Lesser evil wins euro conference

As expected, the Socialist Alliance has voted to campaign for a 'no' in any euro referendum. Peter Manson reports on the October 12 decision

Around 320 members of the Socialist Alliance gathered in the South Camden Community School to determine the attitude to be adopted when Tony Blair eventually calls a referendum on whether Britain should join the European single currency. The decision was never really in doubt, since the Socialist Workers Party is, of course, always able to mobilise an absolute majority of those voting, if it so wishes. However, as usual the SWP was careful not to 'swamp' the conference, merely ensuring that enough of its comrades were present to make certain the 'no' position was adopted. The two main votes - for a 'no' and against an active boycott - were both decided the 'right' way from an SWP perspective by a margin of just under two to one: around 200 in favour of 'no' and just over 100 for a boycott. On this occasion the SWP had around half those present and were supported by a small number of comrades from the International Socialist Group/Socialist Solidarity Network. Arguing against them were comrades from the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Workers Power and the Revolutionary Democratic Group. The CPGB and AWL had around 30 comrades each, backed by a handful from both WP and the RDG. Independent comrades divided three ways, with some supporting a motion from Dave Landau, which called upon the Socialist Alliance as a body not to take up any position on the question, since it "is not an issue of profound principle". Although comrades for a 'no' won the vote by a substantial majority, they can hardly be said to have won the debate, frequently having to resort to demagogy and sophistry. The two main arguments they put forward were, firstly, that the introduction of the euro would mean attacks on the working class and, secondly, a 'no' vote in the referendum would mean a defeat for Blair. Both true, but of course the pound is equally a means of attacking the working class, and a defeat for Blair does not necessarily equal a victory for us. The ISG's Alan Thornett proposed the main 'no' motion along these lines. We are all agreed, he said, that the European Union is the reorganisation of European capital in order to exploit the working class more efficiently, so as to be able to compete with the USA. We are all agreed that it is a "racist set-up through Schengen and Fortress Europe", characterised by an absence of democracy. We are all agreed that the euro is an anti-working class measure, driven by big capital. Having reeled off this (largely) uncontroversial list, comrade Thornett invited us to "call me naive": we "don't abstain on working class attacks", he admonished advocates of a boycott. The euro is not just a currency - if it was, we would vote for it. It is a "financial mechanism" which comes with a set of anti-working class rules. Besides, "We spend all our time choosing between capitalist projects," comrade Thornett went on. "True, we'll be attacked anyway, but do we want double the attacks?" This summed up perfectly the opportunist method that so much of the left employs - that of opting for the 'lesser evil' - only in this case it is not at all clear that keeping the pound would represent any diminution of the assault of capital. If anything, a Britain isolated from the main centre of European imperialism would be forced to intensify its neoliberal attacks to an even greater degree. However, according to comrade Thornett, to say that voting against the euro was the same as voting for the pound was "rubbish" - perhaps he thinks that a 'no' victory would usher in the abolition of money itself. Proposing the active boycott motion, Kat Fletcher of the AWL wondered whether the 'no' advocates believed that workers in France, Germany, Italy, etc should demand a return to the franc, mark or lira. Correctly she pointed out that socialists do not oppose the introduction of new technology or a new "mechanism", but rather attempt to "go forward on the basis of the class contradictions within capitalism". That means "fighting against the measures that come with the euro on a class basis", just as we fight against the increased exploitation that comes with new technology. Comrade Fletcher stated that not only would a victory for 'no', whatever comrade Thornett might say, obviously mean keeping the pound. It would also give the Tories a big boost. At a time when thousands of people are disgusted by Blair, what advice do the SWP, ISG et al want to give them? They want people to "choose between two big business factions", she said. We were not proposing a passive 'abstention', as comrade Thornett stubbornly insists, but an active campaign for a workers' Europe - against both the bosses' Europe and the bosses' Britain, comrade Fletcher concluded. Thankfully there was only one person in the hall who was in favour of a 'no' vote on the basis of defending "our country", and that was Hyman Frankel, who proposed a second 'no' motion to that effect. In his speech comrade Frankel was concerned to uphold the United Nations charter against EU inroads. He called on socialists to reclaim "nationalism and sovereignty from the right wing". It was gratifying that comrade Frankel's own vote was the only one cast in favour of this motion. Nevertheless, as SWP speakers made clear, although they were against campaigning on any such nationalistic basis, they were more than a little keen to align themselves with the likes of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, who use precisely such arguments. Comrade Frankel was unique in another way too: he was the only speaker in the entire debate who put forward an openly reformist perspective. As a long-time loyalist of the 'official' CPGB (Marxism Today), comrade Frankel argued along exactly the same lines as Tony Benn, the Morning Star and the old Labour left. Talking of which, where are all the Labourites in the SWP's "united front of a special kind"? Mark Hoskisson of Workers Power - next to speak - pointed out that comrade Thornett was painting only "half the picture". British bosses, he said, have gone further than European bosses without the euro - there was hardly anything left to privatise on this