SWP under pressure? The Stalinist origins of their Lexit position

Submitted by cathy n on 11 January, 2019 - 10:07 Author: Pablo Velasco
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International Socialism, the theoretical journal of the British Socialist Workers' Party, has run an anti-Brexit piece. This follows a debate on the issue at the SWP’s recent conference.

Wayne Asher’s article is a welcome indication that the SWP’s Stalinist position on Brexit (so-called Left Exit, Lexit) is coming under pressure from some of its members. Much of Asher’s assessment of the current situation is rational, although his account of the debate in Momentum bears little relation to events.

Asher’s biggest mistake is to attempt to justify the International Socialists, (IS – the proto-SWP) position on the 1975 referendum, when it also voted to leave. He wrongly states that: “The left’s opposition to the European Union goes back to the early 1970s”.

Actually, the roots of opposition to the EEC on the British left can be traced to Stalinism, both as the foreign policy of the USSR under Stalin and to its agent, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). It goes back to at least to the 1940s when the first moves to European bourgeois integration began to coalesce.

Until the late 1960s the Trotskyist left with few exceptions took an internationalist position on the EEC. IS and the rest collapsed into nationalism/Stalinism after the Labour (both parts of the right and left) as well as the trade union bureaucracy flipped. It was the worst kind of tailism.

Asher is also wrong to state: “Still, it is important for what follows to note that the 1975 analysis was an accurate picture at the time and remains true today.”

Everyone on the left said the EEC was a bosses club. What most chose to ignore was that the British state is also a bosses club! At no point after 1971 did the IS/SWP leaders draw up a political-economic analysis of the EEC that differed from what they had written for a decade previously. What happened was that Cliff, Harman, Hallas etc switched to opposing the EEC because of the perceived “mood” on the left, in workplaces and wider society. Their volte-face was opportunist positioning.

Asher gives this away when he writes: “In other words, the pool in which we swam in 1975 was much bigger, the chance to build an authentic left-wing opposition movement much greater and, it must be remembered, this was pretty much a clear left/right split.”

Actually the referendum in 1975 they had misjudged the mood among millions of workers. The 1975 referendum was not a clear left/right split. Hard right wingers opposed the EEC, as did right wing Labour MPs. And we don’t decide issues based on which way the wind seems to be blowing, but by honest, open assessment of reality.

We published a detailed critique of the collapse of the revolutionary left into Stalinism and nationalism in a WL supplement just before the 2016 referendum. An abridged version is printed below. The full version can be found here

When the Tories unexpected won the general election in June 1970, prime minister Edward Heath took up the issue of the European Economic Community (EEC), known as the Common Market, which had begun in the early 1960s. In June 1971 the Heath government published a white paper advocating membership. On 1 January 1973 the UK joined the EEC.

Labour under Harold Wilson won the October 1974 general election. To steer his course through labour movement objections, Wilson promised a referendum on EEC membership. The referendum took place on 6 June 1975. Just over two-thirds 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 from an internationalist position to opposition to the EEC 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.

How the Stalinists shaped the debate on Europe
The hostile attitude towards European unity on the ostensibly revolutionary left derived ultimately from the poisoned well of Stalinism. Internationally, the USSR under Stalin embraced the nationalistic ‘socialism in one country’ doctrine in the mid-1920s, as it sidelined the perspective of international socialist revolution and workers’ democracy. After the bureaucratic ruling class had established itself as the sole master of the surplus product by 1928 and expelled the Trotskyist opposition, Russian foreign policy dictated visceral opposition both to bourgeois efforts to unify Europe (whether by consent or by force) and hostility to pan-European labour movement unity.

Between the beginnings of European bourgeois union in 1950 and the UK referendum of 1975, the one constant was the outright opposition to European integration from the Stalinist USSR, 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 sources.

It was Stalin’s opposition to the US’s Marshall Plan from June 1947 that fully crystallised Russian hostility to European integration. The USSR set out to prosecute and “purge” any trace of the all-European idea, calling it a “manifestation of bourgeois cosmopolitism”, as well as to denounce West European integrationists as “lackeys of US colonialism”. Soviet Cold-War propaganda denounced West European integration as imperialistic, reactionary, doomed to failure, and a harbinger of the final crisis of capitalism.

