Brexit and the politics of ‘dead Russians’

I’ve written a number of posts criticising the support for Brexit by some left organisations but these haven’t addressed the original political inspiration for this support.

Brexit is a nationalist project, which is obvious when the likes of UKIP or the right wing of the Tory Party declare their support for it.  However, this is also true of its supporters on the left

‘Lexit’ is simply a left version of Brexit nationalism and left or right, it is nationalism which defines both types of support.  In effect, it doesn’t matter whether the intentions of these leftists are good, or they get one thing right – that the EU is a creation of international capitalism – the left supporters of Brexit have rallied behind a reactionary cause.

So, for example, it is not just the case that left supporters of Brexit were drowned out during the referendum by the more obviously reactionary campaigns; the argument of these people was invisible because it was fundamentally no different from that of the mainstream Leavers.   Both assumed the need to defend the predominant role of the nation state against the internationalisation of the economy and society, including its political form in the shape of the EU.

This can be seen in the many parallels between the arguments of the right-wing supporters of Brexit and its left echoes. Again and again the arguments presented by both, such as they are, are fundamentally the same, as we will see in a later post.  Both denounce the lack of accountability in the EU and compare it unfavourably with the democratic character of member states.  Then we’re told that it’s simply choice between the two.  A simple choice – with a straightforward outcome.

If anyone doubts the similarity, confirmation can be found in the fact that these left nationalists voted for the Tory-UKIP Brexit.  Whatever differences were inside their head never escaped it, even in order to abstain, never mind vote against.

Nothing has changed since the vote. These left nationalists have since failed to offer any alternative to the obvious shambles that has resulted from the decision they helped to make. Where are the left-wing pro-Brexit demonstrations? Where are all the meetings to welcome the great leap forward and discuss next steps?  Why is the left not marching in its own contingent from Sunderland to London as I write this blog?

If there’s a special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit without a plan, the supporters of Lexit have their own particular space already booked.  They are more invisible now than they were before the vote, in some cases attempting to hide behind the patently absurd pretence that what they voted for is not now really that important.

This, for example, is the argument of the most significant supporters of Brexit, which is wrapped around the leadership of the British Labour Party, whose alternative version of Brexit to Theresa May’s is not fundamentally different to her Withdrawal Agreement, including the ‘red lines’ she was forced to abandon.

These include inside the EU customs union while Britain can still negotiate its own trade deals, and participation in the Single Market but without acceptance of its most progressive feature – the free movement of people within the EU.  And the biggest lie of the lot – that you can have a ‘jobs Brexit’ and the left social democratic plans of a new Labour government can go ahead unaffected.

Unfortunately we do have the spectacle of a ‘left’ Labour leadership opposing the free movement of people.  If some supporters of Lexit were forced to sit at a typewriter and type ‘we must oppose the free movement of people’ endlessly, like a Jack Nicholson character in ‘The Shining,’ it would not be surprise if they still failed to register just how utterly reactionary this is.

Strip away the stock left phrases and the argument of the left supporters of Brexit is essentially the same as that of its right-wing custodians. Some cases are more obvious than others.  The example of the Communist Party of Ireland is one of the more obvious, which should not be a surprise, and this will be covered in the next two posts.

This is because it is Stalinism, the nationalist distortion of socialism and Marxism, that is the real political inspiration for left support for Brexit.  It turns out, as if it should really be any surprise, that the old debates by ‘dead Russians’ about the nature of socialism are neither obscure nor irrelevant.  And because they are not irrelevant, neither are the writings of Marx and Engels from whom those who defended the traditional internationalism of the socialist movement in these debates derived their ideas.

These writings include the ‘Communist Manifesto’ in which Marx enthusiastically acknowledges the development by capitalism of a world market, as the grounds upon which the working class created by this development could establish a new socialist society.  This development of capitalism created a new working class, which in turn created an industrial and political movement that was imbued with a confidence that they were on the side of history, a confidence that socialism was all but inevitable.

