The British labour movement, and its radical left wing in particular, has a long tradition of internationalism, stretching back to Marx and the First International. But now, argues Andrew Burgin, the rise of xenophobia, trade protectionism and the radical right, reposes the issue of international solidarity.
Trade wars, stock market collapse and war
The aftermath of the 2007-8 financial collapse has been a long period of economic depression. This has fuelled reactionary, xenophobic and nationalist political movements across the world. Both the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US are part of this revival of xenophobia and linked economic nationalism.
Reactionary political movements have been partially successful in placing the blame for major economic and social problems – deep economic inequality and declining social and public services – not on the political system which has produced them but on the shoulders of those most oppressed by that system: the poor, refugees, migrant workers.
How this works can be seen most recently in elections in Hungary and Italy. In Hungary Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won a huge majority on an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic platform. Recent Italian elections confirmed the decline of mainstream conservative and social democratic parties and the rise of populist and far-right parties, such as the Lega (formerly Lega Nord) and the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement). Both parties successfully sought to scapegoat migrants and refugees for Italy’s social and economic problems. Italy’s problems, both economic and political, could be the trigger for the next financial crash leading to the possible break-up of the Eurozone.
The left has contested the rise in racism and xenophobia that has accompanied this ideological offensive. However some on the left have been blind to the dynamic behind the rise of reaction, confusing mass movements driven by the politics of the populist right with progressive elements of working class revolt.
The essentially reactionary nature of the Italian Movimento 5 Stelle has been widely misunderstood. In Britain parts of the left welcomed the Brexit leave vote, branding it a ‘revolt against the rich’. They saw the referendum result as a blow against the political elites, and this led them to downplay the nationalist, anti-migrant reaction that the vote in large part represented. Some – to their shame and against all the evidence – argued that there had been no rise in racism after the referendum. The reactionary trend that enabled Trump to become president is being deepened by his policies, which have started trade war and threaten real war.
Trade war was initiated by the Trump regime in March 2018 to try to contain China’s rise and to shore up declining US economic power. In the short term there may be some advantage for US capital, what Trump calls ‘an easy win’, but it will rapidly impact on the global economy and could lead to a sharp decline in growth, unlocking potentially catastrophic consequences.
Trump began by announcing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, to which China responded with its own set of proposed tariffs on a further 128 goods. There then followed a series of tit-for-tat moves, affecting thousands of different products. One of the key aims of the US tariffs is to try to stop China’s development in the technology sector where the US still has a commanding lead.
The US is stepping up its demands that China massively cut its annual trade surplus with the US – now insisting on cuts of more than half its total, presenting what the Financial Times calls an ‘ economically wrong-headed, diplomatically toxic and legally destructive negotiating position’ to the Chinese. Trump appears to be itching for a trade war. It would certainly shore up his base and strengthen his support even from those who might be negatively affected by such an economically destructive development.
A trade war could find support on the left of the Democratic Party too. Elizabeth Warren, the senior Senator for Massachusetts said in advance of her recent visit to Beijing, ‘I want to see a trade policy that puts American workers first, puts American small businesses first, puts American consumers first.’
Bernie Sanders also supports protectionist measures, saying when Trump was elected that while he would oppose Trump’s xenophobia and racism, ‘to the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.’
Trade wars once begun are difficult to stop and if this one takes root we are likely to see it rapidly expand. The negative impact on the world economy will be particularly marked in the Asia-Pacific region where it will seriously affect the regional economies of US allies such as Japan and Australia. A further fear is a slump on Wall Street and global stock markets as US–China antagonisms intensify.
The trade war engineered by Trump is just one aspect of the dangers to the world posed by the right-wing, xenophobic regime in the White House. The last two senior appointments that Trump has made should alert us to the shape of the political future we face.
Trump’s new national security adviser is John Bolton and his latest secretary of state is Mike Pompeo. Bolton is the hawk’s hawk. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq war and is an advocate of interventionist military action, backing a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Both Pompeo and Bolton opposed the Iran nuclear deal and believe that a military option in respect of both North Korea and Iran should be available. The re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran will further destabilise the Middle East and embolden a bellicose Israel.
Trump’s building of his war cabinet has been accompanied by approving the largest military budget in US history: $700 billion. The military have asked for an extra 70 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth jets, 24 more F/A 18 Super Hornets, 63 more Apache helicopters – the most advanced multi-role helicopter in the world, together with 48 more Black Hawks and new aircraft carriers, destroyers and missile interceptors. Since coming to office Trump has added $200 billion to defence spending; this is an administration preparing for war as it recklessly increases the fiscal deficit.
