Lexiteers all at sea
Both the Morning Star’s CPB and SPEW advocate immigration controls and socialism in one country, notes Mike Macnair
We are still in the ‘phony war’ stage of Brexit; and the Tory Brexiteers are beginning to complain that delays in the process are pointing in the direction of it never actually being implemented. These complaints are probably at least partly cover for the fact that the Brexiteers themselves have no real agreement among themselves about what sort of Brexit is on the agenda.
If the Tory Brexiteers have a problem deciding what Brexit is to mean, so do its left advocates - though for some of them, like the Socialist Workers Party, the escape route is available of merely directing the attention of their gullible members to the next demo, conference, or whatever else can be spuriously characterised as “mass action”. (But not, of course, the real mass movement which has emerged round the inner-party struggle between the classes in the Labour Party …)
Two not wholly dissimilar versions of ‘Lexit’ have now been offered: by Robert Griffiths as leader of Britain’s ‘official’ communists in the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain; and by Clive Heemskerk as one of the central leaders of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Griffiths is more space-constrained: in two long articles (by Morning Star standards) he produced just under 1,400 words on August 6 and just over 1,300 words on September 12. A Star editorial of August 23 adds 581 words. Heemskerk has a spacious 4,600 words in the September issue of SPEW’s monthly Socialism Today.
Griffiths provides the natural starting point, because the doctrine of ‘socialism in a single country’ is at least traditional to ‘official’ communism, and British nationalism and British sovereignty is an element of the old British road to socialism (now renamed as Britain’s road to socialism). From this standpoint ‘Lexit’ is at least the natural position of the Morning Star and its party. For formal Trotskyists, like Heemskerk, ‘Lexit’ arguments must stand as evidence of how far they have moved from their traditional programmatic and strategic foundations.
In his August 6 article Griffiths begins with the manifest untruth that:
The single most decisive factor in Corbyn’s original victory was popular mass activity. Industrial action in the public services, at power stations and on building sites, together with militant campaigning by the People’s Assembly and local anti-cuts, disability, housing, student, anti-racist and other bodies, inspired many thousands of people to vote for a change of direction in the Labour Party.
Hence, he argues, (in plain defiance of the evidence of the polls, and of the evidence of the results of the Scots referendum in the 2015 general election) Labour could win the next general election if it commits to a leftwing programme: “an end to austerity, the revival of progressive taxation, investment in public services and productive industry, a massive public-sector house-building programme and the return of energy and public transport to public ownership”.
It is fundamental, he insists, to accept the legitimacy of the Brexit vote. He argues that it is not an expression of racism (he misses here that, while this may be partially true, the vote has legitimised ‘nativist’ threats and violence against migrant workers and against non-white Brits, by making the far right feel it has the wind in its sails). The main reason for the vote, he says, was sovereignty - “that decisions about Britain should be taken in Britain”. He is not, however, prepared to follow the logic of this to where it certainly leads: that ‘decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland’, ‘decisions about Wales should be taken in Wales’ and ‘decisions about Cornwall should be taken in Cornwall’. Rather, he sticks with the Morning Star/CPB’s correct advocacy of federalism. But if we can have democratic federalism for Britain, why can’t we have democratic federalism for Europe?
The concrete ‘Brexit policy’ he offers is:
- No to membership of the EU single market and TTIP - regulate the movement of capital, commodities and labour in the interests of working people.
- Renounce EU Court of Justice rulings protecting the superexploitation of migrant workers - no more undercutting; equal terms and conditions for all.
- Enact any progressive EU social and environmental policies into British law.
- Continue funding vital programmes previously supported via the EU.
- No more EU budget contributions - invest in public services and housing.
- Regain full freedom to cut or abolish VAT.
- Guarantee residence for EU citizens currently living in Britain.
- Uphold the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Reverse the unfair anti-immigration rules imposed on non-Europeans as part of the EU ‘Fortress Europe’ policy.
- Withdraw from the EU common foreign and defence policy and its aggressive alliance with Nato.
