The revolutionary left grew significantly between its volte-face over the Common Market in 1971, Britain’s accession to the EEC on 1 January 1972 and the Labour government’s referendum on membership on 6 June 1975. However this growth was not accompanied by greater political clarity, but rather characterised by chasing after legitimacy on the industrial front. This accommodation was disastrous for the internationalist consciousness among working class militants in Britain and ultimately for the fate of the revolutionary left itself.
International Marxist Group
The IMG had leapt early though tentatively in 1971, only to lapse back toward abstentionism in 1972 when Britain’s entry was a fait accompli. Its self-doubt did not last. When the EEC referendum was announced at the beginning of 1975, the IMG’s paper Red Weekly devoted itself to opposing entry. The front-page article (‘”No” to the Capitalists’ Common Market’, 30 January 1975) stated that staying in the Common Market was “a life-and-death question for Britain’s capitalists” and for that reason “the working class should be opposed to the Common Market”. The EEC was “a capitalist institution, designed to strengthen the power of the ruling classes of the different countries within it”. The opposition was unequivocal: “No to the capitalists’ Common Market – on any terms.” The article accepted that British capitalism would be “worse off” out of the EEC. However the point was “there is no solution to the problems of the working class under capitalism”.
A double-paged article in the same issue by Mick Gosling and Steve Kennedy, ‘A Most Uncommon Market’ (30 January 1975) boiled the reason for advocating a Britain out position in the forthcoming referendum to a curious sort of lesser evilism: “anything which weakens it [the Common Market] tilts the relation of class forces in favour of the working class on both an international and national level”. They promised that in any campaign against the EEC that involved common activity with the Labour left and CP, they would “struggle against all such nationalist and chauvinist positions”.
Gosling and Kennedy explained why the IMG could not support an abstentionist position. Firstly, they argued that “the EEC is not simply a weapon of European capitalists against their American counterparts; it is above all an institution of imperialism on a world scale”. Why this meant outright opposition to the EEC was never articulated. The most important objection was that “the fight for a United Socialist States of Europe in the abstract leaves any campaign against the Common Market in the hands of the chauvinists”. In an explicit re-run of the point made in 1971, the IMG argued that “the job of revolutionaries is to intervene to transform the actual struggle against British membership into a fight against the EEC itself, and in this way lay the basis for a real campaign for a United Socialist States of Europe”. This was fantasy: the United Socialist States of Europe was not on the referendum ballot paper, nor was it explained how a “No” vote might galvanise the struggle for it among British workers, never mind the wider force of workers across Europe.
Gosling and Kennedy dismissed concerns about chauvinism, claiming that “the fact that the extreme right has much to gain from a campaign against British membership of the EEC is no reason for revolutionaries to abstain on the issue”. The rest of the piece was pure puff about building a united front of workers’ organisations against the EEC, calling a Congress of European Labour to decide an alternative to the Common Market and, with an added spice of poison, taking up the call by Tribune “for increased trade with COMECON (the ‘Soviet bloc’ trading organisation)”.
These arguments were repeated in the months leading to the vote in June 1975. James Duckworth argued in ‘How not to Fight the EEC’, (Red Weekly, 30 January 1975) that “the collapse of the Common Market would considerably weaken world imperialism, and it is on this basis alone that socialists campaign for Britain’s withdrawal”.
A rather tragic intervention came from Ernest Mandel, whose political economy had largely spoken against opposition to the EEC. In an article ‘Against the Europe of the Bosses! Towards a Socialist Europe!’ (Red Weekly No.102, 22 May 1975: 6), he repeated the general points about capitalist concentration, the trend towards international interpenetration of capital on a European scale and inter-imperialist rivalry. But instead of drawing from these assessments the logic of an abstentionist or “Yes” vote, Mandel towed the line with bandwagonist and tailist arguments.
