|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 207 April 2017
Brexit and the left
The vote to leave the European Union has disoriented many on the left. Recoiling at the racism and nationalism whipped up by both Leave and Remain campaigns – and seized on by the far-right – many toe the establishment line and support the EU. The only way to counter that right-wing pressure, explains HANNAH SELL, is with a clear anti-austerity and pro-working class internationalist programme.
The root cause of the scale of the working class vote for Brexit, in the face of all the scaremongering by the capitalist establishment, was a revolt against all the suffering of recent decades. Unfortunately, however, that has not translated into an increase in the confidence and cohesion of the working class. This was in no way preordained. Back in June 2015, left-wing journalist Seamas Milne, now Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy director, made clear why a left, pro-working class campaign for Brexit was needed: "If radical progressive change were on the cards in Britain – or any other state for that matter – the EU treaties enforcing free markets, privatisation and corporate privilege would be a serious obstacle". Therefore, he wrote: "It’s essential that the case for radical change in Europe – and a break with its anti-democratic, corporate-controlled structures – is not abandoned to the right".
Unhappily, this is exactly what happened. A handful of trade unions – the RMT, ASLEF and the Bakers’ Union, and NIPSA in Northern Ireland – together with the Socialist Party and others, argued the case for a pro-working class, internationalist Brexit. On a mass level, however, we were drowned out by the official pro-capitalist, nationalist Brexit campaigns. The majority of trade union leaders, who acted as uncritical cheerleaders for a capitalist Remain, bear much responsibility for this. Also culpable are Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell who, under pressure from the Blairites, unfortunately abandoned their historical opposition to the EU in order to reluctantly campaign for Remain.
The result is a confused political situation in Britain. The Tories have temporarily managed to create a thin veneer of unity over their deep divisions, although this is already cracking. The pro-EU wing of the Tory party, representing the interests of the majority of the capitalist class, is marshalling its forces for the battles to come, still hoping to step back or reverse Brexit. Tory members of the House of Lords are already openly attacking the Brexiteers. No doubt former chancellor George Osborne will use the pages of the London Evening Standard (as its new editor) to do the same. The Blairites are working in cahoots with them with the same goal. At the same time, the populist right have been unable to consolidate their position; the UK Independence Party is in turmoil.
Despite the weakness of the right, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left have so far been completely unable to build on his landslide re-election as leader to establish mass popular support for an anti-austerity Labour Party. The fundamental reason for this is their endless attempts to seek unity with the pro-capitalist Labour right wing that still dominates the party machine and remains determined to defeat Corbyn. As a result, Corbyn suffers all the attacks that the capitalist press – backed to the hilt by most of the Parliamentary Labour Party – would inevitably throw at any left-wing anti-austerity leader, but without actually putting forward a clear anti-austerity programme or leading an anti-austerity party!
In this situation there is widespread confusion among many who were initially enthused by Jeremy Corbyn. This is aided by a tendency by many forces who claim to be on the left to become cheerleaders for the pro-EU majority of the capitalist class on the grounds that they are more ‘progressive’ than the Brexiteers. There is a certain comparison with how, historically, different left forces capitulated to the drumbeat of war being sounded by their national capitalist classes. This time, however, the drumbeat is for the capitalist bloc of the EU. Polly Toynbee declared in the Guardian (21 March) that we should, "just for the duration, hold back the vitriol" against Osborne, "if he can indeed stiffen the backbone of the majority of Remain Tory MPs to take back control from the Brexit extremists". This is lesser-evilism writ large! How is Osborne, who presided over the most vicious austerity since the 1930s, a lesser evil than the Tory supporters of Brexit?
Wide sections of the population are opposed to the Brexiteers because of the racism and nationalism they have whipped up. This is very positive and, if it was organised around a programme of workers’ unity to fight for jobs, homes and services for all, could successfully push back racism. The pro-Remain capitalist establishment, however, is cynically attempting to misdirect this sentiment as a means to mobilise support for undermining Brexit. It should not be forgotten that it was pro-EU New Labour politicians, now hypocritically bleating about the increase of racism post-Brexit, who demanded that David Cameron announce new anti-migration proposals just 24 hours before the referendum, in the hope that doing so would have allowed the Remain campaign to sneak victory. This is a reflection of the fact that all wings of the capitalist class are prepared, when they consider it necessary, to whip up nationalism in defence of their interests.
