The UK referendum to be held on 23 June on whether to remain in the European Union or leave (British exit, hence Brexit) has opened up a big debate amongst the Marxist left. Some argue that socialists should vote to leave the EU. They put forward an argument for a ‘left’ exit from the EU, or Lexit, and encourage others to vote accordingly. A smaller number argue that socialists should campaign actively against both the Leave and Remain camps via an active boycott or abstention. Here, I argue that the interests of the working class are best advanced by rejecting the arguments for Lexit/Brexit or abstention and voting to remain within the EU.
Firstly, a Brexit will immediately jeopardise the rights of three million EU citizens living in the UK and those of two million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU. No one can say with any certainty whether their current rights will continue or be removed. At the very least there will be a long period of uncertainty. The right of any EU citizen who might want to move to the UK, or of a UK citizen to move elsewhere in the EU after a Brexit will almost certainly no longer exist. On this basis alone a Brexit should be opposed.
Not only this, though. The most obvious beneficiaries of a Brexit will be the right-wing of the Tory Party, UKIP, nationalists and xenophobes, the anti-immigration lobby, little-Englanders and racist bigots. A Brexit will bolster all of these reactionary trends within British society and across Europe, fuelling the anti-immigrant sentiment we now see on the rise within the EU. These are the people who will be cheering loudest if Brexit wins. They will have won on the basis of anti-immigrant scare-mongering and will be in a position to impose restrictions on immigration. Life in Britain will be more insecure and the atmosphere more hostile for immigrants after Brexit. This will be a worse environment for socialists to work in.
Secondly, whilst the EU is no friend of the working class, the loss of EU rules will jeopardise some workplace rights and other protections and make trade union negotiations more difficult following a Brexit, as the excellent FBU statement on the EU points out.
Thirdly, a Brexit undermines the internationalist strategic outlook necessary in the longer term for the socialist transformation we fight for. It reinforces the impression that there is an easier route to socialism outside the EU. This is fundamentally mistaken. Brexit should be opposed. International socialism is the way forward.
Points of agreement
It is worth making a few preliminary points. Firstly, a socialist vote to remain in the EU does not mean supporting the EU or endorsing the idea that it is any sort of pro-working class entity. It is not. The EU was established and remains a pro-capitalist project, designed to maximise the ability of the European capitalist class to extract profit from the working class; to make European capital more competitive in the global economy. Every treaty agreed to develop the EU has advanced this capitalist project.
Secondly, a socialist vote to remain does not ignore the lack of democracy within the EU. The European parliament has few powers. The European Council, comprising the heads of the EU member states, along with the unelected European Commission and the European Central Bank essentially call the shots.
On both of these points the Lexit advocates and the socialist remain advocates share common ground. In advocating a remain vote, I do not endorse or accept the pro-capitalist arguments of David Cameron and his allies. Nor do I suggest that any socialist in the Lexit camp is endorsing the nationalist arguments for Brexit of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage. Both sides of the socialist debate agree that the labour movement and working class should campaign independently from the two sides of the capitalist class who are arguing either to stay or leave. Socialists recognise that the interests of the working class cannot be advanced by joint campaigns with our class enemies.
This is a debate between Marxists who share the view that capitalism is a rotten, exploitative system, riven with crisis, that needs to be superseded by a new form of society based on common ownership with production planned for need not profit. We agree on this primary objective.
Having said that, I believe the Lexit comrades are profoundly mistaken.
Socialists should always maintain sight of the ultimate goal of the socialist movement, that is the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a new socialist society. All strategy and tactics of the movement should be subordinate to that ultimate goal. This means, firstly, achieving working class rule, overturning the rule of the minority capitalist class.
Socialism can supplant capitalism only if is established on an international basis. There can be no socialism in one country, whether that country is Russia in 1917 or Britain a century on. Britain does not have the resources to develop a socialist society on its own. In Britain, socialists must work towards a transformation on a European level in the first instance, where social ownership of the vast natural resources and the advanced level of economic development could begin to make planning on the basis of need a reality.
