Neil Davenport, Mike Macnair, and Gerry Downing
On June 8, the London chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel on the topic“Left Exit or No Brexit?” at the London School of Economics. The panel brought together Neil Davenport , Mike Macnair, and Gerry Downing , and was moderated by Ninad Pandit of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Neil Davenport is the head of sociology at a comprehensive school in North London, and is a NASUWT representative. He is on the organizing committee for the Institute of Ideas' annual festival, the Battle of Ideas, and is a regular contributor to its associated publication, Spiked Online. Gerry Downing is a retired bus driver and has been a political activist for 40 years. He has been a member of the Worker's Revolutionary Party and was a founding member of Socialist Fight in 2009, affiliated with the Liaison Committee for the Fourth International. Gerry has also been an intermittent member of the Labour Party, from which he was expelled in 2015 and 2016. Mike Macnair is a member of the provisional Provisional Central Committee of The Communist Party of Great Britain and a writer for the Weekly Worker. Formerly a long-time Trotskyist, in that period he participated in the Left Exit Campaign run by Oxford’s trade council for the 1975 Euro Referendum. Giving him a strong sense of the difficulties of distancing such a campaign from the terms in which the debate was set by main forces.
What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
A united and peaceful Europe seemed a distant dream for a generation that in the first half of the 20th century went through the experience of war and destruction. In the latter part of the 20th century, this hope did eventually gain shape and reality in the European Union. Despite its official proclamation of peace, social well being, and an alternative to capitalism and communism, today the project finds itself in a prolonged crisis, with uncertain expectations. The refugee crisis, the euro crisis, massive austerity and increasing curtailment of democratic principles, a growing division between powerful and weak economies, and Germany's new hegemony—all these appear in stark contrast to official European values and solidarity. Today the UK also faces a referendum in which its citizens will decide whether it should leave or stay in the EU. While some on the Left believe that the EU is unelected and undemocratic, others argue that it is the only way to prevent a total breakdown of labor rights in the UK—This in the context of an anti-immigrant sentiment that gave rise to the "Leave" campaign in the first place. At the same time, an equally unconvincing "Stay" campaign seeks to preserve the free movement of labor and capital in Europe. Despite growing social unrest, a deep ambivalence towards the EU expresses itself in the the Left’s inability to formulate a coherent political alternative. What is the EU for the Left today? Should it be overcome on the basis of the EU itself, or must it be opposed? The clarification of its nature and of appropriate responses to it seems to be one of the most pressing issues for the Left today.
Neil Davenport: I want to begin with an old Left Wing slogan: “Power to the People.” It was once so familiar that it became a bit of a cliché. “Power to the People” means the capacity for citizens to make decisions that affect their lives, otherwise known as popular sovereignty. In the case of the UK, popular sovereignty is reflected in the House of Commons, previously referred to as the House of Commoners, that is ordinary people. “Power to the People”—a guiding principle echoed everywhere from the Levellers to the Chartists and after. In the 21st century a belief in power to the people seems to be sorely lacking. Especially amongst political leaders who you would expect to fully support popular sovereignty against undemocratic forces. If we bear that in mind at the moment—undemocratic forces versus popular sovereignty—there are three institutions that either threaten to, or actually, undermine popular sovereignty. These are the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and the European Union. Anyone who wants to extend power to the people and popular sovereignty in the UK in 2016 would like to see the following happen: the abolition of the Monarchy, the abolition of the House of Lords, and Britain leaving the European Union with the hope that this institution is abolished right across Europe. It is quite exciting that we have the opportunity to smash the status quo and to dismantle a profoundly undemocratic institution on the 23rd of June.
Why is the EU is an undemocratic institution that undermines popular sovereignty? In the couple of debates I have been to on this issue, this is never quite explained. it is just sort of assumed. Firstly, the body that passes and enforces European law is known as the European Commission. It is headed by 27 commissioners and a president. The commissioners are not democratically elected by citizens of EU member states. They are appointed by the member states together, and the president who decides upon their portfolios. Now European citizens can Vote in the European Parliament and Members of the European Parliament are directly elected every five years, but the European Parliament is only a scrutinizing assembly. It does not legislate. It is a bit like if David Cameron appointed life peers in the House of Lords and then they decided what the laws of the UK would be, free from further electoral scrutiny by citizens in the UK. As EU law takes primacy over UK law, we have an undemocratic situation whereby whenever the EU interferes with parliamentary decisions we have no say in major decisions affecting our lives. Then there are situations where the EU has directly usurped the will of the people, as in Greece when, after the Greek electorates had voted for an historic anti-austerity package, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble declared “elections change nothing.” That comment—“elections change nothing”—is highly expressive of how European leaders view the will of the people. And, sadly but unsurprisingly, something similar is expressed by the Remain campaign. Many of the Labour Left—who you would think would follow in Tony Benn’s footsteps and would be all in favor of power to the people—are increasingly scared of the public and the ballot box in exactly the same way that the Labour Left was scared of ordinary miners and the ballot box over 30 years ago. Many so-called experts argue that we would actually be worse off if Britain were out rather than in the EU. I am not convinced that Britain’s economy has anything to do with its membership in the EU. What I am convinced by is that, if you believe in the basic principles of democracy, of popular sovereignty, of citizens being able to have control over their laws and borders, then a vote to leave is the only way. We should have the ability to determine how we are governed and we should choose a government that has the ability to do that. Laws, regulations, protections, trade, and a myriad of other things, should be under the control of the government, not determined by appointed rulers in the EU Commission.
I am sure others on the panel know this already, but there has always been a left wing in the trade unionist tradition of opposing the EU. Though it was not always large in terms of numbers, what is striking today is that it is so small, that the number of people who have moved away from it is so large. This shift away from an anti-EU position is motivated by fear and a desire to play it safe. Although to be honest, both sides of the campaign have done a fair amount of scare mongering. It is something that has characterized almost everyone who has spoken and said that they want to remain. “Why step into the unknown?” has been a key theme in the campaign to stay in the EU. It is a negative campaign that expresses no positive vision for the future. Another feature of the Remain camp is to associate Leave supporters with racism or xenophobia. We are supposedly blinkered Little Englanders who want to go back to the 1950s or even further. As has been demonstrated in the past couple of weeks, members of the Labour Party have virtually written off older white voters as somehow being pathologically prejudiced against foreigners and thus not worth talking to. It strikes me when Remain takes that strategy, the appeal of the EU is not solely to be fellow citizens with indigenous British people whom they see as awful. There is a belief that anyone who is foreign is more enlightened and liberal than the fat and old white working Class. This was a view put forward by the comedian Mark Steel a while ago who joked that his solution to immigration was to replace white football fans with skinnier immigrants. Far from being enlightened, this sort of anti-racism and pro-immigration stance is the face of class hatred, and the Remain camp indulge it to a spectacular degree. And on this issue of immigration, the issue with the EU and free movement is actually fanciful. The free movement argument around the EU ignores how the European Union discriminates against non-EU citizens. For citizens of the Third World it is a white man’s club, not a bastion of free association and free movement. As it happens, I am in favor of free movement of people, and I have always been opposed to immigration controls, but that is an argument that has to be won with the sovereign people. It should not be imposed by an unelected body. The fashion for demanding open borders today has within it a desire to undermine national sovereignty, and with that the will of the people. I have rarely been in favor of keeping the status quo, and this is definitely true as regards the referendum vote. I will be voting for a change, for democratic control, and for extending the power of the people. I hope that you will consider doing the same.