The Russian assessment of the founding of the EEC in 1957 regarded the Treaty of Rome as a “temporary” alliance being used to temper the competition between capitalist states that had come under pressure as a consequence of the successes of ‘socialism’ in Eastern Europe and the independence movements in the Third World. Pravda (11 March 1957) denounced the Common Market as a “ploy of US leading circles for deepening the division of Europe and Germany and for subjecting Western Europe to the rule of West German monopolies and militarists”. On 13 March 1957 the ruling Communists in the USSR condemned the EEC as a “threat” to all-European cooperation and peace.

The overarching aim of Russian policy towards West European integration was to hamper the process or obstruct it altogether, through propagandistic demonisation and diplomatic pressure. As well as the considerable apparatus of the Russian state itself, the Stalinists also had at their disposal large and often mass western European Communist parties able to articulate this hostility towards bourgeois political and economic integration. From the early 1950s these Communist parties pumped out propaganda with the tropes originating in Moscow.

The attitude of the IS (proto-SWP) before 1970
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 International Socialists (IS), led by Tony Cliff, held itself broadly within the same internationalist arguments as the rest of the Trotskyist left. After many splits IS became the SWP in 1977.

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).

IS argued 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’. 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, the left abandoned the position and accommodated to chauvinism.

The chauvinist summer of 1971
Before 1971 almost the entire revolutionary left held an abstentionist position on the Common Market: In or out, it was about capitalist integration and not a matter for workers to choose a side to support. Although this left several key questions begging, it at least had the virtue of maintaining a consistent internationalist position, having no truck with chauvinism and championing cross-Europe worker solidarity in the face of bourgeois integration. Why in the space of a year did almost the entire revolutionary left flip over into a hardened opposition to the EEC, one that saw this left add its voice to the chorus of Labour lefts, Tory rightists and far-right fascists calling for Britain to remain outside of the Common Market.

The simple explanation is that the revolutionary collapsed into the “common sense” that began to dominate the labour movement and the wider public. Within the labour movement there was a growing nationalist-chauvinist response, fuelled by Stalinist socialism-in-one-country which began to grip many of the best industrial militants. In the political context of the time, where an unpopular Labour government promoted EEC membership just as it promoted efforts to curb the power of trade unions; followed by a Tory government elected in 1970 committed to the same agenda of Common Market membership and the Industrial Relations Act, the labour movement lurched towards opposition and the revolutionary left simply capitulated to the dominant mood around them.

After fleeting opposition to entry in 1961, Labour had switched to conditional support in 1962, allowing Wilson to seek entry in government. However within the labour movement, alongside the disappointment with the Labour government and with its unexpected defeat in 1970, the tide was turning against entry.

It was in the unions that the most significant shift was occurring. In the late 1940s and early 50s, the TUC Congress supported demands for a united Europe, backing both the Schuman plan and the EDC. After the first application to join the EEC in 1962, its position was “wait and see”. However in 1971 Congress voted for opposition to Britain’s entry to the Common Market on Conservative terms, in 1972 for opposition to entry in principle and in 1973 opposition to membership plus support for a boycott of EU institutions.

A key catalyst for transmitting opposition to the EU through the major unions were the militants and union bureaucrats associated with the Communist Party. Around the time of Britain’s first application for membership, the CPGB had 34,000 members and 265 workplace branches. It organised a cross-union rank and file organisation, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions, which in 1969 could organise a conference of 1,700 delegates from many of the most militant workplaces across the UK. It could get over 100 members as delegates to the annual TUC Congress. It was represented by half a dozen members and as many sympathisers on the executive of the TGWU, with substantial representation at the highest levels of the AEUW and NUM, with members among prominent general secretaries.

The shift of the unions towards opposition to British entry – propelled by the trade union bureaucracy and backed by the CPGB – was the backdrop against which the revolutionary left’s lurch in the summer of 1971 took place.

How the revolutionary left fell in behind the Stalinists in 1971
The revolutionary left on the cusp of the 1970s was significantly larger than it had been since the mid-1920s, when the CPGB was a real revolutionary force with around 10,000 members. In 1964 the SLL had an estimated 500 members, IS around 200 members and Militant about 40 members. After 1968 all groups grew, and so by the time of these Common Market debates the SLL had around 2,000, IS a similar number, the IMG with around 400 and Militant with 250 members.

