Wayne Asher writes in the International Socialism Journal (ISJ) that “the traditional left in Britain has committed a colossal mistake in its approach to Brexit and is making matters worse by an obsolete refusal to correct it.”
The traditional left, as Asher calls it, is once again exhibiting a failure that can be seen running through its history throughout the twentieth century, involving the subordination of socialist movements to the state, in its nation state form, expressed in a capitulation to nationalism.
The subordination of Social Democracy and its incorporation into the State led to it urging the workers of each country to slaughter each other in World War 1. This in turn massively reinforced nationalism after the war, leading to an even greater catastrophe in World War 2.
The defeat of the Russian Revolution saw the Stalinist counter-revolution base its politics on the Russian State and more and more on Great Russian nationalism. Thus today we even have Stalinists who defend Russia (as if it were still a separate social system from capitalism), entirely forgetting why they supported the country in the first place.
The Trotskyist movement has fought a rather lonely battle against this and such has been its isolation many of its subjective adherents are now no more than pale reflections of these larger forces. So, we often see the espousal of ‘anti-imperialism’ without any progressive or socialist content, and a programme based on state ownership – ‘nationalisation’ – instead of workers’ ownership.
Also common is a primitive internationalism. So, for most social democrats the internationalisation of capitalism is to be supported and the working class subordinated to it. This is expressed in Britain through the majority of Labour MP’s uncritical support for the EU and its supposed progressive agenda.
On the other hand, for Stalinists and the left social democrats influenced by them, the road to socialism remains national and membership of the EU is rejected on this basis.
As for some of those claiming the mantle of Trotskyism, I was reminded of the corruption of organisations claiming to stand on this legacy by a recent article on Brexit by the Irish Socialist Party, which made explicit its perspective of international socialism as simply being the coming together of already socialist nation states.
This view can see no role, except a purely additive one, for the international struggle of workers. In effect, there is no international struggle, at most a solidarity of separate struggles, perhaps still quoting Marx from more than a 150 years ago that the struggle is national in form. Such an approach is really then the Marxist version of the internationalism of nationalism, in which anti-colonial movements reject accusations of their nationalist limitations by saying that they support other nationalist movements, not just their own. Brexit is yet another example of this left nationalism.
Asher has no difficulty showing that this policy of the organisation of which he was once a member is wrong. There are however limitations to his critique and his position could be stronger.
The critique is based mainly on the view that the movement for a left Brexit has had no purchase on reality because the supporters of it were so small. In such circumstances he argues that the Brexit project could only be a reactionary one, and so it has obviously proved.
This sort of analysis is the basis on which another organisation I can think of opposed Brexit. In effect, they have registered the reactionary nature of Brexit in a purely empirical manner by witnessing the nature of its support and effects. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party continue to support it by denying this reality and inventing their own.
Asher shows the reactionary character of the support for Brexit – that it is not a movement of the oppressed against austerity and is not a movement of those ‘left behind’.
Its core vote was Tory, reactionary and racist and his article is worth reading on this account alone if anyone is still in any doubt.
However, this recognition of immediate reality does not provide the right starting point for determining how workers should vote. It is one thing to recognise the reactionary nature of the campaign for Brexit, but to base our own approach simply on this is to believe that our opposition to Brexit is merely contingent, that we could or should look forward to a ‘good’ left Brexit. It fails to recognise that the effluvia of reaction that has poured forth from the Brexit campaign was not accidental or contingent but faithful to its nature.
Asher states that “Alex Callinicos’s 2015 article warned “the referendum is about the EU as a whole, not just immigration. Socialists in Britain will have to take a stand on the entire project of European integration”. Unfortunately Callinicos does not seem to have taken his own advice and frames everything in terms of a disembodied racism that stands above everything else, as we discussed in the previous post.
It is not clear that Asher starts from the place recommended by Callinicos either; he appears simply to argue that the immediate weakness of the left and the reactionary nature of the existing Brexit project was enough to determine the attitude of socialists:
“. . . it is quite possible, as Momentum did—to accept the traditional left analysis of the EU and still argue that the correct decision in the 2016 referendum was to argue for Remain. Whatever the levels of oppression and unpleasantness in today’s Britain, they are not the fault of Brussels but of two decades of New Labour and the Tories, and neither were reliant on Brussels to carry through such policies. Socialists who argued for a Remain vote did so not because of illusions in the EU but because they saw that the main issue in the campaign—given the weakness of the left—would inevitably be reactionary nationalism and outright racism.”
