In Tom Nairn’s review of the Left’s approach to entering the Common Market it is the debate within the International Socialists (IS), forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party, that is the most interesting.
The group’s debate on the EEC began in 1961 at the time of Britain’s initial application to join and, contrary to the almost universal position today, IS supported membership. In fact its approach was to ridicule the nationalist assumptions that lay behind the rest of the Left’s opposition:
“Tribune’s case against the Common Market remains unproven. The more one looks at it the more unrealistic seem the alternatives and the more it appears to be a defense of reformism. ‘Let us have a rich and sovereign Britain’, is what they are saying, ‘because only in such a Britain can we hope to use the State to better workers’ conditions’.”
This did not mean however that IS minimised the negative effects of membership and particularly of the pain that the bosses would attempt to impose in joining the European market:
“God knows the transition can be brutal. Rationalization of European capital might mean deep unemployment in some industries – shipbuilding, textiles, coal, agriculture, and more; it might mean a British loi unique to pass the costs on to the workers as a whole; it might mean concentrated European capital bearing down on a disunited, nationally-separate and disfigured European working class. It might mean these but it can mean more: in the same way as takeovers and the concentration of capital in this country have encouraged combine-wide organization of workers in joint shop-stewards’ committees, so we can expect to see – hesitantly at first – the internationalisation of similar rudimentary working class organizations.”
Although some of its analysis and argumentation can be challenged today, sometimes with that piercing weapon of hindsight, it is not the particular prognostications or faults in analysis that remain enlightening today. It is what is essentially different to the Left’s position today that stands out.
“If, in the long run, Europeanisation hastens this process, as it surely will, cartel Europe will have laid, as surely, the basis for the United States of Socialist Europe. For revolutionary socialists in Britain there is no greater aim. We should be the first to clasp hands across La Manche. . . . For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure.”
These remarks, written for the autumn 1961 (No. 6) issue of ‘International Socialism’ were followed up in the next issue by some more, very honest, remarks on the debate that had been launched:
“Controversy over the Conservative Government’s move to enter the Common Market established by the European “six” as a preliminary to their complete political, economic and military fusion has riven every political grouping in Britain. The editorial board of this paper has not escaped the general confusion, as is made clear in the position of the majority (stated in the editorial note, Britain and Europe, appearing in the last issue). For us, however, the terms of reference are different. Discussion among Marxists is concerned only with the means most effectively to forge unity of the international working class in the struggle against capitalism.”
In this article the author takes issue with the majority position expressed in the first article:
“The majority statement recognizes the economic basis of the Six as the untramelled power of the giant monopolies. It proceeds to the statement that “takeovers and the concentration of capital in this country have encouraged combine-wide organization of workers”. True enough. But when, in the whole history of socialist thought, has this been adduced as a reason for socialists to support or welcome such takeovers or such concentration, which so clearly strengthen capitalism and weaken the workers? Why have not the authors of the majority statement the courage of their convictions? Having said A, why not say B? Why not lend support (“critical”, no doubt) to imperialism, which smashes feudal barbarism and transforms backward peasants into workers often more advanced politically than their metropolitan confrères?
Of course Marxists press for the fullest utilization of the channels of increased contact between workers whose bosses combine, nationally or internationally. But they do so on the basis of total opposition to such combination. . . . It is one of opposition to every move on the part of international capitalism to stiffen its sinews, whatever incidental “advantages” may accrue (and, indeed, dialectically must accrue) to the working class in the process. Marxist-Leninists in this situation raise anew their battle cry: for a united socialist states of Europe.”
Against the argument of the majority that opposition to the Common Market rests on an essentially nationalist view of socialist transformation the author argues the following:
“The majority ask us to dismiss as unlikely the unilateral victory in Britain of a revolutionary socialist party. The opinion is noted, with the observation that, while Marxists are agreed that socialism cannot be built in isolation (least of all in economically vulnerable Britain), that is by no means to say that power, to be held, must be seized simultaneously in all European countries. Let us, however, envisage a more immediate probability: namely, the election of a Labour Government—classically rather than militantly reformist!
What finer excuse could the leaders of such a government have against measures of socialisation than membership of a non-socialist (indeed, classical and militant capitalist) West European federation? This is an argument which, not accidentally, is seldom deployed by centrist and Stalinist opponents of the Common Market, imprisoned in the same parliamentary cretinism as the Right.”
In No. 11 of the Journal a further article takes up the debate:
“For the record: the Common Market is designed as an economic arm of NATO; its existence perpetuates the division of Europe; it is designed to further the process of monopolisation and concentration of capital at the expense of the West European working class; and it is a rich man’s club whose sponsors hope that it can compete successfully against US capitalism in Asia and Africa. Also for the record: Britain outside the Common Market is equally an economic arm of NATO, equally perpetuates the division of Europe; is witnessing a process of monopolisation and concentration of capital as ruthless as any; and it is as certainly part of the white man’s club if not its chairman.”
