Brexit and the Crisis on the British Left

Neil Faulkner

Taking a position on the EU Referendum was not easy. The in/out choice was essentially an argument inside the political and corporate elite about what was best for British capitalism. We do not wish to be ruled by either the City of London or the European Central Bank. Both are run by bankers. Both are hard-wired for financialisation, privatisation, and austerity. Both are mechanisms for hoovering wealth upwards to the 1%.

One could have made a strong argument for abstention. It would have run like this. This is a dispute between two rival factions among our rulers about how best to organise exploitation and the accumulation of capital. It is an argument about how best to make profits. Either way, we get ripped off and they get richer. Working people are deluded if they think that either side represents them, or that either choice, in or out, benefits them.

In theory, this argument is sound. But, as Goethe said, theory is grey and the tree of life is green. What is true in an abstract sense – that there is nothing to choose between the City of London and European Central Bank – is not true when you translate it into the concrete terms of a live political debate. I will come back to this. Before doing so, I want to say something about Lexit.

While one could have made a strong argument for abstention – albeit an abstract one – the same cannot be said for the argument for voting Leave. It did not matter that the EU is a bankers’ club, that the EU is undemocratic, and that the EU is imposing austerity and privatisation. All true, and all irrelevant. Because exactly the same can be said for the alternative: the City of London.

A somewhat more sophisticated version went like this. The EU is the mega-project of Europe’s political and corporate elite, including its semi-detached British syndicate. Brexit will throw this project into crisis. The crisis of their system will be our opportunity. We welcome the crisis of European capitalism caused by the breakup of the EU.

Similar arguments have been presented in the past. The German Communist Party, under orders from Moscow, welcomed the crisis of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s, refused to form an alliance against fascism with the German Social-Democratic Party (dubbed ‘social fascists’), and claimed that a Hitler dictatorship would be a stepping-stone to socialist revolution. We know the outcome.

Let me spell out the basic underlying mistake here: it is to assume that any crisis – and any outbreak of mass discontent – must somehow benefit the Left. In fact, as Lenin explained, the ruling class can survive any crisis if the workers let it, and, as Trotsky explained, there are two parties in a crisis, the party of revolutionary hope (the socialists) and the party of counter-revolutionary despair (the fascists).

I cannot condemn comrades on the Left who got this wrong during the Referendum campaign. They include many friends whose commitment, idealism, and decency are beyond question. But they must now stare reality in the face. So too must any abstainers who sought refuge in abstraction.

If the monster of nationalism and racism incubating inside the Brexit camp was less than wholly apparent during the campaign, it is undeniable now. Yet I have seen revolutionaries whose opinions I used to respect claiming that the EU Referendum result represents ‘a class vote’ and that, because working-class communities voted heavily against the Remain camp, we are witness to a popular revolt against austerity and inequality.

This is breathtaking stupidity. It is to make a nonsense of any distinction between ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’: a vital distinction for Marx, who knew the great difference there was between the mere fact of class position – a matter of sociological description – and conscious mass struggle by working people acting for themselves to change the world. Indeed, in some sense, the whole of socialist activity is accounted for by this distinction.

For socialists to think that millions of working people voting for Johnson, Gove, and Farage – who conducted the most racist election campaign in recent British history – can somehow be interpreted as ‘a class vote’, or, as the Lexit website claims, that the result constitutes ‘a left-wing victory’ leaves me struggling for the words.

In a crisis, the Centre cannot hold, and popular discontent can be captured and channelled by the Right or by the Left. The Left has no hope if it cannot even tell the difference. So let me spell it out.

The Brexit campaign was an anti-EU, anti-Westminster, anti-Establishment campaign – just as Hitler’s campaign was anti-Weimar in 1932. The Brexit campaign drew upon great pools of bitterness among those at the bottom of society, the victims of globalisation, neoliberalism, and austerity – just as Hitler was supported by the unemployed, the unorganised workers, the broken small businesses, the ‘little people’ who felt forgotten, ignored, and abused. And the Brexit campaign fanned a great upsurge of anti-immigrant racism – just as Hitler blamed the Jews.

So the Brexit victory means a sharp lurch to the right. UKIP is surfing a wave. The Tory Right will take the leadership. New Labour has its slow-motion coup to get rid of Corbyn back on the rails (and those who doubt the right-wing trajectory of British politics should note that the line here is that Corbyn is disconnected from the Labour base because he is soft on immigration). Across Europe, the Far Right is toasting Brexit and demanding their own in/out referenda. The EU may well break up (pulled apart, please note, not by ‘the party of revolutionary hope’, but by ‘the party of counter-revolutionary despair’).

We are living in dangerous times. Despite the juggernaut of corporate power, the grotesque greed of the rich, and the mounting social crisis afflicting working people and the poor, resistance is minimal and the Left – blighted by autonomism, sectarianism, and, in some quarters, a blank refusal to face reality – effectively irrelevant.

Yet the Left must act. The global crisis is deep, intractable, and set to get worse. The historical stakes have never been higher. The Left has to build a fighting alternative based on mass struggle from below. A good start might be the simple recognition that the Brexit vote represents a right-wing tidal wave – a triumph of Trumpism – and that if we don’t get our act together soon, the danger is that the Far Right, here and across Europe, will harden into all-out Fascism.

Neil Faulkner is a revolutionary socialist, a Brick Lane Debates activist, and the author of A Marxist History of the World: from neanderthals to neoliberals.