He says of the “formally correct position the left (excluding Momentum)” that “it had a formally correct analysis on the nature of the EU but fell into abstraction because it did not take into account the extreme weakness of left-wing forces and the inevitable nature of the Leave campaign in a downturn that has lasted decades.”
We will not go into what all the features of this “formally correct analysis” of the left might be, except to say that I assume it means that – other things being equal, i.e. a stronger left and weaker right – the correct thing would have been to support Brexit.
In this respect, it should be clear from previous posts that I don’t agree with this, and have argued that the working class should not seek to reverse the progress of capitalism into a more backward and purely national form but should rather build its own alternative on the basis of the international development of capitalism.
In this context, I will simply take up one point made in the article. Asher absolves the Remain left of a belief ascribed to them by Callinicos “that . . . the underlying assumption of those on the left supporting a Yes vote is that the EU represents, however imperfectly, the transcendence of nationalism and so internationalists and anti-racists should vote for Britain to remain in the EU”.
It’s not clear to me that Asher agrees with this argument, which might be stated slightly differently as being that one reason to support Brexit is that the EU does not, even in an imperfect way, represent the transcendence of nationalism.
This seems to me to be obviously wrong.
Not because the EU transcends nationalism in the sense of superseding it – given the role of the member states in its operation this would not be possible – but because the EU does represent the development of capitalism beyond the restrictions of national boundaries. The forces of production of modern capitalism in their most developed forms have transcended the restrictions of the nation state and are international in character.
The Brexit debate has been an education in quite how international capitalist production is. This includes such a range of industries that the Institute of Directors has said that around 30 per cent of companies, and so not just the large ones, have or will shift some or all of their operations out of the UK.
We only need to consider that the Euro is an international currency, with one Central Bank, that has replaced a number of the most important national currencies, including the Deutsche Mark and Franc
Brexit threatens the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, and was designed to end the freedom of movement that allowed this migration to occur. This movement is but another example of the international development of the forces of production.
In this sense then, the EU does (very imperfectly) represent the transcendence of nationalism.
And this is not just in relation to the economy. The EU has always been a political project and specifically designed to mitigate certain nationalist antagonisms. Its supranational political structure is still to a large extent the creature of member states but these states have ceded real political power to supranational bodies. This is true even of the European Parliament, despite the well-known weakness of its powers.
It should nevertheless not be surprising that the largest nation states carry the biggest clout in the EU and that the easiest nationalisms transcended are the smallest, which doesn’t however include the British. When some are more powerful than others this transcendence can easily be seen as, and is, subordination, but a perspective of going back to a Europe of purely nation states, the logic of Brexit, is quite clearly not a solution to this but a return to the problem.
The economic and political (imperfect) transcendence of nationalism is reflected in the consciousness of Europe’s population. Brexit has not prompted a growth of opposition to the EU across Europe and the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll shows increased support for it. This support is far from uniform or unqualified, but even in the UK Brexit has increased the intensity of support for the European Union.
One opinion poll just before Christmas showed that 30 per cent of Germans supported the proposal by the German politician Martin Schulz for a United States of Europe, which was also supported by 28 per cent of French respondents. Unsurprisingly the UK was lowest in the poll but even here the proposal was supported by 10 per cent, even though such an eventuality is not even presented for debate, except when it is trashed by Brexiteers.
Asher points out that the supporters of Lexit are in a hole and are still digging. This is a real problem for the relatively small forces that claim to be Marxist. As an example of where this might ultimately lead we need only look at Russia where the nationalist depths that Stalinist parties have plumbed has resulted in a programme of extreme national socialism.
This is possible, if only because the left supporters of Brexit are as delusional as its supporters on the right. In fact, their delusions are greater. Both live in a world in which Britain can become either the standard bearer of a free market world or a beacon of socialism – if only it were freed from the rest of Europe.
How delusional this can be was revealed to me this week when I attended a meeting on the Irish trade union view of Brexit. Two speakers from the floor ridiculed the prospect of 27 EU countries electing left or anti-austerity Governments, thereby committing the crime of holding back the UK and Ireland from moving forward.
Aside from the admission that the unity of Europe’s workers was therefore considered to be effectively dead; so, it would have to follow, would any prospect of socialism, which is international or it will not exist.
But what was really delusional was that this claim – that we were being held back – was made in Belfast of all places. Yes, that city renowned throughout Europe as a trail blazer of working class unity!
Where do you start with such nonsense?
