How the left became “Little Englanders”

Submitted by Matthew on 3 July, 2015 - 4:23 Author: Sean Matgamna

In a 1975 referendum on UK’s membership of the European Economic Community (Common Market), forerunner of the European Union, most of the left argued for UK withdrawal. That was the culmination of a step-by-step opportunist collapse into left-nationalism since the 1960s, when all the would-be Trotskyist groups said the answer to limited European capitalist integration was European workers’ unity, not national withdrawal. This article, taken from Permanent Revolution No. 3*, describes the evolution.


“We must never play with slogans that are not revolutionary by their own content but that can play a quite different role according to the political conjuncture, the relationship of forces, etc...” Leon Trotsky: ‘Theses on Unity and the Youth’, Writings 1934-5.

“The will of the ‘nation’ or of its majority; is not a sort of God for Social Democracy before which it humbly prostrates itself; on the contrary, Social Democracy’s whole historic mission depends above all on revolutionising, on forming, the will of the ‘nation’ — that is, its working majority”. Rosa Luxemburg, 1908. Quoted in J P Nettl’s biography

“The method of ideological imitation of the opponent and of the class enemy — a method which is throughly contradictory to the theory and the psychology of Bolshevism — flows quite organically from the essence of centrism, from its unprincipledness, inconsistency, ideological hollowness (in the Comintern we see one and the same spirit of mimicry, constant imitation of the opponent, a striving not to use their own weapons — which, alas they do not possess — but weapons stolen from the arsenal of the enemy”. (Leon Trotsky: “Against National Communism” August 1931. From The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.)

The orgy of anti-marketeering to which the “revolutionary left”, following the so-called Communist Party and the Labour Party reformists, abandoned itself in the run-up to the referendum was all the more shameless and unbalanced because the leaders of the organisations conducting it did not actually believe most of what they said.

They believed only that it was necessary at whatever cost to get into step with the trade union bureaucracy and the reformist/state-capitalist “left” in the Labour Party, and with the rank and file working class militants who follow their lead. What they said about the Common Market was dictated by that goal and by those considerations — not by a principled assessment of the issue on its merits and in the light of the real interests of the working class.

Almost the entire “revolutionary” left abandoned the high ground of communist principle and waded into the swamp of chauvinism.

The charge is irrefutable in the light of this fact: with the partial exception of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, whose ideology is not to be taken seriously, those on the revolutionary left who campaigned against the Common Market had originally the self-same “abstentionist” position that Workers’ Fight [forerunner of AWL] maintained throughout the campaign, and they abandoned it, one after the other, when, and only when, the anti-Market campaign had gained such force as to be a threat to their credibility with militants on the broad left. Previously, when the revolutionary organisations allowed themselves to make an independent assessment of the issue on its merits all of them arrived at politics the very opposite of those they advocated in the referendum campaign.

The International Socialism group [forerunner of the SWP]: “In or out of the Common Market, the problems facing the British labour movement are likely to be very much the same. Indeed the point is that the issues facing us are more similar to those facing European and American workers than at any time in the past 40 years” (John Palmer, IS Journal no. 12, Spring 1963). IS was to maintain that position until late in 1971.

The International Marxist Group. In the early 60s, the IMG was a tiny splinter from the then British Section of the [mainstream orthodox Trotskyist international grouping] USFI. So let us quote for the present IMG, the opinion at that time of Ernest Mandel, their most authoritative spokesman . Writing under his pen name of Ernest Germain he said this:

“... The Soviet Government oscillates between denouncing the Common Market with idiotic arguments (“an attempt to put Europe under the bondage of the US and impoverish the workers”) and a recognition of its spurious ‘benefits’. The initiative is constantly left to the class enemy so that the masses cannot be mobilised and aroused in effective opposition.

“For revolutionary Marxists, this conflict (about Britain’s application to join the EEC and De Gaulle’s opposition) is a typical inter-imperialist competitive struggle in which the working class has no reason for supporting one side against the other. To the policies of both sides, they must counterpose the struggle for a Socialist United States of Europe, for a really unified Europe which could effectively surmount the antagonisms bred by capitalist competition; that could only be a Europe which has abolished both capitalist property and the bourgeois state.

