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The Internationalist
  August  2016

ICL: The Main Enemy Is in Brussels

Supporters of “Brexit”  celebrate, June 24. Victory in British referendum for vote to leave the European Union a “stunning defeat for the City of London, for the bosses and bankers,” as Spartacist League/Britain claims? Not at all. The British bourgeoisie and even representatives of finance capital were split.  (Toby Melville/Reuters)

So the positions on Brexit by the various social-democratic reformist left groups were … thoroughly social-democratic and reformist – what a surprise! Whether they supported Leave or Remain, they did so strictly within the capitalist framework, and whatever their ostensible rationales, they ended up tailing after one or the other side in the reactionary, immigrant-bashing circus. The International Communist League (ICL) and its British section, the Spartacist League (SL/B), on the other hand, swore that they were “standing on the revolutionary, proletarian and internationalist principles of Marxism” when they called for a “Leave” vote (“EU: enemy of workers and immigrants,” Workers Hammer, Spring 2016). Yet as we have shown (see “British EU Referendum: Who Voted for What, and Why”), the post-referendum assessment by these ex-Trotskyist centrists was strikingly similar to that of the reformist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW).

While the SWP declared the vote for Brexit a “stunning blow against the people at the top of society” (Socialist Worker, 28 June), the SL/B and ICL called it a “stunning defeat for the City of London, for the bosses and bankers of Europe as a whole as well as for Wall Street and the US imperialist government” (Workers Hammer, Summer 2016). For the bosses and bankers as a whole? In its previous issue WH explained in some detail that “opinion in the City of London is also divided”: hedge funds were for Brexit (to escape EU regulations), the investment banks (mostly U.S., German and Swiss) were against. So if it gets too costly, the big banks will just shift EU operations across the Channel, or the Irish Sea. An inconvenience, to be sure, but hardly a stunning defeat. Ditto for industrial bosses: car manufacturers like BMW will just ratchet down production of the Mini at Oxford and Swindon and up it at their Born, Netherlands plant.

Both before and after the vote, Workers Hammer argued that a British exit from the EU would “creat[e] more favourable conditions for working-class struggle across Europe.” So how does imposing further restrictions on Polish workers entering Britain (the main selling point for Brexit) aid workers struggle in Europe, or in Britain? How does voting for “Britain Out” in a campaign dominated by English chauvinism bring German and French workers closer together in common class struggle? How does it embolden Italian workers to revolt against the diktat of the Eurobankers that would wipe out their retirement savings if tottering Italian banks go under?  How does it encourage Scottish workers to direct their ire at their Scottish nationalist rulers? How does it mobilize British workers to act in support of French workers who at that very moment were striking against anti-labor laws? Answer: it doesn’t.

And if in fact the Brexit vote is “an expression of hostility from the downtrodden and dispossessed” (Workers Hammer) or a “revolt against the rich” by “people who are generally forgotten, ignored or sneered at” (Socialist Worker), in calling for a vote to Leave the EU, these opportunists have helped divert this unfocused sentiment away from their main enemy, British capitalism (recall that Britain is not part of the Schengen free-transit agreement, nor is it subject to the austerity decrees of the masters of the euro). The SL/B argues that Brexit would “further destabilize” the EU. Quite likely, although by how much remains to be seen. But such destabilization could go in sharply different directions: it could certainly embolden right-wing racist and outright fascist forces such as the National Front in France, as it already has.

The SL/B and SWP both downplayed the impact of the anti-immigrant campaign, The SL hasn’t even bothered to mention the post-referendum upsurge in anti-immigrant attacks. They both justified their call for Leave by saying that if racist forces were prominent it was Labour and the trade-union tops who were responsible by not fighting against the EU. That does not alter the fact that xenophobic and nationalist appeals drove the Leave vote. Workers Hammer raises the additional argument that “both pro- and anti-EU camps in the Tory party whip up anti-immigrant chauvinism.” Precisely, which is a key reason why genuine Trotskyists opposed both sides in this referendum that was fought out over how best to limit immigration.

