The left argument for Brexit starts and ends with the observation that the EU is a capitalist construct devoted to neoliberalism. The British State must free itself from it so British workers can use it to their benefit.
That this is a nationalist project is obvious, since it prioritises national sovereignty and the freedom of the British state over the sovereignty and freedom of the working class. In this view the sovereignty of the British capitalist state is the mechanism to advance and achieve the interests of British workers.
‘We’ must reclaim our nation in the form of the freedom of ‘our’ state even when, as socialists, we are not supposed to let nationality define our politics, or regard as ‘ours’ a state that is the instrument of capitalist rule. But unfortunately the Brexit illusion is not uncommon within organisations that describe themselves as Marxist, an illusion applying equally to support for Scottish nationalism and ‘our’ prospective free Scottish state.
In this approach only the interests of British workers are considered (or Scottish, when it comes to creating a new Scottish capitalist state), which is why exiting the EU is advanced rather than any reform to it, or even any international campaign to achieve referendums across the EU seeking similar leave votes in France, Slovenia, Finland etc.
The organisations in Britain supporting Brexit have been careful not to trumpet and advance this agenda in Ireland because of its unpopularity. Of course, in demanding a deep Brexit and no hard border within Ireland, they are effectively demanding that the Irish State significantly remove itself from the EU, without acknowledging it and without having to openly and honestly argue for it amongst the Irish people.
The problem for any such pan-European campaign isn’t that it would fail, and would garner support mainly from the extreme nationalist right – so exposing even further the primary source of support for Brexit in the UK. The more embarrassing problem would arise from success. Because if such a campaign of mobilisation of a united working class across Europe were successful there would be no excuse for Brexit, or any other exit. The task would so obviously be to reform and transform the EU by strengthening the political and organisational unity of Europe’s working class. Returning to local nationalist designs would be seen for what they are and narrow projects for national sovereignty would be toast.
Lenin took up similar arguments in ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ when he argued against the Polish Socialist Party position on the separation of Polish socialists from others in the empire ruled by Tsarism, and on the question of separation generally. The Polish Party, he says, believes that the Party “can only weaken tsarism by wresting Poland from it; it is the task of the Russian comrades to overthrow it.” In doing so Lenin unfavourably compared the increasing unity of the capitalist class internationally with the weakening of the unity of the working class through separation of its national components
British left supporters of Brexit in effect take the same approach, and in their opposition to the EU seek not to overthrow it or reform it or transform it, but simply to walk away from it, with the vacuous claim that they are offering an example to the rest of Europe. In fact, as we have seen, Europe’s workers have looked on in bemusement at the mess that Brexit has created and viewed the threats of a dumbed down society it promises as a warning not to do it themselves. Far from encouraging the break-up of the EU the experience of Brexit has confirmed the necessity to counter the unity of Europe’s capitalist class with increasing the unity of Europe’s working class.
Lenin makes a similar point in relation to the Jewish socialist organisation – the Bund – and does not accept the existing weakness of working class unity as an alibi to weaken it further:
“What we have said on the Polish question is wholly applicable to every other national question. The accursed history of autocracy has left us a legacy of tremendous estrangement between the working classes of the various nationalities oppressed by that autocracy. This estrangement is a very great evil, a very great obstacle in the struggle against the autocracy, and we must not legitimise this evil or sanctify this outrageous state of affairs by establishing any such “principles” as separate parties or a “federation” of parties. It is, of course, simpler and easier to follow the line of least resistance, and for everyone to make himself comfortable in his own corner following the rule, “it’s none of my business,” as the Bund now wants to do. The more we realise the need for unity and the more firmly we are convinced that a concerted offensive against the autocracy is impossible without complete unity, the more obvious becomes the necessity for a centralised organisation of the struggle in the conditions of our political system—the less inclined are we to be satisfied with a “simple,” but specious and, at bottom, profoundly false solution of the problem.”
The primacy of the international unity of the working class is made very clear:
“As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.”
In a separate article – “Corrupting the Workers with refined Nationalism” – the requirement for the unity of the working class and its organisations is stated clearly:
“The class-conscious workers fight hard against every kind of nationalism, both the crude, violent, Black-Hundred nationalism, and that most refined nationalism which preaches the equality of nations together with … the splitting up of the workers’ cause, the workers’ organisations and the working-class movement according to nationality. Unlike all the varieties of the nationalist bourgeoisie, the class conscious workers, carrying out the decisions of the recent (summer 1913) conference of the Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.”
Brexit provides no rationale for the unity Lenin sought, and as we noted, is not even considered by its left supporters as a means of trying to unite across countries to reverse the internationalisation of capital that is the purpose of the EU, which anyway would also be wrong. The complete escapism of Brexit explains the failure of both its right and left supporters to have the least realistic or practical plan how to implement their chosen vision, and especially how to deal with increased national isolation Brexit must inevitably bring. Slogans are all that are provided, with a blind faith in the power of the British State to fashion a new society. The vision is so backward it is reactionary not only from the standpoint of the working class but also from the point of view of the development of capitalism.
It is understandable that some sincere socialists might follow the political line of the Brexit supporting organisations that they are either members or supporters of; or that there are those who can’t otherwise explain the fact that the small left organisations are mostly in support of it. But there is nothing very new about such reactionary socialism and it has been contested right from the start of our movement. As Marx said in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, such reactionary ideas arise again and again on the basis of the petty bourgeois class from which they emanate.
He identified three forms of such reactionary socialism which exhibited properties that are today expressed in left support for Brexit. These included petty-bourgeois socialism:
“In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.” (Emphasis added – SM)
Of ‘True Socialism’ it is noted that “It proclaimed the German nation to be the model nation, and the German petty Philistine to be the typical man. To every villainous meanness of this model man, it gave a hidden, higher, Socialistic interpretation, the exact contrary of its real character.”
So, for both right and left supporters of Brexit, Britain will bring a new internationalism to the world in the shape of either globalised free markets or a socialist British State. Replace German with British and one has replicated Marx’s caustic remarks in relation to this latest manifestation in Brexit socialism. As before, a “Socialistic interpretation” of this Brexit and its supporters are ”the exact contrary of its real character.”
‘The Communist Manifesto’ sets out the principles that still inform socialists today, even if some of his disciples seem determined to prove Lenin right when he declared that no one can discredit revolutionary socialism as long as it does not discredit itself. For Marx and Engels the first of the distinguishing hallmarks of such socialism is that “In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.”
We have seen that Brexit starts and ends with opposition to an expression of international capitalism and starts and ends with a form of national socialism, which because it is national is nothing to do with socialism.