The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Country of Immigrants Exploited by Capitalists

Mar 11, 2024

What follows is the historical part of the presentation at the public meeting in Detroit on February 18.

The U.S.A. is a country of immigrants. While some people came here willingly, many more were forced here. So, if this is a country of immigrants, why are immigrants treated like villains by politicians in this country? It’s nothing new—there has always been anti-immigrant propaganda and violence.

From the beginning, U.S. capitalism was organized and built on the backs of labor: slave labor. Indentured servants. And so-called free labor, which, in fact, was anything but free.

The capitalist class, with the help of their politicians, used immigration to staff their expansion across North America and then used anti-immigrant propaganda to foment fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners when they didn’t need them. When they consciously wanted one part of the working class to keep down another. It’s not a new story.

According to Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, “U.S. capitalism developed in a territory with productive land and a vast amount of raw materials. ‘Indian Removal,’ as it has been politely called, cleared the land for the white occupancy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, cleared it for cotton in the South and grain in the North, for expansion, immigration, canals, railroads, new cities, and the building of a huge continental empire clear across to the Pacific Ocean. What it did not have was the labor power to carry out all this expansion and development.”

From the Slave Trade to Building the Railroads

For most of its history, American capital filled that hole with unwilling immigrants—people they enslaved. Tens of millions of people were robbed from the African continent, brought by force to the U.S., and sold like merchandise.

Slavery was the original division in the working class in this country, and it set in motion the system of divide and rule, pitting one part of the working class against another, white against black.

When American capital could no longer get enough slaves nor necessarily want to use them in certain industries, it turned to immigrants from Europe to fill its labor shortage. In the 1800s, with capitalism developing over the entire continent, immigrants from Ireland, and then later from China, performed much of the back-breaking labor for building the roads, canals, and railroads. On these massive projects, the conditions were so horrendous, the mortality rate so high that in the South, the slave owners preferred that the work be done by Irish immigrants rather than risk having so many of their slaves wiped out, which would cause them to lose their investment.

“No Irish Need Apply”

Railroad companies used Irish immigrants to build the railroads on the East Coast and Chinese immigrants on the West Coast.

No one waved a gun at the Irish workers nor put them in chains. But they hardly came by free choice. You may have heard about the Irish potato famine, caused by a disease that caused a potato blight. Since potatoes were the most critical food source in Ireland, it is estimated that about one million people died in Ireland from 1845 to 1851. To avoid starvation, about 1.5 million Irish immigrated to the U.S. at that time.

Here’s a description of ships carrying poor Irish immigrants, a large proportion of whom died during the transatlantic voyage under horrible circumstances: “… hundreds were literally flung on the beach, left amid the mud and stones to crawl on the dry land how they could…. Many of these … gasped out their last breath on the fatal shore, not able to drag themselves from the slime in which they lay….”

These Irish immigrants were vulnerable, meaning that when they got here, they could be thrown into the hardest jobs created as the country industrialized and paid the lowest wages. They built the canals, dug the coal, and built the railroads for years.

The rich railroad owners pushed to bring in workers from China to build the railroads on the West Coast. For those bosses, Asia was a closer source of labor.

Over 100,000 Chinese were dragged here, often hijacked by Chinese gangsters trafficking in people—much like the coyotes who bring people up from Mexico and other parts of Central America today. One thousand two hundred Chinese workers died in building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. By the finish of the railroad, 80% of the workers on the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. They were paid less and did the most dangerous work, including blasting dynamite to build tunnels through the mountains in the west and later digging in the gold and silver mines in Nevada.

But when the railroads were complete, the capitalist class no longer needed the Chinese workers. It was at this point that campaigns that began with denigrating Chinese people took on a life of their own. Brutally racist campaigns were directed against Chinese workers, using a lot of propaganda, such as the Chinese were stealing jobs. But it was not the Chinese who were organizing the economy!

So, the bosses created the low-wage jobs. Then, the very people, the Chinese, who were forced to take these jobs were spit out after the work was complete and became the victims of anti-Chinese propaganda. And mob violence was directed against Chinese workers, especially in California.

Congress gave legal standing to attacks against Chinese people by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first law limiting immigration into this country. This was the first widespread legal attack on people coming to the U.S. from other countries.

