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:
- Communist Party of Great Britain, “Boycott the EU referendum!”
- Neil Davenport, Mike Macnair, and Gerry Downing (debate), Left Exit or No Brexit?
- Allan Coote, “EU or GB? A Plague on Both Your Houses!”
- Salvage, “Neither Westminster nor Brussels”
- Tony Norfield, “Political Fundamentals and the UK Brexit Referendum”
- Chris Gilligan, “Open Letter on Sp!ked’s ‘Leave the EU’ Campaign”
- Bertie Russell, “Damned if You Leave, Damned if You Remain: The Europe Referendum, or, What to Do in the Absence of a ‘Left Option’?”
- International Communist Party, “Against the European Union Referendum!”
Some relevant literature:
- Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance: Greece and the Future of Europe
- Denis Guénoun, About Europe: Philosophical Hypotheses
- Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (2004)
- Heikki Patomäki, The Great Eurozone Disaster: From Crisis to Global New Deal (2013)
- Ivan Berend, Europe in Crisis: Bolt from the Blue?
- Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe (1992)
- John Gillingham, Design for a New Europe (2006)
- John Gillingham, European Integration, 1950-2003: Superstate or New Market Economy? (2003)
- Jürgen Habermas, Europe: The Faltering Project (2009)
- Jürgen Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union: A Response (2012)
- Perry Anderson, The New Old World
- Raphael Schlembach, Against Old Europe: Critical Theory and Alter-Globalization Movements
- Werner Bonefeld, “European Integration: The Market, the Political, and Class”
- Zygmunt Bauman, Europe: An Unfinished Adventure