Belfast meeting discusses Marxism and Brexit

Sixty or so people attended a meeting on Friday night organised by academics and the Slugger O’Toole web site entitled ‘Brexit, Borders and Beyond: Marxism as a guide in turbulent times.’  It was interesting in a couple of respects worth recording.

The first speaker gave a broad description of the Marxist view of the state – “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  It was an instrument of class oppression.  Unfortunately, at the end the meeting in replying to points from the floor, and in attempting to defend the idea of Brexit, she argued that it would allow the working class more say than continued membership of the EU.

The second speaker was an advocate of Green politics and argued that the ecology of the planet could be saved, but could be done in one of two ways.  Through oppression and exploitation or through a progressive and democratic road.  He argued strongly that important to the second was an emphasis on industrial democracy as well as political democracy.  He was also rather dismissive of the traditional Marxist view of insurrectionary revolution and the necessity of social change coming through violence.

A comrade beside me made a comment to the effect that revolutionary change can only come through violence but this ignores the point made by the speaker that the growth of industrial democracy is important, and this does not necessitate violence.  This is something I have argued in this blog in relation to the importance of the creation of workers’ cooperatives.  While political revolution involving the State often requires violence it also often entails no fundamental social change, which requires a change in ownership of the productive forces.

The Marxist idea of revolution is too often conceived in terms of destroying the capitalist state, leading to a one-sided focus on what is bad for capitalism, while ignoring the much more important concept of revolution, which is a revolution in the consciousness of the working class.  This shifts the focus to what is necessary for the working class and doesn’t assume that what is bad for capitalism must be good for workers.  It also brings to light the importance of the growth of workers’ cooperatives in changing the social life of the working class and thereby its political consciousness.  It addresses the otherwise impossible to answer question how revolutionary politics can be effective in times of peace.

The meeting was in part ill-conceived, since I can’t have been alone in thinking the meeting was about the left case for Brexit.  The third speaker was Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek academic working in London and ex-member of the Greek parliament.  He recently wrote a book entitled ‘The Left Case Against the EU’, which more or less did a reasonable job of achieving the aims of the title but didn’t make a strong case for Brexit.  In speaking at the meeting he argued more forcefully for it.

He argued that the EU was irretrievably neoliberal and could not be reformed since this neoliberalism was enshrined in basic Treaty law, although he did acknowledge, as he did in his book, that the EU was once dominated by a Keynesian approach to economic governance.  Since changes could only be made by unanimity it was impossible to foresee such unanimity and therefore impossible to see how there could be any reform.  He declared that no advocate of ‘remain and reform’ had been able to explain how they could carry it out.  His speech was well received and there was only one intervention from the floor in opposition to Brexit.

This intervention argued that the proof of the pudding was in the eating and that so far Brexit was a disaster. Lapavitsas did reply at the end that Brexit had yet to happen but didn’t go on to explain how the pudding was going to improve on what we had already seen.

The speaker from the floor argued that Costas had come to the wrong country if he wanted to argue that the British State was reformable in a way that other capitalist states were not (otherwise of course we could reform the German and French States and therefore why not the EU?).  It was pointed out that at another recent meeting on trade unions and Brexit one speaker had argued that the EU had held workers back, but that the idea that the EU was the obstacle to workers unity and mobilisation in Ireland was hard to take seriously.

It was the British State that had divided Irish workers and had been responsible for such things as internment, torture, Bloody Sunday etc.  But this was the State that was almost uniquely reformable?  A later speaker from the Socialist Party pointed out that the EU had approved or failed to criticise the actions of the British State in Ireland but this didn’t really answer the point – it hadn’t been claimed that we would or should rely on the EU or that it was in some way expected to have prevented British oppression.

The speaker also argued that the EU did not prevent nationalisation as seemed to be the argument of left supporters of Brexit, and pointed out that, in so far as critical industries were concerned (as argued by Lapavitsas), the energy industry in Ireland was dominated by state-owned companies; the water and sewerage industry was state owned; the banking industry had more or less been nationalised at one point, and the transport industry had a large state-owned presence.

