Glossing over imperialism: the British left and Brexit

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 268, February/March 2019

Costas Lapavitsas, The left case against the EU. Polity Books 2019 184pp £14.99;

Another Europe is Possible: The left against Brexit – an internationalist case for Europe. 2018 48pp; downloadable from 

As the Tory government staggers from one political crisis to another, so the opportunist British left continues to flounder in a reactionary morass of its own making. Determined from the outset to participate in the Brexit process, the left has put forward spurious and conflicting arguments as to why socialists should support either the Remain or Brexit camp. Whatever they may claim, however, both sides capitulate to chauvinism and imperialism. Remainers raise the spectre of future US domination to oppose withdrawal from the EU; ‘Lexiters’ play on the fear of a European juggernaut with Germany at its core undermining a future Jeremy Corbyn government. Corbyn himself is still pro-Brexit but leads a divided party where a majority are for Remain. ROBERT CLOUGH examines the arguments put forward by Costas Lapavitsas, a Lexiter who advises Corbyn, and those on the left of the Labour Party who favour Remain, organised in Another Europe is Possible.

However, serious socialists cannot paint either choice in progressive colours and, far from taking sides in a dispute between different factions of the British ruling class, the obligation on socialists is and has always been to argue for the independent interests of the working class. That requires a clear assessment of what is at stake in the dispute. As FRFI said in the period leading up to the 2016 referendum, ‘in the context of the growing global stagnation of capitalism and the decision by the dominant European capitalist powers to build an imperialist bloc that could challenge US imperialism’s domination of the global economy, the British ruling class were increasingly being confronted by the choice: junior partner to US imperialism or closer alliance with a more integrated Europe’ (‘The EU referendum: the position of communists’, FRFI 251, June/July 2016).  In other words, the divisions in the British ruling class have to be located in conditions of deepening crisis and the accompanying growth of inter-imperialist rivalries. The increasing integration of European finance capital expressed in the establishment of the European Central Bank and the creation of the euro created a new challenge to the international role of the City of London. Our overall assessment was that:

‘The parasitic character of British capitalism, its dependence on the earnings from its vast overseas assets and particularly those of its parasitic banking sector to sustain the British economy, shows not only its vulnerability to any external financial or political shocks, but also that it is no longer capable of withstanding the economic and political challenge of US or European imperialism as an independent imperialist power’ (ibid).

Whatever rosy hue the opportunist British left used to colour its preferred option, the reality is that during the 2016 referendum campaign it wanted the working class to take one side or another. Since then, its various groups and factions have continued to talk up one or other option using ever more threadbare and reactionary arguments. Costas Lapavitsas has emerged as a leading ideologue for Lexiters yet his book is a poor piece of work. His main thesis is that the existence of the EU undermines the national sovereignty of its component nations; that withdrawal from the EU is essential to recovering sovereignty; and that this is the precondition for any social or political progress.

Ignoring imperialism

Ignoring imperialism is the crucial first step for left opportunists. In this sense, the title of Lapavitsas’s book presents a false dichotomy. Any socialist worth their salt has to be against the EU as it is an alliance of imperialist states. But that does not mean we support the other option – Britain as an independent imperialist power (or one progressively dependent on US imperialism). During the great inter-imperialist rivalries before and during the First Imperialist War, it was impermissible for socialists to put opposition to other imperialist powers before opposition to one’s own. Yet this is in essence Lapavitsas’s position, and to support it, he has to redefine capitalism today in a way that rejects any reference to imperialism.

In this he does not differ from opportunists who argue a Remain position. Neither have any consideration of imperialism when they write about Brexit. This is not only because it would shatter their theoretical frameworks, but also because it would reveal that they speak for better-off sections of the working class whose relative affluence and security depend on receiving a portion of imperialist looting and plunder. ‘Neoliberalism’ and ‘financialisation’ are expressions favoured by opportunists in their efforts to avoid using the word ‘imperialism’. Such terms are at best descriptive, more usually a smokescreen to disguise theoretical barrenness and in the end, a way of smuggling in their support for Keynesian solutions to the crisis which are then described as socialist.

What do neoliberalism or financialisation mean?

Lapavitsas is no exception. ‘Neoliberalism’, he writes, ‘is an ideology that is hard to define accurately, but is unmistakeable in its presence’ (p8). He adds ‘It is marked by a strong belief in the merits of free markets and private enterprise, coupled with an equally strong antipathy toward the public sector, collective agents, and organised labour’ (ibid). But such notions amount to no more than the default ideology of capitalism in a period of crisis, and so what he and his followers think is profound is in reality banal. He acknowledges the unique character of the post-war boom, but does not explain how it came about, nor why it necessarily came to an end. Even a couple of paragraphs in 140-odd pages would have been sufficient – but this would require an account of the unrestrained inter-imperialist rivalries in the first half of the 20th century which were temporarily held in check when US imperialism replaced Britain as the hegemonic imperialist power after 1945 (see D Yaffe ‘The politics and economics of globalisation’ for the argument, FRFI 137, June/July 1997).

