Those on the left who still resist the logic of the anti-austerity case for Brexit argue that Britain leaving the EU would represent an ideological and political triumph for the Right and would create the conditions for a ‘carnival of reaction’ in domestic politics.
They have something of a point. The dominant stream of political controversy around the forthcoming referendum pits a ‘free market’ rhetoric – which suggests that British capitalism would receive a boost by breaking free of constraints which the European Union places on entrepreneurial activities – against a neo-liberal strain which sees the EU as a privileged arena in which British exports and services, mainly financial, can operate to its greatest advantage.
The bourgeois Brexit tendency gains some purchase on mass consciousness with a toxic discourse around migration while the equally bourgeois Britain in Europe tendency mobilises socially liberal ideas and a rhetorical ‘internationalism’.
How do we separate out the class interests at play?
The bourgeois interests that lie behind the first tendency are subordinate sections of British capital – largely in manufacturing and at odds with the dominant sections of finance capital; plus petit bourgeois elements mainly in commerce and small production and some City speculators and hedge fund operators who see the EU’s regulatory regime as a constraint.
The more powerful haut bourgeois elements that make up the dominant ruling class tendency are the big banks and City financiers, many of the major transnational companies, the military defence and intelligence complex, the top state bureaucracy and the foreign policy establishment with the strongest links to the USA and NATO.
Almost the only people who argue that the EU in itself is progressive are the disreputable class collaborationists of the Kinnock variety and the post-Blairite tendency in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Almost everyone else with a claim to the loyalty of the working class and the labour movement accepts that the succession of treaties, from Maastricht to Lisbon, have imposed a neo-liberal regime of public spending cuts; led to PFI and privatisation; and created a free-fire zone for capital export and migration within a Fortress Europe.
To persuade themselves that a vote in favour of Britain remaining within the EU is the progressive option, sections of the left (most social democrats and many trade unionists, almost all Greens and a substantial number of unaffiliated but progressive-minded people) are compelled to discount the overwhelming evidence that the EU is the chosen instrument of the decisive section of our own bourgeoisie and its international allies.
It is not that they ignore these factors. The argument is that despite these undeniable truths Brexit would strengthen the Right and that stopping this trumps all other considerations. The only way that this argument can be made to work is by recategorising the biggest, most venal, most powerful sections of our ruling class, those with the most intimate connections with US imperial power, the monopolies, the biggest banks, the military and security elite, the top strata in the media and their monopoly owners and the class collaborationist, pro NATO wing of the Labour movement, as on this issue alone, progressive.
Some even advance the argument beyond this immediate conjuncture to suggest that there is no progressive alternative to Britain’s membership of the EU and that membership should become a cornerstone of left wing strategic thinking.
One normally reliable commentator argues thus: “There is no viable left wing, socialist, or progressive case for Britain leaving the EU – and certainly not in the current political and economic climate. What there is in truth is a campaign for exit (Brexit) that is dominated by the ugly far-right politics of anti-immigration, xenophobia, and British nationalism. That section of the left that is also campaigning for Britain exit from the EU, basing their arguments on the anti-democratic nature of its institutions and its neoliberal economic orientation, not to mention increasing militarisation, is merely allowing itself to be recruited as unwitting foot soldiers by right and far right in what qualifies as a catastrophic collapse of judgment, if not principle.”*
(John Wight. Socialist Unity blog)
However, from the socialist standpoint – if by socialist we mean that tendency which sees winning state power in the hands of the working class as its strategic goal – surrender to the diktat of big business, the banks (and the projection of US imperial power) is a big price to pay for a temporary escape from the shadow of Farage, Johnson and Gove. How the more poisonous embrace of Cameron, Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker is considered less toxic remains a mystery.
If, however, left wing Remainers think that the prospects for the working class winning power are enhanced by the permanence of the European Union they need to provide a credible strategy for changing the EU. The alternative lies in facing the undeniable truth that accepting the permanence of the EU means the effective abandonment of socialist aims.
