Choosing or refusing to take sides in an era of right-wing populism

The case of the United Kingdom and the European Union

Part two of a two-part article

In part one of this article (ISR 104) I reviewed the grounds on which revolutionaries had previously rejected “the lesser evil” in situations where they were faced with two political alternatives, both of which were supportive of the capitalist order in different ways. Hal Draper’s classic discussion of Germany in the 1930s and the United States in the 1960s argued that opting for the “lesser evil” was ultimately wrong because it was typically followed by “the greater evil” anyway, because of the drive towards state capitalism characteristic of the era, 1929–1973, tended to push all factions of capital towards similar policies. Yet, several years into the crisis of the neoliberal era, this argument no longer holds true. On the one hand, neoliberalism has divided the Right into a social wing intent on maintaining the post-1973 global order, but supportive (in rhetorical terms at

any rate) of rights for minorities, and a populist right seeking mass support for restricting minority rights but critical of many shibboleths of globalization, above all “free” trade. As a consequence, it was impossible to argue that there was no real choice involved; the question was whether that choice involved sufficiently great issues for the radical Left to opt for one alternative rather than the other.

The liberal Left was certainly in no doubt. One of my more concrete predictions was that, following the first round of the French presidential election in April, Francois Fillon would be offered up as the lesser evil to Marine Le Pen in the subsequent run-off.2 I was wrong about the individual who would play the role of lesser evil, but not about the role itself: Emmanuel Macron was instead the chosen one and the Left was subjected to the usual moral blackmail to support him. Days after the first round had seen the elimination of both Fillon and the radical Left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, French journalist Natalie Nougayrède denounced the latter in The Guardian, the house-journal of the British liberal middle classes, for his “bewildering” and “disgraceful” refusal to act as a recruiting sergeant for Macron:

Conflating Macron and Le Pen as two equally unacceptable propositions, because Macron is a former banker supposedly beholden to evil capitalism, is ridiculous. The center needs to hold, when the alternative is the far right. At such a defining moment in French and European politics, surely there can be nothing more important than making sure a key democracy resists the sirens of the Front National, which would restore values from of the darkest eras of French history. Anti-establishment sentiment can be understandable, but if it’s indifferent to the outcome it produces, then that’s chaos and nihilism—not renewal. Believing that a political catastrophe must unfold for a utopia to rise from the ashes is a line of thought no one can afford. Not if they care about what makes democracy possible.3

Macron, of course, emerged triumphant. Similar arguments for the lesser evil had earlier been deployed during the 2016 US presidential elections, although not to the same effect. After Trump’s victory, commentators who had backed Hilary Clinton could barely control their rage at how an uncomprehending Left had failed to understand their duty to support the local embodiment of social neoliberalism. Here, for example, is the British journalist and author Laurie Penny, writing shortly after Trump’s inauguration about the supposedly unique dreadfulness of his presidency:

In the nine days since he took office, Donald Trump has affected an aggressive corporate takeover of the most powerful nation on earth, thrown the entire political system into chaos, made a laughing stock of the Presidency and trampled over the lives of millions. Does anyone else have anything to say about “legitimate concerns?” Does anyone want to explain how Hillary Clinton would have been an equivalent threat to Western democracy? No? Didn’t think so.4

I will return to Clinton’s relationship to democracy below, but it is certainly true that the US political system is in chaos. As I pointed out in part one, many of the great social theorists from Adam Smith and Karl Marx onwards tended to believe that actual capitalists were incapable of effectively running bourgeois nation-states: Trump is a living textbook example of the correctness of their views.5 Consequently, as Charles Post anticipated in a previous issue of this journal, the state managers actually responsible for the day-to-day running of the United States are attempting to block what they regard as Trump’s inadvertently system-damaging decisions.6

In the recent UK general election, socialists were at least spared French and US-style scenario since, in England and Wales at least, we could cast a positive vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s reinvigorated Labour Party (to be sure, “without illusions”), which stood on a left social-democratic platform for the first time in over thirty years. The UK did not however entirely escape the choice of two evils; here the occasion was the referendum on continued membership of the European Union (EU). On June 23, 2016, 17.5 million British people, or 51.9 percent of the turnout, voted to leave the EU, making their country the first to do so. Most predictions were for a narrow victory for Remain and the result seemed to surprise everyone, including the leaders of the Leave campaign. In the cases of both the US and France, the accusation thrown at the Left was that of failing to support the lesser evil. In this case, the charge was even more serious: socialists who had voted Leave were effectively supporting the greater evil in the form of local manifestations of the populist far right, which I analyzed in part one.7 Given the extremity of this claim, the starting point of any discussion has to be what the EU is, and what it does.

The European Union: Origins, developments, structures

The EU grew out of postwar European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), but the decisive turning point in its development was the 1958 Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC). As Guglielmo Carchedi has pointed out, there were four interlocking determinants leading to this outcome.8

The first was the need to end the entrenched geopolitical rivalry between France and Germany, which had resulted in three wars over the previous eighty years. After World War II, there was general agreement among most of the Western ruling classes that this rivalry, which had caused such devastation in Europe, could not continue—a conclusion which, for obvious reasons, the French were particularly keen to support. Even had it wished to resist, Germany was in no position to do so following its catastrophic defeat in World War II and subsequent division into Eastern and Western states. West Germany was initially at the mercy of the Western powers, and its politicians had little choice but to agree to membership first in the ECSC and then the EEC, even if they had wished otherwise. (Incidentally, what does it say about “European values” that leading politicians and bureaucrats across that continent believed France and West Germany would end up at war yet again without mutual integration into these supra-state institutions?)

The second determinant was the broader context of the Cold War. US hegemony involved both NATO and the EEC, and strengthening the latter involved a degree of self-sacrifice on the part of the US ruling class for the greater good of the system as a whole. The US undertook the task of restoring economic health to Western Europe (and Japan), partly to reestablish them as customers for US goods, but also as part of facing down the Stalinist regimes in the East. The United States therefore encouraged the emergence of the EEC, knowing that it would eventually be an economic competitor, but would remain politically subordinate. The relationship between the EU and US geopolitical strategy did not, however, end with the fall of the USSR: it is no accident that, before the Eastern European states were allowed to join the EU, the United States insisted they first of all join NATO.