‘Financialisation’ or ‘financialised capitalism’ are also terms favoured by academics and opportunists, yet one would look in vain for any analytical content in either. Certainly Lapavitsas does not provide any. He observes that a common feature of ‘financialised countries’ is that the ‘non-financial corporate sector has been reluctant to invest its profits, thereby accumulating tremendous volumes of liquid resources available for transactions and lending’ (p41). Why? Who knows – Lapavitsas does not tell us. What opportunists characterise as ‘financialisation’ is in fact the enormous exacerbation of features of imperialism identified by Lenin over 100 years ago where he demonstrated that the emergence of monopoly necessarily resulted in banks and finance capital acquiring a dominant role in imperialist economies. The difference today is one of scale: underneath it lies the same parasitism, the same predisposition for looting and plunder.

EU: an imperialist alliance

Neither the Lexiters nor the left Remainers really understand the necessity for European imperialist countries to band together in the EU, or the relationship of the EU to the rest of the world. The whole development of EU policy, and the establishment of the Eurozone are to provide a counter-balance to US imperialism. There is no way that on their own, either German or French imperialism can withstand pressure from US imperialism: the relative decline of the latter is forcing it into trade wars and a more aggressive attitude towards competing imperialist powers. But Lapavitsas does not examine the EU in terms of its relationships with the rest of the world economy: this is just one element of the theoretical poverty of his position despite his claim to be a Marxist.

Nor does Lapavitsas examine the parasitic relationship of British imperialism to the rest of the world economy, because he wants to portray the vote to leave the EU to be one that had a progressive content. This requires distortion of the facts. He claims that ‘there is no doubt that the working class and the plebeian strata have generally supported Brexit’; that the vote was ‘by proxy against austerity, poor jobs and the decline in welfare provision’ and that ‘Moreover, far from representing a surrender to racism, rabid nationalism, and right-wing authoritarianism, the referendum facilitated the radicalisation of British politics in an unexpected way’ (all p139). That ‘radicalisation’, Lapavitsas claims, was the increased vote for Labour in the 2017 general election. Yet if one looks at the voting patterns of Lapavitsas’s ‘plebeian strata’, defined either as social classes DE or with an income of less than £20,000pa, 46% had voted for either the Tories or UKIP in the 2015 election, and 45% continued to do so in 2017. These strata voted 62% for Leave in 2016 (figures from YouGov). The core of this Leave vote was therefore made up of Tory or UKIP voters, and could not seriously be described as anything other than reactionary in nature, motivated especially by racist hostility to migrants.

A dream world

Where does this lead Lapavitsas? Into a dream world, where he imagines a future which involves a ‘restructuring of the British economy...reducing the power of the City in favour of workers and the poor through a far-reaching industrial strategy...It is open to the Labour Party to provide a fresh choice for Britain by opting out of the single market while applying a radical growth programme to overturn neoliberalism’ (p140).

There is nothing new in this argument: back in the 1970s, the Labour left opposed EEC membership and, through its utopian Alternative Economic Strategy, demanded a programme of investment in industry and manufacturing which required the imposition of import controls and barriers to the export of capital. The then Communist Party (now Communist Party of Britain, CPB) told us ‘It is impossible to proceed from Labour governments which in effect manage capitalism, to a government which introduces socialism. The political conditions for this do not yet exist; they have to be won.’ (cited in Revolutionary Communist No 7, 1977, p5). The question is, why would there be any need for socialism if a Labour-managed capitalism could meet the needs of the working class? The fact is that under capitalism, the sort of restructuring and investment that Lapavitsas imagines can only be achieved at the expense of the working class.

The position of the Labour left at that time was expressed succinctly by its figurehead, Tony Benn, who declared at an AEUW-TASS union conference in May 1979:

‘Britain has moved from Empire to Colony status. It is a colony in which the IMF decides our monetary policy, the international and multi-national companies decided our industrial policy and the EEC decided our legislative and taxation policies.’ (Morning Star, 23 May 1979)

At the time Benn was a Cabinet minister in a Labour government which was waging war against the Irish people and opposing any UN attempt to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Today, with British imperialism’s external assets still totalling five times GDP, the idea that Britain is a colony, or that ‘recovery’ of its sovereignty represents a progressive stance, is a deeply reactionary fantasy – held by the most fanatical Lexiters, including the CPB, which announced that it shared a ‘visceral opposition to Euro-federalism and the surrender of our country’s sovereignty’ (Letter to The Guardian, 3 January 2019). The letter talks of the need to maintain ‘the bipartisan pledge that the Brexit vote be respected’ – a concession to the reactionary content of that vote. Fortunately for the CPB, Prime Minister May is of a similar view, stating on 22 January that a second referendum would ‘damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy’; the following day Jacob Rees-Mogg expressed his pleasant surprise at how ‘sound’ the CPB’s stance on the EU was.

