Chris Harman’s article on the Common Market signalled the adoption by the International Socialists of opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community. In doing so it came into line with the majority of the rest of the Left. Like the International Marxist Group (IMG) and others, IS was keen to differentiate its position from that of reformist organisations, particularly the Communist Party (CP) and left of the Labour Party.
It is worth remarking that the political positions of the Communist Party during this period are very similar to those of the Left today, including the successors to the IS and IMG, which thinks of themselves as opposed to the sort of Stalinism represented then by the CP and as advocates of a more revolutionary alternative.
The CP statement on the Common Market quoted by Harman states that:
“A new government, committed to socialist policies, would use its parliamentary majority, together with its mass support in the country, to challenge the power of the ruling class. The developing movement to the left over recent years points in this direction. That is why the ruling class, as part of its attack on positions gained by the working class, is out to deprive Parliament step by step of its authority, and to transfer it to the supranational institutions of the EEC …”
The CP concludes that “Britain’s national sovereignty is of vital concern to the British working class. Sovereignty is a class issue”.
In opposition to this Harman states that:
“A consistent socialist position on the Common Market must begin by rejecting out of hand the chauvinism explicit in the approaches of the Labour leaders and the established left. The national state is not our state. It functions to defend the ruling class, and cannot operate in any other way. The harping of the left about ‘national sovereignty’ only serves to sustain the illusion that somehow we have an interest in common with those who run the state at present. It intensifies the differences between workers in different countries. And it does so at a time when the growth of international firms emphasises the need for united international working class action. .”
Harman warns that nationalism can be a competitor to socialism within movements expressing social discontent, that this can take the form of right wing Tories such as Enoch Powell but can also arise within the working class movement itself. The parallel with nationalism today in the form of UKIP and the left embrace of Scottish nationalism is striking.
Nevertheless Harman puts forward a number of reasons why it is “imperative for us to oppose entry” into the European Economic Community:
“1. Entry is being used, alongside other measures, to hit at working class living standards and conditions. Of course, if the ruling class could not achieve its ends through entry, it would try to get what it wanted through other means. We should never forget this as those who peddle chauvinistic ideas within the Labour movement do. But that does not provide us with a reason for not opposing entry. We should oppose it as we would oppose other forms of attack if they were used instead.
- Entry is aimed to rationalise and strengthen capitalism. It is an attempt to solve certain of capitalism’s problems by capitalist methods. There was a time when revolutionaries could regard certain such measures as historically progressive. Marx, for instance, gave support to the movement for German unity. . . But he did so in a period in which capitalism as a system was still struggling for supremacy against older forms of class society and, in the process, preparing the preconditions for socialism. Today, however, these preconditions exist. Rationalisation of the system means strengthening it at a time when we as socialists argue that revolutionary change alone offers mankind any future. We have to oppose such measures, counterposing not continuation of the system under its present form, but a. socialist transformation of it.
- Not only is the rationalisation of capitalism no longer progressive in any sense, it also speeds up the development of intrinsically destructive forces. In the case of European integration this is expressed in the aim of creating on a European scale what cannot be built up by the isolated states – an effective independent arms potential. According to the British government white paper there is no other way by which British imperialism could have the same opportunities to ‘safeguard’ its ‘national security and prosperity’. Revolutionaries have to oppose this as they have opposed previous arrangements serving the same purposes, e.g. NATO, SEATO, etc.
“There is a fourth, subordinate, reason, that emphasises the need for clear opposition. All summer the makers of official opinion in this country have been worried about the difficulties of ensuring that the decision of the ruling class to go into the EEC is implemented politically. They fear that they might have difficulty getting parliamentary ratification for entry. And so they have been putting enormous moral pressures on sections of the Labour leadership to break with the party and to vote with the Tories for entry.”
“At such a political conjuncture the position of revolutionaries should be obvious. The defeat of the Tory government, in the present context of growing working class opposition to its policies, would give a new confidence and militancy to workers – even if the defeat occurred purely in the parliamentary sphere. Moreover, a defeat on the Common Market would not in fact be a defeat on that issue alone; behind much of the working class opposition to entry is a general, if vague and not fully conscious, distrust of the government’s intentions. The general anti-Tory feeling in the country is feeding the flames of opposition to the Market.”
