Taking “leave” of their senses

What does the Brexit vote mean?

Mouvement Communiste
Kolektivně proti kapitálu
October/November 2016

The idea of hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU began as a prom­ise by then Prime Min­is­ter Camer­on to the “Euro­skep­tic” right wing of the Tory Party in Janu­ary 2013.1 The Tor­ies won the gen­er­al elec­tion in May 2015 with an over­all par­lia­ment­ary ma­jor­ity so they had to go through with it. On 23 June 2016, a ma­jor­ity of UK cit­izens who turned out to vote (cer­tainly not a ma­jor­ity of re­gistered voters, much less a ma­jor­ity of the adult pop­u­la­tion), 52%, voted in fa­vor of leav­ing the European Uni­on.

The most im­port­ant thing to un­der­stand is that nobody ex­pec­ted the Leave vote to win, least of all the “Brex­it­eers” them­selves! Bri­tain’s ma­jor polit­ic­al parties were not pre­pared for it, and neither were most big com­pan­ies (des­pite the mod­ern fo­cus on “busi­ness con­tinu­ity” and “dis­aster re­cov­ery”). The con­sequences of this are that the Tory Party, the La­bour Party and even UKIP (the party whose whole rais­on d’être was Brexit) were thrown in­to crisis and the eco­nomy is sink­ing as un­cer­tainty delays in­vest­ment and com­plic­ates terms of trade.

The Leave vote can cer­tainly be seen as a kind of “protest vote” — this was clearly demon­strated by the fact that the “Leav­ers” didn’t ex­pect to win and had no idea what to do when they did! It can be seen as part of the rise of “right-wing ni­hil­ism.” In the 1970s it was punks, hip­pies, and an­arch­ists who said “fuck the sys­tem” without caring too much about what to re­place it with — now it’s dis­af­fected na­tion­al­ists and so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. An­ti­g­lob­al­iz­a­tion is the mod­ern “so­cial­ism of fools” (as lead­ing Ger­man So­cial Demo­crat, Au­gust Bebel said of an­ti­semit­ism).2 It’s an ideo­logy which really grew to prom­in­ence among the lib­er­al left in the 1990s, but now it’s in­creas­ingly the right — Trump, Putin, UKIP, Front Na­tionale, etc. — who are its stand­ard-bear­ers.

On a glob­al level, vic­tory for the Leave cam­paign is part of a wider tend­ency to­wards eco­nom­ic pro­tec­tion­ism and isol­a­tion­ism (ac­com­pan­ied by big­ger or smal­ler doses of ra­cism and xeno­pho­bia) fa­cil­it­ated by a rise of polit­ic­al “pop­u­lists”3 — “pop­u­list” in the sense of just spout­ing a col­lec­tion of crowd-pleas­ing slo­gans with no con­crete pro­gram ad­dress­ing either the ma­ter­i­al con­cerns of their fol­low­ers or the prob­lems faced by cap­it­al ac­cu­mu­la­tion.

This can be seen in both right-wing forms (Front Na­tion­ale, Don­ald Trump…) and left-wing forms (Syr­iza, Sanders, Corbyn…). In the UK con­text it was also clearly a vote against for­eign “oth­ers” and any­body who can be la­belled as such. It was the start­ing gun for ra­cists and xeno­phobes of every vari­ety.

Who voted for Leave?

The news­pa­pers have been filled with all sorts of spec­u­la­tion about why so many people voted Leave and who and where they are. The most de­tailed ana­lys­is is prob­ably that pub­lished by Lord Ash­croft Polls4 just after the ref­er­en­dum took place. None of the res­ults are very sur­pris­ing. The pat­tern of Leave vot­ing is sim­il­ar to that of people who voted UKIP in the 2015 gen­er­al elec­tion,5 in terms of geo­graphy, in­come and age. For the age range 18-24, 73% voted Re­main, for the over 65s, 60% voted Leave. Vot­ing Leave was also strongly cor­rel­ated with low in­come, low edu­ca­tion level, and with not be­ing in work.6 On the ques­tion of edu­ca­tion, we can note that among stu­dents the Re­main vote was 85%!7 Ash­croft’s poll was about at­ti­tudes as well as demo­graph­ics in the usu­al sense, but none of the oth­er find­ings from the poll were par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing either.