The real issue posed by the Common Market is this:
‘Several big groups,’ writes The Times (5 November), ‘have been deliberately streamlining their work-force in preparation for Common Market competition.’
“Several equally big groups have been doing the same as a consequence of the Common Market on the Continent. ‘In preparation for,’ ‘as a consequence of’ – these are the words we need watch. In itself, the Common Market cannot tilt the class balance against us. But if we get lost in arguments for or against instead of ensuring that workers neither pay for the preparations nor suffer the consequences in unemployment, wages or prices, it can and might.”
In the next issue a more extensive analysis along these lines is carried out by John Palmer:
“. . . far from the ‘six’ being the progenitor of the accelerated trend to monopoly and wage freeze, with all that it implies for the Labour movement, it is in fact the creation of wider forces, which themselves have created the need within capitalism for state intervention on behalf of the employers in a major drive to reduce costs and ‘increase competitiveness’.
Because these forces arise precisely from the situation of international capitalism, Britain cannot be immune from them whether she is a member of the six or not. This is the fact which, more than any other, should determine our tactical attitude towards the political issues raised by the proposed entry into the ‘six’.
Indeed the same drift to monopoly and state backing for wage control has nowhere been seen more clearly than in Britain. And it has been made abundantly clear that if the Brussels negotiations end in failure, far from this move to tougher industrial discipline easing, it will be considerably increased. .
“ A leader writer in the Economist writes:
‘Those who imagine that the pressure will be off if we stay outside (the six) are under a grave misapprehension. In fact it will mean that we shall have to implement a far more comprehensive policy of income control …’
Other writers and industrialists have also been calling for ‘a more ruthless pruning of Government spending’ as well as cuts in social service expenditure, lower food subsidies and so on. It seems then for the Labour movement to pose the Common Market alone as a threat to our National Health Service, to ‘cheap’ food and to wage bargaining, is short sighted in the extreme.”
“It should be quite clear by now that the battles the labour movement will have to fight in the future cannot be won within the confines of one country. Never were the perspectives of ‘internationalism’ more relevant and more practicable.
If the working class is going to successfully resist the most serious, attacks of the employers and their state, as capitalism gears itself for the coming structural changes evolving within the system, then the key to success will be the spreading of resistance to as wide an arena as possible.”
This approach involves such things as the following:
“At the level of the struggles for reforms, and this more directly applies if Britain joins the ‘six’, we should now be forcing the leaders of the Labour Party to seek from the other mass reformist parties a common platform in defence of the highest standards of social services, of securing the maximum possible democracy within the various EEC commissions, and so on.
However, since the struggle for Socialism must be fought within the confines of the capitalist superstructure, the Labour movement should not be wasting valuable time now fighting irrelevant liberal battles on the questions of national independence, ‘our British way of life’ etc. but should be gathering and coordinating its international forces on an agreed policy to obtain the highest possible conditions both at the point of production and within the social services framework of the state.”
Moving on from 1963 to 1967 (No 28 of ‘International Socialism’) the next contribution makes the following point, still entirely relevant today:
“It is true that Wilson’s Common Market policy does involve a serious threat to working-class living standards, and it is designed to strengthen the hands of the employers in the fight against workers’ defence organisations in the struggles over speed-up, rate fixing, and working conditions. But inside or outside the Common Market, that particular battle is going to be fought – indeed, outside the battle is likely to be the more ferocious. More to the point, there can be no positive class or socialist response based upon the defence of ‘our’ State, ‘our’, right to plan or ‘our’ sovereignty – they are not ‘ours,’ and the mere experience of how little the Labour movement runs this country when a Labour Government sits in Whitehall is surely vivid enough a lesson in that respect.”
This is still the position of the majority of IS but in the same issue the minority provides the arguments that were to become the majority by the time of the ‘great debate’ in 1971:
“. . . the nationalist and Statist arguments against the Market are not the only ones. The editorial chooses to dismiss the effects of entry in facilitating an attack upon wages and living costs; there may be a worse attack, it says, if Britain stays out. A political stand cannot be based on this play with imponderables. We know that Britain’s accession to Cartel Europe will tend to strengthen the ruling class. So ‘international’ is the perspective of the editorial that the whole role of the EEC in erecting barriers against the underdeveloped world is simply ignored. . . . The fact is that ‘The United States of Europe’ sticks out like a sore thumb among our other demands. It is a bureaucratic-Utopian piety, a typical instance of the pie-in-the-sky ‘blackboard Socialism’ that this journal has exposed so effectively at other times. Opposition to the Common Market (which in this country implies opposition to British entry) remains the only possible stance for Socialists.”
To be continued
Back to part 2
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