Do not fear the development of capitalism because it is creating its ‘grave diggers’.  Do not fear the dissolution of old barriers and restrictions, of old conventions and customs because these pave the way for a completely new set of human relationships.  Do not fear the socialisation of capital and the undermining of national divisions because on such processes an international class will be formed and an international movement of workers created.

Capitalism will again and again create a working class in its own image and the reflection that will stare back at it will be just as international in its politics and organisation. Giving birth to it will not be painless or easy, but then the creation of the new never is.  We should not however put ourselves in a position where the political right can point to us and ridicule us like Cameron did to Blair and say – ‘you used to be the future once’.

These views about the nature of socialism meant the movement looked forward not backwards and it is from these that it derived its confidence in its ultimate success, its hopes for the future and its positive programme of transformation. It is therefore not only from the defeats of the working class that the socialist movement lost this confidence, now long evaporated.  It will not come back for as long as the movement seeks only to retard capitalism, to limit it and tame it, or even to stymie it, strangle it or simply to smash it.

The left, as has been pointed out with glee by its opponents, has long been berated for being negative, for always knowing what it is against but not what it is for.  What it is for in a real sense, not empty phrases that are without content, without any practical or immediate application, or if they are real, are simply promises to return to a previous form of capitalism that failed to survive.

So the left is against austerity, against war, against inequality and discrimination.  But when it comes to positive answers the opposition to austerity turns out to involve expansion of the role of the capitalist state, its bureaucratic ownership of resources, and increased taxation of the rich, who unfortunately of course must stay rich in order to guarantee the revenues that feed this form of ‘socialism’.

Opposition to war involves pacifist illusions or support for those fighting imperialism no matter how reactionary they are, because they are ‘anti-imperialist’ – the ultimate end point of a programme defined by what you are against and not what you are for.

Opposition to inequality and discrimination meanwhile has for some now degenerated into identity politics where this negative identification of difference is primary and the grounds for any unity based on common interest is excluded by definition.

And within all this, support for Brexit fits in perfectly – opposition to the international development of capitalism but default support for increasingly outmoded and reactionary capitalist economic and political forms.  All the better for the attempt to recreate the old Keynesian accommodation with national capitalism.

The majority of workers sense what Brexit means, even if they do not have the political consciousness to understand it in the terms presented here.  They understand the backwardness of little England nationalism; they understand the growth or racism and xenophobia as true and authentic reflections of Brexit, and they understand that Brexit means turning their backs on the world in order to subordinate their hopes to narrow-minded nationalist myths.

EU flags fly in Remain demonstrations because the EU is the only political embodiment of a wider international vision they support and want to develop.  The international socialist movement on the other hand has long since submerged into nationalist islands that stand up for the interest of Irish workers, or British workers, or Scottish workers, or workers of the ‘global south’ – for the concerns of any group of workers except their true interest which can ultimately only be defined without national limitation or qualification.

Only in form can socialism be fought for within national terms, and even here this must be less and less the case in order for socialism to advance.  The existence of the EU is a reminder of such a requirement, which is why those who insist on national roads to socialism are unable to deal with it.

And because this purely negative opposition is without any positive content, the left supporters of Brexit are deaf, dumb and blind to the consequences of the no deal Brexit their position requires them to support – for they can hardly support a deal with the hated EU that the whole purpose of Brexit is to destroy.  Again and again the consequences of their decision is attributed to someone else – the Tories, the EU or just capitalism in general.

Key to this degeneration of the socialist movement was the defeat of the revolutionary wave that followed the First World War, itself a reflection of the continued vigour of capitalism, and especially the defeat of the Russian revolution.  From this defeat grew the ugly and deformed phenomenon of Stalinism and the nationalist distortion that was defined as socialism in one country and individual ‘national roads’ to socialism.

This is the history, and these are the conceptions, that lie behind left support for Brexit.  The appearance of a new generation of political consciousness, not necessarily only of young people, provides an opportunity to renew socialism on the internationalist grounds on which it once stood.  The last thing it needs is the dead hand of Stalinism suffocating it with defeated strategies and the promise of a future ‘socialism’, which oppressed millions of workers and which was decisively rejected by them when they got the chance.

