In 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.
Back to part 1
Forward to part 3