Fear, confusion and delusions
Left responses to the referendum result vary from despondency to total exuberance. Both are misplaced, argues Paul Demarty
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the left response to last week’s referendum was not in what has followed the result, but in what followed Cameron’s promise to hold it in the first place.
For we saw not a few comrades around the place - many of whom would previously have held positions my comrade Mike Macnair rather cruelly calls ‘left Ukipist’ - come out for ‘remain’, well in advance of the poll. We think of Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance, say. These comrades did not seem to have changed their minds, really - they were merely faced with the reality of a Brexit campaign whose chief spokespeople (quelle surprise!) were from the right half of the Tory Party, with Nigel Farage grinning on the sidelines like a sociopathic court jester. In other words, they bottled it, and to paraphrase CS Lewis, became the unhappiest Europhiles in all England.
We begin with this point simply to emphasise that the guiding principle for the left, as it confronted this issue and now confronts the aftermath, has been the tactical defensive. Tactics, of course, make poor principles at the best of times; but the political timidity currently on show is quite exceptional, and the left’s present invisibility in the debate over Brexit is ultimately an effect of its strategic incompetence.
Careful what you wish for
To begin, then, with those who got what they wanted - the ‘Lexiteers’, left advocates of British exit.
We are unsurprised to find jubilation in the ranks of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - most visible in a short round-up of reactions from sister parties in the Star, “congratulat[ing] the British people yesterday for their victory in the EU membership referendum.” What jumps out at us from this is the contribution of a certain Alex Mashilo, spokesman for the South African Communist Party: “The EU has been found wanting because it serves the interests not of all the people, but the imperialist bourgeoisie of Europe.”1 Those familiar with the SACP’s record in government might wonder exactly whose interests it serves, but there you go.
The Star editorial celebrating the vote highlights a feature common to all pro-Brexit leftwing commentary, so far as we can surmise, which is a high degree of unreality as regards the meaning of the vote. They understand, correctly, that what has taken place is a “populist working class revolt against the establishment” (we would dispute ‘working class’, but there certainly was wide working class support for an exit vote).
Yet we are dealing here with class as a sociological descriptor, not a revolutionary motor of history - the Star elides the two. Thus we read:
Labour and working class heartlands outside the M25, such as Thurrock, Great Yarmouth, Ashfield, Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent, Doncaster, Basildon and Barnsley, where the labour movement is largely absent, polled well over 68% to leave the EU.2
The relative absence of the Labour movement is here cited as proof that we are dealing with pure class instinct, as opposed to the atomised and alienated plebeian mass that actually made up the Brexit vote.
Likewise with the Socialist Party in England and Wales’s Peter Taaffe, exhibiting as always a level of strategic acumen that would embarrass a mayfly: “The vote ... represents at bottom a predominantly working class revolt against austerity and the Tory millionaire government,” he writes. “It is totally false to draw the utterly pessimistic conclusions ... that this result could lead to a ‘carnival of reaction’ in Britain and encourage rightwing forces in Europe and elsewhere.”3
Perhaps seeking to reassure waverers on this point, he declares: “It is not automatic that reaction ... [can] establish a firm base without the challenge of a general election, in which they can be defeated. The day before the referendum, teachers showed defiance of the government’s plans for academies by voting by over 90% for strike action on July 5.” This must surely be non-sequitur of the year - the Tories can be defeated in a short-term general election campaign (by whom, Peter? A Labour Party beset with fratricidal warfare? A Taaffite insurgency out of left-field?), because, er, there’s probably going to be a teachers’ strike.
The real prize here, however, goes to the Socialist Workers Party, which is in a real pickle. On the one hand, it advocated an exit vote, more or less to get rid of David Cameron (mission accomplished, comrades!); on the other, its practical activity over the last couple of years has been taken up in large part with chasing around Ukip figures accusing them of racism, on the basis that anti-migrant sentiment is automatically and always racism. How, then, to celebrate this great victory, given that it was won by the ‘leave’ campaign relentlessly hammering away at the immigration nail?