In the hands of such people what we have is not Marxism but a dogmatic Marxism which, because Marxism is not a dogma, is no Marxism at all.
If the contribution of Asher has gone even some way to making the left supporters of Brexit stop digging it will have performed a service. In this light, we might even see the article by Callinicos as an attempt to stop digging.
It would appear however that some people have yet to show signs of stopping.
Which brings me back to a point I made earlier about the Political Institutions best suited for capital in varying conditions. We are schooled to believe that capitalism works best under bourgeois political intuitions, the evidence for this is not great. We only have to see that today China does not possess bourgeois political institution is an economic success story for capital in general, hence the foreign firms from western countries willing to invest there. One can well imagine that the China model has a rising appeal for some political ideologues in comparison with the worn out bourgeois institutions of the Western type.
There is a tug of war taking place between the managers of the Bourgeois Political Institutions and fixated on what is best for the future, the traditional political intuitions of the States like G.B. and the
potential replacement Political Intuitions of the EU. I disagree with you to the extent that you seem understand this tug of war to be an ideological one; nationalism versus internationalism, this makes the tug of war seem like one between reaction over progress.
If your analysis were correct then there really should be an almost seamless transfer of political power to the newer and more rational and progressive political Institutions of the EU. In the period of economic crisis since 2018 it can be argued that the newer political intuitions fared less well in handling the consequences of the long recession than did the older traditional political institutions. It is generally agreed that the USA and even GB did better than the EU, concerning debt and unemployment.
One other point I would like to make is that GB is not a single Nation State, in fact it is more like a mini version version of what the EU would like to become. Fintan O’toole is vocal on the matter of nationalism, or rather the march of what he calls a Brexit English nationalism. I don’t agree with his approach because it is solely an ideological study based on English conditions, he neglects as inconvenient the majority of people in Wales voted for Brexit as did a substantial number of Scots and they can hardly be describes as English nationalists. So I don’t see Brexit as at heart a nationalist development, though it is certainly present.
In the last instant the political institutions of a capitalist society are there to service capital so the struggle between the EU and the Euro skeptics over the powers of the Institutions is an internal one no matter the remove from immediate material interests.
Firstly, you claim that Brexit has no material base. If this were true then one might expect a random distribution of its supporters across the population, but opinion polls show that this is not the case.
The Brexit vote consisted of Tories, UKIP and other right-wing reactionaries that also partially includes demoralised sections of the working class who are xenophobic and racist but can more generally be referred to under the rubric of nationalism. Many of these right wing voters are petty bourgeois small property owners or other middle class individuals, for example older voters who have their source of income seemingly divorced from real economic activity. Many of these small property owners will not require EU labour.
There are a few larger capitalist supporters but these are not the very biggest, which have international operations, and the exceptions that exist appear to be saving themselves from the effects of their reactionary political views by shifting some operations abroad e.g. Dyson. Others are simply reactionary in the way that some workers are reactionary – blinded by prejudice – or who seek a free market nirvana; and some like hedge funds would appear to have money riding on it.
In the North of Ireland we have the bigots of the DUP and we are aware of the material roots of its reactionary base. Not to be missed in this material base is the international right, represented in the US today by Trump, plus the potential interventions of the Russian State.
There is therefore a clear material basis for Brexit that has found a common political identity in nationalism.
I do not therefore cite nationalism as the arch culprit because Brexit has no material basis but because, as you say, some of the left have been infected by it. Instead of countering its reactionary effects in the working class it is smitten itself, and in effect encourages workers in their nationalist illusions. This concern with the politics of the working class is the reason for my focus on nationalism, which is mainly English but which is reflected in an older British nationalism, in Scotland and Wales for example, often nostalgic for the Empire.
You dismiss a material base for Brexit but also reject the view that nationalism is important as well, leaving a gaping hole as to any explanation for, or characterisation of the nature of, the vote.
Secondly, you imply that the petty bourgeoisie is the real ruling class and that this undermines the Marxist view that it is the capitalist class that is the ruling class, particularly its largest components.
A number of points can be made here. First, the capitalist class is itself divided – between financial capitalists and productive capitalists; large multinational capital and smaller locally oriented businesses; capitalists in declining industries and others in newer and expanding industries. All these divisions can lead to different views on how their interests are viewed and how these interests are best advanced politically.