For ex­ample, among people liv­ing in the geo­graph­ic­al re­gion known as Eng­land, most people identi­fy­ing as “Eng­lish” (and not “Brit­ish”) voted Leave, where­as most self-iden­ti­fied Brits voted Re­main. Self-iden­ti­fied “Chris­ti­ans” mostly voted Leave, self-iden­ti­fied “Muslims” over­whelm­ingly voted Re­main. More in­ter­est­ingly, Leave voters are much more likely to think that life in Bri­tain is worse than it was 30 years ago and that their chil­dren will be worse off than they are (see the So­cial At­ti­tudes sec­tion of the Ash­croft poll).

The most ser­i­ous ana­lys­is of people’s sub­ject­ive reas­ons for vot­ing Leave or Re­main (or, rather, what they were in­tend­ing to vote) was done by the Brit­ish Elec­tion Study, a body which has stud­ied Brit­ish vot­ing be­ha­vi­or for more than 50 years. Based on open-ended ques­tions to po­ten­tial voters about the is­sues that con­cerned them, BES cre­ated “word clouds” of no­tions that con­cerned Leave and Re­main voters.8 The res­ults were stark. The word cloud for Leave voters has one big word in the middle: “Im­mig­ra­tion.” For Re­main voters the biggest word is “Eco­nomy.” Those who couldn’t make up their minds were think­ing about both “Im­mig­ra­tion” and “Eco­nomy”… So, it looks like the ref­er­en­dum really was an “anti-im­mig­rant plebis­cite” as many EU im­mig­rants to the UK in­stinct­ively felt it was!

Nigel Far­age (former lead­er of UKIP and im­port­ant lead­er of the Leave cam­paign) said on more than one oc­ca­sion that he would be will­ing to sac­ri­fice eco­nom­ic growth to see less im­mig­ra­tion.9 This is rather too re­min­is­cent of the old Afrik­an­er na­tion­al­ist slo­gan “bet­ter poor and white than rich and mixed,” and the Brit­ish Elec­tion Study poll res­ults seem to in­dic­ate that it is a view widely shared.Es­sen­tially, the sec­tions of so­ci­ety most likely to vote Leave cor­res­pon­ded al­most pre­cisely to the pro­file of the typ­ic­al UKIP voter in the 2015 elec­tion. But we shouldn’t get too car­ried away by the ste­reo­type of the white, work­ing class, middle-aged voter who doesn’t like im­mig­rants (but lives in a neigh­bor­hood where there aren’t any) and wears an Eng­land flag T-shirt well out­side the foot­ball sea­son (the “white van man” of UK news­pa­per myth­o­logy).

The Leave vote was 52% of a voter turnout of 72%10 — that makes more than 15 mil­lion people.11 In all cat­egor­ies ex­amined by the poll­sters there was a sig­ni­fic­ant Re­main vote. Even among those over 65, 40% voted Re­main, and in the low­est in­come brack­et the Re­main vote was 36% or 38% (de­pend­ing on the in­come clas­si­fic­a­tion meth­od used). The only part of the UK which we can say had a really de­cis­ive vote was Gibral­tar, where the pop­u­la­tion (al­most all de­pend­ent on jobs in tour­ism and fin­ance) voted 95.9% for Re­main!

Even the much talked about re­gion­al dif­fer­ences, which will very likely lead to the break-up of the UK (as Scot­land re-runs its ref­er­en­dum and the vote goes for in­de­pend­ence) are not that ex­treme — 38% of votes in Scot­land were for Leave (not ex­actly an in­sig­ni­fic­ant minor­ity) and in North­ern Ire­land 44% voted Leave. In short, the Leave/Re­main di­vi­sion went right across Brit­ish so­ci­ety, and so it’s not sur­pris­ing that there is no simple ex­plan­a­tion for why people voted for one or the oth­er. For a ref­er­en­dum in a state which is more or less a lib­er­al demo­cracy it is im­possible to pre­dict the out­come be­cause there are so many forces pulling in dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions.