Mike Macnair: The choice we are offered in this referendum is either “Camerain”—that is to vote Remain and vote confidence in David Cameron—or “Borexit”— that is to vote Exit and vote confidence in Boris Johnson, or whoever is the alternative Tory leader. There is no third option, other than boycott—and boycotting the vote is what I am arguing for. If we had mass forces, I would argue not merely for boycott, but to disrupt this vote on the basis that it is a sham, a fraud, and an anti-democratic initiative. The fact is that it forces a choice between two unsatisfactory options. It is an unsatisfactory option to vote Remain on the terms of this proposal, on the terms of the EU as it is. It is equally unsatisfactory to vote Exit in the circumstances of the 21st century. Forcing this sort of “You must choose the lesser evil” is why Louis Bonaparte in the late 19th century and Adolf Hitler in the 1930s used referenda. Referenda are undemocratic. This referendum in particular is a sham. The debate is not being conducted in the way it would if there were a genuine debate in the British capitalist class and the British state about whether to leave the European Union. The referendum was promised by David Cameron in order to do down the UK Independence Party [UKIP] in the last election and to placate his own backbenchers. It is also being used to steer the Labour Party into a trap which will result in a large UKIP vote among white Working Class voters in the next general election. This sham character is visible in the complete ridiculousness of Cameron’srenegotiation. It is equally visible in the fact that the government did not introduce, as it could have done, a sovereignty act to insist that EU legislation is not binding in England unless it passes constitutional scrutiny in the UK Supreme Court. That is already the law in Germany. So, there is no question that they cannot do it because EU law prohibits them. They cannot do it because they are keeping ammunition in their pocket. If the vote goes for Brexit there will be a renegotiation. There will be a sovereignty act and Britain will remain in the EU fundamentally under the existing terms. All that will change is the leadership of the Conservative Party. In addition, the Labour Party will have presented itself as a party of the establishment, just as in the Scottish Referendum the Labour Party presented itself as Red Tories voting for Anglo-Scottish Unionism.
Why should it be the case that it is not on offer to Brexit? Fundamentally, it is geopolitics. British entry into the European Union was a demand made by the United States, a requirement of the United States following the Anglo-French defeat in Suez and the intervention of the United States against the Suez operation. It was delayed for more than ten years because Charles de Gaulle understood perfectly well that British entry into the European Union would serve the interests of the United States in Europe, preventing the formation of a European state. Once de Gaulle fell as a result of May ’68, and indeed in May ’68, the U.S. intervened against de Gaulle using troops. Once de Gaulle fell, Britain could join the EU. The direction in which it has pushed the EU is enlargement towards the east, neoliberalism, and a deepening engagement in threatened conflict with Russia. Of course, it would be fine from the American point of view if Germany or France get involved in a hot war with Russia, not so good if the United States itself does. As long as the EU could be blamed for it, it is not a problem for the United States.
The third point, that the referendum is a trap for the Labour Party, is this: If you vote for Brexit what you are actually doing is promoting the right-wing of the Conservative Party: a nostalgic vision of the past that was never true. The ability of Britain to operate as an independent territory, an independent power relative to the European countries, was entirely attributable to the British Empire. When the British Empire came to an end, the ability of Britain to operate autonomously also came to an end. So you wind up promoting the ideas of nostalgic nationalists. To vote Remain, on the other hand, is to vote confidence in Cameron and the existing political order. The natural and probable consequence on either a relatively narrow Brexit vote, or a relatively narrow Remain vote, under circumstances where the Labour Party has campaigned heavily in favor of Remain, is that just as there was an increase in the voting share from the Scottish National Party in 2010, so there will be a dramatic increase in voting share of UKIP in working class areas in the next general election. So, it is a trap. Vote Remain, vote Exit—either way it is a trap. A mass boycott campaign—if we could deliver a mass boycott, if we could deliver the lowest possible turnout in this referendum—could delegitimize this whole sham, fake vote, and begin to pose something like a real alternative. Small groups cannot do that, but we can at least raise a hand as it were against participating in either of these two reactionary camps, against getting trapped in the more- or lesser-evil nonsense argued on one side or the other.
On the Left, actually, the predominant view is Left Exit. That is the view of the Morning Star and its version of the Communist Party. That is the view of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party of England and Wales. It is also the view of a lot of the smaller groups. It is astonishing to me (I was a Trotskyist for many year), that after the fall of the Soviet Union Trotskyists should become on such a large scale fans of the idea of “Socialism in One Country.” Because that is what Lexit means. Lexit means we ought to get back sovereignty. But such sovereignty would require a degree of integration of the productive forces—of productive capital, of physical production—that would be completely and utterly elusive. Let me be clear. Let’s suppose that real Brexit were on the agenda, that the British ruling class was really debating exiting the European Union and reclaiming sovereignty, that it were really the case that someone like [UKIP leader] Nigel Farage was prime minister, then, on the whole, I would, under those conditions, vote Remain. That is not where we are. Under those conditions I would vote Remain because voting Exit would actually mean Britain breaking the alliance with the United States of America, a tactic which would be more or less immediately followed by the removal of the exemption from anti-offshore legislation which currently applies to the operations of the City of London under U.S. law. This would have the same consequence for the UK in practice as the Dutch breaking their alliance with Britain in the 1780s did for the Netherlands, which is—the picture is famous, The Potato Eaters—the loss of a country that had been a manufacturing and transportation world-dominant power in the 18th century to become a parasite living off financial services and, when the financial services tap was shut off by breaking the subordinate alliance with the UK, the Netherlands became for 40 or 50 years a very seriously impoverished country. The UK could expect under those conditions to become a seriously impoverished country. Certainly, no step could be taken towards a socialist or communist alternative. Steps towards a socialist or communist alternative need to be taken at least on a European scale, possibly larger than that, but at least on a European scale. So Lexit is hopeless. Remain is equally hopeless, because it is simply endorsing the status quo. Boycott is a small alternative to say neither you nor you.