What is striking about this policy is that, beyond rejection of membership of the single market and of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (which appears to be dead in the water anyhow), it is pretty much devoid of economic, as distinct from budgetary and legal, ideas. Britain imports a very substantial proportion of the food it consumes. Where is this food to come from in future? Under what trade arrangements? Supposing the country is to continue to be a large car producer, to what market will Honda Swindon, Ford Dagenham, BMW Cowley, and so on - all parts of their parent companies’ highly integrated European operations - sell? Should UK agriculture continue to be subsidised? And so on …
What, concretely, are the “progressive EU social and environmental policies” which are to be brought “into British law”? I merely note that Griffiths clings to the standard left piety of “Uphold the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights”, omitting to mention that the convention (and hence the act) contains in first protocol, article 1, a guarantee of the right of private property, which the UK supreme court has recently ruled could be used to block Scots legislation which worsened employers’ liability for asbestos cases (though it declined in the instant case to do so).
The Star editorial adds the claim that: “The free movement of capital and commodities - including superexploited migrant labour - is neither a socialist nor even a progressive aspiration when financial monopolies are calling the shots.”
This argument is hopeless. Griffiths in August at least argued for the traditional Second International position: “no more undercutting; equal terms and conditions for all”. Two years ago this paper published Ben Lewis’s translation of the 1907 Stuttgart Congress resolution on the issue, which takes exactly this approach: not to attempt to stop migration, but to fight to organise against undercutting.1
The evidence for this approach is precisely because “financial monopolies are calling the shots”, now as they were in the “first age of globalisation” in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. To fight against immigration under these conditions is not to prevent immigration, but merely to hand the employers tools to be used to deport migrant workers who try to organise, and thereby to increase the undercutting and “superexploitation” which is the original grievance - while simultaneously undercutting class solidarity of the workers by promoting divisions on the basis of national origins.
We may guess that under global socialism fewer people will be driven to migrate. People migrate mainly in search of work and a better life for themselves and their families, driven as well as drawn by capital’s relentless mobility. Certainly, global socialism will not create vast waves of refugees, as US policy in the Middle East has in recent years. But the reference to global socialism is essential. Capitalism builds on geographical inequalities and forces people into movement, within as much as between nation-states. The attempt to construct socialism in one country leaves the issue unresolved: hence the need for, on the one hand, the Berlin Wall and, on the other, the system of internal passports operated in the USSR - and operated to this day in the People’s Republic of China, where it is used by employers to avoid paying workers by calling the city migration police to deport them to the countryside before their pay is due.
Griffiths’ September 12 piece is addressed to the TUC congress and Labour conference. It is to a considerable extent also addressed to the splitting activities of the Labour right and to the Trident question. From these issues it moves into the Europe question, and argues for a variant of what on the Tory side is sometimes called ‘hard Brexit’: “If a trade agreement with a reasonably flexible approach to tariffs, quotas and state aid cannot be negotiated with the EU, then the option of trading under WTO rules is available.”
This displays an extraordinary self-deception about the nature of the WTO rules - which are, just as much as the EU’s single market rules, directed to prohibit any form of action against undercutting, any sort of planning, and so on. Indeed, at least the ECJ’s decisions on Viking,Laval, and so on, to promote undercutting were public. The WTO’s equivalent tribunals are secret!
Equally bizarrely: “While security cooperation must continue in order to protect citizens from terrorist violence, leaving the EU should also mean leaving the European common foreign and defence policy.”
Comrade Griffiths would advocate leaving the EU’s common foreign and defence policy - which is certainly the logical result of Brexit - but not the secret cooperation between “security services” against ‘subversives’ (including communists)? And equally, at least in the August 6 article, he objected to the EU’s alliance with Nato. But here that alliance - and British membership of Nato, which long antedates our EU membership - has disappeared. Come clean, comrade! Are you for breaking with Nato, or not?
We in the CPGB have no hesitation in urging British withdrawal from Nato. But we do recognise that this set-up is part of the global arrangements under which the US took over world dominance from the UK in and after World War II. The consequence is that exit from Nato requires the construction of a military alternative to the system of US domination. Such an alternative would hardly be the EU - itself, in its present form, an instrument of the US-led alliance system. But it certainly could not be little Britain (with its mothballed aircraft carriers and dependence on US military production) on its own …
Comrade Heemskerk begins by citing evidence in support of the view that (a) major financial institutions, and the US, wanted a ‘remain’ vote; and (b) “At worst they hope for a ‘Bino’, a ‘Brexit in name only’. But if it can be accomplished, after a suitable delay and the ground prepared, the goal would be to reverse the result …” This is no doubt true; but, as to why these groups are committed to British membership of the EU, Heemskerk cannot coherently tell us. He argues:
… the aim that the EU could engage as a unified power on equal terms with the other regional global powers, the US, China, Japan, Russia and the emerging economies, would have been severely undermined.