New Nuclear Arms Race
In February 2018 the Pentagon released its latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The most significant element of the review is commitment to a new generation of nuclear weapons, with the emphasis on low-yield, often described as ‘usable’, weapons. In fact, the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are technically low-yield in today’s parlance, so we are not talking about something small.
The review argues that since the US is facing increasingly hostility from both Russia and China, the president must be given greater leeway in the use of nuclear weapons. At first sight this is a response to Trump’s thrice-asked question to his generals ‘if we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?’
In the review the nuclear threat from both Russia and China is exaggerated. China has a no-first-use policy and has fewer nuclear weapons than France. Russia, the review claims, has a policy of increasing reliance on low-yield nuclear weapons in the event of a European war because of its inferior conventional weapons forces. No evidence for this is provided and no account taken either of the expansion of NATO into the territory of the former Soviet Union or US provocation in the Asia-Pacific region.
The strategic aims that underpin this review substantially increase the risk of nuclear war; this together with the possibility of a major trade war contributes to a hugely unstable political situation across the world.
Who knows where the spark for war or even nuclear war might come from? Perhaps via the war in Syria which threatens to ignite a great power clash or via America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
In the UK, despite the claims of leading Brexiteers that leaving the EU will open a new period of prosperity and economic growth, precisely the opposite is predicted by mainstream commentators and the economy has slowed further in 2018.
The political situation in the UK at first sight contrasts favourably with that elsewhere. We have seen the growth of the left in the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn together with the decline of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP’s great success was forcing Cameron to call the Referendum. However, at the moment of its greatest triumph the party went into catastrophic decline. It has huge debts and fast-decreasing electoral support – it is a spent force in British political life and was almost wiped out in the recent local elections.
Part of the reason for the fall of UKIP was that the Tories, post-referendum, recast their party as the party of hard Brexit, negating the very reason for UKIP’S political existence. However the Tories were mistaken in believing that UKIP votes would mostly flow towards them; in the 2017 general election Labour picked up a significant share of former UKIP voters.
Theresa May called that election believing that she would win a resounding victory and deal Labour and Corbyn a mortal blow. She miscalculated, and to the anguish of the political establishment, including many on the right of the Labour Party itself, the election result was a considerable triumph for Corbyn. The Labour Party fought a principled campaign, ‘for the many, not the few’, and managed to increase Labour’s share of the vote substantially. Although the Tories remained the largest party in parliament they lost their overall majority and could only form a government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.
There is now a real possibility of a Corbyn victory in the next general election. We should not underestimate what a seismic shift in British political life such a victory would herald. This would be a Labour government committed both to ending austerity and opposing the entire neo-liberal economic agenda – an enormous prize. The possibility of such an outcome has thrown the political establishment into crisis and lies behind the launching of a major ideological offensive against the Labour left and Corbyn in particular.
Left Unity supported Jeremy Corbyn from the very first day that he announced his decision to seek the leadership of the Labour Party. His leadership campaign unleashed a huge pent-up desire for political change, particularly from young people who rallied to his campaign in their tens of thousands. We recognised the progressive change that his victory represented. Elsewhere in Europe this political surge has been largely articulated through the radical left parties – like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal, France Insoumise and others. The structure of the British political system – especially the first-past-the-post electoral system – together with the specific evolution of the Labour Party, meant that in Britain the radical wave found expression in the Corbyn movement.
Left Unity rapidly understood that many of its most active and enthusiastic members would join the Labour Party and they did. At our last two national conferences there were motions proposing that we dissolve Left Unity and join the Labour Party as individual members. Our organisation voted not to do this because whilst it supports many of the policies of the Corbyn movement it understood the limitations that would prevail in getting these accepted as Labour policy, and the enormous obstacles that would work against the Labour Party being recovered even for 1960s-style social democracy, let alone becoming a party of the radical left. So Left Unity continues to occupy that distinct political space on the radical left, allied to the European Left Party. It remains necessary to argue and fight for the specificity of our politics whilst maintaining a supportive but critical relationship with the Corbyn movement.
Europe and Brexit
Left Unity argued for a Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum. We considered that the aim should be to build a better Europe by working across Europe and that our membership of the European Union provided the basis to build pan-European movements to unite working people. Serious criticisms can be levelled against the EU, particularly the neo-liberal basis of its structures, but we argued that we still have a range of rights from EU membership that are worth defending: the right to free movement – to live, work and retire across Europe; and social, economic and environmental rights and protections enshrined in EU law that would be threatened by Brexit.
