Yet again, on Lexit

Neil Faulkner responds to the latest attack on free movement in the Morning Star.

The Lexit argument is now beyond logic and reason. It is the mistaken argument that will not be silenced. The dog barks but the caravan moves on; only in this case, the dog digs itself deeper and deeper into its hole.

A steady stream of articles trying to justify Lexit continues to appear in the Left press. The effect of them is to deny the stark reality of the rise of the far right. To confuse and disorient left activists in the face of this clear and present danger is rank irresponsibility. So this response pulls no punches. The stakes are too high.

Farage, Gove, and Johnson waged the most racist political campaign in post-war British history and were rewarded with a narrow win in the EU Referendum. A clear majority of young people, ethnic-minority people, trade unionists, Labour voters, and Green Party supporters backed Remain. It is equally clear that the dominant arguments for Leave voters were ‘take back control’ and ‘stop immigration’.

Consequently, the Brexit victory has legitimised racism and we face a tidal wave of racist abuse and violence.

This, moreover, is part of an international pattern. A new, populist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim hard right is advancing across Europe, the United States, and beyond. We are reliving the 1930s in slow motion.

What is it that Julian Jones, who has just written a truly appalling article about Brexit in the Morning Star , does not understand about this? Let me try and deal with the incoherent tangle of arguments he presents.

We are told that, because ‘some extreme-right groups advocated an exit from the EU’, we have an ‘EU-infatuated left’, which is ‘middle class’, ‘elitist’, and ‘snobbish’, branding all Brexit voters as ‘closet racists’.

This is pitiful. The entire Brexit campaign was led by the hard right and was saturated with racist arguments. There is nothing ‘middle class’ about the unionised teachers, nurses, care-workers, and junior civil servants who followed their anti-racist instincts and voted against Farage, Gove, and Johnson.

No-one has ever said that all Brexit voters were ‘closet racists’. Actually, we have said the opposite: the Brexit campaign was openly racist – there was nothing ‘closet’ about it – and the effect of the campaign and the vote has been to increase racist sentiment and violence by legitimising it.

The fact that most Brexit voters are not hard-core racists – the fact, indeed, that many are not racist in any sense at all – is neither here nor there. Our job – as socialists trying to understand the world so that we can act more effectively to change it – is to analyse the essential nature of political movements, not to make claims about the motivation of individual voters.

Most Germans who voted for Hitler in 1932 were not in favour of putting Jews in concentration camps. But we do not judge a fascist organisation according to the motivation of individual voters: we analyse its social base, its ideology, its methods, its trajectory.

The Brexit campaign was not fascist; but it was populist-racist, and, as such, stands comparison with the movements led by Trump, Le Pen, Orban, and half a dozen other hard-right European political leaders.

But this is not the end of the argument. The logic becomes yet more tortuous when the Morning Star commentator argues as follows: ‘Of course, recent reports of attacks on Poles throughout the country are extremely worrying and need to be investigated urgently, but that is not to say the left should defend the EU or accept freedom of movement, much less call for reversal of Brexit.’

We are reminded that hard-right leaders like Slovakia’s Robert Fico defend free movement inside the EU but are vociferously anti-Muslim. Apparently, this means that ‘EU free movement acts as a convenient way of keeping Muslims out of Europe’.

Then comes a real shocker: ‘The Left needs to respect the largest democratic mandate in British history and do its best to shape the outcome of the negotiations. Part of that is debating immigration policy and making the case that EU freedom of movement is fundamentally anti-people …’

I had to read this twice, because first time I thought I must have misread it. But no. Are we, then, in denial that there is a direct relationship between recent attacks on Polish people and the Brexit argument against free movement? And by what sort of bizarre logic do we arrive at the conclusion that socialists defending Polish people against racist attacks, defending the right of free movement, and defending the idea of a united Europe are somehow helping to ‘keep Muslims out of Europe’? How does that work exactly?

But the giveaway is this. We are being invited to ‘respect the democratic mandate’, engage in a ‘debate about immigration’, and reject the idea of free movement as ‘anti-people’. In other words, we should capitulate to the racism promoted by Farage, Gove, and Johnson – and echoed by the rest of the neoliberal political elite – by supporting immigration controls. And the justification for this? The EU is racist against Muslim refugees.

The argument is so dreadful it could be a spoof. It boils down to this: the EU is racist against Muslim refugees; free movement is EU policy; ergo free movement is a cover for racism. So we should support the Tories in leaving Europe, erecting a wall at Calais, and ending free movement within Europe – because, wait for it, we support immigration from outside Europe.

Why is the logic so convoluted? Why are the arguments so crass?

Because the starting-point – Lexit – is wrong. And that is because the EU referendum was not a choice between the EU of austerity, privatisation, and anti-Muslim racism on the one hand, and a world of equality, democracy, and peace on the other. It was a choice between the soft right and the hard right, between a less racist brand of neoliberalism and a more racist one.

Once you grasp that, everything falls into place. You vote Remain because you stand with the more progressive workers – young, unionised, left-voting, anti-racist. You vote Remain because a retreat into Little Englander nationalism is a shift to the right. You vote Remain because the EU is a bankers’ and bosses’ club hard-wired to hoover wealth to the 1% at the expense of the poor, the working majority, and public services – and despite this, indeed because of this, you know that you have to fight as part of a united European working-class movement for another kind of Europe.

We need to  build a mass movement to fight the right, stem the racist tide, and win a majority of Europeans to a radical anti-austerity alternative. Julian Jones wants to lead us deeper into the darkness and irrelevance of a sectarian cul-de-sac.

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Marxist History of the World (2013, Pluto) and A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (forthcoming in 2017, Pluto/Left Book Club).

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1 comment

One response to “Yet again, on Lexit”

  1. Oliver New says:

    More heat than light is being generated by this debate.

    You would never think, to read some of the debaters that the British and international establishment supported remaining in the EU. Of course they did, it’s the chosen vehicle for West European capitalism.

    It’s easy to argue by finding the arguments that outrage you the most and denouncing them. But it’s not helpful, nor in the spirit of Left Unity. I voted against the EU and would do so again – it’s a horrible racist, undemocratic and irreformably neo-liberal organisation. I didn’t imagine for a moment there would be a left Exit – nor that there could be a Left Remain. A referendum vote would obviously not achieve a reversal of the current political landscape. The referendum was poisonous and in many ways designed to split the left and the working class. Kicking each other to bits is somewhat falling into the trap.

    Of course I can understand why some socialists voted with the establishment for the EU – they thought that a leave vote empowered the right. Many even had illusions in the EU.

    Either way, what we need now is respect and unity in the ongoing battles.

    We also need to welcome the legal ruling that legislation must be made by Parliament, rather than by prime ministers on behalf of the queen.

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