side of the Channel. He asked whether comrade Thornett thought the Bank of England was better or worse than the European Central Bank. The choice was between two capitalist strategies - both of which inevitably mean attacks on the working class. But "with or without the euro, workers will fight - the class struggle will decide". By the time the first SWP speaker came to the platform, the 'no' argument was already very much on the defensive. The implication in John Rees's intervention was that the euro represented such a quantitatively more powerful attack than anything previously seen that opting for the lesser evil could be excused: "The growth and stability pact is an attempt to eradicate by law any alternative to neoliberalism". This "new weapon without democratic control" would mean that Tony Blair would be unable to bow to pressure from the working class, he warned darkly. This political illiteracy was answered immediately by Chris Jones of the RDG. The pact was no "new weapon" - it was just another bourgeois attempt to impose 'discipline', but it was already "heading for the rocks" because of contradictions amongst the various European states. Comrade Rees's speech showed how clearly 'socialist' opposition to the euro was "blurring towards nationalism" - in effect the argument was that the attacks of European capital are bound to be worse than anything British capital could throw at us on its own. Better the enemy you know "¦ Comrade Jones warned against another Denmark - where the left had helped ensure the success of the 'no' campaign - but it had been the right that gained as a result, as the general election showed. Anne Mc Shane of the CPGB gave a further example - in what way was the 'no' victory against Nice last year a step forward for the working class in Ireland? She pointed out how an active boycott campaign - to start with through propaganda, demonstrations, workplace meetings and more - could boost working class confidence and help take forward the struggle. The SWP's Alex Callinicos declared himself a "strong supporter of the Socialist Alliance", which he regarded as representing a break with sectarianism. However, if we were to opt for an active boycott, then it would be "back to The life of Brian". He appealed to comrades: "Don't hide away in a little abstract ghetto". It was essential to be part of a mass campaign (irrespective of who was leading it and in whose interest, it seems). Contrary to what had been argued, comrade Callinicos categorically declared that the Tory right would be unable to dominate the 'no' campaign - the Conservative Party was in disarray. It has obviously not occurred to him that the Tories intend to play anti-Europe chauvinism as their trump card against Blair and a 'no' victory could see a resurgence à  la Denmark. Alison Brown of the AWL answered some of the points made by previous SWP speakers. For example, comrade Rees, in his rush to locate the SA 'no' as part of a broader, working class-based campaign, had drawn attention to those union leaders who feared entry into the single currency might lead to a loss of their members' jobs: "It is almost as though John Rees was suggesting that union leaders should set our policy," she said. "No, we set our policy." Similarly Greg Tucker of the ISG/SSN had told of the 'five tests' relating to union members' conditions against which the euro should be judged. Why not try the same tests if Britain keeps the pound? The CPGB's John Bridge slammed those who wanted us to line up with the likes of the CPB and Tony Benn: "Have they put forward a nationalist or internationalist position?" he asked. "They were distinguished by their enthusiasm to stand alongside the Tories" in the 1975 referendum to join the Common Market. Comrade Bridge pointed out that internationalists often have to swim against the nationalistic stream. There are always those who call upon us to line up with one side or the other when the bourgeoisie is divided. They say that is the only 'realistic' course. But the principled position has always been to steadfastly maintain an independent working class stance. In doing so, "We must be prepared to be isolated, like those who said, 'Neither the kaiser nor the tsar' in 1914." SWP comrades seized upon this comment, claiming that comrade Bridge wanted to lock us in "glorious isolation". But this only exposed their own philistine disdain for all that is best in the tradition of our movement. Bizarrely SA independent Roland Rance assured us that, "The question in the referendum will not be: 'Do you want the pound or the euro?' The question will be: 'Do you support the integration of British and European capital?'" This absurd remark at least had the merit of demonstrating how such comrades can talk themselves into believing that taking up one bourgeois option against another is actually a principled action in the interests of the working class. John Pearson of the CPGB said that the politics of the 'no' vote were "the politics of delivering a bloody nose to the section of the bourgeoisie that happens to be in power". But, of course, the failure to put forward an independent working class position would inevitably mean that it would not be us but a rival section of the bourgeoisie that would gain. In or out of the euro, we must "fight for what we need and for the capitalist class to pay". Faced with a militant struggle, they would be forced to make concessions, no matter what it says in the growth and stability pact. But for the SWP's John Molyneux this was just "ultra-left sectarianism". If you oppose a concrete attack, he said, that does not mean you are endorsing the system in general. However, he then went on to confirm comrade Pearson's remarks about the "politics of the bloody nose", claiming that "millions of people will see the referendum as their opportunity to say no to Tony Blair without siding with the Tories". You can be sure that the Tories will claim them as their own nevertheless. Liam Conway mocked the SWP for describing the euro as some kind of all-powerful "new weapon" - like "the iron economic law that must be obeyed". He wondered why the European working class was wasting its time mobilising against cuts and in defence of jobs, conditions and services. Didn't they know it was all hopeless? - they should