Mandel argued that the basic question was “not ‘what are the long term economic trends of development of capitalism if it survives’, but ‘what are the trends of the class struggle today in Britain and in Europe and how, by basing ourselves on these trends of the class struggle, can we intervene in the Common Market debate and referendum in such a way as to help and further struggles to overthrow capitalism”’. In a classic case of adapting to the milieu, he argued “all the big organisations of the employing class in Britain and Europe ask you to vote ‘Yes’ in this referendum… [and] practically without exception practically all the militant sectors of the British working class are against Britain staying inside the Common Market, and express in however confused and wrong a way a class opposition to this capitalist outfit”. He added that if “the ‘No’ were to win, it would be a political disaster for the bourgeoisie”.
Much of the reporting in Red Weekly exposed the reactionary nature of the “Get Britain Out Campaign”. Red Weekly reported that at Folkstone, Clive Jenkins of ASTMS union shared a platform with Tory racist Enoch Powell. At Bristol, the speakers included both Tribunite MP Ron Thomas and far right Monday Club Tory MP Richard Body. As for the audiences, “they have generally consisted of Communist Party members, Tory backwoodsmen, National Front supporters, and the odd, rather bewildered trade unionist” (‘Croydon Co-op members fight for socialist campaign’, 20 February 1975).
A photo caption the following month stated that “rank-and-file pressure may have forced Broad Left member of the AUEW executive Bob Wright to back down from appearing on the same platform with Enoch Powell, but that did not stop him from appearing alongside such enemies of the working class movement as businessman James Towler and Monday Club MP Richard Body at a Get Britain Out Campaign (GBOC) rally in Manchester last Sunday” (Red Weekly, 6 March 1975).
Andrew Jenkins explained that the joint chair of the Get Britain Out Campaign was Richard Body, while a full time worker for this campaign was Peter Clarke, previously personal secretary to Powell. The vice-chair of the GBOC was Sir Ian MacTaggart, a member of the rightist Society for Individual Freedom. The Anti-Common Market League (ACML) and the Common Market Safeguards Campaign had fused, bringing together figures like Tory MP Neil Marten and Labour MP Douglas Jay (‘Fascists have a field day’, Red Weekly No.94, 27 March 1975: 2). Another photo the following month showed banners on a workers’ demonstration proclaiming “British textiles IN; Foreign textiles OUT; Bolton District Weavers” and “Cut Imports to Save Textile Industry. Bolton District Weavers” (Red Weekly No.95, 3 April 1975: 3).
Yet the IMG did not change course during the referendum campaign. Its final paper before the vote was headlined: ‘No to the Bosses’ Europe. No to Wilson’s Tory Policies’ (Red Weekly, 29 May 1975). The front page advertised the demonstration on Saturday 31 May 1975, assembling at Hyde Park Corner. The demo was called by the LPYS, with speakers including Labour MPs Joan Lester and Eddie Loyden from Merseyside, as well as Militant editor Peter Taaffe.
A double-paged spread inside set out the IMG’s case for supporting British withdrawal from the EEC. The article, ‘The EEC Referendum: 1. Why “No”’ (29 May 1975) expressed a number of key reasons: first, the Common Market represented “an attempt by the capitalist class to solve their political and economic problems at the expense of the working class”; second, the aim of the EEC was “to try to create a supernational European state in order to swing the balance of forces in favour of capitalism”. Third, along with NATO, the Common Market was “an integral part of imperialism’s military and political alliance against the workers’ states”; fourth, it strengthened the capitalist class in each of the EEC countries against its own working class; and fifth a ‘No’ vote in the referendum was “just one of the practical and concrete steps necessary to oppose a central strategy for survival of the capitalist class”.
However the critical reason was given in another article, ‘The EEC Referendum: 2. What are the Labour leaders up to?’ (29 May 1975). It stated: “Every single important body in the labour movement is on record against the EEC.” In short, because the bulk of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy, as well as a visible section of the industrial militants, who had never been offered a principled alternative, appeared to back withdrawal, the IMG believed it should go along with them. Although the IMG criticised the ‘left’ for its nationalism, it nevertheless agreed to tail the bureaucracy, to support its conclusions and to provide a ‘Marxiant’ rationalisation.
