A continent of the mind
Jack Conrad shows that the European Union has been shaped not only by rival state powers, but by class politics too
Europe is a comparatively recent concept. As historian Norman Davies explains, it “gradually replaced the earlier concept of ‘Christendom’ in a complex intellectual process lasting from the 14th to the 18th centuries”. Only in the early years of the 18th century did notions of a common European identity finally supercede those of Christendom. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) provides perhaps the last major diplomatic reference to the “Christian commonwealth”.1
Europe is a continent of the mind. Europe certainly owes more to culture, politics and history than geography. In terms of space, Europe is merely an extension of the great Asian land mass akin to the Indian subcontinent.
Over time borders have waxed and waned. William Blake illustrates his 1794 book Europe a prophesy with a frontispiece depicting Urizen reaching down from the heavens holding a pair of compasses (reproduced on this week’s front cover). Yet despite such divine intervention Europe’s dimensions have never been fixed. Europe is “tidal”; the main gravitational factor being Russian state power.2
Russia, and Russian otherness, stretches deep into Asia, all the way to the Pacific, but also menacingly reaches to the west. Sometimes the perceived borders of Europe have included Russia. At other times Russia - along with its occidental outer shell - has been excluded. But, whether Europe stops at the Elbe, the Wista or the Don, there have been repeated proposals to overcome its often bloody divisions.
Quaker leader William Penn (1644-1718), the founder of Pennsylvania, advocated religious toleration and has the distinction of being perhaps the first to propose a European parliament. Charles Castel de St Pierre (1658-1743), a dissident French abbot, called for a European confederation in order to secure peace. Certainly, the so-called religious wars of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and then the emergence of Orthodox Russia as a great power saw Christendom lose ground as a concept.
Notions of a European commonality steadily gained traction. Voltaire, writing in 1751, described Europe as a “kind of great republic”, some parts of it monarchical and “others mixed ... but all corresponding with one another”. He cites not only common religious foundations, but common “principles of public law and politics unknown in other parts of the world”.3 Twenty years later, Rousseau was saying that there were no longer French, German, Spanish “or even English”, but “only Europeans”.4
Europe came to represent a cherished goal - the ideal of peace and harmony that was so lacking in reality. Invoked by revolutionary democrats and reactionaries alike, Europe served rival causes. Napoleon Bonaparte sought to unite Europe in the image of France. In turn the main counterrevolutionary powers joined in concert against the French revolution in the hallowed name of European civilisation. The 1814 Congress of Vienna put in place an interlocking system of European states. Later, imperialism was justified with reference to Europe’s moral superiority and worldwide mission.
Another Europe gestated. Proletarian Europe. Taking his cue from the Marx-Engels team, Karl Kautsky desperately tried to prevent the outbreak of a horrendous inter-imperialist war - millions would die and socialism would be thrown back a generation or more. As we have seen, in 1912 Kautsky proposed that the working class should settle accounts with autocratic Germany, Austria-Hungry and Russia and boldly take the lead in bringing about a republican United States of Europe.5
Treacherously, ignoring its Stuttgart and Basel resolutions, the Second International abysmally failed to fight war with revolution. In the name of defending the fatherland, most affiliated parties sided with their own ruling classes. However, as we all know, World War I triggered the collapse of the European autocracies. Despite that, socialism was left isolated in the suffocating backwardness of Russia. The German and Austrian revolutions were halted halfway by official social democracy.
