On 23 June 2016 British voters are asked to choose ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ in a referendum on membership of the European Union (EU). As the official campaign was kicking off in mid April more than 100,000 people marched in London to demand ‘health, homes, jobs and education’. While both the ‘united Europe’ and ‘independent Britain’ camps claim that their victory will lay the basis for better addressing all these issues, the fact is that this intra-ruling class squabble over how best to align the interests of British imperialism has no relation to any serious struggle against homelessness, unemployment, poverty and growing social inequality.
Prime Minister David Cameron and most of the Tory leadership, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party all stand in the pro-EU corner. Even Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and other political heirs of Tony Benn’s Labour left who opposed the Common Market in the 1970s are campaigning to ‘Remain’, as are a handful of far-left groups in the orbit of the Labour Party such as Workers Liberty and Red Flag. Across the ring are the Eurosceptic Tories led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Britain’s two largest ostensibly Marxist organisations, the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.
Political divisions within the bourgeoisie reflect divergent interests of different sectors of capital. Larger businesses that feel capable of competing on the international level tend to want Britain to stay in the EU, reflected in a study commissioned by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which warned that a departure from the EU ‘could lead to 950,000 job losses and leave the average household £3,700 worse off by 2020’ and ‘could cost the UK economy £100bn – the equivalent of 5% of GDP – by 2020 and would cause long-lasting economic damage from which it would never recover’ (Guardian, 21 March 2016).
The exit (aka ‘Brexit’) campaign, on the other hand, finds its audience among smaller, more parochial, companies that hope to boost their bottom lines by escaping EU regulation: ‘Matthew Elliott, [Vote Leave]’s chief executive and founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.… said that while the EU might be good for big multinationals, “for smaller businesses it acts as a job destruction regulatory machine” (Guardian, 26 March 2016).
Bourgeois economists generally warn that disrupting existing trade and other financial arrangements with the EU could be risky, but the view is far from universal:
‘Patrick Minford of Cardiff Business School argues that: “In the long term, Brexit will herald a major growth-boosting period, as the UK breaks free of the over-mighty EU with its protectionist mindset and establishes free trade and intelligent regulation aimed at UK economic interests”.’
—Financial Times, 22 February 2016
The Financial Times observed: ‘Today’s campaigns to leave the EU make for a striking contrast with the groups that opposed the common market in Britain’s 1975 referendum. In the 1970s the bloc’s opponents were fundamentally protectionist. In 2016, their rallying cry is freer trade outside the EU’ (Ibid.).
Marxists do not take a side in conflict between the interests of small and big capitalists, nor in the intra-bourgeois debate on protectionism versus free trade, which ultimately boil down to disputes over how to best manage British capitalism and the oppression of workers at home and abroad.
Europe is gripped by an international refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands are forced to flee from conflicts in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa – wars fuelled by the major European powers – only for many to be turned away at the borders of Fortress Europe (see ‘Proletarian Internationalism and the Struggle against Fortress Europe’). The British bourgeoisie has responded with a wave of anti-immigrant propaganda ranging from explicit racism to liberal ‘concern’ about the numbers arriving. At its extreme, this xenophobia reveals itself in swastika-touting fascists demonstrating in Dover (see ‘Fascists run amok in Dover’).
This situation is being exploited by UKIP, which argues that Brexit will provide the tools for keeping foreigners out: ‘If we remain members of the EU it is a perfectly reasonable, sane thing to say that our migration crisis will get worse’ (BBC, 27 February 2016). Although somewhat less overt, Cameron’s ‘Remain’ campaign is animated by similar sentiments to make the opposite argument. The deal he struck in Brussels in February was tailored to undercut the appeal of the Eurosceptics with provisions to deny benefits to newly arriving EU workers for four years.
Revulsion at immigrant-bashing campaigns has led many leftist workers to instinctively support ‘Remain’, without considering the real functions of the EU as an agency for inter-imperialist cooperation. The project of economically integrating Western Europe was first launched as an anti-communist bulwark against the Soviet Union. Since 1991 the EU has served to integrate the former Warsaw Pact countries into the orbit of the West European imperialists and as a mechanism for imposing neo-liberal austerity in Eastern Europe, Greece, Ireland and other non-imperialist components of the alliance.
The ‘Red Flag’ blog seeks to provide ‘internationalist’ cover for Corbyn’s policy of staying in the EU:
‘A socialist “Yes” to stay in would not mean yielding to the dictates of the EU Commission, the Central Bank, or obeying the EU’s neoliberal rules and treaties. It would mean defying them in solidarity with workers across Europe. We want to turn a national resistance to austerity into a European resistance.’
