A Progressive Brexit?

A Naïve Fantasy and The Politics of Despair.

, by Robert Eagleton

A Progressive Brexit?
Source: frankieleon@flickr https://goo.gl/BPKCK7

The notion that Brexit could be progressive, socialistic, or egalitarian is an illusion. At best it ignores the historical lessons of the 20th century, at worst it represents the politics of defeatism.

Perhaps the most peculiar, yet sadly predictable, phenomenon to result from the debate on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has been the propagation of Lexit (a leftist withdrawal from the EU). While the likes of George Galloway [1] and the Communist Party of Britain (with its programme Britain’s Road to Socialism [2]) have long since clamoured for this asinine and quixotic project, their position is now being bolstered by the arrival of new faux-allies from across the left of the political spectrum. Citing her desire to support her long-standing comrade and Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott told BBC’s Newsnight that “I voted for the bill [triggering Article 50] as a loyal supporter of Jeremy” [3]. Following this, Corbyn tweeted that the “real fight starts now” [4] and that the Labour Party would focus on securing a Brexit which safeguards the interests of British workers and the British economy. Meanwhile, the Fabian Society has published a document in which it calls upon the Labour Party “not to frustrate Brexit, but to shape it” by fighting for the negotiations to be informed by an agglomeration of ‘progressive principles’ [5]. While fighting for a Brexit that does not erode the rights of British-based workers is a perfectly laudable endeavour, it would be a mistake to think that Brexit can be in any way ‘progressive’. Brexit represents a significant and historic setback for the socialist movement.

Contrary to what the Socialist Workers’ Party would have us believe [6], a socialistic Brexit is a chimera. Diane Abbott was absolutely right to assert that we are not going to get “a Tony Benn Brexit” [7]. However, this has nothing to do with the fact that Theresa May is occupying 10 Downing Street instead of Jeremy Corbyn; rather, it has everything to do with the fact that a ‘Tony Benn Brexit’ (and the panoply of equally wonderful and naïve leftist visions of Brexit) is fundamentally an unrealisable fantasy. If there is one lesson which we, as socialists, ought to have learnt during the 20th century it is this: national socialism is a degenerative project which does not work. Indeed, attempts to construct both reformist and revolutionary socialism within the nation state have resulted in a range of unintended consequences, ranging from the establishment of freak societies (as in the USSR, Cuba, North Korea and China) to capital flight (as was the case when French President François Hollande introduced his 75% top rate of Income Tax). ‘Lexit’ is the latest manifestation of national socialism and, as such, cannot meaningfully advance the cause of the working class.

A Naïve Fantasy

Given the dire state of the contemporary left it is somewhat predictable that many well-meaning activists (those involved with Labour Leave, No2EU, and Left Leave) have bought into the flawed arguments of national socialism. Indeed, rather than providing people with the knowledge requisite to critically evaluate the arguments of Lexit, the ossified left has contented itself with infantile and otiose protests (such as trying to prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit). The task of providing socialists with an appreciation of the socialist movement has been neglected; this is regrettable as such an appreciation would surely inculcate these socialists with the elementary principle that national socialism is a dead-end project and that socialism is international or it is nothing. However, my concerns (as detailed and extensive as they are) with the modern day left go beyond the ambit of this article. Suffice to say, many of Lexit’s proponents have not given due consideration to the history of socialism and so I will explain the reasons for why national socialism is inherently doomed. For a more comprehensive explication I would refer readers to Jack Conrad’s informative Remaking Europe (2004).

Throughout history genuine attempts to construct socialism, within the nation state, have been met with the resistance of the capitalist class. How could it be otherwise? Socialism (revolutionary and reformist) is antithetical to the interests of those who govern society. As a corollary of this, the more radically a socialist government tries to infringe upon such interests, the more radically the capitalist class will resist. Whereas the mildest of social-democratic reforms (such as tax rises) solicit flights of capital, more dramatic attempts to change society are met with more dramatic responses. It wasn’t Cuba who imposed a trade embargo on the world, but the world who imposed a trade embargo on Cuba [8]. When capital flight and sanctions are insufficient military intervention is always an option. Indeed, following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the UK, France, the US, and Japan sought to restore the Tsarist monarchy through an unsuccessful military campaign. In 1954, when delivering a speech to the National Press Club, Winston Churchill lamented the failed intervention and asserted that had he been in charge “we might have strangled Bolshevism in its cradle” [9].

