Corbyn is reactionary on Europe

Submitted by AWL on 12 June, 2019 - 10:16 Author: Sean Matgamna
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Labour’s victory in the Peterborough by-election on 6 June was of course good news. It was also bad news. It seemed to vindicate the Labour leadership’s political cloak-work and shilly-shallying on the EU.

In the 2016 referendum Labour fought Brexit. Now, behind the attempt to avoid alienating either the Remainers or the Brexiters, by fudging and mudging, the Labour leadership are committed Brexiters. They want Brexit, a soft Brexit, yes, but Brexit is Labour’s policy, no less than that of the May government — Brexit, and refusal to commit to a “people’s vote” that would include a Remain option. Logically, they would themselves campaign for exit in a new referendum. And if it comes to a general election, Labour will stand as a Brexit party.

Their policy now amounts to rolling back the film of EU development over the last near-half-century, to a mere Common Market, cutting loose from the structures of European political union. This is both reactionary and profoundly undemocratic. The idea that the 2016 referendum vote to leave, by a very ill-informed electorate inflamed against Europe by fears about immigration, precludes later, better-informed reconsideration is shamefully undemocratic. It is a one-shot automatic-pilot conception of democracy, locking us into a mechanical trajectory on the authority of a referendum already three years in the past. Except that automatic-pilot systems do not rule out reassertion of direct human control.

Corbyn and his associates do. On the EU, the Corbyn Labour Party is on the side of reaction, regression. The argument in terms of democratic righteousness by Corbyn and his colleagues counterposes one-shot and then automatic-pilot against living, ongoing democracy. Here the hegemony of the conventional left in the party brings with it no real left-wing politics, but nationalist politics that properly belong to the right and the old Stalinists.

In a Europe experiencing a wave of right-wing populism, xenophobia, hostility to immigrants, the “left”-led Labour party lines itself up with the nationalist politics of the right. There is nothing “left” about that. Certainly, this is a matter of catch-penny opportunist electoral calculation. But it is more, much more than that. It is the Labour leaders and the left around them reverting to politics that we seemed to have outgrown years ago.

The British left was for decades as bitterly opposed to the EU (the Common Market, the EEC, etc.) as the Morning Star — which each day carries the same lauding endorsement from Jeremy Corbyn — is now. There is no mystery about why. The Communist Party opposed the EU because Russia, naturally, opposed any strengthening of the bourgeois startes in Europe. From the late 1940s the policy of the Communist Parties was to foment nationalist opposition to the USA, in Britain, France, Belgium, etc.: pseudo-nationalist opposition to loss of “national sovereignty” to Europe was parallel to that.

It didn’t matter to the CPs that the nationalism of the strong capitalist powers had been thought of as reactionary by socialists and Lenin-Trotsky communists. A thing was rendered reactionary or “progressive” according to its relationship to Russia and the “socialist state’s” perceived interests. Foul could be fair; black, red; national chauvinism, the highest form of internationalism.

In the early 1960s, Trotskyists had to fight against such slogans on peace marches as “Yankee bastards, go home”. That was before the growth of the US movement against the Vietnam war shamed the CP types into silence. The British CP had a powerful influence in the trade unions and in the left of the Labour Party. There was also a strong sentiment in the Labour right and centre of commitment to the British Commonwealth.

Britain stood aloof from the initial Common Market of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, set up in January 1958. It was part of a much looser association, EFTA. When Britain made its first attempt to join the EEC (as it then was) in 1961-62, the right wing Labour leadership of Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey, etc. opposed it (together with Labour leftists such as Michael Foot), and thereby won much credit with the anti-European nationalist left. All the Trotsky-tinted left groups poured contempt on the British-nationalist “left” opposition to the EEC, though without ourselves positively favouring European unity, even bourgeois unity, as, it now seems plain, we should.

The second of Britain’s failed attempts to join, by a Labour government in 1967, was opposed by such Labour leftists as Michael Foot, and of course by those influenced by the CP. The major “Trotskyist” group, the SLL (later WRP) now joined the anti-EEC outcry. Why? Well, you see, the Wilson Labour government was going for the EEC instead of building socialism in Britain. That was the first time that socialism, in the future, was counterposed to European unity, in a political reality where the alternative to joining in the creation of European (bourgeois) unity was not socialism but the capitalist Britain we had. Slowly the Trotskisant left stepped into line with the political ancestors of the modern Brexiters.

Britain’s final, successful, attempt to join the EEC, in 1971-73, triggered a shift to opposition by the main hold-outs against it, the IS (today’s SWP). [1] IS-SWP shifted in order not to be out of step with the politics of the big battalions on the left. From 1971 opposition to the EEC came to be an article of faith for leftists, one which scarcely needed thinking about. It was an addled expression of opposition to capitalism. Newcomers were inducted into this political culture rather as now new leftists are inducted into the politics of root-and-branch hostility to Israel.

The powerful Labour left shot its bolt in campaigning — in company with right-wing Tories and worse — against the EEC in the 1975 referendum on it, and collapsed after its defeat. The Labour Party shifted to accepting British membership of the EEC. After reverting to Brexitism again in the early 80s, it shifted again, and solidly, to a pro-EEC line from the mid late 1980s.

Corbyn and the group around him, were politically formed in the 1970s or early 80s. They have reverted to type. The Morning Star’s claim to express their essential politics is perfectly just. It does. Without a clear Labour Party conference decision to change the position on which Labour fought the 2016 referendum, or even an open debate on it, the Labour leaders are now foisting on the movement the politics on Europe of the CP-influenced left of the 60s, 70s, and most of the 80s. They know they embody that tainted tradition, and want to do this. These people are, on this issue, reactionaries.

The good news here is that now most people — including MPs — who in any real degree are on the left on the Labour Party oppose the neo-Stalinist Brexiters at the head of the party and support a new public vote. I repeat: the politics of the Corbyn group are not just wrong on this issue. They are thoroughly reactionary. What might be called the contrarian left — AWL and others — have a pressing duty to oppose and fight them.

[1] The expulsion from IS of the predecessors of AWL was triggered by our opposition to that change of position on Europe.

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