Marxists are by definition internationalists. Therefore we are opposed to nationalism in all its variants, whether it be the classic Little-England type or the ‘left’ version of socialism in one country (national socialism) – something normally associated with Stalinism.
How does this impact on the Brexit debate? For a very large part of liberal opinion, and the left which tails it – such as Another Europe is Possible -, the actually existing European Union has become an emblem of everything that is progressive – the cherished ideal of anti-racism harmony in marked contrast to the increasingly rancorous nationalism of the UK Independence Party, the European Research Group (headed by the weird retro-Victorian Jacob Rees-Mogg), the desperate Boris Johnson, etc. A social democratic refuge from the onslaught of neo-liberalism and the market.
Does that mean Marxists are enthusiastic about today’s EU or would consider voting ‘remain’ in any possible future referendum? The answer to both these questions is no. In reality, the bloc is committed heart and soul to market values, for all of the flummery about “human dignity”, “tolerance”, “fundamental rights”, and so on. The whole project marches according to the rhythm, requirements and restrictions imposed by capital. Indeed, the EU constitution is a paean of praise for the market and the virtues of competition.
Then remember how the European Commission – in cahoots with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – imposed a regime of savage austerity upon Greece for daring to defy its diktats, driving millions into penury, homelessness and even suicide.
However, it does not follow that Marxists call for the UK to pull out of the EU because it is a “bosses’ club”, or because it is not “socialist” – silly and also a criminal desertion of internationalism. One might just as well suggest pulling the working class out of the “bosses’ club” of Britain. Or is the pound sterling more socialistic than the euro?
Capitalism and the capitalist state, as it historically presents itself in the here and now, is where the socialist project starts – in this case, the EU. The idea that the working class and the fight for socialism would be collectively strengthened if one or two of our national battalions aligned themselves with this or that faction of the bourgeoisie with a view to forcing a Britain, a France, a Spain or an Italy to withdraw from the EU displays a complete lack of seriousness. Disastrously, we would be weakening our forces.
Instead, Marxists argue for a positive programme. A Europe without unelected bureaucrats, technocrats, monarchies, and standing armies. Communists strive for working class unity within, but against, the existing EU – ultimately we want to overthrow it, just like the British state. Winning the battle for democracy in the EU and securing working class rule over this relatively small but strategically vital continent is the best service we can do for our comrades in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia – as opposed to building “Fortress Europe”.
In other words, we are for a republican United States of Europe. Armed with a continental-wide programme, the United Socialist States of Europe can be realised – the “bosses’ club” is replaced by a workers’ club. In turn, such an internationalist perspective directly points to the necessity of organising across the EU at the highest level – crucially a revolutionary Marxist party covering the entire European Union.
No to a second – or any – referendum
Referendums, by their very nature, are undemocratic. At first, this might sound paradoxical or counter-intuitive – you get to vote in an act of ‘direct democracy’, after all. But, whilst referendums have the great virtue of appearing to be the epitome of democracy, the reality is quite the opposite. They bypass representative institutions and serve, in general, to fool enough of the people enough of the time. Often complex issues are simplified, drained of nuance and reduced to a crude choice that cuts across class loyalties. Hence today, thanks to Brexit, one half of the working class is found in the ‘leave’ camp – the other half is with ‘remain’. That is hardly a situation to be celebrated.
There are very few situations where there is a simple binary choice in politics, and that can be illustrated by what followed the referendum. Yes, a relatively small majority voted ‘leave’, but on what terms – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Brexit-in-name-only? If there had been a ‘remain’ victory, as most people had expected right to the wire, we would have been confronted by the same conundrum – ie, how to interpret the result.
Furthermore, what about the long-term validity of that result? For example, many of those who argue against a second referendum today claim that ‘the people have spoken’ and so their verdict must be regarded as final. But in fact the 2016 poll was itself the ‘second referendum’ on the subject. In 1975 Harold Wilson called one to decide whether Britain should remain in what was then called the ‘European Community’ (or ‘Common Market’), even though it had only joined two years earlier. There was a substantial 67% majority to stay in the EC. Clearly people can change their minds.
The problem is that referendums are totally inadequate compared to representative democracy. The latter is based on the election of well-tested working class representatives, who must be made accountable to those who elected them. Under such a system we should trust those representatives to take the necessary decisions – and ensure that they face the consequences if they embark on a path that is not in our interests. Referendums, on the contrary, tend to divide the working class, weaken its party spirit and produce the strangest of bedfellows. For example, in 2016 committed socialists were urging the same vote as the far right, while others were aligned with the liberal establishment. Now we find Nigel Farage on the same side as George Galloway.
In 1911 Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald called referendums “a clumsy and ineffective weapon, which the reaction can always use more effectively than democracy, because it, being the power to say ‘no’, is far more useful to the few than the many”. Yes, a couple of decades later he completely sold out by agreeing to lead a national government with the Tories, but in 1911 he was totally right.
The Labour Party should be opposed to referendums as a matter of principle.