The centre of gravity of the world economy shifted from Europe to the United States. Yet because of its strong working class movement, high culture and extensive colonial possessions, Europe remained of paramount political importance. Revolutionaries and reformists alike sought to rescue Europe from decline and fragmentation - the former for socialism and working class rule, the latter for a beneficial deal for the working class under the rule of capital. Eg, Trotsky won Comintern to the ‘United States of Europe’ slogan in 1923. A short while later, in 1929, Aristide Briand, the right socialist, then France’s foreign minister, presented proposals to the League of Nations for a European Federal Union. At the centre of his plan lay the goal of a Franco-German rapprochement. Briand envisaged economic collaboration between Europe’s states, a permanent executive and provision for common military protection against the Bolshevik menace. Nowadays Eurocrats celebrate Briand as a kind of grandfather of the European Union.6
The 1929 great crash, then the coming to power of Adolf Hitler scuppered the Briand plan. Nevertheless, by 1941 half of the continent was united … in Nazi chains. Despite the claims of Boris Johnson, Hitler actually despised the Briand and other such plans. Indeed Hitler emphatically dismissed talk of post-war European unity as a “preposterous irrelevance”.7 However, yes, there were those in the Nazi hierarchy who did want to promote a European identity. Eg, Werner Daitz, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Joseph Goebbels. Indeed, the more the war went against Germany, the more did its propagandists project the Nazi regime as the protector of “European culture against the barbarians from the east”.8
As for Hitler, with increasing madness, he dreamt of a Europe purged of all Untermenschen - the mentally disabled, communists, social democrats, Jews, Roma and homosexuals - and a Germany vastly expanded “at the expense of Russia”. Those semi-Asiatic Slavs permitted to survive would be reduced to serfs; their lot in life - to serve under a colonial master class of Aryan farmers. Hitler thought that the only effective way to arrive at this hideous destination was a diplomatic deal with England: that alone would protect “our rear”, he explained in Mein Kampf.9
Blocs and contradictions
World War II was fought between two great predatory blocs. On the one side, the axis of Germany, Italy and Japan and, on the other, the alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Leave aside the Soviet Union and its freak social relations. From a Marxist point of view World War II logically developed from World War I - and that itself was a logical development of capitalist competition, reaching back to the stage when monopolies first came to dominate the whole economy and therefore began to involve states and their armies in their struggles for markets and domination (maybe during the late 19th century, as Lenin thought, or maybe some time considerably earlier).
As an aside, Joseph Schumpeter could not have been more wrong. Contra Marxism, he insisted, in his famous apologia, Capitalism, socialism and democracy (1943), that imperialism and militarism were explainable as pre-capitalist or semi-feudal phenomena. “As a matter of fact”, he naively states, “the more completely capitalist the structure and attitude of a nation, the more pacifist - and more prone to count the cost of war - we observe it to be.”10 A thesis essentially repeated by Thomas L Friedman in The lexus and the olive tree (1999): “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”11 Freidman argued that when a country has reached a certain level of economic development, whereby the middle classes were strong enough to support a McDonalds network, there was no longer an interest in fighting wars. Needless to say, just after The lexus and the olive tree was published, Nato bombed Serbia. On the first day of the air strikes, the McDonald’s outlets in Belgrade were trashed by furious crowds.
Schumpeter’s book is far, far more serious. Ernest Mandel says, with damning praise, that Capitalism, socialism and democracy is “one of the few bourgeois historical studies ... worth mentioning, and [is] vastly superior to Popper’s critique of Marx, let alone Hayek’s anti-socialist rantings”.12
Schumpeter rested his case on the observation that in so-called normal times the US possessed no army or military bureaucracy, so to speak. Vast ‘empty’ native lands in the east, an unthreatening and sparsely populated northern neighbour and weak client states to the south did historically allow the US to ply a very different course compared with Europe. Between 1870 and 1913 the US spent on average less than one percent of net national income on its military. Nor did World War I significantly alter that. After peaking at 13% of GNP in 1919, arms spending fell rapidly to one percent and below for most of the 1920s. However, World War II changed things permanently. Today US spending on its armed forces matches that of Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and Japan put together.
Almost needless to say, within the US-UK-USSR alliance there were rivalries and deep contradictions. Each power wanted to win out over the other. In that sense the war conducted against the Axis powers was simultaneously a hidden conflict between Britain, the US and the USSR; a conflict which inevitably continued and intensified, first after VE day and then after VJ day.
Britain, the US and the USSR beat Germany. And yet, in 1945, Britain lay exhausted and massively indebted to the US. Britain’s Anglo-Saxon cousins exacted their pound of flesh - controlled decolonisation and subordination of the pound sterling to the dollar. Back in 1924 Leon Trotsky had predicted an Anglo-American war: “Britain,” he said, “is America’s chief rival, the main obstacle on its path.”13 A prediction that proved brilliantly accurate - except, of course, that the war was carried out using other, peaceful, means.
Till the 1956 Suez crisis, Labour and Tory governments alike put up a timorous resistance. The empire in Africa and the Middle East was to be maintained and, when feasible, considerably expanded. John Kent, an expert on the ‘close of empire’, writes that the “overriding aim” was the “re-establishment of Britain as a world power equal to and independent of both the United States and the Soviet Union”. British weakness was viewed by Whitehall as “a temporary rather than a permanent phenomenon”.14
Needless to say, US might, plus the aspirations of the colonial bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, proved irresistible. What had been the world’s largest empire gave way to the laughably insubstantial Commonwealth. Nevertheless the “special crisis of Britain”, keenly anticipated by ‘official communist’ theorists, failed to materialise.15 The retreat from empire coincided with an unprecedented economic boom. Not the end of capitalism. The massive destruction of capital in Europe plus the Marshall plan saw a huge rise in effective demand.