Gerry Downing: I am very definitely for Remain. The current debate is entirely within the Tory party, and everything else is a fringe debate. Their debate sets the parameters of the political climate in Britain after the referendum. And it does matter what happens. It is clear that the forces to the right of Cameron are viciously racist, viciously anti-immigrant, viciously for import controls. A Brexit vote will enormously boost their chances. You will have a carnival of reaction if we leave. My stance as a revolutionary socialist is really not to put the matter as a choice between two wings of the ruling class. For any genuinely revolutionary socialist it is the the effect that this will have on class consciousness that is important. I would suggest that those Trotskyist groups who are for Lexit are politically dominated by the Communist Party of Britain. If I may quote from you a little piece from The British Road to Socialism, [the Communist Party of Great Britain’s 1951 program]—there they charge the Tories and the Labour leaders with betraying the interests of Britain. Thinking the interests of Britain to be the interests of British capitalism, they say:
The restoration of British national independence, which has been given away by the leaders of the Tory, Liberal, and Labour parties, is the indispensable condition for Britain’s recovery and political, economic, and social advance. The Communist Party declares that the leaders of the Tory, Liberal, and Labour Parties and their spokesmen in the press and on the B.B.C. are betraying the interests of Britain to dollar imperialism. Our call is for the unity of all true patriots to defend British national interests and independence.
That is a complete abandonment, of course, of all class politics, a popular front collapse. Moreover, defending the national sovereignty of an imperialist country like Britain is defending the right of British imperialism to “defend” its colonies and semi-colonies. So, if we take another leading advocate of the Left Exit, the National Union of Rail, Mining, and Transport Workers [RMT] in 2009 under Bob Crow was notoriously soft on [the Labour Party’s call for] “British jobs for British Workers.” This was a “great” campaign—the Socialist Party supported it, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) was somewhat better but reluctantly supported it in the end. It was launched with the help of the Sun and the Daily Star. They had huge covers promoting this campaign. And the strikes that resulted were ones that large sections of the capitalist class were absolutely delighted to support, because they knew that what was happening was a fight within the working class. Workers were blaming other workers; that was the whole essence of the situation. As revolutionary socialists you have to raise your sights. You have to understand that the crisis of capitalism is global, truly international, not located in one country. The whole idea of capitalism in a single country is long gone, as Marx explains quite clearly. So, the Stalinist idea of socialism in a single country is a complete farce, a lie. There was no socialism in the USSR or in China and there could not be, because socialism depends on developing the productive forces to their highest level. Socialism does not depend on gaining power in a single country, passing laws through parliament, and then hoping that the army will not shoot you. That is absolutely not how it is going to happen. One thing I do agree with Mike on is that it has to be on a European level and on a global level. The whole basis of the Brexit campaign is to inculcate into the minds of the British working class that your enemy is the immigrant and the foreign imports. For instance, if we take the case of British Steel in Port Talbot and the attempt to stop the Chinese dumping their steel. At that time, did anybody say to the workers in Port Talbot, “Look, the Chinese steel workers are facing the loss of a million jobs. Aren’t they the people you should be talking to, rather than ganging up with your own ruling class against workers internationally? Isn’t that the question?” Similarly, in Spain there are massive shutdowns of steel factories in Spain. We should be appealing to those workers in solidarity with the workers in Britain. You may well make the case that it is the lesser of two evils—you are choosing between an undemocratic European Union and an imperialist British state and, in a certain sense, that is true. But one is definitely a much greater evil than the other. The effect on the class consciousness of the British working class, I insist, is the only criterion for judging this referendum. In practical terms the people that are going to gain by Brexit in whatever form are the far right of the Tory party—the small capitalists, the most reactionary sections. Of course, the fascists are of the same sort. Those are the sections that will get the wind in their sails. The SWP tell us how great it will be if we get rid of Cameron. Well did you ever hear about getting thrown out of the frying pan into the fire? What is going to come out after Cameron? Wasn’t it the SWP that welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall? Wasn’t it great that we got rid of those nasty Stalinists and that the Berlin Wall fell? Well the Berlin Wall fell to the right not the left. It was a major defeat of the working class. The life expectancy of workers in the former Soviet Union fell by 10 years under Yeltsin. So, we want to recognize defeats for what they are and not call them victories. That is my proposition.
ND: I find it quite extraordinary that we have got a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist who seems scared of the British electorate, of ordinary working-class people, not making the right decisions. It s quite phenomenal.
This is not a fudge issue in terms of a boycott on either side. On one side we have got the establishment, and I am afraid that your comments are much closer to this view at the moment—that democracy is overrated, that the people cannot be trusted because they will just vote UKIP, which both of you have alluded to already. So what then? The more we minimize ordinary people’s capacity to choose who governs them the better, because, after all, these stupid people will just vote UKIP or Cameron if left to themselves. There is quite a meaningful choice to be made of addressing ordinary people’s concern that they do not have control of the laws and borders of the society and country that they live in. That is what self-determination means. Then you have got Labour, the Tories, the Guardian, the Independent—the entire establishment more or less—telling everyone that we must remain, otherwise it will be chaos and lead to populist right wing politics taking off. The reason I am for Brexit is not that it is the solution to all our problems, but we do have a problem with the lack of engagement of ordinary people in politics in this country. It is the case that people are distant from the political process and from decision making. So, at the very least, it would revitalize democracy, popular participation, and shake things up. The left should not just go with the status quo. We should make a bold leap into the future. We should not be terrified of worst-case scenarios. The sky is not going to fall in if we have Brexit on June 24. We should embrace it as a positive development if we do leave the EU. Because I am interested in engaging ordinary people with the political process, and a key part of that is self-determination—the right of ordinary people to choose who governs them, and the right of ordinary people to choose the political system that they operate under. You can make all sorts of grand claims that this is all a bourgeois debate within the Tory party. But if you go back to the Communist Manifesto, Marx argued the importance of the nation state and the self-determination of the nation state before moving on to internationalism. You cannot have one without the other. That is important to take into consideration. So, I do not share the panelists’ negativity on this. I think it is quite exciting, shaking up a decrepit anti-democratic institution that exists solely for European leaders to distance themselves from the European electorate as much as possible, to have decision-making behind closed doors, and to make laws without any popular accountability. So, though the Brexit campaign has not been great, the Brexit solution, what it is offering, is both very straightforward and very positive. Popular accountability to the laws that affect us, the very basis of living in a progressive liberal democracy. More important still is the revitalizing of debate and of ordinary people’s participation in political process.
MM: I am going to address just that question. Two issues: first off, if we think about what the EU is, as things now are, it is essentially an entity like the German Zollverein, or the North German confederation in the 19th century before the creation of the full German empire.
