A carnival of reaction
Neither side in the EU referendum campaign deserves leftwing support, argues Paul Demarty
What a show David Cameron is putting on for us! I last wrote about his peacock-display of ‘renegotiating’ Britain’s obligations to the European Union a few weeks ago (‘Cameron’s chauvinist chicanery’ Weekly Worker February 4), but in the intervening time the dramatic pace has barely let up, as we proceeded through the final negotiations to the fixing of an in-out referendum for June 23.
In doing so, Cameron has succeeded, if nothing else, in inventing a whole new genre of drama, combining the staged combat of professional wrestling, the inevitable betrayals of Shakespearean tragedy (et tu, Boris?) and the rowdy audience participation of a Christmas panto. As in the run-up to Donald Tusk’s initial offer, we were again treated to a fabricated ‘race against time’, as the ‘negotiations’ reached a ‘crucial stage’. Cabinet meetings were cancelled, although perhaps only to delay slightly the government’s down-the-middle split on the small matter of whether the exercise was worth a damn.
Sure enough, the big names have fallen into one camp or the other. Michael Gove, a sophisticated reactionary eccentric, is for leaving, and so is Iain Duncan Smith, the ‘quiet man’. But most spectacular was, of course, Boris Johnson’s decision to plump for the ‘out’ side. Johnson is himself a man with a theatrical air, no doubt gleaned from all that training in the classics he likes to rub in our faces. After a series of failed attempts on Cameron’s part to convince him of the wisdom of staying, he engineered a media scrum outside his front door, and told them that, with a heavy heart, he had decided to go for Brexit.
Johnson has faced persistent accusations that all this is part of a scheme to get the top job himself. Indeed, the shortest possible route to vacating the position of Conservative Party leader, short of murder, is Brexit. We may commend the patience of the two other likely candidates in that event, George Osborne and Theresa May, who have stuck with Cameron. The trouble for them is that they have sold themselves a faulty bill of goods. Cameron’s negotiations are worthless, and are seen to be worthless.
An official spokesman for No10, in the bland way of these people, asserted in response to Johnson’s apostasy: “We want Britain to have the best of both worlds: all the advantages of the jobs and investment that come with being in the EU, without the downsides of being in the euro and open borders.” Yet Cameron’s ‘deal’ is nothing of the kind. The euro is just noise - nobody is joining that embattled currency union any time soon. As for open borders, what has Cameron got to show off on that score? Merely his emergency brake, whereby, with the permission of sufficient numbers of other member-states, he will be able to reduce in-work benefits to levels comparable with a migrant’s country of origin.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the anti-EU forces in the British establishment are rampant, even though their forces are disorganised. Currently there are three campaigns: Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Grassroots Out - the latter two of which are Ukip front organisations and the former riven with bitter infighting. (vote Leave’s main problem seems to be Dominic Cummings, a former spin doctor for Gove and a man so overtly determined to fight a hard, dirty campaign that he is nicknamed ‘Colonel Kurtz’). Yet they cannot fail to do well out of Cameron’s silliness, and indeed they have done.
Underlying this is, first of all, the fact that the Eurosceptics have long cottoned onto Cameron’s dilemma: anything that can be agreed without a treaty change is barely worth having. Encroachment on free movement within the EU is definitely the stuff of treaties. The other much-trumpeted ‘success’ of the negotiations - the exclusion of Britain from any clauses relating to ‘ever closer union’ - is likewise a promissory note due at the next treaty change.
At this point in time, however, it is difficult to even imagine a new treaty. The Lisbon treaty scraped through by the skin of its teeth, after the Irish initially rejected it in a referendum. That was six years ago - six years in which populism of the left and (mostly) right has entered very definitely into the ascendant in the EU, and in which the EU project has been badly scarred by the calamitous effects of global economic woes on many of its member-states. Suffice to say, things will have to calm down a lot before that particular circus tours again.
Secondly, there is a particular wing of the establishment that has been rabidly anti-EU for decades, and that is the rightwing press. It is difficult to think of a paper anywhere on the right half of the spectrum that supports continued membership. Pick up a paper these days and you could be forgiven for thinking Panzer tanks had been parked on every lawn in Surrey.
We expect that most capitalists and City pinstripes will support continued EU membership, with a beady eye on the year-end bonus. One who will not is Rupert Murdoch, who has been a fervent and vigorous opponent of European unity since the early days. We do not expect his papers to change their line. Perhaps the French-resident Jonathan Harmsworth, who owns the Daily Mail, may take a different view; but his paper’s entire business model is based on exaggerating the common fears of the petty bourgeoisie to the point of psychotic delirium: if the paper were to call suddenly for remaining in the EU, having previously even run pieces supporting Marine Le Pen in elections over that issue, it would probably cause riots all over the home counties.
In amongst all this, the left is pretty marginal. In the ‘stay’ camp, we have most prominently the Labour leadership, and it has to be said that Jeremy Corbyn has made a pretty good fist of it. He has made the obvious point that the outcome of Cameron’s negotiations is utterly immaterial to the case for or against EU membership, and pointed to longer-term attempts to cooperate with European social democrats and ‘socialists’ to get an EU reformed in a more progressive way. From within the parameters of left Labourism, this is a perfectly reasonable position, but we doubt he would have any more success in this venture than Cameron has had with his.
