Nations have not always existed. In Europe, the growth of trade created units with a common language, culture, laws, tax systems and communications, the nation states which developed between the 16th and 19th centuries.
But then a contradiction developed. The capitalist economy became more and more tied up with the nation state. Today, even after all the Tory talk about “rolling back the state”, the state is still a tremendous factor in the British economy. Over 30% of national income passes through the hands of the state. On the other hand there is a tendency for capital to outgrow the limits of the nation state, to become more and more international and global.
So capitalism creates nation states and ties itself to them, but also overflows those limits. In Europe this contradiction has been managed in different ways at different times. In the first part of the 20th century it was managed by trade wars and by world wars.
After 1951, the capitalist states of Western Europe tried to manage it in a different way — by edging towards unification of those states. The background was:
• The semi-destruction of the European states’ colonial empires after World War Two;
• The weakness of their economies then, which meant they were under the US’s thumb;
• That the US wanted a stable Western Europe which would be a bulwark against the USSR and a better arena for the American multinationals.
Paradoxically, although the European Union has developed to provide a bigger home market for European capitalist corporations to compete with American companies, it was also a development pushed on Europe by American capital.
The development went from the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951 (France, Germany, Italy, Benelux), step by step through to successive enlargements and to the creation of the euro at the start of 1999. We cannot respond by seeing what the capitalists want and proposing the opposite. We cannot simply put a minus where the ruling class puts a plus. If we did that we would lose all independence of judgement.
We are for the breaking down of barriers between nations, and for larger political units. The reason why have not “supported” the slow semi-unification of Europe over the last 60 years is that the capitalist classes have done it in their own way, not that we prefer higher barriers between nations.
The bosses have constructed a very bureaucratic, undemocratic and wasteful unity, with a deliberate policy of high food prices, for example, and higher barriers against immigrants from outside Europe while barriers inside Europe are reduced.
We oppose those things — but not by counterposing the British state and the past to Europe and the present.
Britain did not join the EEC (forerunner of the EU) when it was first set up in 1957, or for a further 15 years. There was nothing progressive or socialistic about its staying out. Of all the powers in Europe, Britain had by far the biggest empire remaining after World War 2 and the closest economic links with the US. The British ruling class could look to an economic policy oriented towards the old Empire and to the US.
Also, in the time around Britain’s entry into the European Union in 1972, many in the British labour movement felt they were in a stronger position than labour movements in continental Europe. It was a sort of national self-satisfaction. They believed that in Britain the unions had the ear of the government, and in a broader Europe it would not be so easy.
It was a sort of “reformist capitalism in one country” doctrine.
As Marxists we have no sympathy for the nostalgia, the desire to orient to a declining Empire and the US, or for “reformist capitalism in one country”.
In debates over whether Britain should join the European Union, we refused to take sides. We would not favour entry, because of the capitalist, undemocratic nature of the European Union, and neither would we oppose it by saying “Keep Britain Out”. No matter what the capitalists decided, we said, our answer must be Europe-wide workers’ unity.
When British entry into the EU was first mooted in 1962-3, the Communist Party (then strong) opposed it, trading on the labour movement’s national self-satisfaction but really motivated by the USSR’s desire to keep West European powers disunited and at odds with each other. The (right-wing) Labour Party leadership also opposed it, counterposing “the Commonwealth” (ex-Empire).
All the Trotskyist currents rejected the CP and Labour leadership lines. They argued that the job of Marxists was to counterpose Europe-wide workers’ unity against both capitalist options, “in” or “out”.
As Britain moved closer to entry, and labour-movement agitation against entry grew, however, the would-be Trotskyist currents bent under the pressure and shifted to a “keep Britain out” stance. The now-defunct Socialist Labour League, then the biggest would-be Trotskyist group and the one that made most noise about being “revolutionary” and “intransigent”, was the first to make that opportunist turn. Others followed. The last was IS (forerunner of the SWP) in 1971. The only group that stuck to its principles was Workers’ Fight, forerunner of the AWL.
In 1999 an inner core of the European Union adopted a single currency, the euro. The aim was to reduce the risks and costs of trade within the EU, and to give an impulse towards a uniform financial system in the EU, to economic integration, and to genuine European multinationals (whose base would be Europe rather than a particular European state).
The venture was botched. We said so at the time. The Maastricht Treaty, which was supposed to install the conditions required for the single currency, had about as much to do with its viability as a university degree in classics had to do with showing that people were the “proper sort” to run India in the heyday of the British Empire.
The EU bosses reckoned that a government prepared to cut in the way demanded by the Maastricht conditions would be the “proper sort” of government to take part in the single currency. A single currency gave more opportunities to run budget deficits than the separate currencies, and the big powers in the EU wanted to restrict that. In fact those big powers themselves soon breached the Maastricht conditions, which became little more than a wishlist.
EU chiefs gave the European Central Bank undemocratic powers and a mandate to keep inflation low at all costs and never to bail out governments.
Thus we did not endorse the EU’s single-currency project. We did not say “no” to the single currency, either, and for the same reasons that we do not say just “no” to the general tendency of the internationalisation of capitalism.
The immediate alternative to the single currency is and was not a socialist Europe, but a capitalist Europe with greater economic barriers between nations. That is not a better option for the working class.
One currency or many is a matter for the capitalists. It is not our job to give the capitalists advice. We are in favour of a single currency in principle. We were against the way the euro was introduced. and against the people doing it.
Our answer is workers’ unity, and a fight for levelling up of benefits, pensions, wages, conditions, union rights across Europe. It is a fight for democracy in Europe, and towards a socialist Europe.
[Adapted from Workers’ Liberty 53].