By Neil Faulkner
The penny dropped during a conversation with a Rumanian taxi-driver in Colchester. He reported his own and his community’s experience of a marked change in the popular mood since the EU Referendum – an unmistakable undercurrent of suspicion, obstruction, and hostility.
It was not just a ‘spike’ last summer. There has been a permanent shift, underpinned by relentless anti-migrant messaging from the political elite and their media echo-chambers since the Brexit vote, giving confidence and licence to every closet racist who wants to spit at an East European.
The conversation suddenly brought to mind what Lenin once said about a socialist being ‘the tribune of the oppressed’.
Lenin, by the way, is having a bad year. As the revisionist fake-history industry puts the truth about the Russian Revolution into the mincing machine, Lenin is being blamed for everything from Stalin to Trump. (I kid you not: take a look at Simon Sebag Montefiore’s article in the Evening Standard on 13 January, headed ‘Today’s new world order has its roots in the events of 1917’.)
He is also being heralded by sections of the Left as the inventor of something called ‘democratic centralism’ – a charge guaranteed to kill any possibility of decent young activists on anti-Trump demos ever wanting to read anything he ever wrote. A bit like offering someone an ice-cream laced with splintered glass.
Lenin was the champion of mass participatory democracy. He was also the champion of unflinching socialist principle – and that meant standing foursquare, in all circumstances, even in the face of a hostile reactionary mass, on the side of the most oppressed.
This is both a moral and a practical matter. Every socialist must be prepared to side with the most oppressed, the most vilified, the most isolated of the victims of the system. Any socialist who buckles and makes concessions – to racism, to sexism, to homophobia, to whatever – not only betrays a section of the working class under attack, but also feeds the division of the class and undermines its ability to fight.
Both the Lexit Left and the Corbynista Left are arguing that socialists should ‘respect’ the Brexit vote. This argument is false. It is a betrayal of every migrant worker whose status has been threatened by the vote. And it is a massive concession to the racist discourse for which Brexit is now the primary framework.
Part of the hopeless theoretical muddle is the conflating of liberal parliamentary representative democracy with socialist participatory democracy.
The former is atomised, passive, manipulative, and disempowering. The latter is collective, active, democratic, and involves the masses organising to take control of their own lives. Referendums are particularly dubious. There is a long history of referendums being used by authoritarian regimes to enhance their legitimacy.
Who is setting the agenda? Who is formulating the question? Who is supplying the information (or misinformation)? Whose interests are being served? To ask these questions is to underline the critical difference between their democracy and ours – the democracy of parliamentary (mis)representation and the democracy of mass assemblies.
Brexit is being implemented by a hard-right Tory regime that offers permanent austerity, decaying public services, grotesque greed at the top, and mounting poverty and despair at the base. And the clinch-point – in relation to Brexit – is immigration control. May is peddling hard racism as cover for hard austerity.
The EU offers four freedoms of movement – of investment, goods, services, and people. The first three need not concern us because investment, goods, and services are controlled by capital, not us. The key issue at stake for working people is the right of free movement.
That right is not extended to refugees and migrants from outside Europe. The EU is itself a racist ‘fortress’ that exists in violation of the right of free movement. But that is irrelevant to the question raised by Brexit – which is the right of those inside the EU to move freely across the continent. If we cannot defend that right, what hope have we of erasing other borders, of breaking down the barriers to movement that deny access to people from the wider world?
The issue is clear. We are internationalists opposed to borders, border fences, and border police. We say: All migrants are welcome here. We say, with Marx, that the workers have no country.
We reject the nationalism, racism, and oppression inherent in the Brexit vote. We reject the argument that says migrants are to blame: we blame the rich, the corporations, and the system.
We deny that anyone has the right to vote away the rights of others. We stand with the oppressed against Brexit and everything it represents – abuse, racial violence, insecurity, the threat of deportation, a green light to police attacks.
We do not ‘respect’ the vote: we denounce it and we shout our denunciation from the rooftops.
Neil Faulkner is the author of Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right
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