If they still adhere to the goal of socialism left wing supporters of Britain remaining in the EU need to map out a convincing strategy for winning power within the institutions of the EU and explain how this might change the balance of power in each of the member states, or at least in a strategically decisive number of such state entities across the EU.
The same obligations, of course, apply to left wing supporters of Brexit. They, at least, have the significant advantage that the heritage of marxist orthodoxy confers. In arguing against the idea of a ‘United States of Europe under capitalism’ Lenin asserted the viability of a victory of socialism in one country.
Most of those claimants to a ‘left’ identity who posit the European Union as the site of struggle have much less advanced aims. Some limit themselves to safeguarding the diminishing protections that the EU supposedly offers in employment, environment and human and consumer rights.
The more ambitious, the former Greek finance minister Varoufakis for example, aims for ‘a Europe of Reason, Liberty, Tolerance and Imagination made possible by comprehensive Transparency, Real Solidarity and authentic Democracy.’ That achieving these laudable goals is deferred to some indeterminate point in the future comes to little surprise to any observer familiar with the intangible results of his earlier activities.
In all these accommodations to an actually existing EU there is a striking absence of theoretical investigation to the how the real centres of political and economic power are to be secured – ownership, ideological hegemony, the role of supra state institutions like the World Bank, ECB, IMF ETC, of military alliances and the military, police and intelligence coercive apparatuses available both to states and supra state institutions. And how these might be subverted.
The argument turns on what constitutes the best terrain for “the workers by hand or by brain to secure the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.
The Brexit Left, in the main, is clear that this means a decisive rupture with the EU, a challenge to the diktats of the Troika, a dismantling of the institutions of the coercive state and the international military and intelligence alliances that underpin capitalist power in each of the countries of the EU and all of this bound up with an assault on the system of private ownership.
By way of contrast, on the Britain in Europe Left, limits itself to a discussion about what incremental gains can be won within the decision-making structures of the EU. Consideration of whether or how the EU can be transformed remains sketchy.
Winning state power for the working class is, of course, an advanced idea. The political left in Britain, and the wider labour movement have immediate practical concerns – combatting anti union laws, defending the NHS and the remaining elements of the welfare state, rolling back the tide of privatisation, etc, etc. Central to these is securing the new leadership of the Labour Party and widening the party’s support and winning elections at local and national level. This is important work in which success or failure informs the strategic debate about how to further socialist aims. Lack of clarity and agreement on strategy is no barrier to close alliances in day-to-day work. But strategic matters are important and are informed by the stand taken on more pressing matters.
The Labour movement Lexit tendency naturally includes both reformists and revolutionaries, both of various stripes. Some, mostly motivated by notions of sovereignty, are prepared to campaign alongside bourgeois and petit-bourgeois Leave campaigners. Others, the Communist Party and other left wing groups find this too much.
When the referendum is over our fractured ruling class will have the task of maintaining the continuity of bourgeois hegemony either in conformity with the EU or in a negotiated accommodation with it. Already there are suggestions that a parliamentary majority in favour of remaining within the EU could subvert the popular will. Not for the first time.
For the working class and labour movement and for the political left the immediate task will be to find a way of reaching out to those millions of Labour voters lost by Blair and Brown, many of whom need to be won back from their present submission to bourgeois ideas of one kind or another including support for UKIP, the SNP etc.
It is easy to understand why key figures in the leadership of the Labour Party – still burdened with a policy overhang from New Labour and under assault from the Blairites and media – feel unable, in the interests of maintaining party unity, to keep continuity with their long standing critique of the EU.
Nevertheless reality has to be faced. Giving way on these issues and thus strengthening illusions about the potential of contemporary capitalism to deliver the kinds of material gains that were available before the present neo-liberal order is not the best way to strengthen socialist understanding or secure clear sighted leadership for the Labour movement.
As we mark the anniversary of the 1926 General Strike it is well to remember how, despite the massive mobilisation and militancy of the workers, when the prime minister put it to the Labour movement leadership that they had either to give way or challenge for state power they took fright and surrendered. That is why clarity around a socialist strategy for working class state power is necessary.
Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto
* John Wight. Socialist Unity blog