The IMG failed to reassess and was unrepentant in the face the two-to-one yes vote in June 1975. The editorial of the first Red Weekly after the vote, ‘Common Market “debate – Not over yet’ (12 June 1975) stated that the EEC vote was “a defeat for the working class”, even though it accepted that “a majority of the working class is in favour or indifferent to the EEC”. Its logic was that “a ‘No’ vote would have threatened the economic strategy of the ruling class” and the EEC was “a central instrument of world imperialism”. It wished Britain had come out of the EEC because “the whole economy would have been thrown into a most convulsive and shattering crisis”.
The IMG accepted that in the short term, “both the British and European working class get a few crumbs by staying in Europe, compared to any capitalist alternative outside”. It recognised that “hardly anyone” believed that British capitalism could go it alone: “Arguments about ‘national sovereignty’ appears increasingly archaic and unreal. They were in fact the kiss of death to the anti-EEC campaign.” It therefore explained the result by recourse to the old cod “Leninist” argument, namely that “the attachment of certain privileged layers of the working class to the imperialist state reflects the fact that the working class has received material benefits from the imperialist policies of its own ruling class”. The IMG never bothered to explain how support for “No” would help break these “privileged” workers from the hold of imperialism.
Far from advocating participation in the institutions of the EEC, the IMG’s solution was the working class movement was to maintain “an attitude of complete hostility to the Market, refusing to cooperate with or participate in any of its institutions, and seeking to reverse the referendum at the earliest possible moment”. This was necessary, otherwise “the campaign against the Market will in future fall into the hands of the Powellites and other extreme rightists who this time round were pushed well to the sidelines”. This was a recipe for further capitulation to nationalism and a further weakening of internationalism within the British labour movement.
Militant carried the same plodding attitude into the 1975 referendum. Grant, noted in ‘Capitalist Common Market – No! For a Socialist United States of Europe’, (Militant special, May 1975) that “all enemies of the Labour movement and the working class are vociferously and hysterically striving to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote”. By contrast, “the instinctive rejection of the capitalist Common Market by all the basic forces of the Labour movement was an enormous step forward”. He wrote “the overwhelming majority of the active rank and file of the trade unions, Co-ops, and Constituency Labour Parties are against for class reasons. Most of the shop stewards, the activists in the trade union branches and ward Labour Parties are decisively against. They distrust a policy endorsed by the bosses and their stooges”.
Grant went through the motions of condemning the chauvinism of the Labour and trade union ‘left’, while promising “we do not align ourselves with the ‘anti-foreign’ ranters like Powell and Frere-Smith”. However for all the puff about an independent working class campaign, the most prominent event was a demonstration on 31 May 1975, which involved “2,000 working class internationalists who marched through the centre of London last Saturday calling for an ongoing campaign to build a socialist Europe” (Militant, 6 June 1975). Speakers at the Trafalgar Square rally demonstration included Militant supporter Nick Bradley, who sat on Labour’s National Executive as the representative of the Young Socialists and Militant editor Peter Taaffe.
Despite the two-to-one majority in favour of staying in the EEC, Militant did not reassess. In its history, the Rise of Militant (1995), Taaffe plays up its warnings about chauvinism but still justified the approach.
By the time of the referendum in 1975, the International Socialists had grown substantially, probably doubling its membership since the nationalist turn over the Common Market in 1971. It had not reassessed on the EEC after two years of entry and in January 1975, the IS national committee of the unanimously decided “to campaign for a NO vote around the slogans No to the Common Market, No to national chauvinism, Yes to the United Socialist States of Europe” (Chris Harman, Socialist Worker, 1 March 1975).
The line and the arguments for it were a pale repetition of those first aired in 1971. Hallas, the editor of International Socialism magazine, stated in the ‘Notes of the Month’ for February 1975 that the group’s stance was determined by the alignment of forces: “FOR: virtually the whole of big business, the Tory party, the right and centre of the Labour Party, the trade union right wing and the whole ‘establishment’ network; AGAINST: The Labour lefts, the CP, the trade union lefts and some of the centre plus the ‘populist’ right (including the NF) and a smallish number of Tory dissidents and, probably, the various nationalists”.