Keeping Germany in check

Not that a crude nationalism is the sole preserve of Brexiters or Lexiters:  on the same day that the CPB letter appeared, another Guardian letter-writer, a Remainer, was puzzled by Corbyn’s wish to leave the EU, saying ‘We spent two world wars shedding the blood of millions, to limit the influence of Germany in Europe. By leaving Europe we massively gift to Germany a strengthening of its influence over the continent.’ However, most Remainers on the left proclaim the ‘internationalism’ of their standpoint in opposition to the Lexiters. Motivation for their position, however, is as thin as that provided by Lexiters. A recent online pamphlet, The left against Brexit, by Labour Party-supporting Remainers organised in Another Europe is Possible, is a case in point. Like the Lexiters, there is no understanding of what the EU actually is, conceding only that ‘The EU has many negative qualities’ (p10), but offering no answer as to why the EU is necessarily as it is.

In common with Lexiters, there is a railing against neoliberalism and financialisation: ‘Neoliberalism is a governing logic of late capitalism’, whatever ‘late capitalism’ might be (p29); ‘Financialisation pays little attention to the “real” economy (for example industry or agriculture) and instead prioritises the financial, which becomes the main source of income, ultimately leading to increased inequality and an economy of instability and risk’ (p30). But that is the essence of imperialism, where the ‘real’ economy depends on looting and plundering the rest of the world. The left against Brexit also claims that Thatcher and Reagan ‘rewrote the rules of capitalism in the 1980s, giving it its neoliberal direction’ (ibid). They did no such thing: what they did was seek to remove any constraints on capital in a period of deepening crisis and nascent inter-imperialist rivalries.  We repeat: neoliberalism is not a stage of capitalism, it is not ‘late’ capitalism, it is not an option or preferred policy of capitalism, it is the expression of capitalism in the imperialist epoch. Using this term, or ‘financialisation’, has one purpose alone in this context: to propose that there are different policies that can be pursued within a capitalist framework which can meet the needs of the working class.

More nonsense on neoliberalism

The pamphlet presents us with absolute nonsense, for instance, when we are told ‘what is for sure is that neoliberalism and austerity are at the root of previous and future crises’ (p32). But capital is at the root of the crisis, not particular governmental policies even if they may exacerbate the crisis. Then we learn that ‘it would be a huge exaggeration to suppose that the EU is intrinsically neoliberal’ – a typical sleight of hand to distract attention from its completely intrinsic imperialist character. However, nonsense is what the pamphlet needs to get to its main point: the problem with the EU is that successive agreements and policies have become ways in which ‘the European project limits the economic autonomy of its member states and rules out Keynesian economics’ (p36). Despite this, it is not just ‘a “neoliberal straightjacket”’ (p37) – such a characterisation is a Lexit ‘dogma’. The point is to change it from within: ‘A Corbyn government could ally with progressive forces across Europe to oppose fascism and push for the transformation of the European project’ (p41). This is what unites Labour Party Remainers with Lexiters: both want a Corbyn government, but the first imagines it can only deliver within a European context, the second imagines it can only deliver outside a European context. Both believe that their preferred option is the only way to return to a Keynesian past without in the least way understanding the unique conditions in which Keynesianism proved possible.

65% of Labour voters supported Remain in the 2016 referendum; recent polls suggest that, with the influx of young professionals following Corbyn’s leadership election victories, perhaps 80% of the membership are pro-Remain. This is not surprising: the role of the Labour Party is to represent the interests of privileged layers of the working class, and these layers understand that British imperialism can ‘no longer sustain a social democratic state...a European-wide Keynesianism [is] seen as a more viable alternative, with British imperialism becoming a significant player within a European imperialist bloc’ (D Yaffe, ‘Brexit, imperialist rivalry and the split in the working class’, FRFI 260, October/ November 2017). Sections of the Labour left broke from the Bennite view, with MPs Ken Livingstone and Harry Barnes arguing in 1991 that

‘Democratic socialists must build for a European future, placing social welfare and democracy on the agenda … On its own the sovereign nation state is no longer up to the job of dealing with the many pressing issues, such as the power of multinational corporations, ecological crises, new technology investment, the conversion of defence industries…The socialist project goes through Europe or it probably goes nowhere (The Guardian 21 November 1991, cited ibid).’

