Bulletin of the League for the Revolutionary Party

May 1, 2014

Reply to the Internationalist Group

For Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants

We received a letter from a young socialist responding to our article “Down with the Repressive ‘Immigration Reform’ Bill!” in the Summer 2013 issue of the LRP Bulletin. Our correspondent had met the LRP for the first time at a protest in New York organized by the Internationalist Group (IG) to support the struggle for abortion rights in El Salvador. His letter said in part:

I am an immigrant student who has no ‘fatherland’ as I do not recognize the country of my family’s origin, and the country that I was raised in does not recognize me. This type of oppression I feel everyday whenever I am turned down from a job, internship, scholarship etc., and I fight everyday for the goal of full citizenship rights not only for myself but for all immigrants who feel the same oppression or worse. The demand raised by the League for the Revolutionary Party, ‘Amnesty for all immigrants,’ has a fallacy which I think it is important to discuss. Amnesty is to grant forgiveness, a political pardon. If I were to demand Amnesty then I would have accepted the same line of thought that the racists who claim I am a criminal. I am no criminal and therefore I do not need to demand forgiveness or amnesty from the racist capitalists; rather I demand full citizenship rights. This is very important to distinguish for all immigrants and comrades, as the all-out attack continues from the bourgeoisie.

In this lengthy reply, we will explain the reasoning behind our support for the demand for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. We will also take up the arguments against the demand that have been raised by the IG, the only socialist group we know of that has opposed the demand, and what we see as the sectarian method behind their objections. Finally, since the IG claims to stand in the political tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and condemns our call for amnesty in their name, we will review key examples where those revolutionary thinkers supported demands for amnesty for people held to be in violation of unjust laws. [See Marx, Engels, Lenin & Trotsky on Amnesty].

Why We Have Called for Amnesty

Our correspondent writes about the question of immigrants’ rights from his deep experiences of the injustices of this racist imperialist system. If the call for amnesty really did mean accepting the ruling class’s law that criminalizes undocumented immigrants, then it would indeed be a terrible demand, and he would be right to be alarmed by the fact that socialists raise it. He is mistaken, however. The demand for amnesty does not imply any of this. On the contrary, all it means is that:

1. We recognize reality – the Federal government’s unjust anti-immigrant laws are not on the verge of being overthrown, therefore;

2. We demand freedom for undocumented immigrants from the punitive effects of those laws, namely that the government grant them legal residence without imposing fines or other punishments.

Of course, accepting the fact that this imperialist state’s anti-immigrant laws will stay in place for some time and proposing an immediate struggle for more limited demands does not mean that we relinquish the goal of overturning those laws and the capitalist state that enforces them. Far from it. Every mass movement that has ever challenged capitalist rule has grown out of the accumulated experience and organization of struggles for limited and partial reforms. Thus we and many others have raised slogans of a purely defensive nature, like the simple demand Stop the Deportations! And we have raised more sweeping demands like Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants! End All Restrictions on Immigrants and Refugees! We think that the struggle for such demands can contribute to the revival of the workers’ movement in this country, especially among the most exploited and oppressed workers, and thus help develop a challenge to the capitalist system in general. And we always explain that since the oppression and super-exploitation of the majority of nations by the great imperialist powers is essential to the capitalist system, the most far-reaching demands will only find full and lasting achievement through the complete overthrow of capitalist rule by working-class-led revolution.[1]

It is certainly true that the slogan “No Human Being Is Illegal!” has been very popular in the immigrant rights movement. It condemns the injustice of treating people like criminals for basic human activities like pursuing work or happiness in another country. But this has not meant that the undocumented immigrants raising that slogan did not realize that they were in violation of immigration laws. Recognizing that they are in the country illegally is of course common sense and a practical necessity. It means that they are careful to avoid unnecessary run-ins with the authorities, lest they risk being identified, incarcerated and deported. This is the opposite of the idea that recognizing their illegal status means supporting the country’s unjust immigration laws.

We have participated in numerous immigrants’ rights organizing meetings, protests and conferences over the years – with banners, placards, leaflets and headlines prominently calling for amnesty – and we have never heard an undocumented immigrant object to the demand before this correspondent wrote to us. Indeed, the demand for amnesty has also been popular among undocumented immigrants, some of whom have even participated in protests with signs and slogans like “I am illegal but not a criminal.”

