Brexit: the existential crisis of the Old Left

In this polemic Neil Faulkner takes up those on the left who continue to argue for the progressive nature of the Leave vote in the referendum. Should comrades wish to reply our columns are open to them.

A fish rots from the head downwards. When a political organisation enters crisis, one must first look to the leadership. In the case of small far-left groups, leadership is primarily a matter of perspective and strategy based on theoretical understanding.

A mistake is not necessarily a disaster. A healthy organisation – one embedded in mass movements and with open democratic structures – may recognise a mistake and correct it. A sect, on the other hand, because it tends to be self-referential and intolerant of dissent, is often incapable of doing this.

It is now clear beyond any reasonable doubt that Lexit – ‘Left Exit’ – was a mistake. The Left voice in the EU referendum was, to all intents and purposes, inaudible. The Brexit argument was dominated by UKIP and the Tory Right.

The main effect of the Leave vote was therefore to open the door to anti-migrant racism. This was the intention of the Radical Right, both explicitly, as in the UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster, and implicitly, as in the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan, a coded reference to stronger immigration controls.

The result of the Brexit victory was therefore a spike in racist attacks, the mainstreaming of racist discourse, and a shift in government policy towards harder forms of immigration control.

Little wonder that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the following voted Remain: young people, union members, minority groups, Labour voters, Green voters, and nationalist voters (SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein). Little wonder that protestors on anti-Trump demonstrations repeatedly make the connection between Brexit and Trump. Little wonder that Marine Le Pen can describe Brexit as phase one, Trump as phase two, and her campaign for the French presidency as phase three.

Everyone knows that the EU is being pulled apart by a tidal wave of racism and reaction. It is not a popular revolt, in which the working class acts for itself, creating its own organisations and waging its own struggles. We are not presented with a choice between the pro-austerity, pro-privatisation, pro-corporate EU elite and socialist revolution. We face a choice between internationalism and racism, between Europeanism and economic nationalism, between a progressive kind of politics and creeping fascism.

Everyone knows … except the Lexit Left. But even this – the intellectual isolation – serves to reinforce the sect-like character of the Old Left groups. Only we – the faithful, the true believers, the confraternity of the Ark of the Socialist Covenant – have access to the inner secret. Only we understand that Brexit is in fact, in its hidden essence, a left-wing revolt, a popular movement against elites, the harbinger of an imminent upturn of mass struggle for socialism.

In 1962, the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn published one of those books that altered the way we think about the world. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced us to the concept of ‘paradigm shift’ – the way in which old theories disintegrated under a growing weight of counter-evidence, until finally they collapse and a new theory, more capable of accommodating the evidence, emerges.

One crucial Kuhnian observation was the resilience of the old. Embedded in academic institutions, research groups, individual careers, a mountain of published work, the old paradigm would wage a desperate rearguard action, clinging to life by conjuring ever more bizarre attempts to explain away the growing corpus of counter-evidence.

We can see this process at work now. The Old Left is degenerating into theoretical incoherence in its efforts to sustain the Lexit position. It is piling up a great heap of bogus arguments.

Jeremy Corbyn was right to vote for Article 50 because ‘the result of the referendum has been respected’, argues Tom (www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/18772-corbyn-got-it-right-over-article-50). Respected? Since when does the Left ‘respect’ the outcome of bourgeois elections? Do we ‘respect’ the election of Trump? Would we ‘respect’ the election of Le Pen? Did we ‘respect’ the election of the Tories in 2015?

This is nonsense. We fight tooth-and-nail against the class enemy. Always. The Labour Party’s unconditional support for Article 50 has deepened Labour’s crisis and smoothed the path for the viciously anti-migrant May government – instead of offering a principled stand against racism and for internationalism. As SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon put it during the referendum: ‘The time has come to brand the Brexit campaign for what it is – a bid for a right-wing Tory takeover of the reins of power in the UK.’

Tom continues, ‘Support for Article 50 is an essential prerequisite for effective opposition to a Tory Brexit.’ I had to read this twice. But this really is what Tom says: you oppose a Tory Brexit by … voting for a Tory Brexit.