Meanwhile, divisions between the US and the USSR became overtly antagonistic by 1946. Indeed, even before VJ day and the formal Japanese surrender, the US was busily preparing for an attack on the Soviet Union.
Once Harry Truman received news that the US - and the US alone - had acquired the atomic bomb, relations with the USSR rapidly deteriorated. According to official minutes, in the summer of 1945 the US joint chiefs of staff had already adopted a policy of “striking the first blow” using nuclear weapons.16
The ‘Strategic Vulnerability’ war plan envisaged a surprise, “preventative” attack on the Soviet Union. B29 bombers were to penetrate deep into Soviet airspace. Twenty cities would be obliterated in an instant. Millions perish … but, as we all know, “better dead than red”. Invasion quickly follows by sea and land. Moscow and other key centres are taken. Or so the Pentagon calculated. Having lost 10% of its population and something like a quarter of its industrial capacity in the titanic battle with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union was believed to be in no position to fight a World War III. Hence, after the fall, or removal, of the “totalitarian” regime, the plan was to dismember the Soviet Union and bring about a return of capitalism to the national parts. Truman apparently went into raptures about the atomic bomb being “the greatest thing in history”.17
The subsequent course of the cold war is well known and does not need repeating here. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The US beat the “evil empire” without dropping a single bomb. As a consequence the US now exercises a global influence that puts all previous empires into the shade. Neither Alexander the Great nor Genghis Khan can remotely compare, let alone present-day Germany, China, Japan or Russia. Though the US is undoubtedly in decline, it is a slow decline that still sees it operate as the hegemonic power, when it comes to the key institutions of global capitalism: International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, G7, G20, Nato, etc. So, by any serious reckoning, the US must be regarded as the sole superpower.
Reduction and expansion
Because of World War II Europe found itself much reduced. Under the terms of the Yalta agreement, the eastern half of the continent was incorporated into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and through bureaucratic revolution ‘Sovietised’. In effect Mitteleuropa disappeared. As to western Europe, it was shorn of the glories - and booty - of empire. Humiliatingly it had to rely on US military power to counter the internal and external ‘communist threat’. The US certainly strongly supported the integration of western Europe. In particular US pushed Federal Germany and France towards a rapprochement: John Foster Dulles described moves towards placing Franco-German coal and steel under a single authority as “brilliantly creative”.18
European capitalist integration has advanced qualitatively since the Treaty of Rome was signed between Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1957. The customs union has become a political zone embracing 500 million people and 28 countries. But what was advancing tortuously - with endless compromises and half-measures - speeded up following the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the USSR and eastern Europe in 1989-91. With the Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1997) and Lisbon (2009) treaties, the tempo of integration catapulted forward: a common currency and new members to the east. Sacrificing his beloved deutschmark for the euro was purportedly the price chancellor Helmut Kohl paid for French acquiescence to German reunification. Though the EU still often appears to be a jerry-built Tower of Babel, the goal in Berlin and Paris is clear - some kind of superstate. That is what “ever closer union” unmistakably implies.
So the EU embodies colossal ambitions. Ambitions that perhaps reached their dizziest rhetorical expression at the EU’s constitutional convention, which met under the chairmanship of the former centre-right president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Speaking to the opening session of the constitutional convention in February 2002, Giscard d’Estaing looked expectantly towards the future horizon:
If we succeed, in 25 or 50 years time Europe will have changed its role in the world. It will be respected and listened to, not only as the economic power that it already is, but as a political power that will speak as an equal with the biggest existing and future powers on the planet.19
For a time it was fashionable in liberal and social democratic circles to claim that Europe embodied a higher, more humane civilisation than America; that the US represents a particularly brutal capitalism. Will Hutton in particular championed EU unity on the basis of such a caricature. Europe’s capitalism is based on “reciprocal obligations”, which go back to “early Christianity”. The US, on the other hand, “is in thrall to an extreme brand of conservatism” and prone to use the “iron fist”.20
Of course, capitalism does not come in ready-made models, to be swapped one for the other according to intellectual whim or fad. Eg, the European, Japanese, Singaporean, Swedish or American. Social relations are in constant flux and assume a particular equilibrium due to the balance of contending forces and interests. Crucially, dead labour and living labour. What interests capital is exchange-value, what interests the working class is use-value.
