The Left, Europe and the case for socialism

The Left, Europe and the case for socialism

Will McMahon searches for a genuinely socialist perspective on the European question.

Prior to the 1992 General Election the ostensibly socialist journal New Left Review No 191 carried an article titled ‘The Ruins of Westminster’ by Robin Blackburn. One of the central themes of the article was to argue for the progressive development of the European Union through a social democratic/left programme and to compare this favourably with the monetarist ravages of Thatcherism and the backwardness of the British state. The article then went on to call for a tactical Liberal Democrat vote where they were most likely to defeat the Conservatives. It is hard to imagine now but at that time some on the left did actually believe that the Liberal Democrats might be a progressive force.

The progressive social democratic and liberal bloc would then turn Britain to the heart of a progressive and social democratic Europe. The implication being that this would be both a bulwark against a revanchist attack on the post war settlement following the collapse of the Soviet Union and represent a defeat of the euro-sceptic nationalist forces that were developing a head of steam on the right wing of the Conservative Party. The argument that the European Union represented a progressive social force was carried in the main by the TUC bureaucracy, both Kinnock and Blair and the Financial Times.

This analysis, while wrong in all aspects, also had a huge attraction for many on the left who were despairing of ever breaking the Conservative strangle hold on Parliament – especially after the 1992 general election. For others, the advocacy of a single European state was because of a belief that it would bring a broader unity of the working class against capital. This analysis was undermined to some degree by the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty and its monetarist criteria in 1992, but the excitement of the newly launched ‘Euro’ project as part of Maastricht meant many on the left still felt able to argue that the European Union was an open project with a contested class content.

Capital at its heart

These days, with the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund smashing up the welfare state across the European Union and carrying out a massive attack on working-class living standards, the argument that the European Union has the possibility of being a progressive bloc against Anglo-American neo-liberal capitalism is not often heard and with good reason; the collapse of the social democratic project has revealed that at heart the EU project is being governed by the demands of capital at the expense of labour and that the essential argument over the direction of the EU was between neo-liberal and social democratic capitalist ideologies – an argument that the pro-market social democrats have now comprehensively lost. The progressive light has gone out in the European Union as class war rages across the continent.

In fact, from the European Coal and Steel Community, through the Treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon, the European Union has always been a project of European capital. The popular glosses deployed to win mass favour for the project were built upon an understandable popular desire to prevent another continental war, the fact that the British Isles are geographically part of the continent and therefore some form of social and economic co-operation seemed both sensible and necessary, a genuine desire to reject the narrow nationalism of the Tory right and to find a path diverging from the British imperialist tradition, and the oft cited and patronising argument that no one would have to bother visiting the bureau de change ever again before getting on the ferry, boat or train to the continent. However, the popular reasons were not the real reasons.

Bosses’ union

The European Union was constructed partly as a bloc against the Soviet Union and, following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, it broadened out into the attempt to create a European capitalist super power that might have a hegemonic influence on a global scale in a three way power struggle with the United States and China. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Britain (which alone seemed to have the alternative of hitching its wagon to the US train) would either have to form a bloc or be torn apart by much larger imperial interests. There was nothing progressive in either of these driving forces so it should be unsurprising that in the 21st century the European Union emerged as a ‘bosses union’, a fortress against the global free movement of labour, and an imperialist project being built to counterweigh Chinese and US power, (although to some degree subordinate to the United States) in the contest for global resources.

It is impossible, from this perspective, to argue for the strengthening of the European Union. Events in the Ukraine highlight this expansionist phenomena, with the EU being a velvet glove for NATO, which in turn will underpin the neo-liberal strategy that will rip through the Ukrainian working class if the current forces in charge in Kiev establish a hegemonic position. It is self evident, given some of the clearly documented evidence of the right populists and neo-fascists who are playing a role in the Kiev government that the European Commission is relatively unconcerned by who it allies with to expand its influence.

This is not to say that the imperial activities of Vladimir Putin and the Russian ruling class are a camp that any socialist should support either (even if in the background you can see he has the support of crowds containing people carrying red flags emblazoned with a hammer and sickle) but just to note that the independence of the Ukraine or its working class is the last thing on the agenda of the agents of capitalism governing the European Commission.

The problem of UKIP

The recent rise of UKIP, alongside the capitalist offensive and resistance to it across the continent, has once again placed the question of The European Union at the centre of the left’s concerns. There is the worrying prospect that in May 2014 UKIP’s populist stance on the European Union may lead a section of working-class voters to vote UKIP on the European ballot and then to also vote UKIP in the local council election ballot and for some of them to jump ship to them permanently.

UKIP has made headway in the polls through a combination of four factors: first, by playing on fears of mass migration from Eastern Europe and stoking up racism; second, by appealing to the not insignificant band of English nationalists, backed by the Daily Express and on occasion the Daily Mail; third, by highlighting the massive democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union project and fourth, by becoming the new party of the protest vote: pint in hand, Farage presents himself as one of the people, and with media backing it has had impact so far.

Farage, who in early March 2014 began to peddle the line that Labour had let down its traditional working class support and added to this by seeking to appear to have common cause with the late and admirable communist class fighter Bob Crow when, with stomach churning opportunism, he said on Bob’s death that “I agreed one hundred percent with him on the issue of the EU and that working-class people were having their chances damaged by EU membership.”  To put it politely, Farage is talking bullshit. Farage is a neo-liberal and argues that there is a British solution to the economic and social crisis and an exit from the EU on anti-working-class, neo-liberal policies will enable that solution to be put in place. This is about as far away from the class perspective that Bob Crow had as it would be possible to get, whatever one might think of the No2EU ticket in the 2014 European Union elections. Nationalism is at the heart of Farage’s position and the racism and xenophobia that supports it should be fought on all fronts by the left without concession.