We took the view that the calling of the Referendum was driven by political posturing from the right – against migration, against human and civil rights – and that a Brexit vote would increase racism and xenophobia and be a step backwards for working people. It would not resolve the very real problems that people face in terms of housing, health, employment, wages and public services. So it has proved, and moreover, while the Tories continue to lie about the ‘Brexit dividend’ leading to an increase in health spending, the reality is not only declining spending on the NHS and other public services, but a dramatic reduction in the number of EU workers coming to Britain to work in the NHS and other key sectors.
Many organisations and individuals who campaigned for Remain are now calling for a further referendum on the terms of the deal which is currently being negotiated between the EU and the British government. A number of organisations have now come together in a new campaign called The People’s Vote. This campaign will be led politically by the Mandelson/Blair/Umunna faction of the Labour Party together with the Liberal Democrats, and the Ken Clarke/Anna Soubry wing of the Tories and run from Millbank Tower. The Green Party has joined the new campaign and others from the Left Remain spectrum are also participating. There are many in Left Unity who would also support a further referendum but we should consider whether immersing ourselves in this campaign or any campaign for another referendum is the right place from which the left should oppose Brexit.
The vast majority of young people express widespread antipathy to Brexit and have a real sense of European identity. They took to the streets in their thousands to protest the Referendum result. Now, however, most of the organised campaigns that have developed to oppose Brexit do not reflect the progressive aspirations of these young people and are politically dominated by the right. The People’s Vote campaign will be led, funded and organised by forces which represent factions of British capital. They will seek to trap those opposed to Brexit within the framework of political alliances ordered around those concerns and not the needs of working people. The main organisers leading this new People’s Vote campaign will be the same as those behind the drive for a new centrist party. Those opposing Brexit from the left will need to discuss and plan a different strategy.
Concentrating on arguing for a further Referendum obviates the necessary work that now has to be undertaken to unite working people across Europe in the struggle against the rising tide of nationalism and racism. We have to argue for the social and economic Europe that we want to see and concretise that work through developing the links with political and social organisations across Europe. We need to draw ‘left behinders’ into a struggle for the solidaristic Europe essential to resolve the economic and social problems that they face and which feed reaction.
While we are seeing the regrouping of centrist pro-European bourgeois forces in Britain, the ongoing dynamic of polarisation to the left and right – which we have seen repeated across some other parts of Europe – also continues in parallel. The present political conjuncture poses grave dangers. We are seeing the rise of the hard right across Europe. The decline of UKIP should not blind us to the political tinder that also is present in British political life. Although the Tories have moved to mop up much of the pro-Brexit anti-migrant UKIP base, there is still space for a new movement of the far right in Britain. Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s former closest advisers, has become the roving ambassador for the far right internationally. On his recent European tour, Bannon met with leaders of the Italian Lega party and addressed the French Front National conference, and in December met with Farage, as well as the leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The potential for such a new movement is fuelled by the state’s attacks on migrants and refugee rights. As Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times, ‘immigration now rivals economics as the driving force in western politics’.
Theresa May was responsible for deepening this anti-migrant atmosphere as Home Secretary; her aim was, as she said, ‘to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.’ This ‘hostile environment’ has been extended far beyond illegal immigrants to all migrants. We have experienced the brutal attacks on the Windrush generation and their descendants. These are British citizens who have lived and worked here for decades. They have been threatened with deportation, refused treatment on the NHS, lost employment, all because their citizenship was called into question.
There has been a sustained increase in hate crime and racist attacks since the Referendum. And in this environment we have seen a further normalising of the Islamophobic discourse, the call for a ‘Punish a Muslim’ day being the most frightening example. This situation will deteriorate further when the government introduces its new post-Brexit immigration policy to replace existing EU free movement. There will be an expansion of border guards, immigration officers, work permits and detention camps and the rights of migrant workers will be further eroded.
A new coalition of the far right: UKIP, EDL remnants, Trump supporters, Christian fundamentalists, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, Tommy Robinson and others, brought thousands onto the streets of central London recently. In order to become a serious political force this embryonic grouping will need a unifying populist project beyond racism and xenophobia. It will need money too. The tortuous and crisis-ridden Brexit path could provide that dynamic and there are those like Aaron Banks who might be prepared to finance such a new political movement if it appeared to have the potential to become a mass movement.
