Your wishy-washy politics on Brexit are usually explained as electoral manoeuvring in an attempt to attract both anti-Brexit internationalists and pro-Brexiters to the Labour Party. It is likely to satisfy neither. “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth”, as somebody said a long time ago. But even should your calculation here prove to be accurate, your approach is wrong in principle.
The relationship to the European Union is Britain’s most important political issue in decades. To approach it in terms of manoeuvring for votes is a sign of political and moral bankruptcy. This is an enormous issue in its own right. Where the Labour Party stands on it is a measure of what Labour is about.
The European Union is not the Socialist United States of Europe which socialists put on our banner more than a century ago. It is not something built by the working-class movement. Like Britain and all the other member states taken separately, the EU is bourgeois. Despite that, it is an immense step forward from the Europe that preceded it — a place of fierce national conflicts, wars, forced population movements, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder — a continent that engendered two world wars in the first half of the 20th century.
The borders within Europe are now more open than since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, and over a much larger area than that covered by Rome. Often in our history the labour movement has had to come to terms with seeing the bourgeoisie do things we wanted done, and, in the nature of things, doing them in their way and not ours, and for their own reasons, which are not ours.
Our movement has two clear-cut choices on such things. It can reject them out of hand and look to a reversion to the previous conditions. As long ago as the Communist Manifesto (1847-8), Marxists defined some of those who took that choice — the well-meaning ones, who among other things objected to the degradation of the working class — as “reactionary socialists”. All of them were historically regressive and reactionary. The other approach has been and is to own that what the bourgeoisie has done in the case has been progressive, try to reform and reshape it, and build on it.
That second choice, fundamentally, is our approach to capitalism itself. The entire Marxist tradition, that of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, points us to the second approach — to build on what the EU has developed, to fight to transform it, to strive to realise adequate bourgeois democracy within it, to cut down the smothering tendrils of its bureaucracy, to build working-class unity within the frame of the EU (and beyond it, of course), and finally to put the working class in control and create the Socialist United States of Europe.
Brexit on any terms involves regression to a walled-off British bourgeois nation-state. It counterposes that to the unity which the bourgeoisie has achieved over the last 60 or 70 years, since the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951 and the Treaty of Rome in 1957. It also risks destabilising other EU countries’ integration, and the EU itself. It is to realise some of the program of the chauvinist, racist, and even fascist far right, and to encourage them in their foul work.
The Labour Party urged people to vote against Brexit in 2016. After the June 2016 referendum result, it should have turned itself into a great campaign for European unity, and in the main place for workingclass unity. It should have lined up behind the call for a second, informed, public vote. Instead, the Labour Party has accepted Brexit, and promotes it. It is a question of democracy? Nonsense! The referendum was three years ago, at the height of a wave of xenophobia against immigration. The Brexit vote was largely a vote against free movement. Many, many people simply did not know what Brexit entailed. Three years on they know more.
A lot of people who didn’t vote in 2016 are now of an age to vote. It is one of the cornerstones of parliamentary democracy that a Parliament cannot bind future Parliaments. But a referendum three years ago can bind Britain into a Brexit trajectory and ban the possibility of release from the decision of three years ago? Democracy froze and petrified itself in that moment of putting ballots in boxes in 2016? The idea is ridiculous! The idea that people now are forever locked into and politically defined by the 2016 vote is a negation of living democracy and its replacement by a senseless automatism.
And even if all that nonsense had substance, no serious working-class party would bow its head and meekly comply. Political parties don’t, or anyway should not, passively adapt even to their own “natural” electors. Serious parties exist to educate and re-educate the electorate, to win support for what they believe is true and right and necessary. Instead, you abandon opposition to Brexit in deference to the referendum. You speculate on electoral trends, acting as if the question itself — in or out of the EU — is of little importance.
As if, on the level of principle, socialists are indifferent on the issue of European unity or fragmentation. Marxists talk — perhaps too much — about a “crisis of leadership” in the labour movement, meaning an incompetent, lukewarm, or treacherous political leadership in the labour movement.
The EU debate has revealed a major crisis of bourgeois leadership in Britain. “Dodgy Dave” Cameron blundered into a referendum he didn’t need to have, and lost it. Theresa May chose to make it her political mission to realise Britain’s break with the EU. The Labour Party — the “Corbyn” Labour Party — followed with a docility that bodes ill for a “left” Labour government, and as if you had no responsibility to question and oppose the 2016 referendum result.
What we need from you is serious working-class leadership, with a proper sense of history and of what the labour movement must be and do in politics — not the daft pretence that a confused one-off vote three years ago can obliterate the lessons of history and the obligations they place on socialists. Fight Brexit! Fight for European working-class unity! Fight not for a return to British isolation, but for a Socialist United States of Europe!