5. Third Camp Trotskyism on European unity

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Sat, 08/08/2015 - 12:46,

Just before Trotsky’s death, a dreadful schism took place within the Fourth International. A debate sparked by the Hitler-Stalin pact within the American SWP resulting in a split within Trotskyism, between the ‘orthodox’ strand of Cannon and Mandel on the one hand and the heterodox, Third Camp Trotskyism of Shachtman and Draper on the other. Within less than a decade they would become political formations with very different politics: the former a satellite of Stalinism, while the latter fought desperately to utilise Marxism to understand the new post-war world. Both tendencies took inspiration from Trotsky’s analysis and utilised the political slogan of a united Europe, but it was the Shachtman-led Workers’ Party (after 1949 renamed the Independent Socialist League) that applied Trotsky’s analysis most creatively as the bourgeoisies of Europe and North America sought to impose their own forms of European integration.

Reflections on the Socialist United States of Europe slogan

The first contribution made by the Workers Party was to re-evaluate the efficacy of the specifically “Socialist” prefix to the United States of Europe, and to qualify its democratic content in the wartime circumstances. In a resolution on ‘The National Question in Europe’ (1943), the Workers Party registered that “Marxists are distinguished from all other groups because, among other slogans, they put forward the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe”. However the slogan was first put forward by the Marxists “under conditions when the European proletariat was ready for the socialist struggle for power, but, above all, when Europe was divided into a number of independent states”. To believe that this slogan should occupy the same place in the Marxian programme of revolutionary transitional demands in the circumstances of the day, when Nazi Germany dominated a whole series of subject nations was “the sheerest kind of abstractionism and dogmatism” and represented “a failure to understand the radical change that has taken place in the European situation”. Before the workers could see the ‘Socialist United States of Europe’ as a realistic slogan, “they undoubtedly want to have at their disposal independent national states capable of deciding freely whether or not they want to be federated into a continental union” (New International, February 1943: 42-43).

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the post-Second World War geopolitical architecture was far removed from previous situation. Europe was immediately divided between those states and territories occupied by the US, Britain and France in the West, as opposed to those occupied and aligned to Russia in the East. The US poured funding via the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Western Europe, seeking to ensure the iron curtain stretched no further. To reinforce its hegemony and to help pay for the reconstruction, the US promoted European politicians who had concluded that some form of economic and political integration was necessary for capitalist Europe to survive and thrive. In these conditions the Workers Party/ ISL revived the united Europe perspective in the form of the demand for an ‘Independent Western Union’.

The demand for an ‘Independent Western Union’

At the end of 1948, the Workers Party leadership floated the slogan of an Independent Western Union as a transitional demand for the European working class to fight for in these circumstances. The slogan was addressed in the first place to countries such as Britain. France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, Austria and the Scandinavian countries. The resolution stated that “the working class of these countries represents precisely the kind of social power which is capable of uniting Western Europe into an economic and political union”. It recognised that the USA sought to organise Western Europe into a single bloc and that was conceivable in the circumstances that the US would be able to impose such a unification on Europe. The Workers Party summed up the approach:

“The position of the Marxists is not and cannot be simply determined by the position of the bourgeoisie. It must be determined independently by the objective situation and the needs of the working class. It is on this basis that the Marxists put forward the slogan of an Independent Western Union. The slogan represents for them a stage in the struggle for democracy and socialism” (‘Goal for Europe’s Socialists: An Independent Western Union’, Labor Action, 20 December 1948: 3).

The resolution was explained in more depth in a subsequent article by Stanley Plastrik (writing as Henry Judd). The unification of Western Europe, he argued, “is bound to come in some form or manner. The entire European crisis, still growing in intensity, is forcing the still relatively independent nations of Europe to unify. So the question no longer is shall there be a United Western Europe but HOW shall Europe be united, by WHOM shall it be unified and WHAT shall be the objectives and purposes of this unification?”

It was time for Europe’s revolutionary socialists to become “popular champions of the idea that Western Europe must form a democratic federation, popularly elected, and brought about by labour and social democratic governments”. Socialists must counterpose “their conception of a ‘Council of Europe’ to the bureaucratically-manufactured-from-above, power and military-dominated Council of Europe, which the reactionary politicians wish to impose upon the people. This cannot be the empty abstraction of a ‘Socialist Europe’”.