‘Uniting Remain and Leave voters against a Tory Brexit in struggle points a way forward.’ This is completely misconceived. You don’t unite people as ‘Remain and Leave voters’. You unite them as working people fighting the bosses, the landlords, and the state. And you unite them – black and white, migrant and native – by opposing racism. And you can’t oppose racism by ducking its dominant form: the anti-migrant racism inherent in Brexit. Is this not the ABC of socialist politics?

Sean and Adam, in another article on the same website, roll out a number of familiar arguments (www.counterfire.org/articles/analysis/18775-brexit-and-trump-two-sides-of-the-same-coin). Leave voters were anti-elite, not necessarily racist, wouldn’t necessarily have voted for Trump, and so on. Yes, no doubt. But that isn’t the point. You could say the same for any group of voters befuddled into supporting the Far Right electorally. Of course it isn’t the case that the average Leave voter is on the brink of bricking an Asian newsagent or beating up the Polish delivery-man. There were left arguments made for Leave but they did not determine the nature of the campaign. The key question is: Who is leading the movement? There are fake anti-elite movements of the Far Right, and there are real anti-elite movements of the Far Left. You have to be able to tell the difference!

Sean and Adam are much encouraged by the upsurge of anti-Trump resistance evident in the marches against attacks on women and Muslims. So am I. So are we all. But how does the Left connect with the fresh, young, dynamic forces represented – forces which are overwhelmingly, instinctively, and for the most idealistic and progressive of reasons, anti-Brexit? Like the bunch of youngsters bouncing up and down in unison outside Downing Street on 30 January waving ‘Brexit, Trump, Sound the Alarm’ placards and chanting ‘Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Brexit and Trump have got to go!’

To argue that the Left must present an alternative vision – a ‘People’s Brexit’ – is pitiful. The organised Left is tiny and marginal. As the EU referendum demonstrated, it has almost zero capacity to present an alternative vision. We need a mass movement: only a mass movement can project an alternative vision and gain a hearing. We need forces, forces, and more forces. But Tom and Sean and Adam are building a barrier that prevents the Left from connecting with precisely the forces we need.

This is made explicit in another article, where John adopts the slogan of the Far Right – ‘Take Back Control’ – and says that the Left must unite … around ‘People’s Brexit’ (www.counterfire.org/articles/analysis/18690-brexit-and-the-left-uniting-to-take-control-of-the-debate).

Everyone is in favour of Unity. It is one of the eternal virtues – like Truth, Beauty, and Justice. But the Left is not united – because of Brexit – and John’s prescription is for us to unite on his terms, the terms of the Lexit sects, and thus to strengthen the barrier between the Left and the new forces. Instead of learning from the class, learning from the struggle, John prefers to inform the mass movement on the streets that tiny handfuls of sectarians possess the Holy Grail of a ‘People’s Brexit’, and that they, the people protesting, have got it wrong if they think Brexit and Trump are ‘one and the same’.

The most alarming theoretical degeneration I have seen is Reuben’s piece arguing, in effect, that Marine Le Pen’s ‘national welfarism, European withdrawal, and protectionism’ is ‘more coherent’ than the mainstream neoliberalism of François Hollande and ‘the battlefield of unfettered global competition’ (www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/18767-towards-a-politics-of-radical-deglobalisation).

Reuben draws the conclusion that the Left’s ‘programme must involve a shift away from free trade, an orderly dissolution of the single currency, and a relaxation of Europe’s anti-interventionist state aid rules’. What he is advocating, in short, is economic nationalism with a red tint. It is John’s appropriation of the far-right slogan ‘Take Back Control’ carried to its logical conclusion – an embracing of the far-right idea of ‘national regeneration’.

None of these comrades is anything other than a stalwart anti-racist and anti-imperialist. But noble souls and good intentions are not enough. A gap – a dangerous gap – has opened up between socialist ideals and political arguments. The Lexiteers have become disoriented and lost their sense of direction.

Sometimes, when I fear that I may be losing my way theoretically, I have recourse to the old Hegelian maxim ‘the truth is the whole’. In historical analysis, it means the starting-point is always the world capitalist system. From that, you focus down, moving from the general to the particular in a succession of re-sets.