“It is not by accident, moreover, that the present crisis in the Common Market coincides with a slackening of economic expansion which could be the preliminary signal of any ongoing recession in all capitalist countries. Before the advent of the recession, and still more harshly during it, the employers would unleash an offensive to improve its competitive conditions at the expense of their own working class.

“It would be pure suicide for the working class to solidarise itself, either with its own bourgeoisie or with that of the opposing camp.

“Its only effective reply can be to affirm its basic class solidarity: workers of all European countries unite against the Europe of the monopolies, whether it raises the slogan of the Europe of ‘fatherlands’, the ‘open’ Europe, or the European ‘community’’. This should be the line of action for the working class movements of Europe.” (From ‘Crisis in the Common Market’, International Socialist Review Spring 1963).

Some details of the argument had changed, especially when it was an internal British debate and a referendum to decide: in or out. The basic issue remained the same, however: working class “advice” on one or other option for the ruling class.

Mandel’s 1963 exposition adequately covers the changes and gives a clear answer to the current question: “Yes or No to the Common Market” don’t get drawn in. Especially to be remarked is the sentence about a line of action for the working class movement of Europe. That alone — the need to build European working-class solidarity in relation to the Common Market — indicates why a campaign for a No vote is impermissible for revolutionaries and unavoidably means a collapse into chauvinism. This is especially so when, as in Britain recently, the anti-Common Market campaign was primarily from the working class movement. It makes it all the more incredible that the same Ernest Mandel who thus jotted down such a comprehensive outline of a principled communist approach to the Common Market has recently toured Britain campaigning for the IMG on the slogans: “No to the bosses’ EEC — Yes to the Socialist United States of Europe!”

The Militant [forerunner of the Socialist Party]: Mandel’s 1963 position spoke for them too. Reading their paper today there are still traces of it: the “no” is just stuck “on listlessly and passively with little effort to rationalise it or explain how it arises from their “analysis”.

The Workers Revolutionary Party [once the largest Trotskyist group in the UK, now a small sect-like group]: “What in fact has happened is that labour and trade union ‘personalities’ and journals have found themselves quite naturally taking sides on the question: what is best for British capitalism? In most cases that is not surprising, but it exposes the misleadership or lack of leadership of both the rightwing and the Tribune and other Lefts.

“It is scarcely necessary for the labour movement to get involved in a detailed and necessarily inconclusive discussion about the pros and cons of the Common Market. This cannot inspire the rank and file or build its strength. Indeed the whole argument may change course if a break takes place in the relative economic stability which at present prevails in Britain and in Europe. Consistent socialists should be unequivocally in favour of breaking down national barriers, not under the auspices of the trusts seeking to exploit labour power more methodically and play one section off against another more successfully, but by working for a workers’ government which alone can do the job in a genuinely internationalist way.

“Taking sides for or against the Tories joining the Common Market means arguing about just how Europe’s workers should be exploited. Instead, the working class movement must unite around a programme for the socialist planning of European industry.” (Tom Kemp ‘Socialism and the European Common Market’, in the Newsletter, 24 June 1961.)

Nothing fundamental had changed by 1975 in the Common Market in its structure, role, objective relationship to the Soviet Union, China and the Third, World, or to the working class in the member states.

Equally, nothing has changed in the tasks of revolutionaries, to nurture, create, propagandise for international working class unity and to fight uncompromisingly against everything that militates against it and specifically against chauvinism.

In 1962-3 [the revolutionary left] had all mocked and castigated the CP drumbeating and flagwaving for “Little Britain so long as it serves “the great-Russian chauvinist Russian bureaucracy”. Since Britain moved to enter the Common Market in 1970-71 they have played shamefaced variations on CP-type defence of British “independence”.