The real question was: “shall the coming European Union be a power instrument in the hands of reactionary forces who, by transmission, shall force it to operate for America; or shall it be a people’s union, in the interests of peace and social progress?” Plastrik argued that “there must be struggle organised around this, and only Europe’s socialists can do this. Stalinism cannot, because it desires the disunion and disintegration of Western Europe”. Socialists should propose “a democratically-elected Western European Constituent Assembly” as the central democratic demand for pan-European unity (‘Council of Europe’, Labor Action, 7 February 1949: 3).

The July 1949 of New International magazine was devoted to a symposium on the new Europe, including articles analysing the Marshall Plan, the state of play in Britain and the German labour movement. The ISL continued to discuss pan-European unity into the 1950s, promoting the slogan of an Independent Western Union. For example Hal Draper wrote an editorial for Labor Action, discussing German Chancellor Adenauer’s call for a united Europe as a ‘third force’. Draper rejected the bourgeois approach, arguing that German leaders desired “to be integrated on a partnership basis into the Western bloc headed by the US, not the people’s desire to be independent of both war camps”, Instead, “the idea of an Independent Western Union as a third force, separate and apart from the Big Two conflict, must begin with the demand for the ousting of the Western military garrison from the soil of sovereign people, so that they can act independently”.
Draper said it was not the political leaders of Europe’s capitalist classes that could really build an Independent Western Union as a bulwark against Russia on the East and Wall Street domination on the West: “Only a movement willing to break all ties with the needs and interests of the capitalists, domestic and international, can do this” (‘Europe: 3rd force?’ Labor Action, 28 May 1950: 4).

Assessing the vicissitudes of European unity

The ISL newspaper Labor Action carried a significant body of journalism on European developments during the early 1950s. The coverage was mixture of ISL writers and contributions from European socialists. These authors discussed the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) that arose from the Marshall Plan, the Schuman Plan for an iron and steel community and the unsuccessful efforts to create a European Defence Community (EDC). Before the paper closed it reported briefly on the formation of the European Community. Not all their judgements stand up, but the articles repay re-reading as examples of honest, concrete reporting of events coupled with incisive analysis of underlying trends, providing a Third Camp perspective around which European socialists could intervene in their labour movements.

The Marshall Plan was a four-year US government aid programme to help rebuild European states after the Second World War. The plan began in April 1948 and was managed by a US government agency, the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) headed initially by Paul Hoffman. Stanley Plastrik assessed the programme for the ISL a year or so after it began. He argued that “the elementary problem of the postwar period-that of setting in motion the wheels of production must be considered as largely solved, in capitalist terms. Western Europe, from a productive standpoint, is definitely an active and going institution”. The essence of the new Europe lay in “the revival of its economic life which has, in turn, meant a resumption of social, cultural and political life and brought a definitive end to the stagnation of 1945-46. Western Europe lives and breathes again”. The recovery of Europe was “largely due to American pump priming, the proper term to describe the first phase of the Marshall Plan”.

Plastrik was right about European economic revival, but rather telescoped the expected rivalry between the US and Europe in the years ahead. He wrote: “We shall only indicate the problems already created as this second phase begins, the tendency of which will be to set Western Europe in constant and growing opposition to the United States, reviving under new conditions that struggle of Europe vs. America which Trotsky formerly described”. Although it appeared that the US government favoured a United States of Europe, he argued that its conception was “a strictly limited one, in terms of certain economic measures such as tariff agreements, currency measures to stimulate business and inland transport arrangements, etc., which will aid the short term American perspective of setting Europe up on its economic feet”. His conclusion was emphatic, if mistaken in hindsight: “American imperialism does not want a unified Europe, a solid bloc of nations with a powerful economic base to support itself” (‘Marshall Plan: Phase II’, New International, July 1949: 138).

The Schuman Plan was the proposal made by French foreign minister Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950 for the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community, whose members would pool coal and steel production. It was the first of a series of supranational European institutions that would ultimately become the present-day European Union. The founder members were France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg; the British Labour government refused to join.

Sam Bottone, (writing as Sam Feliks) grappled with the significance of the declaration. His first article was entitled ‘French Forced to Propose Steel-Coal Pool with Germany to Bolster War Preparations’ (Labor Action, 22 May 1950). A week later he correctly noted that the Schuman Plan ran “in conflict with the nationalistic policies of the British Labour government. Such an all-powerful authority would have decisive control over an important section of British industry”. (‘Schuman Plan Asks Autocratic “High Command” for Economy’, Labor Action, 12 June 1950: 3). Later that year, Bottone argued that the Schuman Plan “fits into this series of developments as the means by which the French hope to be able to control and dominate the rearming of Western Germany”. However he was mistaken when he argued: “Right now the Schuman Plan stands as a barrier to the US timetable for rearming Western Europe, and the plan must go” (‘Where is the Schuman Plan Today?’, Labor Action, 13 November 1950: 3). In fact the European Coal and Steel Community was created in April 1951.

