The British SWP advocates a vote to leave in the forthcoming European Union (EU) referendum with ever-increasing incoherence. Alex Callinicos’ article, “The internationalist case against the European Union” in the latest International Socialism journal (IS 148, 5 October 2015) attempts to give their stance some theoretical weight. In fact the position is neither internationalist, nor a rational case.
Callinicos leaves the arguments about migrants right to the end of his article. He writes: “The left Yes argument is sometimes supported by a rhetorical appeal: how can we justify voting No to migrants here in Britain?” How indeed? He replies: “This seems rather patronising since it treats migrants as victims and not conscious political subjects. SWP members encounter migrants as part of our general political activity. They know us as principled anti-racists and anti-fascists who systematically targeted UKIP in the last general election.”
This simply ignores the substantial issues at stake. In the event of a “leave” vote, what will happen to the 2.6 million EU-born people who live in the UK, many of whom moved to the UK in the last decade? This is concrete question of solidarity. In the event of Brexit, after a campaign led and dominated by the nationalist right in British politics, there will almost certainly be pressure to restrict, limit and even expel migrant workers whatever their origin and the targeting by racists of EU-migrants in particular. Callinicos’ argument simply evades the likely consequences of a “leave” vote in current circumstances. It will be scant consolation to migrant workers to find SWP members alongside them, having just spent the previous year providing a left cover for Brexit.
Callinicos begins his article by contrasting the anti-EU camp dominated by the chauvinist and racist right and the pro-EU camp dominated by neoliberalism. This choice, he jokes, quoting Oscar Wilde on foxhunting, is the “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”.
This might imply at least a discussion of the abstentionist position. But Callinicos prefers to ignore it and then to simply misrepresent the socialist “remain” camp. The SWP’s argument appears to boil down to the politics of nay-saying. The logic seems to be: the EU is proto-imperialist. If Britain leaves it will precipitate a crisis in the EU and in the UK itself. This weakening of states will somehow make it easier for workers to fight austerity and ultimately to fight for socialism.
This is the politics of negativism: anything that weakens the powers-that-be somehow automatically improves the balance of forces for workers. This “logic” makes no sense. It does not take working class interests as its point of departure. It does not weigh up the actual alternatives in the referendum, or the likely outcomes of staying or leaving for workers. It is no guide to orientate the labour movement in Britain or in the rest of Europe. Callinicos never evaluates the most likely immediate circumstances if the UK left the EU now, or weighs up the cost and benefits for workers in Britain and across Europe of such an outcome. Callinicos instead hides behind faulty doctrine in order to avoid talking about the substantial issues at stake for workers. Callinicos starts with an outright lie, stating that “the underlying assumption of those on the left supporting a Yes vote is that the EU represents, however imperfectly, the transcendence of nationalism and so internationalists and anti-racists should vote for Britain to remain in the EU… [Left advocates of ‘remain’ understand] the EU as fundamentally a progressive response to economic globalisation and the decline of the nation-state.”
He cites John Palmer, the former European editor of the Guardian and Toni Negri, the autonomist thinker – as if they represent all leftwing “yes” votes. Callinicos accepts the argument that capital has become more “Europeanised” in recent decades. He admits that capitalist concentration and centralisation have continued a pace and that the EU has been an active agent in integrating national economies across Europe. This is not merely about responding to globalisation – the process long preceded the current neoliberal phase. It is about the Marxist laws of capitalist political economy continuing to work themselves out. The conglomeration of capital and the interpenetration of European capitalist states, expressed institutionally by the growth of the EU, are accomplished facts. It is indisputable that this arrangement is pro-capitalist and works to further develop capitalism – the EU is and remains a “bosses club”. It is indisputably progressive for capital, which has profited enormously across Europe from these developments. In what sense is it progressive for workers? It is progressive in the sense that capital has forged production and distribution connections between workers across Europe. The unintended consequences of the EU is to create ties, partial and incomplete, which tie the fate of workers across Europe together.
These underline the interdependent nature of European working class struggle. Capitalists and their states have made links across Europe – the task of labour movements across Europe is to make stronger ties of solidarity if we are to win victories against these enemies. Does this imply a belief that nationalism and the nation state is in decline? It does not. Capital and its states have integrated only to a limited degree. Economies and markets remain largely nationally based. Capitalist states – especially governments from the larger states of Germany, France and Britain – dictate what happens in the EU. The fight for democracy across Europe is about making more light and air for the labour movement to function. It runs in parallel with demands to level up social and economic rights across the EU. Callinicos simply lacks a programme of consistent democracy to offer in this context.