No it isn’t. That is insane. We are not living in the 19th century.
MM: There is no common army, but there are common-law-making institutions. The structure of these law-making institutions is undemocratic, but in a particular way, in fact in exactly the same way. The Council of Ministers is the body that makes the laws, not the commission. That is a drafting body. Every single member of the Council of Ministers is an elected politician in their home country. It is undemocratic in exactly the same way as the Reichsrat was in the German Empire—one representative per state; or as the senate is in the United States—two senators per state. And if we ask the question, why is it that there has been an evisceration of democratic practice, popular involvement in politics? This evisceration is a genuine phenomenon, but it is taking place as well in the United States as well as here. It is taking place at the level of destroying the links at the level of local government between the electorate and the centre. And the destruction of these links, which means in consequence that people cannot get things done through their councilors, that destruction of links between local government and the centre has resulted in the view that “it is not worth being active in political parties.” This has nothing to do with the EU. It has two elements to it: The first is the high level of monopolization of the press and the extent to which voices are excluded other than the voices that exist in the official media. The second is judicial review of administrative action, in particular judicial review of local government action, and the extent to which the judicial system is corrupted by the free market in legal services. Those developments have taken place during my period of political activity, but they have not taken place because the EU has taken power away from the UK. They have taken place because the UK state has reoriented itself to take power away from the directly elected representatives. Indeed, we see it going on right now. Look at Cameron. Yes the people to Cameron’s right are, let’s say, nostalgic chauvinists that have some image of a British past that is monochrome, white, suburban, etc. But they are not to the right of Cameron. Cameron is the guy who is pushing for the full privatization of the British education system. Cameron is the guy who is managing the NHS in such a way to run it down with a view to full privatization. So, it is a mistake to imagine that the problem of democracy is a problem of democracy versus the EU.
GD: Power to the people, popular sovereignty, the will of the people—These are phrases never used by Marxists. The people that use phrases like that are left populists, people like Eva Perón. The people are divided into capitalists and workers: David Cameron and the Queen are the people, and the poor worker is also the people. These are phrases that, if we want to understand the modern world, we must get rid of. Of course we have the emergence here of right-populist forces. Farage is a right populist force. He appeals to the working class; he’d do stuff for the working class. If we remember the history of the rise of Nazism there were the Strasser brothers who appealed to the working class in Germany in the late 20s early 30s and wanted a pact with Stalin. Indeed, Stalin himself was such a workerist character. One of the Strassers was assassinated in the Night of the Long Knives as we know. There are such things as left-populists, and there are such things as right-populists. The US is a country that is full of populism: Donald Trump is a right-wing populist and Bernie Sanders is a left-wing populist. That is the difference between the two of them. Both reject class politics entirely. We must not accept the parameters they set us. If the working class in towns in the north of England begin to vote for UKIP, you have got to tell them: “Look this is a wrong thing to do, a racist thing to do.” More importantly, we saw that when Corbyn was elected to the Labour party—when he stood in elections, and when they really believed that he was going to fight against austerity—then, of course, voters swung back to Labour and abandoned UKIP. Fighting austerity is the way you win them back, not by kowtowing to them and pandering to their prejudices and ignorance. If you have racist views and you are working class, then you are a working-class racist, and that is all there is to it. If you win them over to a fight against capitalism, then of course they will forget in large measure about their racism. And I will just finish on that point. If people read Gorky’s works about what was happening during the Russian revolution—he was a bit of a pain to Lenin, so Lenin sent him out to record what was actually happening during the course of the revolution, and he found terrible racist, anti-semitic people on the side of revolution, who were fighting nonetheless on the side of the revolution. And they fighting, they participated and made it. You cannot suppose they we are going to get pure people with pure views fighting against and overthrowing capitalism. But once you have presented them a way forward, a fighting programme, then you will be able to educate them, or at least the next generation, about racism and all that.
ND: When Irish republicans were at war with the British state, did you support the right of Irish people for national self-determination?
GD: Oh yes, but not British people for national self-determination. Britain is an imperialist country, I would never support that.
So power to the people in Ireland?
GD: Absolutely not!
NP: I have a couple of question. One is to Gerry. Since there was some conversation about a vote for Remain being a vote for the status quo, I was wondering if you could speak to the possibilities that at least some on the Left hold to, namely the idea of pushing the EU itself to the left. What possibilities do you think are available for the Left if Brexit does not happen. The second question is to Mike. Since you spoke about Britain’s position in the EU and its relationship to the US, could speak to a broad conversation of both anti-imperialist as well as anti-neoliberal politics that can come out of such a boycott. Or, do you think that this is a conversation that is clearly located outside the EU, that the EU actually is completely subsidiary to the US leading both imperialism and neoliberalism.
GD: Well, I do not think that there is any serious prospect of reforming the EU as an institution. It was fundamentally flawed anyway. The way that the Euro was set up and the whole common currency was as a monetary union but not a fiscal union. It did not equalize taxes. It did not equalize anything throughout Europe. Like, in the period in the building of states themselves, when the British state was being built or the French state was being built, you have to do all that, all those kind of things, and you have to subsidize all the backwards regions, you have to make a certain equality. Because there was no fiscal union within the EU, you had the situation in Greece and you had the situation in the periphery in Ireland and Italy. I do not think that will ever be solved. The British or the European ruling class will never manage to make a United States of Europe in that way. My point was always that you must fight for an internationalist perspective within the working class. To draw into your own little nation, your own Little England perspective, is absolute poison to the British working class. It can only produce reaction.
NP: To me it sounds like supporting the decision of voting to stay really seems to be about your response to domestic British politics rather than a position towards the EU.
GD: No, it is the effect on the class consciousness, not only of the British but of the Europeans. If every individual national ruling class, every imperialist ruling class convinces the working class in their own state begin to think that they can solve their own problems within their own state by putting up trade barriers and keeping out the immigrants, etc., that would be an absolute disaster for global class consciousness. It is not just about Britain but global.