The Internationalist Group and the Amnesty Demand

Our correspondent’s mistaken belief that the demand for amnesty implies accepting the criminalization of undocumented immigrants may well have been an innocent misunderstanding. But for the IG, the point serves merely as a stage prop in a theatrical performance of far-fetched and even dishonest attacks rather than a marshalling of facts with a rational argument.

Thus the IG quotes from our correspondent’s criticism of our call for amnesty and adds:

With its demand for ‘amnesty,’ the LRP is not only adopting the terminology of the right-wing immigrant bashers, it places itself to the right of the U.S. Supreme Court, which recognizes that living or working in the U.S. without requisite papers is not a crime, and at most a civil violation.[2]

The argument that by calling for amnesty, the LRP (along with millions of undocumented immigrants and their organizations) has adopted the terminology of right-wing immigrant bashers who oppose amnesty is bizarre. Equally absurd is their suggestion that the amnesty applies only to violations of criminal and not civil law. The word refers to an agreement not to punish people who may be found to be in violation of any kind of law. The IG invented its interpretation of the word simply to make a phony charge against the LRP. And it shows contempt for the millions of undocumented immigrants who supported the demand for amnesty.

Worse, the IG resorts to outright misrepresentations of the LRP’s views. For example, they write:

The LRP rightly criticizes the mainstream reformists for their vague slogans like ‘legalization.’ But what is the LRP’s alternative? It pointedly does not call for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, and instead calls for ‘Amnesty for All Immigrants’ (LRP Bulletin, Summer 2013). Yet amnesty is a call for pardon for having committed a crime – and undocumented immigrants are not criminals.

In reality, the slogan we used in this article was “Amnesty and Equal Rights for All Immigrants” – since it was in big bold type as the headline of the article, one really couldn’t miss it.[3] And “equal rights” for immigrants means citizenship rights, of course – otherwise the rights in question would not be equal. The IG’s writers had to delete the words “and Equal Rights” in order to invent the slanderous fiction that we “pointedly do not call for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and instead call for amnesty.” Should they attempt to argue that “equal rights” does not mean citizenship rights and that we for some reason fear using the latter expression, consider how we have emphasized the strategic significance of the struggle for citizenship rights for immigrants, as well as other demands. For example, in an article entitled “Democrats and Republicans, Enemies of Immigrant Workers” we wrote:

... because Black, Latino and immigrant workers have been the most oppressed in this system, and because of the particular histories of struggle in these communities, their unity is the key to turning the whole situation around. Confronted with racism, workers of color in general are quicker to see the way forward and to see through imperialist hypocrisy. The road to a united fightback will surely be based on Black, Latino and immigrant workers playing a weighty role in the vanguard. In short, we need a united interracial struggle of all workers against the capitalist attacks, based on an uncompromising stance against any racist or anti-immigrant hype. We have to reject all laws that divide the working class into legals and illegals by fighting instead for an immediate blanket amnesty with no strings attached, for equal citizenship rights for all immigrant workers, and for an end to all anti-immigrant restrictions.[4]

Not content to simply misrepresent our views, the IG then asserts that they understand why we raised the supposedly terrible demand for amnesty:

But one has to ask why on earth a left-wing self-proclaimed socialist group would raise such a demeaning slogan in the first place. The answer is that the LRP took it up back in 2006 along with all the other opportunists because this was the line being put forward by the bourgeois immigrant rights groups they were all chasing after, who in turn were tailing the Democrats.[5]

Conspicuously missing from the IG’s narrative are the masses of undocumented immigrants themselves. The millions-strong uprising of protest by undocumented immigrants in 2006 was the greatest upsurge of working-class struggle that this country has seen in decades, and amnesty was one of its most popular demands.

The immigrants’ rights movement exploded onto the streets in response to proposed Congressional legislation that would have criminalized all undocumented immigrants. Massive demonstrations in major cities, above all Los Angeles and Chicago, drew more than half a million immigrants each, and whole industries like food processing were effectively shutdown by walkouts of their immigrant workforces. The movement was at first too huge to be controlled by any of the immigrants’ rights organizations, all of which had to echo the movement’s most far-reaching demands like amnesty.

The Democratic Party was, of course, absolutely against the demand for amnesty from the beginning. So it makes no sense when the IG says that immigrant rights groups chased after the Democratic Party by supporting a demand that the Democrats opposed. The problem for the leaders of the bourgeois immigrants’ rights groups aligned with the Democratic Party was how to win and maintain support while getting immigrants to accept the much more limited reform demands that the Democrats could accept.

