The revolutionary left on the cusp of the 1970s was significantly larger than it had been since the mid-1920s, when the CPGB was a real revolutionary force with around 10,000 members. In 1964 the SLL had an estimated 500 members, IS around 200 members and Militant about 40 members. After 1968 all groups grew, and so by the time of these Common Market debates the SLL had around 2,000, IS a similar number, the IMG with around 400 and Militant with 250 members (John McIlroy, ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’: the Trotskyists and the Trade Unions, 1999: 262).
The lurch in 1971 was almost simultaneous across the three most significant groups on the revolutionary left. The SLL had already made its switch earlier, but the IMG, Militant and IS would follow suit rapidly by the end of 1971. They fell in behind the reformist and Stalinist left, who espoused narrow British nationalism. Most of the revolutionary left bent under its pressure and the fear of isolation from the workers influenced by the nationalist left. They used slogans like "the Socialist United States of Europe" as a deodorant to cover the nationalist smell. This would carry on right through the referendum in 1975 and remained frozen comatose in most cases to this day.
Socialist Labour League
The SLL pioneered the stampede of the revolutionary left towards the camp of the chauvinists, denouncing the Labour government’s attempt to join the Common Market from 1967. In the June 1970 general election, it made “No to the European Common Market! For the Socialist United States of Europe!” one of its key slogans. Other literature argued that not to vote Labour was “to betray not only the British workers but the European workers and the entire struggle against the Common Market and for the Socialist United States of Europe” (Fourth International, 1970-71: 8, 10). This arid mangling of the issues reflected the growing political insanity of the SLL, which would fully flower as it became the WRP in 1973.
The SLL claimed that the European Common Market was “a counter-revolutionary coalition aimed at the working class and intended to create conditions in which European capitalism can find a basis for survival in conflict with the United States and Japan”. Revolutionary socialists should oppose “the sinister ‘new order’ represented by the European Common Market, which constitutes the main counter-revolutionary strategy of European capital against the working class, aiming to destroy its conquests” (‘Manifesto from the 4th Congress of the ICFI, Fourth International, Summer 1972: 202-203).
The SLL dressed its apocalyptic scenario-mongering in the perspective of the United Socialist States of Europe. In 1973, it would reprint Lenin’s conjunctural article from 1915 and a Trotsky article from 1929, claiming that “any ‘unity’ proposed by the capitalist governments would be a fraud, a desperate act by the weakest capitalist systems of Europe to protect themselves from the rigours of American competition and an alliance of the big monopolies against the working class”. In chauvinist anti-German terms, they claimed “such a ‘unity’ came to pass with the Third Reich. Now the capitalist nations of Europe are embarked on yet another attempt to find a concorde” (Fourth International, Spring 1973: 44). It would continue to fantasise about Common Market plans for dictatorship into the 1975 referendum, as it became more and more out of touch with reality.
The Militant made the most rapid public conversion to the anti-EEC campaign. Militant supporter Ray Apps (Brighton Kemptown) spoke at the Labour Party’s Special Conference on the Common Market on 17 July 1971, calling for the rejection of the EEC and in favour of a United Socialist States of Europe. It was also Militant supporter Don Hughes (Liverpool Walton) who moved a resolution calling for a Socialist United States of Europe, which was lost on a card vote, at Labour Party conference, 4 October 1971.
Their arguments were derived from a Militant special pamphlet by Ted Grant, ‘Socialist answer to the EEC’, first published in 1971 and reprinted in 1975. The pamphlet is remarkable because the political economy is scarcely any different from the arguments Grant made in the 1960s, when supporting an abstentionist position. The Common Market, he said, was “a glorified customs union”, although the formation of the EEC was “intended to be a political, diplomatic and economic counterweight to the crushing preponderance in all these fields of American imperialism”. The British ruling class’s support for entry was explained by the changing pattern of trade, away from the Commonwealth and towards Europe.
Grant argued that the attitude towards the EEC of the Labour movement “must be governed by the same class principles as their attitude towards all the so-called ‘international”’ institutions. Nature of EEC is the issue—not the terms of entry”. But he deduced from this a third camp conclusion: “As against the blind alley of negative pro or anti-Marketism, there must be placed the class internationalism of the working class. The workers of Britain have interests in common with the workers of the Common Market and of all countries. Their interests are opposed to the capitalist class of all countries including Britain.”
