Lexit: digging the hole deeper

Neil Faulkner writes

The SWP, one of a number of pro-Brexit sects, makes the following claim:

A year ago Socialist Worker welcomed the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU). Were we right to do so?

 We argued that the vote would force out David Cameron and destabilise the Tory Party. We said this could lead to a general election victory that would give Jeremy Corbyn an opportunity to lead Labour to victory.

This is what they they actually said

The SWP does not have a crystal ball. Nor does anyone else. No-one predicted the outcome of the general election. What the SWP and other sects offered was not hard analysis but a predictable mantra of moralism:

It is time to step up the assault on the Establishment… We have to shape how the crisis unfolds… We must ensure anti-austerity and anti-racist forces emerge stronger – and that the Right is defeated… Social change never comes without turmoil. We have to seize the time.

The Corbyn surge was no more on the SWP’s radar than anyone else’s. Here, again, is what they said:

Corbyn’s opponents want Labour to shift sharply rightwards. Most Labour MPs never accepted Corbyn as leader. The only issue was when to strike him down… Everyone on the Left needs to back Corbyn against the Right. But he will not survive unless he mobilises outside Parliament – and the Labour Party. It is time for an open fight, not reconciliation.

That was also my view. And that is how it looked to virtually all commentators at the time: Brexit represented a shift to the right; Brexit allowed the Tory Right to seize control of the party; Brexit had deepened the crisis inside the Labour Party, as Corbyn came under pressure to capitulate to the anti-migrant racism of the Leave campaign.

And that’s how it looked for the best part of a year: Corbyn’s days numbered. Let us be clear about how that situation was turned around. The Labour Left leaked the election manifesto before it could be eviscerated by the Labour Right in the backrooms. They then campaigned on this manifesto – the first social-democratic reformist manifesto put to the British people since the 1980s – and Corbyn surged in the polls.

All credit to Corbyn and colleagues: they created a counter-pole of attraction – a counter-pole to the UKIP/Tory Right/Brexit/nationalist-racist pole represented by the May government – and, by doing so, against all expectations, became the catalyst for the emergence of a new mass social movement.

Why is the SWP pretending to have predicted all of this? Because it is trapped in a false perspective by its inability to admit mistakes.

Why can’t it admit mistakes? Because it is a top-down sect intolerant of dissent and debate. It is held together in a cocoon of infallibility. So, when the perspective is confounded by reality – the surge in racism around Brexit that so many of us predicted – the argument has to shift to accommodate the facts. So now the whole Lexit position turns out to be a grand plan to destabilise the Tories and augment the Labour vote.

Only that’s not what happened. The Tories recovered almost immediately and looked so confident less than a year later that May gambled on winning a landslide in a general election. Which is almost certainly what would have happened had the Labour Left not pole-axed the Blairites, foisted a radical manifesto on the party, and then turned the general election into a re-run of the Corbyn leadership campaigns.

As for Lexit, it is more obvious with every day that passes just how poisonous the argument is. Here are the implications:

1] Lexit means we abandon Europeanism and internationalism and support a retreat into Little Englander nationalism laced with anti-migrant racism. Trotsky had something to say about this. I quote him because most of the Lexit sects consider themselves ‘Trotskyist’.

If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forwards as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working-class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperial state trust into a European republican federation.

He wrote this in the mid 1920s. Europe was a continent of warring states which had just emerged from the first war in which the full power of modern industry had been harnessed to its ancient nationalisms. The result had been 15 million dead. Next time the toll would be 60 million dead.

Quite simply, revolutionaries are anti-Brexit because we are anti-nationalist.

2] Lexit means we abandon our role as ‘tribunes of the oppressed’ and allow the primary expression of anti-migrant ‘take back control’ racism to go unchallenged. We pay no heed to the visceral fear among millions of migrants living in Britain that Brexit is a dagger aimed at them. A justified fear, for the drive to Brexit has been led by the Right, not the Left, and more important to the Brexiteers than issues of sovereignty and trade is control over people, over borders, over migration.

Brexit is code for ‘migrants are the problem’. And – do I need to spell this out? – the central issue for revolutionaries always is the consciousness, confidence, and combativity of the working class. That which divides us, weakens us. That which unites us, strengthens us. Racism divides: internationalism unites.

Revolutionaries oppose racism in all its forms a) because we stand with the oppressed always, b) because we are for internationalism always, and c) because we are for the unity of the working class always. Whereas the Lexiters have driven a wedge between themselves on the one hand and the youth and the oppressed on the other by siding with the Tory Right in defence of Brexit.

3] Lexit means we have nothing coherent to say about the Brexit crisis now unfolding. The only coherent position for the Left to take is this: we are for the free movement of goods, services, and, above all, people; we are for Europeanism and internationalism; we are for the unity of the European and wider working class in the struggle against austerity, privatisation, and corporate power. We are therefore opposed to Brexit.

