The pro-Brexit left: too much Marx, or not enough?

By Alex Green

In a speech to the opening plenary of the Another Europe is Possible conference in December, Marina Prentoulis, a socialist activist in Labour and the Syriza party in Greece, spoke about a division between the “new left”, oriented to new social movements, and a dogmatic “old left”, which “quotes Marx and Lenin, and Stalin or Trotsky, depending on its tradition”. Mapped onto the question of Europe and EU membership, the “old left”, Marina argued, tends to favour nationally-based, statist, autarkic policies, with the “new left” more internationalist and integrationist in outlook.

The line was perhaps a throwaway one, but it is a useful point of departure for considering some of the historical origins of the present divisions on the left, and of which traditions they are a continuation. The “Lexit” policy, held in various forms by the “official” Communist Party tradition of the Morning Star and by both of Britain’s largest would-be-Trotskyist groups, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party, advocates the replacement of the EU with a Europe of national blocs, walled off behind tariffs and border controls, as an apparently more favourable platform for pursuing social-democratic reforms. The problem with this policy is not that it contains too much Marx, but not enough.

No-one should treat the work of any figure in the socialist tradition as biblical dogma beyond challenge or criticism. All the great leaders of our movement, from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky to Luxemburg and Zetkin, got things wrong. Simply that they said something does not make it right. But the work of Marx on some of the particular questions underlying the Brexit debate, namely capital’s tendency to integrate across and beyond national division, eroding those divisions in the process, make clear that the Lexit tendency is breaking from Marx, not dogmatically applying his approach in a context it doesn’t fit. Marx may have been right or wrong about transnational economic integration, but Lexit can lay no claim to his legacy on the issue, nor should anti-Lexit socialists contend that the problem with Lexit is that it is too dogmatically “Marxist”.

Marx wrote that: “The system of protective tariffs places in the hands of the capital of one country the weapons which enable it to defy the capital of other countries; it increases the strength of this capital in opposition to foreign capital, and at the same time it deludes itself that the very same means will make that same capital small and weak in opposition to the working class.”1 This could serve as a direct retort to the Lexiters’ claim that breaking up the EU “bosses’ club” will create smaller, implicitly less powerful, capitalist units apparently more susceptible to reform.

Marx also wrote: “In general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade.”2 “Free trade”, and the integration of capital across national boundaries, does not “hasten the social revolution” merely in the sense of sharpening social crises, but because conditions for pursuing working-class struggle are more favourable when, as Engels put it, “the field of battle has been swept clean of all unnecessary barriers”3, such as national divisions between workers.

And, following Marx and Engels’ approach, Lenin wrote in 1894: “Although they stress primarily and most emphatically that the problem of free trade and protection is a capitalist problem, one of bourgeois policy, the Russian Marxists must stand for free trade, since the reactionary character of protection, which retards the country’s economic development, and serves the interests not of the entire bourgeois class, but merely of a handful of all-powerful magnates, is very strongly evident in Russia, and since free trade means accelerating the process that yields the means of deliverance from capitalism.”4

Like Marx and Engels, Lenin was clear that capitalism integrated across national boundaries, rather than walled-off behind tariffs, created a higher platform for working-class struggle, “the means of deliverance from capitalism.”

The specific project of European unity and integration was also taken up enthusiastically by many in the pre-Stalinist Marxist tradition. Although some criticised the particular slogan “for a United States of Europe”, and others, like Lenin, vacillated between support for it and a more cautious, lukewarm approach, many, perhaps most prominently Leon Trotsky, consistently argued that European unity was a vital democratic demand that should be the explicit policy of the socialist movement. Although the formulation was given different emphases by different figures in different contexts, there was a consensus that unity and integration even on capitalist terms was positively preferable to national rivalry and inter-imperialist war, and that the socialist movement should use the unity of capitalist states as platform to further the unity of working classes and labour movements.

