Time to decide

Should the Socialist Alliance campaign for a 'no' vote in a referendum on the euro? Or should we insist on the independent working class stance of an active boycott? Communist University 2002 featured a lively debate between leading representatives of both positions: John Bridge from the CPGB and SA national secretary Rob Hoveman of the Socialist Workers Party

John Bridge Many comrades are prepared to concede that once upon a time capitalism had a progressive side to it. For an example, take Marx's writings on Germany from the 1840s up until unification. While he was very critical of Bismarck's social monarchy, there was no doubt that he welcomed the fact that the German people, albeit excluding German Austria and German Switzerland, had been united into a nation-state. Not only would a united Germany stimulate economic development. It would also provide the wide political space on which the working class can alone educate itself and raise itself to the position of that of a ruling class. That is all very well and good, comrades say, for the progressive, competitive phase of capitalism, but we now live in the epoch of imperialism. We have all read Lenin to the effect that capitalism is now decadent and moribund. For his part Trotsky said that capitalism is unable to develop the productive forces and is approaching terminal crisis. Once the working class resolves its crisis of leadership, power will fall into our laps. I agree that today socialism is immanent. But that should not lead anyone to dismiss what I still think we could legitimately describe as capitalist progress. For the first time in history wage workers form the biggest class on the planet. There exists the material wealth and human agency which makes socialism and communism a feasible project. And what distinguishes Marxists from others who desire human liberation and human freedom is that our anti-capitalism is not negative but positive. We do not want to reverse capitalism, but to take advantage of capitalism and what it is doing. I am of course well aware that capitalist progress is accompanied by untold human suffering and enormous waste. Look at virtually any 'third world' country and you will see the horrors capitalism is responsible for. But Marxists, as opposed to leftwing moralists, recognise that within the hugely problematic progress of capitalism there grows the answer. Capitalism, to use an old phrase, produces its own gravedigger. And it is in that light that I would approach the question of the euro. Comrades who advocate a 'no' vote are very fond of telling us what the euro means as far as the bankers, big capital and Tony Blair's government are concerned. We agree. What they have in store for us is smaller pay increases, cuts in services and an unaccountable central bank that can punish the working class by triggering interest rate hikes. That is why we cannot vote 'yes'. But what are we voting for if we put our cross in the 'no' box? People can have any number of ideas in their heads. You can vote 'no' and imagine you are voting for socialism. But, in the real world, if we somehow manage to tilt the balance, we know what the Blair government, or a future Tory government, would have to do. We would get Britain as it is now, only worse. Let us take a country that did vote 'no' - Denmark. The left actually played a not insignificant role in winning the 'no' vote. Yet today Denmark has perhaps the most rightwing government in Europe with the left suffering marginalisation. The Peoples Party - which campaigned for a national chauvinist 'no' vote from a position of hostility towards migrants and all outsiders - now drives government policy. Denmark has adopted anti-immigrant measures that make Tony Blair look like a tender, caring liberal. What is more, it has stricter monetary controls than those that operate within the euro zone. In other words, if it is a question of a simple choice - 'yes' or 'no' - as far as our rulers are concerned, it will be highly unpleasant for us either way. We are being asked to choose the lesser of two evils. However, nothing is preordained. If the 'yes' camp wins it does not automatically mean that Blair gets his way, or that the European central bank is given carte blanche. When they try to impose cuts, does that mean workers have to accept them? Will they say: 'You won the vote and we will play by your rules'? Some comrades appear to be buying into Ferdinand Lassalle's 'iron law of wages'. That a 'yes' vote means not only inevitable neoliberal attacks but inevitable neoliberal victories. It seems that, for them, since we are in the eurozone capitalism's mechanisms will just inexorably grind us down: if we strike for higher pay, that simply means that unemployment goes up and wages go back down again. But we know, from the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, that the working class has its own political economy, its own interests, and is quite capable of taking on capitalism. We may not yet have been able to finally defeat capitalism, but we have certainly been able to produce a situation where the living standards and democratic rights enjoyed by the working class have qualitatively and more or less consistently improved over a sustained period. Let us ask a simple question. What are the best conditions for the working class to continue to make inroads in the fight with capital? The narrow space of the UK or the wide space of the EU? I do not think it is difficult to work out. Indeed as a general principle, we fight for the working class to be organised in the largest possible units. Before we arrive at communism we