Naturally, and I make this point as an observation rather than a justification, attempts to sabotage, ostracise, and isolate ‘socialist’ states tend to result in a creeping authoritarianism and a bid for autarchy. How did the SYRIZA-led Greek government tackle capital flight in the summer of 2015? It introduced capital controls [10]. How did the Bolsheviks prevent former Tsarist military officers fleeing the country during the Civil War? They restricted their freedom of movement, they conscripted them into the Red Army, and they threatened to harm their families [11]. How has Castro’s Cuba quashed internal attempts to undermine the regime? It has incarcerated political dissidents [12]. In every instance, rather than a ‘withering away’ [13] of the state, attempts to construct a national socialism have resulted in an expansion of the state apparatus.

Cut adrift from the international community ‘socialist’ states often make a bid for economic self-sufficiency. However, national autarchy is an unrealisable phantasm. If the USSR, with its sheer size (and abundance of natural resources) could not achieve self-sufficiency through the implementation of its Five Year Plans, then there is little hope of an isolated ‘socialist’ Britain being able to do what the USSR could not [14].

Brexit: courtesy of speedpropertybuyers.co.uk

If anything, after decades of globalisation (which have made the world’s economies increasingly interdependent upon one another) national economic self-sufficiency is even more unachievable than it was during the early 20th century. Indeed, all of today’s ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ states are reliant upon the capitalist world for their survival. ‘Communist’ China relies upon exports to the capitalist west, North Korea relies upon humanitarian aid from the US and South Korea [15], and Cuba relies upon the custom of western tourists.

This admixture of anti-socialist creeping authoritarianism, the need to fend off both external and internal attempts of sabotage, and the impossibility of achieving economic self-sufficiency (which necessitates trade and cooperation with capitalist countries), precludes any prospect of achieving national socialism. Indeed-

“By imposing draconian restrictions on capital… the isolated revolutionary regime might well survive for some considerable time. However, in so doing it inevitably and very quickly becomes its opposite – a freak society like Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. Year zero marks not the birth of civilisation but horrendous barbarism. No single country – not even the richest – has within it the means necessary to positively supersede capital. Individual capitalists can be expropriated through a political revolution but creating a sustainable and dynamic alternative mode of production is a universal task” [16].

‘Workers of the World Unite’

In the opening sentence to this article I described the promotion of Lexit as ‘peculiar’. The reason for this is that none of the arguments I have advanced (highlighting the impossibility of achieving a national socialism) are either new or innovative, they have existed for decades. It therefore seems incongruous that the arguments of national socialism (and by extension Lexit) gain traction amongst certain sections of the left. When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto they didn’t call upon the workers of Mexico, Somerset, or Minnesota to unite; they called upon the “workingmen of all countries [17] (my emphasis added).

Socialists are internationalists and, as such, we should champion the integration of peoples and nations. We should not allow nationality, race, or geography to divide us, and as part of our all-encompassing and inclusive project we should seek to help workers across the globe. Indeed, my concern with injustice and exploitation is not delineated to the borders of Europe. The plight of workers based in Bangladesh, Mongolia, and Ottawa, concerns me no less than the plight of workers in Leipzig, Bucharest, and Torino. However, the notion that capitalism could be transcended by a seamless and synchronic world movement is almost as naïve as a belief in national socialism. Rather, it is likely that the transcendence of capitalism will be uneven. Scholars of Area Studies will tell you that the world is made up of ‘families of nations’ and when we consider many contemporary political movements, such as the Arab Spring, it is evident that such movements tend to originate in particular regions. Indeed, it was Jean-Jacques Rosseau who famously stated that we are all Europeans now [18] .Accordingly, given our historically constituted commonalities, it makes sense for European socialists to take Europe and the EU as our starting point. This view has been propounded by social-democrats since the early 20th century.

In his The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy (1907) Otto Bauer called for a United States of Europe [19]. During 1911-1912 this call was repeated by Karl Kautsky (who saw it as a means to prevent the outbreak of continental warfare [20] [21]). Similarly, in 1914 Lenin expressed the view that a united Europe could end the bloodshed of World War One [22]. In 1923 the Comintern called for a United Socialist States of Europe (although the ascendency of Stalin and the adoption of the ‘Socialism in One Country’ policy saw the demand dropped in 1928) while Aristide Briand called for greater integration [23]. Over a decade later Clement Atlee would declare that “Europe must federate or perish” [24]. Evidently, the European left has a rich history of supporting the call for a united Europe. So what happened? How is it that, during the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, sections of the left found themselves campaigning for withdrawal? The answer to this is located within the left’s embracement of the politics of despair.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Across the world, and Europe, the left appears to be in a state of ubiquitous secular decline. The onset of neo-liberalism, the defeat of the 1984-1985 Miners’ Strike (which paved the way for the policies of Thatcherism), the collapse of the USSR, and the rise of the Third Way, have decimated the confidence of the left. Whereas the left used to be ebullient, self-confident, and ambitious, today’s activists have inherited a left which is a husk of its former self. Understandably, in many respects, the recent defeats suffered by the socialist movement have left it demoralised, bereft of confidence, and susceptible to the politics of despair.