However, in ad­di­tion to rising Europe-wide anti-im­mig­rant sen­ti­ment, there are oth­er very im­port­ant UK-spe­cif­ic reas­ons why there was such a big Leave vote:

  • Most people in Bri­tain don’t know much about the EU. In fact, they seem to know even less than most EU cit­izens.12
  • The power of right-wing anti-EU news­pa­pers. The cir­cu­la­tions of the main pro-Brexit rags speak for them­selves: Sun (1.7 mil­lion); Daily Mail (1.5m); Daily Tele­graph (0.5m); Daily Ex­press (0.4m); Daily Star (0.5m).13 That’s about 4.5m people who read these pro­pa­ganda sheets every day, at a time when the cir­cu­la­tion of prin­ted news­pa­pers is fall­ing rap­idly. It should also be poin­ted out that more than 14 mil­lion people (glob­ally) look at the Daily Mail web­site every day. By con­trast, the main anti-Brexit news­pa­pers — the Times, Fin­an­cial Times, and Guard­i­an — have a cir­cu­la­tion of less than 0.9m between them.14
  • Both the ma­jor parties were di­vided over Brexit and so their lead­ers could not cam­paign con­vin­cingly against it. This was par­tic­u­larly true in the case of the La­bour Party, which was (and is at the time of writ­ing) led by Jeremy Corbyn, an old-fash­ioned Left La­bour “so­cial­ism in one coun­try” pro­tec­tion­ist who had a long his­tory of be­ing against the EU. He was against European Eco­nom­ic Com­munity mem­ber­ship in the ref­er­en­dum, in 1975, and against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.On Sat­urday 2 Ju­ly there was a “March for Europe” in cent­ral Lon­don of tens of thou­sands of people ex­press­ing dis­may at the ref­er­en­dum res­ult. It is sig­ni­fic­ant that there were no polit­ic­al parties rep­res­en­ted, ex­cept for the Lib­er­al Demo­crats (who have al­ways taken a clear pro-EU po­s­i­tion). There were also no trade uni­ons. The ob­vi­ous ex­plan­a­tion is that al­most all the or­gan­iz­a­tions nor­mally in­volved in pub­lic polit­ics were too di­vided to be there! This seems to have been re­peated on the second “March for Europe” on 3 Septem­ber — again, out of polit­ic­al parties, only the Lib Dems proudly par­ti­cip­ated.

At this point, let’s take a look at some of the stu­pider reas­ons put for­ward to ex­plain the size of the Leave vote:

  • “A re­volt against the out-of-touch urb­an lib­er­al elite.” This was pop­u­lar in the right-wing press, but not just there — take a look at the web­site of “Trade Uni­on­ists against the EU” if you want to see the “left” ver­sion. Of course, it is based on the as­sump­tion that the work­ing class doesn’t ex­ist in the urb­an cen­ters of the UK, par­tic­u­larly Lon­don. Most of what used to be called “in­ner city” Lon­don voted for Re­main. The pro­ponents of the “lib­er­al elite” view might point out that all these areas now have pock­ets of “gentri­fic­a­tion” and so, thanks to me­dia ste­reo­typ­ing and es­tate agent pro­pa­ganda, are no longer “work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods.”
    ……But the of­fi­cial fig­ures on “in­dices of mul­tiple depriva­tion” (meas­ures used by gov­ern­ment bod­ies to es­tim­ate the level of eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­mis­er­a­tion) tell a dif­fer­ent story.15 Des­pite its Blair­ite din­ner parties (ap­par­ently…), Is­ling­ton re­mains one of the poorest bor­oughs in Lon­don and ranks in the top ten loc­al au­thor­it­ies na­tion­ally for all in­dices of depriva­tion (and con­sist­ently beats Liv­er­pool, Manchester and Black­pool for of­fi­cially meas­ured crap­pi­ness). Is­ling­ton voted 75% for Re­main.
    ……Tower Ham­lets comes con­sist­ently top of the league for miser­able so­cial con­di­tions — for ex­ample, “Tower Ham­lets has the highest in­come depriva­tion af­fect­ing chil­dren of any loc­al au­thor­ity in the coun­try at al­most 40 per cent of all chil­dren liv­ing in the bor­ough.”16 Vote? : Over 67% for Re­main. Oth­er cen­ters of the priv­ileged elite across the UK in­cluded Manchester (60.4% for Re­main) and Liv­er­pool (58.2%).
  • “An ex­pres­sion of misery in post-in­dus­tri­al re­gions.” It’s cer­tainly pos­sible to find some parts of Bri­tain that fit the bill. The me­dia showed a real ob­ses­sion with Sun­der­land, for ex­ample, which did have a strong Leave vote, 61.3%. Shef­field is an­oth­er clas­sic ex­ample of “post-in­dus­tri­al­ism,” with plenty of in­dus­tri­al mu­seum tour­ist at­trac­tions to prove it, and it’s true that it voted for Leave… by a massive 51%!
    ……Fur­ther fig­ures can be found on the ref­er­en­dum res­ults web page of any reput­able Brit­ish news­pa­per.17 However, it could be poin­ted out that, of the top ten most de­clin­ing cit­ies in the UK (meas­ured in terms of em­ploy­ment, skill level, pop­u­la­tion…), nine of them voted Leave by large mar­gins, ex­cept for Dun­dee (in Scot­land).18
  • “Really a vote against aus­ter­ity.” This idea was pop­u­lar with wish­ful-think­ing lib­er­als and left­ists, in­clud­ing sup­port­ers of “Lexit.”19 The Brit­ish Elec­tion Study poll (re­ferred to above) shows how im­plaus­ible this idea really is.