The Workers Revolutionary Party had the doubtful honour of pioneering the Gadarene stampede of the so-called revolutionary left towards the camp of the chauvinists, sniffing the wind well ahead of the others. In an orgy of general sectarianism back in 1967 it denounced the Labour Government’s attempt to join the Common Market. To attempt to explain the turns of the group in terms of any political logic other than its leadership’s well-developed eye for the main chance and the vestigial level of development of its understanding of Marxist principles is usually pointless.

Here there appears, however, to be a political logic that goes back to the early 1950s, when the proto-Socialist Labour League [forerunner of WRP], under the directives of the Fourth International of which it was then the British section, raised the slogan “Labour to power with a socialist programme”. Fifteen years later, the same Fabian conception of socialist revolution underlay many of the hysterical diatribes of the SLL against the Labour Government. Labour wasn’t carrying out a socialist programme, but a programme of monopolist modernisation. Thus Common Market entry was a departure from socialism. The issue is not, as with the CP, national sovereignty but what the government does: whether it pushes through socialist policies in Britain or strengthens its right wing nature by an international linkup. Thus, oppose the linkup.

In no organisation, however, was the fall greater than in the International Socialism group. In the period before the referendum IS’s weekly Socialist Worker indulged in a frenzy of anti-Marketeering in which every problem, battle, ruling class imposition and working class interest were meshed into a single focus point — getting a “no” vote in the referendum. It was almost as if the ideologues of IS had got their lines crossed, confusing Britain with Russia, and had concluded that if only the international integument in which Britain is interlocked could be cut away then Britain would cease to be capitalist; or, more ludicrously, that if that form of British relationship to the world market represented by Common Market membership could be ended, you would have the same result — a result moreover to be achieved by a “no” vote in the referendum.

Bandwagon-jumping is an undignified business. The last organisation to jump on the anti-Common Market wagon presents an especially obscene spectacle: there is little disguising the rush and panic that is actually motivating its action.

Formally IS qualifies as the last group to change. The IMG had jumped before IS. But it was not quite the same IMG, nor quite the same leadership of the IMG. In fact when Workers’ Fight negotiated with the IMG in 1972 [over fusing with them] we were informed by representative leaders of both the present major factions that they agreed entirely with our position, that the previous record of the IMG after 1970, left a great deal to be desired, and in future things would be different. They were Tariq Ali and John Ross.

And truly the zeal of the IMG, this most internationalist of all internationalist organisations in Britain, for the anti-EEC cause had all the force and abandon to be expected from a recent convert. Massive world-wide scenarios were drawn in which the master strategists of this small organisation dealt with NATO, the defence of the USSR, with everything and anything in world politics, the balance of armies and the inter-imperialist alliances — everything, that is, except that which should be central to revolutionaries — the class consciousness of the working class they are relating to.

To the question — if it is so important for Britain to be out of the Common Market and if in campaigning against it the IMG is behaving as a responsible organisation acting on an internationalist programme then why are not the European sections of the USFI, within the Common Market, doing likewise? — there is no answer. Or rather only one that reveals that crassly opportunist chameleon politics of the weathercock “Trotskyism” which the IMG represents!

From the proletarian point of view to get drawn into calculations regarding world power relationships and for the vanguard to surrender its principles and independence to qualify to join in the ballyhoo is a total defeat — especially where reactionary ruling class ideas find their most forceful expression, after the ruling class itself has abandoned them, in their old form within the working class.

The Communist Party starts from the attitude of Russia and has a deeply ingrained British chauvinism all the more crude because of the difficulty of giving conviction to their “British” character despite the Russian ties.

The Labour left stand for the ingrained chauvinism and insularity of the British labour movement and their parliamentary reformist, Fabian conception of socialism, tinctured with elements of the Stalinist model.

The revolutionary left, rejecting talk of British sovereignty common to the CP and Labour left, nevertheless accepts the conclusions, voting “no” and attempting also to slip in “its own” politics as the cuckoo disposes of its egg.

In fact the revolutionary left can’t avoid, wriggle as it likes and mutter prayerful gibberish about the Socialist United States of Europe as it will, the argument that the EEC is worse. Accepting the conclusion it implicitly accepts the premise.

