What to do about the EU Referendum? Aneurin Delmas, reproduced from Issue 2 of the journal
A frightful little hobgoblin is haunting Britain, and all the powers of finance capital and the City of London have entered into a holy alliance to chase this gremlin out: Cameron and co, the Confederation of British Industry, Conservative and Liberal have aligned in an unholy grouping against the spectre of British Exit (Brexit)! Two things result from this fact:
1. Brexit is acknowledged to be a threat.
2. It’s high time we left the EU and went our own way.
Or so both the left and right of the Brexit campaign would have you believe. In their own strange alliance, the right wing of the Tory party and many sections of the far left have raised their voice for this noble call to restore our right to nationalise the economy/kick out all the immigrants (delete as applicable depending on which side of this call is being talked to).
On the other side are the Remain camp, for whom all talk of leaving the European Union state is equivalent to racism (for the left, at least) and internationalism is connected to the idea of ever expanding bourgeois supra states, apparently, rather than a bottom-up free association of the oppressed. The sky shall rain blood and the seven plagues of Egypt shall be visited upon the fair land of England (and to a lesser extent Wales and Scotland presumably) should we leave.
The right wing of the Remain group is actually arguably the only side genuinely putting forward what amounts to a logically consistent argument. The interests of British capitalism would be harmed should we vote to leave. In the interests of making British capitalism more profitable we must remain, we need the trade, we need access to the common market, and so on.
I could spend many pages arguing the where’s and the why’s as to how much harm would be done to British capitalism if we left and which wing of the capitalist class is correctly pointing the way of its own interests. I could but I haven’t the space, suffice to say that I would be tempted to argue that, from the point of view of British capitalism, it would be desirable to remain within the trading bloc that constitutes the European Union and the protections it provides. However, our interests as workers are not the interests of British capitalism, so how should we engage with this development?
Firstly, let us do away with some of the claims of the Remain camp on their most basic level. The Remain camp argument, that a vote to leave is a vote for racism, on a conscious level is false. The Leave campaign, as we have seen, has been populated by the voices of the Left, whether radical or social democrat, as well as the populist right. This alone does not necessarily make a Leave vote inherently anti-capitalist or anti-racist or correct, but it should give people reason for pause whilst thinking that it is somehow inherently anti-immigrant to vote Leave.
Also, and this should not have to be said but perhaps it needs repeating, proletarian internationalism has nothing to do with the enlargement of bourgeois states over greater and greater territory. The implicit argument, that the enlargement of the European Union is an inherently progressive internationalist move, is un-Marxist in the extreme. It misunderstands internationalism. Internationalism must be a free association of the oppressed, or not at all. The international cooperation and solidarity between the bourgeois of different nations is not ours to champion. We are in favour of an internationalism of oppressed peoples in opposition to their oppressors. As we have seen with Greece, with Trade Union rights in the UK and with Fortress Europe’s treatment of migrants, the EU has done not a jot for this.
Free movement is the key argument of those supporting the idea that to remain is inherently internationalist. But what free movement is there for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who live in camps like the Calais Jungle or drown at sea? The free movement of Europeans across the continent is based upon an even greater and even tighter opposition to allowing those from outside Europe in. It is based upon the myth of a European-wide identity in opposition to all others. This is not internationalism in any sense that I recognize – What purpose is there in trading one bourgeois nationalist myth for another? The other types of arguments of a catastrophic nature, from the ‘Putin will invade if we leave’ to the claim of the beginning of World War Three, don’t even warrant an argument. Such things are science-fiction nonsense and I have not the space to detail the long list of historical and economic reasons why they are false.
Finally we must deal with the notion that the European Union protects workers and the oppressed and their rights. As we have shown, it does little for those migrants from outside Europe, and surely Greece should put pay to the lie that it has some kind of inherent social contract with workers. However, in case this is not sufficient, two things must be made clear; Firstly that the UK has (as have most other member states) long since negotiated an opt-out of the social aspects of the European Union, and that the EU is not the enforcer of the Human Rights legislation – this is done by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Even if it were true that a bourgeois court was the best defense we had of our rights, we could remain a member of the ECHR. However, we are Marxists and know that relying on the instruments of the state of the class enemy to defend us is the height of folly and leads only to ruin. We win our rights and exercise them because of our own might and ability to defend them, not due to some mystical humanitarian turn of the capitalist class.