In the EU’s nature
The worst thing socialists can do in this situation is to forget what they know and allow themselves to be buffeted by temporary moods. The EU’s neoliberal core remains pro-market and anti-working class. It compels the privatisation of public services, prohibits nationalisation, and makes it easier for employers to exploit workers in numerous ways. The EU is, in essence, an agreement between the different national capitalist classes of Europe with the aim of creating the largest possible arena to conduct their hunts for profit. It should be opposed on a socialist and internationalist basis.
Amidst a general tendency on the left to fall into support for the EU, one small left group, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), can at least claim the dubious honour of having consistently argued that the EU is progressive and should be supported. In the issue of its newspaper produced for the referendum, it argued: "The basic Marxist assessment of capitalist European integration, based around capitalist concentration, the interpenetration of capitalism and its states, pointed towards at least a position of not opposing the process but building working class international solidarity out of it". This is based on the erroneous idea that capitalism can successfully carry through the task of the unification of Europe and that this would be ‘progressive’.
The AWL has no concept of the limits to capitalism’s ability to overcome the barrier of the nation state. Yes, the urge to unify Europe flows from the needs of the productive forces which have massively outgrown the limits of the nation state and even of continents. This is demonstrated by the development of huge trading blocs like NAFTA and the EU. Nonetheless, historically, capitalism developed within the framework of the nation state and every capitalist class remains rooted in its own nation state, where its wealth and power are based. In addition, the nation states have produced deep-rooted national consciousness which cannot be overcome within the framework of capitalism. On the basis of economic upswing the process of integration can be carried very far, as in the case of the EU in the first part of the 21st century. This allowed some sections of the capitalists, and unfortunately some Marxists, to dream that capitalism could actually overcome national limits and proceed towards a unified European capitalist state.
However, the EU always remained a collection of nation states huddling together for their capitalist classes’ mutual advantage rather than a European nation. Even in a period of economic growth there were real limits to how far the EU could develop. Measures like a banking union or a European defence force, much mooted as necessary steps to further integration, have never come into being despite decades of discussion. And once capitalism entered crisis the national centrifugal forces came to the fore. Brexit is only one symptom of the growing national tensions in the EU. There are many others, from the renewed crisis in Greece, to the poll lead of Marine Le Pen in France, to the governmental crisis in Italy.
Missing the Marx
Incredibly, the AWL justifies its position by quoting Marx from the Communist Manifesto. Arguing against an editorial in The Socialist, it stated (15 February): "The Socialist Party’s negative view of capitalism’s desire to ‘create the largest possible market based on the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labour’ is in stark contrast to Marx’s positive view of this same process. Marx says that the capitalist class ‘keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff’. Can it be the case that not a single member of their editorial board has read the Communist Manifesto?"
In the passage of the manifesto quoted here, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were describing the historic role of capitalism in bringing nation states into being. They also outlined how capitalism was driving the development of a world market: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere".
Nowhere, however, does the Communist Manifesto suggest that capitalism will be able to overcome what Marx described as one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism: the contradiction between the world market and the nation state. In fact, the manifesto makes clear that the working classes’ struggle for power will inevitably have to begin, although cannot remain, on a national plane: "Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word".
Immediately after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels experienced the defeat of the revolutions of 1848. Due, as Engels put it, to the ‘astonishing cowardice’ of the German bourgeoisie, this revolutionary wave did not see the establishment of a united Germany from the feudal principalities and city states which then existed. The German capitalists’ cowardice was not accidental. As Marx and Engels explained, it was a result of their fear of the growing strength of the working class. This pushed them towards alliances with the remnants of feudalism. Yet this was in a period when capitalism was still in the ascendency, and when there was no doubt that a German ‘national consciousness’ existed. It is incredible that now, over 150 years later, when capitalism is a system in profound crisis, the AWL can glibly suggest that it is capable of unifying the EU!
Class issues are key
Events are clearly showing that this is not the case. On the contrary, the capitalist crisis – accompanied by the EU’s neoliberal treaties – is leading to a backlash against all the capitalist elites and the institutions of the EU which have imposed terrible austerity on the countries of the ‘periphery’. In Ireland, a mass movement against water charges, led by the Socialist Party, succeeded in defeating this draconian tax. As the government retreated in the face of a mass, democratic movement, however, the European Commission intervened to demand that it continued to implement the water charges!