This they achieved by two basic means. First, with the slogan “Today We March – Tomorrow We Vote,” they sought to direct the movement away from direct action protests, where the masses could exercise power – and toward electoralism, where power shifts to the politicians and the community leaders who lobby them for concessions. Second, as we explained in the article the IG criticizes, these reformist leaders replaced the demand for amnesty with “the vague call for ‘legalization’ of immigrants, which could mean anything: from amnesty and equal rights for all to second-class status for some and detention and deportation for others.” Eventually, undocumented immigrants were told to hope that Congress would offer them a “pathway to citizenship” – a “pathway” that grew longer and had more and more traps added to it over time – until it became the monstrously repressive “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” bill. (See the May Day article on page 1.)

Assisting the Democrats in moderating the movement’s demand for amnesty were the right-wing, racist immigrant-bashers who attacked any concessions to undocumented immigrants as an amnesty that threatened to unravel the country’s law and order. The idea of an amnesty for undocumented immigrants was the principal target of attacks on the movement in the mass bourgeois media and on the streets by right-wing anti-immigrant protesters.

Given how popular the call for amnesty was among undocumented immigrants and how eager the Democratic Party was to see the demand dumped, it was absolutely necessary for socialists and all champions of immigrants’ rights to support it. In addition to expressing the masses’ sentiments, raising the demand maximized pressure on the movement’s leaders not to capitulate to the pro-capitalist Democrats and helped expose them when they did betray. To refuse to raise the demand for amnesty, as the IG did, was to refuse to participate in one of the key struggles against the Democratic Party and the reformist immigrant leaders’ betrayal of the demands of undocumented immigrants.

The IG’s Sectarianism

Ever since Marx and Engels first established that the working class’s struggles against exploitation would have to culminate in the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of communism, revolutionaries have had to learn how to participate in mass struggles alongside other working-class and poor people who are not yet convinced of the need for revolution and who maintain hopes in reforming the system. Marxists have therefore had to learn how to advance the struggle for reforms – and to use the masses’ experience of the struggle to prove to them the need for revolution rather than encourage illusions in reformism.

The errors of socialist groups that failed to adhere to these methods fall into two basic categories: opportunism and sectarianism. Opportunism is the most common failing of would-be revolutionary groups. It is characterized by the sacrifice of the long-term interests of the working class in pursuit of short-term advantages. Typical forms of opportunism are shown by those socialist groups who pursue quick popularity by muting their revolutionary views and promoting reformist ideas, and those who try to tailor the masses’ demands to what hoped-for capitalist allies will accept. Some opportunist socialists advocate support for sections of the capitalist class, thereby undermining the necessary political independence of the working class.

Sectarianism, on the other hand, is typically expressed by socialist groups which isolate themselves from the masses of workers by insisting on some unnecessary or imagined revolutionary principle as a precondition for a united struggle. Sectarians generally reject the Marxist understanding that the working class will come to adopt communist consciousness based upon its own experience of life under capitalism and the struggle against it. Instead, they approach the masses as if they are children in need of a passive education from enlightened revolutionary lecturers.

The great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described the sectarian mindset accurately when he wrote:

Marxism has built a scientific program upon the laws that govern the movement of capitalist society, which were discovered by it. This is a colossal conquest. However, it is not enough to create a correct program. It is necessary that the working class accept it. But the sectarian, in the nature of things, comes to a full stop upon the first half of the task. Active intervention in the actual struggle of the working masses is supplanted, for him, by an abstract propaganda for a Marxist program. ... The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum – then the task would be solved.

Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is a direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical interaction between a finished program and a living (that is to say, imperfect and unfinished) mass struggle.[6]

The IG’s opposition to the demand for amnesty for undocumented immigrants is a textbook case of sectarianism. Because it can appear to be particularly radical, sectarianism can seem appealing to revolutionary-minded young people in particular who are repulsed by the role of opportunist groups. But precisely because it encourages potentially revolutionary individuals and groups on the left to isolate themselves from the masses and their struggles, it weakens workers’ struggles. It does so especially by reducing the pressure on reformist leaders who seek to hold back struggles from threatening the ruling class’s fundamental interests.