The third determinant was the need for Western European capital to seek markets and sources of investment beyond the territorial boundaries of the individual nation-states, during a period (roughly 1948–1973) which saw the biggest and most sustained growth the system has ever undergone, and is ever likely to undergo again. And this expansion was of course occurring as the Western powers were losing their colonies, meaning that the classical imperialist strategy of exporting capital to India or Algeria was no longer going to be feasible. The original six countries of the EEC became the initial terrain of investment and expansion for capital needing a home, which then expanded further outwards as new members joined.

The fourth determinant was the need to avoid protectionism, which was widely, if not entirely accurately believed to have prolonged the crisis of the 1930s. But while the EEC did remove protectionist tariff barriers within Europe, it maintained tariff barriers against the Global South, and its member states continued to dump highly subsidized goods and destroy industries there, a strategy enshrined in the Common Agricultural Policy, which Nigel Harris once memorably described as a “criminal conspiracy” against humanity.9

The creation of the EEC was dependent on one condition: that actual or potential member states possessed approximately the same level of capitalist development, with broadly the same kind of social or Christian democratic welfare regimes. Unsurprisingly then, the original EEC embodied, at a supra-state level, the Keynesian liberal democratic policies characteristic of most of the member states of the time. But, as this affinity suggests, the EEC was not an entity floating disconnected above the capitalist system and, as the turn to neoliberalism began to be implemented through the late 1970s and early 1980s, it began to reflect that change.

The neoliberal turn took place in two phases. The first occurred in the early 1980s. Britain joined in 1973 and voted to remain in 1975, altering the balance of power within the EEC. Thatcher’s subsequent election in 1979 was followed by her successful attempt to push the EEC to the right. From the moment the Commission published the 1985 white paper, Completing the Internal Market, the direction of development has been increasingly in a neoliberal direction: “National markets should be deregulated and liberalized; national companies were to be privatized. An emerging common competition policy was to secure that the market was no longer disturbed through state intervention or ownership even in areas such as telecommunications, public procurement and energy.”10 Yet the shift of the labor movement and its reformist representatives behind what was now the EU begins to cohere precisely at this time, gathering momentum after 1987 with the adoption of the Single European Act.

Most of the British Left had originally been hostile to the EU, and in 1975 revolutionaries and most left reformists argued for the UK to leave; but following the electoral consolidation of the Thatcher regime during the 1980s, a remarkable change in attitude took place. In the British case this was clearly a response to the defeats suffered by the trade unions, above all in the Miners’ Strike (1984–85), but it was emblematic of a wider process. The French case is particularly significant, as the Socialist Party government that came to power in 1981 was the last serious reformist experiment in Europe before that of Syriza in 2015. Within two years it had abandoned all its promises to achieve positive reforms for the working class and began to implement neoliberal policies. The person mainly responsible was Jacques Delors, the finance minister, who later became the president of the European Commission. As a supposed socialist, he was able to sell the outlandish notion of the EU as an essentially social-democratic, solidaristic institution to the British Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party in the late 1980s. In this context it is worth noting just how minimal most of the so-called protections offered by the EU actually are:

The EU has adopted a number of directives that deal with social-policy issues. But these directives hardly harmonize existing social-policy legislation: instead, they introduce an absolute minimum level, which has no effect in most member states, because it is well below the national standards. And in the case of more ambitious policy initiatives such as those in the field of employment, failure to meet their respective targets is not threatened by sanctions, as failure to meet the convergence criteria has been.11

The second phase of the neoliberal transition began in 1991 and set the EU on course towards the current austerity regime. There were three components to this, two of which were direct consequences of the fall of the Stalinist regimes. The first, and most decisive, was the reunification of Germany, introducing a massive new state in the middle of Europe, the largest in both territory and in population—in other words, the outcome which the European project was originally initiated to avoid. The second component was the centerpiece of the entire project: the introduction of the euro. The French insisted on this as their price for allowing Germany to reunify, acting on the assumption that the only way to curtail German ambition was by making it adhere to a new currency along with all the other member-states. This was a huge miscalculation, as Germany has far greater economic power than any other member-state. The third component was the accession of most of the East European states, which changed the composition of the EU in a fundamental way, from a cabal of richer countries with more or less the same level of development to a formation with a much higher level of unevenness, but in which all members were nevertheless expected to follow the same rules. Following the 1991 Maastricht Treaty the convergence criteria required member states to control inflation, maintain deficits of no more than 3 percent of GDP, and limit national debt to 60 percent of GDP. For those intending to adopt the euro, interest rates have to be no more than two percent higher than the average of the three countries with the lowest inflation rates.12 Individual member-states are unable to increase the money supply (“quantitative easing”) in response to recessionary pressures, but neither can they alter interest rates or devalue. The only ways to achieve competitiveness is unemployment and/or wage cuts, leading to a permanently low level of growth and massive unemployment. This is why, as two critics point out, the convergence criteria “do not include a criterion on unemployment,” an issue regarded as being “of secondary importance.”13 The impact on the young in particular has been devastating; unemployment is as high as 50 percent in some areas, with mass emigration the inevitable result.

In addition to maintaining the neoliberal order, there are at least three other aspects of the EU that make its existence impossible for socialists to support. First, the EU is designed to maintain the structure of existing inequalities between European nation-states, although this has only become entirely obvious since the enlargement process after 1992, when the poorer areas of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean were allowed to join. As Michael Roberts writes, “The Eurozone countries are more different from each other than countries in just about any currency union you could name.”14 Beneath all the talk of “solidarity” this is inescapable, as the EU has a financial and industrial structure designed to meet the needs of the strongest economies—France and Germany and, since the advent of the euro, increasingly just the latter. It is a half-way house between the original Common Market and the “ever-closer” political union which the treaties envisage, and consequently experiences the worst of both worlds: it forces the weakest members to play by the same rules as the stronger, which will always be detrimental to them; but there is no mechanism to transfer funds or resources within the EU in the way that can be done within actual nation-states.15

Second, although the EU is not an imperialist power in its own right, as a collective body it does increasingly act as an adjunct to NATO, and consequently as a support to US geopolitical interests.16 I have already noted how the United States initially encouraged and supported the formation of the EU’s predecessors as part of a Cold War bulwark against its Russian imperial rival, and this is the main reason why there was the much-boasted “no war in (Western) Europe” between 1945 and 1991: although the EU member-states were engaged in economic competition with each other, they were simultaneously united behind the United States. But if the EU itself does not act as an imperial power, the main constituent nation-states increasingly do, and they by no means always bow to Washington’s wishes. Here again we see the more powerful placing their own interests over those of supposed European unity. For some this is externalized, as in the persistently underestimated French presence in Central Africa, but for others it is manifested in the heart of Europe itself—most obviously in the case of Germany, whose recognition of Croatian independence in 1992 contributed to the subsequent Yugoslavian bloodbath.