Trotsky was explicitly hostile to the idea that a Europe based on national blocs would be preferable to a Europe where economies were integrated across borders. In 1915, he wrote: “It would truly be a miserable petty-bourgeois utopianism […] to think that the fate of development in Europe and the entire world will finally be secured if the state map of Europe is brought into correspondence with the map of nationality, and if Europe is split into more or less complete nation-state cells ignoring geographic conditions and economic ties.”5

The consistent thread in Trotsky’s politics from this period and until the end of his life was to see the unification of Europe under bourgeois-democratic capitalism as objectively progressive, something to be pushed through and built on, not opposed in the name of a reactionary alternative from an earlier stage of history. Again, Lexiters who claim to stand in Trotsky’s tradition, like the SWP, the SP, and Counterfire, are not guilty of quoting him too much, but of not quoting him enough.

There is a nationalist tradition in some early European socialism – Henry Hyndman and Robert Blatchford, prominent figures in the mid-19th-century socialist movement, were essentially nationalists. Many labour-movement organisations, including the TUC itself, lobbied hard for restrictions on immigration, in more-or-less explicitly nativist, antisemitic terms – in the period leading up to the introduction of the 1905 Aliens Act, the first modern immigration control in British history. But by the time the international social democratic movement split over what attitude to take to the First World War, the politics of the revolutionary side of that split had cohered into a thoroughgoing internationalism.

This radical internationalist tradition, which was also pro-integration and pro-European-unity, and which was represented both by Marx and Engels and early Bolshevism, was first distorted and then buried by Stalinism, the great rupture of the 20th-century left that saw authentic, democratic, working-class socialism defeated and overthrown by its grotesque statist, authoritarian, nationalist caricature.

It is from that caricature that Lexit draws its key historical roots. The Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country”, the reactionary belief that socialism can be built on an autarkic basis within a single national unit, has found modern expression in the fantasies of the Lexiters, with all the statism and nationalism that goes with it. There are other Stalinist traces in the Lexit perspective, including the belief that any rupture with the status quo is to be welcomed, even if the status quo is challenged by something worse. Some Lexiters that the breakup of the EU will precipitate a “crisis” for “the system” that might somehow be turned to working-class advantage, even if the immediate beneficiaries, and indeed architects, of the crisis are reactionary nationalists. In this, we can hear an echo of the “Third Period” Stalinists who saw no special problem in Hitler’s coming to power, as the social democrats and bourgeois liberals the Nazis supplanted were “social fascists” anyway. “After Hitler, our turn”, proclaimed the German Communist Party.

The global left is in substantial disarray, and has in general proved far less able to capitalise on the great blows suffered by the ideological mystique of neoliberal capitalism in the 2008 crash and its sequels than has the identitarian nationalist right. The hegemony of Stalinist ideas and approaches within much of the left is a key source of much of this disarray. If we are to undertake the necessary work of reinvigoration and transformation of our movement, it should not be on the basis of jettisoning our historical tradition as dogma, but rather of reaching back into what is positive in it for sources of renewal. A reconnection with the radical internationalism and European-integrationist approaches of classical Marxism and pre-Stalinist Bolshevism is an excellent place to begin.

1 Karl Marx, “The Protectionists, Free Traders, and the Working Class” (1848)

2 Karl Marx, “On the question of Free Trade” (1848)

3 Friedrich Engels, “Protective Tariffs or Free Trade System?” (1847)

4 V. I. Lenin, “The Economic Content of Narodnism and the Criticism of it in Mr. Struve’s Book” (1894-5)

5 Leon Trotsky, “The Nation and the Economy” (1915)

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1 Comment

  1. It would be useful to have references of where the revolutionary left parties have been using the implied arguments in their Lexit stance alongside the references to the original texts. Not familiar with the Stalinist line but the Trot-Leninist arguments I have heard up to this point and have sympathy for relate to the false premise of the EU as an internationalist rather than West favouring project rather than advocating nationalism.

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