A reactionary swamp: Brexit and the British left

In the run up to the June 2016 Referendum on British imperialism’s continued membership of the European Union (EU), Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! was clear on the position that communists in Britain should take, arguing that:

‘we reject totally taking sides in what is essentially a dispute between sections of the ruling class over what would be for Britain necessarily totally reactionary outcomes – part of a European imperialist bloc or becoming an offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of US imperialism. The only principled communist position is to call for a boycott of the referendum while exposing the reactionary intentions of those on either side.’ (FRFI 251 June/July 2016)

Brexit is an expression of the crisis of British imperialism, of the divisions that exist within the ruling class and within the Tory Party, and that the working class would continue to pay whatever the outcome. However, virtually every socialist organisation urged their supporters to vote one way or the other. This meant harnessing the interests of the working class to one or other side of the ruling class, disarming it completely in the face of the nationalist and racist rhetoric employed by either side. The outcome could only be reactionary. Bob Shepherd reports.

Having made the decision to participate in the referendum, one section of the left, which included Momentum, Left Unity and Socialist Resistance took the Remain side, grouped under the banner ‘Another Europe is Possible’. Its founding statement presented the illusion that somehow the imperialist alliance of the EU could be reborn as a progressive force:

‘We will combine campaigning for an “in” vote with arguing for an alternative economic model, maintaining Euro­pean citizens’ rights to live and work across the EU, and for far-reaching democratic reforms of European institutions.’ (18 February 2016)

There was no mention of the plight of the thousands of refugees attempting to enter the EU or ‘Fortress Europe’, or of the EU’s imposition of neoliberal austerity on Greece. What mattered was that continued membership of the EU was seen as key to maintaining the privileges of a better-off layer of the working class.

The rest of the left sided with that section of the ruling class represented by UKIP, Boris Johnson et al in calling for a Leave vote. In an attempt to give their Brexit position a progressive gloss, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and other groups including the Communist Party of Britain, Counter­fire and the RMT union came together in a Left Leave campaign, ‘Lexit’. Socialist Worker reported that,

‘The initiative provides an alternative for those faced with an unpalatable choice between David Cameron’s pro-business campaign to stay in the EU and the existing Leave campaigns dominated by the xenophobic right ... The Lexit campaign rejects the pessimism of those who see the consequences of exit as an automatic shift to the right. More likely it would result in the departure of Cameron and a fatally weakened government.’ (14 April 2016)

The Lexit left claimed that a victory for Brexit would lead to a crisis in the Conservative Party, the calling of a general election and the subsequent election of a Corbyn-led Labour govern­ment. But when Corbyn as Labour leader had to formally support the Re­main camp, the hopes of the SWP for a general election were dashed:

‘It is a tragedy that Labour did not back Leave. If it had done so it would have transformed the debate to be far more about democracy, breaking from austerity and resisting corporate control than about racism.’(14 April 2016)

That the Leave debate had been dominated by racism did not dampen Socialist Worker’s enthusiasm at the result:

‘Socialist Worker campaigned for an anti-racist, anti-austerity and socialist Leave vote. We are pleased that Leave has won. We know that the Lexit Left Leave campaign we were part of had only a marginal effect. But we were able to make sure there was an anti-capitalist Leave voice that did not pander to racism.’ (24 June 2016)

This delusional argument was repeated by the Socialist Party (SP),

‘We argued, and vigorously fought for, a socialist, internationalist exit campaign, explaining that the EU is a bosses’ club. Had Jeremy Corbyn and the trade union leaders taken that bold, socialist approach, that huge elemental anger could have been channelled into a fight against the Tories and for jobs, homes and services for all. It could have brought down not just Cameron but the whole Tory government.’ (12 October 2016)

Of course the EU is a reactionary imperialist alliance. But what was ‘internationalist’ about joining forces with those who wanted a British imperialism independent of that European alliance? It was just chauvinist wishful thinking that this could have been turned into a ‘bold socialist approach’ by a Labour Party and trade union movement which had strangled any fight against austerity.

With May’s proposed withdrawal agreement in all likelihood hitting the House of Commons buffers, the call for a second ‘Peoples Vote’ has started to gain momentum. Socialist Worker has been tying itself into political knots in opposing the idea, saying

‘We should judge ballots and referendums on what class forces are behind them, and in whose interests they are being waged ... At the moment, a vote on a Brexit deal would be led by bosses in their interests. Backing it strengthens them.’ (14 September 2018)

As if ‘bosses’ did not lead either side in the original referendum! Indeed, in the same article Socialist Worker now admits that

‘The referendum in 2016 was held on racist terms. Both the official Leave and Remain campaigners pushed racism and promised to “control immigration”. This emboldened rac­ists and attacks on migrants did spike in the wave of the result.’

So why did it participate in what it now concedes was a completely reactionary process? It says that in a second referendum ‘those leading both sides are ... driven by concerns about what’s best for business and hold a deep contempt for ordinary people’. But by opposing a second referendum, the SWP once again joins the most reactionary Brexiteers.

The reactionary political logic of taking sides in the Referendum has been taken to a grotesque conclusion by the Brexit-supporting Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist Lenin­ist) (CPGB-ML). In September, they participated in the UKIP conference in Birmingham, lobbying and chatting to delegates about their common desire to leave the EU. Condemning anti-racist protesters outside the conference, the CPGB-ML said

‘For every Neil Hamilton on the platform there were dozens of saner Brexiteers from amongst the various strata of British society in the audience. Most are members of UKIP for one very simple reason: its continued opposition to membership of the European Union – not, we found, because of any meaningful support for UKIP’s right-wing agenda.’ (27 September 2018)

Whatever side the left took in the 2016 referendum, its participation was a reactionary step. British imperialism in or out of the EU will not change its brutal predatory character. Illusions about the possibly of reforming the imperialist EU alliance, or exit from the EU opening up new possibilities for the policies of a future Corbyn government does not advance the interests of the working class one little bit. Socialists should never have involved themselves in the Brexit referendum: it has set back the development of an anti-imperialist, anti-racist working class movement.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 267, December 2018/January 2019