Debating the left’s stance on the EU

July 24, 2015 at 8:10 am (AWL, Europe, Germany, Greece, history, internationalism, left, Marxism, posted by JD)

By Sacha Ismail of Workers Liberty

Eighty people attended the London public meeting on Europe held by the socialist organisation RS21 on 15 July. RS21 should be congratulated for organising the event; the class-struggle left needs much more debate on these issues.

Workers’ Liberty members took part, distributed the call for a “Workers’ Europe” campaign we are supporting, and argued for a left, class-struggle “Yes” campaign in the coming EU referendum. It should be said that two of our comrades were taken to speak and that in general the atmosphere of the meeting was friendly and civilised.

There were four speakers: Dave Renton from RS21; Karolina Partyga from new Polish left organisation Razem; Eva Nanopoulos, who is a Syriza member and Left Unity activist in Cambridge; and an independent socialist, Christina Delistathi. Karolina argued to stay in the EU; Eva strongly implied we should argue to get out; Christina made the case explicitly for “No”; and Dave did not come down on one side or the other, arguing that the most important thing is political independence from the two bourgeois camps.

From the floor RS21 members argued a variety of positions, “Yes”, “No”, “Abstain” and no stance on the referendum vote as such. Probably a majority who spoke were for a “No”.

Rather than describe in detail the discussion at the meeting, we will answer some of the “No” arguments that were raised during it and after it.

The EU is imperialist, even colonialist – look at Greece. By dismembering and weakening it we help its victims.

There is an imperialist, big power bullying dimension to the EU, but it is not a colonial empire. It reflects the fact that capitalism in Europe long ago developed and integrated across national borders. Do we want to reverse that? Even in the case of Greece, the answer is not “national liberation” as such. What colonial empire threatens to “expel” its colony? We should demand the Greek government is not threatened with expulsion from the Eurozone or EU, but allowed to carry out its policies inside them. In any case, breaking up the EU would not lead to an end to big power bullying of weak countries in Europe: it would simply mean it happened within a different, probably even more aggressive, violent and unstable, framework.

The Greek radical left is right to argue for exit.

The only two Greek MPs to vote No in the first parliamentary vote on a Third Memorandum were supporters of the socialist organisation International Workers’ Left (DEA) or its Red Network of anti-capitalists within Syriza – who do not support Grexit as a goal but say “No sacrifice for the Euro” and argue to pursue a class-struggle policy even if the confrontation means being pushed out of the EU. The sections of the Syriza left who positively advocate Grexit are not more radical, simply more wrong – and their MPs did not vote against (that time: they did in the second vote). The problem with Tsipras et al is not that they did not immediately carry out Grexit but that they were unwilling to risk it – they did not prepare the Greek people for a struggle, that they did not want a struggle and that they abandoned attempts to win solidarity across Europe. The policy most appropriate for a struggle and for winning international solidarity is not demanding exit but “No sacrifice for the Euro” and “Make the Greek question a European question” – Syriza policies which eg DEA and the Red Network take seriously but Tsipras does not.

You say you are for freedom of movement, but the EU prevents freedom of movement. Look at what is happening in the Mediterranean.

Anyone who does not condemn “Fortress Europe” and argue for migrants to be welcomed to Europe is not left-wing, and betrays basic human solidarity, to say nothing of the interests of the working class. But a Europe of “independent” national states is unlikely to be more open to or welcoming for migrants. As for British withdrawal from the EU, it would not end Fortress Europe, but simply create a stronger Fortress Britain – not help migrants from Syria or Eritrea, but harm those from Romania and Poland. As an RS21 member put it on 15 July: “You can’t defend and extend rights for all migrants by restricting rights for some of them”. That is what a “No” vote in the referendum would mean.

The EU is not a benign institution. It is about creating wider capitalist markets and a bigger pool of labour to exploit. As socialists we oppose that.

Of course the EU is not a “benign institution”, any more than any capitalist state or federation. Who on the radical left argues it is? Of course we oppose capitalist exploitation – but oppose it in what way? We should oppose it by organising workers for a united struggle against the exploiters, not by objecting to the creation of larger units in which to organise.

The EU is not about the internationalisation of capitalism, it is about creating a regional bloc opposed to the rest of the world.