In the case of the immigrant rights movement, one important means by which socialists could build the mass movement was to organize support for motions in trade unions calling on them to endorse and build the major protests like May Day. Where such motions succeeded in pressuring union leaders to mobilize, bigger protests and greater unity between immigrant and native-born workers would result; where union leaders resisted such motions, they could be exposed before the ranks of workers and the cause of building an alternative leadership would be advanced. However, since these early protests frequently featured the demand for amnesty, if union activists were really convinced that calling for amnesty meant embracing the ruling class’s oppressive immigration laws, they might refuse to support the demonstrations and abstain from the struggle to build them. The IG’s approach could thus sabotage the potential for actions that could unite migrant and native-born workers.

It may seem that the idea of socialists not supporting such demonstrations sounds crazy – very few people who identify with the plight of undocumented immigrants would take such a sectarian stand. But some do oppose mass actions for elementary justice on such grounds, and the IG is one of them. Let us recount just one shocking example.

In October 2010, the longshore workers’ union, ILWU Local 10. shut down the port of Oakland for one shift to demand justice for Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black man who had been shot to death by a transit cop the previous year. This was a ground-breaking effort to mobilize unionized workers in solidarity with people violently oppressed by the capitalist state. The IG wrote an article describing how significant this action was, but they nevertheless made a point of refusing to endorse and build it. Their excuse: “While noting the importance of a union-centered protest against racist police brutality, the Internationalist Group did not endorse the October 23 rally because of disagreement with the ‘jail killer cops’ slogan”![7]

The IG spelled out their method as follows:

An oppressed population demanding that a particular cop guilty of a heinous crime be jailed is desperately seeking some measure of justice. Communists patiently explain that they are justified in their desire, but that even in the rare case where the rulers decide to take a minimum measure in order to head off militant protest, this won’t put a dent in the system of racist repression by the capitalist courts and cops. However, when leftists call to “jail killer cops” in general, they are propagating the bourgeois democratic myth that under pressure, the state can be made to serve the interests of the masses. This flatly contradicts the crucial Marxist understanding of the state as the instrument of the ruling class to enforce its class interests against the exploited and oppressed, and feeds dangerous illusions.

It is indeed true that police brutality is essential to the capitalist system as a tool for suppressing and dividing the working class. And the idea that the capitalists’ state will jail all killer cops is therefore a dangerous illusion. But that is a lesson best learned by the masses organizing the most powerful struggle possible to demand justice for the oppressed and then seeing that their demands cannot be achieved under capitalism. To refuse to support and build such an important working-class action as the IG did actually serves to prolong reformist illusions, because it undermines the masses’ ability to test them in practice. Rather, Marxists must support and build all struggles for justice – in order to help put those illusions to the test and thereby prove in practice that the state belongs to our class enemy and must be overthrown.

It should be noted that the IG’s absurd theory – that demanding concessions from the ruling class and its state implies support for that state – would require revolutionaries to reject many of the most important forms of the class struggle within capitalist society. For example, when workers in a union go on strike, they often do so with the aim of winning specific demands regarding wages and working conditions to be included in a contractual agreement with the bosses. The very nature of such contracts is that they accept that for the foreseeable future the workplace will continue to operate under capitalist ownership, exploitation and profiteering. Working under a union contract doesn’t mean approval of capitalist exploitation; revolutionaries recognize that the workers are not ready to overthrow capitalist rule, so they agree to return to work under the least exploitative and abusive conditions possible while preparing for future struggles.

The bottom line is that the masses of working-class and oppressed people will only conclude that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is necessary when they have tested the possibility of winning their demands through reform and found it impossible. It is only through mass struggles demanding specific reforms of capitalism that the masses can build their organizations and sense of social power, as well as draw the conclusion that the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system is necessary. While claiming to represent the only true revolutionary perspective, sectarian groups like the IG in fact turn their back on the only road of struggle that can lead to revolution.

The Spartacists’ and IG’s Scandalous Chauvinism

To be sure, opportunism and sectarianism can appear to be opposites, but as many outstanding Marxist thinkers have observed, the two tendencies are in fact deeply related to one another and sectarianism often represents a would-be revolutionary group’s attempt to repress its own opportunist appetites. As Trotsky sharply concluded, “The sectarian is an opportunist who stands in fear of himself.”[8]

The IG’s leaders verbal radicalism around demands like amnesty for undocumented immigrants covers a profoundly opportunist attitude toward the capitalist state, and their self-promotion as the only true anti-imperialist internationalists covers a profoundly chauvinist attitude toward the oppressed and immigrants from the “Third World” in particular.