US imperialism in particular favours Britain’s continued membership of the EU. It has not been adverse to periodic disruptive diplomacy to weaken EU unity in particular disputes - in 2003 US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously counterposed ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe to gain backing for the invasion of Iraq.
But, especially since the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe in 1989-91, the EU has become an integral part of the system of international relations which mediate the different interests of the world’s capitalist powers.
This line of reasoning is internally contradictory. It completely fails to address the question of the role of the EU before the fall of the USSR, why the US demanded British entry after the Suez debacle, and why de Gaulle vetoed it between 1960 and 1968.
The precise point of British entry in 1972 was, in reality, to paralyse any hope that “the EU could engage as a unified power on equal terms with the other regional global powers, the US, China, Japan, Russia”, and to push the EU towards developing as a large free-trade area open to US capital, goods and services and unable to defend continental European capitalist interests against US interests (and those of the US’s offshore-finance sidekick in London). The expansion to the east, and the provisions of the treaties of Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon, all push in this direction by entrenching neoliberal free trade and privatisation dogma in law. Brexit is dangerous from the standpoint of US interests, and those of the City, because by removing the UK from the EU it threatens to lead to a more unified EU, which could challenge the US.
The City is, in reality, divided on the issue, because a section of its interests thinks that the EU as an institution can be destroyed in the short term, and that the UK and US could then force through a pure free-trade area. It is this division in the most decisive section of the capitalist class which led to the fraudulent campaign of the Brexiteer press not resulting in financial attacks from the City.
From his claims about the interests of capital, Heemskerk moves to the argument that the Brexit vote was a “working class revolt”. His argument is overstated, but - as we have previously pointed out in this paper - not completely false. There was an important swing of ‘traditional working class’ voters to the ‘leave’ side; though this on its own would not have swung the vote if it had not been for the very solid ‘leave’ votes of the rural classes, the traditional petty bourgeoisie and the petty-rentier private pensioners.
There is a real ambiguity in identifying a vote which combines an important section of the working class, together with the rural classes and the most reactionary sections of the petty bourgeoisie, as a class movement as such. To make this identification we would have so say not just that the big capitalists were for ‘remain’, but that ‘leave’ was in the interests of the working class independently of the fact that the big capitalists were against it. If this was really so, then we would have a section of the reaction coming in behind the working class. Thus, for example, Tories were won in the 1840s to back limits on the working day in order to do down Liberal factory owners. In contrast, the dismantling of apartheid was certainly supported by big capital and certainly opposed by both reactionary sections of the (white) petty bourgeoisie and sections of the (white) working class. Nonetheless, the dismantling of apartheid was certainly in the interests of the working class. For the left to back opposition to the end of apartheid on the basis that a defeat for this project would do down Anglo American and so on would have been obvious nonsense.
Heemskerk does not, however, move at once to making the positive case for ‘Lexit’. Rather, he swings back to the (true) claim he had already made that big capital is in the main seeking a way out of the Brexit vote. He links the issue to the Labour coup and Owen Smith’s call for a second referendum; but little is added to the previous discussion.
It is via this last point, on Owen Smith, that he comes to what he thinks Corbyn should propose as an alternative, and it is this that is sub-headed “What does Lexit mean?”:
The most important ‘Brexit negotiation policy’ Jeremy Corbyn could adopt would be to declare that a government he leads would take whatever decisive socialist measures are necessary in defence of the working class, from a £10-an-hour minimum wage and the abolition of zero-hour contracts, to public ownership of the banks and the major companies that dominate the British economy.
This should be accompanied by an enabling declaration that all EU treaty provisions and regulations which go against policies that advance working class interests - like the rules on state aid or the posted workers’ directive - would no longer apply and that any attempts by the EU institutions to legally enforce them would be annulled.
The “enabling declaration” is, of course, the current descendant of the old MilitantTendency’s ‘Enabling Act’, which was to allow a Labour government to rule by decree to implement Militant’s ‘socialist programme’. It shares with the ‘Enabling Act’ the fundamental problem that it is obviously asking the voter to buy a pig in a poke: vote for us, and we will vest all power in us, to take “decisive socialist measures”, which we cannot specify now. It is a project of leading the working class by the nose, in order to con it into taking power without ever coming to consciousness of the need to overthrow the British constitution and state.