Trotsky long ago dealt with this sort of accommodation to nationalists (the Nazis). What he said about defeated and humiliated Germany, bound by the Versailles Treaty applies with a hundred times as much force today to Britain.

“... At the most important place in his conclusion, Thaelmann put the idea that Germany is today a ball in the hands of the entente. It is in consequence primarily a matter of national liberation. But in a certain sense. France and Italy also, and even England are ‘balls’ in the hands of the United States. The dependence of Europe upon America... has a far deeper significance for the revolution than the dependence of Germany upon the Entente. This is why — by the way — the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe, and not the single bare slogan, ‘Down with the Versailles peace’, is the proletarian answer to the ‘convulsions of the European continent’.

“But all these questions nevertheless occupy second place. Our policy is determined not by the fact that Germany is a ‘ball’ in the hands of the entrants, but primarily by the fact that the German proletariat which is split up, powerless, and oppressed, is a ball in the hands of the German bourgeoisie. ‘The main enemy is at home’, Karl Liebknecht taught at one time. Or perhaps you have forgotten this, friends? Or perhaps his teaching is no longer any good?”

The main enemy is at home. But the revolutionary left find it permissible to snuggle up to the official labour movement on a chauvinist binge, even if it means snuggling up to that enemy.

To the reformists it is logical to defend British “parliamentary democracy”. Their socialism is a bastard stew composed of parliamentary reform (on the basis historically of Britain’s traditional privileges vis-a-vis the colonies), elitist, Fabian-type nationalisation and municipalisation from above, with massive slabs of Stalinist coloration. It is not at all incompatible with nationalism — on the contrary, for these “socialists” of a privileged metropolis, England is a little world all on its own.

A vulgar reformism influenced by Marxist ideas, with a typically organic evolutionist approach, would logically favour the Common Market, not oppose it, as Britain’s actual parliamentary reformists do. It would favour it for bringing the threads of a future world state nearer, for eliminating the conditions that have bred two world wars, European civil wars, this century. The pro-Common Market symbol of a dove would not be obnoxious to such a serious reformist approach only the peculiar British reformist tradition and the ideological backwardness of the movement has produced, or could produce, the chauvinist wave.

Compared to the Tribune left, with its reactionary-utopian ideal of a British autarchic state (a siege economy) in which the ugly utopian elitist “socialism” of the Fabians merges into the monstrous bureaucratic practices of Stalinism, the whole of it unreal, reactionary, utopian, and from the point of view of the working class irrelevant and diversionary — compared with that, the Williams-Jenkins wing of the Labour Party and the anti-working class hatchetman Heath of the Conservative party have appeared (within the terms of reference of the campaign which were the confines the left chose for itself) progressive.

It’s been like a historically somewhat telescoped debate between advanced liberal cosmopolitanism and anti-Free Trade Toryism of the 19th century — with the working class movement locked into a corporatist and nationalist trade unionism traditionally linked to the strength of the British state and still linked to it ideologically. The trade unions have been soldiers of the legion of the rearguard of traditional British bourgeois attitudes. The fact that the link has a “socialist” parliamentary reformist expression makes it no less bourgeois; only an example of working class aspirations — socialism — being overwhelmed with bourgeois ideas, conditioning, the ideological memory of crimes committed in common with the ruling class against the colonial people; of the fact that even when the labour movement wants a non-bourgeois government it does not thereby (and has not) free itself from bourgeois conceptions of how to achieve it.

The “right”were, within the given issues and within this system (and all parties to the yes — no debate were within that framework) the progressive liberal cosmopolitans. That is the measure of the degradation, the backwardness and the shameful condition the left has let itself be reduced to, living on the dregs of a vanished imperialist little Englandism, an ideology thrown on the junkheap by the ruling class it once served, and served not least to dupe and con the labour movement. These “lefts” haven’t even blushed to invoke the Commonwealth as an alternative policy for capitalism, to seek refuge with euphemisms for the slave empire of the British ruling class in its period of decline, liquidation, and demise.