MM: The European Union is neoliberal because neoliberalism is written into two recent treaties, which are the treaties Maastricht and of Nice. Oliver Wendell-Holmes famously said of the US Constitution, “the Constitution does not legislate Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics,” which was a free-marketeering document of the late 19th century. The European Union Constitutiondoes legislate Milton Friedman’s monetarism. That said, since its treaties are fairly recent treaties under the right circumstances these treaties can be overthrown. And, there is no more problem in making fundamental reform in the European Union than there is in making fundamental reform in the United Kingdom. You refer to the Monarchy and the House of Lords— well, we have been unable to get rid of them. In relation to anti-imperialism and the question is the EU subsidiary to the United States? Yes, as things now stand, the EU is subsidiary to the United States. The United States has operations in the EU which have the same effect as the operations which the UK had in the United States before the American Civil War. It makes the EU unable to act independently of, or against, the sanction of the United States. That is the present situation. Is it a great idea to get rid of that? Well, the problem with that is actually if you get rid of it, then it really would become the case, as the Socialist Workers Party fears, that voting Remain would be supporting an imperialist rival to the United States and setting us on the road to war. In reality, the reverse is the case. Voting for Brexit would facilitate the EU mutating itself an autonomous rival of the United States. As an autonomous of the United States, it would in fact be forced to act increasingly just as we have seen in the relations between the United States and China, with Chinese overseas investment, with the increasingly visible significance of Great Han chauvinism as a factor in political life. Even if the EU were anti-imperialist in any sense—I must admit I am pretty goddamn sceptical whether the European Union was ever really a pacifistic project or an anti-imperialistic project or any of these things—then, just as the United States spoke anti-imperialist language all the way down to the point at which that the Civil War emancipated it from British tutelage and immediately afterwards became a colonising power, so the European Union, if it was fully emancipated (which would take big events), would be an imperialistic rival to the United States. Either way doesn’t make any answer.
As a Labour Party Marxist, I must say first I detest the question and answer system, because it pretends that these comrades are experts and we are all stupid, which we are not. That is the first thing. I think whatever is wrong with the European Union, Britain has been a major player in the European Union, in formulating what it is. If we are going to blame anybody or what the European Union is like, you could blame the UK. As for this question of democracy, I am amazed at Neil saying the phrase “progressive liberal democracy.” What the hell is that? The modern imperialist state! That is what the main exploiters of the world are, progressive liberal democracies! Democracy is a sham in this country and in Europe. I much prefer to live in a democratic form of capitalism than an undemocratic one, but you have got to recognize that the democratic system we have got has been won, first of all, through struggle. So, it is a question of working class struggle to win democracy. The capitalist class was not interested in democracy. Democracy was a dirty word as far as the ruling class in Britain and America were concerned up to the turn of the century. So my question for Mike is how on earth is democracy generated by capitalism? Or is it won by the working class? And the issue here with this referendum. I am for boycott. But the issue for this referendum is, where is the working class poll? Where is working class politics? It is not with Cameron, and it is not with Boris Johnson. You can democratize the European Union, not smoothly and nicely, but if the working class is united across Europe with its own programme. The same applies to Britain. We have seen a number of countries where the democratic will of the people is very obvious and they are not allowed to do it, as in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Talk about democracy being the way out for Britain! Then we will just get the same treatment from the United States. So, my question for Mike is, Why does the United States want Britain in?
What has not been on the table here is what you brought in at the sidelines, namely that the EU is based on calculations not firstly by the US, but by the EU member states wanting to get something out of that state bloc, thinking that, as an EU they be stronger and play a more important role in the world. So, the EU is not founded through will of the US but by its member states. That also leads to the second point I want to make. I do not think the vote is a sham, because there is a question that is on the table, namely whether the UK can advance its national interest better with or without the EU. That is not a fake question. The last point is, What does it mean to pose that question, to say that people are more self-determined or that there is more power to the people with an option to leave or, for that matter, to stay? I would say in that regard nothing changes. If I read the word “self-determination” in the best possible way, then you would have to vote against the EU and against any nation state. Because everything on offer is a capitalist programme based on mass exploitation. In that regard the vote does not offer an alternative, because, with or without the EU, it is going to stay a capitalist state. This is what needs to be challenged.
ND: This has come up quite a lot in this evening’s discussion—this is all a sideshow and what we should concentrate on is socialism vs capitalism. This seems to be what has been put forward. But, from what a lot of people have said, I get the impression that particular people on the panel would not trust ordinary people to vote in an election. So how would they feel about them taking over the means of production. For me, any political question resolves itself into is it on the side of progress or not? Which is more progressive, which is more reactionary? So I ask, what is more progressive? Ordinary people having a vote in the Commons, or being ruled over by a monarchy? What some are arguing is that bourgeois democracy is a sham, so let’s not bother having it. What I would argue is that we are not in a situation of worker’s democracy versus the capitalist market. We are looking at the issue of liberal democracy combined with popular sovereignty, versus institutions that want to undermine the will of the people. Now, would people in this room be against the suffragettes on the basis that “women’s position in society is not going to improve if they get the vote”? No, of course not. You would be in favour of women having the vote, because it pushes society forward. For that reason, the abolition of the EU, Britain removing itself from the EU, pushes things forward. So, I think, all this sort of fancy counter position, of socialism or workers democracy versus a liberal democracy is in actual fact a politics of evasion. You want to evade the issue, which is that ordinary people must have a say in the country that they live and work in. Sitting on the fence, washing your hands and being high minded by saying “well, because it is not taking over the means of production I am not interested,” that is a complete evasion of history. It is a complete evasion of any politics that will take things forward. As I said in my introduction, Brexit is positive and will push things forward because it is about engaging ordinary people with the political process. People on the panel seem to be terrified of talking to ordinary people, because they think they are going to be UKIP voters or they are going to like David Cameron. You can be as high-minded as you want, but you actually sound anti-working class.
Would a bourgeois, United States of Europe in a kind of American federal state sense, be a progressive move, compared to what we have now in the EU? Why does the left not seem to argue for that?
I am interested in boycotting the vote, but I do not quite understand what difference will that make?
MM: With small forces it is unavoidable, in whatever the hell you do—If you say “Left Exit,” your voice will not be heard; if you say left “Remain,” your voice will not be heard.
But you are not doing anything about anything. You are just leaving things as they are.
MM: What we are urging is for as many people as possible not to vote, but to argue, and for people to argue in Parliament that this referendum is illegitimate, that it is a fraud.
But how is it a fraud?
MM: It is characteristic of all referenda, in fact, that they have this fraudulent character, that they offer a set of choices that are carefully selected. This referendum offers a choice between Cameron and the Tory party further to Cameron’s right, that is the choice on offer.
ND: I agree that there are some drawbacks with referenda and using referenda too often. But the reason why they are triggered in this country is that a constitutional issue is being put forward. What I mean by constitutional issue is how citizens in the UK choose how they are going to be governed.
MM: As for the United States of Europe, we have being putting forward a series of proposals for a radical democratization of the European Union on the basis of a sovereign EU. We have proposals for a sovereign EU Parliament, which we think would be a big step forward. The objection which you made to the EU Parliament is that the EU Parliament is merely a revising body, and does not have the power of initiative. To make it a sovereign body would be a lot more democratic than the US, because the US has a body like the Council of Ministers: It is called the Senate. It is not only is gerrymandered in the sense that it is two people per state, but it has also, on top of that, imposed this requirement of a 60% majority or else you can filibuster. So it is a supermajority of a supermajority. It is an undemocratic structure of exactly the same sort as the present European Union’s undemocratic structure.