be mobilising against the euro instead. Comrade Conway pointed out that our own "new weapon" was more powerful than theirs - the weapon of working class unity across the continent of Europe. Like others before and after, Paul Holborow stated that the "only real argument" against a 'no' campaign was that we ran the risk of slipping into nationalism (not true, of course - the main argument against it is that it lines us up with one wing of the bourgeoisie, which happens to be more nationalistic, against the other). He held out the prospect of European working class speakers - eg, Rifondazione Comunista and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire - on the platform of an SA 'no' campaign. However, why such comrades would consider the single currency a mortal enemy of the British working class, even though Italian and French workers - despite the euro's deadly powers - continue to act more militantly than their British counterparts, was not explained. Comrade Holborow likened those calling for an active boycott to the notorious Italian left communist who refused to participate in any bourgeois polls: "Amadeo Bordiga, unfortunately you still live!" Actually, comrade, the principled tactic of an active boycott was employed to great effect by a certain VI Lenin in 1905. Summing up for the boycott motion, the CPGB's Marcus Ström slated those who claimed a 'no' victory would lead to working class advance: "After the referendum we'll be faced with a resurgent Tory Party." He ridiculed the notion that a boycott was passive - "tailing behind one wing of the bourgeoisie" was the real passivity, he pointed out. Comrade Ström stressed that we are "against the way European integration is being imposed by the ruling class. But we are for European integration." By contrast, he said, the SWP seems to have discovered in the 21st century that bankrupt programme of the 20th - the British road to socialism - and its proponents, the CPB. Unlike Alex Callinicos, continued the comrade, who claims that we will be helpless to resist the dictates of the European Central Bank, we know that, united, the European working class is a hundred time stronger than the growth and stability pact - or any other piece of paper our class enemy cares to wave in our direction. Replying for the 'no' motion, SA executive member Nick Wrack condemned the call for an active boycott as adopting a "position of neutrality" in the face of intensified attacks from the European bourgeoisie. He was certainly in favour of giving Blair a bloody nose - "all the better if we can give one to the Blair-Berlusconi-Aznar axis". Comrade Wrack admitted that Blair's attacks on the working class would not stop the day after a 'no' victory, but we "will have built a broader, stronger, socialist campaign" - exactly what the Danish left thought, of course. "Will we be mistaken for the Murdoch press, when we say, 'Oppose Fortress Europe', 'Refugees welcome here'?" he asked. 'Will we be noticed?' might be a more pertinent question. The comrade claimed that workers already understand how the euro and the growth and stability pact would affect them. Since they were opposed to it, the choice was between "leaving them to the right wing or drawing them into working class struggle". He concluded: "If you want glorious isolation, vote for John Bridge's position. But if you want a position that can relate to the people's fight, then vote for a 'no' campaign." This got the biggest cheer of the day from the assembled ranks of the SWP. But, in truth, it clearly articulated the combination of tailism and lesser evilism that has led the comrades away from the SA's previous position - "Neither the euro nor the pound". After the result of the active boycott and 'no' motions were announced, a vote was taken on Dave Landau's 'third way' alternative. It was defeated by 213 to 75. I found it astonishing that the comrades from Workers' Liberty could back a proposal that the SA should restrict its intervention during the referendum campaign to organising "public debates between socialist protagonists - for a 'yes', 'no, active abstention or any other position". Yet that is what they did. This seems to have been based on a misunderstanding - whether wilful or not, I cannot tell. According to the AWL leaflet distributed at the conference, comrade Landau's motion "advocates that, whatever the decision of the conference, it should not be pursued in an overcentralised way which 'fractures' the alliance". That is not what the motion said and it is not what its proposers argued. Comrade Landau himself stated that the question of the euro was "not in the same league" as, for example, opposing the war in Iraq. Therefore, in the words of Tim Oxton, we should "take no position" on the euro referendum. We should "vote to stay out of the campaign and concentrate on more important matters: council housing, Palestine, against the war, etc." Comrade Landau's motion is symptomatic of the kind of thinking that would see the SA languishing in impotence rather than accept the discipline of a democratic, effective formation that is actually able to act. Since there are "widely differing positions" on the euro, best not to take any common position - the history of the left has shown that enforcing majority decisions in such situations inevitably leads to "split or fracture". The experience suffered in the past within the whole spectrum of leftwing sects leads many SA independents to adopt an anarchistic attitude to organisation - an attitude to which the AWL panders. We have a different vision - that of a democratic, centralised party operating on the basis of unity in action around majority decisions with freedom for the minority to criticise those decisions openly and publicly. Of course the SA is not a democratic centralist party, and its members are under no obligation to carry out majority decisions - they must only agree not to obstruct them. On this particular question, the euro referendum is almost certainly years away. While of course we accept that the official SA position is now in favour of a 'no' vote, we do not consider the matter permanently settled and are confident of eventually being able to persuade the majority - including many SWP comrades - of the need to adopt an independent working class position.