Even within this context, the “decisive socialist measures” are a bizarre combination of the trivial and the massive and unprepared. A £10 minimum wage would be a big rise from the current £7.20, but would certainly be grossly devalued by inflation in the event of a SPEW government; the abolition of zero-hour contracts is something the Tory government may well abolish, since they are merely a scam to dump employment costs onto the welfare system and so other taxpayers. These are micro-reforms.
Then comes “public ownership of the banks and the major companies that dominate the British economy”, the old ‘Nationalise the top 200 monopolies’, a proposal which ranges from the meaningless (Lloyds Bank is currently nationalised, and just what does this mean?) to the plainly ‘revolution now’ proposal to nationalise all major companies (unspecified). OK, so we nationalise BMW Cowley, Ford Dagenham and so on. The parent companies retaliate by cutting off parts supplies. Then what?
Comrade Heemskerk’s implicit response to this question is in what follows: that is, that the EU is not a state, but a confederacy of states; it has no army or even police and an extremely small civil service. All true.
So, he goes on, the EU cannot enforce its rules against a state which broke them. Syriza, says Heemskerk, was defeated not because of the strength of the creditors’ troika, but because Syriza did not prepare the Greek public for “capital controls and nationalisation of the banks … a programme, and the will to carry it out, to take decisive measures against capitalism in Greece, and appeal to the European working class for support”. False.
Greece is not self-sufficient in food (and has not been self-sufficient in food for 2,500 years). “Decisive measures against capitalism in Greece” therefore mean either the immediateoverthrow of capitalism elsewhere in Europe - within weeks, not months - or mass starvation in Greece. Now, look at Europe from the situation of Syriza in government (but not, of course, in power). Was there any chance of food supplies from Italy, by way of Rifondazione Comunista overthrowing the Italian government? Not the slightest - Rifondazione smashed itself by joining the Olive Tree government, and what remains of the Italian left is fragments weaker than the Brit far left. Nowhere else is there more probability …
Could Greece use its army and navy to go out and take the food it needed by looting its neighbours, or even by overthrowing them in revolutionary war? Not remotely likely: a French or German revolution might overcome ‘sanctions’ in this way; in Britain we would have to recreate the coal and steel industries to build warships to defend the oilfields (and so on and on …) as the first step to constructing an independent military capability which could export a revolution …
Britain is more generally in a situation analogous to Greece. Unlike Greece, it was self-sufficient in food down to the 18th century (albeit with occasional famines when crops failed). But that is certainly no longer the case.
International capital, moreover, responds to left or nationalist governments precisely by economic sanctions in the first instance (where a constitutional coup is not available, as it probably would be in the UK in response to a government which pursued comrade Heemskerk’s policy: a government which had not prepared the ground by campaigning openly against the monarchy and against the judiciary before its election could be knocked down in a ‘constitutional coup’ as easily as Gough Whitlam was in Australia in 1975).
The situation in Europe in 2016 is not analogous to the end of World War I, where there were mass worker movements, which had been built up over decades, with a hard edge of veterans coming back from the wars, where the question of revolution was genuinely posed across Europe; nor to the not dissimilar conditions at the end of World War II; nor even to the mirage of the revolution in 1968-75, the product of a combination of tight labour markets for two decades, large oppositional communist parties in France and southern Europe, and the widespread illusion of the Soviet bloc as a ‘socialist rearguard’. We are beginning to emerge from the consequences of the fall of the Soviet bloc and the nadir of class-consciousness which resulted from this defeat. Trying to light ‘the spark that lights the prairie fire’ in these conditions results merely in the initiators getting burned.
Comrade Heemskerk in fact offers something a little more than ‘bold measures’ at national level and an appeal to the working classes to ‘spread the revolution’:
A bold stand by Jeremy Corbyn against the anti-working class treaties and policies of the EU could electrify the debate across Europe.
Why not propose as negotiation ‘red lines’ for a new relationship with the EU the abandonment of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks with the US, the scrapping of the European fiscal compact, the write-off of the euro zone debts, etc? Other demands could also be raised to rally working class support.
It is now eight years since the ‘great recession’ began after the financial crisis of 2007-08 and there has been no sustained and broad recovery for global capitalism.
The trend towards zero or even negative interest rates is a sign of the desperation of the central bankers and the strategists of capitalism, as they try to stave off an era of deflation and the danger of depression. Euro zone unemployment has remained at over 10% since 2009, 20% for young people.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s £500 billion infrastructure investment reflation call for the British economy is actually a relatively modest Keynesian programme, which chimes with the calls from the IMF for fiscal policy, government spending, to ‘do some lifting’. Why not propose as a negotiation demand to tackle unemployment a European-wide programme of public investment - for example in an integrated green energy system, a European super-grid to develop and connect different sources of renewable energy, from Danish wind to Greek solar?