Our strategic orientation and tactical decisions must be made on the basis of what advances the struggle for socialism on a continental and global scale. That is why socialists should oppose demands such as import controls, as they aim to protect domestic workers at the expense of workers in other countries, pitting the interests of the two groups against one another. Import controls have the effect of driving workers behind their own national capitalist class, rather than uniting together for an internationalist solution.
The EU, like capitalism everywhere, has developed in a two-sided manner. It everywhere deepens exploitation and inequality. But at the same time it integrates the world economy, laying the basis for the future global socialist economy of abundance. The socialist revolution we call for will deepen and extend globalisation, that is economic interdependence, but liberate the world’s population from exploitation.
Instead of calling for the breakup of nation states and international trading blocks, socialists should be seeking to extend them on a completely different basis. Capitalist development expands the number and strength of the global working class; it brings together the working class in different countries, makes them realise that the enemy they must remove is not just national but global. Socialists should encourage this realisation and seek to organise common action across borders in furtherance of a common project. The enemy of the British working class is also that of the German, Greek, Polish and French.
To achieve this European-wide revolution, the working class of Europe has to organise together to challenge and overthrow the dictatorship of capital across the whole of Europe. The integration of the European economies within the EU, therefore, has its positive side as well as its negative. It is to our advantage that on a continental level the British, French, Polish, German and Greek working class has a common enemy, not only in the form of the individual owners of capital but also in the institutions of the EU – the Commission, the ECB and the European Council. The imposition of austerity across Europe creates the potential for European-wide struggle to resist it and end the profit system that imposes it. We must challenge not only the neo-liberal policies of the EU but capitalism itself.
The institutions of the EU cannot be transformed into ones that act in the interest of the working class, any more than can the institutions of the British state. A socialist transformation would have to create its own new institutions that act in the interests of the new society – fully democratic and accountable. But identifying that task also demonstrates the enormity of that task. It will require a revolution in working-class outlook and organisation across Europe. The internationalist socialist perspective needs to become commonplace. Socialists must strive to overcome a narrow national outlook. And that is another reason why Lexit must be opposed. Unintentionally or not, Lexit reinforces the idea that there is a national solution to the crisis in society. It undermines and understates the international nature of the task that the working class has to carry out.
This is not to argue that there has to be a single simultaneous revolutionary act of the working class across Europe at the same time, though that would certainly be the best development if it could be achieved. The working class may well enter into battle against the different national bourgeoisie at different stages, but the need to see that there is a broader struggle beyond national boundaries is an essential prerequisite for a successful socialist transformation. Lexit is dangerous because it suggests that something less than a European revolution is sufficient; that there is some British road to socialism. We should aim to turn national class struggles into European ones; campaigns against austerity from national resistance battles into continental class war against the institutions of the EU and the class they serve.
Unfortunately, far too little has been done by the trade unions and social democratic parties of the European countries to coordinate common action across borders against this common enemy. This is in urgent need of correction. We need to raise the profile of our shared goal. We need a European socialist project, aiming to draw the entire European working class into active support of it. That will not be helped by a Brexit, but made more difficult.
We need to do far more to work collaboratively with our sisters and brothers in other European countries, coordinating protests and making common cause on issues such as the minimum wage, a shorter working week, defending migrants and fighting for more democracy and accountability of the institutions that currently govern our lives.
Against the law
One of the arguments used by those in favour of Lexit is that policies that a socialist government would want to implement, such as taking industry or services into public ownership would be against EU law. There is something remarkably naïve about this argument.
