The Left against Europe 3

is006-250In 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.”

is007-250These 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.”

ISdownload (1)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.”

And further:

“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.”

28download (1)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

The Left against Europe 2

PUB 193-23 - EuropeIn explaining the opposition of the left in Britain to joining the Common Market in 1971 Tom Nairn argues that the working class had succumbed to nationalism long before and that nationalism had successfully corralled the rising working class movement in the 19th century. This of course eventually led to the mass socialist parties of Europe dropping their internationalist stance and supporting their own state in the slaughter that receives its centenary this year.

Having fixed the class struggle within national limits, within which it “acquired great inertia and the natural conservatism of hard-won reforms”, the bourgeoisie was able to seek new international or multi-national forms more appropriate to the expansion and development of the capitalist mode of production.  “It does so very cautiously, amid great confusion and contradiction.”  However in this movement “the principal asset of the western European bourgeoisies is a simple one: the absence of the left.”

The margin for manoeuvre afforded the leaders of capitalism is relatively large because the class struggle in Europe long ago lost any concrete international dimension.  They are able to pose “questions to which the socialist and communist left simply have no answer . . . that is, except futile opposition, evasion of the issue, or a harmless rhetoric of abstract internationalism.”  Nairn then sets forth how he sees the left’s intervention within the ‘great debate’ in 1971 exhibiting all these characteristics.

Just like today, opposition to the Common Market was de rigueur and taken for granted.  It was opposition to a super-state – one bigger and further away, built in support of the biggest capitalist monopolies.  As we noted in the first of these posts Europe was “somehow more capitalist in nature than Great Britain and the British State.  The Common Market nations are either more capitalist than Britain, or they are capitalist in a more sinister sense; while the Community’s Brussels institutions represent the bureaucratic heart of darkness.”

“It would hardly be correct to call this a theory” remarks Nairn.  He quotes the British Communist Party (CP) stating that the Common Market is ‘anti-planning, anti-socialist, anti-working class’. National governments and their elected Parliaments have no control over its gigantic bureaucracy and the British would be merely represented in the same proportion as the Italians ‘as one sixth of the population of 300 millions involved.’  ‘We would be virtually sunk without trace’ and parliament would no longer be supreme.

The nationalist and statist conception of socialism exhibited here by the CP is hardly a surprise but it is remarkable, despite the categorical collapse of the Stalinist states, how much of this Stalinism is alive today under the banner of many of the supposed Trotskyist organisations – from their bureaucratic and undemocratic internal functioning to their reliance on nationalisation as a socialist measure, their support for popular front types of campaign organisation and electoralism.  And here: their opposition to the EEC.

What this illustrates is the good old Marxist dictum that being determines consciousness, that the material factors at play in society, the power of the capitalist mode of production and its state and the political movements supported and ideologies promoted by it, are more powerful than the purported political theories and programmes of small and isolated revolutionary organisations.  So the revolutionary left organisations in Britain in 1971 opposed entry into the EEC while today there is no campaign to leave it despite the question arising now as a live issue, yet in between there has been no reassessment.

Nairn looks at some of the left objections to the EEC, which are still around today.  On the Brussels bureaucracy Nairn points out that the employees of the Common Market Commission were approximately one fifteenth of the number working in one British Ministry, the Department of Health and Social Security.  On whether the Common Market is capitalist or not he asks the question “how could a union of six or ten capitalist national states be anything else?”   But the rational question for any socialist is “which of these two sets of capitalist conditions, the national or the Common Market, offers the best future environment for revolutionary thought and activity?”

Nairn remarks that, of the left in the anti-EEC campaign, “none of them – with the possible exception of the CP – looked happy inside it.  On every hand one found doubts, qualifications, and reservations.”  Nairn then looks at the arguments of various organisations on the revolutionary left, including the International Marxist Group (IMG).

The IMG opposed entry because “the Common Market is opposed to both the immediate and the long-term class interests of the labour movement.”  “The EEC is a capitalist solution to capitalist problems.”  However it lamented the lack of any scrap of socialist internationalism within the left of the Labour Party and argued that “chauvinism is a vicious enemy which must be destroyed.”  The unity of the Labour and trade union leaders and the mass of trade union members in opposition to entry is a unity that “holds no future for the working class, and one which must be rejected and fought against.”

The IMG posit that millions of workers are discussing the issue and into this debate revolutionaries can insert the alternative of working class unity “and the strategy of a red Europe against the capitalist EEC.”  This would involve “creating living links between workers’ struggles in the countries of Western Europe.”

In the same issue of the IMG paper ‘Red Mole’ Nairn quotes from an article by Ernest Mandel which looks at the EEC as an economic and political mechanism reflecting the internationalisation of monopoly companies and the need for British capital to join their competitors because it cannot beat them from outside.

Mandel concludes by stating that the most important factor in assessing the situation is “the dynamic of the class struggle.”  Joining the EEC would cause immediate material losses to workers but they could compensate for this because entry would not reduce economic class struggle but would exacerbate it. Political radicalisation would be reinforced (although entry was still opposed).