As anger at the consequences of the capitalist crisis bursts out in different forms in different countries, and with the constant danger of a new stage of the economic crisis in the eurozone, the EU, far from becoming a nation, will face ever greater centrifugal forces. Clearly, there is a danger that workers’ anger at austerity is channelled in a nationalist direction. But to vacate the field to the populist right by supporting the EU is to guarantee this outcome. The way to counter it is to fight for the working class to have its own independent position: not the bosses’ EU but a socialist Europe.
In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn still has an opportunity to spearhead such a campaign. He can do this by fighting for a workers’ Brexit and appealing to workers across Europe to support his campaign. He could start by fighting for a different kind of Repeal Bill to that proposed by prime minister
Theresa May – one that annulled all EU regulations which go against working class interests, like the rules restricting state aid and nationalisation, or the posted workers’ directive which drives down wages. Such a bill could call for the repeal of anti-trade union legislation, including the Tories’ latest Trade Union Act, and enforce collective agreements. It would mean bringing about real working class control via democratic public ownership.
These class issues are central to any campaign for a socialist Brexit and must include an independent working class position on the question of the EU and immigration. The right-wing capitalist campaigns for Brexit put this issue centre stage, as did the official Remain campaigns. This has had an effect on ‘public opinion’ which the workers’ movement urgently needs to counter. Nonetheless, it is not true that migration was the main issue for exit voters.
Nor is that the case now. A recent opinion poll by Opinium, published in the right-wing Daily Express, asked people to rate out of ten the most important issues for them in the Brexit negotiations. The highest at 8.31 was ‘ensuring the UK’s public services are well-funded’, followed by ‘ensuring jobs are available in the UK’ at 8.28. ‘Reducing the number of people immigrating to the UK’ scored 6.88 – so it was an issue. Nonetheless, it was 13th out of the 22 issues listed, and only one place ahead of ‘ensuring that EU citizens already in the UK are able to stay’ on 6.78.
Inevitably, given the free run that right-wing nationalist ideas had in the referendum campaign, there has been an increase in racism in its aftermath. In addition, millions of workers from other EU countries feel justifiably worried about their right to remain and work in Britain. Clearly, socialists have to organise against racism. We also have to be at the forefront, as Jeremy Corbyn has been, of campaigns to demand the immediate granting of full rights – now and in the future – of all EU nationals currently residing in Britain. Beyond that we have to fight for the right to asylum for all those fleeing war, disaster and dictatorship. We have to argue for the end of repressive measures against those seeking asylum, including the closure of detention centres and allowing asylum seekers to work. At the same time, we have to fight against capitalism’s ‘race to the bottom’ by demanding the rate for the job for all workers, regardless of their country of origin.
Unfortunately, many on the left have swallowed hook, line and sinker the argument of the pro-EU wing of the capitalist class that to fight for this programme means fighting for membership of the single market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The single market came into being following a treaty signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. It is based on the so-called ‘four freedoms’ – the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour – and is policed by the European Commission. This is the framework underpinning the neoliberal, pro-austerity and anti-worker character of EU directives and rulings.
This does not mean that EU regulations are an insurmountable obstacle. Far from it. Determined workers’ action can defeat the employers despite the panoply of EU laws aiding the latter. And a determined socialist government, backed up by a mass movement of the working class, could not be prevented by EU laws from implementing its programme. Even so, argue some on the left, the single market is progressive because it ensures ‘freedom of movement’. This ignores the experience of those trying to reach Europe from Asia, the Middle East or Africa – the antithesis of being allowed to move freely – who are forced to risk life and limb to try and enter Fortress Europe.
We are fighting for a socialist world with real free movement – without borders, never mind walls and detention centres. Since its inception, however, the workers’ movement has not automatically supported capitalist ‘free movement’, including of labour, which can undermine and drive down workers’ conditions and, consequently, aggravates racism and nationalism. Rather, it has fought to maximise workers’ control of conditions at work, the highest form of which would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy. It is why, for example, trade unions have historically fought for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace.
