3. The attitude of the revolutionary left before 1970

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Sun, 27/09/2015 - 15:37,

The attitude of the revolutionary left in Britain towards Europe before 1970 was almost unanimously internationalist, a legacy of Trotsky’s consistent support for a United States of Europe. The revolutionary left began the post-war period mostly united within the Revolutionary Communist Party, formed in 1944. It was part of the orthodox Fourth International, led by Ernest Mandel and took much of its politics from that source.

By 1949 the RCP had split into three main constituents that would dominate for the next two generations: the Club led by Gerry Healy that would become the Socialist Labour League (SLL) and later the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP); the group that would become the Revolutionary Socialist League and later Militant led by Ted Grant; and the Socialist Review group, later the International Socialists (IS) and after that the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) led by Tony Cliff. Whatever their differences over capitalism, Stalinism, imperialism, the Labour Party and other secondary matters, over Europe their stance was much the same and largely coherent. It was not until 1971 that they lurched towards chauvinism.

Mandel and the International Marxist Group

Much of the left in Britain was influenced by the politics of the Fourth International, as reconstituted after WWII and led by Ernest Mandel. Often writing under the pseudonym “Ernest Germain”, Mandel formulated the dominant political line on Europe. During 1950 Mandel wrote a column in the American SWP paper The Militant, entitled the “European Notebook”. These articles were mostly straight reportage and were rather thin on analysis. Mandel noted that “authoritative spokesmen of the European capitalist class” had “started publishing articles expressing an equal distaste toward the USSR and the USA” (‘European Capitalists and the American Empire’, The Militant, 26 June 1950: 2). He rejected the prominent notion of “neutrality” as the “passive withdrawal from world politics” Instead he put forward the almost Third Camp formulation: “To this conservative idea of neutrality, based on the status quo and class collaboration, the Fourth International counterposes the revolutionary idea of working class politics independent from Wall Street and the Kremlin” (‘The Demand for “Neutrality” in Europe’, The Militant, 3 July 1950: 2).

This rejection of both Washington and Moscow appeared to extend to the Western European working class movement. Mandel noted that European workers had “given the Stalinist peace campaign a much cooler response” (‘The Stalinist “Peace” Campaign in Europe’, The Militant, 10 July 1950: 2). At the same time European Trotskyists had the task of “struggling against the deceit and hypocrisy of the Social Democratic pro-American propaganda” (‘The European Working Class and America’, The Militant, 17 July 1950: 2).

The most specific article on early European integration was entitled, ‘Our Alternative to the Schuman Plan’ (The Militant, 24 July 1950: 2). Mandel noted that in the wider European labour movement there had been “no real working class answer to the Schuman Plan, defending the common interests of the European workers against the conspiracy of the European industrialists”. The Schuman Plan, he said, was “based on a ‘cartel’ of European industry under capitalist ownership and capitalist management”. To this he counterposed, “the central slogan of all European Fourth Internationalists – the Socialist United States of Europe”. This was the programme of “collective ownership and working class management of European industry”.

Mandel’s stance was adequate, if somewhat abstract. He did not oppose bourgeois European integration in principle, but criticised the form it took with the Schuman Plan. Mandel understood that both the major imperialist powers of the USA and the USSR had their own designs for Europe, but rather than embrace a bourgeois “third force” he looked to a united European working class, fighting around demands for public ownership and workers control, to find a way out. This was a core position that would persist into the 1960s.

Mandel’s most significant analysis of European integration up to that point ‘Crisis in the Common Market’, published in the American SWP’s theoretical journal International Socialist Review, Spring 1963. He conceived of bourgeois economic integration as part of a plan by the European bourgeoisies to form their own bloc, opposed to both the USSR and the USA. Mandel argued that the US government had initially supported European integration through the Marshall Plan “for political and military purposes: to create a counter-weight to the power of the Soviet Union and the other workers’ states on the European continent”.

Responding to the creation of the EEC in 1957, “Washington’s reply to the purely economic challenge to American imperialism posed by the Common Market consists in advocating the dilution, as quickly as possible, of the Common Market into an ‘Atlantic Zone of free exchange’, embracing the United States and Canada, in addition to Western Europe. Britain’s application for entry into the Common Market, followed by Denmark, Norway, Portugal and perhaps Austria and Switzerland “would have been the first step in the realisation of this American plan” (Mandel 1963: 46). Although in retrospect this claim looks dubious – although perhaps there is an insight into the current TTIP discussion – he was clear that the working class had no interest in supporting either camp.