As the alternative Harman put forward the following:
“In general, our position should be that
- We oppose the attempt through the Common Market to rationalise capitalism at our expense.
- We also oppose the ideological illusion being peddled in the labour movement that somehow a ‘sovereign’ capitalist Britain is a real alternative to entry into the Market for working people. We have to make clear that while we oppose the capitalist integration of Europe we would be for a Socialist United States of Europe. However, the demand for the United States of Europe is not going to be an immediate agitational demand in the conceivable future. That would require that political life was really moulded on a European scale. The fact, however, is that the failure of capitalist attempts at European integration means that national peculiarities still determine the tempo of the class struggle. In the Belgian and French general strikes (of 1961 and 1968) the key demands had to relate to class power in particular countries not in Europe as a whole.
- We argue, against the chauvinists, for a linking of opposition to the Common Market to opposition to the other attacks on working people – the Industrial Relations Bill, the welfare cuts and so on, so as to build up a class based opposition to the whole range of government policies, counterposing demands pointing towards a socialist transformation of society.
- At all possible times we put forward our own consistent class based viewpoint in opposition to that of the confusion of the CP and the Tribunites (left of the Labour Party). But if we are unable to get a majority for our clear and consistent positions, we have to vote against the government Common Market strategy in the only way possible – by voting with the CP and the Labour left while making our reservations known (just as, for instance, we would, if we had no choice, give critical support to a resolution opposing the Industrial Relations Law, even if it spoke in terms of the law aggravating ‘industrial unrest’). We are completely steadfast in our opposition to the peddling of ideological illusions in the Labour movement, while being relentless in our opposition to government policy.
Harman’s argument did not go unanswered. In the same issue of ‘International Socialism’ Ian Birchall quoted from previous editorials of the journal from 1961 and 1967:
“For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure. (Editorial, IS 6, Autumn 1961)”
“It is true that Wilson’s Common Market policy does involve a serious threat to working-class living standards, and is designed to strengthen the hands of the employers in the fight against workers’ defence organisations in the struggles over speed-up, rate fixing, and working conditions. But inside or outside the Common. Market, that particular battle is going to be fought – indeed, outside the battle is likely to be more ferocious. (Editorial, IS 28, Spring 1967)”
Birchall notes “that the editors of International Socialism once argued, clearly and consistently, that we must not carry out any kind of campaign against entry. Now that Heath appears to be about to succeed where his predecessors failed, Chris Harman argues that it is ‘imperative for us to oppose entry’.”
Birchall then presents some arguments against Harman: some are good and some are not. So he says that changes in general objective conditions might warrant a change of view on Europe, which seems obviously correct, but he also says that the growth of the Internationals Socialists from a small propaganda organisation to a larger organisation means ‘merely passive commentary would have to be replaced by agitational slogans’. This however doesn’t seem to me to justify in itself any change in policy but merely how such a policy is put into effect.
Among the better arguments employed, Birchall notes that Harman’s third is the “least substantial”:
“the suggestion that the Common Market aims to create an ‘effective independent arms potential’. This is supported merely by a quotation from the woolly rhetoric of the White Paper. The failure of the Common Market to achieve integration in other fields is argued elsewhere in this journal; there is no reason to expect a frightening success in the military sphere.”
Experience since the early 1970s has shown that the European Union has not developed into a military alliance that can, for example, replace NATO.
He regards the first argument as the “more substantial” one, although since Britain and the Irish state have long since joined, it is now less relevant, since attacks on the working class are a simple feature of capitalism and continue in or out of the EEC/EU. He repeats the argument that the attacks associated with membership had already been going on for some time before Britain attempted joining.
He makes an important point about how socialists relate to the opposition of workers to attacks on them that do not take a progressive form. On Harman’s observation that ‘many rank and file militants instinctively distrust the government’s entry policy’ he says:
“It is undoubtedly true that working-class opposition derives from a sort of class consciousness. It is equally true that, for example, hostility to foreign workers in Britain derives from a form of class consciousness – concern to defend employment and conditions, recognition that immigration is manipulated by the bosses in their own interests. We have to relate to these forms of distorted class consciousness; we certainly do not adapt to them.”