5 responses to “Brexit and the Crisis on the British Left”

  1. Eve Richardson says:

    Hi Neil, I’ve been following Brexit from Canada – with great concern for all my young SHARP friends, and I read your article with interest. Can you clarify your position a little more for me? I realise that racism has been a major component of the Leave side even if not all Leavers are racist. But I also understand that it was primarily the working class who voted out. I don’t know how intrinsically racist Britain is (though sometimes at SHARP I thought that opinions expressed on occasion leaned more in that direction than my own), but there must be a complexity of reasons why working class and racism go together (as in the US, and probably outside big cities like Toronto). Would you agree that part of this is the anger and helplessness of those who are being screwed by the 1% looking for easy answers, fueled by leaders looking to take advantage? Many of us here in Canada were disgusted during our last federal election when Stephen Harper began using the racist card, though not quite as blatantly as Trump ( Harper was smarter and more devious). So thankful my country pulled its shit together. Justin Trudeau is far from perfect, but thank goodness he wasn’t stabbed in the back as appears to happening to Corbyn and Sanders .

  2. Neil Faulkner says:

    Good to hear from you, Eve. I don’t think racism is class-based at all. It is used by our rulers to divide working people, and it has a material base in the sense that people are forced to compete for jobs, homes, services, etc in capitalist society. It is therefore inherent in the structure of capitalist society, but not in any sense something peculiar to one class as opposed to another. Millions of working class people voted Remain and are appalled by the racism. Nor does the Leave vote represent a solid racist vote. The key point, in my view, is that we are in deep crisis, the political and corporate elite has no solutions, and, crucially, the Left is extremely weak and unable to provide a compelling alternative, so the political trajectory is to the right, not the left. If black and white, native and migrant, are fighting side by side against the 1%, the banks, and the corporations, you have the material basis for anti-racism. But if impoverished people are left without power or hope, you have the basis for racism and fascism. So we have to do two things: expose the bogus racist arguments and the right-wing agenda of the politicians and media promoting them; and unite working people in mass movements and mass struggles against the real enemy.

  3. Cyril Wheat says:

    What an excellent piece amongs all the dross being written. I cannot fault your reasoning and love the Goethe quote. Thanks for this as it restores me and gives me hope.

  4. Paul Field says:

    Neil, sorry but I don’t follow your line of reasoning. You begin by creating a false dichotomy between the European Central Bank and the City of London, ignoring the fact that the City overwhelmingly supported the Remain campaign. You go on to state “It did not matter that the EU is a bankers’ club, that the EU is undemocratic, and that the EU is imposing austerity and privatisation. All true, and all irrelevant. Because exactly the same can be said for the alternative: the City of London.”

    Well I know the Tory Right will not regulate the City but at least Parliament has the power to do so in theory; a power which a Left Labour government might one day seek to exercise against the City from outside the EU but could not have done against the EU Commission from inside the EU. At least voters in the UK can vote to remove the British government, the EU Commission and Central Bank cannot be replaced by voters. The European Parliament cannot propose or repeal legislation, that power rests exclusively with the Commission.

    This is not some academic point; the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU has enabled it to pursue its neoliberal agenda since the Lisbon Agenda of 2000 and Lisbon Treaty of 2009 without fear of public pressure. As War on Want’s John Hilary pointed out: “Even if the European Parliament were to flex its muscles and call for the resignation of the full cabinet of 28 EU commissioners, as it is theoretically able to do, the executive power holders within the Commission’s directorates would still remain to do the bidding of the business lobbyists who give them their orders.”

    Rather than drawing analogies with Weimar Germany, an analysis of how the vast majority of the UK’s Left went from opposition to EU to its defenders might have been more helpful.

    About a year ago some sections of UK Left, including some prominent members of Left Unity, started to argue for a Remain vote in the EU referendum as any Leave campaign would be a carnival of reaction dominated by Tory Right and UKIP. In doing so they acknowledged the EU does not serve the interests of working people or immigrants who die in their thousands trying to enter Schengen Area’s Fortress Europe. But, so the Left Remain argument went, we are too weak to put the socialist case for Brexit; our collective voices would be drowned out even if the usual handful of Labour Left MPs maintain their opposition to EU’s capitalist project, of which Tony Benn had been the standard bearer. Typical of this line of argument was a piece by Alan Thornett in Socialist Resistance which stated the EU enabled the ruling class ” to increase the rate of exploitation and compete more effectively in world markets.” but concluded that “defining the EU as a reactionary anti-working class institution does not mean that we are obliged to vote for exit whatever the circumstances.”

    This is the position which Left journalists like Owen Jones and Paul Mason eventually came around to despite EU’s lack of democracy and neoliberal agenda.

    But then something amazing happened. Corbyn won the leadership of Labour by a landslide and doubled its membership to over 400,000; more members than Tories and UKIP combined and clear evidence of the appeal of Corbyn’s message. The Left was suddenly in a very good position to put the socialist case against EU based on social justice, democracy and free movement not just within the EU but for those currently excluded by Fortress Europe’s deadly borders.

    Of course we know what happened next; unfortunately Corbyn abandoned his traditional opposition to EU as a means of avoiding (or rather postponing) a revolt inside his own Parliamentary Party, thus surrendering the ground which the Labour Left had always occupied on EU to nationalist right to lead the popular revolt against the EU.

    As for the rest of the Remain Left, your self fulfilling prophecy came to pass. In the absence of a united socialist campaign against EU incorporating the Labour, trade union and socialist Left, the progressive case against the EU struggled to be heard. The nationalist right were left to dominate media coverage of the Leave campaign, pose as “anti-establishment radicals” and galvanize popular fears with their racist rhetoric.

    Immigrant communities and people of colour are not suffering the consequences of the Left’s failure to meet this historic challenge.

    To argue the Referendum’s outcome shows the folly of those who ran the Lexit campaign is crass. It actually it highlights the opposite; the dangerous opportunism of Left Remain campaign.

  5. Paul Field says:

    I mean of course “Immigrant communities and people of colour are now suffering the consequences of the Left’s failure to meet this historic challenge.”

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