It is conceivable that revolutionary Marxists would favour the Common Market, defending working class interests at every point, but grudgingly and reluctantly recognising it for what it is: a limited and qualified capitalist attempt to solve the long overdue problem of the Balkanisation of Europe; and recognising also that it takes this form in history because of the defeats of the working class and the consequent belatedness of the working class reorganisation of society. If we were living in a period of new organic growth than such would be the only approach. That is not the perspective now, but never under no circumstances could revolutionaries who want to be Marxists starkly themselves to such a development. The “revolutionary” left marches not under the banner of Marxism, but under the pressure of the backward labour movement, which itself marches under the butcher’s apron. If we say anything, we say yes.

But, saying “No to the Common Market. Yes to the Socialist United States of Europe” is that not plainly a principled position an explicit rejection of little Englandism? Abstractly — yes. Really, no — the argument is a scandalous sophism.

The revolutionary left has not conducted its own campaign in parallel to the mass concern, above and apart from it in a purer and rarified atmosphere where good intentions and private reservations count. It has attempted to insert its slogans into an existing campaign where the alternative to the EEC is little Britain, whether as conceived by Enoch Powell, that is a utopian capitalist free trade state, or as the autarchic state capitalist (and happily impossible) “alternative” of the Stalinist and Tribune left. It is the “No the Common Market” that is stressed and the rest is lost in the hubbub. It is the nonsensical blaming of the Common Market not capitalism for the problems of workers that emerges, nothing else. (IS has done this explicitly, shamelessly and consciously),

In fact the “no” in the actual situation is reactionary and not really linked to the Socialist United States of Europe at all. The revolutionary left has been like a little boy in front of a large orchestra laying “Rule Britannia”. He positions himself and his tin whistle with the thought: I only play the first few notes of “Rule Britannia”. I can then switch to the ‘Internationale’. They’ll all hear me and listen as I drown out the orchestra. The fatal “No” vitiates everything. Once in step with the “antis” the rest is drowned out. The revolutionary left hoped, perhaps, that once inside the “No” campaign they could get a hearing for the internationalist propaganda. On the contrary: their propaganda merely gave an ‘Internationalist’ deodorant to the actual nationalist movement.’

Of course socialists should make propaganda for the Socialist United states of Europe. But its logical starting point is “In or out the fight goes on: neither little Britain, nor EFTA, nor the EEC, but the Socialist United States of Europe”.

The controversies between Lenin and Trotsky on the slogan of United States of Europe rested on Lenin’s fear of vapid abstraction and grand ideals being counterposed to concrete tasks and a realistic assessment of the real situation and possibilities. He feared that a responsible attitude towards tasks in a given country could be evaded by appeals to a greater, wider, more international task.

He knew that retreating up the ladder of virtuous generalities and abstractions could be as easily the route to an opportunist bolthole as the supine prostration of right opportunism. He saw revolutionary phrasemongering and right opportunism as complementary twins. The use to which the revolutionary left tainted with chauvinism, has put the “Socialist United States of Europe” indicates that Lenin’s fears are not quite a matter of history.

If the decree of actual accommodation to chauvinism on the common Market issue is translated back to World War Two, then the Trotskyists would have been defencists. But even when the “national enemy” was an imperialist power under a regime which would have smashed the labour movement, the Trotskyists stood against patriotism. They didn’t focus on “No to Hitler”, the common working class feeling exploited by the ruling class, but on “No to British capitalism”. The main enemy is still at home. The ideas of that enemy, even his partly discarded ones, still have a powerful hold on the working class.

The defeat of the anti-Common Market forces in the referendum was not defeat for the left, though it was a deserved slap in the face for the pseudo-left, including the revolutionaries. There was no real left in the campaign: there couldn’t be. The result was, it must be said, according to the terms posed in the debate, a defeat for retrograde chauvinism, though the fact of the working class getting drawn into the debate at all was a defeat for it and a victory for the ruling class.