The basic ICL argument is fairly simple: that the European Union is bad, and therefore anything against it is good. It has made the EU into the summum malum, the supreme evil. When the EEC was the economic adjunct of the NATO imperialist alliance against the Soviet Union, which Trotskyists defended to the end, despite and against the Stalinist betrayers, that is one thing. But in the context of inter-imperialist rivalries British imperialism outside the imperialist EU is no less an evil, as Scottish and Northern Irish workers may agree. As we have said, because it is an imperialist bloc, genuine Trotskyists would not vote in favor of the EU, whether to join or to stay. However, when the drive to leave it is led by reactionary bourgeois forces, the position taken by revolutionary Marxists depends on a concrete analysis of the circumstances. As Trotsky wrote about a different plebiscite, the so-called “Red Referendum” in Prussia in 1931:

“The question of the coincidence of the voting with the Fascists is consequently viewed by us not from the point of view of some abstract principle, but from the point of view of the actual struggle of the classes for power, and the relationship of forces at a given stage of this struggle.”
–Leon Trotsky, “Against National Communism!” (August 1931)1

In this case, the Brexit campaign and vote, dominated by anti-immigrant and English-chauvinist bourgeois forces, have heightened inter-imperialist rivalries without strengthening the class consciousness, militancy and international solidarity of the working class.

The ICL argues, correctly, that the EU is not a supranational state but an imperialist-dominated alliance or trading bloc, established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Trotskyists are opposed to the EU and seek to bring it down. But how? The only answer given by the ICL (along with most of the reformist pseudo-radical left) is to withdraw. But that leaves the imperialists in power on both sides of the Channel. Last year in the battle over the brutal austerity imposed by the European central bankers on Greece, the ICL’s answer was to call for Greece to leave the EU (“Grexit”). What about calling instead, as the League for the Fourth International did, to bring down the whole structure of capitalist/imperialist Europe through sharp class struggle leading to continent-wide socialist revolution? This is never mentioned, not by the reformists nor by the centrist ICL. Why not? Because they believe it is impossible, a pipe dream. Consequently, from Grexit in 2015 to Brexit in 2016, the response of the pseudo- and ex-Trotskyists of different denominations to every crisis in the imperialist EU is a bourgeois program.

To get a little historical perspective, consider another case: the imperialist post-World War I order established by the  1919 Versailles Treaty. Bolsheviks were naturally opposed to Versailles as inherently anti-working class. But German nationalist forces including Hitler’s Nazis also opposed this “victor’s peace.” What should communists do? The Stalinized KPD (German Communist Party) on more than one occasion sided with the German nationalists. Here’s what Trotsky had to say about that:

“The political crisis in Germany brings into question the Versailles regime in Europe. The Central Committee of the German Communist Party declares that, having taken power, the German proletariat will liquidate the Versailles documents. Is that all? The abolition of the Versailles Treaty as the highest achievement of the proletarian revolution! What is to be put in its place? There is not a word about this. Such a negative way of putting the question brings the party close to the National Socialists. The Soviet United States of Europe – that is the only correct slogan which points the way out of the splintering of Europe, which threatens not only Germany but all of Europe with complete economic and cultural decline.
“The slogan of the proletarian unification of Europe is simultaneously a very important weapon in the struggle against the abomination of fascist chauvinism, the baiting of France, and so forth. The most incorrect, the most dangerous policy is that of passive adaptation to the enemy by painting oneself to look like him. The slogans of national despair and national frenzy must be opposed by slogans of international liberation.”
–Leon Trotsky, “The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany” (September 1930)

In the guise of competing with the xenophobic rightists for “oppositional ground,” the ICL has taken the same tack as groups like Lutte Ouvrière in France and the Socialist Party of England and Wales. These pseudo-Trotskyists justify embracing anti-immigrant campaigns (banning the Islamic hijab, “British jobs for British workers”) by the need to win over backward sections of the working class, competing on the same political terrain as the National Front and UKIP. This is what the ICL has done with its opposition to calling for asylum for Syrian refugees, and to calls for freedom of travel for immigrants within the EU (see “Strange Encounters with the ICL,” The Internationalist, August 2015). And now we have a repeat over Brexit. It all fits together.