So how could the statement that “the Common Market (is) opposed to both the immediate and the long-term class interests of the labour movement” and the one stating that an increase in economic class struggle and reinforced political radicalisation will arise from joining both be true?

Nairn records the isolation of the revolutionary left in the debate but that they protected themselves from being camp-followers of left nationalist opposition through “a certain degree of intelligent half-heartedness.”  “Honour was saved, mainly by looking both ways at once and saying two different things at once.”  For Nairn this position arose partly from the void where some sense of what internationalism meant practically should have been.

So what was the reason for this lack of socialist internationalism?  Nairn quotes the IMG author: “  It is not the objective conditions that have been responsible for a lack of socialist internationalism in Europe but a failure on the part of the bureaucratically led labour movement to live up to its responsibilities.”  So the alternative is then to build a revolutionary party.

Whatever about the truth of the latter as a definition of the solution there are problems with the explanation of the problem.

For small Marxist organisations of hundreds or thousands the nationalist consciousness of millions of workers is not a subjective factor.  While betrayal of particular struggles on particular occasions has undoubtedly taken place it is hardly adequate to say that workers’ consciousness arises from having been betrayed repeatedly for decades otherwise the working class is essentially stupid.

What is the objective basis of workers consciousness over decades in all the most developed capitalist countries?  A Marxist would look for causes as long-lasting and as deep seated and profound as the phenomenon which is in need of explanation and ‘betrayal’ doesn’t meet this requirement.

It makes no sense to say that reformist and nationalist leaders betray reformist and nationalist workers.  The often contradictory character of workers’ consciousness can see their most radical and militant notions and impulses betrayed by their leaders but what has to be explained is why this radical consciousness does not predominate and why it can be betrayed, repeatedly.

Why is the lack of internationalist consciousness so pervasive among workers?

I will look at how the left has come to these questions in a future post but the next one will continue to look at how the question of the EEC was addressed by the revolutionary left in 1971 through looking at the debate within the International Socialists, forerunner of todays’ Socialist Workers Party.

The Left against Europe 1

DSC_0122The failure of David Cameron to prevent Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission drew widespread comment that it will now be harder for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU).  If the Tory Party wins the next British general election Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by 2017.  Under pressure from The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and from within his own Eurosceptic ranks he has developed a policy that has temporarily settled the in-fighting within his Party.

In Ireland referenda on the development of the EU have been fairly frequent.  In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice by 53.9% with only 34.8% of the electorate voting.  The vote was held again in 2002 and the Treaty was passed by 62.9%, with 49.5% of the electorate voting.

In 2008 53.4% voted against the Lisbon Treaty (on a turnout of 53.1%) so once again the vote was re-held to get the ‘right’ result. The next vote in October 2009 resulted 67.1% voting in favour of the treaty, once again on a higher turnout of 59%.

The Left in Ireland has been in the opposition within these EU referenda and opposed the original entry into the European Economic Community in 1972, which was decisively approved in a referendum by over 80% of those voting.  In Britain the Left also opposed British membership of the EEC in a 1975 referendum, which was passed by a majority of 67.2% in a turnout of 64.0%.

When I was in a second hand bookshop in Glasgow some weeks ago my attention was therefore drawn to an old copy of New Left Review from 1972, which was a special issue on ‘The Left Against Europe’.  The whole issue was devoted to one article written by Tom Nairn on the ‘great debate’ in Britain in the previous year whether Britain should join the Common Market, as the EEC was popularly called.  This debate eventually led to a vote in the Westminster Parliament to join and accession into membership in 1973, before the new Labour Government elected in 1974 held a referendum in 1975 to ratify staying in.

Nairn states that the debate was far from ‘great’ and that quotation marks enclosed the phrase from the outset.  It continued what he called a ‘stale and exasperated argument about the topic which had dragged on for years.’  The Cameron promise shows that it still continues.

The ‘great debate’ Nairn says “never at any moment approached ‘greatness, or even excitement.”  Nairn uses it however to examine the Left’s opposition to the EEC and this examination is worth looking at to see what lessons it provides for today.  The issue of the EU matters to the Left and working class as much as it still does for the Tory Party.

Whether Britain stays in or leaves also matters to the Irish State.  Its original membership was only viable if the British also joined and Britain leaving would create a real problem.  Only last week it was reported that a delegation from the German Parliament’s Finance Committee had issued a report – that the Irish tax regime “had failed to reach one of the goals of Irish economic promotion, namely to be less dependent on Britain.  Instead Ireland has moved from de facto full dependency on Britain to a shared dependency on Britain and the US in developing and securing employment.”

Nairn puts the British decision to join down to the hegemonic interests of finance in the City of London and the timing down to global monetary instability prompted by the dollar crisis that eventually forced the dollar off convertibility to gold in August 1971.  He quotes the Economist magazine stating that a future attempt at monetary union within the EEC will see Britain in the inside, with the strongest financial centre and having a dominant say in what gets done.

Not quite how things turned out but this story isn’t over and the choice to join the Euro is one that still faces the British capitalist class.