These battles with the European ruling class cannot be avoided by leaving the EU. The rules and laws of the EU are, after all, the rules and laws agreed by the national representatives of the ruling class in each individual member state. The day after the UK votes to leave the EU the British working class will still face the same class enemy at home and abroad. Any steps by a future socialist government to implement policy in favour of the working class and against the interests of the ruling capitalist class will be met by determined class action on an international scale, from capital flight, trade sanctions, economic and industrial sabotage right through to attempted coup. We will not avoid the domestic and international repercussions from a hostile class enemy by voting for Brexit. Having left the EU will make no significant difference to our tasks, only made them more difficult to pursue.
A determined socialist government would not be cowed by the fact that taking the railways or the banks, for example, into public ownership was against EU law. Calling on the support of the working class, it would defy that EU law. It would appeal to the working class of other EU countries to support and defend the act, calling on them to follow suit. It would confront the EU’s capitalist leaders and institutions.
Why make it easier for our opponents? If the perspective of the Lexiteers is that a government will come to power with a mandate to take industry or services into public ownership, wouldn’t it be better to do so whilst remaining inside the EU, confronting the interests of capital at the heart of the EU?
A similar argument is raised about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). If we remain in the EU, the argument goes, Britain would be forced to accept TTIP with all its reactionary impact. There is no doubt that TTIP should be opposed. But to imagine that the UK could negotiate a trade deal with the USA on better terms simply by leaving the EU is naïve in the extreme. However, imagine if Jeremy Corbyn were elected Prime Minister. Would it not make more sense to veto TTIP from within the EU, causing a problem for the EU and the USA, than to be outside with little or no say on what happens in the EU? The same applies on every other issue. It would be far better for a socialist government to be challenging the EU from within and seeking to rally working class opposition from all countries in the EU against its leaders and institutions and the system they represent. Outside the EU, a socialist government could, I accept, still call for support from workers in other countries. But sharing a common enemy with the working class of other countries within the EU would pose the shared interests far more starkly.
Break with capital
We saw in Greece last year the severe nature of the class war being fought by the EU ruling class to impose its austerity policy in its own interests. In Greece, the arguments about resistance were often presented as being about ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU. This was not the issue. The issue was whether the left-wing Syria government was prepared to confront and challenge the rule of capital in Greece. Despite being given a huge mandate by the Greek people in the referendum of 5 July 2015, Syriza capitulated and accepted the austerity terms. It was criticised by many on the left for not deciding to leave the EU, the argument being that it would have enabled Greece somehow to better deal with the economic crisis. Syriza was wrong to capitulate. Those calling for Greece to leave the EU, or Grexit, were also wrong in implying that it would resolve the crisis. Syriza should have used the referendum mandate to defy the EU, to confront its leaders. It should have nationalised the banks, the ports and other areas of industry, taken action against the state apparatus and called on the working class of Spain, Portugal, Italy and other EU countries to rally to its side. It could have undermined the EU institutions and sparked off a continental movement to change the ruling structures of Europe. The crucial issue was not whether Greece broke from the EU but whether it broke from capitalism.
If the EU leaders had moved to expel Greece from the EU, that would have only served to reinforce the class nature of the crisis. A Grexit on this basis – expulsion for refusing to accept austerity, class confrontation and internationalising the struggle – is entirely different from a Grexit in the hope that a return to the drachma outside the EU would benefit the Greek people, while leaving capital’s rule intact. Similarly, with a Brexit: voting to leave, absent a class confrontation, can only take us further down the road of nationalist isolation. Expulsion from the EU on the basis of a UK government implementing ‘unlawful’ socialist policies is something entirely different. We should put the responsibility for any such step squarely on our opponents.
Free movement of people
If Britain votes to leave the EU in this referendum, it will not be on the basis of a socialist exit. The Lexiteers are positing a position that is not on the agenda. It will be on the basis of a victory for the right-wing, nationalist and xenophobic agenda of those leading the Brexit campaign. It will be fuelled by anti-immigration policy and will fuel that in turn. The day after a Brexit vote those on the anti-immigrant right will be bolstered and every migrant in Britain will feel more insecure and fearful. A Brexit vote in these circumstances will not advance the cause of liberal tolerance in Britain, let alone the socialists cause. It will make our job harder.