Third, the EU is structurally racist. The very idea of “Europe” is necessarily exclusionary. It is little remembered now that Morocco applied for EU membership in September 1987, much to the hilarity of the Commissioners, who turned it down on the grounds that it “did not meet the criteria for membership.”17 The much-vaunted “freedom of movement” within the EU is predicated on blocking the movement of those without, as tens of thousands of desperate refugees are currently discovering. “While the EU removes internal borders to encourage the free flow of people, goods and services, it erects more extensive borders around its outer edges, to further separate and delink Europe from natural networks and transnational flows that have developed over the course of history.”18 Further, as Phillip Cunliffe points out, there are consequences for people attempting to overcome these barriers: “The EU has drowned tens of thousands of Africans in the Mediterranean—a record of racial mass murder that outdoes any of the far-right populist parties that have never wielded national power, whether that be in Austria, Britain, France or Germany.”19 The spectacle of these people being trapped in the camps, behind barbed-wire fences, and facing the police dogs and tear gas on the borders of European civilization is obscene enough, but it is compounded by the attitude of the constituent states themselves. For here again, their individual interests take precedence over even collective barbarity, as the Schengen Agreement collapses into a free-for-all to defend individual borders against the alien hordes. There are clearly evils here, but it is not apparent to me that they are “lesser.”

Can the EU be transformed as the left Remain camp claim? Is “another European Union” possible?20 In reality, the EU is structured in such a fashion that it is impossible to reform it in any meaningful or serious way. As the sociologist Colin Crouch noted, “The EU is hardly a shining example of democracy”:

Although the original European Economic Community came into existence during the high period of post-war democracy, it was itself conceived as a technocratic institution. Its internal democracy has developed since the 1980s, a time when post-democratic approaches to governance have been dominant among elites. . . . These elements, together with the fact that most national governments have been concerned to ensure that European democracy is in no position to rival that of nation states, have produced extremely weak parliamentary structures, cut off from the real life of most of the population.21

Crouch identifies a central paradox: during the entire period of the postwar boom, when popular participation in politics was at its height, the predecessors of the EU made no pretense of being anything other than a technocracy; EU “democracy” is a product of the neoliberal era—indeed, in many ways it was the first manifestation of the social neoliberalism that we associate first with Bill Clinton in the United States and then with Tony Blair in the UK. And, as in these national cases, the democracy serves as a cover for the neoliberalism. In 1939, neoliberalism’s greatest theoretical forerunner Friedrich von Hayek wrote an article in which he argued that “Interstate Federalism” at the European level would be desirable. Why? Mainly because it would ensure that economic activity should be removed as far as possible from the responsibility of meddling politicians who interfered with the market order to win electoral support from ignorant voters.22 And in this respect at least, the EU has attempted to implement his program by centralizing power in the hands of appointed officials. For, as Claus Offe points out, “It is precisely those EU institutions that have the greatest impact on the daily life of people which are the farthest removed from democratic accountability: the European Central Bank, the European Court of Justice, and the European Commission.”23 The three institutions mentioned by Offe are worth describing in slightly more detail.

The undemocratic institutions of the EU

The European Central Bank (ECB) is run by unelected bankers. The conservative, but on this issue highly acute commentator, Edward Luttwak, made several extremely accurate predictions about how the ECB would operate three years before it came into existence in January 1999:

It is to receive no instructions either from member counties or from any institution of the European Union. Such is the sovereign status of the institution . . . Beyond the enormous leverage of interest across the entire spectrum of economic life, beyond its control of credit in general, the ECB will be empowered to invigilate quite a few specific rules, including the three sacrosanct prohibitions: no financing of state debts by central banks…no financing loans on favorable terms to any public body or state-owned company…no guarantees by any member country of any other member country’s debt, the no bail out rule.24

And so it has proved. The European Central Bank was essentially modeled on the German Bundesbank—even down to its obsession with fighting inflation. Now, inflation has not been a general problem for capitalism in over twenty years, and for the last seven years—with the partial exceptions of fuel and energy—deflation has been a bigger issue; nevertheless, this nonexistent danger has been used to constrain state spending and, since 2008, to promote the austerity agenda. The policies of the ECB are perhaps the most extreme example of what Luttwak calls “central-bankism,” but with this difference: unlike the Bundesbank or any equivalent national body, the ECB is not part of a state apparatus and is even further removed from any form of democratic accountability.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is often—and in the UK, quite deliberately—confused with the European Court of Human Rights, even though they are totally different institutions. The ECJ is made up of—readers may be detecting a theme here—unelected judges tasked with interpreting EU law and ensuring that the legislation passed by individual countries is compatible with the EU’s overall positions. Wolfgang Streeck has set out the function it currently performs:

The main player in this integration through supranational liberalization, or liberalization through international integration, was the European Court of Justice, whose rulings became increasingly unassailable for member states and their citizens, especially as majorities for social protection measures could no longer be found following the accession of Eastern Europe. Whereas in the 1990s it was mainly the Commission that successfully propelled the privatization of large parts of the public sector, using the tool of competition law, in the following decade the European Court of Justice handed down judgments in the name of the free movement of services and capital that questioned the right of workers to strike and threatened to curtail workforce participation.25

The European Commission is at the core of the EU. Needless to say, it is also unelected. Members are nominated by the national governments of individual member states and appointed for a fixed period of time. Typical of the appointees are New Labour architect Peter Mandelson and Jean-Claude Juncker, who was for twenty years the president of Luxembourg, a country that primarily exists to act as the world’s biggest tax haven. The Commission alone has the power to initiate legislation, three types of which—regulations, directives, and decisions—are binding. It mediates between member states, upholds treaties against attempts by any member states to break them, and represents the supposedly collective interests of member states externally. It is occasionally argued in response to criticisms of “bureaucracy” that the number of staff employed by the Commission is relatively small compared to that of most nation-states. This is true, but irrelevant, since the issue at stake is not the size of officialdom, but the untrammelled power it wields.