In the ‘out’ camp, we have the Labour Leave campaign headed by the idiosyncratic rightwinger (and former International Marxist Group member) Kate Hoey. We also saw George Galloway take the stage with Nigel Farage, in a bizarre rerun of the Enoch Powell-Tony Benn alliance that fought in the last referendum on Europe to take Britain out in 1975, almost as soon as we had got in.
Further down the bill, the left is more sharply divided, although we must note that many who previously would have been sympathetic to Euroscepticism have taken such a fright from the odious character of the ‘out’ campaign as it actually exists that they have swung behind an ‘in’ vote. Chief among these is Socialist Resistance, that degenerate Trotskyist remnant; trust these comrades to find only negative reasons for doing anything.
Others are keeping the nationalist flag flying. As far as the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain goes, that is hardly surprising; the ‘official communists’ historic opposition to the EU and its predecessors was based on the geostrategic objective of moving European countries into political neutrality vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and ultimately into Comecon and the Warsaw Pact. This is no longer on the table, but the zombified corpse of this policy shambles on, today justified only by the need to protect ‘our’ industry and ‘our’ jobs, etc. The Socialist Party in England and Wales imbibed this politics indirectly through its accommodation to left Labourism over many decades, which in turn took its political influence somewhat from the old Communist Party.
Tying itself in more ludicrous knots is the Socialist Workers Party, which has headlined an editorial thus: “Finish off David Cameron - vote to leave the EU” (Socialist Worker February 16). As ever, any hint of strategic reasoning is utterly subordinated to the task of inconveniencing whoever happens to be the prime minister at the time. Yes, comrades, Brexit will finish off David Cameron. Who will replace him?
“Rather than surrender the terrain of the referendum to David Cameron and Nigel Farage, the left must present its own distinctive case for an exit,” the comrades write, “based on genuine internationalism, anti-racism and opposition to the neoliberal offensive being conducted by the EU against ordinary people in Europe.” Fighting for genuine internationalism by surfing a tidal wave of reactionary chauvinism - this is alchemy, not politics, comrades. We sometimes get the feeling that the left thinks it can put a ‘progressive’ spin on something merely by saying that we ourselves aren’t racist, or nationalist, or whatever, and that is certainly the case here. Socialist Worker, a paper with 0.1% of the influence of Nigel Farage, thinks it can make an ‘out’ vote into an expression of internationalist anti-racism. Good luck with that.
The comrades are nonetheless right to ask, “why should any of the left or the workers’ movement be saving Cameron’s bacon”? Indeed, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The honest truth of it is exactly what Corbyn understands it to be - we are faced, on June 23, with the grubby result of a mind-blowingly short-termist domestic political gambit on the part of Cameron.
At the last Left Unity conference, the ‘in’ position won on the argument that Brexit would lead to a “carnival of reaction”. Too late, comrades - there is already a carnival of reaction, and both sides are poisoned by narrow chauvinism. Either we vote for ‘Fortress Europe’ plus a few reactionary ‘concessions’ to Cameron’s dignity, or we vote for Farage, for a miserable, small-minded Albion, criss-crossed with privet hedges and ringed with barbed wire.
To use the appropriate Marxist terminology: fuck the lot of them.
1.The lesson of the 20th century is that socialism must be international, or it will become its opposite. Communists therefore oppose all variants of ‘socialism in one country’, which are exposed as reactionary utopias. We take as our starting point the conquest of power by the working class throughout Europe, abolishing capitalist rule in much of the capitalist core, and ultimately throughout the world.
2. The European Union as it exists is a mechanism for capitalist exploitation. Its institutions are overwhelmingly unelected and uniformly pro-capitalist. It is, in addition, ‘Fortress Europe’, whose inhumanity has recently been clearly exposed by the fate of refugees fleeing the Syrian war. We wish to overthrow and replace these institutions with radical democracy across the continent, tear down the barbed wire and sink the gunboats.
3. Communists oppose plebiscitary ‘democracy’, which is in reality nothing of the kind. It is a Bonapartist tool which excludes the masses from effective control over policy, instead offering them a loaded question whereby they can rubber-stamp something already decided. Voting in referenda is a matter of tactics, but that tactical judgement must be informed by the understanding that referenda are, contrary to appearances, inherently anti-democratic.
4. David Cameron has called a referendum on EU membership for June 23. He argues that he has gotten a ‘good enough deal’ for Britain, but in reality his negotiations were wholly theatrical. The whole exercise is an attempt to outflank his rightwing opponents with chauvinist demagoguery, which may yet dangerously backfire on him. His arguments, when they are not wholly specious, are focused solely on the health of British finance capital, and the peace of mind of petty bourgeois reactionaries.
5. The ‘out’ campaign is likewise dominated by noxious chauvinism. The advantage of leaving, according to Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and the like, is closer relations with the United States (a fantasy) and tighter border controls - that is, replacing ‘Fortress Europe’ with a stronger ‘Fortress Britain’.
6. Cameron’s referendum is thus a cynical manoeuvre that pits reactionaries against more-reactionaries. We call on all communists, socialists and partisans of the working class to boycott this referendum, and actively propagandise against its legitimacy.