Bottone may have overestimated the military dimension to US-Europe relations, but he rightly identified rearmament as the other crucial issue of the period. In a further article, he noted that the United States was “prodding Western Europe to assume greater military burdens… The role of the new Marshall Plan administrator William Foster is to try to convince Western Europe that it should rearm, and that the problem is not one of guns or butter” (‘It’s Bread and Guns for Europe, says ECA’, Labor Action, 15 January 1951: 3). He made a similar comment with respect to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), formed in 1949 as the Cold War sharpened. Bottone wrote that “the big question [at NATO meetings] always turns out to be the same one: How is Western Europe going to pay for the tremendous rearmament programme?” (‘Europe’s Crisis’, Labor Action, 3 December 1951: 1).

These comments were particularly important in light of the European Defence Community (EDC), a plan proposed in 1950 by French prime minister René Pleven in response to the US government’s call for the rearmament of West Germany. The EDC was intended to form a pan-European defence force. A treaty was signed on 27 May 1952, but the plan never went into effect after the French National Assembly rejected the proposals in August 1954. Gordon Haskell assessed the defeat of the EDC and outlined a socialist alternative:

“The basic demand for socialists in Germany today should be the removal of all foreign troops from German soil at once. Their demand for unification, for an end to the occupation of Germany, for full sovereignty should be directed as much to the Western Powers as to the Stalinists… Such a demand could place the initiative in the hands of the working class. As against either German occupation or German neutralisation controlled by foreign powers the demand should be for German unity in freedom, to be followed by the unity of the German working class with the workers of the rest of Europe in an Independent Western Union” (‘EDC Death Ends an Era in Europe’, Labor Action, 6 September 1954: 8).

British Labour Party discussions on European unity

Perhaps the most relevant material today concerns the reporting on debates on European unity within the British Labour Party and the trade union movement. A range of contributions from socialists based in Britain, including Bernard Dix (writing as Owen Roberts), David Alexander, Alex Newbold, Cyril Smith, Dan Gallin (writing as André Giacometti) and others articulated a range of views on debates taking place as the present-day European Union was beginning to be formed.

One article reported that the British Centre of the Socialist Movement for the United States of Europe held a London conference on 22-23 October 1949, attended by delegates or observers from local Labour Parties, the Independent Labour Party, the Commonwealth and Fabian Societies (‘British Socialists Meet on European Unification’, Labor Action, 5 December 1949: 2). A number of essays discussed the British Labour Party’s Executive Committee statement in June 1950, which flatly rejected not only the Schuman Plan but any perspective for the economic integration of Europe.

Sam Bottone highlighted one of the reasons given by Labour Party leader Hugh Dalton to reject the Schuman Plan was that it would “create a supra-national body which ‘would have a permanent anti-socialist majority and would arouse the hostility of the European workers’” (‘BLP Blast at Europe Unity Plan is NOT Socialist’, Labor Action, 19 June 1950: 1). In the following issue, Mary Bell noted that “the foreign aims of the British Labour Party are limited to a loose collaboration with the Western bloc. Its statement makes clear that it sees no room for a ‘Third Force’ as an independent pro-socialist entity, directed against the two major exploitative forms of society, Stalinist and capitalist. ‘Neutrality is not a possible choice’, its statement affirms” (‘Schuman Plan’, Labor Action, 26 June 1950: 8).

Hal Draper also contributed a stinging critique, attributing the Labour leadership’s hostility not to “old-line British nationalism, isolationism or provincialism” but rather the residual influence of Stalinist conceptions of ‘socialism-in-one-country’. Draper punctured the argument about anti-European reformists proposed absolutely nothing to combat that “capitalist character of Europe” that apparently stood in the way of socialist measures in Britain. The Labour Party declaration looked like “a mere continuation of the long-standing British imperialist aim of hanging on to whatever remnants of the empire are not yet in America’s bag economically or independent politically”. What stood out in the Labour Party Executive’s declaration was “the conviction that the narrow nationalist interests of Britain, its Commonwealth and the remnants of empire, are identical with the interests of socialism (‘The British Labor Party and European Unity: “Socialism in One Country”: Heart of the BLP stand’, Labor Action, 26 June 1950: 6).