We should note that these institutions show as little regard for infringements of democracy in member states as they do in relation to their own practice. Agata Pyzik notes that Hungary “met with criticism from the EU not when its human rights were abused” but “when Victor Orban’s government threatened the EU with a ban on imports”:

The European Union didn’t react to President Orban marginalizing the opposition’s legal rights. It didn’t react to government minister’s recent racist comments on Jews and Roma, comparing them to animals and bringing back the rhetoric of Nazism. It did intervene, though, when Hungary started to limit free trade. The message is: we don’t care about your politics, unless you’ll mess with our economic requirements.26

Do any of the institutions have democratic legitimacy? The European Council has been claimed as a democratic body, but a closer inspection reveals the illusory nature of such an assessment. If the Commission is a supranational body, the Council is an intergovernmental one. It consists of the heads of state or heads of government of the member states, who are of course elected in their own countries, but as Offe writes: “Its democratic legitimacy is limited by the fact that members, while certainly being elected into their offices of prime minister etc., are thereby mandated to serve the good of the country in which they have been elected, not that of the European Union. Members of the EC thus rule over and make decisions binding populations that have not elected them nor can they vote them out of office.”27 Yet they do come together to act as a governing body over Europe. It proceeds by “consensus”—in other words what is acceptable to the French and German axis, and increasingly, to Germany alone. No votes are taken or minutes recorded, and decisions are signaled when the president arrives at a “conclusion.”

But surely the European Parliament at least can be truly described as democratic? It is of course made of elected representatives, but their power is severely limited. Perry Anderson’s summary of its lack of power concludes with an appropriately contemptuous analogy:

Formally the “popular element” in this institutional complex, is its only elective body. However, in defiance of the Treaty of Rome, it possesses no common electoral system: no permanent home . . . being confined to simple yes/no votes on the community budget as a whole; no say over executive appointments, other than the threat in extremis to reject the whole Commission; no right to initiate legislation, merely the ability to amend or veto it. In all these respects, it functions less like a legislative than a ceremonial apparatus of government, providing a symbolic façade not altogether unlike, say, the monarchy in Britain.28

These structures are one reason why we should reject claims that the EU is as amenable to reform as any nation-state. In fact it is much less so. This is not, as is sometimes claimed, an argument for British or any other form of nationalism.29 Is an argument for democracy—or at least for as great a degree of democracy as can be achieved under bourgeois rule. Capitalist states are permanent structure until they are overthrown, although they can adopt different policies according to the political parties or coalitions which oversee the apparatus at any time, and these can be more or less—usually less—beneficial to working class and oppressed groups. In the case of the EU, the balance between unelected state managers and elected representatives is even more heavily weighted in favor of the former than in its constituent members. Reforms are never easily achieved, particularly under neoliberalism, since it has removed several mechanisms from control of states. Nevertheless, it is not impossible—even in Britain. It is at least conceivable that Bernie Sanders could have become president of the United States and that Jeremy Corbyn might yet become prime minister of the UK; it is not conceivable that any comparable figure could play a comparable role in the EU, not least because these offices do not exist. In any event, it would be easier to achieve reforms in Washington or at Westminster than in the EU, where it requires winning unanimity in the Council, and there is more possibility of simultaneous revolutions in all soon-to-be twenty-seven member states than of this happening.

Given its ferocious commitment to maintaining the capitalist order, it is unsurprising that the overwhelming majority of the British capitalist class wanted to stay in the EU. Eight-five percent of Confederation of British Industry members supported Remain while 5 percent supported Leave. “Britain has long had a ‘mid-Atlantic’ policy,” noted Tony Norfield before the referendum, “being drawn to continental Europe for much of its business, but maintaining a wide range of non-European interests, including political, military and spying arrangements with the US.” His conclusion was: “The last thing the UK’s large corporations would want to do is leave the EU, with the risk that trade and investment relationships might be affected, and with a knock-on effect for the City’s business.”30 British companies are currently part of the so-called “passporting” system, whereby a bank or other financial institution deemed to have met EU regulatory standards is authorized to trade in one member state of the EU or European Economic Area (EEA—the EU plus Norway, Iceland, and Leichtenstein) and is thereby also authorized to trade in any other state; if this is withdrawn—which it almost certainly will be when Brexit eventually begins—they may have to move to other bases on the European mainland. Similarly, Britain has currently over $1 trillion stock in foreign direct investments and is the site of nearly 500 multinational headquarters, mostly in London and the South-East of England: in large part this is because of easy access to Europe.

Social neoliberalism versus right-wing populism: The “component parts of one and the same system”

Given the nature of the EU outlined above, what could possibly persuade socialists that it was worth defending? Yanis Varoufakis wrote shortly before the French presidential election that “The decision of many leftists to maintain an equal distance between Macron and Le Pen is inexcusable. The imperative to oppose racism trumps opposition to neoliberal policies.”31 Leaving aside the extraordinary notion that neoliberalism does not itself generate racism, we should be grateful to the former Greek finance minister for stating the position so clearly and unambiguously: our duty is to defend the mainstream positions of the capitalist ruling class. And he applies the same logic to the EU itself—even after all that Greece has been subjected to by the Troika—arguing in the introduction to a recent pro-EU collection of essays that, “The disintegration of this frustrating alliance [i.e., the EU] will create a vortex that will consume us all—a postmodern replay of the 1930s.”32 Now the stakes have been raised: the threat is not simply racism, but fascism.

