“Triggering Article 50 opens the way to progressive policies outside the EU to control capital, raise public funds for infrastructure investment, enforce equal rights for migrant workers and radically cut or abolish VAT.”
That is how Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, hailed the signing of Article 50 in the Morning Star.
He seems to be blissfully unaware that, with a swift change of leader, the Tories have stolen UKIP’s clothes and are currently leading Labour by double digits in the opinion polls. Meanwhile, because of their unequivocal opposition to Brexit and support for free movement, which Jeremy Corbyn cannot match, the Liberal-Democrats are enjoying a revival.
Since the adoption of the British Road to Socialism in the early 1950s, the CP has had a strategy which anticipated a left Labour government in alliance with the communists. That government would then carry out the programme of nationalisation and social reform that would open the road to Socialism. Building on the nationalism it adopted during the second world war, the party opposed the various developments of what eventually became the European Union as an obstacle to its scenario.
The reformism of the CP allowed its programme to be shared to varying degrees by many on the Left of the Labour Party and the unions and it became the heart and soul of opposition to joining “Europe” within the labour movement. In the successive campaigns to stay out, or get out, the CP, in particular, had no hesitation about campaigning alongside right wing Tories, even those like Enoch Powell who were shamelessly racist on immigration.
Today, it is maverick former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway, always something of a Stalinist, who was happy to campaign for Brexit alongside racist Nigel Farage. Now he is advocating the formation of a “Patriotic Alliance” to take full advantage of the great victory of Brexit. He tweeted, “I’ll fight for a People’s Brexit, an end to “free movement of labour” from the EU. British jobs with Commonwealth preference in immigration.” (28 March).
The Far Lexiteers
The CP and the old Tribune Left never had much problem with “progressive” patriotism, in the fond belief in the 1970s that militant trade unionism and the Forward March of the left in the Labour Party meant they would soon be on the road to socialism. The two largest groups on the far left; the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) and the Socialist Workers Party, however, could not go along with this.
Until the early 70s, both took an abstentionist position on the issue of “Common Market” membership but then shifted to staying out and then for getting out. In last year’s referendum, despite the changes during 44 years of EU membership, not least the TUC and the Labour Party becoming enthusiastic supporters of ‘Europe’, the two groups showed that, like the Bourbons, they had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.
Both of them, alongside Lindsey German and John Rees’ Counterfire, could only see a Brexit vote as a protest against, and a body blow for, the Tories.
Before the referendum, SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber argued: “With the political feeling in Britain at the moment it is more likely it would see Cameron’s resignation, turmoil in the Tory party, the loss of their parliamentary majority and an early election. This offers the hope of the end of the Tories before 2020, surely something to be grasped.” Well, yes, Cameron had to go but the rest of the prediction was clearly wishful thinking.
Afterwards, ignoring the basic fact that Brexit was a reactionary project and a Yes vote inevitably strengthened reactionaries at every level, Kimber tried to give the vote a left spin:
“The central issue is that it was a revolt against the establishment. People who are generally forgotten, ignored or sneered at delivered a stunning blow against the people at the top of society; this was a rejection of the governing class. The vote was partly driven by bitter anger at the grinding and relentless attacks on working class people since the onset of the financial crisis.” (Why did Britain vote to leave? ISJ 152)
Unfortunately for Kimber, then came the election of Donald Trump and rendered this argument useless. On election day itself, Trump said a victory for him would be “Brexit times 10”. Trump was certainly the anti-establishment candidate and he also appealed to the working class, the forgotten people, those who suffered from neoliberalism, Wall Street, etc.
What the SWP and the SP ignore is the simple fact that anti-establishment populists can come in a right wing form, even a far right form, as well as a left wing one. Indeed, right wing populism steals the clothes of the left in order to deflect the justified resentment at insecurity and exploitation caused by domestic capitalism onto its capitalist rivals abroad and onto immigrant communities at home.
Much of the Socialist Party’s argumentation for backing Brexit is identical to the SWP’s; they list all the neoliberal policies and actions of the EU whilst dealing in the most perfunctory way with the fact that these policies have been pursued even more savagely by the British ruling class, and for considerably longer, than by the European Commission.
The other trick the far left Lexiteers pull is to point out that the EU is a force imposing neoliberalism. Yes it is, but that is only half the story. The UK governments and bosses were pioneers of neoliberalism long before the EU adopted what the French and Germans long regarded as an “Anglo-Saxon” dogma.
As a result, it was Thatcher and Major, not the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels, Paris or Frankfurt, that insisted on watering down the Social Charter. It was they who insisted on opt-outs from nearly every piece of progressive legislation from the Working Time Directive, through to the Pregnant Workers Directive. And now it is the British government that is deaf to appeals to share the burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Greece and Italy.
It was UK soldiers, not German, who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. It is still harder to get into Fortress Britain than it is to enter Fortress Europe, as the thousands trapped in Calais and Dunkirk testify. It was Britain that got the EU to massively reduce its search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean; it was Theresa May who supported this because it would discourage other migrants.
