By Tom Harris
‘Workers of the world, unite’, said Marx and Engels. What a bunch of liberals, eh?
Readers may have come across the fad among some on the left to dismiss their opponents as ‘liberals’. This is especially pronounced in debates around the EU and freedom of movement. Whether in meetings or over the internet, those who are concerned about the Labour leadership’s conciliatory strategy on Brexit are sneered at for ‘liberalism’. By saying this, the speaker (or Facebooker) tries to imply that there is something middle-class and vaguely bohemian about their opponent, as if what was being discussed was Waitrose and Radio 4, rather than the risk of countless of our fellow workers being deported.
While it might seem like I’m nit-picking, I think this use of the term ‘liberal’ as an epithet to be used against those concerned about Brexit is revealing. As a verbal tic, it hints at a reactionary strain of thought on parts of the left that needs to be confronted and replaced.
Traditionally, the socialist left has denounced ‘liberalism’ because of for its cowardliness, for its willingness to compromise on its progressive ideals where upholding them would involve a breach with the capitalist establishment. In other words, we attack it from the left for being insufficiently radical.
The current fad, though, is to attack people as ‘liberals’ because they’re too much in favour of freedom of movement, cosmopolitanism and international integration. In other words, essentially attacking it from the right.
The ‘socialist’ case for borders and against integration has relatively few adherents, but its influence in the movement could prove toxic. There are parts of the left, influenced by Stalinism and protectionist nationalism, which are actively hostile to freedom of movement. In their schema, immigrant labour is scab labour, and European integration undermines the prospects for an autarchic fortress economy.
While such attitudes are a minority in the Labour Left, their potential influence is a real cause for concern. When Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis tell the press that they are willing to compromise on the question of freedom of movement, alarm bells should ring. The rise of right-wing nationalism requires a forthright, socialist response, not a shadow nationalism of our own.
‘Liberal’ ideas of freedom of movement, international integration and amity between peoples are ones that socialists should champion and extend. The right of workers to freely move around without state persecution is not an abstract moral ideal, but a material necessity for our class. National divisions and conflict, either economic or military, are barriers to working-class co-operation and solidarity. Far from being lofty bourgeois romanticism, this is basic class politics.
While liberal capitalism promises ‘liberal’ freedoms and ‘cosmopolitan’ ideals, only a socialist world of democracy and co-operation can truly make them a reality. But sneering at those who are concerned about nationalism, Brexit and borders is no way to build the movement for such a world.
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