The IG prides itself as the continuator of the political tradition of the Spartacist League (SL), which the IG’s leaders played a prominent role in before being expelled some years ago. The IG’s leader Jan Norden was the editor of the SL’s newspaper Workers Vanguard for decades. The SL took a scandalously chauvinist position on immigration in a lengthy article in 1974 entitled “The Leninist Policy Toward Immigration/Emigration.” Appearing under Norden’s editorship, the article explicitly upholds the right of imperialist nations to defend their national character against the possibility of being flooded by an influx of foreign immigrants.

To begin, Workers Vanguard explained its view that the right of a nation to defend its national character could be more important than individuals’ right to live where they wish:

Obviously, the right to transfer from one nation-state to another is such an individual democratic right. However, if exercised on a sufficiently large scale, immigration flows could wipe out the national identity of the recipient countries.[9]

Then, just in case any reader imagines that the Spartacists were defending the national identities of oppressed countries, the article repeated almost the same wording but spelled out the reasoning a bit more – and applied their concern to imperialist countries, at first only “small” ones:

However, on a sufficiently large scale, immigration flows could wipe out the national identity of the recipient countries. The impetus for massive population transfers exists due to the extreme poverty of many Asian, African and Latin American countries compared with the advanced capitalist countries. ... If, for example, there were unlimited immigration into Northern Europe, the population influx from the Mediterranean basin would tend to dissolve the national identity of small countries like Holland and Belgium.

A few paragraphs later, however, they gave up any pretense that their policy applied only to the weak and small:

... an ‘open’ US/Mexico border would not only introduce impoverished Mexican laborers to flood the US labor market, becoming an unprotected pool for capitalist super-exploitation, but would also lead to well-financed American ‘colonists’ buying up Mexican enterprises and real estate.

The article does call for citizenship rights for Mexican workers who have come to the U.S., but Norden and his comrades pointedly avoid calling for an end to all restrictions by the imperialist U.S. state on the right of immigrants to come to the country. And that means that they believe imperialist nations have a right to police their borders.

The LRP commented on this previously:

The image of Mexican workers ‘flooding’ the U.S. echoes the rantings of racists. As for their concern about the Mexican economy, the imperialists don’t need open borders or immigration laws to superexploit workers there; they have done so all along. Raising the issue of migrant capital is an evasion by the Spartacists to justify a line that implies bans on migrant workers. ... Since the Spartacists oppose ‘unlimited immigration’ as an unprincipled violation of national rights of the imperialist as well as the oppressed countries, they can only be for keeping excessive numbers of immigrants out.[10]

The IG has never repudiated the 1974 article, its follow-ups or the offensive content. Further, the IG has echoed the same methodology in its own press. For example, in an article on the Netherlands in 2002, it carefully defended “the right of anyone who has reached Dutch territory to remain here.”[11] But what of others who wish to immigrate to Dutch territory – should they have a right to come? The IG’s studiously avoids calling for an end to restrictions on these immigrants – and we can think of no other reason for this other than the IG’s belief that the Dutch state has a right to police its borders to prevent a “flood” of such immigrants.

Thus for all the IG’s blather that the LRP’s support for the amnesty demand means that we foster illusions in the capitalist state and share the language of immigrant-bashers, it turns out that the IG and its predecessor explicitly uphold the right of imperialist states to police their borders against would-be immigrants – and they do so with the racist language and fantasies of anti-immigrant demagogues who fear their nations being drowned in a “flood” of immigrants from the “Third World.”

The IG’s sectarianism belies its claim to be a genuinely Marxist organization. And its chauvinism means that it has no right even to its own name – it is not an internationalist group but one that is on record supporting the nationalism of imperialist states.