Hallas argued that “essentially, in the referendum campaign all those with an ‘establishment’ outlook and perspective will be lined up against all the ‘dissident’ trends including the far right”. However, “the heart and muscle of the anti camp will be the left of the Labour movement”. Just as in the German re-armament debate (1954), “a muddled, opportunistic and semi-nationalist left will find itself aligned with out and out chauvinists and racists against the main political forces of British capitalism”.
After garnishing the poison with apple-pie slogans in favour of the Socialist United State of Europe, socialist internationalism and working class unity (presumably in Britain, rather than across Europe), and salutary warnings against British chauvinism and ‘popular fronts’ with Tories, Powellites or Fascists, Hallas finished with a flourish. The Common Market referendum, he wrote, “is a possible source of a ‘Bevanite’ type of left-wing movement led by left-reformist MPs and their trade union allies”. Out of a reactionary movement might come progess – hence revolutionaries had to be there to jump on the bandwagon. It would not take long for Socialist Worker (1 February 1975) to lament that the no campaign had meant in practice: “unions forking out money to pay for meetings for an open racist like Powell, and left wingers giving the National Front and other extreme right wing groups an air of respectability by working with them”.
Still the IS leadership stuck with the line Chris Harman argued in Socialist Worker (1 March 1975) that for IS to abstain “would be to line up with the extreme right wing within the working class movement”. This would apparently “play into the hands of the Communist Party leaders, who would be able pretend that their own disgusting chauvinism and alliances with Powell were the only alternative to the Jenkinsites and the Market”. Exactly how the far smaller IS would distinguish itself from the CPGB when it agreed with its essential political conclusion was never explained. Instead Socialist Worker, (8 March 1975) lapsed back on negativism: “A NO vote, that is to say a defeat for big business, Tory, Liberal, and right wing Labour coalition on than in last year’s elections. The arena for our internationalist message is inside the NO camp. That is this issue is in our interest. We are part of the left. We can no more abstain in this confrontation where the vast majority of class-conscious workers are. That is where we belong”.
This line was repeated in another Notes of the Month, ‘The Common Market’, International Socialism (April 1975). The anti-EEC camp consisted “very largely of the Labour left and the trade union left and centre. Its opposition is based on muddled nationalistic and reformist arguments, although only the Communist Party has descended to the cruder forms of nationalist demagogy”.
The place of socialists was, “of course, firmly and unequivocally in the NO camp, alongside the great majority of class-conscious workers. But, equally, it is the duty of socialists to argue the internationalist case within that camp”. The rest of the coverage rehashed the political economy of recent European capitalism and even found a place of some figures on migrant workers. None of it was remotely adequate to repair the damage caused by abandoning an independent working class perspective.
The basic Marxist assessment of capitalist European integration, based around capitalist concentration, the interpenetration of capital and its states, pointed towards at least a position of not opposing the process but building working class international solidarity out of it. This meant at least abstention in any vote; it might have meant critical support for it, depending on the precise forms. This classic Trotskyist position, consistent with the attitudes and traditions of revolutionary Marxism over decades, was coherently held by most of the British revolutionary left until the early 1970s.
Instead, the bulk of the revolutionary left at the time – the SLL, IMG, Militant and International Socialists – collapsed politically into the “No” camp, dominated by Labour reformists and Stalinists, behind which stood the reactionary sections of the British bourgeoisie. Tailism behind these forces, garnished with abstract and irrelevant fig-leaves such as “Socialist United States of Europe” was tagged onto the “No” message. This was welded together with a negativist “defeat the Tories/business/Labour government” position equating “getting out of the EEC” with the interests of the (British) working class. It was a collapse into chauvinism, disregarding relations with other European workers in the name of apparently giving British capital a bloody nose.
Workers’ Fight – a forerunner of the AWL – fought this at the time and has fought it since. In the forthcoming referendum the revolutionary left could be a voice of sanity, rallying the labour movement to oppose the Tory backwoods toying with European links, while fighting for democracy and social welfare across Europe. But to play this role, it needs to learn from the past, understand the mistakes and chart a course consistent with the historic and material interests of the working class across Europe and the globe.
The Left's Debates On Europe in the 1970s