The ICL’s call for the imperialist UK to break from the imperialist EU is yet another renunciation of its own revolutionary past. At the beginning of the 1980s, the German section of the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) initially responded to the rise of a nationalist peace movement with the slogan “Germany Out of NATO.” This was corrected, the Maoist and Stalinoid groups that raised this slogan were criticized for promoting the idea of a “peace-loving” “neutral” German imperialism, ultimately aiming at counterrevolution in East Germany. Instead the ICL called for “Down with NATO! Defend the Soviet Union!”

Back when the Spartacist tendency stood on the program of revolutionary Trotskyism, calling for opposition to all imperialism and proletarian revolution to bring down NATO and the Common Market (Workers Vanguard No. 307, 11 June 1982. Today for the  “post-Trotskyist” Spartacist League/Britain, the main enemy is no longer at home. The ICL joins much of the British reformist left in calling for imperialist Britain to leave the imperialist European Union.  

In 1982 the iSt put out a statement during a tour of Europe by Ronald Reagan. It called for “Down with NATO and the Common Market!” not for each imperialist country to withdraw from those imperialist alliances. Rather, it looked to “the mobilization of the working masses against all imperialism.” The statement was headlined: “The Main Enemy Is at Home!” (Workers Vanguard No. 307, 11 June 1982. But that was when the Spartacist tendency stood on the program of revolutionary Trotskyism. Today the “post-Trotskyist” ICL’s headline would be: “The Main Enemy Is in Brussels.”

Oh yes, the ICL continues to raise the slogan of a Socialist United States of Europe – as do most of the reformists for that matter, giving it their own social-democratic twist. It also calls for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, although that is now qualified with the phrase “for all those who have made it here.” (Refugees need not apply, as  ICL no longer calls for asylum.) But these slogans are reduced to ritual incantations – “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye,” as the revolutionary syndicalists of the IWW used to say – a “maximum program” suitable for Sunday speechifying. Above all, they are not linked to the current class struggles, and in fact are contradicted by the ICL’s support for Brexit and Grexit. Notably, with all its calls for “Britain Out!” of the EU, Workers Hammer is silent about the roiling strikes in France.

It is striking that the centrist SL/B concludes its Brexit balance sheet with a call to “repulse any and every attempt by Labour’s right wing to regain control of the party.” This is the same appeal as the entire reformist left, and comes right after Corbyn led Labour to Remain in the imperialist EU! For our part, the League for the Fourth International has insisted – in several articles on the crisis in Greece last year and more recently on the immigration crisis in Italy and now on Brexit – that what’s key is to build a revolutionary workers party on a program of internationalist class struggle leading to Europe-wide socialist revolution. As we wrote last year:

“A revolutionary opposition, both outside and inside the Labour Party, would underline that fighting austerity and regenerating the British economy can only be accomplished through workers revolution laying the basis for international socialist planning. It would stress that the haughty British ruling class is armed and dangerous and will use that force to smash resistance unless it is checked and defeated by a greater power, of a mobilized working class armed with a class-struggle program and led by a Leninist-Trotskyist party prepared to sweep away the cops, goons, strikebreakers and court orders, as well as the Labour leaders, left and right, who are the biggest obstacle to victory.”
– “Corbynmania Sweeps Britain,” The Internationalist No.41, September-October 2015 ■

  1. 1. We previously quoted Trotsky’s analysis of (and opposition to) the Stalinists’ support for the German nationalists and fascists in the Prussian referendum in our polemic on the issue of Brazil impeachment. See “Stumbling in the Dark With ‘Blown-Out Lanterns’,” The Internationalist, June 2016.