envisage a world socialist state. To achieve that goal certain means necessarily suggest themselves. It is in our interest to fight for the kind of state we want here and now, under capitalism. I am certainly not numbered amongst those who indifferently say, Nazism, Tony Blair, Swedish social democracy - what does it matter to us? I have already referred to Marx. He considered that the best conditions for the political making of the German working class under capitalism would be a German nation-state. Engels actually talked about German unification being one of the building blocks for a possible European federation. He was not, of course, talking about a socialist federation at this time. We can also learn from the writings of Karl Kautsky. It is certainly not my view that he was just a renegade. Before 1914, whatever his many faults, Kautsky was a Marxist. Even after 1914 what he wrote has value, but that is a separate question. The point is that Kautsky, faced with a Europe galloping towards a horrendous war, urged a working class solution. He put forward the democratic perspective of the working class fighting for a republican United States of Europe. The Bolsheviks initially adopted that position in World War I, and only subsequently abandoned it as either being impossible or reactionary. However, Trotsky, far from abandoning the slogan, continued to use it, sometimes adding the word 'socialist', sometimes not. Into the 1920s, he wrote of a "united socialist states of Europe", a "workers' and peasants' Europe", a "united soviet republic of Europe", but he also undeniably viewed a bourgeois "united Europe" as progressive. Why? Firstly because World War I Balkanised Europe and its working class. Germany had been weakened, territory sliced away, and France had sponsored the break-up of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in its own narrow state interests. And Trotsky believed, I think quite reasonably, that the European revolution would occur before the American revolution, and that only European unity would prevent America leading a counterrevolution against Europe. Like Trotsky we fight for the unity of the European working class and the European peoples. But that does not lead us to advocate a 'yes' vote. That would not only be tactically ill advised, but also unprincipled. However, in my opinion those who favour a 'no' are following a worryingly wrong course. There are those who want to break up the EU, as there are those who want to break up Britain. One might just as well propose breaking up the monopolies and giant transnationals of today's capitalism into corner shops and backyard factories. This is anti-capitalism. Reactionary anti-capitalism. So what position to adopt? Certainly not what comrade Alan Thornett calls an "abstention". The word reeks of a passive approach. Now, if I was advocating that workers sat at home on referendum day and refused to advance a political prospective, then his designation would be valid. But we don't and that is why we employ the term, 'active boycott', not 'abstention'. When I think of the word 'boycott' the first thing that springs to my mind is the Bolsheviks. In 1905, under the leadership of Lenin, they organised what he called an "active boycott" of the tsar's duma. And, as it turned out, the duma was reduced to an empty shell. It was stillborn - killed by the active boycott. It is true that we are not in a revolutionary situation or anything like it. Nevertheless there is a huge potential in terms of the class struggle. Strike statistics may be the lowest in history, but the fact is that there is huge anger, latent discontent below. Another example. France was offered the non-choice - "a fascist or a thief". According to the rules you could vote for Chirac, who is up to his neck in corruption, or you could vote for Le Pen. That was the choice that official society offered. Faced with this, the right choice was to argue not for a passive position, but for an active boycott. Organise the masses who had taken to the streets in their millions against the undemocratic Fifth Republic and for a democratic Sixth Republic. What would an active boycott be like? I do not know. But we should commit ourselves to the most militant boycott tactics that objective circumstances allow. It could involve meetings and demonstrations, agitating through posters and in our press. Perhaps it would not go beyond writing 'For a workers' Europe' across your ballot paper. The main thing though is establishing and fighting for our independent working class politics - not choosing between two evils. Rob Hoveman I want to thank the CPGB for inviting me to come and debate the question of the euro. It is a very good development that we in the Socialist Alliance have now reached a level of maturity where we can have very serious, vigorous and clarifying discussions and, I hope, remain in the same room and the same organisation afterwards. And the debate so far has been conducted in a principled way. I would like to make one thing clear about those of us who support a 'no' position. I have no desire to save the pound. I actually have strong views about the parasites of the house of Windsor and I want to see the queen's head off the currency. The only other view I have about the pound as a currency is that I would like more of it in my pocket and in the pockets of the working class. It is also true, although it is not to my mind particularly germane, that there are many people who travel around Europe who are attracted to the idea of a euro, not least because you would not then get ripped off by the banks every time you exchanged your