The whole history of capital becoming more internationally integrated is a history of it creating blocs – in the first instance, nation states. When the dozens of petty states in what is now Germany were fused into a united nation, it was done in a reactionary way, by Prussian imperialism – yet Marx and Engels, while denouncing the new regime, explicitly argued that German unification provided a wider, better framework for working-class organisation and struggle. Were they wrong? Why does the same not apply to Europe today? Is what the German Empire did in the world better than what the EU has done to Greece? Of course we oppose the development of EU imperialism – just as Marx and Engels opposed German imperialism – but by fighting the ruling class across Europe, not by seeking to reverse European integration. In addition it is hardly the case that France, Britain, Germany, etc, without the EU would not be imperialist in their relations with the rest of the world as well as each other.

We can perfectly well advocate breaking up the EU but reintegrating Europe once we have socialist states in each country.

Then why did Marx support – certainly not oppose, or try to reverse – the unification of Germany even by Prussia? Why did Trotsky argue that, if German militarism united Europe in World War One, it would be wrong for socialists to argue for a return to separate national states? The reason is that seeking to reverse the international integration of capital means seeking to reverse capitalist development, with all its exploitation and irrationality, yes, but also the new openings and possibilities it creates for workers’ organisation and struggle. It means putting up new barriers to building links with our brothers and sisters across the continent. It means strengthening backward-looking, nationalist political forces. It means weakening the labour movement and the left. That is why breaking up the EU into its constituent parts will take us further away from, not closer to, a united socialist Europe.

Where there is an issue of national self-determination – the democratic right of a people to live free from national oppression – that may trump these kind of considerations. We hope no socialist argues that Britain is nationally oppressed by the EU.

You cite Marx and Trotsky, but quoting scripture doesn’t settle anything.

Marx, or Trotsky, or whoever, might have been wrong at the time. Or they might have been right then, but their argument not apply to the EU now. Simply dismissing reference to their writings as “scripture” is not helpful, however. It lowers the level of discussion. We can and should learn things from the debates our movement had in the past.

There is a tactical case for an abstention or even a Yes vote, given the clearly dominant right-wing, nationalist character of the No drive, but it’s just tactical. In principle, we should vote to get out of the EU.

The character of the push to get out strengthens the case. But why should socialists favour a capitalist Britain separate from Europe to one more integrated into it? What is the “principle” involved?

The EU is a neo-liberal institution. It cannot be reformed.

That sounds very radical, but what does it mean? We need to break down and consider the meaning of terms like “neo-liberal institution”. The United Kingdom state is also a neo-liberal institution! Neither it nor the EU is a vehicle for socialism: only their replacement with new forms of state will make socialism possible. But both can be reformed in the sense of winning changes within them, including some changes to their structure, through struggle.

The EU is far more undemocratic than even the British state. Its structure is designed to be impermeable to popular pressure and make winning left-wing policies impossible.

For class-struggle socialists, the idea that the main barriers to winning reforms are not in the weighty, well-organised ruling class and capitalist state in Britain (France, Germany, etc) but the relatively lightweight bureaucracy of the EU is bizarre. In Britain democracy and workers’ rights have been curbed overwhelmingly by our British rulers, not by the EU. The policies, treaties etc of the EU reflect the fact that its integration accelerated at a time when the working class and left in most European countries are on the retreat and have been for a long time. They reflect the character and policies of its member states. The answer is to regroup, stop the retreat and fight back in each state and internationally, not to convince ourselves that the EU rules mean nothing much is possible. In any case, we can oppose particular EU policies without wanting to reverse European integration or imagining that a Britain outside the EU would provide better conditions for our struggle. As part of that struggle, we need to fight for more democracy – and that is necessary and possible at the local, national and European levels.

11 Comments

  1. Steven Johnston said,

    Did anyone explain what the EU had to do with socialism or what socialism has to do with the EU?

    • Jim Denham said,

      No: I don’t think anyone, on any side of the debate, believes the EU has anything do with socialism. But Marxists, in principle, favour national integration and unification across borders, creating larger units. We favour, in principle, capitalist development: it’s all spelled out in he Communist Manifesto.