UKIP are on much stronger ground with regard to the democratic deficit in the European Union. Farage’s very public attack on Herman Van Rompuy on his accession to the leadership of the Union highlighted the fact that unlike, for example, Obama, most people who live in the European Union do not know who their president is, do not have the slightest idea how he gained his post and would not know how to remove him. Rompuy is a career bureaucrat who has risen to the top of the EU pile because he is very well adapted to that particular environment. Farage’s attack was gross populism but did highlight a real issue.


The troika’s continued attack on the Greek working class and application of massive pressure to Greek society to vote for a neo-liberal solution to the crisis, in addition to the installation of a technocratic government in Italy, represents the dictatorship of capital slowly coming into view – and it is the European Commission and its president that is leading the process. The accretion of powers to the EU over three decades, that allows such an attack on democracy to take place, has very little democratic mandate in Britain.

Greece and Italy show that socialists must not abandon the democratic argument simply because UKIP have made the running so far. The working class is the only class that has the potential to create a thorough going mass democracy across the whole of Europe. The key question is how to properly frame an argument that both challenges the dictatorship of capital and imperialist essence of the EU and also the idea that a simple exit from the EU and a nationalist ‘capitalism in one country’ is a viable option. Not to address this fundamental democratic question would be to leave the field to UKIP.

However, the attack on UKIP must be a combination of challenging its reactionary pro-austerity pro capitalist policies as evidenced on its website (e.g. it is comprehensively in favour of smashing the NHS and the welfare state) as well as on its nationalist position on Europe and racist platform on immigration. In fact, an attack on its domestic policies is central to beginning to destabilise the electoral bloc it is trying to solidify. To this degree having the broadest socialist challenge for the 2014 metropolitan election where UKIP and the Tories will be indistinguishable, offers the best conditions for breaking any working class illusions in the exit strategy that UKIP have.

What do socialists argue for?

Socialists do not want to build a project that is attempting to create a new imperialist bloc. It is important to challenge the existence of the European Union as a political project of forces hostile to the working class across the whole of Europe (note: this is not just the EU) and internationally. Equally, and at the same time, socialists need to challenge the underlying xenophobia and English nationalism that underlies UKIP’s exit position.

By arguing for a continental Europe working-class alliance and programme that can create a political counterweight to the EU project, one that is socialist and anti-imperialist, and is against a fortress Europe and, critically, does not envisage a national solution to the problems that face the working class, socialists can challenge the UKIP national solution and also the dictatorship of capital in Europe, posing an alternative that would, if enacted, destroy the European Union.

Unfortunately the No2EU strategy, while in previous elections being just about palatable for some, has added the formula of an ‘exit on socialist policies’; this is a simple dis-interring of the Communist Party’s ‘British Road to Socialism’ and in the present context runs the risk of unintentionally adding fuel to UKIP’s populist exit rhetoric. No2EU is playing with fire which is why the Independent Socialist Network did not support TUSC being involved in it.

Also playing with fire are those who propose that Left Unity pitch in with the European Party of the Left (EPL) because it is, in that dread phrase ‘the only show in town’.  To be fair, the EPL does not recognise the political boundaries of the EU as a bar on membership, having membership of, among others, the Freedom and Solidarity Party of Turkey and the Belarusian Рarty of the Left ‘Fair World’, but without question the EPL does not represent the kind of consistent anti-austerity and anti-cuts position that is required.

In its texts the European Left Party shows itself clearly in favour “of progressive and liberal ideas” and strengthening the European Union. Some of its members have engaged in austerity measures, cutting the living standards of the working class, most notably the strongest EPL partner Die Linke in Berlin. The ELP does not have a clear and consistent socialist programme.

It really is worth reading the aims of the EPL as summed up in Article 5 of Statute of the Party of the European Left to get a flavour of the project.  This is where the ‘broad party’ mantra (by which is meant politically broad rather than the full breadth of the working class) leads – socialists and some Marxists burying themselves in new formations with a mish-mash of progressive forces in the hope that ‘come the crisis’ they will be able to take the revolutionary helm.

In essence, just as No2EU represents a retread of the British Road put forward by British Stalinism, the broad party strategy as envisaged by some in Left Unity demonstrates the victory of reheated Euro-Communist ideas over quite a broad layer of the post-Trotskyist left in Europe, a phenomena that first took hold with Robin Blackburn’s eulogy for the European Union and the European left in 1992.

Election demands

Whatever the detail of election programmes, election times are summed up by central election slogans, key campaign points, with a few bullet points attached to each platform. So what is it that socialists are for and what is it that socialists are against?

In the European Union elections we are ‘For a Socialist Europe’ and ‘No to austerity and cuts to working class living standard’ These are the central slogans for socialists during the EU election campaign. The key campaign points that follow this slogan should be bullet points of an alternative programme. Each person will have their own preferred positive slogans that sum up what a socialist Europe might be but in essence any combination of serious anti-capitalist measures, premised on a socialist no cuts programme, would pose an existential challenge to the European Union because they would not respect the boundaries that make up the European Union capitalist fortress either legally or geographically.

This is not something that we should hide from voters – the break-up of the capitalist European Union and replacement with a socialist federation from Dublin to Moscow and Kiev would be the outcome. It is a distinctive message with a good heritage. Socialists are against both the nationalism and xenophobia of UKIP and the Tory right and the austerity and cuts offensive that is a Europe-wide phenomenon – whether a country is a member of the European Union or not.

By advancing slogans for a socialist Europe and against austerity, cuts, and racism, socialists neither promote the illusion that there is a British way out of the crisis nor suggest that the existing political structure that dominates Europe offers a solution either.

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