So, for example, opposition to austerity make take the form of nationalism. Socialists should relate to this opposition but not adapt to the nationalism, and certainly not trumpet it. Socialists and socialism, which is based on internationalism, while relating to those expressing progressive strivings, albeit through a reactionary form, should make their opposition to this reactionary form even more total.
On the second argument, he denies the claim that the EEC is in any way a progressive development because it lays the basis for socialist internationalism. He accepts the view that capitalism “cannot achieve a genuine international organisation” but since what he really means by this phrase is so ill-defined it is difficult to make much of this.
He appears to criticise the view that capitalism cannot solve its problems anymore, cannot develop in some ways and so cannot make “technical” and “administrative innovations which could not be taken over by a socialist society. We do not oppose automation or mergers as such; we oppose them if and when they cause attacks on workers, through redundancies” says Birchall.
Ultimately however since neither he nor Harman thinks capitalism has internationalised sufficiently he does not think that they are in a position to formulate an international programme. This in part derives from the IS tendency’s, and its SWP successor’s, very un-Trotskyist insistence on not having a political programme of any sort, which, if they had one, would of necessity have to be an international one if it was to be socialist.
Such a view seems odd for the time and is even more wrong now, when globalisation has been a commonplace of analysis of economic development for decades. Without capitalist development there can indeed be no foundation for socialism to arise on these grounds but IS still subscribed to the view that a socialist revolution in 1971 was not only possible but a realistic prospect. Without the possibility of an international programme however it would of course have been impossible, since socialism is international or it is not socialism. Yet to further the contradictions within both Harman’s and Birchall’s argument, they both appear to agree that the preconditions for socialism existed.
The important point within this argument is the view that capitalism is no longer capable of any progressive development. What is posed is simply the struggle for socialism. That there does not exist the material basis for the generation of an internationalist consciousness among workers, which would be a consequence of the lack of international organisation by capitalism postulated by Harman and Birchall, goes unrecognised or unacknowledged. The implications of this problem for the perspective of socialist revolution are simply overlooked.
To go back to Tom Nairn in New Left Review, where we started this series of posts: the source of the trouble is treacherous leaders who betray the working class – ‘the crisis of leadership’. This in itself is not an objective factor since capitalism is ripe for socialism, being in its ‘death agony.’ It has nothing more to offer in providing the preconditions for socialism.
But is it true that capitalism is incapable of further development? Is it true that such development would not contain, in dialectical fashion, progressive elements? As the blog linked here shows: of all the goods and services (use values) produced in man’s entire history, nearly 25% have been produced in the first ten years of this century.
And if the creation of this stupendous amount of wealth, involving the industrialisation of the most populous state on earth and others, is not enough – what about this blog here, which records the massive growth of the grave-diggers of capitalism, the world working class, caused by the same industrialisation?
As Nairn quotes Leon Trotsky in his long article
“It has happened more than once in history that, when the revolution was not strong enough to solve those historical problems ripe for solution, reaction has itself been forced to try to resolve them”. The EU is the capitalist, reactionary means of resolving the contradiction between the international development of the productive forces of society and the nation state configuration of political society and domination of the ruling classes.
The internationalist alternative proposed by socialism will be based on the common interests of workers resting on a common exploitation, imposed and more apparent for its expression in pan-European forms such as the EU. It will rest on the interests of workers of different nationalities involved in international workers’ cooperatives; international trade unions and an international party, perhaps initially a Europe-wide socialist workers’ party.
At the moment the international organisation of capitalism is in advance of the international organisation of the working class and of socialism. The answer is not to attempt to drag capitalism back to the immature development of the working class and existing socialist movement but, using the development of capitalism itself, to leap ahead of capitalist development so that the ground is prepared for the socialist revolution that will confirm the emergence of the new society that is the historical leap beyond capitalism.
Such are the issues posed by the British Left’s attitude to Europe in a forgotten debate conducted half a century ago.