Alan Thornett, Allan Armstrong, Brexit, Capitalism, Class struggle, Communism, Democracy, EU Referendum, European Union, Immigration, Imperialism, Labour Party Marxists, Lenin, Marxism, Masses Against the Classes, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Socialism, Sráid Marx, The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist), The Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist–Leninist), UKIP
A spectre is haunting communism – the spectre of Europe. Lenin would have surely thought the class divide which currently spans UK politics to hold enormous promise. When it comes to our membership of the European Union, the haves are for In and the have-nots are for Out. Those with mortgages and university degrees, those in the managerial and administrative classes, are for In. Skilled and unskilled workers, and the unemployed, are for Out.
Eventually this class-based analysis departs from its admirable simplicity. Most Leavers clearly do not see Brexit as a means of enriching themselves, more as a blow to a system which has failed to enrich them. The proportion of the working class which truly views Brexit as a project of national economic reinvention is no doubt painfully slender. In versus Out is therefore a case of self-interest versus the high spirits of those who have nothing to lose.
Scotland is different, with 63% of decided voters wanting to Remain. But this is all tribalism and identity politics. Whilst it still crazed by the fetish of nationalism, there will be no intelligible economic rationale to anything in Scotland.
Contemporary Marxist thought presents a selection box of interesting and sometimes novel ideas about the EU. Yet the flavours mingle disconcertingly. Where one interpretation is persuasive, it usually has the effect of invalidating another Marxist interpretation. Confusion thus reigns over the entire ideology and, to the average voter, Marxism in 2016 cannot be brimming with usefulness.
Let’s begin with the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist–Leninist), which is in tremendous health these days, having announced that, “Leave! We’re backing Brexit.” The CPB (M-L) is electrified by “the chance to vote to leave the European Union, reclaim sovereignty over Britain and deliver a hammer blow to the dictatorial ambitions of the deeply undemocratic EU.” This party was formerly quite comfortable with Maoism and the regime of Enver Hoxha, so its inability to stomach the “dictatorial ambitions” of the EU shows how far the EU must have gone. It is much the same story with the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which differs from the previous party in maintaining that Britain is “Great” and being openly Stalinist. The CPGB (M-L) insists that, “British Workers Need A Brexit.”
The CPB (M-L) and the CPGB (M-L) both believe that smashing the EU to smithereens is preferable to leaving in place an apparatus which the workers could one day seize control of. The CPGB (M-L)’s position is the less remarkable of the two, so let’s deal with this first. For them, leaving the EU would not make the workers richer – they admit, with grim relish of a party which had once paid tribute to Kim Jong Il, that “Life may become more difficult for the British proletariat, for a time.” No, the key benefit of Brexit would be to instead reduce the power, or even just frustrate the will, of the exploiting classes. Brexit has been here adopted as an anti-imperialist manoeuvre: “Britain outside the EU would be less able to bully other countries, and the EU’s ability to do so would also be considerably weakened. US imperialism, too, would be weakened by the weakening of its EU ally.”
Whereas the CPGB (M-L) remains predictably silent about democracy, the CPB (M-L) at least grants the workers a place in the story. The CPB (M-L) looks to the UK’s working class to arrest the growth of a European superstate which is “built in the interests of capitalism.” Intriguingly, such a line of thought requires these Communists to soon desert many of the Left’s traditional battlegrounds, or to even disown what many would judge to be the Left’s achievements. The CPB (M-L) opposes mass immigration, multiculturalism and devolution because all of them, in their opinion, weaken working class unity. They are unapologetic in demanding “British Jobs for British Workers,” even though this slogan was originally used by the National Front during the 1970s.
Indeed, the more that you study the CPB (M-L), the harder it becomes to identify any practical difference between this party and nostalgic organisations on the right or far right. All of them think that they can mutter a spell which will return us intact to the 1950s, when manufacturing had not yet wound down, when everyone knew their place and people were pompous about being working class. For the CPB (M-L), this has all the appeal of mass workforces being able to keep wages high by constantly striking. For UKIP, the same workers would play cricket on the village green, drink real ale in family-owned pubs, and queue proudly for their stamps in the state-run post offices.
So should Marxists refuse to combine with the right, even if their analysis of the EU is correct, due to the nostalgia and xenophobia of parties such as UKIP? This is the position of Alan Thornett, who is honestly repulsed by the yuckiness of the Brexiteers. He admits to “something of a dilemma for those on the left (like ourselves) who see the EU as a reactionary institution… but have no wish to be associated with the right in any form it might take.” Thornett concludes that, “the right way to vote in this referendum will be Yes [i.e. Remain].”
The same argument is waged in greater detail and depth by the Republican Communist Network’s Allan Armstrong. Yes, I have been thinking the same – the title is surely redundant. How many Monarchical Communists have there ever been? Presumably enough to justify the RCN’s name. The lynchpin of Armstrong’s analysis is his interpretation of the 2014 Yes campaign as an anti-imperialist movement:
The demand for Scottish independence came out of a longstanding and broadly-based democratic campaign for greater national self-determination. The pro-independence wing of this has been supported by the constitutional nationalists of the SNP, the majority of Scottish Greens, and by the majority of the Left in Scotland, marked at its highest point in 2003 by the presence of 6 SSP MSPs in Holyrood.
