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.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Sat 25 Feb, 10.30
Health Conference, NHS in Crisis – How do we sustain its future?
Organised by SERTUC at TUC Congress House, London, 10.30 – 16.00. Open invite. Free admission and free lunch provided. Registration essential: email@example.com 020 7467 1220
Sat 4 March, 12.00
It’s our NHS, national demonstration
Theresa May’s demands for yet more austerity in the NHS represent a real risk to the safety of patients and the service. Join this vital demo called by Health Campaigns Together.
Mon 6 March, 19.30
West London Left Unity, branch meeting
A discussion on Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland, England and Brexit. Introduced by Jim Grealy and Tony Ward.
At the Everybody Active Centre, Acton High Street, W3 6NE
Sun 12 March, 13.30
Russian Revolution Centenary Celebration
1917-2017. Sponsored by Left Unity, at Karibu Centre, 7 Gresham Road, Brixton, London SW9 7PH.
Stop Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain
Oppose Trump’s visit. He is a racist and a misogynist and a supporter of torture and a preacher of hate. Event by Public Reading Rooms.
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.