money. But, as far as I am concerned, that is not the real issue. We are engaged in a serious debate. I do not know what the outcome will be: I believe this is an open issue and there are hearts and minds to be won. Whatever the outcome, the constitution of the Socialist Alliance makes it clear that those who feel uncomfortable with the decision - whether it is in favour of a 'no' vote or an active boycott - will be under no obligation to participate in the subsequent campaign - indeed there is a right under the constitution not to participate. You could argue whether it is right in terms of building the Socialist Alliance not to do so, but that is another question. We are not a democratic centralist organisation, although of course it is the right of organisations that support the Socialist Alliance to operate according to the principles of democratic centralism if they so desire. I think we have to be quite clear that the European Union project, from its very inception, was about the strengthening of capital based essentially in Europe. The European Steel and Coal Community, established in the early 1950s, and then the establishment of the Common Market in the late 1950s were both about strengthening capital in Europe against the working class. The current proposals to expand to the east are about doing the same on the basis of cheap labour and the exploitation of the working class in eastern European countries. The whole project is about strengthening capital. It is not about serving in any sense the interests of the working class. Now, Britain of course has been more ambivalent about the question of the European Union project than other European states over the years. That is why Britain was late getting in and why it has lagged behind in many respects. And of course there is an economic reason for this - British capitalist interests have been more diversified than European capitalist interests. There has been very substantial investment in the United States and other parts of the world, and that has made sections of capital in Britain look to protecting those investments and not necessarily strengthening the European Union. However, things are shifting. By and large British capital, with some exceptions, is in favour of strengthening the EU and getting into the euro. In the year 2000 the assets held by British transnational corporations in the European Union area doubled to £360 billion, whereas investment in other areas of the world declined in the same period. So there is a clear move towards European integration. The European Union is characterised by a massive lack of democracy, even relative to the limited democracy of the British state. It is a European Union that is essentially dictated to by a bunch of commissioners, unelected and unaccountable to anyone, but thoroughly in the pockets of the multinational corporations. It is not even the national governments who determine many of the issues. There is a so-called European parliament that is more like a consultative assembly, more like the very limited bourgeois democracy of the 19th century. This is also a European Union in which there are increasing attempts, encouraged by the Americans with some ambivalence, to develop a European state with a capacity to deploy, in the interests of European imperialism and western imperialism in general, a European defence force. The Americans are slightly ambivalent about it because they would not like to see this putative European state acting too independently. What they really want to see - and they have made this quite clear - is that holidays in the European Union should be cut, people should work for lower wages, there should be less spent on the welfare state and much more spent on 'defence' in the interests of the 'war on terror' - in other words, the war to defend capitalism across the globe. It is also a European Union utterly committed to keeping out large numbers of people from around the world who would like to come to the EU in order to work, in order to improve their lives. This is the European Union of fortress Europe, of the Schengen agreement. Of putting a barbed wire fence around Europe in order to keep out those whom they do not want in. Of course it is a European Union utterly open to capital movement. The rich can come in and out of Europe at will, but not so workers from outside the European Union area. So the idea that somehow the European Union project is about breaking down national barriers, racism and so forth is completely untrue. I agree with John Bridge. I do have preferences for particular capitalist states. Of course, like him, I would like to see the capitalist state overthrown. I would like to see socialist revolution and the working class of the world taking power over society and planning it to meet needs rather than profit. But, short of the revolution, there are choices to be made. I am much more in favour of welfare state capitalism than I am of neoliberal capitalism. Back in 1988 Jacques Delors came and persuaded the TUC, virtually overnight, to become pro-European, when those trade union leaders who had left the workers defenceless against the ravages of Thatcherism suddenly thought that they could have social democracy through the back door of Brussels. They thought, relative to Thatcher, the European Union was progressive. To be honest, the argument might have been more difficult back in 1988. But this is 2002. We now have a European Union where Berlusconi is in power in Italy, Aznar is in power in Spain. There is a conservative government committed to a neoliberal agenda in France, and there is Tony Blair, often