Where now for Labour?
These are testing times for Jeremy Corbyn’s team. The temptation following the relative success of the 2017 election would be to believe that the next election is already won and that it is just a matter of time before the Tories implode and Labour takes office.
The reality is that the British establishment has no intention of allowing Jeremy Corbyn an easy path to power. They remain determined to undermine and politically destroy him. The central strategy is to demonise and de-legitimise a potential Corbyn government and they have had some recent success with the defamatory campaign to portray the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn as anti-Semitic.
Few expected Corbyn to win the Labour leadership contest and when he did even fewer expected him to last long. From the very beginning a significant section of the parliamentary Labour Party sought to undermine his leadership and secretly plotted his downfall. When they made their move, they were roundly defeated and Corbyn temporarily secured his position with a strong showing in the general election. The results of the local elections in May were not the disaster for Labour that the Tories and the right in the Labour party tried to suggest. Labour made gains, although not significant enough to be able to present itself as a government-in-waiting.
Corbyn remains enormously popular amongst the young, and the majority of the public supported his opposition to British military intervention in Syria, but there will be many more such attempts to destabilise his leadership before the next general election. Moreover, there are those in the Labour Party who would rather lose the next election than see Corbyn in Downing Street.
Grave danger lies in giving ground to political attacks, whether from the establishment or within the Labour Party. The ruling class in this country cannot be placated and a left-wing Labour leader cannot slip gently and barely noticed into Downing Street. Some senior Labour figures argue that a deal can be cut with the British political establishment. It goes something like this. We won’t touch your nuclear weapons nor threaten the key elements of your state. We will increase defence spending and pay due deference to your institutions if you allow us latitude in economic policy. It won’t work.
In post-referendum Britain it is almost impossible to imagine either stopping Brexit before March 2019 or rejoining the EU in the immediate future, despite the fact that Brexit will seriously weaken the British economy and materially damage the lives of many of those who voted for it in the first place. Some have argued for what they call a ‘People’s Brexit’, but such a thing could never bear fruit. Putting the word ‘People’s’ in front of Brexit does not sweeten a bitter economic destiny but merely sows illusions in a future never to be. The real prospects for working people lie in an economically and politically integrated and socially progressive Europe. That Europe does not exist in the EU as it is, but must be fought for. The EU, dominated by neo-liberal politics and economics, is in deep crisis. The fact of Brexit may temporarily unite its institutions but there are tectonic plates of a resurgent reactionary nationalist politics driving it apart. The EU is riven by the same dynamic of forces which is re-shaping British politics: the rising gap between rich and poor, social injustice, racism and xenophobia.
Internationalism and Solidarity
The socialist left was founded on internationalism. Internationalism has been inscribed on our banners since 1848. At its heart is our understanding that capitalism develops as an international system of exploitation and challenging it makes necessary the organisation of the working class on an international basis. None of the problems that working people face – poverty, war, injustice, social inequality – can be resolved at the national level. Socialism cannot be won in a single country.
For Marx the question of building international movements was central to his political activity. It lay at the heart of the organisations both he and Engels built. The Communist League and the First Workingmen’s International were both attempts to develop organisations that would be, in Marx’s words, ‘powerful engines’ in the coming revolution.
Marx always looked at and discussed revolutionary developments from a European-wide and international perspective and it is that perspective that we need to build on today. We need international organisation, as a class, that undertakes many of the same tasks that the First International did. Such international organisation would be sensitive to national peculiarities but determined to help unite labour and social struggles across national borders. Major steps have been taken in developing the international frameworks necessary for such organisation and action: the European Left Party, which organises a significant part of the radical left across Europe; solidarity campaigns, whether with Greece, Cuba or Palestine; trade unions and federations that organise across borders; movements in practical and political solidarity with migrants and refugees; the list is significant for there are many that understand the international nature of the working class and the power that international cooperation can unleash. The EU is locked into capitalist economic and political structures which reinforce the nation state and limit integration – it is the universal struggles of working people that contain the promise of deepening the political integration of Europe necessary to overcome reaction across the continent. It is the international class struggle that unlocks the capacity to take humanity forward.
We saw these possibilities in the struggles in Greece in 2012 where the people faced not just their own ruling class but the combined forces of international capital represented by the Troika: the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. And we also saw the consequence of insufficient international support for the struggle of the Greek people.