There were also attacks against the Irish working-class immigrants. When the so-called “Long Depression” hit in 1873, lasting until 1879, signs went up: “No Irish Need Apply.”

Again, anti-immigrant legislation was passed. Reactionary forces organized anti-Irish riots in the East. A political party had been formed in the United States at that time called the Know-Nothings. It was a nativist and anti-Catholic party with strong financial support from certain wealthy interests. It developed into a real political party. It organized mobs, looting, and firebombing of Irish and German immigrant neighborhoods as early as the 1850s.

Then the Next Groups that Came in …

When the economy grew, American capital returned to Europe looking for more workers. It sent agents (much like the coyotes today) to Southern Europe, then Eastern Europe, to entice new groups of desperate workers. In 1864, the Contract Labor Law was passed, which made it possible for companies to sign contracts with foreign workers when the workers pledged to give twelve months of their wages to pay the cost of emigration. Thousands of immigrants found themselves in indentured servitude to their bosses upon arrival, on top of the low wages and horrific working conditions. Now, there were not so many Irish and German immigrant workers. It was Italian, Russian, Greek, and Jewish workers this time. And all of them went through the harrowing ocean voyage of the poor. Steamship lines at this time made huge profits, packing in thousands of immigrants below deck with little or no food or sanitation.

“I Can Hire One Half of the Working Class to Kill the Other Half”

The countries the new immigrants came from may have changed, but dire circumstances also forced them to leave their countries. These new immigrants again came into situations where they had to take whatever job they could get. This ended up being jobs in the deadliest, dirtiest industries, where they were hired for the lowest wages.

But this wasn’t all. There was desperate economic competition among the newcomers for the jobs. The bosses used racism when they could, directing white workers against black workers. But they also fomented trouble between ethnic groups, such as Irish workers vs. Eastern European workers. So, this did not start with the workers but with the bosses.

One of the big railroad owners at that time—and he was also a rich banker—was Jay Gould. He knew how important it was to divide this diverse working class for the benefit of his class, the capitalist class. He is famous to this day, for one thing, he said: “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”

In 1919, there was a massive strike wave in the U.S. Over 4 million workers, from longshoremen to steelworkers, from textile workers to telephone operators, engaged in strikes characterized as “… the greatest wave of labor unrest in American History.”

This workers’ movement was met with brute force. Military forces were directed against the strikes, where strikers were shot down and arrested. But there was also an organized campaign to isolate strikers from the rest of the working class. That is where the anti-immigrant propaganda came in handy for the bosses.

There was massive repression directed against workers—not only to break the strikes but also, once again, to divide one section of the working class against the other and to instill fear in workers that they would face harsh consequences for even trying to challenge the capitalist class’ control.

The government carried out a repression called the Palmer Raids that physically broke up militant workers’ organizations. Many of these organizations were led by immigrants from countries where workers had carried out revolutions against the capitalist class and who had brought their revolutionary traditions with them. Anti-foreign, anti-socialist, and anti-worker repression was set loose. Repression included national immigration quotas being imposed against particular immigrant groups, especially those who had come from countries where there had been revolutions. There were deportations, sterilization of working-class women, and even executions.

Here, we can recall the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, a fish peddler and a shoemaker, who were anarchists in the early 1920s. They were falsely arrested, convicted, and executed for a crime they didn’t commit, based on anti-Italian and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Over and over again, the story repeats itself: a boom of migration when capital needs more labor, but then a reversal when the capitalist drive for profit destroys their own economy and results in depressions. For example, labor contractors opened the doors for Mexican immigrants to come into the U.S. in roughly the period of 1910 until 1928 to work as agricultural laborers in California and the mining regions of the Southwest. When the Great Depression hit, it was estimated that there were over a million people of Mexican descent who then were deported to Mexico from 1929 to 1935. Sixty percent of them were U.S. citizens.

So, the scene that we see today, of talks of crisis at the border and declarations of immigrant invasion, is nothing new. It rests on and continues this history: the capitalist class learned long ago that its interests lay in using one part of the working class against another—the better to exploit all parts.

The working class has other interests: to unite all parts and confront our real enemy, the capitalist class itself.