Cameron said sovereignty is just control. The way I look at it, it is a control of how best is capital served. Is capital served better in Europe, or in a nation? And when we talk about democratic voting procedures, what you are voting for under sovereignty is you are voting for your own subordination. You are voting for your own subordination under a voting process. It is about the will of the people being subordinated to the will of the state.
I am a bit bemused that we are talking about the Zollverein and the 1951 Communist Manifesto and the Trotskyist position, none of which are at issue in this referendum. People’s unwillingness to talk about the referendum and the two choices in the referendum are an evasion. This is why the left has no impact whatsoever on the entire discussion, because we have all got these spectacles—one from 1975, one from 1951, one from 1795, and none can see what’s in front of them. There is no question on the referendum page that says “Do you think that Boris Johnson or David Cameron should be Prime Minister?” The referendum asks a very simple thing: “European Union, or not?” That is so clear that I am astonished that any sane person would think about this twice. Because it is only this,: Do you think that the laws in the country that you are in should be decided by a constituent assembly elected by the people in the country you are in, or do you think it should be decided by people appointed in another place, of which we are just a small subset and have very little impact upon the political process taking part there? As for class consciousness, how many billion miles away is that? If you cannot defend your own vote, you cannot defend your own right to a democracy, then obviously you are never going to have any class consciousness. There is no way in a million years that people who do not respect themselves enough to think that they have the right to cast a vote in an election to decide what happens in the country will ever manage a socialist revolution. They cannot even defend the simple act of a formal, democratic vote! Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas! Vote remain, you have got to be joking! I think the lot of you should give yourself a big slap and try and wake up.
MM: It is useful to talk about the damn Zollverein to say that, in the face of it, it would be pointless to respond “We are going to control our future, our destiny in Baden-Baden!” We live in the equivalent of Baden-Baden. The economy of the UK is so integrated into the larger world economy, that we cannot live without legislation made on a larger scale than the UK. The people who are proposing Brexit are proposing that we go out of the European Union. I agree that the Commission makes decision behind closed doors, though at least the damned Court of Justice sits in public. So, they say we should go out of the European Union and work under the rules of the World Trade Organization. The rules of the World Trade Organization, even the courts, are completely secret. Every single decision of the World Trade Organization dispute settlement procedures, even the fact that an application has been made to the World Trade Organization dispute settlement procedures, is a secret. This is a system of secret trials and secret negotiations.
You are voting for openness. That is why you are voting to remain!
MM: Exactly. It is for that indeed. But it is also a vote for the potential of us winning democracy on a European level.
If you cannot win it on a British level, you cannot win it on a European level.
GD: It is a simple thing, isn’t it? If you could just get your proper bourgeois democracy, then you could go from that to socialism! That is just rubbish. Class politics does not work like that. A proper vote and a proper parliament— a proper House of Lords and a proper Queen, then we would be fine! Well, it really does not work like that at all. And to be pooh-poohed about the question of class consciousness! Forty years ago there was a small strike in Willesden where I come from. Just a few Asian women went on strike. It was one of the most politically significant strikes in British history for raising its class consciousness, because the big battalions of the working class came and recognized that the defence of the weakest sections of the working class is what makes a class a class. Now when the working class attacks its own weakest section, it is been absolutely destroyed. So, when it goes for its immigrants and when it goes for its black workers or when it blames the most oppressed, then it is disintegrating as a class and falling to pieces. It is the absolute worst thing that can happen that you would have this division in the working class and that it should grow on the say-so of Nigel Farage or the far right of the Tories! UKIP is to the right of the Tory Party, obviously, and they are proud of it. They say who they are. You shift the body politic of Britain significantly to the right if you vote for Brexit.
ND: You have repeated yourself again, in terms of “I actually do not trust the electorate to make the right decision and therefore, I do not want to engage with them. I am scared of the outcome of Brexit because they are gonna vote UKIP.” To be honest, this demand to ring-fence any discussion of immigration is actually part of the problem. We should have an open and honest debate about immigration, about who is allowed into this country, whether they cause problems or not. I want to have that debate out. I do not want to say you cannot talk about that because you are a reactionary, you are a racist. Why can’t you talk to these people and actually have that debate out?
GD: And you also think unemployed workers should be further sanctioned under the system. You think that unemployed people are mollycoddled!
ND: Yes, I do, actually.
GD: Do not talk to me about reactionary.
ND: That is not what this debate is actually about.
GD: When you throw the word reactionary about, I am entitled to throw it back.
Given that 1850 is too far back, can we go back to 2014 and talk about the Scottish referendum? What is on the paper? Do you want to be independent or not? It is perfectly simple. They said that if you want to be independent, you also get the Queen and the pound, except maybe you can’t have the pound and you also get the EU. On the other hand, if you vote no, what do you get? Presumably you get the status quo. Except when it looks like they are going to lose, suddenly the status quo is massive devolution. But then when they actually win it is no longer devolution it is everything back to status quo ante. That is why you cannot simply say “well it says this on the piece of paper.” This is not critical thinking. Look at the Greek thing last year. They voted no to a horrible deal with the troika, and what did they get? An even more horrible deal! You cannot trust what is written on the ballot paper, unless you are a fool. This is how referenda work. Its beyond belief to be so naïve given the last two referenda (and I am not talking about Louis Bonaparte).
For anyone coming to Britain from outside Britain, the idea that this is democracy and giving more power to the House of Lords or the current system is actually respecting democracy is bizarre, to say the least. But an assumption is being made here that Brexit will actually happen. But no one in their right mind, including the right wing of the Conservative Party, is of that opinion. What we will get is a renegotiation, a return to the negotiating table by the other part of the Conservative Party. And it is not the speakers here who are saying this is a debate between the two sides of the Conservative Party. If there is a unanimity on anything it is that this is a debate within the Conservative Party that has very little to do with Europe or anything else. We will get a renegotiation. This is what has happened with every other referendum that has taken place on this issue in Europe—the country concerned gains a bit more, which is what Cameron went to the European commission for in the first place. There will be either another vote or a conciliation within the Conservative Party. This whole idea that somehow voting Brexit will bring democracy is so strange. I have never heard it from anybody else.
Where have you been?