The ef­fects of the vote

Per­haps the worst ef­fect of all the hot air gen­er­ated by Brexit is the way that it cre­ates all sorts of false po­lar­iz­a­tions. It’s be­come easy to be con­vinced that a politi­cian we pre­vi­ously des­pised is now “OK” be­cause they de­fend the in­teg­rity of the EU and there­fore (in prin­ciple) free­dom of move­ment, or be­cause they might have the power to veto Brexit in some way (the Scot­tish Na­tion­al Party looked like they could do it at one point!). Whatever the fi­nal out­come — and it is still per­fectly pos­sible that Brexit won’t hap­pen20 — the im­me­di­ate ef­fects of the vote will con­tin­ue to be grim:

  • Con­tinu­ing slowdown in the eco­nomy as in­vest­ment is delayed. There is already a sig­ni­fic­ant slow-down in the con­struc­tion in­dustry (which makes up around 6% of GDP), al­though this has been in “re­ces­sion” (two suc­cess­ive quar­ters of con­trac­tion) since well be­fore the ref­er­en­dum.21 Spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture has de­clined sharply, with spend­ing in Ju­ly down by 23% re­l­at­ive to Ju­ly 2015. There were also 2000 less houses star­ted than in the pre­vi­ous month.22
  • Fall in real wages as the pound falls. An ob­vi­ous point, but we still have to make it… Bri­tain is a coun­try where most wage goods are im­por­ted so a fall in the pound al­ways trans­lates in­to fall­ing real wages. It’s been that way since at least the 1970s, but is much more marked today.
  • Ef­fects on the NHS and oth­er pub­lic ser­vices as staff con­sider leav­ing. Around 5% of all NHS staff, in­clud­ing 10% of doc­tors, come from oth­er EU coun­tries. The NHS Con­fed­er­a­tion (an as­so­ci­ation of health man­agers) has warned that re­cruit­ment of EU staff is already slow­ing down and that this could ser­i­ously ex­acer­bate NHS staff short­ages.23 Both un­cer­tainty over the status of EU work­ers and the fall­ing pound will make it harder to at­tract staff. There is already evid­ence of staff want­ing to leave the NHS for bet­ter jobs abroad,24 with Aus­tralia, New Zea­l­and, Canada and the US be­ing as pop­u­lar as ever.
  • Rise in ra­cism and xeno­pho­bia. There was an im­me­di­ate rise in re­por­ted “hate crimes” after the ref­er­en­dum res­ult. In the second half of Ju­ly 2016 the level was 40% high­er than in the same peri­od in Ju­ly 2015.25 In many cases, verbal ag­gres­sion was dir­ectly ref­er­en­dum-re­lated.There were re­cently two at­tacks on Pol­ish men in Har­low with­in 12 hours of each oth­er. The first, on 27 Au­gust, was fatal for one of the vic­tims. It’s still not clear what the mo­tiv­a­tions were (there were no re­ports of xeno­phobic verbal ab­use, for ex­ample) but the fact that these at­tacks are widely as­sumed to be hate crimes shows the kind of at­mo­sphere that ex­ists in many parts of the UK. There is also some evid­ence that the in­crease in ra­cist and xeno­phobic at­tacks is par­tic­u­larly high in areas that voted strongly for Leave.26
  • Un­spe­cified re­stric­tions on free­dom of move­ment. We don’t know what they’ll be yet, but let’s not for­get that they could well af­fect the right to study and re­tire, as well as the right to work where we want to! We can be sure that the Tor­ies’ 2015 mani­festo com­mit­ment to re­du­cing an­nu­al net mi­gra­tion to the UK to “the tens of thou­sands, not the hun­dreds of thou­sands” will not be met — May is a prag­mat­ist, not a UKIP sui­cide bomber who wants to blow up the UK eco­nomy — but there will have to be some nasty re­ad­just­ments to the rights of mi­grant work­ers, par­tic­u­larly less skilled ones.