looked to by those extremely rightwing people as an example to follow for the kinds of policies they want to put through in their own countries. There is a Blair-Aznar-Berlusconi axis for the liberalisation of capital, flexible labour, weakening the trade unions and dismantling the welfare state. I have to say that in the context of all of this I do not see the European Union at all as a unifier of the working class across Europe - something which, like John, I am very interested in seeing promoted. I think greater unification has been stimulated by the global anti-capitalist movement, which came onto the world scene in Seattle and has rocketed around the world. It is an anti-capitalist movement that has seen millions on the streets in Spain and Italy. And it is an anti-capitalist movement that has begun to feed into the organised working class. I was in Seville quite recently for the general strike and anti-capitalist demonstrations. And there was little doubt that there was a considerable cross-over: each was taking confidence from the other in the process of opposing the European Union summit and the proposals for dismantling the welfare state, attacks on the working class and so forth. So unification is occurring, but it is not occurring in the context of the bosses' Europe, which is what the euro and the European Union is all about. Of course none of this is to suggest that somehow Britain is a paragon of democratic virtue. But what the debate is about is British sovereignty being undermined by the gnomes - not now of Zurich, but of Brussels and of Strasburg. Clearly the British state is deeply undemocratic: we all recognise that. It is a state which is run by people who are extremely well paid in order to work for the interests of the ruling class and of the rich. It is a state which preserves the rule of capital, which means that a tiny minority of individuals make the decisions that affect the lives of the vast majority who are the real wealth creators. It is not my argument either that there would not be the same forces for privatisation which Britain has seen over the last 20 years, the same forces to weaken the trades unions, run down the welfare state and so forth. Those pressures are global pressures generated by capitalism, which is trapped in a severe crisis of profitability, and they would not go away if there were not a European Union. However, the euro is part and parcel of the means by which they seek to push through their restructuring, to push through the attacks on the working class, to improve the condition of capital against labour. Now, having said all that, I absolutely appreciate that there are many comrades who are very concerned that if we took the position of opposing the euro we would inevitably end up tail-ending the little Englanders, the racists, the fascists, even the BNP. That these are going to be the people who really call the shots in any campaign against the euro. I have to say, comrades, that if that were the case we would have to think very seriously about any involvement. Personally, as a member of the SWP, I think the Socialist Alliance should be absolutely committed not to go anywhere near the conservative and reactionary forces which will no doubt be running such a campaign. For me the campaign against the euro has to have a number of crucial elements. In the motion that I am supporting at the conference, these elements are in place. First of all, it has to be an independent campaign, with no question of getting involved with whatever reactionary forces there are in the campaign: with conservatives, with little Englanders and all the rest. We will not appear on their platforms, we will not support their campaign, we will not support their literature. We have to carve out a quite independent, progressive and, I would argue, socialist campaign against the euro. Secondly the campaign has to be internationalist. That is to say, we have to make sure that involved in our campaign are leading figures in the socialist and workers' movement from other European Union countries. If we are able to persuade comrades from Rifondazione, from the progressive movements in other parts of Europe, to appear on our platforms, that will be a tremendously positive thing and will give the lie to any claim that this is simply about British backwardness or inwardness. It has to be, thirdly, an anti-racist campaign. It has to be committed, in all of its literature and all of its slogans, to opposition to fortress Europe, to open borders, to the right of anyone to come into the European Union to work or to live. In particular of course, a central element must be a campaign to defend the rights of asylum-seekers, throughout the European Union. Fourthly, it has to be an anti-imperialist campaign. I think we are not very far away from a war on Iraq. This is a highly unstable part of the world, and the fear of course, among all the corrupt Arab ruling classes in the area, is that a war would trigger a huge movement and destabilise the area as a whole. Nonetheless, the impulse to war is clearly very strong within the White House. Again, in any campaign against the euro, opposition to war in general, and war against Iraq in particular, has to be absolutely central. Opposition to the development of a European defence force, and the increased military spending that is now on the agenda throughout the European Union, has to be a central element. Lastly, it has to be an anti-capitalist campaign. It has to be a campaign which quite clearly says that we are for a workers' Europe rather than a bosses' Europe, and that, when we oppose the euro, it is for a