In addition, those sections of the far left, chief amongst which are the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and the assorted left-of-Labour radicals in trades unions like the Railway Maritime and Transport workers’ Union, who have thrown their line, hook and sinker into the Leave campaign are formally correct. They argue that the European Union’s influence is an objective obstacle to socialism. Its constitution enforces neoliberalism, and any transition to socialism would be unequivocally impossible within its confines. They argue that episodes like Greece show the need to break from it. This is true in the strictest sense of things, however, as we shall see, it does not simply flow from this that a Leave vote is necessarily correct at this moment, not to mention that the current conduct of the Left Exit (Lexit) from the left factions phrase the question in misleading terms.
Therefore, we can show that the Remain camp is nothing more than opportunistically tagging on to bourgeois liberal conceptions of internationalism, that their argument is false, and that, from the standpoint of building a working class movement capable of reshaping capitalist society to socialism, a Remain vote is not in our interests.
Does it then follow from this that a Brexit vote is the way forward? Certainly as we have shown, the Out campaigns of the Left are formally correct. Socialism is impossible within the confines of the European Union. However, there are problems with this formulation I hope to demonstrate in a moment.
Firstly and most importantly, socialism is impossible within the confines of any bourgeois state. What we are talking about is the complete reorganization of society. The violation of bourgeois property rights that entails is technically illegal under UK state law (and any of the states which will emerge out of a possible breakup of the UK in to its constituent parts), to say nothing of the violent reaction such a revolutionary movement might encounter from the forces of said bourgeois state. A prerequisite of a socialist revolution is the breaking of the bourgeois state in favour of a new workers’ state. The overthrow of any state is technically illegal under bourgeois state law.
What is unique about the European Union is that social-democratic reformism is technically not allowed within its confines either. However, make no mistake, concessions could be wrung from the European Union if they felt that bourgeois class rule was threatened. As revolutionaries, we fight for reforms and we support all extensions of bourgeois democracy in order to better the lives of workers, give them greater experience in organisation and generally allow them to better prepare for the tasks ahead, but it is not up to us to fear breaking a few laws in doing so. In any case, even if there was a hypothetical vote to guarantee social democracy, we would need to make clear that bourgeois concessions are only won and held by us whilst the workers’ movement is strong, and that to win them completely we need to rout the bourgeois utterly by destroying the economic system that supports them.
We must also remember those other forces which are aligned calling for an Out vote. We are talking here about the populist, right wing of the Tory Party (which UKIP can be counted amongst for most intents and purposes), the elements of the populist far right of petit bourgeois reaction such as the English Defense League, and the outright neofascist organisations like National Action and the National Front. These forces also have their hopes bound to a reactionary based Leave campaign. These forces would, in the immediate term, also likely be strengthened by the result of a Leave vote on their terms, i.e. a leave on a populist, anti-immigrant, reactionary programme.
So where do we go? The Remain camp is laughable, but if, as Marxists, we are opposed to the bourgeois state anyway, then we must remember that the vote to leave any particular bourgeois state is a tactical decision, not a principled one.
Let’s look at what a Leave vote in these circumstances would likely lead to. The right wing has undoubtedly won the ground of the Exit vote; No one truly believes that a ‘Lexit’ at this point is possible. The Labour Left, with Corbyn at their helm, have thrown themselves into the Remain camp. The far left radicals calling for a Leave vote are but a small minority, although their influence is relatively larger than their own forces. The fact is, most of those looking to vote leave are doing so on the basis of a reactionary programme of nationalism and discrimination against workers from abroad. A YouGov survey (2015) asked members of the public what David Cameron’s priority should be in renegotiations with the EU. 52% demanded greater control over EU migration and 46% wanted to limit the benefits that EU migrants can apply for. This is hardly a mandate for a left wing exit.
It therefore appears that a Brexit would be based primarily on a populist, right wing programme. The forces who would benefit most from this would be the right wing populists of the Conservative Party such as Boris Johnson, UKIP, who would either march back in to strengthen the Tory right or begin to form the basis for a new mass reactionary party in this country (I am highly dubious of the argument that a victory of their main political programme would lead to their dissolution rather than give them credibility), and the far right. The forces of Marxism are not strong enough, at this stage, to take this ground from under them. Therefore, our main task must be to warn workers of the outcome of either outcome in the EU Referendum.
Under these circumstances, I believe the most sensible option for the Marxist Left is to call for an abstention. This must be phrased in order to warn workers that, whichever way the vote goes, capitalist reaction will be strengthened and we cannot allow ourselves to become demoralized or demobilised. A healthy cynicism about the outcome must be maintained, and we should reassert the need for a mass open and democratic revolutionary Marxist party of the working class to overthrow capitalism.
Yougov. 2015. ‘EU referendum polling: is the Leave number soft?’. https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/12/10/eu-polling-soft-leave/