These arguments do not necessarily involve fantasies that the EU is an institution capable of advancing working-class interests, or even that it can be transformed into one; indeed, some have no illusions in the EU at all. A principled Labour left-winger like Ed Rooksby, for example, was able to put the case for Remain in its strongest form, precisely because he takes seriously the word “evil” in the phrase “lesser evil,” and eschews any claims for progressiveness such as those made by cheerleaders for Clinton or Macron. He argues that it is only because the alternative was even worse that we should have cast our votes to stay in the EU:

Any realistic assessment on the part of the radical left of the likely consequences of a victory for either side had to conclude that neither a victory for Remain nor for Leave would constitute a positive outcome. The real question was not so much which side we should want to win, but which of them we should desire most to lose. For many of us, except a small band of Left Exit (‘Lexit’) campaigners, it was very clear which of the two was the least worst option. For while Remain promised little other than business as usual (neoliberalism, austerity, “sensible controls on immigration”) under the aegis of continued membership of the EU, Leave represented something much darker and more dangerous. In the end the worst option emerged victorious. We have to be absolutely clear about this and indeed about how bad things now are. The Brexit vote is a major triumph for forces of national chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, and the hard right. As such it is a catastrophe for workers—particularly immigrant workers—and the left.33

Others went still further, arguing in effect for abstention. The editors of the journal Salvage have as few illusions in the EU as Rooksby, and the bulk of their statement on the eve of the referendum was weighted towards explaining exactly why that EU should not be supported by the Left, before setting out what they saw as the respective implications—negative in different ways—for left supporters of both Leave and Remain: “Any left pro-Brexiter who believes a Brexit vote is a triumph for them is deluding themselves: it will inaugurate a crowing reaction. Any radical Bremainer celebrating a future win is celebrating the success of Cameron’s strategy of Europe-wide neoliberalism in the service of British capital and the state.”34 However, the perfectly balanced judgment contained in these two sentences indicates what I see as the problem with the editorial position, that of false equivalence.

Take the very title of the editorial, which is a variant of the “neither Washington nor Moscow” slogan first raised by Max Shachtman’s Workers Party and later adopted by the International Socialist tradition. “Neither Westminster not Brussels” is in fact subtly different from the original refusal to take sides in the Cold War. In a British context the latter meant opposing the US-dominated West while rejecting claims that the USSR-dominated East represented a better alternative: exiting from one camp did not mean entering the other. But this is not what is involved in the Salvage reworking. Unless you are lucky enough to live in Scotland, there is no mechanism by which to reject both Westminster and Brussels: whether one abstained or not, there was always going to be an outcome involving one or the other, staying or leaving. So which? Unlike Rooksby, the editors would not call for a Remain vote, but their reasons for refusing to support Leave are the same as his: the domination of the campaign by the hard Right:

If [the Left] lines up now behind Brexit, given the massive and overwhelming center of gravity of the debate, what it is supporting is the actually-existing-Brexit, which has been defined by the racist, nationalist right. In the case of a win for this Brexit, it is those forces that have won, and those forces that stand to gain. This is not to say that a movement for left-Brexit could never be built—and there is an argument that that is a task that must, with immense care, begin. What is certain, however, is thatat this moment, in the context of a public debate in which the running for exit is being made by the baying Europhobe right, there is no space for a radical position to be anything but utterly marginal. To join the campaign forthisBrexitnowwould grant a life-long free pass to the Carnival of Reaction. If Britain votes for exit, the universe will not know or care of the impeccable socialist reasoning behind the small proportion of radical Brexit votes. It will know that Farage, IDS, and the pro-borders hard right have got what they wanted.35

There are a number of sleights-of-hand in this passage. No one on the left argued for joining the right-wing Brexit campaign, but rather organized their own; and the emphasis on perceptions and narratives comes uncomfortably close to postmodern claims that reality has no existence outside of its media representations—or worse, that reality is actually created by them. These excesses aside, however, Rooksby and the Salvage editors represent, respectively, the strongest cases for supporting the lesser evil and for abstention in the face of equivalent evils. Nevertheless, if we look at the range of arguments for either remaining in the EU or at least not arguing to leave, from those with illusions in the EU to those that are militantly hostile to it, there are a number of reasons why they are wrong.

Misunderstanding and indeterminacy

The first and most abstract point is that voting for a right-wing individual (like Trump) or party (like UKIP) is, in effect, to support the entirety of their program, however incoherent it may be. No one on the left could seriously advocate this: “the worse the better” has never been a serious strategic orientation. But voting for a demand which a right-wing individual or party happens to support is not the same. It is perfectly possible for two groups of people to support the same outcome in the expectation that it will have, not only different, but diametrically opposite effects. When this happens, it is usually for one of two reasons: either one group has simply misunderstood the situation—in other words, the two opposing groups cannot both be right and the meaning of the outcome will be different from what one of them expects; or because the situation is genuinely indeterminate—in other words, the outcome will be decided by what the different groups do, both in the process leading up to it and in the aftermath. I will illustrate this with an example from the history of the Russian Revolution, recently the subject of an entire book, which combines both misunderstanding and indeterminacy.

When the February Revolution broke out, Lenin and several members of his immediate circle were in exile in Switzerland. Desperately worried that the revolutionary crisis would conclude with the formation of a provisional government committed to continuing Russia’s role in the war, Lenin wanted to return to Russia to argue that socialist revolution was now on the agenda, but was unable to do so because of the barriers to cross-border travel imposed by the conflict. There was only one realistic way of reaching Russia, but this involved requesting and then accepting the assistance of one of the imperialist powers then engaged in devastating Europe: Germany.

Catherine Merridale notes that when the idea was first mooted, “Lenin’s initial response to the idea was dismissive,” for “to accept the assistance of an enemy in time of war would have been to expose himself to charges of treason.”36 These charges were indeed raised in July 1917, but ultimately Lenin had no choice; his only solution was to approach the German Embassy. The General Staff does not appear to have previously considered sending Lenin back to Russia, but agreed once his proposal had been made. As a result, the Bolshevik leader and thirty-one of his comrades were provided with the famous “sealed train” which took them from Switzerland, through Germany and Sweden to Finland and hence to Petrograd where he shortly afterwards unveiled the “April Theses.” While in Stockholm, Lenin told his Swedish hosts,

It was imperialist Britain, flagrantly blocking all the obvious routes from Switzerland, that bore responsibility for forcing him to go through Germany at all. It was true, he granted, that the Germans hoped to benefit from his return, but they were making a mistake. “The Bolshevik leadership of the revolution,” he concluded, “is much more dangerous for German imperial power and capitalism than the leadership of Kerensky and Miliukov.”37

Yet the day after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station, the German Foreign Ministry Liaison Officer Grunau at the imperial court forwarded a note from the political section of the General Staff at Stockholm: “Lenin’s entry into Russia successful. He is working exactly as we would wish.”38 Is this misunderstanding or indeterminacy?

