Working-class socialists will advise workers how to vote in the UK’s European Union (EU) in/out referendum by addressing the actual question on the ballot paper and by evaluating the known, quantifiable consequences of the options. Judged on the basis of workers’ interests, it is clear that however much the EU is a capitalist club, however neoliberal it is, however hostile it plainly is to migrants and refugees seeking shelter – the alternative of “Britain out” in today’s conditions will be far worse. It is possible to be a critic of the status quo in the EU, its institutions and the structures that make it up, while understanding that it’s unravelling in the face of a chauvinist wave would be a reactionary throwback. This would further damage the cause of working class self-liberation.
Outside the EU, the British state will still be a bourgeois state presiding over a capitalist economy, where capital will continue to exploit workers. The EU minus Britain will likewise be made up of bourgeois states, capitalist bosses and exploited workers. But Britain out of the EU will be an even more neoliberal state, with more privatisation, more deregulation and more labour market ‘flexibility’. It will be more xenophobic, more hostile to migrant workers and more anti-working class. It will place a wall between workers’ in Britain and workers in the rest of Europe that will make solidarity more difficult to achieve. It will contribute to the hardening of neoliberal and centrifugal, nationalistic tendencies in other European states. In these circumstances, voting to stay in the EU is in the best interests of the working class throughout Europe, and indeed further afield.
But if tactics and demands should flow from an assessment of Europe (including Britain) as it is, then there is another element that reinforces the case for staying in. The classical Marxist tradition debated many of the issues at stake in the referendum, from the standpoint of wanting to bring about socialism. A Socialist United States of Europe was once the rallying call of millions across the continent. The demand for European unity and specifically a federal united Europe – even on the basis of capitalism – was and remains a core part of the socialist project. This tradition was for decades suppressed and sidelined by Stalinists. It is part of the job of genuine working class socialists to reassert and champion the goal of European solidarity.
The argument can be summed up tersely: Marx and Engels, Bebel and Kautsky, Lenin and Trotsky, along with a host of others such as Gramsci, Parvus, Bauer and Beer supported the slogan of a United States of Europe. The First International, the Second International, the Third International and the early Fourth International all propagated the slogan as one of their goals at various times. The only substantial opponent of the slogan was Rosa Luxemburg. But it was the advent of Stalinism that transformed Lenin’s conjunctural and tactical concerns into a twisted justification for Russian foreign policy. The diktat of the USSR and its satellite parties, fused with an insular and visceral British nationalism, underpinned opposition to the EU as it emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Excavating the real Marxist tradition is part of clearing the path for a cosmopolitan working class policy towards Europe.
2. Marxists in the nineteenth century
3. The debate on a united Europe around the First World War
4. The Comintern and the Fourth International
5. Third Camp Trotskyism on European unity
*. Thanks to Liam for comments