      • Glasgow Working Class said,

        The intention of the EU was trade and cooperation. Not this gravy train ripping off ordinary working people. How many parliaments do we need? The Calmac issue in Scotland has been kept low level in the press. The Scottish government saying they have no powers to award the contract to the public sector. What is the point in having a Scottish government or Westminster government and all those politicians sponging off the taxpayer when the EU dictates. Time to get out.

  2. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) said,

    Breaking up into nation states makes it easier for America to dominate. That’s why America backs EU destruction and the far right parties pushing for it.

    Sorry, not America – Russia.

    This seems to be a blind spot for the entire left.

  3. Political tourist said,

    The right wingers in the SLP did a fine job of destroying the Labour Party in Scotland.
    Even Joe Stalin or Trotsky couldn’t have managed that.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Joe & leon did manage the slaughter of the Kulaks. So Labour are on a downer in Scotland and we have the SNP pretending to be on the left whilst following Tory policies. The SNP claim they are against austerity but will they use their tax raising powers to negate it!

  4. Laban said,

    Varoufakis on how Greece nearly left the euro but Tsipras caved:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11764018/Varoufakis-reveals-cloak-and-dagger-Plan-B-for-Greece-awaits-treason-charges.html

    This bit’s instructive:

    “Schauble believes that the eurozone is not sustainable as it is. He believes there has to be some fiscal transfers, some degree of political union. He believes that for that political union to work without federation, without the legitimacy that a properly elected federal parliament can render, can bestow upon an executive, it will have to be done in a very disciplinary way,”

    “And he said explicitly to me that a Grexit is going to equip him with sufficient terrorising power in order to impose upon the French, that which Paris has been resisting: a degree of transfer of budget making powers from Paris to Brussels.”

    Mr Varoufakis told the Telegraph that the Mr Schauble has made up his mind that Greece must be ejected from the euro, and is merely biding his time, knowing that the latest bail-out plan is doomed to failure.

    “Everybody knows the International Monetary Fund does not want to take part in a new programme but Schauble is insisting that it does as a condition for new loans. I have a strong suspicion that there will be no deal on August 20,” he said.

  5. SteveH said,

    “But Marxists, in principle, favour national integration and unification across borders, creating larger units.”

    Except in the Middle East where imperialism has the right to deploy its divide and rule strategy. Unification is a prerogative of the imperialists, and they should have the right to dictate its development or lack of.

    This is the Shiraz Socialist position, a position that supports supremacy.

    On the EU I think Costas Lapvitsas makes a compelling economic and socialist case for Greece leaving the EU:

    “The reason is that seeking to reverse the international integration of capital means seeking to reverse capitalist development, with all its exploitation and irrationality, ”

    In that case you should simply support austerity, as this is a capitalist development taking place before our eyes. In fact this calls for the total capitulation to the ruling class.

    The EU is not providing a better link between workers across Europe ( where is your evidence for this?) but currently setting Greek workers against German workers. Marx dealt with the concrete, you are quoting Marx like holy scripture by universalising everything he said, turning it into an absolute truth. But Marx was an historical materialist.

    When Marx and Engels supported a United States of Europe they did it with the understanding it was one that would be created by socialist parties, not bourgeois ones! We cannot look to Marx and Engels for the correct policy today, we need to do it based on current concrete conditions. The job of Marxists isn’t to quote from the holy book but to understand and explain what those concrete conditions are!

  6. Jim Denham said,

    “When Marx and Engels supported a United States of Europe they did it with the understanding it was one that would be created by socialist parties, not bourgeois ones!”

    Wrong, Steve! Where do Marx or Engels oppose Bismark’s unification of Germany?

  7. Jim Denham said,

    That tosser Tariq Ali comes out for a “no” vote at the end of an at best semi-coherent piece that’s wrong on most key questions, including comparing what the EU/Eurozone leaders did to Greece with the colonel’s military coup and suggesting that Greece is now some sort of “colony” of the Eurozone /EU. But then, this is the man who advocated a Lib-Dem vote in 2005 …
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n15/tariq-ali/diary

    • Steven Johnston said,

      Idiot! Ali is one of those that personalise capitalism! Aggggggghhhhhhh!
      Drives you mad, he should realise that yes, the EU did this to Greece, but only because that is what the system demanded they do. Would not matter who is in power!!!!!

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