The only substantial reason offered by Grant against entry was tailism: get behind the Labour and trade union ‘left’ against the right wing. He wrote that it was “significant” that “the overwhelming majority of the supporter of entry in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the unions belong to the right wing”. By contrast, “the attitude of the left wing of the movement is more in tune with the deep felt hatred and misgivings of the workers towards the Tory government”. The active rank and file of the Labour and trade union movement especially felt “a natural class mistrust of the government of big business”. This rationalisation, jumping on the bandwagon behind the rest of the ‘left’, was a miserable capitulation to the dominant, nationalist and reformist consciousness of the British labour movement at the time.
International Marxist Group
The IMG made the most dramatic shift, considering its apparent international links. In November 1970, some of its members had attended a “Conference for a Red Europe”, organised by the Fourth International in Brussels. Just weeks before it began to change its position, its members had attended a demonstration organised in Paris by the Fourth International on 15/16 May 1971 to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Paris Commune. Reports from this mobilisation had no hint of the change to come.
The volte-face was announced on the cover of the IMG’s paper Red Mole, 1 June 1971, under the heading ‘The Common Market: Capitalist Solution to Capitalist Problem: Forward to a Red Europe’ and by an article inside by Ben Joseph, ‘British Capitalism and Europe’. Joseph made four key arguments, somewhat elliptically and with a fair amount of hedging his bets, as to why the revolutionary left should oppose Britain’s entry to the EEC, which he said was “radically opposed to the immediate material and the class interests of the labour movement”.
First, Joseph argued that entry was in the urgent interests of the British ruling class: “The British ruling class is in a hurry: as far as it is concerned entry in the Common Market is a make or break business.” In grandiose terms he stated that “the specific features of the present stage of inter-imperialist competition leave British capital no choice but to seek a solution in the EEC if it hopes to remain as an independent competitor in world capitalism”. Second, Joseph stated that “the EEC is a capitalist solution to capitalist problems”. It was “a response to the intensification of the concentration and centralisation of capital under the rapid capitalist expansion since 1945, and the increased level of capitalist penetration of US capital in Europe”. These were abstract truisms were not sufficient to determine the tactical line on British entry.
The most crucial argument received only one line in Joseph’s article, and a negative one at that. He stated that the alignment within the labour movement put most of the right-wing Labour politicians in favour: “The pro-Common Market MPs include the most powerful right wing members of the shadow cabinet led by Jenkins, Crosland and Healey.” The implication – for this was not spelt out – was that the rest of the left were against and therefore the role of revolutionaries was to go with them. This would become a familiar trope.
Joseph warned of the dangers of nationalistic flagwaving with its talk of the interests of the country, and of “economism” i.e. making opposition solely about the cost of living. However he then appeared to define the role of the revolutionaries as entering the nationalist movement in order to compete with the nationalists for working class support and to divert the anger into progressive channels. He wrote: “If the only alternative posed against the EEC is the purely nationalist solution offered by the labour left national prejudices could be reinforced rather than weakened. A struggle to democratise the organised labour movement in the spirit of socialist internationalism must in the end be the answer to equipping the working class to combat the supernational corporations.” Exactly how a small group of revolutionaries could affect such a transformation was never spelt out, largely because such an operation was impossible and without precedent.
Joseph’s first article is notable for its equivocation. Having nudged towards opposition he drew back almost immediately, stating that “we neither support the bankrupt petty bourgeois who fear entry – that would be a utopian protest against the nature of capital itself – nor do we back the big bourgeoisie in the entry attempts”. The job of revolutionaries was to fight “to raise the consciousness of the working class by advancing positions based on its independent interests”. He went on to outline a range of laudable practical proposals for building international working class cooperation, including an “international congress of workers’ delegates” to work out a strategy. Of course the revolutionaries would still have to attend such a gathering with a line to argue. And this was the problem: Joseph had made the breach – and worse was to follow.