A divided working class

Lapavitsas of course cannot understand this division within the working class. He acknowledges that its ‘privileged layers, including broad sections of the professional middle class with access to the media, the universities, research institutes, and so on, have become closely attached to the notion that the EU stands for progress’ (Lapavitsas, p128). But first, this privileged layer is far more extensive than Lapavitsas suggests, and includes state workers in health and education, now the bedrock of the Labour vote and Corbyn support. And second, the concern of this stratum is that far from presenting opportunities for a Corbyn government and a new Keynesian settlement, Brexit in reality will result in quite the opposite: either Britain’s complete eclipse, or an ever-greater dependency on a Trump-led US. In other words, they see membership of the EU as key to preserving or in some cases recovering their privileged position. In so far as Corbyn himself supports Brexit he subscribes to the fantasy of a self-sufficient and reformed British capitalism independent of either. Furthermore, just because Lapavitsas’s ‘plebeian layers’, or poorer sections of the working class, ‘have never accepted the nation states should surrender sovereignty to a transnational entity’ (ibid) does not give their position a progressive character – far from it, they line up in support of ‘their’ imperialist power.

As you like it

Like Lexiters, Remainers exist in a state of political confusion, using their position to arbitrarily justify their particular concerns. Thus radical Guardian columnist  Aditya Chakrabortty is against Brexit because of the adverse impact it will have on low-paid migrant workers, while the warmonger Paul Mason (see R Clough  ‘The lies and distortions of the “liberal” media’,, January 2019) hopes for quite the opposite, proposing that Labour uses a second referendum to put forward rules which include ‘a time limit after which the government can require EU migrants to return home if they don’t find a job’, and aim ‘to encourage migration into high value jobs and public services where there are shortages’ (New Statesman, 12 December 2018). Mason the Remainer finds common ground with the Lexiter, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, who also wants to limit migration, claiming for instance ‘that any trade unionist will know that our strength always needs underpinning by control of the labour supply’ (New Statesman 19 December 2018).

To the supposed left of these academics and Labour Party figures, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) are also part of this fantasy world (see Bob Shepherd ‘A reactionary swamp: the left and Brexit’, FRFI 267, December 2018/ January 2019), conjuring up visions of ‘mass workers’ action and demonstrations’ and ‘mobilisation of the trade union movement with its millions of workers’ (The Socialist 9 January 2019) or of ‘a fightback in the streets, campuses and workplaces to bring down the Tories’ (Socialist Worker 8 January 2019). Yet in these pipe dreams of mass action, neither pays regard to the contribution they make to providing a left cover to the overtly nationalist position of the Brexit camp. Brexiters are resolutely opposed to a second referendum, as well as of course May; so are these Lexiters. Brexiters talk about the recovery of national sovereignty, the SWP and SP do likewise, if in a more mealy-mouthed way – Socialist Worker, in opposing the EU, describes it as ‘a cartel of national capitalisms that reflects the interests of the most powerful member states, above all Germany and France’ (20 November 2018). The point is that the SWP regards continued EU domination as less acceptable than the prospect of an independent imperialist Britain – and for all the fine words about an anti-racist or socialist Brexit, or one which protects free movement of labour, this is just self-deception: there can only be a capitalist Brexit, and it can only be thoroughly reactionary.

The Socialist Party meanwhile advises Corbyn to continue ‘rejecting the EU and the aspects of its treaties which...would be used to try to legally obstruct socialist measures’ adding the referendum resulted in the ‘right decision’ because ‘a socialist opposition to the EU is a principled position’ (The Socialist 9 January 2019). Never mind that it required an alliance with racists and chauvinists, this can be conjured away by adding the word ‘socialist’ to opposition. Yet in a further demonstration of how arbitrary politics becomes when organisations take up pro- or anti-Brexit positions, the SWP opposes continued participation in the customs union, while the SP is in favour of it as it ‘would enable the continued flow of necessary goods – for people’s needs and jobs’ (ibid). Good capitalist rationale.

The only principled socialist opposition to the EU was to refuse to take sides in a debate about the future of British imperialism in response to the 2016 referendum. Both the SWP and the SP rejected that, as did the rest of the left both inside and outside the Labour Party. As the Brexit chaos in parliament continues, the Parliamentary Labour Party itself remains split, with a minority of its MPs favouring Brexit, generally those in Brexit-supporting constituencies. Like the SWP and SP, such MPs are opposed to any second referendum claiming it would be a ‘betrayal’ of the 2016 vote. Their concern is that if they row back on this, they will lose their seats on the Westminster gravy train when it comes to the next general election. There is no principle underlying their standpoint. Whether or not there is a second referendum should not be a concern for socialists: it will be like the first referendum, a choice about which path British imperialism should take in this period of deepening crisis. Whether Britain is in or out of the EU, there will still be austerity, the NHS will be threatened with more cuts, casualisation of labour will accelerate, poverty will increase and inequality will deepen, racist attacks will continue. This is where socialists have to fight, unencumbered by any illusions as to what British or EU imperialism represent.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019


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