Erich Ludendorff and the other members of the German High Command facilitated the return of Lenin to Russia, knowing that this was likely to lead to the greater radicalization of the revolutionary process. In effect, they were prepared to see socialist revolution take place in Russia, because it would mean the withdrawal from the war by one of the Triple Entente, thus freeing up military resources which had been pinned down on the Eastern Front and allow them to be reallocated to the struggle with Britain and France. A further consideration was that Germany would be able to take advantage of Russian weakness to seize part of the former Tsarist Empire—which it did by briefly securing control of the Baltic States in March 1918 following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. As S. A. Smith writes in his recent history of the revolution, the eventual terms were “punitive” and meant that “the Baltic states, a large part of Belorussia, and the whole of the Ukraine were excised from the former empire, with the result that Russia lost one-third of its agriculture and railways, virtually all its oil and cotton production, three quarters of its coal and iron. The Treaty effectively made Germany dominant throughout eastern and central Europe.”39 German State Secretary Hintz wrote shortly after the Treaty was signed:

What do we want in the East; the military paralysis of Russia? The Bolsheviks are taking care of this better than any other Russian party, without our contributing a single man or a single penny. We cannot demand that they…should love us for squeezing the country like an orange . . . We are not cooperating with the Bolsheviks; we are exploiting them. That is what politics is about.40

It is obvious why Lenin accepted help from the military wing of the German ruling class: he had no other realistic prospect of getting back to Russia and consequently of influencing events. He did not, of course, give political support to the German war aims. But did bringing down the Provisional Government not “objectively” contribute to strengthening one imperialist alliance over another? Was Lenin not “playing into the hands” of the German High Command? For Lenin, short-term German advantage was acceptable because his analysis led him to believe that the whole of Europe was on the verge of revolution, regardless of which imperialism had achieved momentary supremacy. In these circumstances the creation, survival, and example of the Soviet republic took precedence over all else. Tariq Ali summarizes both expectations of German militarists and Russian revolutionaries: “‘Even if these madmen succeed [said the Kaiser] once we’ve won the war we’ll crush them.’ Lenin’s response to this remark was swift: a German revolution was on the way that would permanently settle accounts with the Hohenzollerns.”41 In his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky records Ludendorff’s final judgment on the decision to allow Lenin back to Russia: “‘I could not suppose’ so he justifies himself, speaking of the Russian revolution, ‘that it would become the tomb of our own might.’ This merely means that of the two strategists, Ludendorff who permitted Lenin to go, and Lenin who accepted his permission, Lenin saw farther and better.”42

Trotsky here highlights Ludendorff’s misunderstanding what the outcome (Russia’s revolutionary departure from the war) would involve; but it seems more accurate to emphasize the indeterminacy of that outcome. For the Russian Revolution did initially allow Germany to transfer troops from the former Eastern Front to the Western Front and, although total victory was never going to be possible after the failure to achieve it early in the conflict, a negotiated peace could have been achieved which left Germany in a stronger position than before August 1914. What rendered this impossible, and led to German defeat, was the policy of submarine warfare which led to the sinking of US ships, which in turn provided the excuse for US entry into the war.43 Smith writes that “Lenin’s calculation that the treaty [of Brest-Litovsk] would be short-lived proved to be correct, albeit not for the reason—a socialist revolution in Germany—on which he banked.”44 By this he means that German territorial gains were lost following defeat in the field and not overturned by revolution at home; but this is an extraordinarily foreshortened analysis. The German revolution that Lenin anticipated had been building throughout the later stages of the war and broke out on November 6 with the mutiny of sailors who refused to be sent on a suicidal attempt to reverse Germany’s impending military defeat.45 And, if not this precise event, then something of the sort, was what Lenin had rightly argued was going to take place.

I am obviously not comparing the Russian Revolution to the UK referendum on leaving the EU, but in both cases there were issues of misunderstanding and indeterminacy involved. Indeed, you could argue that the German High Command had a far more plausible argument for supporting the Russian Revolution than the right-wing Brexiteers had for exiting the EU, since the former event at least had the possibility of delivering their geopolitical goals, but the latter was never going to work to the benefit of British capitalism.

“The lesser evil” and “the immediate danger”

In part one I rehearsed Draper’s argument about how Social-Democratic acceptance of the doctrine of the lesser evil in Germany during the early 1930s led to disaster.46 But in a sense Draper did not go far enough. Trotsky’s writings on Germany are central to any discussion of this subject, but he rejected the notion of the lesser evil:

We Marxists regard Brüning and Hitler . . . as component parts of one and the same system. The question as to which one of them is the “lesser evil” has no sense, for the system we are fighting against needs all these elements. But these elements are momentarily involved in conflicts with one another and the party of the proletariat must take advantage of these conflicts in the interest of the revolution. . . . When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a “lesser evil” in comparison with the revolver.47

Trotsky is making two points here. One is to draw a connection between fascism and the representatives of “everyday” capitalist exploitation—a point of the utmost relevance to this discussion. As Liz Fekete points out:

Neoliberalism is not just an economic project. It is also deeply political, an attempt to transform the state from within, merging nation states into interconnecting market states. To date, the EU supranational entity, with its weak parliament and unaccountable European Commission, has been central to that process. Through subordinating “social Europe” (social protection and equality) to the interests of global corporations and global finance (competition law and market efficiencies), those who drive the European Commission may have created the conditions for the EU’s nemesis—nationalism and, following Brexit, potential dissolution.48

What Fekete identifies here is the symbiotic relationship between social neoliberalism and the new hard Right, in particular the way in which the former recreates the conditions for the latter to emerge. “The cosmopolitan identitarianism of the leaders of the neoliberal age . . . calls forth by way of a reaction a national identitarianism,” writes Streeck, “while anti-national re-education from above produces an anti-elitist nationalism from below.”49 Varoufakis himself recognizes the relationship, as he recalls in his memoirs:

During my discussion I often warned them that crushing us was not in their interests. If our democratic, Europeanist, progressive challenge was strangled, the deepening crisis would produce a xenophobic, illiberal, anti-Europeanist nationalist international. This is exactly what happened after the crushing of the Greek Spring.50

The tragedy here is that Varoufakis still imagines that his opponents were making a choice, rather than following the logic of their position.