United workers’ struggles
It is correct to argue, therefore, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has, that employers should be covered by a proper trade union agreement or by sectoral collective bargaining before they can recruit labour abroad. This is arguing for an increase in democratic workers’ control over hiring, and a decrease in the control of big business. Incredibly, the Socialist Workers’ Party and some other left groups have used Len McCluskey’s stance on this issue as their primary reason for refusing to give him critical support in the Unite leadership election. This is despite the capitalist class, as voiced in a Financial Times editorial, clearly backing Gerard Coyne (who takes an openly reactionary position on immigration), the right-wing challenger to McCluskey. The capitalists and Blairites see that defeating McCluskey would open the road to defeating Corbyn.
Of course, the trade union movement’s approach to fighting for the approach outlined by Len McCluskey has to be to win workers from other countries to the trade union movement and demand they are employed at the rate and conditions for the job. That would cut across attempts by employers to use them as a tool to lower wages for all. This has already been done successfully on a number of occasions, most recently led by Unite at Fawley oil refinery. It is entirely possible to win the big majority of the working class to a socialist and internationalist position on immigration. This will never be achieved, however, by denying the way in which the capitalist class has used immigration as one tool in its arsenal for undermining workers’ pay and conditions.
Over the last decade, workers in Britain have suffered the worst fall in pay since the Victorian era. This assault has employed many different means, above all by taking advantage of the disorientation and disorganisation of the working class following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91, and the transformation of Labour into a capitalist party under Tony Blair.
The increased pool of labour, particularly from EU countries, has also been used, along with moving production to cheaper labour economies, employing young people on worse terms and conditions, the use of agency workers and so on. To state the obvious, this is not the fault of the workers being super-exploited – young, agency, migrant, or all three! – but of the employers. The only way to push back is for a united struggle of all workers. Without doubt, the militant traditions that many migrant workers bring to Britain can enrich that struggle.
Unfortunately, the attitude of many on the left is simply to ignore the reality of how capitalism uses migrant workers. The AWL, for example, in an article on 4 January – Three Arguments against Free Movement, and Three Responses – correctly pointed out that the First International, under the leadership of Marx, "set as part of its aim resistance to attempts by employers to ‘play off’ workers from one country against those of another".
Incredibly, the article then went on to dismiss any comparison with today: "But two key differences with the contemporary situation are missed out. Firstly, the disputes to which the First International was responding were ones in which employers who faced strikes in Country A attempted to directly hire workers from Country B, in order to break the strike in Country A. Almost no migrant labour in Britain today is directly recruited abroad, and none of it on the conscious, explicit basis of doing the work of striking workers in Britain.
"And secondly, the methods of the First International were solidaristic, linking workers’ organisations across borders to appeal directly to workers not to allow their labour be used to undermine the struggles of their brothers and sisters abroad. This approach has nothing in common with the hostile attitude to migrants and immigration implied by the policies of today’s anti-free-movement left".
This is nonsense from beginning to end. Jeremy Corbyn has correctly raised that all jobs should be advertised locally precisely because it is common practice for employers to only advertise jobs in other countries. It is also commonplace to use groups of workers from other countries to undermine collective agreements with trade unions, aided by EU directives. Openly recruiting migrant workers to break strikes also takes place, slightly more covertly only because of the current legal limits on employers doing so. Road sweepers and drivers for Wandsworth Council, employed by contractors Continental Landscapes, are currently taking strike action over poverty pay. Continental Landscapes are blatantly attempting to use workers from Portugal to break the strike.
Furthermore, just as in the days of the First International, cutting across such attempts by the employers to divide and rule requires an internationalist ‘solidaristic’ approach. This was exactly what the Socialist Party successfully fought for, for example, in the Lindsey oil refinery strikes in 2009. In that case, it was workers from Italy who were used by the employers to undermine the national agreement for the industry. Assisted by the Socialist Party, the strikers produced leaflets in Italian to appeal to those workers, and successfully won their right to join the union and receive the same terms and conditions as the workers from Britain.
The struggle was recognised for what it was by the workers’ movement in Italy – unlike the AWL and others in Britain. Giorgio Cremaschi, a left-wing leader of the metal workers’ union, Fiom, explained: "If the Italian workers are being paid less than the British workers and their conditions are worse, this strike is a just one. We have to fight for equal conditions". It is with this approach – recognising how capitalism uses the ‘freedoms’ of the single market to maximise its freedom to exploit working class people, and then fighting for a united workers’ struggle in defence of working class interests – that it will be possible to win mass support for a socialist and internationalist approach to immigration and the whole process of Brexit.