There have been some positive gains achieved as a result of the EU. Perhaps the most important of these is the right to the free movement of persons throughout the EU. This gives the right of any citizen of any EU country to move to work in any other EU country. This is a huge achievement. Of course, the European capitalist class wants this so that they can drive down wages across Europe, using the European reserve army of labour (the unemployed and underemployed) to undercut established pay rates. But socialists should defend this freedom of movement. We should have the right to live and work wherever we choose. Some within the Lexit camp see the free movement of persons guaranteed by the EU only as a bosses’ tool, rather than as a positive gain for the working class to be defended. In this they are severely mistaken. Any attempts to justify controlling ‘our’ borders in order to limit immigration will end up blaming the migrants for the crisis, rather than the profit system and those who benefit from it.
The way to combat any undermining of hard-won rights at work and pay rates through the use of migrant labour is to build stronger unions and use the power of the organised working class to resist any reductions in pay and conditions. Foreign workers must be unionised alongside indigenous workers. The labour and union movement must reject any argument that counterposes the rights of domestic workers to those of migrant workers.
Socialists rightly argue against ‘Fortress Europe’ with its strict control of the EU borders, refusing entry from those outside them. But how does removing the right of EU citizens to move freely within the EU help to destroy Fortress Europe? Following a Brexit, Fortress Europe remains but the right to move to and from Britain will be removed from British and EU citizens. How is that an advance? We must defend the right of people to move within the EU and fight to end the Fortress Europe policy.
Socialist change or regressive break-up
In all the material produced by the Lexiteers nothing is said about any concrete benefit to be gained from leaving the EU. Their argument appears to be a giant non sequitur: the EU is capitalist, reactionary and undemocratic – therefore we should leave. But nowhere is it explained how leaving changes either the EU or Britain, which is also capitalist, reactionary and undemocratic.
One argument advanced is that a vote to leave the EU will destabilise the EU leading to its disintegration, weakening the ruling class and therefore advancing the interests of the working class. Similar arguments were made, mistakenly in my opinion, during the campaigning on the issue of Scottish independence.
Insofar as capitalist development has created or consolidated national states this has also brought together the working class on a national basis, making it stronger, less divided by language or regional/national differences. This unity should be welcomed and defended. There is no advantage to the working class of the UK or Spain, to take another example, to be split up into smaller entities.
Similarly with the development of the EU, the bringing together of the different countries facing the same institutions and the same policies across a continent is an advantageous development that should not be thrown lightly away.
There are two main ways in which the EU can break up. One is through the progressive act of the working class acting together on a continental scale to recreate a new Europe, a socialist Europe, building on the integration but socialising production. Another is a break up of the EU on a capitalist basis, into rival, competing national entities engaging in trade wars, protectionism, rejecting migrants and generally reinforcing reactionary tendencies within Europe.
The EU Referendum takes place in a specific time and in specific circumstances. The nationalist fissures within the EU are being exacerbated by the nationalist right in all countries of the EU. The most likely consequences of a Brexit will be to reinforce the rightwing, nationalist and xenophobic trends in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. It will not, in my opinion, make the struggle for an internationalist policy for Europe easier for socialists to advance.
In essence, the Lexit argument is to present a perspective based on nothing but blind hope as sufficient reason to give up the concrete advantages that the working class obtains from the UK’s membership of the EU, despite its anti-working class nature: freedom of people to move within the EU to live and work where they choose, the rights and protections (limited though they be) won from the EU and the strategic importance of the practical common cause we have with our international sisters and brothers within the EU, so crucial to the struggle for international socialism.
I will say only this about the abstention position. It makes excellent points about the nature of the EU and the nature of Britain. But the argument to abstain allows the risk of a reactionary Brexit victory. We are faced with a concrete outcome on 23 June. Brexit must be defeated.