A leftish covering

Liberal playthings

Mike Macnair assesses the AWL’s second conference document, on Europe

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (which would be better called the Alliance for Workers’ Liberalism) published in the September 12 issue of their paper Solidarity a second document for their coming conference: this one deals with Brexit and the more systematic defence of the AWL’s ‘Remainism’.

In the September 13 issue of this paper, I commented on the AWL’s first conference document, on the role of a left or ‘revolutionary’ party, which had been published the previous week, and on a more interesting article on the same question by Francisco Louçã of the Portuguese Left Bloc. In that article, I quoted Marx in 1871 saying that:

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, ie, the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs Gladstone & Co are bringing off in England even up to the present time.1

Gladstone was the Liberal prime minister and famous for his advocacy of free trade and ‘Manchester liberal’ economics. His government passed the Trade Union Act 1871, which legalised trade unions (Tory judge Brett J was to neuter it in 1872 in the gas workers’ case) and on the same day the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1871 which criminalised picketing and any form of “intimidation” of scabs.2 What was given with one hand was taken away with the other.

The AWL’s Brexit policy, in spite of feeble endeavours to avoid this result, would precisely turn the workers’ movement into a plaything of the Liberals. This is not really any better than the ‘Lexiteers’ (left Brexiteers) whose policy turns it into a plaything of the Tories.

The first third of the document is fairly specifically addressed to the issues of Brexit and the EU. The remainder concerns the international political situation and the general rise of the nationalist right. It argues, with caveats, for the defence of the existing free trade regime against Trumpism, Brexiteering, and other forms of nationalism. In doing so it makes dodgy claims about the history of the issue.

In this article I will address specifically the line on the EU; which, in spite of purporting to offer a radical alternative to standard ‘Remainism,’ in fact downplays objections to the current EU architecture, so that the AWL appears as a mere tail to the Liberal Democrats and the Labour right.

In a future article I will respond to the larger issue of ‘free trade’ and the shift to nationalism; I will argue that the AWL’s ‘free-tradeism’ tails the neo-liberals’ ideological claims and fails to recognise necessary dynamics of capitalism at work in the shifts between liberal free-trade ideology and party-of-order nationalisms.

The document’s argument runs as follows. In the first place, the AWL opposes Brexit “in the name of the rights of the three million EU migrants currently in Britain;” it does so because “[w]e want more open borders, less fences and barbed-wire and barriers between countries;” and because “Socialists build on the progressive achievements (and semi-achievements, and quarter-achievements) of capitalism, rather than trying to reach the future by diving back into an idealised past.” And, a bit later, “[i]n fact, the drive behind Brexit is specifically and primarily a drive against the now decades-old right to free movement across Europe. We defend that right.”

There are problems with these formulae. In essence, while it is true that the European Union opens borders and allows migration within itself, it is also ‘Fortress Europe’ as far as migration from third world countries is concerned, and as has been repeatedly dramatised over the last few years by the refugee crisis. And the same is true in relation to trade with third world countries. For example, the EU regulations on bananas much misrepresented in the Brit tabloid press are in fact merely part of a scheme of “non-tariff barriers” allowing the EU to control the terms of trade.3

But “The way beyond capitalism is through united left-wing and working-class efforts reaching across borders, uniting workers continent-wide and worldwide” is entirely correct.

The document goes on to argue that opposition should not be based on the specific adverse consequences of Tory Brexit plans - the ‘hard Brexit’, the alleged consequences for social programmes, and so on. This is, it argues, a matter of making the arguments principled and “free from demagogy.”


It now moves to consider the democratic or ‘mandate’ issues. “The June 2016 referendum was of dubious democratic authority.” True, but why this is so is nowhere explained.

“In any case it gave no mandate for the specifics of what the Tories are doing now.” - Why not? If the referendum had any legitimacy, it surely authorised the government to negotiate exit - and hence to play carrot-and-stick games with the Europeans, games of a sort which are completely normal in both international and EU negotiations. Parliament could lay down controls and guidelines which limited the government’s room for manoeuvre - but has not chosen to except in very limited ways. The upshot will have to be an outcome negotiated between the UK government and the EU, or inter-governmentally.

“And in any case democracy means that minorities must retain the opportunity to argue and become majorities.” Entirely correct. But then this argument implies opposition to referenda in general, since the procedure is so much more expensive and time-consuming than representative forms that it would be very hard to justify repeated referenda; and indeed, The Independent’s second referendum petition is branded as the “final say.”4 But if two, why not best of three?

The AWL therefore demands a second referendum, and demands votes for 16- and 17- year olds and for migrants (especially EU citizens) resident in Britain; and some sort of compulsory opening up of the mass media to left wing views, the form of such an (implausible) opening up being completely undetermined, complaining that the 2016 debate “was very heavily a Tory vs Tory one.” What is missing here is recognition that such changes in the rules would inevitably mean “best of three,” since the Brexiteers would certainly complain of a ‘fix’ if a second referendum was run under different rules to the first.