This is therefore the importance of rejecting the left nationalism that stands behind support for Brexit and the Stalinism that has inspired it.

6 thoughts on “Brexit and the politics of ‘dead Russians’

  1. Just chanced upon an interview with Wolfgang Schauble reflecting on his time as the most powerful finance minister in Europe. He tells us that he offered Alexis Tsipras the option to leave the Euro currency zone for a ten year period and offered a 50 billion Euro fund to assist Greece with the change back to its own currency to smooth the way. Schauble argued that the Greek economy was too weak to remain in the single currency and as a patriot who greatly favoured the reunification of Germany he wished to help Greece to avoid punishing austerity that might have go on forever if Greece stayed within the single currency. Schauble even refers to it as a patriotic proposal for Greece.

    This is a bombshell of an interview because it tells us that it was Alexis Tsipras who flatly refused to take up the German finance ministers generous economic offer for nothing but ideological reasons. Schauble also says that Tsipras contacted both Angela Merkel and President Obama to fight Schauble’s proposal to help out Greece. He even said that he offered Merkel his resignation over the matter and she declined. This story rewrites the usual story of Syriza in power in Greece. It was Tsipras with his blind loyalty to the Euro grand project that kept Greece in a death spiral of austerity when a viable alternative was put on the table. The proposal was that Greece could leave the single currency with the blessing of the EU and the help of a substantial German gift.

    On behalf of Syriza and European Social democracy, Tsipras said NO and called on Washington to twist the arm up Merkel’s back , for Tsipras it was the Euro all the way down to the last cent. What a Betrayal of the workers of Greece.

    • I haven’t seen this interview but I would caution against believing that this was any sort of generous offer. All sorts of such offers are conceivable, and were opposed by the German Government, but this isn’t one of them. Schauble wanted Greece out of the Euro so an offer to leave for 10 years only would require a level of naivety off the scale. Forget about the proverb about Greeks bearing gifts, it’s a warning about a German bearing gifts that is apposite in this case.

      If Tsipras showed blind loyalty to the Euro he was backed by the majority of the Greek people so it’s difficult to argue that in this respect he betrayed them.

      Your fundamental problem here is the belief that leaving the Euro was any sort of solution. It wasn’t and still isn’t. The Greek capitalist class would have kept their Euros, the workers would have been left with less valuable new Drachmas, and their standard of living would have been cut in one fell swoop. Meanwhile there would be little reason to believe that the depreciation of the currency would improve the produvtiveness of the Greek economy, which was part of the real problem, and the outstanding Euro debt would still have to be paid, but now with these less valuable new Drachmas.

  2. The first premise of your argument is that Brexit is a nationalist project, which you say is obvious. Well it is not obvious and in fact I contend if this is true it is only at a very superficial level. Some of the support for Brexit has drawn on British symbols passed around as if they are national symbols despite the fact that there are at least three nations combined in Great Britain.

    The economic policy of Nigel Farage and the ERG group of MPs is not nationalist in the sense of autarchy; based on economic self closure, in fact it for free trade on a grander scale than already exists with the European Union. The main charge against the EU as stated in economic terms is that it is ‘restrictive’ and ‘protective’ in many areas of economic activity. The proposals of those in charge of the Brexit process in contradistinction to some of the less than astute followers is for ever more neo-liberal spun economic solutions than are currently normative, with a no deal brexit they have committed to the immediate removal of most import tariffs, exempting only beef and fish. Those in charge of Brexit are positively Austrian in their free market economic thinking.

    As for the British far Left it is not correct to associate this menagerie with ‘Socialism in one Country’ and nationalism. The doctrine of socialism in one country only makes sense in the setting of a ruling State bureaucracy, the doctrine losses its explanatory power without the prevalence of a privileged bureaucracy.