By contrast, Armstrong can detect within Brexit the revenge of British imperialism:
…the Right pull on the 2016 ‘Brexit’ campaign is explained by its longstanding origins amongst the reactionary Tory Right and more recently the Right populist UKIP. Their concern has been the decline of ‘Britain’ as an imperial power, and the need to buttress a reactionary British identity.
There are obvious dangers ahead with this assessment and the most obvious is its democratic implications. The Scottish referendum was not the climax of a long popular struggle for “greater national self-determination.” It was instead the surprise outcome of an election in which barely fifty per cent of the voters had turned out. You’ll note that none of the Scottish parties which Armstrong cites are, with the exception of the SNP, household names, even in Scotland. Down south, on the other hand, millions of former Labour voters have swung over en masse to UKIP or at least to a stern discontent with the EU. Almost four million people voted for UKIP in the last general election, and this even after the winning Tory party had stolen UKIP’s flagship policy of holding an EU referendum.
For Armstrong, this democratic pressure only ever amounts to foolish support for the “anti-democratic sovereignty of the UK state.” If a majority in Scotland votes to stay in the EU, and a majority in England outweighs this, then this is, for him, anti-democratic. He will not credit English and Scots alike with being indistinguishable English-speaking peoples, because this would reduce the Scots to a contrary minority which had lost out fairly in a democratic process. Armstrong has duly attributed a mysterious tribal purity to the Scots, a juju which can be never dissolved within the shared language and media of the “imperialist” Union. Against this, any democratic majority down south, however monumental, will be always illegitimate.
Armstrong distrusts the English masses for their jingoism; for other Marxists, the whole working class is now the lumpenproletariat. Armstrong thinks that Brexit “could be helping to open the door to a ‘carnival of reaction’.” James Connolly’s phrase had been used previously by Thornett back in June 2015, when he predicted that, “We can say with confidence when it comes to the referendum campaign itself that it will reach new heights (or plumb new depths) in terms of xenophobia, nationalism and racism… It will be a carnival of reaction.” Happily, Thornett’s prediction has turned out to be completely wrong. The referendum has not been characterised by rampaging racism, with Nigel Farage, one of the most anti-immigrant Brexiteers, being notably marginalised from the official campaign. One only hopes that James Marshall, for the Labour Party Marxists, is peering into the same defective crystal ball as Thornett when he foresees that, “Backing from big business, international institutions, celebrity endorsements … and fear of the unknown will swing popular opinion.”
There are three different Marxist arguments against siding with the Brexiteers. The first is that the UK state is irredeemable and that it can be never put to any progressive use. The second is more optimistic about the state’s prospects, but it judges 2016 to be marked by the wrong historical conditions. The third ignores the state and warns that Brexit will have a negative impact upon capitalism, a system which the working class presumably wishes to inherit intact.
To take the first first, Armstrong reasons that, “The British ruling class and its UK government representatives have never initiated and rarely supported any measure to democratise the EU. They are happiest with intra-ruling class deals, and corporate lobbying, conducted as far from public scrutiny as possible.” The trouble which Armstrong soon runs into is that the British ruling class is, as a class, on the Remain side, the same side which Armstrong is now signing up to.
Paul Mason, not a Marxist exactly but an energetic left-wing thinker, took up the second argument in yesterday’s Guardian. He argues that, “even for those who support the leftwing case for Brexit, it is sensible to argue: not now… I have refused to campaign for Brexit, and may even abstain on the day.” Mason complains that right-wingers “stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island” rather than “leaving the economics to the outcome of a subsequent election.” You might think that Boris and his chums have left the economics of Brexit to a subsequent election, and to every election after that one, simply by virtue of not being a permanent feature of the UK state. Nonetheless, Brexit would be more to Mason’s taste if it resulted from the conflict between a nationalising Labour party and a prohibitive EU (as with Russia, this revolution has occurred in the wrong country, namely Greece). We leave him waiting for these circumstances to one day align.
The third argument is put very well by the Marxist economic Michael Roberts. He observes that, “the key interest of British capital is to preserve its hegemonic global position in financial services – and with the UK outside the EU that could come under threat.” He judges the chances of any counter-balancing “sharp increase in productivity, investment and trade with the rest of the world” after Brexit to be “unlikely.” His overall findings are that Brexit would “probably be marginally bad for British capital and there would be little or no gain for British Labour.”
