The revolutionary left once had reputable politics towards Europe, an inheritance from Trotsky that was not finally dispensed with until the early 1970s. The story of how the British revolutionary left went from an independent working class stance to accommodation with chauvinism and Stalinist ‘socialist-in-one-country’ deserves to be better known: it serves as a warning in the forthcoming European Union (EU) referendum, with its dangers of capitulation to reactionary elements.
Throughout the twenty five years between the beginnings of European bourgeois union in 1950 and the UK referendum of 1975, there were umpteen vicissitudes across the left. The one constant was the outright opposition to European integration from the Stalinists, organised domestically in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The specific crystallisation of oppositionism that swallowed most of the revolutionary left took hold in the summer of 1971. Almost all the ‘left’ arguments deployed today stem from these two sources.
The Schuman Plan for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the Pleven Plan for a European Defence Community (EDC) were launched in 1950. Although the EDC was rejected, steps towards bourgeois economic and political integration made progress. On 25 March 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed by the governments of West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, creating the European Economic Community (EEC), known as the Common Market. British governments in the 1950s stayed out of these developments, largely on the grounds of trade with the Commonwealth states that had previously been colonies and part of the British Empire.
On 10 August 1961, the Tory government applied to join the EEC. In a speech to Labour Party conference in October 1962, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell claimed that Britain's participation in the EEC would mean "the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history". Britain’s application was vetoed by French president Charles De Gaulle in January 1963. The Labour government (1964-70) headed by Harold Wilson applied for membership and was denied again by De Gaulle in November 1967. De Gaulle would resign the French presidency in April 1969.
When the Tories unexpected won the general election in June 1970, prime minister Edward Heath took up the issue of EEC membership once more. In June 1971 the Heath government published a white paper advocating membership. On 1 January 1973 the UK joined the EEC. To steer his course through labour movement objections, Wilson promised a referendum on EEC membership. When he became prime minister in October 1974, he agreed to hold the referendum, which took place on 6 June 1975. Just over 67% of voters supported the Labour government's campaign to stay in the EEC, despite opposition from most trade unions, the CPGB and most of the revolutionary left.
Under pressure from wider bourgeois politics, the influence of the Labour left, the Communist Party and of some in the unions, the revolutionary left flipped over to opposition in the summer of 1971. Most would-be Marxists opposed entry in 1973 and campaigned to get out in 1975. They were criminally wrong, conceding ground to the nationalists and Stalinists – effectively cutting their own throats. The EEC debate played a key role in the unravelling of the revolutionary left as a serious Marxist force in the British labour movement. Reviewing the arguments of the main protagonists from the earlier period helps to orientate the healthy elements of the revolutionary left during the forthcoming referendum.
1. The left against Europe: redux