On neither side of the Atlantic can capital’s paid persuaders admit the vital role of the other nation within each nation in bringing about change - powerful trade unions, traditions of solidarity, Marxism and working class self-liberation. Nor the vital role of the class struggle in constantly shaping and reshaping politics. Europe’s post-World War II social democratic settlement owes everything to the clash of class against class; nothing to the establishment’s supposedly benign desire to see fair play, equality and opportunity. Useful lies. The ruling class in Europe put off socialism by organising far-reaching concessions. The same goes for the US. Roosevelt’s New Deal originated in the economics of the working class, not the high bourgeoisie. Class struggle alone can reverse the rightwing tide that has polluted and suffocated US society since the days of Joseph McCarthy and Dwight D Eisenhower.
Ironically the dreams of Giscard d’Estaing, Will Hutton, etc, came off the rails because of success. The launch of the euro in 1999 was widely greeted as a triumph. But, after the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent austerity imposed on Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain and Greece, it is now widely viewed as a curse. However, it was the expansion of member-countries to the east that finally sabotaged attempts to build the EU into a world power that could rival the United States. Expansion from six to nine … and finally to 28 members guaranteed political incoherence and institutional logjam. Note, the US and Britain acted together in urging the EU to accept the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Rumania, etc, into membership.
In Britain the ongoing process of European integration caused well-known deep divisions. Ideologically the residues of empire arrogance clouded the brain. The 1956 Suez fiasco was a wake-up call. On October 31 1956 British and French forces intervened in the Suez Canal zone, ostensibly in the attempt to separate Israeli and Egyptian armies. In fact the whole thing had been prearranged between Britain, France and Israel. The government of Gamal Abdel Nasser had the temerity to nationalise the Suez canal in July 1956. However, the Americans condemned what they called an act of naked aggression and triggered a run on the pound. Anthony Eden had to concede a ceasefire and Britain humiliatingly withdrew. An historic turning point. Attempts to maintain and extend Britain’s Middle Eastern and African empires had to be abandoned. America was now master of the western world and Britain was forced to find for itself a new role.
Charles de Gaulle’s 1963 and 1967 vetoes barred Britain from the Common Market. He rightly considered Britain little more than a pliant US agent. De Gaulle sought to re-establish France as an independent global power through leading a so-called “little Europe”. In his own barbed words: a Europe “of Europeans”, not Americans. De Gaulle resented what he called Anglo-Saxon imperialism, concluded independent deals with the Soviet Union and equipped France with its own nuclear arsenal, the force de frappe. Showing his defiance of the US, de Gaulle withdrew French troops from the Nato command structure in June 1966. The Americans punished him with non-cooperation during the May 1968 crisis. An aged de Gaulle bowed out in April 1969 after losing a referendum vote - a considerable swathe of the French establishment wanted him gone.
As for Britain, its ruling class cemented the (subordinate) special relationship with the US and meanwhile provided itself with a continental presence through the European Free Trade Association (Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom). However, with de Gaulle safely out of the way and with active American connivance, Britain finally entered the European Economic Community in January 1973 under Heath’s Tory government (along with its Danish and Irish allies).
Apart from its hard right around Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, etc, the Labour Party presented itself as highly critical of the terms and conditions. Nonetheless, in 1975 - after gaining some very minor concessions - Harold Wilson’s government successfully fought a referendum on continued membership. The main opposition came from a Tony Benn-Enoch Powell popular front with the ‘official’ Communist Party, the Tribune left and associated trade union bureaucrats forming the tail (the revolutionary left formed the tail of the tail). Labour remained programmatically uneasy with European integration till the leadership of John Smith and then the government of Tony Blair. A parallel shift occurred in the Trades Union Congress with the appointment of John Monks.
New Labour and its coterie of middle class career politicians loyally and openly served the interests of the most competitive, most internationalised sections of British capital. The subaltern working class pole of Labourism was purged, coopted or marginalised. Peter Taaffe’s Militant Tendency was not alone in concluding that the Labour Party had become a straightforward capitalist party, in essence no different from the Tories and Liberal Democrats.