There is a genuine parallel with the rise of fascism here, but not the one that is usually imagined. In his classic account Robert Paxton notes that one of the preconditions for fascism to emerge was:

The Left . . . had to lose its position as the automatic recourse for all the partisans of change—the dreamers and the angry, among the middle class as well as the working class. . . . Indeed, fascists can find their space only after socialism has become powerful enough to have had some share in governing, and thus to have disillusioned part of its traditional working-class and intellectual clientele.51

The parallel is this: the liberal and reformist left have, until relatively recently at any rate, “had some share in governing” the social neoliberal order—and more than simply a share: as I have argued here, the EU, Clinton, and Blair were to large extent responsible for imposing it. The populist reaction is therefore not simply a displaced one against the depredations of capitalism-in-general, but a capitalism that has been guided and defended by politicians and their ideological supporters purporting to be of the left. To continue supporting these forces, however “critically” or reluctantly, is simply to perpetuate this dance of death, as Nancy Fraser explains:

Although [neoliberalism and reactionary populism] are by no means normatively equivalent, both are products of unrestrained capitalism, which everywhere destabilizes lifeworlds and habitats, bringing in its wake both individual liberation and untold suffering. Liberalism expresses the first, liberatory side of this process, while glossing over the rage and pain associated with the second. Left to fester in the absence of an alternative, those sentiments fuel authoritarianisms of every sort . . . Thus, far from being the antidote to fascism, (neo)liberalism is its partner in crime.

Fraser’s conclusion is that “the left should refuse the choice between progressive neoliberalism and reactionary populism.”52 So important is this point that I will take the extraordinary step of agreeing with Slavoj Žižek, who writes of the way in which “the threat of a new fascism embodied in anti-immigrant Rightist populism” is “perceived as the principal enemy against which we should all unite, from (whatever remains of) the radical left to mainstream liberal democrats (including EU administrators…).” Against this, he writes that we need to “persist in the basic Marxist insight: this ‘fascism’ is strictly a secondary phenomenon engendered by its apparent opposite, the ‘open’ liberal-democratic universe, so the only way to truly defeat it is to overcome the immanent limitations of the latter.”53 But what if fascism is not a “secondary” phenomenon?

This question brings us to the second point Trotsky made: the need for a sense of priority. If you are in immediate danger then you should deal with it first, before dealing with others which may be equally deadly but less pressing: hence the need to crush the Nazis before turning to the overthrow of the existing bourgeois state machine. No one could possibly disagree with this, but for a parallel with the 1930s Germany to be convincing we have to accept that the threat of fascism, or at least the populist far right more generally is an immediate danger. As we have seen, Varoufakis hints at this, but Marxist historian Neil Faulkner makes the point more explicitly. Here, fascism is not a possible risk, but an imminent threat: we are living through a rerun of the Last Days of Weimar:

Comparison with Weimar Germany is not misplaced. The example is more extreme, but that enables us to see underlying tendencies more clearly. The German Communists welcomed the terminal crisis of Weimar Germany in 1932 with the notion “after Hitler, our turn.” They failed to identify the main threat and the urgent need for a defensive battle by a united working class. The crisis is not yet of this kind, but the mistake of dogmatic Lexiteers is identical: an inability to understand that the rise of the far right across Europe is a clear and present danger, and that Brexit Britain is a project driven by the right, not the left.

Faulkner does not see this danger arising from classical fascist movements, which are no longer necessary due to the weakness of the labor movement and the Left:

Hitler and Franco [?] faced great working-class movements created during the revolutionary upsurge of 1917–23. By contrast, contemporary proto-fascist politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Milos Zeman, and others face a labor movement hollowed out by 30 years of defeat and retreat. . . . the far right does not need an army of Brownshirts to make headway in early twenty-first century Europe (or America).54

It is tempting here to paraphrase sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson and say that the Weimar Republic analogy has become the last refuge of people incapable of grasping the current situation.55 In relation to the UK in 2016, these comparisons are ridiculous.

On the one hand, they lack all historical perspective. Therewasa serious upsurge in both physical and verbal attacks on minority groups in Britain, including white EU immigrants, in the immediate aftermath of the vote. But the racism and xenophobia on display in those days were not caused bythe result; they long preceded it and have now been given legitimacy by the demagoguery of the official Leave campaign. However, even if the result had gone the other way, I think it is likely that similar attacks would have taken place. These racists would still have regarded themselves as justified, but in defeat would have been vengeful rather than triumphant. We have to look this racist reality in its face but also be sober about its extent: most of the perpetrators will have been hard-core racists and fascists, not mainstream Leave voters. In any event, this was a spike in racist violence, not a new norm. Contrast that with the situation forty years ago.