All the great advances in Marxist understandings of the world have followed this method. Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto of 1844, analysed capitalism as a global system, concluding, of course, that the workers have no country. Their uncompromising, unflinching internationalism was the basis of the famous rallying-cry with which the pamphlet concludes:

Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!

Confronted by the collapse of the social-democratic parties into national chauvinism and support for war in 1914, Lenin also returned to the internationalist core of Marxism when he wrote his pamphlet Imperialism in 1916. What was the basic error he denounced? The fact that people who claimed to be socialists had backed their own ruling classes in an imperialist war and encouraged their supporters to don military uniform and kill fellow workers in the trenches. What was the root of the error? The prioritisation of bourgeois nationalism over proletarian internationalism.

The disintegration of the Russian revolutionary movement in the 1920s, and the rise of the party-state bureaucracy on its wreckage, rekindled the same basic argument between national ‘socialists’ and international revolutionaries. Lenin and Trotsky, the main leaders of the revolution, had argued that either the revolution went global or it would be defeated. Stalin argued the opposite: that you could have ‘socialism in one country’. Stalin triumphed – and the result was a brutal totalitarian dictatorship geared for national capital-accumulation.

The Brexit debate expresses in a new form the old dichotomy between the nationalism and racism of the state and the internationalism of the working class. The former is the territory of the Far Right. The latter is the territory of the Left.

The Old Left has poisoned itself with Lexit sectarianism and made itself unfit to lead a new mass movement to resist the rise of the Far Right. The Stop Trump movement must be led by a New Left that is unequivocally democratic, anti-racist, and internationalist.

The Old Left is dying. Long live the New Left!

Neil Faulkner is the author of Creeping Fascism: Brexit, Trump, and the Rise of the Far Right, which will be published by Public Reading Rooms next month.


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8 comments

8 responses to “Brexit: the existential crisis of the Old Left”

  1. steve eason says:

    But I thought polemics and denunciations were a tactic of the “old left” ?

  2. Dan says:

    Agree in principle… Neither Brexit nor staying in the current EU will do anything to prevent a global financialised capitalism from sustaining a “neoliberalism… of wealth hoovered upwards to the rich.” (from Ledwith/Tomes article you link to).

    After Brexit I doubt very much there will be any return to a pre-1970s age of worker power in collective bargaining. If car workers strike globalised corporations will still shift production around the world, without government or democratic say in it, and without needing a strike-breaking Thatcherite paramilitary police. Corporations will just ship out to regions with higher profit rate and lower worker rights and regulations. Brexit will not return worker power to the UK, but will re-empower the brutality of the indifferent, self-serving, property-owning, bourgeois state.

    Equally, the current neoliberal EU pseudo-state which has kept the peace for 70 years, is undemocratic and overly bureaucratic, needs to be dismantled, radically! We cannot support more actions that cripple and humiliate countries in the way the Schäuble mafia are attacking Greece. They are asset-stripping troubled euro-regions in the most cynical way.

    It seems with globalised capitalism and the coming automation of work forces that the national worker as the primary lever of political resistance and change may no longer be a primary power base. (Which is why a party called ‘Labour’ sounds – and perhaps is – anachronistic). I agree with those who are arguing we need to increase the sense of what the base is, and therefore also diversify the modes of resistance. We need to include the non-working, the marginalised, the disenfranchised, and others communities as well as the unionised workers.

    Both options (Brexit/Remain) are bad as currently formed. I doubt either will bring any real relief from the global slowdown in growth. Global financialised capitalism will win either way, for now, until popular dissatisfaction with its cruelty, indifference, exploitation, and stagnation spread into a world contagion of active dissent. I agree, internationalism (between Nations) is a core Left guiding principle (in 1920s language), although I prefer an idea of a social globalism without such emphasis on nationhood. I think we need to trash this mirage of a choice: Brexit/Remain. Its a dangerous delusion. It is not a choice at all. The system will remain the same, just the hands on the levers change (here I agree with your point). We need a global pro-social movement of resistance and change that empowers people across borders, internationally, globally, from the ground up.