The IMG returned to the issue in the aftermath of Labour’s special conference in July 1971. The Red Mole (August 1971) contained an editorial, ‘Labour and the Common Market’ and a further article by Ben Joseph, ‘Labour and the Common Market’. It also contained an article by Ernest Mandel, ‘Britain Enters the Common Market’ that barely registered as opposition to British entry. The editorial warned against chauvinism and the “capitalist internationalism” of the Labour right-wing. However its key message was to welcome the ferment of discussion on entry to the Common Market among workers. The IMG argued that revolutionaries could “insert” two arguments into these discussions: “for working class unity against capitalist unity; and for the strategy of a red Europe against the capitalist EEC”.
This was a mealy-mouthed way of reiterating the general and unassailable truth that the EEC like every other dominant institution on modern society was capitalist, which could in itself could not determine the line to take on British entry. More perniciously, it implied that in the face of a strong capitalist class push for entry, the only stance for working class “unity” had to be opposition. Of course this would be unity of kind, but a unity of British workers against other European workers – in other words around dreadful politics and for a reactionary cause.
Joseph’s article was another master class in the art of political confusion. He denounced the Labour Party conference as a “fiasco” and its outcome (a strong feeling of opposition to British entry, but no vote on it) was “far from a being a victory for the ‘anti-Common Market’ forces”, but “a defeat for the working class”. It was undoubtedly a defeat of the working class in both Britain and across Europe, for it signalled that wide sections of the labour movement would oppose entry on Tory terms and many on principle in the name of little-Englander chauvinism.
But Joseph gave succour to these arguments. The EEC was about “building a West European superpower both to match the challenge of US and Japanese imperialism on the one hand, and on the other to present a united capitalist front to the workers’ states of Eastern Europe”. From the point of view of European capitalists British entry would strengthen this project. Domestically, “entry into the EEC emerges as the centrepiece of Tory strategy”. The conclusion about opposition to British entry was left hanging. It was assumed, with qualified support, but not explicitly and convincingly stated.
There was little further coverage in the Red Mole in the following period, as first the Labour NEC, then the TUC and finally the Labour conference voted for opposition to entry. Soon after Heath would garner a majority for entry in the House of Commons with significant Labour support. For a year the IMG barely spoke of the issue in its paper, with entry more or less a fait accompli.
A front page article entitled ‘Labour, Europe and the Class Struggle’, (Red Mole, 2 October 1972) lamented that throughout the previous year “the main political preoccupation of the Labour left was the reactionary and chauvinist campaign against British entry to the Common Market”. Instead of seeking ways to develop an autonomous political mobilisation of the working class, “much energy and rhetoric was expended on rallying to the defence of the sovereignty of the British bourgeois state”. Now Britain’s entry was more or less an accomplished fact, “the campaign to take Britain out of the EEC looks as if it will continue along the same lines to distract and divert the Labour left and the Communist Party from the real issues of the class struggle. Such a campaign would be deeply reactionary – reactionary in the most literal sense of the term. A return to capitalism in one country has no advantages for the working class. The real alternative to capitalist unity in the EEC is the struggle for a Red Europe”. It concluded that if entry weakened the traditional political instruments of class rule then “this will be an unmitigated advantage in the task of creating an independent working class politics – independent, that is to say, of bourgeois politics, above all of bourgeois politics in their parliamentarist and chauvinist guise”.
This third campist stance was reinforced by an article by Andrew Jenkins, ‘Labour Party in Perspective’, in the next issue of the paper (18 October 1972). It denounced Gaitskell a decade earlier for playing “the lowest common denominator of Labourism – nationalism”. The ‘populist’ ideology and patriotic ranting of many of the Labour leaders such as Foot, Jay and Shore brought them close to Enoch Powell. Jenkins argued that while the central debate was clearly whether or not to withdraw from the EEC, “it was equally clear that this is not the central issue for the working class”. Socialists “must be opposed to the capitalist Common Market, but this can only be answered by a socialist Europe and not by the twilight fantasies of chauvinism”.
The IMG appears to have been stung by arguments on the left from those such as Workers’ Fight (a forerunner of the AWL) for an abstentionist position, and from other Marxist intellectuals such as Tom Nairn who favoured British entry as an antidote to chauvinism. Quentin Hoare reviewed Nairn’s essay, ‘The Left against Europe’, published in New Left Review in September-October 1972 (and later as a book). In Red Mole, (11 December 1972), Hoare accepts Nairn’s critique of chauvinism but denounces his support for British entry to the EEC as a reversion to the determinism of Second International Marxism. This was a poor response. It was a virtue of the Marxism of that period that it sought understand the tendencies of capitalism and how these improved the terrain for the fight for socialism. Where the SPD and other erred was to collapse behind one or other ruling bourgeoisie faction. The revolutionary left committed a comparable error by opposing entry, implicitly backing the most reactionary sections of the British bourgeoisie against its more farsighted sections.