The lurch in 1971 was almost simultaneous across the three most significant groups on the revolutionary left. The SLL had already made its switch earlier, but the IMG, Militant and IS would follow suit rapidly by the end of 1971. They fell in behind the reformist and Stalinist left, who espoused narrow British nationalism. Most of the revolutionary left bent under its pressure and the fear of isolation from the workers influenced by the nationalist left. They used slogans like "the Socialist United States of Europe" as a deodorant to cover the nationalist smell. This would carry on right through the referendum in 1975 and remained frozen comatose in most cases to this day.

The most theatrical if belated volte-face over the EEC was the lurch taken by the International Socialists (IS). It voted overwhelmingly at its 1970 conference against a proposal to oppose Common Market entry. At Easter 1971 an ambiguous motion putting the same position was again overwhelmingly carried. By June 1971, IS leaders began to adapt to the dominant mood among the vocal militants in the labour movement hostile to the Common Market. Tony Cliff and Chris Harman scripted their Theses on the Common Market to rationalise this change.

The Theses did not challenge the abstentionist position in principle, but made a tactical proposal to vote with the left. Cliff and Harman wrote: “Our aim in union conferences and the like should be… making clear both our opposition to the Common Market, and our separation from the confused chauvinism of the Tribunites, CP etc. However, if we are defeated on such a stand, we should then vote with the Tribune-Stalinists in opposition to entry.” A substantial minority of the National Committee opposed the Theses, but they were accepted.

The slide began almost immediately. Duncan Hallas, the IS national secretary began making propaganda in Socialist Worker (229) against the group’s traditional abstentionist position, caricaturing it as remaining neutral in the class struggle. He argued for "No to the Common Market" on the grounds that it would be a defeat for the Tories, the party of big business. The position was challenged by the Workers’ Fight Trotskyist tendency within IS: Sean Matgamna and Phil Semp published a document, IS and the Common Market (24 July 1971), which sets out this critique in more depth (Permanent Revolution No.3, 1975).

Chris Harman provided the detailed rationalisation in a long article, ‘The Common Market’, International Socialism (Autumn 1971). He offered three reasons for opposition:
“1. Entry is being used, alongside other measures, to hit at working class living standards and conditions…
2. Entry is aimed to rationalise and strengthen capitalism. It is an attempt to solve certain of capitalism’s problems by capitalist methods…
3. The rationalisation of capitalism [is] no longer progressive in any sense, it also speeds up the development of intrinsically destructive forces…

Politically, this was exceptionally weak. In or out of the EEC, working class living standards were under attack. Capitalist rationalisation had gone on since the dawn of capitalism, but revolutionaries had not rejected technological change, or defended small business against capitalist concentration. A further claim that the EEC was “really” about a military alliance was tenuous at best.

In fact Harman fell back on the negative argument. He wrote: “The defeat of the Tory government, in the present context of growing working class opposition to its policies, would give a new confidence and militancy to workers”. He added that “revolutionaries in the labour movement have to make it absolutely clear that they do not abstain on such a question. We are for the defeat of the Tories…”

Allied to the negative “defeat the Tories” was the prelude to the real justification: adaptation to the milieu. Harman argued that “those trade unionists who oppose government policies on the Industrial Relations Bill, productivity deals, etc., also tend to be opposed to the Market”. Underlying this alignment was that “many rank-and-file militants instinctively distrust the government’s entry policy. They feel that it will be used to weaken their position”.

Opposition also involved traditional IS loyalists. For example, Nagliatti, Foot, Higgins, Pritchard, Edwards and Carlsson wrote a document, ‘The Common Market and the IS Group’. Loyalist Ian Birchall challenged Harman’s position in a “Rejoinder” published in the same issue of International Socialism. He restated IS’s traditional position, unpicking Harman’s rationalisation. Birchall identified the real reason, responding acidly: “We have to relate to these forms of distorted class consciousness; we certainly do not adapt to them.”

Within IS, the Workers' Fight Trotskyist tendency challenged the leadership, demanding a special conference. This required the support from one-fifth of the IS branches to get a recall conference - 23 branches. Although the minority got sufficient support, there was still no conference. The IS national committee put an arbitrary deadline beyond which branches could not declare for the recall conference. The IS executive committee admitted to 22 branches, but denied receiving notification for the final one. Instead, the Trotskyist tendency was expelled (“defused”) in December 1971.

The 1975 referendum
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.

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.

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