  • Stok­ing of ten­sions in North­ern Ire­land. The vote for re­main in North­ern Ire­land (56%) is not as simple as it looks. His­tor­ic­ally Prot­est­ant neigh­bor­hoods strongly voted for Leave — that is, to keep a sep­ar­ate iden­tity for the UK, with­in which Prot­est­ants can keep their priv­ileged status, or even for re­li­gious reas­ons.27 A corner­stone of the 1998 peace agree­ment which has held so far was that the UK and Ire­land would both be mem­bers of the EU, and the bor­der between the two coun­tries (once en­forced by barbed wire and ma­chine guns) has be­come as nom­in­al as the one between France and Bel­gi­um.All that could change as the UK tries to con­trol im­mig­ra­tion and un­reg­u­lated trade from the EU. Im­me­di­ately after the vote, Mar­tin McGuin­ness (Sinn Féin) Deputy First Min­is­ter called for a ref­er­en­dum on united NI with the Ir­ish re­pub­lic. Straight af­ter­wards, First Min­is­ter Ar­lene Foster (a mem­ber of the gen­er­ally Prot­est­ant DUP) said it was not on the agenda.28 On the ground, Prot­est­ant and Cath­ol­ic neigh­bor­hoods re­main strongly di­vided, with “peace walls” (anti-pogrom for­ti­fic­a­tions) still in place and still needed, and open­ing up the ques­tion of a united Ire­land could re­ignite the bloody and bit­ter con­flict which was nev­er really re­solved and which has di­vided the work­ing class for many dec­ades.
  • Sep­ar­a­tion of Scot­land from the UK. Scot­land strongly voted (62%) for Re­main. First Min­is­ter Nic­ola Stur­geon quickly called not only for Scot­land to stay in Europe but for it to ad­opt the euro. Scot­land’s slightly-more-gen­er­ous-than-Eng­land wel­fare sys­tem mostly based on oil rent can’t last forever, so it makes sense to ac­cept the euro as a more stable cur­rency than the in­creas­ingly shaky pound. Join­ing the EU will give a sig­nal to for­eign in­vestors to in­vest in Scot­land rather than Eng­land, as a ru­mor about Nis­san in Sun­der­land may in­dic­ate. But an in­de­pend­ent Scot­land would be fiercely op­posed by Spain, be­cause in­de­pend­ence for one small na­tion could well give ideas to oth­ers, start­ing with Cata­lonia… The po­ten­tial “dom­ino ef­fect” of small-coun­try na­tion­al­ism will not be pretty for the work­ing class, as yet more di­vi­sions open up.
  • In­creas­ing cracks ap­pear­ing between the EU coun­tries. At the re­cent emer­gency EU sum­mit held in Brat­is­lava on 16 Septem­ber (without the UK) three po­s­i­tions emerged on the ques­tion of mi­grants:
    • Italy and Greece, who ac­tu­ally re­ceive al­most all the mi­grants, pushed for a mu­tu­al shar­ing and man­age­ment of mi­gra­tion flows. Itali­an PM Mat­teo Ren­zi a ac­cused France and Ger­many of let­ting the Medi­ter­ranean “fron­ti­er” coun­tries fend for them­selves.
    • France and Ger­many, who have to deal with their prob­lem­at­ic in­tern­al polit­ics and who try to con­tinu­ally put off the shar­ing of mi­grants across the EU, pre­vi­ously sup­por­ted by a good num­ber of north­ern EU coun­tries and Spain, which has for a long time put up its own wall, with the com­pli­city of Mo­rocco.
    • The Visegrad group of four ex-East­ern Bloc coun­tries (Hun­gary, Po­land, Cze­ch­ia, and Slov­akia) who openly call for na­tion to block mi­gra­tion. They made their break from the rest of the EU clear and of­fi­cial by pub­lish­ing their own state­ment at the end of the sum­mit.

    Cer­tainly, this po­lar­iz­a­tion ex­is­ted be­fore the Brexit vote but its form­al­iz­a­tion is a clear byproduct of it.