The answer hit upon by SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber is, ironically, one of the favoured weapons of the modern, technocratic bourgeois establishment politician - statistical prestidigitation:
In Newham 47% of people voted ‘leave’. The east London borough is one of the poorest and most multicultural boroughs in London, with only 17% of the population being ‘white British’.
Further out in Barking and Dagenham people voted for ‘leave’ by 62.4%. Again only some 49.46% of the population is ‘white British’.4
The first thing to note is that this is statistically illiterate. Kimber wants to argue that, since anti-migrant chauvinism is racism, and since only white British people can be racist (bear with me now), it will suffice to demonstrate that some non-white British people voted to leave to dismiss the problem out of hand.
Except that he is not comparing like with like: take Barking and Dagenham, for example. 49.46% of the population is a very different thing from 62.4% of those who actually voted. To illustrate the matter, turnout in Barking was 63.8%. If every eligible white Briton voted, it would be perfectly possible for all ‘leave’ votes to be cast by that one ethnic group - assuming that the ethnic makeup of eligible electors is the same as the ethnic makeup of the population.
Given that members of migrant populations are generally less likely to be registered to vote, indeed, we would expect that the voters who turned out would be, if not necessarily whiter, at least skewed towards white British and more well established ethnic minorities. In any case, concentrating on these two constituencies is blatant cherry-picking: the data we have suggests that ethnic minorities in aggregate leaned heavily to ‘remain’, although much more research needs to be done.5
The bigger issue, of course, is that this is all irrelevant, because anti-migrant chauvinism is simply a very common form of sectionalism among more backward workers, including workers originating from previous waves of immigration. We would expect some among the second or third generations of south Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, etc, to resent eastern Europeans ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’, for the jobs at issue are, after all, historically theirs; unless our commitment to anti-racism is so stridently facile, and our concept of racism so uselessly amalgamated, that we find ourselves in the same camp as the SWP.
There are those, of course, who are perfectly able to divine what motivated so many on the lower rungs of capitalist society to vote to leave; thus we descend from the giddy euphoria of the deluded Lexiteers to the left ‘remainers’ and their trough of misery.
Many in the ‘remain’ camp - or at least those who are members of far-left organisations - derive a certain advantage from their despondency, in that they do not have to pretend that Brexit is some kind of historic victory. It is easier for them to acknowledge that the immediate short-term effect of the Brexit result is that British politics has lurched to the right. For example, Cathy Nugent, of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, writes:
Getting rid of Cameron is not, as some on the left will argue, a victory for democracy! If a general election were soon held, as some on the left advocate, it would be fought under conditions of chaos, confusion, dismay and reaction. It would not be likely to result in a victory for the left. The referendum result has already been used by the right wing in the Labour Party as an opportunity to challenge the Corbyn leadership.6
One of the more cogent rebuttals of Lexiteer excitement comes from Neil Faulkner - leading figure of the Brick Lane Debates, the group that split from Counterfire - writing on the Left Unity website:
Let me spell out the basic underlying mistake [with Lexit]: it is to assume that any crisis - and any outbreak of mass discontent - must somehow benefit the left. In fact, as Lenin explained, the ruling class can survive any crisis if the workers let it, and, as Trotsky explained, there are two parties in a crisis: the party of revolutionary hope (the socialists) and the party of counterrevolutionary despair (the fascists).7
Faulkner makes extensive use of one of the least attractive historical analogies available - the expectation on the part of the Communist Party of Germany that Hitler’s regime would rapidly give way to proletarian revolution. (The most obvious deficiency to his piece is its alarmism: he seems very worried about the rise of a real fascism in Europe at large.) Thus, when the likes of the SWP (though he does not name them) argue that “because working class communities voted heavily against the ‘remain’ camp, we are witness to a popular revolt against austerity and inequality”, they are guilty of “breathtaking stupidity”:
It is to make a nonsense of any distinction between ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’: a vital distinction for Marx, who knew the great difference there was between the mere fact of class position - a matter of sociological description - and conscious mass struggle by working people acting for themselves to change the world. Indeed, in some sense, the whole of socialist activity is accounted for by this distinction.
What just happened?