    The policy of the British far Left is not Stalinist or a derivative of Socialism in one Country, it is not even socialist, it is reformists and owes more to Keynes than to Marx. The economic policy of the British Far Left is a version of Keynesian economics, what the economy requires today are a set of fiscal measures and not a set of monetary measures. One derivation of advocating fiscal measures over monetary measures is that the EU Treaties are said to forbid some of the things needed, like State borrowing and spending above a very low threshold. Given this it makes economic sense for reformists to start from a premise being disloyal to the neo liberal dogmatism of the EU.

    In the quarrel over Brexit, in one camp we find FREE TRADE revolutionists like Farage and the ERG and in the other camp we have neo-liberal dogmatists like Wolfgang Schauble who blocked every Keynesian fiscal measure proposed by Yanis Varoufakis to assist Greece, his book is a great insight into the economic orthodoxy of the EU bureaucracy.

    If both sides of the Brexit quarrel are really committed to proposing very similar neo liberal based solutions to the problems facing capitalism why the political crisis? The answer is that since the 2008 recession international capitalism has been in a state of perplexity and hence a state of political divide as to what to do next. As I pointed out in an earlier comment the Euro zone has failed worse than the USA and countries like Britain in wrestling with the consequences of Long Recession, the EU is slow to reach consensus and often fails to act, it can look like the Titanic in sail before it hits the next big iceberg and most current analysis says it is in really bad economic health. The Italian debt situation is a great iceberg bigger than any known thing out there. . The British in the form of the Brexit campaigners believe they are getting their country off the EU Titanic before it hits the next Iceberg and drowns them in the icy water. I don’t know if the British are stupid or wise about the looming fate of the Eurozone, what I do know is that what was once an economic success story looks more and more a story of economic failure, every time I take a look at the EU I think of Italy, one of its founding members.

    The British ruling class are more astute than the Europeans, the historic record shows that, the French ruling class have stumbled from one disaster to the next, I have lost count of how many Republics have collapsed, Macron has a new set of proposals for the EU that only a French rationalist could possibly believe in. He is just the right man to finish off the EU.

    • You reject the charge that Brexit is a nationalist project and that it may be true only at the superficial level.

      Firstly, the superficial level should not be ignored since it is the reason the vast majority of Leave voters support Brexit – to gain control of ‘our laws’, “our borders’, ‘our money’ and ‘our trade’, as Theresa May so tersely puts it. UKIP, which inspired Brexit, is called the UK INDEPENDENCE Party and the Tories are stuffed with ‘euro-sceptics’ who oppose the perceived diminution of national sovereignty involved in EU membership.

      Secondly, the economic policy of Farage and ERG is based on a wildly exaggerated view of the current and future importance of Britain, which they believe can achieve better trade deals than the EU despite being smaller and weaker. This nationalist delusion has been described as Empire 2.0 and is not based on any appreciation of international relations but starts from opposition to pooling sovereignty and power in favour of unilateral exercise of them by Britain alone. On top of this economic policy is an authoritarian and xenophobic policy based on English nationalism expressed for example in opposition to immigration.

      Thirdly, the nationalist project that is Brexit is falling apart precisely because it is a nationalist project that no longer accords with internationalisation of capitalism. The contradiction between them constantly imposes itself and appears openly when Theresa May’s red lines have to be dropped or the claims made by Boris Johnson and Rees-Mogg etc. prove to be ridiculously at variance with the facts. One should not use this to say that actually the project is not a nationalist one, just because it won’t work as intended, if at all.

      As for the British far Left you say that “it is not correct to associate this menagerie with ‘Socialism in one Country’ and nationalism. The doctrine of socialism in one country only makes sense in the setting of a ruling State bureaucracy, the doctrine losses its explanatory power without the prevalence of a privileged bureaucracy.”
      In so far as for the far left is concerned, the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ applies perfectly to those who believe that because it is assumed that the EU will prevent state ownership we must leave, and socialism introduced by widespread nationalisation. Of course nationalisation is not socialism but the far left has long acted as if it is, and if it was introduced in a large-scale way you would find the bureaucracy expand that you feel is required in order to make this characterisation.

