The Brexit crisis at Westminster is also rippling across the left in Britain. Although the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) remains committed to its pro¬Brexit position, its report of its conference on 29¬30 December show that at least some of its members are uneasy.
The SWP oppose calls for a second referendum. However, they now concede that if a referendum is organised, they would be in difficulties: the leadership would have to call a meeting to decide on the SWP’s position. If it is a choice between Remain and May’s Brexit, a possible option may be “active abstention” – a campaign to reject both options. The conference report records that veteran SWPer Sabby Sagall opposed Brexit outright.
The latest issue of the SWP journal, International Socialism, carries an article by Wayne Asher, “In a hole and still digging: the left and Brexit”, criticising the SWP’s pro-Brexit line. Much of his assessment of the current situation is rational, although he mangles the debates on the Labour left, especially Momentum. Asher’s biggest mistake is to justify the position the SWP (then called IS) took on the 1975 referendum, when it voted for Brexit. He wrongly states that: “The left’s opposition to the European Union goes back to the early 1970s”. Actually, the roots of opposition on the British left to the European Economic Community (EEC, forerunner of the EU) on the British left can be traced to Stalinism.
Russian foreign policy, and therefore the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), opposed moves to European bourgeois integration from the 1940s onwards. Until the late 1960s the Trotskyist left, with few exceptions, took an internationalist position on the EEC. IS¬SWP, and other groups like the forerunners of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, flipped only when anti¬Europe feeling increased in the “broad” left (not necessarily in the working class: the 1975 referendum returned a 67%-33% vote against Brexit). 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.”
In fact, the IS leadership switched to opposing the EEC because of the perceived “mood” on the left. Their volte¬face was opportunist positioning. Many socialists today transpose their current attitude towards the European Union from positions taken during the 1970s or 80s. We should know the history in order to avoid repeating mistakes.
In the early 1960s, when the Tories first applied for Britain to join the EEC, many Labour MPs were opposed, including the right¬wing Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, who argued instead for Britain to orient to the Commonwealth (the ex¬Empire). Articles in International Socialism journal were critical of the EEC, but at pains to distance from nationalism or reformism. IS was cautiously optimistic about European integration.
A 1961 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”.
“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. Another 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. The EEC, or proto-EU, was then also called “the Common Market”).
The magazine also published a letter of dissent from Peter Sedgwick opposing British entry to the Common Market. John Fairhead resigned from the editorial board over the matter: he would later become a right¬wing Tory. The magazine continued a debate. John Palmer 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).
Also in 1963, IS member Alasdair MacIntyre denounced the Labour Party for posing as “the party of the English¬speaking Empire”. “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).
When the 1964-70 Labour government headed by Harold Wilson applied for British membership of the EEC, the majority reiterated an internationalist position while others argued to oppose entry. An editorial 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 Sedgwick 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).
During the 1960s almost the entire revolutionary left held an internationalist position on the Common Market. In or out, it was about capitalist integration: workers could not oppose it, and should not endorse it.
In 1970, the Internationalist Socialists had around two thousand members. The biggest revolutionary socialist group at that time, the Socialist Labour League (SLL), had already taken a “stay out” position from 1967, part of a degeneration which would lead to complete collapse, politically from the mid¬70s, organisationally in 1985. The International Marxist Group (forerunner of Socialist Resistance today) and Militant (Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal today) also fell in behind the reformist and Stalinist left. IS made the most theatrical volte¬face over the EEC.
It voted overwhelmingly at its 1970 conference against a proposal to oppose Common Market entry. At Easter 1971, a 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 “Theses on the Common Market” to rationalise a change. On paper, the Theses left the conference policy not to oppose entry intact, and only made a tactical adjustment. The tactical adjustment would soon swallow up the point of principle. 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.”
The national committee accepted the Theses. A large minority of the committee, and initially maybe even a majority of the membership, dissented. The slide towards the “tactical fallback” swallowing the principle began almost immediately.
Duncan Hallas, then national secretary of the group, writing in Socialist Worker (229), caricatured the “neither, nor” position 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. Chris Harman provided further 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…”
Yet working class conditions were no less under attack outside the EEC than inside it. 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.
Eventually Harman fell back on the negative argument: anti¬EECism was good because the Tories would dislike it. 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…”
“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”. So swim with the tide.
Many prominent leading members of IS¬SWP opposed the switch — Paul Foot (who soon repented and went over to anti-EECism), Andreas Nagliatti, Jim Higgins, Geoff Carlsson, Ian Birchall. But their stance was really to register a dissent and then to shrug. The Workers’ Fight Trotskyist tendency (forerunner of AWL) argued the issues sharply and militantly, and called for a special conference. The call got support from the 23 branches constitutionally required to get a special conference, but the IS denied receiving notification of the 23rd branch and instead called a special conference to expel the Trotskyist Tendency, in December 1971.
Britain joined the EEC on 1 January 1973. The majority in the Labour Party still opposed being in the EEC; after Labour returned to government in February 1974, Labour leader Harold Wilson finessed the issue by organising a referendum on whether Britain should continue in the EEC. In January 1975, the IS national committee 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 vote was now unanimous: the less obstreperous dissidents of 1971 had drifted away or quietly adapted.
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”.
After garnishing the poison with apple-pie slogans in favour of the Socialist United State of Europe, socialist internationalism and working class unity, and routine warnings against British chauvinism and “popular fronts” with Tories 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”. (The reference was to a Labour left movement of the 1950s). Out of a reactionary movement might come progress – hence revolutionaries had to be there to jump on the bandwagon.
Socialist Worker (1 February 1975) soon lamented that the no campaign had meant in practice: “unions forking out money to pay for meetings for an open racist like [Enoch] 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 to pretend that their own disgusting chauvinism and alliances with Powell were the only alternative to the Jenkinsites and the Market.”
Socialist Worker, (8 March 1975) lapsed back on negativism: “A no vote, that is to say a defeat for the big business, Tory, Liberal, and right wing Labour coalition... The arena for our internationalist message is inside the no camp... We are part of the left. We cannot abstain in this confrontation”. This line was repeated in ‘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”. Yet the place of socialists was, “of course, firmly and unequivocally in the no camp, alongside the great majority of class¬conscious workers”. Sixty years before, Lenin had summed up the basic Marxist attitude of opposing capitalism within its development, rather than seeking to halt it or push it back. “The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts [bigger and more integrated concentrations of capital]. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts... are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre¬monopoly capitalism... Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!”
That basic attitude ruled out voting against European capitalist integration. And it guided most of the British revolutionary left, more or less, until the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But then the bulk of the revolutionary left – the groups which educated many of the today’s older Labour leftists when they were young activists – collapsed politically into the “No” camp, dominated by Labour reformists and Stalinists, behind which stood the most reactionary sections of the British bourgeoisie. Abstract and irrelevant fig-leaves such as “Socialist United States of Europe” were tagged onto the “no” message, but its real motivation was entirely opportunist and negative — the idea that to “defeat the Tories” or “defeat the Labour right” was automatically to serve the interests of the (British) working class.
That was effectively a collapse into chauvinism, disregarding relations with other European workers in the name of notionally giving British capital a bloody nose.
The broad labour movement edged away from Europhobia over the 1990s. The process is usually dated from the speech about a “social Europe” by European Commission president Jacques Delors in 1988 to a TUC congress battered by Thatcherism. The activist left toned down its anti¬EU agitation, but never went back to analyse its mistakes in the 1970s. We should.