transformation of the situation of the working class in relation to capital that we are really campaigning. Now, John quite rightly mentioned the situation in Denmark. I was recently at a conference in Madrid where there was a representative of the Red-Green Alliance, which played a significant role in supporting the 'no' campaign in Denmark. But it is quite clear that they had a blind spot in relation to nationalism, that they did not establish an independent, principled and socialist campaign there. This has left them bereft after the referendum defeat - they were really relatively disarmed against the emergent rightwing forces. So I recognise the dangers absolutely. And I sympathise very much with comrades who are feeling very uncomfortable about all of this because they fear we would be playing into the hands of the right. But I am very optimistic about the possibilities of developing the kind of campaign I have outlined. My bet would be that we will not see a referendum until after the next general election - the five economic tests will not be passed until the focus groups and the opinion polls show that Blair can win such a referendum. And they will have to show that over a period of months. There is no sign of the opinion polls going in his direction on this issue. So I do not think we are on the eve of a referendum, but it is very important that we have this debate and resolve our position now, in order to be in the best situation tactically when that referendum comes around. If the forces of the Socialist Alliance were isolated I think we might have some difficulty having an impact, but I do not believe that this is the situation. John again rightly points to renewed confidence and higher strike levels. Moreover, at the last election there was certainly a significant abstention rate - I do not know if it was an active boycott, but certainly large numbers of people did not vote. The reason for this was that they could see no difference between the parties. Far from this being a shift towards the right, it had the potential to be a shift towards the left. And on the left I see a number of very significant allies available to any independent internationalist, socialist and progressive campaign. The crucial thing, if the Socialist Alliance does take what I regard as the right position, will be our ability to fashion a campaign of the left. Although there are things I certainly disagree with Tony Benn about, in the way he has put the argument in the past, he will lend himself to an independent and socialist campaign. There are other Labour MPs and Labour lefts who will come on board such a campaign. The Communist Party of Britain - much smaller, much less significant, of course, than it once was, but still not to be ignored - is already committed to such a principled campaign. Some CPB elements at one point flirted with the opportunistic slogan, 'Save the pound', which we will have absolutely nothing to do with. But Rob Griffiths's recent pamphlet, while it has limitations, is nonetheless relatively principled in its opposition to the euro. The public sector unions are lining up against the euro. It is no longer the situation in the trade union movement that you have people either abstaining or even being in favour of the euro and the European Union. With Derek Simpson's election in the AEEU, the euro's strongest supporter amongst trade union leaders has just bitten the dust in the form of Sir Ken Jackson. There are also the greens. Now I know again there are some people who are very hostile to the greens, and I have profound disagreements - particularly with the more rightwing greens, but even with so-called green socialists. Nonetheless I think the greens will come out against the euro. That is quite a formidable range of forces, but it is just for starters - we do not know how far we can go with this if we take the right position. We know that the working class, again as John has pointed out, is deeply disillusioned and does want an alternative. But part of that disillusionment can and I think will be directed against the euro, which will be very closely associated with Blair's neoliberal agenda. And there would be a very real danger in vacating this ground either to the right or to that part of the left which does not put principled socialist arguments at the very heart of its campaign. There are a huge number of people to win, if we take a 'no' position, if we engage with them in order to pull them to the left, to a broader range of anti-capitalist and socialist policies. So, comrades, for those reasons, I am strongly in favour of the Socialist Alliance adopting a 'no' vote, a 'no' vote based on socialist principles. I do not believe that we could be nearly as effective through an active boycott. As John has said, he is not quite sure how it would be put into practice, and I do not think we have the forces to make a real impact in such a campaign. It would be the wrong position to take in terms of where the Socialist Alliance needs to go - how it can grow, how we can really begin to build the forces of socialism. It is my view that objectively capitalism is ripe for its overthrow. It has developed the productive forces, developed its gravedigger, to the point where the working class could take control and begin to plan production to meet need rather than profit. Objectively, that is the situation. Subjectively, neither the working class has the confidence, nor do socialists yet have the organisation to precipitate that kind of overthrow. But I believe that the Socialist Alliance is a crucial vehicle in developing that confidence and that organisation.