The document goes on to say that:

If the Tories push through a Brexit deal before Labour can come to office, we demand Labour commit to repealing new restrictions on free movement introduced under that deal and to realigning with the Single Market and Customs Union with a view to getting Britain back into the EU.

All these policies sit within a broader programme of workers’ unity across borders and national differences, winning democracy on a European level, social levelling-up across the continent, and replacement of the EU’s free-market-ist rules with rules of international solidarity.

There is a very sharp tension between the political lines of these two paragraphs. In addition, the second paragraph is a lot vaguer than the first. The first calls for Labour to commit to repealing any new restrictions on free movement and to full compliance with existing EU law (correctly, if weakly, called in the second paragraph “the EU’s free-market-ist rules”) with a view to rejoining the EU. That is a very precise proposal.

The second paragraph makes this proposal, and the second referendum proposal, “sit within a broader programme.” But the “broader programme” is very vague. “Workers’ unity across borders” is a mere aspiration. “Winning democracy on a European level” has no concrete content given to it at all. “Social levelling-up across the continent” is again vague.

“[R]eplacement of the EU’s free-market-ist rules with rules of international solidarity” is completely meaningless.

In the first place, what “the EU’s free-market-ist rules” actually means is that the Treaties of Rome, of Maastricht and of Nice entrench in the EU’s constitution commitments to competition which bar ‘state aids’, including nationalisations;5 freedom of establishment (of movement of capital) which forms the basis of the Viking and Laval decisions which potentially illegalise much industrial action;6 and controls on state deficits, which have formed the basis of ‘troika’ (IMF-European Central Bank-European Commission) interventions in Ireland and southern European countries in the wake of the “Eurozone crisis”.

Entrench means that the rules cannot be got rid of by ordinary legislation. In the US constitution, for example:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress ...

In the case of the EU, amendment of the treaties is more difficult. It does not only require two thirds majorities to initiate and a three quarters majority - of the states - to pass. The EU treaties can only be amended by unanimous agreement of the member states.

Of course, the application of the rules is inconsistent. Germany, France and Italy have notoriously at one or another time been allowed to break the budget deficit rules, and so on. But this merely means that arbitrary exceptions are allowed. In Greece, Syriza imagined that ‘rationality’ would lead to flexibility in their favour; the reverse occurred.

Secondly, “rules of international solidarity” is completely empty. Supporters of the existing regime could perfectly well argue that the existing rules are “rules of international solidarity”: they apply across the board, and, indeed, the ‘bailouts’,7 and the failed attempts to get a common EU policy on refugees, have both been sold as matters of ‘European solidarity’.

What’s needed is not replacement entrenched rules somehow different from the ordo-liberals’ version. Rather, the right demand is the overthrow of the regime of the treaties, and with it of the entrenchment of ordo-liberal ideology in Europe’s constitution. Democratising Europe also requires the creation of some means of overthrowing decisions of the Court of Justice, and where necessary of impeaching the judges. CPGB has, of course, proposed elsewhere a far more extensive programme of democratising Europe.

Lib Dem

The document says that:

There is strong grass-roots feeling against Brexit ... Yet so far the running in anti-Brexit protests has been made by the Liberal Democrats and groupings on similar wavelengths ...

We aim to create a pole, visible on the streets, combatting Brexit from a socialist and internationalist viewpoint.

The reality is that the AWL’s proposals on the concrete issues of alternatives to the present EU architecture are so weak that even if the AWL creates a ‘pole visible on the streets’ it will be nothing but a tail for the Lib Dems and the Labour right which provides a pseudo-left colouration for their pro-EU campaign.



1. Marx to Friedrich Bolte in New York, Nov 23 1871, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_11_23.htm.

2. Trade Union Act 1871, 34 & 35 Vict c 31; Gas Workers’ Case R v Bunn & others (1872) 12 Cox CC 316; Criminal Law Amendment Act 1871, 34 & 35 Vict. c.32

3. See eg. https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sites/agriculture/files/bananas/fact-sheet_en.pdf.

4. https://www.independent.co.uk/final-say.

5. E.g. ‘Fear of Jeremy Corbyn-led government prompts tough EU line on Brexit’ Times May 7 2018; ‘UK Brexit team seeks to exploit EU concern over Corbyn state aid plans’ The Guardian Aug 2 2018.

6. Extensive discussion in M Freedland and J Prassl (ed) Viking, Laval and beyond Oxford 2014.

7. In reality, ‘bailouts’ of southern European states at the expense of their citizens for the benefit of northern European banks and arms manufacturers.