  3. Tim Nicholls says:

    Ah, the new progressive slogan “All power to international austerity capitalism”. There is nothing international or socialist about the EU. Austerity is hard-wired in. If it was so blindingly obvious that the Left should support EU membership, then how does Neil explain the eviseration of the Greek working class (and a corresponding surge in Nazisn) by, oh yes, the EU. Without the “big guns”, yes, Lexit was a tiny voice, but could you guarantee that a growth of the Front National wouldn’t have inspired an equally large rise in racial attacks? The EU would have guaranteed austerity and still created the conditions for scspegoat politics. Lets stop raking over the entrails and start building a movement against racism: without regard to which way you voted!

    • Philip Ward says:

      The balance of class forces in Greece was completely different. There, until Syriza chose to capitulate, a “Lexit” was a real possibility. In Britain it is not and is unlikely to be so when the time to leave actually arrives. If you read the article carefully, you will see that Neil Faulkner does not argue that the remain vote was necessary because of any positive attributes of the EU, but because the balance of forces ensured that the Brexit campaign and vote was centred on racism. It’s a contingent decision, not one of principle and it is perfectly possible to adopt a different view in different circumstances, such as with Greece.

      • Nick Wright says:

        “It’s a contingent decision, not one of principle”
        This looks and sounds like opportunism.
        Corbyn has a price in terms of his consistency by surrendering his long standing opposition to the ‘actually existing EU”.
        He managed to retain some leverage by his lukewarm advocacy of the official Labour Party position (One which he had consistently opposed).
        He has won more credibility by his stand on Article 50.
        Paradocxically, Blair’s intervention and Corbyn’s speedy repudiation of it will help hold up the Labour vote in the two bye elections.
        If Left Remainers are to apply the principle that Lexiters are contaminated by the force of circumstance in a binary vote then surely Blair is as powerful a contaminant.

  4. The problem with your argument, Tim, is that you confuse the politics of the EU referendum with the politics of the EU. The EU referendum was never about the pro-austerity, pro-privatisation, pro-corporate character of the EU. It was never a choice between a bankers’ EU and a workers’ Britain. The EU referendum was about anti-migrant racism and immigration controls. That is why the outcome shifted politics to the right, not the left. Brexit has damaged the confidence, consciousness, and combativeness of the working class – always the essential starting-point for serious socialist politics – by mainstreaming anti-migrant scapegoating. The Brexit programme is now being implemented by the viciously anti-migrant May government. New Labour is parroting that racism. I put this to you, Tim: do you believe that politics has shifted to the right or the left as a result of the Brexit vote? And if you really believe that the latter is the case, what, pray, is your evidence?

  5. Anon says:

    Two key errors in the piece:

    1. That (all) Lexiters think Brexit is “a left-wing revolt, a popular movement against elites, the harbinger of an imminent upturn of mass struggle for socialism.”

    No, most sane Lexiters just see it as getting rid of one layer of neoliberal entrapment, and recognise that the struggle is as hard as it ever was from there on in. Well, in fact one step easier, as the EU can’t block nationalising policies or push austerity etc. One less layer of bosses.

    2. “Since when does the Left ‘respect’ the outcome of bourgeois elections? Do we ‘respect’ the election of Trump? Would we ‘respect’ the election of Le Pen? Did we ‘respect’ the election of the Tories in 2015? ”

    Yes, they are respected in as much as the Left shouldn’t say they are invalid, that they are somehow void, because we don’t like the outcome. That way fascism and dictatorship lies. That doesn’t negate “We fight tooth-and-nail against the class enemy. Always.” A false dichotomy to say otherwise.

    The vast majority of people agree, and have a basic respect for the democratic process, however flawed it is, and you are only alienating yourself by arguing otherwise.

    Left Unity was an electoral party last I checked, or is it now for the dictatorship of the proletariat?

    I didn’t vote Out, and hurt from the rampant rise of the far-right. But the Brexit horse has bolted, and attempting to over-turn the referendum is impossible and will have only one outcome: to damage your credibility to the vast majority of the public.

  6. Roey says:

    When will you EVER engage with the people? This is hopeless.


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