ND: I am quite flabbergasted that you actually cannot see the connection between Brexit and revitalizing democracy, in terms of putting power and decision making back with citizens in the UK, to put pressure on Parliament to make sure that Parliament introduces the laws that we have voted for, against an unelected commission which has power over the House of Commons. To go back to your point earlier about the EU introducing law, to give an example from a couple of years ago where there was an EU law that said that you are not allowed to drink alcohol near arcade machines. I had no idea about that law. I would be against that law if I was on holiday. Who is the European Member of Parliament I can vote off to change that law? That is what’s at stake and that is what’s important. Ordinary people’s capacity to chose who rules over them, ordinary people’s capacity to elect MPs who they can vote against if they introduce laws that we are not happy with, that does not happen with the European commission. So this sort of shrug shoulder, plague-on-both-houses response is simply not good enough. There is a very clear straightforward choice: Is it that ordinary people have sovereignty, have self-determination, have the capacity to chose their laws in the UK? Or is it that we put all our faith in an unelected body whereby I cannot vote out European members of Parliament if the European commission introduces a law that I am not happy with? Can anyone explain to me how that is more progressive? How is the EU more progressive than what we have in the House of Commons? Now we can talk about all the limitations of the House of Commons, but that is not what’s at issue. The offer is a straightforward choice between popular sovereignty, the will of the people, versus the will of the bureaucrats. I am with the will of the people all the time. You can shrug your shoulders over that, but it is a straightforward choice.
It is not the will of the people, but the Parliament that makes the law in the government, and the majority of MPs. And we have got a Conservative government.
ND: Yeah. But who votes for those MPs? We do, right? If you are not happy with those MPs…
MM: It is the Council of Ministers.
The laws that have come from Europe have all been beneficial for this country. Very few of them haven’t been. You know paternity rights, employment contracts, the right to holiday pay, the right to travel. That is beneficial to everybody—why would you be against that?
ND: I would question that. But the reason why I am against that is because none of those issues have actually been debated.
Why would you be against working rights and employment rights?
ND: Well, it sounds like accepting paternalism, because you are saying it is a benign institution over which we just happen to have no democratic control. But, look, they introduce these nice laws! For me, I am not bothered with whether those laws are, if you like, progressive or not. The problem is none of these laws have been debated by ordinary people in British society. If we have a situation where there is a reversal on maternity rights and working pay and conditions, well we would need to have that argument in the House of Commons. We would need to have that argument here. What you want is to bypass the electorate and bypass debate. You want to sort of go along with a system of paternalism that grants you the things that a nice king or queen might grant.
I want to go back to the idea that the ballot paper is clear. I agree it is clear. So the question you asked is, Do you want those powers that currently rest with the EU transferred back to the British state? Do you consent to be ruled over by a British state uninhibited by EU rule? Or, do you consent to rule by a British state within the framework of the EU? That is what is actually on the ballot paper. You guys are saying the ballot means greater sovereignty for the people—whatever that means; or, perhaps, voting for Remain means voting against racism; or perhaps, somehow, Remain means kinda more democracy. You are imagining what this ballot paper means, when all it means is, Which form of domination do you consent to? You are asked to either consent to one of those two. Indeed, it is true that everybody voting in the election has all kinds of ideas about what this means. Some people are voting for Brexit so that house prices come down, but they have no guarantee that house prices will come down. The problem of this debate is that you are immediately jumping to “Is this beneficial?” or “Is this bad?” You are asking is Brexit better or is Remain better—or Lexit or whatever you want to call it? What you should be asking is, What is Brexit? What is the EU? What is the referendum? What is a right? You throw this around—Do you support this right? or, Do you support that right?—but, What is a right that a democratic state grants you? What is this abstraction “the people”? I would suggest that we go back and ask what it is we are confronted with, before we choose sides.
I wanted to address sovereignty with regards to either in the European Parliament or the House of Commons. You said, “Look, I can’t vote out Parliament in the EU if I do not like a law they are creating.” Yet, here in the UK then we are also stuck with voters and the MPs they are voting in, say in Scotland or in Wales or the Midlands. We are also stuck with them. Clearly, the problem is not one of sovereignty, but who the “we” is that constitutes “the people.” Then you come back and say, yes, but I want what is the most progressive thing. But honestly, is a national “people,” national sovereignty more progressive? To me, belief in a “we” based on nationality, rather than on shared ideas or class-consciousness, is anti-progressive.
She is calling you a nationalist.
ND: As I said previously, we have a situation where there are terrible laws—and there are plenty of terrible laws, New Labour introduced 3,000 or so that I would like to see repealed. They are bad laws, but they are bad laws passed by Parliament. We have the capacity to remove them by voting for people in elections. What I see here is a sort of smirking disdain for my attempting to defend liberal democracy. I can understand why people see it as odd, because you want to be five leaps ahead and defending something more progressively socialist. Would you have been so against the French revolution in 1789 as to say “that’s not going far enough, fast enough.” Would you have been against the Bill of Rights in America and the American Revolution? Things take place that push society forward and push humanity forward. The question today is over the issue of sovereignty. Somebody wanted a clarification of terminology, but in fact I went through what the EU is about, why it is less democratic and reactionary compared to Parliament, etc.. On the issue of sovereignty simply meaning control. You can argue that the idea of sovereignty originated from the idea of monarchical rule, and then came to mean something very different through what I would say “progressive nationalism” or “liberal nationalism.” In today’s context what is more progressive—monarchical rule, EU rule, or liberal democracy? Liberal Democracy is far more progressive because it enables people to have a say in the democratic process. So you can smirk and say “this is simply bourgeois democracy, I am gonna wash my hands of it.” But if you do that, what you are refusing to do is to engage people in Britain. You are refusing to engage on the issues of the day. The fact that ordinary people are very hostile to the EU I hopeful. The fact that they want to have this debate out and they want to have a discussion and a vision of what Britain becomes, this is actually very positive. I made this point before: Karl Marx talked about the nation state and its importance as a starting place in the Communist Manifesto. So I cannot see where people are coming from asking "why are we socialists defending liberal democracy?" Because, relatively speaking, it is still better, palpably better, infinitely better than what we have got with the EU. This is where we are. And precisely because ordinary people are not engaged in the political process, I think revitalising democracy is a good starting point. And democracy means more than just the ballot box. It also means people engaging with ideas, engaging in discussion about what kind of country they want to live in and what type of society they want to see. I get the impression that people here do not want to have that debate with ordinary people because you do not trust them to come up with the right answers.
GD: There is a problem here, for instance, about the working class that vote for UKIP. How do we deal with them? And there is a problem with what is progressive and what is reactionary. I would like to ask Neil now, Did you really say that there was a corrosive sense of infantile entitlement amongst the youth, a sense of therapeutic entitlement of demanding undue rewards, and that the left was responsible for creating an anti-work attitude that encourages a parasitical relationship of the labour of some to others, and that this tends to encourage lumpenized passivity and defeatism, factors that can spark destructive anti-social behaviour? Did you really support the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the miserable £30 that those students used to get? Did you really say that this was a positive corrective to the childish entitlement that helped inflame the 2011 riots? Did you really say that? And is that what you really think about the working class in Britain?