The reality of the EU and the motive forces that brought it into being, far from implying Brexit, actually points towards fighting on the pan-EU terrain and forging ever-closer ties of solidarity between workers across Europe. That is the strategic direction of travel that best represents the interest of workers, both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Callinicos makes a rather odd strategic argument in this context. He writes: “Strategically the problem is that since the 1980s, but more especially as a result of the eurozone crisis, a Europe-wide neoliberal regime is being constructed. Breaking that is most likely to happen at national level. To make successful resistance dependent on a coordinated movement at the EU level is to postpone that resistance indefinitely. The process of uneven and combined development implies that struggles are most likely to succeed at national level but can then be generalised. Dialectically, then, for internationalism to advance there have to be breakthroughs at the national level.”
No one on the revolutionary left argues that first a coordinated pan-European labour movement has to be built. No one argues for waiting for better conditions without fighting to bring those conditions into being. Class struggles will take place on a range of scales: some local, others regional and sub-national, while others may well take a pan-Europe character. The task of the left is not to wait for the ideal scale, but to take up all battles against austerity and neoliberalism, whatever terrain they start on, and connect workers’ interests across Europe and beyond. Uneven and combined development actually points towards the perspective of “stay in the EU and fight”. Trotsky recognised a century ago that the capitalism had outgrown the boundaries of national economies. He also recognised that wherever the first breakthrough of workers’ power took place, including but not exclusively in Russia, the fate of a workers’ government was bound up with further breakthroughs across Europe. This was the crucial element of permanent revolution that Trotsky juxtaposed firstly to those who did not believe workers in Russia should take power and later against those Stalinists who believed socialism in one country was possible. Callinicos ends up as a rather stale defender of “national”socialism. He appears to prioritise battles in individual states – especially those in Britain – above the real necessity of international solidarity. He elevates the class struggle in British conditions above its impact on ties with other European workers. As such, his methodology is nationalist, whatever his intentions.
Callinicos also argues that the experience of Greece shows Brexit is the right way to vote in the UK referendum. He states emotively that the EU is “a neoliberal club currently busy nailing the people of Greece to the cross of austerity”. Of course the EU is complicit in beating down the Syriza government and imposing further austerity on the Greek people. But to put all the blame on the EU is to misunderstand the real relation of forces. In the Guardian (22 October 2015), Ian Traynor reconstructs the events of June-July 2015 to expose the actual drivers, highlighting the role of the German finance ministry and Wolfgang Schäuble, its finance minister. Schäuble had decided on forcing Greece out even before Syriza came to power at the beginning of the year. It was Schäuble who crafted the fateful memo intended to drive out Greece from the eurozone. And it is clear that Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was not informed or consulted about this stance. Ironically, what saved Greece for the eurozone was the activities of its own government in accepting the onerous conditions, coupled with the intervention leaders of the governments of Italy and the Netherlands – along with Angela Merkel. EU leaders as expected went along with the main players.
But they did not dictate the direction or pace of events. Callinicos falls back on a stale “anti-imperialism” to bolster his “leave” position. Unfortunately he espouses a form of “anti-imperialism” whose roots to the working class have been cut. Callinicos argues: “The EU today is best understood as a dysfunctional would-be imperialist power. We can see its imperialist character most clearly in its promotion of neoliberalism—through its expansion to incorporate Central and Eastern Europe, in its policies towards neighbouring states in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe and now, within the EU, through the disciplinary mechanisms enforcing permanent austerity. But the dysfunctional nature of this imperialism is evident both internally (the eurozone) and externally (Ukraine).” The formula “dysfunctional would-be imperialist power” is slippery. It is self-evident that the EU promotes neoliberalism, is expansionist and behaves like a state. But this is pure tautology: by definition what else could a capitalist institution led by imperialist capitalist states and presiding over a capitalist economy aspire to be? Yet the EU is presently an odd imperialist power.
The EU has very weak military capacity – as its limited involvement in Ukraine has shown. Germany, the hegemonic state within the EU, has enormous power economically, but does not impose its interests through military means. Callinicos continually talks of NATO as if it is a proxy for an EU army. Callinicos is also silent on the actual imperialist power militarily active in the Ukraine, namely Russia. But even if it is accepted that the EU would like eventually to become an imperialist power, with a fully-formed state, which means with its own army and forces of coercion, this does not in today’s conditions point towards a “leave” vote. Callinicos ignores the fact that outside the EU, the UK would remain what it is today: an actual imperialist power, presiding over a capitalist economy, a separate state striking out into wider economic waters in the hope of becoming a unique node of capitalist accumulation in the world economy. Nowhere does Callinicos weigh up what the UK as a neoliberal, “Singapore-on-steroids” capitalist economy outside of the EU might mean for workers.
The actual alternatives on the ballot paper are the UK remaining in the EU or striking out on an independent capitalist path outside it. In this case, the lesser evil so far as workers are concerned is to stay in and fight alongside other European workers.