Many amongst the left crudely support anything which does not suit the interests of the capitalist class. Indeed, writing in the Morning Star, Julian Jones rails against the freedom of movement because it facilitates the exploitation of migrant workers and contributes to wage depression [25]. While Jones raises some cogent and salient points (the freedom of movement is open to abuse by unscrupulous employers), Jones draws the wrong conclusions. Indeed, what is bad for capitalism is not inherently beneficial for workers. To vulgarise this point, let’s take the example of a meteorite crashing into the Earth. While such an occurrence would undoubtedly damage the interests of capitalism it would also damage the interests of the working class. Accordingly, the left should not be in the business of dogmatically opposing everything which could benefit capitalism. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. Rather, socialists should map out and adopt positions (on particular policies) based on whether they advance the interests of the working class. In my opinion, taking the example of the freedom of movement, visa-free travel across the continent is a fantastic liberty and ought to be defended during the Brexit negotiations.

Before concluding, it is worth pointing out that being against the breakup of the EU is not the same as being an apologist for the EU. Indeed, as Conrad puts it, “there are two Europe’s: a bourgeois Europe and a proletarian Europe” [26]. In light of this, Conrad advocates supporting “working class unity within, but against, the EU” [27]. This view is largely in-line with my own. As the Secretary-General of the Brussels Young European Federalists I do not find it problematic to oppose the unelected College of Commissioners, the wasteful Strasbourg Parliament, the neo-liberal Stability and Growth Pact, and any other obscene/anti-working class measures which emanate from Brussels. Indeed, these views are not incompatible with my belief that, despite its flaws, the EU represents a historic achievement which fully deserves the critical support of the left when juxtaposed to nationalism and isolationism.

The Way Forward

Brexit cannot be used as a vehicle to improve the condition of the working class. Accordingly, I believe that the British left should now pursue a two-pronged strategy. Socialists must fight for the rights of EU migrants and the retention of the freedom of movement. In addition to this, the left must seek to ensure that Brexit does not lead to an erosion of environmental and workplace protections, and that the government does not cynically slash Corporation Tax [28]. However, these actions can only defend the status quo. When it comes to advancing the cause of socialism the left must recognise that, even if the most well-intending and right-on people were in government, Brexit cannot improve the condition of the working class. Indeed, pursuing a Brexit with more lefty sounding prefixes/adjectives (‘progressive’, ‘left-wing’, ‘anti-racist’, ‘internationalist’) will not advance the cause of the working class by an iota. Rather, the left should confidently and unapologetically seek to win over ‘left behind’ (older, uneducated, and poorer) voters, a majority of whom voted for Brexit, to supporting EU membership. While this might sound unrealistic at the moment, the argument for staying in the EU will invariably strengthen as inflation continues to rise and wages continue to stagnate.

The Brexit negotiations will take at least two years to complete. During this time the left should engage with civil society (and organisations such as the European Movement, the Union of European Federalists, the Young European Federalists, and Another Europe is Possible) and make a socialist case for staying in the EU. Having said this, as socialists, we are also democrats and must therefore reject the subversion of Brexit through politically bankrupt methods (such as calling upon the unelected House of Lords to vote against triggering Article 50). Indeed, this would be an unacceptable betrayal of democracy. Rather, the left should pursue the perfectly legitimate strategy of seeking to prevent Brexit by patiently and demonstrably winning over a majority of the British public to supporting EU membership.


[8Jack Conrad, Remaking Europe (2004), p71

[13Lenin, The State and Revolution, in Essential Works of Lenin (1987) eds, Henry M. Christman. New York: Dover Publications p280-p281.

[14Jack Conrad, Remaking Europe (2004) p72.

[15Ibid p21.

[16Ibid p84.

[17Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels (2010) The Communist Manifesto. Bookmarks Publications: London p33.

[18Pierre Hassner in (1995) Citizenship East & West (eds André Liebich, Daniel Warner, and Jasna Dragovic) p202

[20Jack Conrad, Remaking Europe (2004) p11.

[22Jack Conrad, Remaking Europe (2004) p161.

[23Ibid p12.

[26Jack Conrad, Remaking Europe (2004) p18.

[27Ibid p49.

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