Lapavitsas responded that what was important was not that state industry was allowed to compete with private capitalist concerns but that it was prevented from monopolising an industry. While this is not even strictly true – state ownership enjoys a more or less monopoly position in electricity transmission and distribution, water and sewerage, and railways for example – it avoids the much more central question that ownership by the capitalist state is NOT socialism. This is so fundamental an issue that failure to recognise it shows the complete degeneration and disorientation of the self-styled Marxist left. But we will look at this further in a minute.

This intervention from the floor finished by recalling a debate in which a left supporter of Brexit had mocked the idea of defending the EU’s freedom of movement by stating it showed concern only with the freedom of white Europeans.  It was noted that in that debate, and at the meeting, the participants were mainly white Europeans, and white Europeans had rights too; as did non-white Europeans who had been forgotten about by dismissing free movement in the EU.  It was observed that ‘the free movement of people’ had for some incomprehensible reason become a dirty phrase for some on the left.  And as someone else had remarked – left opponents of freedom of movement in the EU want to extend this freedom beyond Europe by getting rid of it within Europe first.

In relation to this Lapavitsas claimed that open borders was not a socialist position and that the alternative was Marx’s declaration in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that workers of all countries should unite.  What he seemed to mean was that workers in each country should stay in their country with some sort of fraternity between them, but that the nation state would persist. He claimed that Brexit was not nationalist, but if restricting workers freedoms to within nation states looks like a form of nationalism it is because it is a form of nationalism.  And this nationalism informs Lapavitsas’s and Brexit supporters’ whole conception of socialism.

This involves socialism being ownership by the capitalist state, and since the capitalist state is still primarily a national one it means defending the sovereignty of that nation state. Defence of national sovereignty was another assertion Lapavitsas was keen to make.  But the supreme power, supremacy and authority – sovereignty – of the capitalist nation state is NOT socialism but reactionary nationalism that even modern capitalism is leaving behind.  In this sense Lapavitsas and supporters of Brexit like him are not only wrong about the way forward but are reactionary because they want to take us backwards.  Far from separating the working classes by nationality, as he wishes to do, it is the Marxist view that workers should identify themselves as a class irrespective of nationality.  This is obviously at odds with a political view that the nation state will define their liberation and emancipation.

The true relationship between Marxism, Brexit and Borders is the recognition that the development of capitalism brings socialism closer, that the revolutionising of the means of production ,and society generally, creates the preconditions for socialism, and that the increasingly international character of capitalism creates an increasingly international working class.

Lapavitsas referred to Marx’s remark that “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”, but this was written when a world market had begun and world production had not, when capitalism and the capitalist class and its state were purely national.  The working class could not settle matters with the capitalist class of all countries ‘first’.  But the EU is precisely confirmation that capitalism and the capitalist class are now internationally organised.  The failure of the workers movement to keep up has led some of its political representatives to seek to address this failure by seeking to drag capitalism back to the primitive state the workers movement is still in.

The international organisation if capitalism exists and is therefore what the proletariat faces “first”, and must face as an international class by building up its international organisation and programme.  This is precisely the perspective of reform and remain, although Marxists will of course have their own view of what this entails.

More than this, the purpose is not so much to remain in the EU and seek its reform, but to accept the breaking down of national restrictions as the most appropriate framework for the reformation of the European working class more and more into a single class. For Marxists it is the sovereignty and independence of the working class which is the objective of socialist politics not only in relation to the nation state but in relation to the proto-international EU state, and not the reform of either.

As Marx stated before the line quoted above – “though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.”  The existence of the international economic and political organisation of capitalism through the EU shows that increasingly the struggle of the proletariat must not only be international in substance but also international in form.

As Lenin put it in ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’– “The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them.”

In seeking to deny this approach the left supporters of Brexit unknowingly deny not only the reality of capitalism but also the possibility of socialism.  No wonder their conception of the latter involves ownership by the capitalist state and not by the working class.

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