—‘Socialists and the European Union’
It is important to distinguish between what the EU actually is and utopian reformist daydreams about what it might become. Workers’ solidarity across national lines requires opposition to trans-national as well as national configurations of imperialist rule – doubletalk about voting in favour of an imperialist club as a means of expressing opposition to it can only undermine effective resistance to the capitalist austerity drive.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), led by the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), aims to stand as the alternative left-wing exit campaign, or ‘Lexit’ as they call it, to the right-wing Brexiters. Their ‘anti-imperialist’ argument for getting out of the EU boils down to the simplistic notion that if the leading elements of the ruling class want in, we should want out.
The SP motivates voting to ‘Leave’ on bourgeois democratic grounds: ‘The European Council is made up of the heads of government of the 28 nation states of the EU - the EU really is a capitalists’ club. The governments of Europe have no interest in handing some of their power to the European Parliament’ (Socialist, 3 April 2016). This suggests that a popularly-elected European Parliament would somehow diminish the capitalist and imperialist nature of the EU. Since this reformist fantasy is not achievable even by the SP’s estimate, they pose a different reformist course in which the British imperialist state, administered by a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, nationalises major enterprises:
‘Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s most popular pledges when he stood as Labour leader - including renationalising the railways and energy companies - would be illegal under EU law. This does not mean a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government could not implement them - but in doing so it would come into confrontation with the EU. Far better to remove that obstacle by voting to leave in the referendum.’
—Socialist, 23 April 2016
This supposes that Corbyn will suddenly develop a willingness to stand up and fight, rather than cravenly capitulate as he did when Labour was accused of having an ‘antisemitism problem’ and he refused to defend Ken Livingstone and others under attack for criticising the Israeli state (for our view on the substantive issues see ‘Israeli Apartheid & Palestinian Oppression’) or when he allowed Labour MPs the freedom to vote in favour of bombing Syria. If he did try to implement any of his promises, he would soon discover that, in or out of the EU, Britain’s bourgeoisie would fiercely resist any attempt to nationalise their assets.
It is rather inconvenient for the SP’s plans that Corbyn is busy campaigning for ‘Remain’ and other leading Labour figures are sharing platforms with Tories and other parties across the political spectrum. If only Corbyn would listen to us, they plaintively complain:
‘If Jeremy Corbyn was heading up a left exit campaign, it would have transformed the debate. The possibility of Leave winning and the Tories being evicted from power would have been far greater.’
—Socialist, 3 April 2016
In a lengthy history of the EU that appeared in the International Socialist Journal in October 2015, SWP leader Alex Callinicos concluded that ‘the EU was a capitalist project from the start, strongly backed by US imperialism and developing its own problematic version of neoliberal imperialism. The obvious conclusion is to reject the EU’. More recently Socialist Worker (23 February 2016) has claimed: ‘The EU is also facing a crisis – Britain leaving could begin to break it up. That can strengthen workers fighting the Tories here and those in Greece fighting austerity’.
A similar view is put forward by the Spartacist League:
‘Amid the growing chaos besetting the EU, a British exit would deal a real blow to this imperialist-dominated conglomerate, further destabilising it and creating more favourable conditions for working-class struggle across Europe – including against a weakened and discredited Tory government in Britain.’
—Workers Hammer, No. 234, Spring 2016
These arguments overlook the fact that British imperialism will continue to be a powerful agency of oppression on a global scale whether in or out of the EU. Brexit would certainly reconfigure the political status quo, but it would neither change the class character of the British state nor alter the balance of forces in favour of the working class – something that should be obvious by a cursory review of the political composition of the ‘Leave’ campaign which is dominated by the right and even ultra-right, and rooted in protecting the interests of capital.
The duty of revolutionaries is to cut through the capitalist propaganda generated by both camps of the Brexit dispute. Instead the ostensible Marxists on each side claim that their position will better the interests of the working class. For instance, elements of the pro-EU left point to the EU’s Working Time Directive, which limits hours worked per week, while their leftist opponents counter with Britain’s opt-out clause to circumvent any provisions that conflict with the Tory and Labour anti-union laws. Workers cannot rely on bourgeois legislation – whether national or European – to defend gains won through previous rounds of class struggle. Wages, working conditions and everything else about life under capitalism will be shaped by the ability of the working class to organise and fight. This will remain true regardless of Britain’s membership in the EU.
Workers have no country. European trade unions must join forces across borders to defend wages and win new gains, while paying particular attention to fighting for equal rights for immigrants. Ultimately the interests of the working class and oppressed can only be advanced through the construction of revolutionary workers’ parties in Britain and beyond, rooted in the proletariat and committed to a genuinely Marxist programme. This is the only way to turn the tide on the current capitalist offensive and go forward to expropriate the expropriators and smash up their state machines, whatever the particular configuration of the mechanisms of capitalist rule.
On 23 June – Spoil Your Ballot!