ND: I did say that, but that is not what the debate is about tonight.
He ought to be ashamed of himself.
MM: Just on the bad laws question, the sovereignty question. The laws in the EU are not made by the Commission, they are made by the Council of Ministers…
That is not really true.
MM: … with the consent of the Parliament as well. Every single one—the Commission makes a proposal, the Council of Ministers throws it out. This has happened over and over and over again. Every single one of the members of the Council of Ministers is an elected politician. They are elected politicians from their home country, and one of them is from the UK. It is not a democratic structure because it has qualified majority voting, which means it requires a supermajority. In addition, it is like the US senate, it is unrepresentative. But, at the same time, the European Union’s structure is a form of liberal democracy that is just as liberal-democratic as the United States. So all that people are defending when they say that Brexit will defend self-determination, will increase popular involvement, is just nationalism and, it has to be said, just blood-and-soil nationalism.
I want to return to an earlier question, about how the quality of this debate is such that we on the Left are in a position where we are forced to project certain ideas onto this decision. How do you guys understand the position that the Left is in in relation to the question of internationalism and how the Left has failed in its international project today? In what sense is it a result of Stalinism, or of some deeper problem? Does it go back to Louis Bonaparte? What has happened to Left internationalism today?
GD: I think that the Left in general, and I would include the Trotskyist Left in this, are in a monumental crisis. A whole section of them thought that the fall of the Berlin wall was such a great, progressive thing that they were celebrating with George Bush and the rest of them. They thought they had got a great victory, whereas, of course, it was a great victory for the neo-liberal agenda, which really powered forward after that. There has been a further degeneration of late since 2011 when the majority of the British Left actually supported the campaign in Libya. They said that the Benghazi rebels were these great revolutionaries that were going to overthrow the vicious dictator Gaddafi, and that NATO was doing a progressive thing in helping these revolutionaries. They even celebrated “the revolution.” Well, look at the state of Libya now—it is absolutely destroyed. That is the “revolution” that many on the Left continue to defend. Similarly with Syria and Ukraine. In Ukraine you had a fascist led uprising, and they all thought it was a revolution—a revolution led by out and out fascists! How you ever arrive at such a political conclusion is beyond comprehension, but there they were, telling you that the United States and the rest of them were bringing us peace and democracy and love, and that these fascists were helping them to do it. So, the essential crisis of the British left and the Left internationally is that it cannot confront its own ruling class in its foreign wars. Unless it can confront its own and be for the defeat of its own ruling class in all its foreign wars, it can never take a step forward towards socialism. That is the basic crisis of the British left. So long as you support your own ruling class waging war on other countries, you are dead as a revolutionary socialist.
MM: As I said in the introduction, I participated in the Left Exit campaign in 1975. The line in 1975 was to make an alliance of the Left with Enoch Powell and the Tory right. In Oxford we did something slightly different, because the Communist Party were Tankies and the car plant, the trade union, was led by Trotskyists and the Trades Council. We made a block between the Tankies, the Left official Communist Party people, and the Trots, and we ran a get-out-of-Europe campaign not on the basis of Little England, Enoch Powell, but on the basis of “Leave Europe! Join the World!” We had good strong forces behind us in the locality, but the impact of that left version of Exit was negligible. Even our own leadership, both in the official Communist Party and the International Marxist Group, were gung-ho for the alliance with Enoch Powell, the Exit line. However, when I look back at it, the organization I was in at the time, the British section of the Fourth International, was both anti-EU and in favor of very strong practical collaboration on a European scale. I think that was also true of the Communist Party as well. Marxist parties had very strong practical collaboration on a European scale, though not necessarily on a world scale. Probably the Communist Party did more collaboration on a world scale. And there is this real damn paradox, in the sense you ask the question—the Left and internationalism: It does not go back to Louis Bonaparte, but it is not as straightforwardly simple as Stalinism either. It is the long decline of Stalinism, the moment at which it became obvious that the Soviet Union was failing. It has to do with the Sino-Soviet split and the endorsement by Beijing of the Chilean coup. The complete disorientation of Maoism which was a big part of the far left. It also has to do with the victory of Eurocommunism, which in spite of its “Euro” language was against class, and, through being against class, became also against internationalism and for nationalism. It is a set of processes which have taken place since the 1970s. It is also, to a considerable extent, not about profound deep social changes which have made nationalism more appropriate to the Left. It is simply about our own voluntary choices, particularly in connection with identity politics and in connection with trying to get out from under class, actually trying to do politics in a language which is not the language of class. It has pushed us in the direction of “the people,” the undifferentiated people, which in turn is “das Volk,” inevitably is “das Volk,” the nation-people. That is exactly what Neil is arguing, that you cannot have political democracy and internationalism. It seems to me that the evidence is exactly the reverse. You can have class politics, which in turn supports the struggle for political democracy; the working class can support the struggle for political democracy, but class consciousness requires consciousness of itself as an international class. The turn to "the people" points in the direction not of left-nationalism, but of perfectly ordinary right-wing nationalism.
ND: I have got two points to make, which link up left-wing politics then and now, because you are asking about internationalism. There are striking parallels which leave me a little bit depressed, if I am honest. I have always supported internationalism. Internationalism in the classic sense was the recognition that the enemy is at home, in our case that the enemy was the British imperialist state. As internationalists we supported the right of self-determination of people against the British state, such as the Irish. But for me internationalism is not just simply feeling sorry for people abroad or having pity for people abroad, it is also about strengthening the identity of the working class in this country. That is what internationalism is about. That was the tradition I came from in terms of approaching internationalism. Now, there has been another approach to internationalism, whereby you use international issues as a displacement activity so as not to talk to ordinary people in this country. As British leftists, we are addressing the British working class. But in the 70s and 80s when people talked about internationalism, it was often “let’s talk about Nicaragua, let’s talk about Chile,” because then we do not have to talk to ordinary people in this country. We did not bother talking to the white working class because they are probably racist. If you cannot stomach the idea of supporting the self-determination of British people to control their borders, then you are actually sort of unsure about the whole socialist process of power to the people. What I mean by power to the people, is not an abstract term, but the ordinary mass of people who do not own property, who are powerless, their capacity to make political choices. That is where there is a parallel in everyone’s smirking, “I wash my hands of all this.” That displacement activity of the 1970s and 80s, that same tendency is happening, disappointingly, in this discussion on Europe. But for anyone who is serious about engaging ordinary people in progressive politics, I think the Brexit campaign is an ideal opportunity to do that. It gives us a way of revitalizing the discussion about what kind of society we live in. It is very basic, I know, and perhaps some of you are a bit too high-minded to take that on board, but I see it as a positive starting point.
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