In the history of British labour, the period before entry will be depicted as one in which the issue deflected attention from the Industrial Relations Bill, and the recent campaign to get Britain out as one which gave an escape hatch to [trade union leader] Jack Jones and Co vis-a-vis the Labour government — while both were busy foisting the Social Contract on the working class.

The terrible exhibition of capitulation to chauvinism by a left faced with racism and the Irish problem as life and death issues is possible because of the vain chase after numbers, the delusory snare of the notion that little groups can get rich quick by ideological conmanship. It is a refusal to understand the fundamental basis of communist activity: internationalist propaganda, the necessary functioning of a propaganda group, often against the stream and facing isolation. It is above all to misunderstand the fundamental role of revolutionaries in the working class and the necessary bedrock of revolutionary party building — the ideological struggle.

Little short of collapse into chauvinism in an imperialist war could add up to a worse picture of the “revolutionary” left than that presented — over four or five years without sobering up — on the Common Market question. Their entire wisdom was summed up in the idea that abstention is not a good thing. Faced with chauvinism they combined nodding in obeisance to the conclusions of the reformist and Stalinist chauvinists with using the profound programmatic slogan “For the Socialist United States of Europe” as a piece of flummery, gutted of all meaning and pinned, symbolically to the chauvinist totem poles of the “no” campaign. That combination does not protect the left from the charge of treachery as they imagine: it makes the charge only more inescapable.

There has on the Common Market issue been a major battle in the class struggle— a battle on the ideological front for that most precious of all proletarian values: communist internationalism. Not all, but most of the revolutionary Marxists have fought against the working class interest in the campaign. For ourselves we kept aloft the standard of communist internationalism. To do less would have been to deserve the odium of renegacy. If it means, for now, a degree of isolation, it is a small price.



Abstain or vote or “yes”?

By Martin Thomas

How does advocacy of a vote against British withdrawal from the EU in the coming referendum reconcile with our line of “bosses’ Europe, bosses’ Britain, no choice” in the early 1970s, and our argument around 2002 for abstention if a referendum on euro entry were held then?

We have always regarded even a limited voluntary integration of states, even on a bourgeois basis, as better than the walling-off of nations. Even in the 1970s, we used to deliberately spook leftists by telling them that Edward Heath was to the left of Tony Benn on the issue.

In 1972-3 we did not positively support British entry into the EU (EEC) because we did not want to endorse the conditions of that integration, including integration into the Common Agricultural Policy, which increased food prices.

We did have some comrades in our group who were in favour of voting “yes” to joining the euro. We are in favour of economic integration, which would include a common currency, but the euro (complete with unelected European Central Bank, Maastricht criteria, and the rest) was a bad way of doing it, as recent years have dramatically shown.

In the 1975 referendum we just cut-and-pasted our stance from 1972-3. There’s a reasonable case that we were wrong about that. Once Britain was in the EU, we should certainly still have campaigned for drastic changes in the EU, but against withdrawal.

There were differences in 1975. Britain’s social provision and labour regulations were then in many areas better, not worse, than the EU average. No-one proposed exit from the EU as a way to stop immigration from the other EU countries (only eight of them at the time). The referendum appeared as a vote between “left” and “right”, where the “left” argued for withdrawal to protect Britain’s somewhat-better social conditions, and the “right” for integration in order to hasten international market forces. It was reasonable to take account of that in our detailed tactics. But...

Today, voting against British withdrawal from the EU implies no endorsement of any of the EU’s membership conditions or regulations: it means only that we want to change things by going forward from the current limited, bureaucratic, capitalist integration rather by going backwards to walled-off nation-states. Would we have voted for the Act of Union in 1707? No. But voting “No” in the Scottish referendum implied no endorsement of the status quo. Voting “No” means voting for better “starting conditions” from which to change the status quo.

Marx and Engels denounced the particular manner in which Germany was unified in 1871. But thereafter they argued from starting from this bureaucratic, militarist united Germany, and would have given no support to calls for restoring the old petty principalities.