The most theatrical if belated volte-face over the EEC was the lurch taken by the International Socialists (IS). It voted overwhelmingly at its 1970 conference against a proposal to oppose Common Market entry. At Easter 1971 an ambiguous motion putting the same position was again overwhelmingly carried. By June 1971, IS leaders began to adapt to the dominant mood among the vocal militants in the labour movement hostile to the Common Market. Tony Cliff and Chris Harman scripted their Theses on the Common Market to rationalise this change.
The Theses did not challenge the abstentionist position in principle, but made a tactical proposal to vote with the left. Cliff and Harman wrote: “Our aim in union conferences and the like should be… making clear both our opposition to the Common Market, and our separation from the confused chauvinism of the Tribunites, CP etc. However, if we are defeated on such a stand, we should then vote with the Tribune-Stalinists in opposition to entry.” A substantial minority of the National Committee opposed the Theses, but they were accepted.
The slide began almost immediately. Duncan Hallas, the IS national secretary began making propaganda in Socialist Worker (229) against the group’s traditional abstentionist position, caricaturing it as remaining neutral in the class struggle. He argued for "No to the Common Market" on the grounds that it would be a defeat for the Tories, the party of big business. The position was challenged by the Workers’ Fight Trotskyist tendency within IS: Sean Matgamna and Phil Semp published a document, IS and the Common Market (24 July 1971), which sets out this critique in more depth (Permanent Revolution No.3, 1975).
Chris Harman provided the detailed rationalisation in a long article, ‘The Common Market’, International Socialism (Autumn 1971). He offered three reasons for opposition:
“1. Entry is being used, alongside other measures, to hit at working class living standards and conditions…
2. Entry is aimed to rationalise and strengthen capitalism. It is an attempt to solve certain of capitalism’s problems by capitalist methods…
3. The rationalisation of capitalism [is] no longer progressive in any sense, it also speeds up the development of intrinsically destructive forces…
Politically, this was exceptionally weak. In or out of the EEC, working class living standards were under attack. Capitalist rationalisation had gone on since the dawn of capitalism, but revolutionaries had not rejected technological change, or defended small business against capitalist concentration. A further claim that the EEC was “really” about a military alliance was tenuous at best.
In fact Harman fell back on the negative argument. He wrote: “The defeat of the Tory government, in the present context of growing working class opposition to its policies, would give a new confidence and militancy to workers”. He added that “revolutionaries in the labour movement have to make it absolutely clear that they do not abstain on such a question. We are for the defeat of the Tories…”
Allied to the negative “defeat the Tories” was the prelude to the real justification: adaptation to the milieu. Harman argued that “those trade unionists who oppose government policies on the Industrial Relations Bill, productivity deals, etc., also tend to be opposed to the Market”. Underlying this alignment was that “many rank-and-file militants instinctively distrust the government’s entry policy. They feel that it will be used to weaken their position”.
Opposition also involved traditional IS loyalists. For example, Nagliatti, Foot, Higgins, Pritchard, Edwards and Carlsson wrote a document, ‘The Common Market and the IS Group’. Loyalist Ian Birchall challenged Harman’s position in a “Rejoinder” published in the same issue of International Socialism. He restated IS’s traditional position, unpicking Harman’s rationalisation. Birchall identified the real reason, responding acidly: “We have to relate to these forms of distorted class consciousness; we certainly do not adapt to them.”
Within IS, the "Trotskyist Tendency" of Workers' Fight (forerunner of the AWL) challenged the leadership, demanding a special conference. This required the support from one-fifth of the IS branches to get a recall conference - 23 branches. Although the minority got sufficient support, there was still no conference. The IS national committee put an arbitrary deadline beyond which branches could not declare for the recall conference. The IS executive committee admitted to 22 branches, but denied receiving notification for the final one. Instead, the Trotskyist Tendency was expelled (“defused”) in December 1971.
The Left's Debates On Europe in the 1970s