In 2011 leading figures on the left in Greece, Mikis Theodorakis and Manolis Glezos, launched their ‘Common Appeal for the Rescue of the Peoples of Europe’. They called for a European front of action to turn back the tide of austerity sweeping through Europe. This found a powerful response from workers’ organisations across Europe. The British labour and trade union movement issued its own appeal for solidarity with the people of Greece with the late Tony Benn taking the lead. The Troika was determined to crush the Syriza government in Greece. The left can debate what actions could or should have been taken by the Syriza leadership to forestall the defeat, but the balance of power rested decisively in the hands of European capital. Nevertheless, the election of an anti-austerity government after years of struggle and workplace occupations, with more than 40 general strikes during this period, represented a huge political advance and a step forward for the whole of the European working class.
Although across Europe there was widespread support for the struggles of the Greek people, that support was never mobilised to the extent that it could materially influence the course of that struggle. A rebuilding of these international links at all levels will make it possible to challenge neo-liberal capitalism and its political and social manifestations and to halt the rise of the anti-migrant right. The creation of the European Left Party (ELP) in 2004 was an important step in the rebuilding of the radical left in Europe. Left Unity is affiliated to the ELP.
The ELP is being built on the basis of a shared belonging to a Europe which can only come into being by uniting the struggles of working people across the continent. The ELP is anti-capitalist and opposes imperialist wars and has become an important instrument in organising opposition to reaction across Europe.
There is no alternative to the path of rebuilding an international movement. The nature of capitalism itself necessitates a struggle across borders. Workers face the same pressures for deregulation and privatisation. French workers with mass support from students and the youth are now mobilised to oppose the attempt by President Macron to destroy their job security and casualise their working conditions. Their battle is our battle and just as the British miners received global support during their great strike of 1984/5 so too must we support the French workers and we can organise that support more effectively both through the work of the ELP and the international trade union movement.
The world faces an enormously dangerous situation where war, the threat of war and even nuclear war hangs over all of us. Unity of the working class, across borders, is vital to meet these enormous challenges.
The economic background to Trump’s Protectionist Turn
Since the credit crunch and global economic crisis of 2007-8 the world economy has struggled with low growth and poor productivity. In 2018, however, many economists are (once again) saying that there is light at the end of this gloomy tunnel and are predicting growth of 3% plus – happy days are here again. But these optimistic predictions ignore some dangers facing the world economy and the light they see may be nothing more than that of the next economic and political crisis hurtling towards them. Just as likely as this predicted recovery is a further economic retreat driven by rising economic nationalism and accentuated by a global trade war compounding an already unstable international political situation.
Moreover, even if the most optimistic forecasts for world economic growth are achieved, that will not match the growth achieved in the period preceding the financial collapse.
The last decade has seen the most pronounced period of economic stagnation since the 1930s. International trade fell back sharply after 2008 and despite a sluggish recovery has since fallen back again. We are in the midst of what Michael Roberts calls ‘the Long Depression’, a period marked by poor productivity growth, weak investment, low wages and rising debt levels at personal, company and state levels (1).
In the UK, finance has been siphoned off, from direct investment into the productive areas of the economy, to financial speculation and unproductive property investment.
The global economic expansion that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum have forecast for 2018 is fragile, precisely because of the unresolved problems at the heart of the world economy. The trillions of dollars of quantitative easing (QE) that the central banks have poured into the coffers of the financial markets have done little to lessen income inequality or to raise productive growth. The markets greeted QE with euphoria and it did stave off a complete collapse of the financial system, post-2008, but at great cost to national economies. It fuelled a huge rise in public debt, lined the pockets of the wealthiest and drove the austerity agenda of ruling elites across the world. Post-crash quantitative easing, together with economic depression, have created a dangerous mountain of state, company and household debt. If markets decide that that much of this is unrecoverable, another 2007-8 style crash will become inevitable, with devastating consequences for national economies and the working class.
The long-predicted economic recovery has never materialised and those underlying long-term problems remain and fester. The Eurozone crisis which reduced Greece to penury threatens to reignite via Italy, where huge government indebtedness and massive youth unemployment are also fuelling the growth of the far right and populist parties. Italy faces many of the same economic problems as Greece but on a much larger scale. It is a one of the world’s major economies – the eighth largest, and the third largest in the Eurozone. Government debt as a percent of GDP is 132%. The Italian economy is considered too big to fail and too big to save thus presenting the EU with an intractable problem.
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.
European Forum 2020
The space where the essential joint struggle and transformation projects in Europe are being forged. It will be held online from 8th to 28th November.
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.