In a country like Britain the major political parties will triangulate their policies to capture as much support from these different parts as they can, and of course from other middle class groupings and from workers etc. In Britain it would appear that the Tory Party, traditionally the home of the aristocracy and rentier classes, is still infected by these classes’ prejudices and disregard for the international development of British capitalism’s productive forces, which are better served by EU membership. Small capitalists are much more numerous than the largest capitals and form the core of the Tory Party.
Secondly, the view of small capitalists and their middle class fellow travellers – that modern capitalism can do without all this internationalisation personified in the EU – will meet the reality of this internationalisation, so that the modern capitalism will resist and assert its interests. We can see this already by the investment strike; the shift in production; the fall in the value of the currency; the lobbying and publicity against Brexit, and will see all this intensify as a no deal approaches. Even if there is a deal British capitalism will enter a steeper relative decline. I would be surprised if it doesn’t look for a way back in once it’s out, if that’s what does happen.
You posit the greater resilience of “older political institutions” while championing the new China model? While the latter model is attractive to some, it is not possible to simply transfer social relations and the political culture of one country into another by fiat. But this is too large a subject to go any further here.
Nothing I have said substantiates your claim that if my “analysis were correct then there really should be an almost seamless transfer of political power to the newer and more rational and progressive political Institutions of the EU. You provide no rationale why this would be the case. Anyone with any knowledge of the history of European integration will know that it has not been a seamless transfer and most of the transfer has not even been attempted.
The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath is no advertisement for the particular political arrangements or economic orthodoxy of the US and UK as against that of the EU. It was financialisation pioneered by the Anglo-Saxon world which culminated in the 2008 crash and it was the decisive intervention of the US and its dollar that prevented contagion unleashing a depression. The exposure of European finance to this crisis is well explained in the recent book “Crashed’ by Adam Tooze, as is the role of the US in saving it Capitalist figures argue that this internationalist approach is in danger if or when a similar crisis reoccurred, with Trump in the White House and nationalist Governments arising in a number of countries. Since 2008 the US has partially rejected austerity while the UK and EU have embraced it much more, although not completely.
There is therefore not the simple dichotomy you posit. As for economic performance the most advanced economies in the EU are more productive than the UK whose lack of productivity growth is well known. Brexit promises a step-change downwards.
As for the performance of its political institutions, it is hard to argue that Trump and the latest US Federal Government shut-down are examples of success while the painful contortions of the British political system due to Brexit have trashed its reputation and revealed a political system saying it might have to bring in the army in the event of a no deal Brexit.
I am acutely aware that the argument above is no more than a scattergun of particular points but this reflects the points made in your comments. Some of the issues are simply too big to attempt an adequate response – the role of Chinese economic development for example – but in any case throw away remarks don’t require such a response.
On the question of Brexit itself you present no alternative coherent analysis, but reject that the issue is ideological but also rejects that it is based on material interests. It claims that it involves the managers of various types of political institutions (who exactly?) involved in a tug of war, who it must be assumed are doing so without a motivating ideology playing any important role or any important material interest doing so either. I don’t find any of this in the least convincing.
Apologies for the delay in posting a reply but wage slavery has diverted my time and energy.
I have a question for you, it is not intended to be a trick one. The question is what material interest is being served by the ideological coalition called Brexit?
If it is not the typical class leader ie the capitalist bourgeoisie, if the managers of the major firms and banks all appear to be opposed to Brexit, then what comes next? The obvious answer would be, the leadership is with the petty bourgeoisie, in the past this was identified with a class of small
farm owners, but the farmers are not the main organisers organiser of Brexit. Then there that part of the petty bourgeoisie we refer to as the professional service providing middle class, ie the teachers, doctors, lawyers, but as you pointed the strata with the highest educational background constitute the primary opposition to Brexit. We seem to be left with the capitalist middle class, the new petty bourgeoisie, the owners of small businesses. There is a problem with this
explanation as well, because the small business owners are those who benefit most from the lower labour costs that accrue from the free movement of labour from the Continent.
Maybe Brexit is merely an ideology without a material base? Reading your articles seems to accord with the ideological without a material interest explanation. This is why you often sight nationalism as the arch culprit, something you say dominates the thinking of the socialist Left. Yet nationalism is not a constant, it rises and falls to facilitate a material interest.
One more point, if it really is the case that one strata of the petty bourgeoisie is in charge of Brexit then this would be interesting to understand, for it runs against a certain class analysis that the bourgeoisie is the controlling class in capitalist society, the ruling ideas are also the ideas of the ruling class.
“Maybe Brexit is merely an ideology without a material base?”
Think you have nailed it!