These are not bad ideas. Nor are proposals, also in his article, to demand the reversal of the Vikingand Lavaldecisions and the posted workers directive - provided that the UK could show good faith by on our side getting rid of the Tory anti-union laws all the way back to Dimbleby v NUJ, since Viking, Laval, etc, are merely the Europeans’ attempts to force their labour laws down to British levels in order to be able to compete against London’s social dumping policy.
The problem with them is - of course - why on earth should we suppose that building an alliance of the working class in the EU to overthrow the neoliberal treaties, and introduce common economic projects on a European scale, is better done on the basis of Brexit than of Britain remaining part of the EU institutions and the European workers’ movement collaborating in the EU elections, and so on, to fight for these common aims?
Comrade Heemskerk’s possible awareness that his proposals for common workers’ action on a European scale do not really fit with his Lexit line is perhaps reflected in the last part of the article, which addresses the issue of freedom of movement. He tells us, just like Robert Griffiths, that 49% of ‘leave’ voters were motivated by concerns about sovereignty, and only (!) 33% by concerns about migration. But then, of course, also just like Robert Griffiths, he is drawn into the defence of immigration controls as socialist policy:
The socialist and trade union movement from its earliest days has never supported the ‘free movement of goods, services and capital’ - or labour - as a point of principle, but instead has always striven for the greatest possible degree of workers’ control, the highest form of which, of course, would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy.
It is why, for example, the unions have historically fought for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace, a very concrete form of ‘border control’ not supported by the capitalists.
Weasel words. As I said earlier in this article, this paper has made the historical position of the international socialist movement readily available to English-speaking readers. It is quite clear that it was the right wing of the movement - mostly people who were to become war supporters in 1914 - who backed immigration controls as a socialist demand in 1907, as opposed to the congress’s package of measures to fight against fraudulent migration agents and scab operations, to organise migrants and fight against undercutting.
If comrade Heemskerk really believes that the working class Brexit voters were motivated by the pure pursuit of sovereignty and democratic control, and not by the widespread illusions fostered by the tabloid press that the shit the Tories dump on us is due to excessive migration, why was it necessary for him to make any such concession to these illusions?
The answer is that the project of recovering ‘sovereignty’ is as much sectionalist, chauvinist and nativist as is the open opposition to eastern European economic migrants and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees. The Brexiteers promoted a sham idea that the UK is somehow more democratic than the EU - which the Lexiteers of SPEW and the Morning Star’s CPB had already promoted with their ‘No2EU, Yes to Democracy’ electoral front in 2009. The UK, for all the gods’ sake, with its hereditary monarchy, its prerogative rights exercised by the prime minister or through the privy council, and its appointed House of Lords, including the bishops, its gerrymandered first-past-the-post elections … !
It was necessary to promote this sham because if you admitted that the EU constitution was no less democratic than the US constitution, and in some respects more democratic than the UK constitution (at least the council of ministers, unlike the House of Lords, consists of elected politicians), it becomes apparent that in demanding ‘sovereignty’ you are actually opposing not undemocratic decision-making, but any public decision-making on a European scale.
Commercial and financial private decision-making would, of course, continue on a European scale and on a world scale. It would do so because the forces of production are international in scale. So to accept the illusion in national-scale decision-making, which is common among large sections of the working class, is not to take power away from international capital, but to hand more power to international capital.
Hence, the working class could take power on a continental scale and in particular on a European scale. To attempt to do so on a national scale produces less success than was achieved in the USSR: demoralisation overtakes the project far more quickly.
Comrade Heemskerk half-knows this, because his Trotskyist background warns him against ‘socialism in a single country’; hence his serious proposals for common European demands of the working class. But he also cannot draw the logical conclusions - again because of his Trotskyist background: this time because the ill-conceived ideas of ‘transitional demands’ and the ‘transitional method’ lead him to refuse to attempt to confront directly the nationalist political illusions widespread in the workers’ movement.
The result is, if anything, more incoherent than Robert Griffiths’ open advocacy of the reactionary utopia of ‘socialism in a single country’.
1. ‘Reactionary by nature’ Weekly Worker April 4 2014. The German text is available at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung website: www.fes.de/de.