To focus on the EU’s imperialist crimes and not to highlight Britain’s disarms British workers and fosters nationalist myths. To suggest, as the SP does, that getting out of the EU means one less obstacle to installing a socialist government here, is to regard our fellow workers in Europe as a negligible quantity in the balance of class forces.
They go on to claim that progressive reforms centred on renationalisation and public spending on services would be “impossible within the EU” whilst blithely ignoring the fact that they would be equally impossible within Britain without a huge class struggle against Britain’s bosses and their parties, plus the judges, the police chiefs and the army top brass. In fact, EU law does allow member states both to nationalise and to privatise industries. The Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, Article 345 states “The Treaties shall in no way prejudice the rules in Member States (MS) governing the system of property ownership.”
After the result, the SP claimed its position had been validated
“In the 2016 British Perspectives document we stated: ‘It is possible that the EU referendum could become a means by which many workers express their rage at continued austerity and wage restraint. We have to pose the referendum in those terms, explaining that voting ‘Leave’ could lead to the possibility of getting the Tories out.’ This, of course, is exactly how the referendum campaign developed.”
This incredible topsy-turvy logic was written in 2017. So how come the Leave campaign was rancid with racism, that opposition to austerity and wage restraint didn’t figure in it, that it focused hate on refugees and European workers? Well, would you believe it? This was the fault of Jeremy Corbyn for “allowing the anti-EU campaign to be dominated by right-wing Tory and Ukip xenophobes, like Trump-supporting Nigel Farage” (The Socialist, 29 March). Worse still “This meant that the left case for exit was not heard by the mass of the population.”
This indelible stamping of Brexit with the anti-immigration narrative of the Daily Mail and Express is, of course, very embarrassing for the SP and the SWP, especially the latter, who now want “Stand Up To Racism” be at the front of the resistance to the wave of chauvinism Brexit has unleashed. Their response has been to insist with increasing desperation that the two phenomena are not related. Since any idiot can see this is untrue they plead for letting bygones be bygones, forget Brexit and appeal “let’s unite going forward”.
The only trouble is, Brexit is not in the past, it’s the key battle we face going forward.
Benefits of Brexit?
The Socialist Party’s key conference document, dated 17 March, has a whole section, Consequences of Brexit.
Rather strangely they assert “the capitalist class have no reliable political party that can pursue their interests”. They rightly point out that:
“Theresa May was anointed Tory leader as the only pro-remain figure that would be acceptable to the Tory ranks. However, her room to manoeuvre is extremely limited by the schism in the Tory ranks and the fear of a popular revolt if she is perceived to have betrayed the referendum result.”
However, this doesn’t advance the working class struggle one iota if the biggest “fear” May is facing is “a popular revolt” if she fails to breaks with the single market and free movement . On the contrary, this shows that as a direct result of Brexit the balance of forces has shifted dramatically to the right. It mirrors what is happening in the US; Trump and Brexit may have temporarily robbed the big bourgeoisie of its stable hegemony over to the masses, but it has also opened up new routes to attacks on the working class, “native” and migrant, at home and abroad.
Similarly, in After 50 vote, fight for a Brexit for workers (Socialist Worker 14 March), the party puts forward a minimal eight-point programme. All excellent stuff but none of their demands have been made easier to mobilise around by Brexit; many of them; defending migrants, effective action on climate change, no to trade deals which favour multinationals, have been made much harder to achieve in isolation from our class sisters and brothers in Europe.
So, why do the SP and SWP believe that an isolated Britain would be a more advantageous battlefield? Well, one reason is that, for them, political strategy is little more than putting a plus wherever the biggest capitalist forces put a minus; the bosses want to Remain, then we want to Leave, the bosses do not want an independent Scotland, then we do. The problem with this is that it can easily leave them alongside the smaller capitalists.
Alex Callinicos tries to raise this to the level of a theory in an article penned before the referendum result. Drawing on the correct observation that the EU is a “Europe-wide neoliberal regime” he asserts that, “Breaking that is most likely to happen at national level. To make successful resistance dependent on a coordinated movement at the EU level is to postpone that resistance indefinitely.” (The internationalist case against the European Union, ISJ 148)
This is not just threadbare, it is deceitful. No one is suggesting that a simultaneous EU-wide uprising against neoliberalism is necessary. Of course struggles may start in one country before others, but there is no doubt that they can be spread more easily to other countries if they share the same political, legal or economic framework. Would Callinicos apply the same argument to the more general question of the struggle for socialism? What price internationalism, now?
Whether he realises it or not, he has simply recycled Stalin’s socialism in one country as the “class struggle in one country”. It is a concession to nationalist ideology to say that British workers (or Scots workers) can struggle better in an “independent” country than in an international framework where they are able to do so in collaboration with workers in other countries.
This is the opposite of internationalism and an error that will come back to haunt them again and again. Brexit will be the central issue in British, and European, politics for years to come and the SWP and SP have put themselves on the wrong side. By accommodating to a backward-looking nationalism, they have turned away from the 48 percent who opposed leaving the EU and will now, justifiably, accuse the Left of contributing to the rise of the reactionary forces emboldened by Brexit.