Brexit stage Left? Or maybe better not at all

The amount of leftist posturing around the issue of Brexit exists in inverse proportion to the actual potential of the situation, which as everyone knows is zilch. It reflects the flailing impotence of the contemporary Left and the total absence of a viable proletarian or internationalist alternative. Neither the vote to leave nor the vote to remain is radical in the least.

Several months ago, in their official statement on the matter, the Communist Party of Great Britain therefore observed: “Cameron’s referendum is a cynical maneuver that pits reactionaries against other reactionaries… Likewise, the ‘out’ campaign is dominated by noxious chauvinism, [aiming to replace] ‘Fortress Europe’ with the stronger ‘Fortress Britain’.” From Cardiff a voice justly proclaims a pox upon both Britannia and Europa, advising abstention from this plebiscitary farce.

Yet even the call for communists to abstain feels like something of an empty gesture given the current context. Mike Macnair, one of the authors of the aforementioned statement, has basically said as much. “Boycotting the vote is what I am arguing for,” explained Macnair at a panel organized by Platypus in London. “Had we more forces, I’d argue not merely for a boycott but to disrupt this vote as a sham, a fraud, and an anti-democratic initiative.”

Amidst the cacophony and confusion a quote from Lev Trotsky has resurfaced, which echoes uncannily across the ages and seems to speak to the present dilemma. While the constellation of forces is no doubt quite different, and Marxists should refrain from drawing hasty historic parallels, the quote is nevertheless well suited to the task of trolling left Brexiteers — for example the Swappers (slang for members of the British Socialist Workers Party), as well as the independent Trot septuagenarian Tariq Ali:

If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to “autonomous” national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.

Meanwhile, Sp!ked has been running a public campaign in support of the Brexit. The whole thing has been an embarrassment, painful to watch, with Neil Davenport holding fast to a naïve majoritarian model of democracy. “Particular people seem not to trust ordinary people to vote the right way in an election. So how would they feel about them taking over the means of production?” As if this were not simply repeating the same populist platitudes always inimical to revolutionary Marxism.

James Heartfield, perhaps the last of the bunch who still considers himself a Marxist, has even succumbed to this logic. “Workers are drawing the conclusion that the European Union’s excluded them from consideration,” Heartfield asserted. “Of course the Left is all on the side of the capitalist establishment — that’s where they are generally to be found these days, covering the bosses’ flanks while cowering from the masses… It seems an advantage that socialism has so little influence in the working class, which might finally be in a position to write its own poetry. Vote exit!”

Riiight… because whatever the workers are doing is automatically revolutionary, by dint of the simple fact that they’re the ones who are doing it. Every time the proletariat wipes its ass, world history is shaken to its very foundations. Besides, it’s not as if the Left is uniformly lining up to cast votes for “remain.” George Galloway, Alex Callinicos, Tariq Ali, and countless others (the entire Socialist Party and SWP) have all tried to make “the socialist case” or “the internationalist case” to leave. Neil Davidson, whose research into the history of bourgeois revolution I quite admire, has come out in favor of Brexit as well. Maybe this was only to be expected, seeing as he supported the equally lame Scottish independence vote last year.

Heartfield, whom I otherwise respect even though we do not often agree, now finds himself in awkward company with Callinicos et al. Usually these figures are his nemeses, or at least have been in the past. Oh well. Doesn’t detract from his earlier work on The Death of the Subject or his Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, both of which remain excellent.

None of this is to suggest that the vote to “remain” is much more promising moving forward, or that it somehow possesses greater revolutionary import. We can’t ignore its shameful handling of the refugee crisis, can’t allow ourselves to forget the brutal austerity measures it handed down to Spain and Greece. And this is to say nothing of its neoliberal policies both at home and abroad. Perhaps this is what happens when the Left spends its time complaining about neoliberalism rather than analyzing capitalism in the longue durée, quixotically fighting against austerity without any memory of how awful economic protectionism can be.

Even if I were eligible to vote in the EU referendum, I’d probably stay home. More out of laziness than reasons of principle, though “principled laziness” is something I would be willing to defend. If I could be arsed to make it to the polls, I might vote to remain. But I would certainly not try to claim that this was anything other than a liberal act.

Anyway, I don’t have much more to say on the matter. Here are some posts, articles, and debates I thought were decent:

Some relevant literature:

6 thoughts on “Brexit stage Left? Or maybe better not at all

  1. The whole Trotskyite thesis on the ‘United States of Europe’ is utter jibe. It has been historically falsified ad abundantiam. The EU is not a superstate (it employs about 25.000 people, for example, the equivalent of a medium-sized European city), and neither is it the incarnation of a possible ‘bourgeois internationalism’. It is the externalisation of national elites hiding from national electorates. Marxists need to seriously reconsider their ontological view of the EU, and get their shit together on what European capitalism really is – maybe that might raise the level of this travesty which passes for a ‘debate’.

  2. The debates on the British left, and the change of stand on the EU, go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. A pro-social Europe left emerged in the Socialist Society (Ralph Miliband, Hilary Wainwright), and groups such as Chartist Magazine.

    A key figure, then and now, is John Palmer, former International Socialist, European Editor of the Guardian for many years, and linked to such publications as Red Pepper.

    Red Pepper is closely involved in the Another Europe is Possible campaign.

    Since I know these people and share their ideas on this issue, not to mention writing for Chartist, I’d say I’m in a position to speak.

    This is a summary of some of the positions, written at the start of the Referendum debate.

  3. Thank god they voted to leave, I’m a Marxist and the state of discourse with us is downright nauseating. The only REASONABLE explanation I could make for abstain, is that advocating such a position further alienates the left from the working class. Abstaining is exactly the sort of psudo-leftism they Trotskysts claim to oppose, it slyly advocates for the more dangerous trans-national capitalist elements… the progressive ones, that move us towards more alienation, more exploitation.

    Our enemies are not the gross reactionaries, our enemies are not those too confused to know who should deserves their rage. To be more offended by xenophobia or racism, than by opposing the material interests of working class people, Is Liberal bullshit. In fact, it’s EXACTLY this reason nobody can get working class people to look to the Marxists for leadership.

    Why should they? Every chance we get, we prefer to stand with Liberals over reactionaries. Why is it every huge capitalist organization knows the EU is in their interests, the USA says it’s in their national security interests, but the ‘left’ just can’t figure it out? Simply put, I must assume that all our continued funding, depends on our ability to undercut our own legitimacy.

  4. Nobody argued that the fact that the working class was for exit and the middle and upper classes for remain was the reason that it was wrong. But it is indicative. This is a poll of how people did vote, by social class: Social Grade AB 43 per cent leave, 57 per cent stay; C1 51 leave 49 stay; C2 64 per cent leave, 36 per cent stay; DE 64 per cent leave, 36 per cent stay. So a straight forward majority for leave in the working class, for remain in the middle and upper classes.
    Working class communities were right to vote exit, because the EU is hostile to their interests and rights. The well-to-do voted for Remain because that was the vote for the status quo.

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