Nairn notes the virtual unity of the Conservative Party in seeking membership of the Common Market and the limited opposition of a marginalised rump led by the arch-bigot Enoch Powell, who by coincidence, has had the depths of his bigotry recalled by a flag supporting him going up in a loyalist area of Belfast.  Today the decline of the Tory Party into a backward, reactionary and ultimately self-defeating nationalism is evidenced by the ascendancy of Eurosceptics within that Party.

It is examination of the attitude of the Left however that is the purpose of this long 120 page article.  The opposition of the Labour Party to joining the Common Market in this ‘great debate’, or the vast majority of it at least, is put down to pure opportunism.  Under the leadership of Harold Wilson it opposed joining for purely party political purposes, Wilson having attempted to lead Britain into the EEC when in power between 1964 and 1970.

The ability of Labour to perform this U-turn is put down to the fundamentally nationalist character of the party.  For Nairn, the Labour Party is not fundamentally a class or popular Party but a nationalist Party and its reformism and ‘betrayals’ of the working class a result of its nationalism.  This nationalism is one shared in a basic sense by its supporters and voters, which explains why – despite the betrayals – they still support and vote for it.  Otherwise the phenomenon of continued support despite continued betrayal become inexplicable, unless workers are to be understood as fundamentally stupid – voting again and again for people who betray their beliefs and expectations.

Nairn records the opposition of the Left of the Labour Party in particular and its opposition to the Common Market on the basis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘socialism’.  In this respect the themes of the ‘great debate’ resonate today.

  • The Left in the Labour party presented Britain as more internationalist than the inward looking European States.  Open, free trading Britain was compared to the protectionist EEC.  Didn’t Britain look beyond the petty European states towards the countries of the Commonwealth and Britain’s wider role in international affairs and international bodies?  The latter providing the basis for a real socialist foreign policy.
  • Entry into the EEC would erect obstacles to the fight for socialism in Britain and prevent further socialist measures by a future Labour Government.  The EEC is a capitalist club and entry would mean the loss of the potential for socialism that does exist.
  • Refusal to enter this club would pose the question of an alternative, which would allow a socialist answer to be given.
  • The independence of Britain would allow the real popular character of the British nation to be revealed through its labour movement in a way that would be impossible within the rules of the EEC.

So what does this remind you of?

Well, swap Scotland for Britain and you have much of the Left nationalist case for Scottish independence today.

Just as the EEC is supposed to be more capitalist that the British state (God knows how) so Scotland is less reactionary than Britain (which is even less comprehensible).  London rule is capitalist but somehow Edinburgh rule is less capitalist!

Left nationalists proclaim the international potential of Scottish independence in the same self-refuting way the Labour Party did in the 1971 ‘great debate.’  Nationalist separation is somehow internationalist.  Why?  Because somehow, again unexplained or simply incredibly, there exists more potential for socialism in Edinburgh than London; just as the nations within the EEC and the EEC itself were assumed to be barriers to socialism that the British imperialist state wasn’t.

Today one part of the imperialist state – with a history of disproportionate participation in empire building – is again more socialist, or with the potential for it, than Britain as a whole.  Again while Scottish Left nationalists claim that the real Scottish nation is more left wing so did the Labour Party claim the real British nation was more socialist than the capitalist EEC, including such historical bastions of reaction as Paris and Rome.

Finally, even posing the nationalist question somehow gives rise to a socialist answer, or less extravagantly, gives rise to the potential for a socialist answer.  But it’s as if, if you ask the right question in the right way somehow socialism will pop up almost naturally as the answer.  And where is the evidence for this even when, as in Ireland for example, the capitalist crisis brought the Irish State to bankruptcy and exposed double standards that made working class people pay for the reckless gambling debts of the rich?

What more striking exposure of the rottenness of capitalism could be imagined?  Yet still there has been no alternative created and still in both Ireland and Britain there is no successful resistance to austerity – the most immediate question to which the socialist movement has been unable to provide an answer.

What this exposes, among many other things, is that the essence of socialism is not the displacement or even destruction of this or that aspect of capitalism or its state but the development of the working class.  Capitalism can only be superseded, at least progressively, by the development of something positive.  Unfortunately the Left thinks always in negative terms – of what it is against – and when it looks to achieve even this it posits the existing capitalist state or some configuration of it, usually its own nationalist version, as the mechanism of transformation.

It is ironic that Tom Nairn ridicules the claims that the the fight against the Tories, for national ‘independence’, against inflation and for socialism were, in 1971, ‘all the same thing’.  This is exactly the same claim made today in 2014, except we might replace inflation with austerity and support the claims of ‘Scotland’ instead of ‘Britain’.   He shows how Labourism rejuvenated itself and re-established unity within its own ranks by claiming to unite British workers in opposition to bureaucracy and international capitalism.  Except all this rested on the unity of British workers with the British state, shackled by the chain of nationalism.

But the question of Scottish separation is a derivative lesson to be drawn from reading ‘The Left Against Europe’.  The major lesson is the need to give real content to the socialist claim that it is international by its very nature.  Not an aspiration, not simply a goal to reach, an attitude to strike or an opinion to hold dearly but a practical and immediate part of its political programme.

What he says about this will be taken up in the next post.