Leadership is always preferable to scampering after the heels of the masses, but none of these three arguments divulge a viable democratic alternative to Brexit. For Roberts, sovereignty, and thus democratic sovereignty, is a delusion, or “a relative concept in modern imperialism.” Armstrong airily daubs the image of “a united Europe as a federal social, secular and democratic republic.” The outline of a progressive Europe is also available on the Irish Marxist’s blog:
For those who see the advancement of socialism coming not from the actions of the capitalist state, a left government sitting on top of it or not, the benefit for the conditions of struggle provided by the EU is that it much more quickly puts the question of international workers unity to the fore and in doing so pushes against the nationalist poison that has so hobbled and disabled the working class of every country. In this respect we are in favour of more, not less, European integration and in favour of fighting for reforms within this process of integration that strengthen the working class: such as levelling up the terms and conditions of workers and undermining the race to the bottom.
The danger of this appraisal is that it gives the EU far more of an imperialist remit than it has ever possessed naturally. For an “international” organisation, an awful lot of continents and countries are excluded from the EU, and so the Irish Marxist’s logic would lead to Africa and Asia being opened up to supervision from Brussels. You might as well bring back the British Empire! There is also a fatal vagueness about who precisely is “fighting” for the desired “reforms.”
The administration certainly isn’t, as is evidenced by the austerity which is an inevitable stage of the integration process. Take, as the readiest example of this, the economic pressure upon Europe’s peripheral nations to concede the sovereignty to Brussels which will make the Euro finally function as a currency. Neither can Europe’s working class be relied upon as the progressive factor. For a start there isn’t a single European working class, with a shared language, a shared media, a shared experience of capitalism, and a shared identity which can yet supplant the affinities of nationalism. And if this proletarian unity did stretch across the continent, then why should it primly end where the brown faces become a majority? Partly, one supposes, because this phenomenon of working class unity would get more stretched the further it extended.
What about the working class being “hobbled and disabled” by nationalism? Daniel Morley of Socialist Appeal urges that, “Marxists must oppose the EU, but for the very same reason we also oppose the British state, equally a tool of capitalism.” Is not, though, the British state equally the “tool” of an identifiable electorate?
Here, a Marxist of Morley’s mind might accuse me of naivety or of a reckless departure from the science. Classical Marxism is in essence a kind of economic determinism. The state, even a brave independent democracy, is only ever marooned when there is no favourable economic current beneath it. After Brexit, the UK’s workers could all vote for a party which promises to reduce VAT or to spend more on welfare, but these options are safely contained within the undisturbed system of international capitalism. Marxism generally wants the workers to have more power than this.
I am receptive to this analysis, but I remain troubled by where it appears to have led many Marxists. They are in such deep and treacherous water because the EU’s exact place in history is as a bulwark against mass-participatory democracy and the empowerment of ordinary people. The apparatus of the EU, the faux parliament, the obscure and sometimes secret committees, have not just sprouted up for no reason, like fungi on neglected soil. They exist to put a suitable distance between us and the decision-making. And in siding with the EU, even temporarily, or because the time isn’t right, or because the UK state is a miserable alternative, then the Marxists are siding against the people. In this, they are not merely siding against a load of real, working class people who hold the EU in obvious contempt. They are siding against the power of the people as it is still authentically exercised through national democracies.
Lenin’s famous quip that the soldiers had “voted with their feet” may not have expressed a perfect appreciation of democratic propriety, but his slogan of “Peace! Bread! Land!” nonetheless conveys that to win power you need to give the workers what they want. So many Marxists today seem to be approving the suspension of democracy (what we already have – or had) on the grounds that some unspecified alternative will mysteriously arrange itself into being. Supposing, however, that this fails to happen.
Some of my readers on the right might point out that Marxism has been always anti-democratic. For them, its comfort with the EU can be thus explained away as familiarity. This disregards the quickness of Marxists such as Tariq Ali and Richard Seymour to challenge the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis when he proposed a pan-European alliance of pro-EU socialist parties. It disregards figures such as Eric Chester, who argues for Brexit within the RCN’s internal debate on the EU.
But for me, the uninspiring role which Marxism is typically fulfilling in the EU referendum conforms to the broader counter-revolution against democracy which is dismayingly evident throughout much of the contemporary Left. The Labour and SNP shadow cabinet ministers who robotically profess to be “passionate” about restricting our democracy; those student unions for whom EU membership is now as trendy as Che Guevara.
And if I can hone in on quite why I have chosen to study Marxism, it is not only because the ideology’s representatives are strangely unwilling to lead massive numbers of yielding working people. It is due to their unusual coolness about crediting Brexit with the traditional language of revolution. Brexit would be admittedly a dreary bourgeois revolution, with the powers of an unelected bureaucracy being handed back to elected politicians. We have relapsed to 1776 and “no taxation without representation.” I have a Spanish friend who jokes that we have never had a revolution in the UK because it might jeopardise the provision of biscuits. The squeamishness about Brexit could be just this old, characteristically British fear of clattering the teacups too loudly. Most Brexiteers are anxious to assure the electorate that Brexit will be smooth, quiet, mild, and with no disruption to any aspect of public life. This is undeniably comical when a rigorous application of Marxism might render it profound.