But the ISL did not simply offer criticism from afar: they also proposed alternative approaches. An accompanying article, ‘Positive Approach to European Unity Needed against BLP’s Nationalism’, (Labor Action, 26 June 1950: 7) concluded that trade unions in Britain “need not endorse the Schuman Plan or its proposed supra-national authority”. Instead, they “need only state in dealing with the workers of Europe this body set up by the capitalist governments will have to deal with a united labour movement, rather than with one divided along national lines”. For socialists, “it would be just as wrong merely to flatly counterpose socialism-in-general to this aspiration as it would be to accept the kind of integration offered by the capitalist class”. Instead, “the idea of a democratic and independent Western Union points the socialist road to the much-needed goal”.

The ISL did not simply go along with bourgeois plans European integration. In 1952, British correspondent David Alexander argued that “it is my opinion that the results of such a union, whose nucleus would be the Schuman Plan countries, could only be progressive” (‘The Problem of European Unity’, Labor Action, 29 September 1952: 5). Draper replied that although Western European unity under the overlordship of American imperialism was conceivable, he did not think “such a union can be considered ‘progressive’ by socialists”. He wrote that: “I think the British Labour Party is right in turning a cold shoulder to involvement in the Schuman and Strasbourg blocs. Its argument has been that it does want a socialist Britain (the so-called socialist Britain it proposes to build) under the economic (or military!) control of ‘an exclusive club dominated by a Christian Democrat committee”. However the ISL had criticised the Labourites “for is failing to offer any alternative plan for European unity but for using the correct argument to justify what is essentially the same approach as the Tories” (‘Is the Strasbourg Bloc “Progressive”?’ Labor Action, 29 September 1952: 5).

The last substantial analysis of European developments was written by Bernard Dix in November 1956, just as proposals for a European free-trade area were coming to fruition. The author noted that “the only Labour leader of any consequence to make a public statement on the proposals to date has been Aneurin Bevan; and his contribution was more of an aside than a general announcement of the fundamental principle involved”. Speaking at a meeting in Bristol, “Bevan said rather scathingly that he thought too much fuss was being made about ‘this small idea of a common market in Europe’”. The Guardian newspaper pointed to the fact that ‘Mr Bevan was careful not to say he was against British participation in a European free-trade area’.

Dix also reported on a TUC General Council meeting in October 1956, at which “a number of union leaders expressed doubts about Britain’s participation in the contemplated European free-trade area”. The biggest doubts were expressed by “union leaders from the heavy industries”. An official announcement of the TUC’s attitude was expected after a special meeting of the General Council called for 2 November [1956]. At rank and file level, “objection to economic integration with Europe in present circumstances usually centres around the fact that it would endanger full employment in Britain” and “might well hinder any programme which contemplated an extension of public ownership of industry”. The pernicious influence of Beaverbrook’s Daily Express ‘Empire comes first’ nationalism was also noted. Dix summed up the socialist perspective:

“So far no section of the Labour Party left has attempted to analyse the current plans for ‘free trade’, either on a broad theoretical basis or in terms of the immediate economic consequences for both Britain and Europe. However, there is a current of opinion within the Labour Party which has never ceased to advance the idea of a United States of Socialist Europe whenever it seemed pertinent to a current problem. The present state of propaganda for ‘European unity’ by the bourgeoisie presents an admirable opportunity for such people of the Labour left to explain what this means from the viewpoint of an international socialist “(‘Britain and European Unity’, Labor Action, 5 November 1956: 8).

This was the road not taken. Most Marxists influenced by Trotskyist ideas did not explicitly oppose bourgeois economic and political integration until the late 1960s, counterposing the idea of a Socialist United States of Europe to nationalist, reformist and Stalinist autarky. Understanding that there were bourgeois forces pressing for European unity and other centrifugal bourgeois forces pressing against it, they sought to avoid the methodological tailism of blindly following one or other bourgeois camp. How the revolutionary left in Britain collapsed into Stalinism and nationalism over Britain’s proposed membership of the European Community in the 1970s is another story, told elsewhere.

In today’s conditions and in the run up to the Tory’s in/out EU referendum, Marxists cannot read off our attitude today directly from the expressions and language of our predecessors. They cannot tell us how to vote or how to convince workers. But we can learn from their method, their principles and the way they connected European issues with the demand for socialism.

Around the world

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.