      And yes, this policy of the left supporters of Brexit belongs more to Keynesianism than Marxism, but this is how they conceive of socialism. For Corbyn, what Marxists would consider social democracy is for him socialism. I have argued that even this social democracy is impossible in one country.

      The free traders of the ERG will, if they were successful, either preside over the destruction of much of British industry and/or find that free trade deals involve all sorts of rules and regulations that they affect to oppose as attributes of the EU.

      You ask “If both sides of the Brexit quarrel are really committed to proposing very similar neo liberal based solutions to the problems facing capitalism why the political crisis?” But then you also describe one group as “revolutionists” and the other as “neo-liberal dogmatists”. In fact there is more than one way of skinning the working class cat but some ways show more sense than others. It should be no surprise if different fractions of the capitalist class seek different ways and do so under different ideological banners. That is the argument I have been making.

      It is therefore not the case that they propose “very similar neo liberal based solutions.” Staying in the EU is not the same as national isolation. The working class and socialists are not indifferent to this choice, and are not in favour of a screwed-up capitalism in which they would suffer most just because they want to destroy it. The much more important point is that they want to replace it, and trying to move history backwards is not the way to bring the future forward.

      As for the titanic analogy, as one EU negotiator put it, Brexit is like the titanic voting to move the iceberg. British economic growth has largely been due to an increase in the labour force because productivity is so bad. This has been fuelled by immigration, which of course the Brexiteers want to stop. The awful French meanwhile produce in four days what the British produce in five.

      As for the British ruling class being more astute than the Europeans, Brexit has been considered a national humiliation by 9 out of 10 Brits in one opinion poll, as the rest of Europe looks on with barely concealed bewilderment. Britain has historically escaped a lot of disasters because of its island status but not this one. It would be the greatest delusion of them all to believe that the current shambles in Westminster is the height of statecraft.

      • The suggestion of free trade by one segment of the Brexiteers is also not an indication of their “internationalism”, as opposed to the “protectionism” of the EU. Firstly, there is no protectionism involved inside the EU, which operates on the basis of zero tariffs, and the abolition of regulatory hurdles between countries, via the single market. Moreover, the EU itself has negotiated many free trade deals with other economies, generally the larger world economies, like that just signed with Japan, as well as with other global trading blocs. This, in fact, given the nature of modern capitalism is the way global free trade is expanded, rather than via a proliferation of bilateral free trade deals between nation states.

        Secondly, the proposal by the Brexiteers for Free Trade is only an expression of the nationalistic content of the project. It’s necessary top understand what section of the bourgeoisie the Brexiteers represent. They represent the bulk of the 5 million small businesses, the back street garages, market traders, shopkeepers and so on. The vast majority of these know that they have nothing to fear from the introduction of such free trade, because their customers will not be buying from some foreign competitor! If you want your car servicing, you will not take it to China, for example. But, if the back street garage can import cheap Chinese parts to do the repairs that means they can make a higher rate of profit, as a result.

        The fact that the consequence of this would be an upsurge in imports, and cratering of the economy does not bother the proponents of Brexit, because they do not understand the fundamental laws of economics. They start from the individual, and from the individual consumer, taking no cognisance of the fact that many consumers are also workers, and if workers do not have work, they have no income to use for consumption. Listen to the brexit fanatics and they continually talk about looking after the interests of consumers not producers, and they do so, because in the process they also see that if producers are pressure by cheap imports, then the workers employed by those producers, will in turn be pressured to take lower wages, accept longer hours, more precarious conditions and so on, so that the rate of surplus value is driven up. It is a return to more primitive conditions that necessarily flows from trying to operate the economy within the bounds of a national economy, rather than a larger economic structure.
        But, the fact is that whatever the Brexiteers might say about wanting such free trade, as soon as the devastating consequences of it, materialised, it would soon respond in a sharp volte-face, and the imposition of protective measures, and a steady slide towards autarky, as all such ventures have done in the past.

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