Mandel wrote:
“For revolutionary Marxists, this, conflict 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 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 slogans of the Europe of ‘fatherlands,’ the ‘open’ Europe, or the European ‘community’.’ This should be the line of action for the working class movement of Europe.”
(‘Crisis in the Common Market’, 1963: 47)

Mandel recognised that the European working class could not “limit itself to a strictly defensive posture before European big business” and that it should “counterpose its plans for a socialist Europe to the imperialist plans”. However he soiled this stance by suggesting that “the Soviet Union and the other workers’ states would be able to play a very positive role in this respect”. He proposed that they “convoke a congress of all the unions and parties of Western Europe” and “could place at its disposal the experience, technical personnel and offices of their planning commissions, charge them with drafting the outline of a plan for the economic, social and cultural development of a Europe unified on a socialist basis”. Puffing up the “brilliant perspectives of such a plan”, he omitted the fact that such an arrangement under USSR control would have been the death of the European working class movement as an independent force. It was indicative of how the mistaken analysis of Stalinism would begin to infect the stance towards Europe.

In June 1965, Mandel’s “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” held its 8th World Congress. The conference debated a resolution on ‘The Evolution of Capitalism in Western Europe’, later published in International Socialist Review, Spring 1966. The assessment was consistent with Mandel’s 1963 position, suggesting that although European integration was unfinished and may collapse into protectionism, it could also lead to a “strengthened European executive and a European currency”, which would “constitute a decisive stage in reaching the point of no return for the Common Market” (1966: 69).

The Fourth International resolved to struggle “against the imperialist and capitalist fusion that is being effected in the present stage both inside and outside the Common Market” by agitating for “a united front of all the trade-union organisations within the Common Market without excluding anyone” and fighting for “the convocation of a big European Congress of Labour”. As against a capitalist United States, which could be born in part of Europe, it is necessary to stress propaganda favouring a socialist United States of Europe (1966: 74-75). Significantly, although the resolution did call for “withdrawal from NATO and from all imperialist military pacts”, it did not call for withdrawal from the EEC.

Mandel’s last substantial contribution to the European integration debate was his book, Europe versus America, written in 1968 and published in English by New Left Books in 1970. While much of the book consisted of rehashed economic statistics on trade, the most interesting passages concern the impact of possible future integration on the fight for socialism. Although this is speculative, it is also revealing, suggesting an internationalist, permanent revolutionary perspective that is highly relevant to today’s conditions.

Mandel argued that strategically, the formation of the EEC and the stage it had reached – namely that it was not a superstate – there was “no reason why the working class should abandon the classic political goal it has sought for so long – the seizure of power nationally – for the chimerical seizure of power in all member states of the Community at once, or, even more utopian, for the ‘socialisation’ of Europe by the votes of a European parliament elected by universal suffrage”. A successful socialist revolution in one member state “could not live cheek in jowl with a capitalist economy in the rest of the EEC”. But equally “the conquest of power by the proletariat of one state would fan the flames of revolution in neighbouring states”. Mandel speculated that “once the interpenetration of capital between the members of the Six leads to their actual economic integration, or to a European Community with more member states, once the supranational institutions evolve an adequately powerful form of state power”, then “the chances of the proletariat taking power at a national level will probably be insurmountably blocked” (Mandel 1970: 110-11).

In the circumstances of 1970, Mandel was clear about the orientation of the labour movement across Europe. He argued that “the reader should not deduce from all this that it is in the interests of the European working class to put a brake on the interpenetration of European capital on the grounds that the gradual disappearance of the possibility of political power being conquered by the working class on a national level”. In the first place, “it would anyway be utopian to attempt to prevent economic changes which themselves correspond to a given development of the forces of production; the working class, after all, was never intended to prop up small-scale capitalism or to prevent capital concentration”. In the second place, “the historical role of the labour movement in late capitalism and in highly industrialised countries can never consist in allowing itself to be reduced to the status of auxiliary to one or other interest group of the bourgeoisie – either in support of the international interpenetration of capital or to uphold the bourgeois forces clinging to the nation state”. The role of the labour movement is “to place its own socialist aims on the agenda. The alternative to the interpenetration of European capital must be a united socialist Europe, not a return to bourgeois economic nationalism”. In short, “the only successful defence of the working class confronted by growing internationalisation of capital is to resort to its own action and organisation” (Mandel 1970: 112, 115).

This was the right starting point to orientate the workers’ movement across Europe, not only in Britain. It had no truck with the nationalist chauvinism of the Stalinists and the reformists in the British labour movement. It did not turn the labour movement into the tail of one or other faction of the bourgeoisie. This was mostly independent working class politics in answer to the bourgeois camps.