Nowadays, of course, it is the Tories who are organically split. David Cameron travelled to Brussels committed to a “fundamental renegotiation” of Britain’s relationship with EU. But his referendum campaign clearly relies not on any outcome of his hard bargaining in Europe, but the politics of fear. Eg, if Britain votes to leave, the results will range from the bad to the very, very bad. As for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, theirs is the politics of nostalgia. They appeal to those sad beings aggrieved by Britain’s loss of global status.
Of course, in the unlikely event that there is a ‘leave’ vote on June 23, there will no Brexit. As we have seen, the architecture of the post-1945 world simply does not allow it. That in effect was Barack Obama’s stark message when he visited Britain. Boris Johnson could conceivably become prime minister under such - unexpected - circumstances. But, as with Harold Wilson before him, having negotiated a few cosmetic changes, prime minister Johnson will get his two-thirds ‘remain’ majority (if he goes for a second referendum).
Europe divides the Tories, but it also divides the left. Nationalism runs deep. Concern for preserving working time directives, human rights legislation and the free movement of labour has seen the formation of Another Europe is Possible (promoted by Left Unity, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Greens). Then, on the other hand, there is Lexit (founded by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Workers Party and Counterfire). Sadly, national sovereignty, immigration controls and ‘British jobs for British workers’ have in some quarters replaced the language of working class solidarity and international socialism. Hence, those on the left who willingly play second fiddle to David Cameron, while others willingly do the same for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As for ourselves, we argue for an active boycott of the Cameron-versus-Johnson referendum farce.
Siding with either camp is fundamentally mistaken. Both sides are equally reactionary. Nevertheless, the tried and tested way to fight for socialism is in unity: beginning in our case on the continent-wide terrain established by the EU. Communists argue and work towards the unity of our forces across the whole of Europe. Instead of the Europe of the bosses and unelected bureaucrats, we stand for a Europe without monarchies and without standing armies. Such an internationalist perspective directly points to the necessity of organising across the EU at the highest level - crucially a Communist Party of the European Union.
The idea that our side would be collectively strengthened if one or two of our national battalions aligned themselves with a faction of the ruling class with a view to forcing a Britain, a France, or a Spain to withdraw from the EU displays a lack of both internationalism and seriousness. Socialism in a breakaway country is the socialism of fools. Any reformist or revolutionary government that might arise amidst the national chaos would suffer instant retaliation. Fascist counterrevolution or, that failing, isolation through asphyxiating trade embargoes and perhaps a joint EU-US military ‘peacemaking’ force.
Our strategy is resolutely opposed to any renewed ‘Balkanisation’ of Europe. The SWP’s Charlie Kimber, Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Robert Griffiths of the Morning Star’s CPB might irresponsibly campaign for such a scenario. But, whether it comes from right or left, the fragmentation of Europe can do the working class nothing but harm: ethnic cleansing, cleaving apart historically established workers’ organisations, national hatred.
Communists strive for working class unity within, but against, the existing EU. Winning the battle for democracy in the EU and securing working class rule over this small but politically important continent is the best service we can do for our comrades in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia.
That is our Europe.
1. N Davies Europe: a history London 1997, p8.
2. See WH Parker, ‘Is Russia in Europe?’ in An historical geography of Russia London 1968, pp27-29.
3. Quoted in D Hay Europe: the emergence of an idea Edinburgh 1957, p123.
4. Quoted in N Davies Europe: a history London 1997, p8.
5. See J Conrad, ‘A highly serviceable political weapon’ Weekly Worker May 5 2016.
6. See M Lagana Quest for unity: Aristide Briand and European integration, 1929-1930 San Jose 1968.
7. C Booker and R North The great deception: can the European Union survive? London 2016, p32.
8. Ibid p34.
9. A Hitler Mein Kampf London 1992, p129.
10. J Schumpeter Capitalism, socialism and democracy London 1987, pp128-29.
11. TL Friedman The lexus and the olive tree London 1999, p251.
12. E Mandel The meaning of the Second World War London 1986, pp171-72.
13. L Trotsky Writing’s on Britain Vol 1, London 1974, p145.
14. A Deighton (ed) Britain and the first Cold War London 1990, p166.
15. R Palme Dutt The crisis of Britain and the British empire London 1957, p27.
16. M Kaku and D Axelrod To win a nuclear war London 1987, p29.
17. Quoted in ibid p33.
18. Quoted in M Gilbert European integration p28.
19. The Guardian March 1 2002.
20. W Hutton The world we’re in London 2002, pp352, 357.