By way of a con­clu­sion

As com­mun­ists and class fight­ers it is clear that we have to op­pose the most co­her­ent myth peddled by the pro­tec­tion­ists of left and right — the idea that the state re­strain­ing the func­tion­ing of the mar­ket can make life bet­ter for the work­ing class, wheth­er it’s by re­strict­ing the free­dom of move­ment of “job-steal­ing” mi­grants or by re­strict­ing the im­port of goods or the ex­port of cap­it­al.It is not “glob­al­iz­a­tion” that has caused wages to fall for large num­bers of work­ers across Europe and the US. It is the fact that the bal­ance of class forces is so much in fa­vor of the bosses. It is an ex­pres­sion of the lack of polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence of the pro­let­ari­at. For­tu­nately, his­tory has shown that this state of af­fairs is neither in­ev­it­able nor per­man­ent. If wages and con­di­tions be­gin to im­prove it will be be­cause of col­lect­ive struggle by the work­ers, and not be­cause a right-wing gov­ern­ment re­stricts im­mig­ra­tion or a left-wing one ren­ation­al­izes privat­ized com­pan­ies.

But we also have to op­pose any idea that a par­tic­u­lar ar­range­ment of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety makes the work­ing class stronger or bet­ter off. It’s tempt­ing to say that we prefer the “glob­al­ized” world of free move­ment and a “cos­mo­pol­it­an” work­ing class con­tinu­ally in com­mu­nic­a­tion and co­oper­a­tion with each oth­er across con­tin­ents (and we do, of course!). But the freedoms ap­par­ently gran­ted by glob­al­iz­a­tion to the pro­let­ari­at are nev­er guar­an­teed, as the mi­grants from Syr­ia and else­where quickly found out about “free­dom of move­ment.”

Sim­il­arly, the growth of pro­let­ari­an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist con­scious­ness is not guar­an­teed by glob­al­iz­a­tion. The same world mar­ket which makes work­ers co­oper­ate with each oth­er across bor­ders and sup­ply chains also sets them in com­pet­i­tion with each oth­er. It’s nice to think that the EU fa­cil­it­ates solid­ar­ity between work­ers in neigh­bor­ing European coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly giv­en the al­most nom­in­al nature of many bor­ders. But there have been very few in­stances of this. At the time of writ­ing, there has re­cently been a strike by train man­agers on the Eurostar train ser­vice link­ing the UK and France… but only on the UK side!

Pess­im­ists of­ten claim that, this side of a re­volu­tion, the dom­in­a­tion of the work­ing class by na­tion­al­ism is in­ev­it­able. This is used to jus­ti­fy the whole pack­age of so­cial demo­crat­ic class com­prom­ise — a sep­ar­ate so­cial­ist party and “so­cial­ist pro­gram” for each coun­try. But even in the “re­form­ist” struggles of today na­tion­al­ism can be fought. In the Lind­sey Re­finery strike in 200929 we saw a clear con­flict between na­tion­al­ist and in­ter­na­tion­al­ist tend­en­cies with­in the strik­ing work­ers, and the in­ter­na­tion­al­ists won (at least for a while).

The fact that so many pro­let­ari­ans voted Leave is a sign of the weak­ness of our class but so is the fact that so many felt they had to par­ti­cip­ate in the ref­er­en­dum at all, and care about the res­ult. We have to stress that there is no such thing as a “cor­rect” vote here — a vote for Leave was a vote against im­mig­rants (as the Leave voters them­selves openly stated) but a vote for Re­main was a vote for cap­it­al­ist or­der, for a strong eco­nomy in which the work­ers sup­posedly had their place. And it’s not just the ref­er­en­dum it­self… In the ab­sence of any polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence of the class it’s hard not to get drawn in­to the stu­pid­it­ies of bour­geois polit­ics.

This is par­tic­u­larly true now that the rise of “pop­u­list” parties of the right and left, to­geth­er with “anti-Es­tab­lish­ment” politi­cians in­side the “Es­tab­lish­ment” parties, has cre­ated so much more (ap­par­ent) choice. There’s now a whole su­per­mar­ket shelf of polit­ic­al products, from the “fair-trade, or­gan­ic” Left to the “loc­ally pro­duced” Right. Corbyn-mania is just the latest mani­fest­a­tion of this tend­ency in the UK (something like 300,000 people have joined the La­bour Party in the last year — 183,000 of them in one week in Ju­ly). The ease with which tra­di­tion­al cyn­icism to­wards politi­cians is be­ing swept aside only shows how this cyn­icism was nev­er an ex­pres­sion of class con­scious­ness.