The attitude taken by Militant was a pale reflection of Mandel. Until 1965, the RSL led by Grant was a section of the USFI and on Europe its position was a bland version of the same politics. Ted Grant published a position piece, ‘Common Market—No answer to the problems: Labour must press for United Socialist States of Europe’, in Militant, No. 22, December 1966–January 1967. Grant pointed out that when the EEC was raised by the Conservatives in the early 1960s to promote the interests of the giant monopolies, “Wilson and the other Labour leaders offered vehement opposition”. The Labour leadership pointed out that it would “raise the cost of living enormously, crush the agricultural industry and lead to a lowering of the standards of living of the working class”. In short, “they opposed it from a ‘nationalist’ and ‘commonwealth’ point of view”.

Grant wrongly dismissed Britain’s prospects of joining the EEC and speculated erroneously that the Common Market showed “signs of disintegrating at any severe economic difficulties”. However he did grasp the essential stance for the British labour movement in the situation. He wrote: “for the working class neither entry nor non-entry would solve their problems or lead to an increased standard of living.” The first task for the British workers “would be to achieve a socialist Britain and then launch an appeal to the workers of Europe and the world” (‘Common Market—No answer to the problems: Labour must press for United Socialist States of Europe’).

Six months later Grant returned to the issues. He condemned the arguments of the anti-marketeers in the labour movement, which he said “have had no more substance than those of the pro-marketeers themselves”. They had “adopted a narrow nationalistic outlook, appealing against the loss of British ‘sovereignty’”. He also captured the essence of an independent approach when he wrote: “Neither entry nor non-entry can solve the problems of British capitalism. Neither nationalism nor pseudo-Europeanism is a solution in the interests of the working class” (‘Common Market—impasse of British imperialism’, Militant, No. 27, June 1967).

Grant correctly paraphrased Trotsky, arguing that the EEC represented “the groping attempts to expand beyond the frontiers of European and world trade are expressions of the outmoded character of the nation state and of private ownership of the means of producing wealth”. However added his own peculiar reformist twist, arguing for taking over the top 380 monopolies through an ‘Enabling Act’ in the Westminster parliament with the mobilisation of the trade unions. This underplayed the likely resistance from the bourgeois state, whether on a national or international level.

Socialist Labour League

If Militant provided a pale shadow of Mandel’s arguments, then the Socialist Labour League (SLL), for all its windy rhetoric, provided a mostly abstract, arid reprint. The Healy organisation had split from the orthodox Fourth International, along with the American SWP and French OCI in 1953. However it retained most of the premises of the Mandelite version, despite the shrill denunciation. The American SWP would reunite with Mandel’s organisation in 1963 and the OCI depart the rump Fourth International in the late 1960s, leaving the SLL to its own brand of unthinking conformity.

Tom Kemp wrote a basic position piece, ‘Socialism and the European Common Market’, published in The Newsletter, 24 June 1961. He argued that it was “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”, which could not “inspire the rank and file or build its strength”. 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”. In short, “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”.

A similar line was taken by the SLL until at least 1967. For example Geoff Pilling, writing as Peter Jeffries in higher education student magazine The Marxist, argued that capitalists all over Europe faced “the threat of a united and powerful working class”. The European labour movement, in unity with the powerful British working class movement, was “the force which instils fear into the European bourgeoisie”. For socialists the main task was “to turn to this force”. He argued “We have nothing to gain from a futile debate about the merits or demerits of entry. Merits and advantages for whom? These are questions which the capitalist class can decide, as they conceive of their best interests in their struggle against the working class” (‘British Capital and the Common Market’, Marxist, 5, 2, 1967: 26-27).

International Socialists (IS)

The other revolutionary left group influenced by Trotskyism during the 1960s was the International Socialists, led by Tony Cliff. It would have its own debates on Europe, often openly in the pages of its magazine International Socialism. Nevertheless it held itself broadly within the same internationalist arguments as the rest of the Trotskyist left.

In 1961, an editorial entitled ‘Britain and Europe’ adopted a critical approach to the EEC, but one at pains to distance itself from opposition on the grounds of nationalism or reformism. In fact the magazine was cautiously optimistic about European integration. The editorial stated: “If, in the long run, Europeanisation hastens this process, as it surely will, cartel Europe will have laid, as surely, the basis for the United States of Socialist Europe. For revolutionary socialists in Britain there is no greater aim. We should be the first to clasp hands across La Manche”. It added: “For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure” (‘Britain and Europe’, International Socialism, No.6, Autumn 1961: 3).

The first visible sign of dissent came from John Fairhead in a subsequent issue of the magazine. He denounced the majority position as the manifestation of Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism, which Lenin had polemicised against during WWI. He also argued that “if the struggle against the European Common Market is waged only by Tribune and the Communist Party within the working-class movement, the most backward chauvinist trends will receive encouragement”. Instead, he argued for the chimera of an “internationalist” campaign again the EEC (‘Polemic: The Common Market’, International Socialism, No.7, Winter 1961: 28).