The question Faulkner dodges is - why should the depredations of neoliberalism have driven so many among the working class into the “party of counterrevolutionary despair”? He has no more clue, on this evidence, than the Lexiteers, who, of course, flatly deny that such a thing has happened.
There is a theory, which has been floating around bourgeois circles for quite some time, that the English working class drifts naturally towards conservatism, wishing only to ring-fence its own livelihood. Thus the ongoing conflict between a liberal, metropolitan elite, and a right-leaning, small-minded working class out in the provinces, fearful of globalised capitalism, chauvinistic and prone to bigotry.
This idea has been promoted by Labour rightists, arguing that “we must take people’s concerns about immigration seriously” and suchlike, for many years; Maurice Glasman, the eccentric wonk behind the short-lived ‘Blue Labour’ fad, constructed an elaborate historical theory around it. It has been promoted demagogically by Sun columnists and Spiked!, in calumnies against the ‘metropolitan elite’. If nothing else, this idea’s time has come - the sociology of the Brexit vote provides the strongest evidence yet for this hypothesis.
Though it may be presented in relatively unsophisticated terms, this is in fact quite a ‘big idea’: an alternative political anatomy of the working class to Marxism. How does Marxism respond? Well, we start with comrade Faulkner, and the distinction between a ‘class in itself’ and a ‘class for itself’ - a dialectical distinction, designed to bring out the qualitative difference between merely working for a wage and attempting to transform one’s position in society. For Faulkner, the Brexit vote is the ‘class in itself’; for the Lexiteers, it is the ‘class for itself’.
The trouble with dialectical oppositions, of course, is their habit of breeding. Faulkner fails to take the next theoretical step, which is to acknowledge that the ‘class for itself’ is itself the site of a contradiction - that class-consciousness can be (crudely) false or true consciousness. The biggest danger at this level is sectionalism: falsely identifying your interests with some section of the class, rather than the class as a whole (which is international, multi-racial, and so on).
We must understand false class-consciousness as nevertheless a form of class-consciousness, however degraded and reactionary it might be. An illustration pertinent to our present situation is the fact that the first restrictions on free movement in this country, over a century ago, were granted as a concession to the trade union movement - not atomised individual wage-slaves. Likewise, inasmuch as the Brexit vote was a ‘class vote’ (and we must not forget the importance of sections of the petty bourgeoisie, etc), it was a sectionalist vote.
We must act
To declare that “the left must act”, as Faulkner does, is thus to ask how we can overcome sectionalism, and start in the direction of the universal class-consciousness at the core of the Marxist political project. Here, alas, Faulkner provides a reminder that you can take the comrade out of the SWP, but not the SWP out of the comrade: “… the left has to build a fighting alternative based on mass struggle from below.” This, naturally, is exactly what the SWP and SPEW believe they are doing.
Yet it is precisely this overwhelming commitment to spontaneous mass action which disables the left from fighting sectionalism, and leads, in the end, to the idea that Brexit will act as the starting gun for a new wave of socialist struggle. For it places the emphasis not on spreading conscious understanding of politics among the masses, but merely agitation for short-term action; and thus encourages the shortening of historical perspective.
“The left must act”: to too many people, including our present subjects, it means that, when presented by rival gangs of rightwing demagogues with a choice - in or out of the EU - we must choose. Anything else is “abstentionist”. So we must construct elaborate leftwing justifications for voting for reaction. In extremis, and unfortunately all too frequently today, this imperative creates ridiculous phenomena like so-called Trotskyists supporting national-chauvinist politics in order to get David Cameron out of Number 10 (in substance, there is no difference between left support for Scottish nationalism and left support for Brexit, except that the Scottish nationalists are superficially more right-on and up to date with multicultural platitudes than Ukip).
Yes, the left must act - and all the aforementioned organisations and individuals agree on much of the defensive do-goodery now necessary (fight austerity, defend migrants, etc). But more of the same is the last thing we need. Instead, it is time to think strategically.
1. Morning Star June 25.
4. Socialist Worker June 28.
5. Some numbers, for example, can be found here: http://ukandeu.ac.uk/how-do-britains-ethnic-minorities-view-the-eu-referendum. They come from polls conducted before the vote itself, but there is no evidence of a dramatic change in the final days.