply to adopt ever-stricter border security measures to keep out an increasing influx of migrants. This would culminate in the fortification of the industrialized nations, while billions of people are left to starve. Yet, even this program is likely unviable, since keeping out billions will be impossible, even with the best technological equipment. When faced with death to them and their families, they would try any means available to enter areas that are livable, using force if necessary. And even if it were possible, when confronted with the need to continually maintain its borders, how could civil society be upheld? What degree of violence would have to be deployed? How could the industrialized world avoid becoming anything but increasingly militarized and illiberal barracks? While it is easy to critique the progressive left for avoiding hard questions, the nationalists have no long-term plan either.

Beyond the Nation-State

The split between conservative and progressive social democrats, as well as the often rancorous nature of the debate on immigration, reflects the deeper impasse faced by a left that implicitly (the progressives) or explicitly (the conservatives) accepts the framework of capitalist state order. Solutions to both the immigration and environmental crises require international planning, an impossibility for nation-states, as they continually keep demonstrating. At the same time, these crises are symptoms of a more profound malaise, the absence of an international response to the domination of capital.

For the left, the only response is to move beyond the confines of nationalism toward the rule of the international working class. While such a “dictatorship of the proletariat” will not be realized in the near future, it is required, not just to overthrow global capitalism but also to remedy the crises it brought about. Through its international nature and its position as the primary driver of capitalism, the working class, is the only force able to meaningfully intervene in the capitalist production process. And so, the objective need for the international rule of the working class was never as obvious as it is now.

For instance, steps could be taken to mitigate the material conflicts that might emerge from migration flows, including developing areas such as Siberia that will become increasingly habitable in the future. Other steps might be managing conflict, such as those arising through ethnic and religious tensions (not just between migrants and domestic populations but also between different migrant groups) as well as those brought about the increased burden on established institutions and infrastructure, such as schools, via negotiations between competing interests in the same political structure. Such negotiations cannot be realized in a world of capitalist nation-states.

The question then becomes how to struggle for and achieve the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the crises that are caused by its absence. This is not a theoretical question but a concrete one that must take honest stock of predictable future developments to chart a political pathway forward. Such a pathway must take into account local conditions while working to build up revolutionary socialist parties that can coordinate and establish solidarity within an international context. In this process, we should think carefully about what alliances might be useful for our purpose, and with whom. It also means recognizing the needs and potential uses of societies that are neither political power centers nor economically underdeveloped.

Thinking in tactical terms, it might seem that, if “open borders” are an impossible sell to the working class, then the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be even more so. However, from personal experience, this is not necessarily the case. Of course, the term sounds scary, but its necessity is evident simply based on the obvious powerlessness of nation-states to deal with the crises of capitalism. And, with the rule of the working-class, borders make no sense. This is the only way that the humanitarian impulse of the progressive left towards migrates can be reconciled with reality. Of course, working-class rule is only possible if the working class perceives it to be in its collective self-interest. However, asking it to accept open borders without the context of its own empowerment as the ruling class is delusional.


[1] Varn’s more complete statement in the Patreon After Hours was: “The borders question is a severe limitation but I think that us saying “we need to entertain this idea of closed borders”…, what I’m saying in response to that is that pretending that we could have a leftist national welfare state seems unviable economically, and what I see happening in Europe and the United States in some ways is a return not just of nationalism but of regional chauvinism that threatens to break apart any national polity. So it doesn’t seem to me like a viable project to say, like Angela Nagle did, that we need to double down on responsible border monitoring, while I also agree that if you say “just open the borders”, one, it’s irresponsible because no polity can do that and still exist basically, and two, it seems so far away from people as to what it would even mean... I get that that’s not an answer either, but we can’t tell people that the political boundaries and polities will probably survive what is likely to be a great movement of peoples. Historically speaking, nations die during this kind of event, and the ones that double down are the ones that die first.” Later on, he added that: “I agree [with Wrzesniewski] that this will come down to bullets, most likely.”

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