Marx, Engels, Lenin & Trotsky on Amnesty

The IG asks, “So why don’t Marxists call for amnesty?” And to give their claim some historical weight, they go on: “Ever since The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels a century and a half ago, Marxists have held that ‘the workers have no fatherland.’ But amnesty accepts the ‘right’ of the capitalist rulers to police their borders.”[A]

We have already seen [see main article on this page] that the IG itself accepts the right of imperialist rulers to police their borders today. But they are also wrong on the historical question. All one has to do is go to the Marxist Internet Archive at www.marxists.org and search for the word “amnesty” in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to see that they all supported demands for amnesty. Indeed, a closer look at what they wrote sheds further light on how revolutionaries can best approach mass movements demanding reforms, and it confirms our approach to the demand for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

Marx, Engels on Amnesty for Irish Prisoners

A mass movement arose in Ireland in 1869 calling for amnesty for Irish Republicans imprisoned by their British colonial rulers. Holding the potential to unite Irish and English workers in a common struggle, the movement immediately commanded Marx and Engels’s attention.[B]

In a speech on the question to the General Council of the First International, Marx reported that Britain’s recently elected prime minister, William Gladstone, had said before his election that British policies had driven the Irish to revolt and that “the government ought to do for Ireland what in other countries a revolution would do” – in other words, Gladstone had suggested reforming British rule in order to avoid provoking a revolution against it. But the Liberal colonialist’s talk of reforms had the unintended effect of raising the Irish masses’ hopes for relief from the injustices of colonial rule, and Irish Republicans began building a mass movement based on these new hopes. They launched a petition campaign demanding amnesty for Irish political prisoners which quickly gained more than 200,000 signatures.

Did Marx respond to this by condemning the Irish Republicans for “adopting the terminology” of the British colonialists by calling for an amnesty? Did he refuse to “chase after” the Irish Republicans and instead criticize them for “tailing” the Liberal colonialist Gladstone? No, Marx understood how mass movements of workers and oppressed people can grow out of struggles for modest demands for reform. Thus the First International’s “Resolution of the General Council on the Policy of the British Government towards the Irish Prisoners,” written by Marx, expressed unqualified “admiration of the spirited, firm and high-souled manner in which the Irish people carry on their Amnesty movement” and urged solidarity with the struggle.[C]

Elsewhere Marx explained that the International’s support for the campaign was an integral part of its vision for a growing struggle for the complete liberation of Ireland from British colonialism, and for the liberation of England’s workers and poor people from the rule of capitalism itself:

The General Council’s resolution on the Irish Amnesty are designed to simply lead into other resolutions which will declare that, quite apart from the demands of international justice, it is an essential precondition for the emancipation of the English working class to transform the present enforced union (in other words, the enslavement of Ireland) into a free and equal confederation, if possible, and into a total separation, if necessary.[D]

Though the movement did not culminate in such a revolutionary triumph, its further growth and radicalization confirmed Marx’s assessment of its potential. Gladstone and the rest of Britain’s ruling class were loathe to concede the general amnesty of political prisoners that the movement demanded; they attempted to pre-empt it by releasing a small number of prisoners. But this only served to anger the masses, who readily turned from signing petitions to mobilizing on the streets to press their demands. The movement spread from Ireland to England itself, culminating in a massive protest of as many as 200,000 workers in London’s Hyde Park.

Marx hailed the Hyde Park demonstration as an historic breakthrough in the struggle against the chauvinism that set English workers against the Irish. “The main feature of the demonstration,” Marx explained, “was that at least a part of the English working class had lost their prejudice against the Irish.” And it would not have been possible without the movement’s simple demand for amnesty.

Lenin, Trotsky and Demands for Amnesty

In Tsarist Russia, reformists and revolutionaries alike were regularly condemned to the hell of prison or exile; Russia’s Social Democrats and later Communists followed Marx and Engels’ example by frequently expressing support for amnesty for political prisoners. Russia’s revolutionaries saw that if unjust laws were not about to be overthrown, there was nothing wrong with demanding freedom from punishment under them. They recognized that the very limited character of some demands could be a source of power: they knew that often masses of workers and oppressed people will most readily unite in struggle for minimal demands, but through that struggle they can gain the organization and sense of power that leads to even bigger struggles for even more far-reaching demands in the future. And they knew that the ruling class’s opposition to even minimal reforms can help people recognize the need for revolution.

