by Joanne Telfer
This article was originally published on the Marxist World website in June 2016.
At the time of writing the EU referendum appears to be balanced on a knife-edge and could go either way. Some imagine that in the event of a vote for Brexit, the Tory party will fall apart, there’ll be a general election and Corbyn’s Labour party will win this, bringing about a very satisfactory outcome all round but this to say the least is wishful thinking. I’ve been warning that the way in which this referendum came about, the centrality of immigration in the debate and the high profile given to UKIP means this referendum represents a turn in the general direction of British politics towards the right and that a Brexit vote will put an electoral seal of approval on this.
The Left exit position can be said to date back to 1975 when the previous EU referendum was held. The slogan on the left at the time was: “No to the bosses’ EEC; Yes to United Socialist Europe” or something very much on those lines. But this was under very different circumstances, the EU was in its infancy and Eastern Europe was still in the Soviet block. Also in 1975 the left was campaigning from a much stronger position. Since then the organisation No2EU has trotted out pretty much the same position every time there have been EU elections but registered little support. The alternative of a Socialist Europe was at some point dropped and the slogan has evolved over the years into referring to the EU as a ‘bosses club’.
In the 2014 election No2EU registered 0.2% of the vote, UKIP topped the poll at 11%. If you do the maths, the ratio of UKIP to No2EU is 50:1 and if you extrapolate this to a total Brexit vote, more like a ratio of 250:1. Lexit will be a tiny part of Brexit but perhaps enough to tip the balance. (1)
But is it logical to make an intervention for Brexit on completely different grounds to the entire basis of the Brexit campaign? Some think it is but 0.2% makes this look rather doubtful. In relation to the so-called Red referendum held in Prussia in 1931 Trotsky wrote:
“If one could designate his party adherence on the ballots, then the referendum would at least have the justification (in the given instance, absolutely insufficient politically) that it would have permitted a count of its forces and by that itself, separate them from the forces of fascism. But German “democracy” did not trouble in its time to provide for participants in referendums the right to designate their parties. All the voters are fused into one inseparable mass which, on a definite question, gives one and the same answer. Within the limits of this question, the united front with the fascists is an indubitable fact”.
Yes this is in the context of Fascism which some might quickly point out and UKIP combined with the Tory right isn’t fascism but the part underlined is categorical and unqualified
So for the purposes of this referendum, exactly what is the EU and equally important what is it not?
Apart from anything else, the EU is a trading block with a set of regulations that set out how trade is to be conducted. It’s not appropriate to argue about it being a super state or a super state in the making because the UK has no obligations or commitments to that. It’s also not appropriate to talk about the role of the ECB because the UK is not in the Eurozone.
Of course you can agitate and sloganize about it being a bosses club but really this is a hollow concept. In the event of Brexit and before any separate trade deals are arranged with various countries, trade will be in accordance with the WTO (equally a bosses club). In fact that since separate deals will be done between the capitalist government of the UK and other capitalist governments, these will all be ‘bosses clubs’. Trade is in any event something that takes place between capitalist organisations. We are not defending a state monopoly where the commanding heights are under public ownership and workers’ control.
But some will argue that the EU by virtue of its complexity and its bureaucratic structure, its poor accountability and the areas over which it supersedes UK law make it a particularly odious bosses club. This however is just the sovereignty argument with a left slogan. Here the context of the referendum is of paramount importance. If the referendum had been called because the EU was imposing a veto against the implementation of a programme which was intended to bring about the socialist transformation of the UK economy then the case would be entirely different. The entire direction and atmosphere of the discussion around the referendum would be entirely different and a left Brexit would have substance.
Neither is the EU a seat of some sort of neo-liberal conspiracy. This is a view totally at odds with Marxism. People do of course conspire but the motion of history precedes any such plots. In his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 1858 Marx writes:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”. (3)
Neo-liberalism is the hegemonic paradigm shaping the totality of the relations of production at this point in world history it is not the sole property of the EU.
Furthermore the EU is not an incarnation of Anglo-German imperialism as suggested by Dario Argentina in this journal. This would require a formal alliance between those two countries in order to export capital and extract super profits from the nations jointly exploited.
Project fear and genuine concerns
I’ve dealt briefly in the introduction with the background to this referendum and I assume that I don’t need to go into any lengthy discussion here about the fallacy that immigration poses any real threat. The demographics in fact of British society suggest that more immigration would be beneficial because the resident population average age is already resulting in changes to the retirement age with more to come. But what has come up in discussion recently is the leakage of traditional working class labour supporters to UKIP.and this has been going on for several years. What’s happening here I think is that public services have been under constant pressure and there is a crisis in housing, all of which has resulted from a heightened class struggle which the capitalist class has been winning. 13 years of managed capitalism by the new labour project has alienated millions of workers, especially those on low pay and having no collective bargaining. Even though UKIP may have dipped slightly in the polls, right wing populism is on the rise and you would expect a dip in declared UKIP support when the country is poised on the brink of an exit from the EU. So we have imagined fears and real fears. This is not fascism but it’s a step in that general direction.
The remain camp of course have been pointing to worst case scenarios but even best case scenarios do not look good. The sluggish economic growth since the financial crash of 1998 will take a hit and the growth figure of 0.4% ( 1.6% annual) is so low that a recession is entirely possible. (4) This will not lead to a general election and the replacement of the Tories. The Tories may well be under new leadership but the implications will be a further squeeze on the public sector and on the working poor, there could be closures and an increase in unemployment. All this is impossible to quantify but it will be real and against the background of a further retreat in the class struggle (remember the maths that I described earlier).
There are 2.9 million non-British EU citisens currently living in the UK and 1.5 million British ex-pats. This represents a sizeable proportion of the working class. Although a Brexit is not likely to have any immediate effect, many of these people will be feeling very vulnerable. They are protected by treaties that will continue to exist but clearly these people will have families and their lives are going to be in some way negatively effected by the discontinuance if free movement. Peter Glover has drawn attention to this in a previous article in this journal. 5) A recent BBC news item also deals with this and notes a rise in applications for British citizenship. 6)
Left wing communism?
The EU institutions are said to unreformable but just how reformable do comrades think the British institutions are? The EU has its Commission, its council of ministers and its parliament which can only amend legislation but Britain has its house of Lords and a monarchy in addition to its civil service. Given these obstacles it seems unlikely that a socialist transformation is going to begin in Britain, more likely it will will spread from the European continent.
Lenin’s view on boycoting these institutions, “closing their eyes to difficulties and trying to shrug them off with mere words” couldn’t be clearer. He says in the preface to Left Wing Communism:
If our “Left” and anti-parliamentarian comrades do not learn to overcome even such a small difficulty now, we may safely assert that either they will prove incapable of achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat, and will be unable to subordinate and remould the bourgeois intellectuals and bourgeois institutions on a wide scale, or they will have to hastily complete their education, and, by that haste, will do a great deal of harm to the cause of the proletariat, will commit more errors than usual, will manifest more than average weakness and inefficiency, and so on and so forth. (7)
This referendum is not at a time of our choosing, in the manner of our choosing or any thing remotely like the terms of our choosing. It is taking place at a time when the class as a whole is in retreat not in the process of confidently moving forward but fighting a rear guard action against austerity. This is not the time to cede ground to right wing populism and the entire rule Brittania nonsense that this referendum is submerged in.