Nor do we think it is pos­it­ive that the Brit­ish rul­ing class (and to some ex­tent the rul­ing class across Europe), not just the politi­cians, has been thrown in­to chaos. Chaos does not cre­ate op­por­tun­it­ies for the work­ing class to act. Chaos is just chaos, for all classes.

The polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence of the pro­let­ari­at has noth­ing to do with giv­ing a rad­ic­al spin to the po­s­i­tions of the bosses’ polit­ics, wheth­er “Lexit” or a “Work­ers’ Europe,” but must al­ways base it­self on the struggle against the ma­ter­i­al con­di­tions of cap­it­al­ist ex­ploit­a­tion and op­pres­sion. The polit­ics of our class is that of ex­tend­ing and deep­en­ing the class struggle, not that of pro­pos­ing the best way to man­age cap­it­al, sup­posedly in our fa­vor.

As com­mun­ists we are against any state, whatever col­ors it drapes it­self in, for now and forever. But today hav­ing an ef­fi­cient and strong state (that is, one able to val­or­ize cap­it­al with­in the area it rules), able to over­come con­flicts with­in its rul­ing elite, forces the pro­let­ari­at it is fa­cing to be cleverer and more ef­fi­cient. Nev­er­the­less, for us, all na­tions (small or big) are fake com­munit­ies.

We are “in­dif­fer­ent” to­wards any na­tion­al ques­tion, and we have no “dogma” re­gard­ing the re­vamp­ing of states. If sep­ar­a­tion takes place (like in the case of Cze­ch­ia and Slov­akia) based on a com­mon agree­ment with no civil war, we don’t take sides. Where civil wars take place we op­pose all sides, as in any cap­it­al­ist war. Where re­arrange­ments of states take place there is no in­her­ently “good” or “bad” res­ult, and we al­ways have to pay at­ten­tion to what’s really happened and to study the eco­nom­ic con­sequences, the at­ti­tude of the work­ing class and the pos­sib­il­it­ies for re­sur­gence in class struggle.

The work­ing men have no coun­try. We can­not take from them what they have not got. Since the pro­let­ari­at must first of all ac­quire polit­ic­al su­prem­acy, must rise to be the lead­ing class of the na­tion, must con­sti­tute it­self the na­tion, it is so far, it­self na­tion­al, though not in the bour­geois sense of the word.”

Na­tion­al dif­fer­ences and ant­ag­on­ism between peoples are daily more and more van­ish­ing, ow­ing to the de­vel­op­ment of the bour­geois­ie, to free­dom of com­merce, to the world mar­ket, to uni­form­ity in the mode of pro­duc­tion and in the con­di­tions of life cor­res­pond­ing thereto.

The su­prem­acy of the pro­let­ari­at will cause them to van­ish still faster. United ac­tion, of the lead­ing civ­il­ized coun­tries at least, is one of the first con­di­tions for the eman­cip­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at.”

— Marx En­gels, Com­mun­ist mani­festo, 1848
Part 2, “Pro­let­ari­ans and Com­mun­ists”