Among the many examples, is an article by Lenin in 1903 in which he noted three demands that Russian Social Democracy had “long ago raised, and has always defended and popularized to the best of its ability,” namely: “We demand the immediate and unconditional recognition by law of the freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and an amnesty for all ‘political prisoners’ and members of religious sects.”[E] In another article from 1906, Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks in the Russian Parliament should raise the demand for amnesty.[F]

As for Trotsky, since the demand for amnesty was adopted by the St. Petersburg Soviet which he headed in the 1905 revolution, many discussions of the demand can be found in his history of that revolution in the book 1905.[G]

Drawing on this experience two decades later, Trotsky urged the Communist Parties of the Third International fighting to win amnesty for political prisoners. Addressing perspectives for building the Communist Party in France in particular, he wrote:

The party must utilize every large-scale mass movement – spontaneous and organized alike – to show the political character of every class conflict. It must take advantage of every opportunity to spread as widely as possible its slogans of political struggle such as political amnesty ...[H]

Trotsky’s later “Report on the Fourth World Congress” to the Communist International explained further: amnesty was one of several reform demands for which the party could challenge reformist politicians and union bureaucrats to mobilize workers to struggle. This would either help build an immediate struggle in the interests of the working class, or else it would expose the reformists for standing in the way of that struggle and win support for an alternative revolutionary communist leadership. Trotsky explained:

We address ourselves to their army, that is, those workers who still follow and trust them and say to them: “We are proposing to your leaders a certain way of fighting jointly with us for the 8-hour working day, for political amnesty, and against wage cuts. What is our brickbat? Why this, that if you Amsterdamists and Social Democrats expose yourselves in this struggle as cowards and traitors, a section of your workers will come over to us. But if contrary to expectations you turn out to be revolutionary tigers and lions, then so much the better for you. Try it.”[J]

This is precisely the same approach we in the LRP have adopted toward the immigrants’ rights and union leaders, whom we have challenged to organize a struggle for amnesty and equal rights for undocumented immigrants. The experience of mass struggles for reforms has always been regarded by Marxists as essential to convincing the working class that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist rule is the only road to freedom and justice. Demands for amnesty from punishment for violating unjust laws has always been a tactic of the Marxist movement. The IG’s belief that amnesty is an unprincipled demand places them not only outside of a genuine mass movement of oppressed and working-class people – but also outside the traditions of Marxism.


1. See for example our article Democrats and Republicans, Enemies of Immigrant Workers.

2. Internationalist Group, “No to the Anti-Immigrant ‘Immigration Reform’,” The Internationalist, July 2013.

3. LRP, Amnesty and Equal Rights for All Immigrants!, April 21, 2013. This article appeared as the main body of “Down with the Repressive ‘Immigration Reform’ Bill!” in the Summer 2013 issue of the LRP Bulletin.

4. LRP, “Democrats and Republicans, Enemies of Immigrant Workers,” Proletarian Revolution No. 78, Fall 2006, emphasis added

5. Internationalist Group, No to the Anti-Immigrant “Immigration Reform, The Internationalist, July 2013.

6. Leon Trotsky, Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International, October 22, 1935.

7. Internationalist Group, ILWU Shuts Ports Demanding Justice for Oscar Grant, April 2011.

8. Leon Trotsky, Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads, July 30, 1939, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), Pathfinder, New York, 1969, p. 54.

9. This and the following quotations are from “The Leninist Policy Toward Immigration/Emigration,” in Workers Vanguard, January 18, 1974, accessible at index to Workers Vanguard, 1974, Volume 2, Issues 35 – 58.

10. Spartacist Chauvinism, Proletarian Revolution No. 65 (Fall 2002).

11. IG, “Imperialist War Fuels Racist Backlash in the Netherlands,” The Internationalist No. 14.

Notes to “Marx, Engels, Lenin & Trotsky on Amnesty”

A. IG, Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!, April 2006.

B. A useful discussion of this episode of the working-class and anti-colonial struggle, as well as of Marx and Engels’s evolving views on it, can be found in Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010, pp. 132-38.

C. Karl Marx, “On the Policy of the British Government with Respect to the Irish Prisoners,” November 16, 1869, Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 407 [no longer available at marxists.org due to the demands of Lawrence & Wishart, the copyright owner!].

D. Karl Marx, Question of the General Council’s Resolutions on the Irish Amnesty, in “The General Council to the Federal Council of French Switzerland,” January 1, 1870

E. Lenin, The Autocracy is Wavering ...

F. Lenin, Once Again About the Duma Cabinet

G. See, for example, Leon Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 11, The First Days of the “Freedoms.

H. Trotsky, A Militant Labor Program for the French Communist Party.

J. Trotsky, Report on the Fourth World Congress, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2.