There is no ‘soft Brexit’, no ‘people’s Brexit’. The EU is about free movement of goods, services, capital, and labour. Britain is either part of that or it is not. The EU is, of course, a bankers’ and bosses’ club hardwired for financialisation and the exploitation of working people in the context of globalisation. But ‘socialism in one country’ is not the alternative. Brexit means a retreat into a nationalist-racist enclave of the kind favoured by fascists.

What part of Brexit does the SWP approve of? Import controls to prevent free movement of goods and services? Capital controls to create a siege economy? Immigration controls to prevent free movement of migrants and refugees? What? What does a ‘progressive’ Brexit look like?

Or is it time to admit a mistake, abandon a false perspective, and join the rest of us in fighting nationalism and racism as part of united European working class?


Neil Faulkner is the author of A Marxist History of the World and A People’s History of the Russian Revolution.


To submit an article for the 'Discussion & Debate' section of our website please email it to info@leftunity.org


5 responses to “Lexit: digging the hole deeper”

  1. Nick Wright says:

    Without capital controls there can be no socialism and without controls on exports and imports a planned economy is impossible. This perspective by Left Unity is an abandonment of the goal of working class political power.

  2. Francis Fish says:

    “Without capital controls there can be no socialism and without controls on exports and imports a planned economy is impossible. This perspective by Left Unity is an abandonment of the goal of working class political power.”

    Let’s unpick this:

    Without capital controls there can be no socialism – in one country

    without controls on exports and imports a planned economy is impossible – who’s doing the planning? Bourgeois politicians tinkering with things – so what?

    The current systems are broken. They need to be replaced root and branch with collectivised, democratic ones that work for the people who need them. And not with some looking back to a perverse version of some 1940’s stalinism lite, wishing and hoping. We need an economy and a way of organising that doesn’t exploit and stamp on poor brown people in other parts of the world, that isn’t part of a ridiculous drive to consume everything until there’s nothing left. Because that’s what socialism in one country means.

    It’s time to stop the mommy’s little chauvinist, little britain, can’t see past the narrow concerns of a relatively small number of people in the UK view and look much farther out into the world. It’s time to stop trying to reform something that will kill us if we don’t get rid, we need to get rid.

    I see the Corbyn surge as people finally waking up. Good. They need to wake up some more and start demanding accountability and better ways of organising and doing things that create a society that functions for all of us.

    We’ve had business as usual for 50 years or more – it doesn’t work, it never did.

  3. Jim Board says:

    I am an SWP member, sat on a train commuting to work and reading this with, unfortunately, too little time to pen a full reply. I will try to do do later.

    However, I will say that I have no real idea why Left Unity might feel that this article would reflect any credit on your politics – I have seldom read a more skewed, selective and sectarian account of the debate around Lexit/Brexit and the role of the SWP.

    As a political intervention this is verging on nonsensical – please try to have a little more respect for your members and readers rather than turning out this kind of misleading rubbish.

    In solidarity

  4. Maria says:

    Hi SWP member
    Could you maybe tell me how Britain made it to fund setting up a national health system and all the rest of the nationalised services when Labour were government just after the 2nd world war? Is it maybe that the end justified the means and the socialist vision was only made possible in a country with a colonialist past and present?
    i.e if they hadn’t had exploited other countries resources would that be ever possible? We want justice and equality in an international society now and we hardly care building up a national socialist vision in this or any other individual country
    But maybe I am not entitled to speak like that as I am not a British citizen…

  5. Mark Dunk says:

    This is from the European Commission’s latest press release on Italy and ‘reducing migrant flows in the mediterranean’:

    Implement rapidly the Minniti law, including by:

    creating additional hotspot capacity;

    increasing reception capacity and substantially increasing detention capacity to reach at least 3,000 urgently;

    increasing the maximum period of detention in line with EU law;

    The full thing which details the deals the EU is striking with the ruling classes of African nations to participate in their plan to push the borders of Europe out to the shores of North Africa; how they will make available 500 rapid return experts and more is available at the link below.

    How exactly standing against the EU (which far from being a Europe wide imperialist trust has a budget of just 1% of the GNI of member states, 40% of which is spent on the deeply regressive Common Agricultural Policy) and it’s plans to expand detention facilities for people fleeing poverty in Africa is either a) racist or b) breaking from the tradition of being tribunes of the oppressed is beyond me. What is Neil’s reasoning behind this?


Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.

About Left Unity   Read our manifesto


Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.

Sat 2 Mar, 9.30-17.00
Confronting the Rise of the Far Right, European Conference

Organised by Transform UK.

Bloomsbury Central, 235 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8EP.

Get tickets

More events »


Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.


Get the latest Left Unity resources.

Broadsheet: Trump, Brexit and the Global Far Right Surge

Broadsheet: No One is Illegal!

Transform journal

More resources »