The next issue responded with the right internationalist argument: to push through bourgeois economic and political integration by seeking to unite workers across borders. The editorial stated: “Only a sustained campaign carried out throughout the labour movement by socialists will increase consciousness sufficiently for the initiative to be taken in exposing ‘Europeanist’ capitalism, in establishing direct links with European workers for coordinated action and in building a Socialist Europe”. In short, “what business is doing now, the leaders of the labour movement should be doing for the European working-class” (‘Labour and the Common Market’, International Socialism, No.8, Spring 1962: 3).

By the end of the year, the magazine published a letter of dissent from Peter Sedgewick arguing for opposition Britain’s entry to the Common Market and another from John Fairhead resigning over the matter (‘Letter to Readers’, International Socialism, No.11, Winter 1962, 25-27). The response – rightly – was to open the journal to debate.

The best contribution was written by John Palmer, who argued that “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”. Instead of opposition he argued for a common programme of trade union demands across Europe (‘The Common Market’, International Socialism, No.12, Spring 1963, 26-28).

Around the same time, IS member Alaistair MacIntyre, published a short piece called ‘Going into Europe’, in the anti-communist magazine Encounter. It was most recently reprinted in a collection of his articles edited by Blackledge and Davidson (2008: 247). MacIntyre denounced the Labour Party stance as “the party of the English-speaking Empire”, and that ‘Socialism in One Country’ was “a sad slogan for a Gaitskell to inherit from a Stalin”. He criticised “those socialists who are against Franco-German capitalism, but somehow prefer British capitalism” and said he detested “the anti-German chauvinism of the anti-Common Marketeers”. Although the “last intention of the founders of the Common Market” was “to pave the way for a United Socialist States of Europe”, MacIntyre said he was for taking them by the hand as a preliminary to taking them by the throat. (‘Going into Europe’, Encounter 22, 2, February 1963: 65).

Ian Birchall wrote a detailed, critical assessment of the debate at the end of 1966. He noted that “in the period 1961-62, when the entry of Britain into the European Common Market was last on the agenda, this journal adopted a position of neither ‘for’ nor ‘against’”, a position denounced by social democrats of both a chauvinist and “internationalist” bias. He argued that there was “still a long way to go before we can speak of a working-class strategy for Europe”. The two main questions that had to be answered were: “first, what sort of demands can be made on a European scale and, second, how can workers’ organisations achieve a greater degree of co-ordination and unity?” He observed that some European trade unions had argued for such an approach since the 1950s, raised the issue of migrant workers and criticised the approach of the Communist Parties. In the circumstances, he suggesting “a united Left in the present situation cannot be a revolutionary Left; but a non-revolutionary united left serves only to obscure the issues” (‘The Common Market and the Working Class: An Introduction’, International Socialism, No.27, Winter 1966/67, 10-18).

When Wilson once more proposed British membership of the EEC, dissent within IS was once more visible. An editorial once again denounced on the one hand the “phoney internationalist chorus” of business and on the other the chauvinist, Stalinist “left”, who presented “a common illusory British road to socialism, or, more accurately, the road to British State capitalism” (Editorial Board Majority, ‘Europe’, International Socialism, No.28, Spring 1967, 2-3). The minority around Sedgewick argued that “opposition to the Common Market (which in this country implies opposition to British entry) remains the only possible stance for socialists” (Editorial Board Minority, ‘A Note of Dissent’, International Socialism, No.28, Spring 1967: 3).

As late as the beginning of 1971, Ian Birchall could write that “the Common Market has probably caused more confusion in the British Labour movement than any other question. For the most part, the discussion now is little more advanced than it was ten years ago”. The argument still centred around the wrong question – whether we should be for or against British entry. The real question, that of a revolutionary strategy, was still largely neglected. Reviewing a number of books including Mandel’s Europe versus America, Birchall argued that “strategy cannot precede analysis” and “as yet we have no adequate analysis of what the Common Market is, of how the social, political and economic factors interact on each other”. He mocked Mandel for unfurling “the old banner of the ‘United Socialist States of Europe’”, observing that while British entry to the Common Market was not inevitable, “none of the alternatives have anything better to offer the working class” (‘The Common Market’, International Socialism, No.46, February/March 1971: 32).

At the beginning of 1971, the revolutionary left had a rudimentary political economy of the EEC and basically adequate internationalist orientation. Despite the nuances and contradictions, this was a stance shared across the revolutionary left on the back of longstanding assessment and political theory. But in a space of months, this left came to abandon that position and accommodate to chauvinism.

The Left's Debates On Europe in the 1970s

1. The left against Europe: redux

2. How the Stalinists shaped the debate on Europe

3. The attitude of the revolutionary left before 1970

4. The chauvinist summer of 1971

5. How the revolutionary left fell in behind the Stalinists in 1971

6. 1975 and all that

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