1 “Dav­id Camer­on prom­ises in/out ref­er­en­dum on EU.”
2 As we poin­ted out in a rather old leaf­let.
3 It goes without say­ing that the use, by the me­dia and politi­cians, of “pop­u­list” in­stead of “re­ac­tion­ary” is an in­sult to the Rus­si­an nar­od­niki.
4 Lord Ash­croft is an ec­cent­ric pro-Brexit Tory busi­ness­man, phil­an­throp­ist, polit­ic­al pub­lish­er, and poll­ster, who re­tired from the House of Lords be­cause he was too busy with his oth­er polit­ic­al projects. See his poll res­ults and ana­lys­is.
There’s also been an art­icle on lib­com of­fer­ing some ana­lys­is of the data.
5 See our Let­ter #41, “What does the May elec­tion res­ult tell us that’s use­ful to know?”
6 Cor­rob­or­ated by the YouGov poll.
7 See: “UK stu­dents and Brexit.”
8 “What mattered most to you when de­cid­ing how to vote in the EU ref­er­en­dum?”, Brit­ish Elec­tion Study, 11 Ju­ly 2016.
9 For ex­ample, In­de­pend­ent, 2 April 2015: “Nigel Far­age warns a cap on mi­grants com­ing to Bri­tain ‘im­possible,’ des­pite ad­voc­at­ing it.”
10 “Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leav­ing the EU,” BBC News, 10 Aug 2016.
11 Out of ap­prox­im­ately 50 mil­lion adults in the UK, up to 9m may not be re­gistered to vote. See: “Brit­ish Polit­ics and Policy” LSE blog, “The next gen­er­a­tion of voters? Get­ting the ‘Miss­ing Mil­lions’ back on to the UK’s elect­or­al re­gister.”
12 “Bri­tons among least know­ledge­able about European Uni­on,” Guard­i­an, 27 Nov 2015.
13 Press Gaz­ette, 21 Ju­ly 2016: “ABC fig­ures: Na­tion­al press sees June Brexit vote boost in print and on­line.” Al­though the po­s­i­tion of the Daily Star was not so clear as the oth­ers… This most down-mar­ket of tabloids mostly con­sists of stor­ies about sport and pic­tures of scantily-clad wo­men, and didn’t take a def­in­ite ed­it­or­i­al stand on EU mem­ber­ship, but its choice of ac­tu­al news stor­ies in­dic­ated a clear choice for Brexit.
14 Ibid.
15 “Eng­lish In­dices of Depriva­tion 2015,” Great­er Lon­don Au­thor­ity, May 2016.
16 ibid., pg. 19.
17 For ex­ample, Guard­i­an, “EU ref­er­en­dum: full res­ults and ana­lys­is.”
18 See the re­port by the Joseph Rown­tree Found­a­tion on de­clin­ing city.
19 Lexit is a fantasy put for­ward by some left­ists in the UK ad­voc­at­ing for all coun­tries to leave the EU.
20 Theresa May (the PM at the time of writ­ing) has already stated that Art­icle 50 will not be in­voked un­til at least the end of 2016. Mean­while there is law suit, brought by, among oth­ers, an on­line in­vest­ment man­ager, to try to force a par­lia­ment­ary de­bate on Brexit be­fore Art­icle 50 can be in­voked. It ap­pears to have some leg­al mer­it and could yet pro­voke a “con­sti­tu­tion­al crisis” in a coun­try with no con­sti­tu­tion. See “A hairdress­er’s law­suit could spell trouble for Brexit.” Bloomberg News, 7 Au­gust 2016.
21 “Con­struc­tion in re­ces­sion even be­fore Brexit vote, of­fi­cial fig­ures show,” In­de­pend­ent, 12 Aug 2016.
22 “Brexit: In­fra­struc­ture spend­ing falls by 20% after EU ref­er­en­dum,” In­de­pend­ent, 23 Aug 2016.
23 “Brexit ‘will make NHS staff short­ages worse’,” BBC News, 30 June 2016.
24 “Brex­odus: ‘Brain drain’ fears as NHS work­ers seek to emig­rate after Leave vote,” Sunday Post, 3 Ju­ly 2016.
25 “In num­bers: Has Bri­tain really be­come more ra­cist?”, BBC News, 10 Aug 2016.
Of course, we al­ways have to be a bit skep­tic­al about re­port­ing of “hate crimes.” Not only does the level of re­port­ing vary enorm­ously re­l­at­ive to the ac­tu­al level of the crime (gen­er­ally there is un­der-re­port­ing), but the defin­i­tion of the crimes as “hate crimes” (in the UK at least) is en­tirely sub­ject­ive. If a vic­tim says that someone at­tacked them be­cause of their race, for ex­ample, then the crime is re­cor­ded as a ra­cial at­tack, even if there was no verbal ra­cial ab­use. This policy is set out in the Col­lege of Poli­cing’s “Hate Crime Op­er­a­tion­al Guid­ance.”
26 “Brexit: Surge in anti-im­mig­rant hate crime in areas that voted to leave EU,” In­de­pend­ent, 31 Ju­ly 2016.
27 “For hard-line Prot­est­ants, leav­ing Europe is a mat­ter of eschat­o­logy,” Eco­nom­ist, 24 June 2016.
28 “EU ref­er­en­dum: Mar­tin McGuin­ness calls for ref­er­en­dum on united Ire­land,” Daily Tele­graph, 24 June 2016.
29 See “The strike at Lind­sey Re­finery: a struggle en­tangled in na­tion­al­ism.”

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