Back in the 1970s, it may seem hard to believe but the mainstream view of European unity on the left of the Labour Party and among Marxists was wholly negative. In fact, the Labour Party was as deeply divided on Europe as the Tories have been in recent years. Brexit was very much a left-wing and not a right-wing position. But was it compatible with Marxism?
Today, most left of centre people – I think it’s fair to say – are Remainers. That’s symptomatic of a process over the last forty years where college educated, professional, urban and younger voters have come to dominate the left while blue-collar, non-college educated and older voters have drifted from the Labour Party.
There’s also the widely held view that parts of the UK, neglected since the de-industrialisation of the 1980s, have projected their bitter resentment on to Europe. These children and grandchildren of miners and steel workers, stuck in zero hour contracts or generally rubbish jobs, have found in Brexit a way of kicking the ‘elite’.
But this anti-Europe feeling and suspicion of Brussels was widely felt in Labour areas in the early 1970s. Partly a legacy of WWII but also a hangover from Britain’s one-time dominance of the globe and a sense that this country was basically better than the rest of Europe. This mistrust of our foreign neighbours was given voice by most of the leading politicians of the Labour left at that time. The problem for Marxism then and now was that the analysis was more Little England than socialist.
For example, one Labour MP writing in Tribune in the early 1970s was horrified at the thought of Germany (West Germany at that time) having access to “nuclear know-how”. Given this was just over 25 years since Hitler blew his brains out, the point was that you just couldn’t trust those Germans. Plus, there were countries in southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece) that still had fascist dictatorships or were only just emerging from them.
Marxists fretted that some anti-Common Market campaigners were, in effect, bolstering racist and far Right views. Their rhetoric about Europe was divorced from anything resembling Marxism. And it’s not surprising that even today, some comments by the likes of Tony Benn on Europe are quoted favourably by right-wing supporters of Brexit.
1970s Brexit and Marxism
The Conservatives had taken the UK into the Common Market (the forerunner of the European Union) in 1973. When Labour took power in 1974, they delivered on a promised referendum on European membership. And the British people voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Common Market in 1975 by 67% to 33%.
That was after a bitterly contested campaign that saw right-wingers like Enoch Powell on anti-Common Market platforms sitting alongside Labour veterans like Barbara Castle, Peter Shore and Michael Foot. The campaign slogans were very similar to those of Brexit supporters today: “Out and Into the World”.
For Marxists, there was some discomfort at this alliance of the left-wing Tribune group in the Labour Party with demagogues like Enoch Powell – whose ‘rivers of blood’ speech against immigrants had been only a few years earlier. Ted Grant, founder of the Militant, could barely contain his fury:
“Having frightened themselves about the gruesome reactionaries in the (European) Community, they inconsistently stand speak on the same platform as right wing Tory reactionaries, complementing right wingers who speak on the same platform as Tories and Liberals, thus, abandoning the indispensable and independent class criterion on all major decisions.”
But the Communist Party leadership justified aligning with the likes of Powell as a tactic to achieve the common aim of leaving the Common Market.
The Morning Star, organ of the CP, stated that “it has always been a basic tenet of Marxism that the working class by itself can never attain its objective”.
Though I seem to recall Karl Marx making the point repeatedly that the working class could expect to be stuffed at some point by its erstwhile middle class allies when they had got what they wanted.
Peter Taaffe scoffed at the Tribune and CP position in the pamphlet pictured with this post:
“There is not an atom of socialism or of a class struggle in the position of Tribune and their allies, the ‘Communist’ party leadership on this issue. They have highlighted the issue of sovereignty. This is to completely mis-educate the advanced workers in the Labour Party and trade unions in particular.”
Taaffe believed that the anti-Common Market left was pandering to nationalist prejudices instead of counterposing a socialist internationalist position against a capitalist globalist one. In other words, advocating a socialist European federation.
The argument of Tribune was that the Common Market was specifically set up to lock national governments into a framework that would prevent individual countries pursuing radical, socialist policies. It was a ‘capitalist embrace’.
But Taaffe argued that capitalism in Britain didn’t require the Common Market to neuter Labour governments and the idea that the UK could cut itself off from global markets and forge its own destiny without ending capitalism was “utopian”.
1980s – Europe seen as a bulwark against Thatcher
Even in the 1970s, the pro-Common Market lobby within the Labour Party argued that membership could protect and extend pro-left policies. In the 1980s under Thatcher this view shot into the ascendancy. A beleaguered Labour Party and trade union leadership hoped that Brussels could stall the Thatcherite determination to dismantle the post-war social model in the UK.
Ironically, Thatcher was probably more engaged with Europe than any other prime-minister despite her rhetoric. But a growing realisation that Brussels was pushing for closer economic, financial and political integration deepened Euroscepticism in the Tory party while at the same time, Labour’s ageing Brexiteers died or gave up.
By the 2016 Brexit referendum, the sight of maverick Labour MP Kate Hoey and arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage appearing together was viewed as appalling across the party. A far cry from Barbara Castle sitting (literally) alongside Enoch Powell.
DISCOVER: The Portuguese revolution of 1974
Brexit and Marxism: Trotsky argues for European unity
And then we come to Leon Trotsky. Who would have thought that in 1923, the Russian revolutionary was advocating a United States of Europe? His argument was that World War One (1914-18) had been about German capital trying to unite Europe through force. The aim had been to take on the global power of the British Empire.
For its part, the British used Germany defeat in 1918 to provoke France into “Balkanising” Europe thereby keeping it divided and weaker. That of course suited London’s interests. Trotsky pointed out that he had previously argued for a federation to solve the violent disunity in the Balkans. Now he proposed a federation to save the whole of Europe.
Of course the federation Trotsky was proposing would be one of “Workers and Peasants”. He hoped that this would ally itself to the Soviet Union and eventually incorporate Britain – which he did foresaw would be the last nation to join.
The underlying reason for Trotsky’s advocacy of a socialist united Europe was the hope that these more advanced economies (German, France, Belgium, etc) could aid the more backward USSR. By encouraging revolution across Europe, the Soviet Union would not remain isolated and vulnerable to attack.
As for the United States, Trotsky believed America had emerged considerably stronger from WWI but he hoped a united socialist Europe would inspire the American proletariat into revolution.
However, it has to be noted that by 1923, the German communist uprising of 1918 had been brutally put down. And the Irish Marxist James Connolly had been shot by a firing squad in 1916.