Anyone who was politically active in the late 1970s or early 1980s will member from those years genuine no-go areas controlled by the fascist Right in Birmingham and London, regular assaults on people of Asian and Afro-Caribbean heritage which often led to fatalities, repressive and openly racialist policing, and antifascist meetings or concerts which were liable to be attacked by squads of actual Nazis.56 Here is the testimony of one writer of Asian heritage who lived through the period:

Racism in the 1970s was woven into the fabric of British society in a way unimaginable now. ”Paki bashing” was a national sport. Stabbings were common, firebombings of Asian houses almost weekly events, murders not uncommon. I attended largely white schools. My main memory is of being involved almost daily in fights with racists and of how normal it seemed to come home with a bruised lip or a black eye. And if you reported a racist attack to the police, they were as likely to arrest you as they were the racist. From union leaders conspiring with management to keep out black and Asian workers to immigration officers conducting “virginity tests” on Asian women, racism was open, vicious and raw.57

None of this is true today, at least on anything like the same scale. On the other hand, it assumes that because the “dominant media narrative” is that Brexit is driven by racism and anti-migrant feeling this must actually be the case. As I have argued elsewhere, there were a series of complex and often opposed motivations for voting Leave.58 One journalist recounts the variety of reasons he was offered in a West Midlands town that voted heavily for Leave:

Speaking to Smethwick friends from white British and second-generation immigrant backgrounds, you hear support for Brexit from a diverse range of perspectives: there is the “Fortress Europe” argument (people of Commonwealth origin not being able to move to the UK, because preference is given to EU citizens); British Asian shopkeepers who don’t like the Polish shops stealing business; an objection to the Thatcherite capitalist structure enshrined in the EU. Underlying all these things is a powerful revolt against what is perceived to be a self-serving political elite.59

Yet Smethwick is part of the parliamentary constituency of Warley, which returned a Labour MP in June 2017 with over 67 percent of the vote. In other words, it is simply not the case that everyone who voted Leave had bought into a populist right agenda. The fate of UKIP demonstrates this. In the aftermath of Brexit, the air was thick with predictions that UKIP would sweep all before it, with Nigel Farage perhaps acting as deputy prime minister to a Tory Brexiteer. In the subsequent twelve months, UKIP lost all 145 of its seats in the council elections of May 2017, lost its single parliamentary seat in June 2017, and saw its share of the vote fall from 13 percent in 2015 to 2 percent today. Nor have UKIP voters simply moved to supporting the Tories—some certainly have (and many of these are returning working-class Tories), but many moved to Labour.

More generally, if anti-migrant, anti-Islamic racism was genuinely sweeping all before it, the dominant narrative in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London would not have been solidarity, unity, and the excellence of our public services. If politics had moved so decisively to the right, then support for the Labour Party during the General Election campaign would not have risen as relentlessly as it did—including in areas that voted for Leave—to the point where Corbyn was being seriously considered as a candidate for prime minister has on the basis of Labour’s most-left-wing manifesto for over thirty years. The UK is subject to multiple crises, as we shall now see—but the imminent threat of fascism is not one of them.

The triple crisis

As we have seen, Brexit involved both misunderstandings on the part of the right-wing Brexiteers and indeterminacy in relation to the outcome—and following the UK General Election of 2017 that outcome has still very much to be decided. The class struggle is not a zero-sum game in which the weakness of one side automatically translates into the strength of the other. If the Left is divided and the working class is organizationally weak, as they are, then this is obviously to the advantage of the ruling class; but neither of these conditions means that all their other ideological, geopolitical, or economic problems have simply vanished. We need to start from this, and not conjure up an invincible enemy existing in our imagination that requires us to endorse a supposedly “lesser evil”—that is simply to repeat the errors of the British Left during the 1980s, when Thatcher and her governments were assumed to have an underlying level of popular support they did not in fact possess—and the present Tory Government is far weaker than any of hers.

Brexit is both a product, and an accelerant of, three specific crises currently facing the British ruling class. In ascending order of seriousness, these are the crises of party, of strategy, and of state. Historically, these crises have tended to occur separately. In relation to strategy, obvious examples would be British ruling-class miscalculations over Suez in 1956 or Iraq in 2003. In relation to party, we think of the divisions within the Conservative Party over the Corn Laws in 1846 or the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule in the 1880s. But these types of crises are relatively common; state crises are relatively rare and tend to local manifestations of a wider global upheaval. And there have only been three in the last century.

The first ran from 1916 to 1921, from the Easter Rising in Ireland to the defeat of the Triple Alliance, with 1919 being the key year. The second one extended from 1968 to 1975, again involving massive working-class insurgency and war in Ireland, but also the Vietnam antiwar campaign, the women’s liberation movement, and other struggles against oppression: here, 1972 was the decisive year. The third state crisis opened in 2011 and was signaled by a series of disparate manifestations that were all ultimately connected by opposition to the austerity regime of the then ruling Coalition: inner-city riots in London sparked by police shooting of a Black youth, student demonstrations and riots against tuition fees, public sector mass strikes, and the election of a majority Scottish National Party (SNP) government to the Holyrood Parliament. In some ways the last named was the least obviously radical, but it made holding a referendum on Scottish independence inevitable and hence threatened the territorial integrity of the British state in a way the others did not.

Take the crisis of strategy first. The inability of the political leadership of the British ruling class to think in strategic terms has been clearly demonstrated by Theresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election. This was, of course, the third major gamble taken by the Tory Party leadership in five years, following the Scottish independence referendum, where it narrowly succeeded, and the EU referendum, where it even more narrowly failed. The problem facing the Tories after the Brexit vote can be quite simply stated: they have been the main party of the British ruling class for over 150 years, yet, because of decision taken for internal party reasons—to see off the threat from UKIP and to resolve their divisions over the EU—they are now responsible for implementing a policy which is opposed by the vast majority of that class. This is one horn of the Tory dilemma. Some analysts have argued that this hostility on the part of business will derail the Brexit process. At the conclusion of a useful account of the relationship of British capital to the EU, Christakis Georgiou writes:

That most big business executives—in the City or otherwise—as well as the most important departments of state including the Eurosceptic Treasury (let alone the Foreign Office, despite its diminished standing) are opposed to it not only indicates that a simple referendum result would be insufficient for the strategy to be implemented but also that the British ruling class is aware of its limitations. British capitalism has come to depend on membership of the EU and the latter is not going to go away.60

But it is not clear that the vote can simply be ignored. One way of resolving the situation would be to try and negotiate what is sometimes called a “soft” Brexit—in other words one which the UK’s relationship with the EU is as close to membership status as possible, above all through access to the single market. The remaining member states and the institutions will only grant such an arrangement, however, if the UK accepts the free movement of people in return. British capital would welcome this solution but it would impale the government on the second horn of its dilemma. A “soft” Brexit would leave the Conservatives unable to stop immigration or even “take control” of it. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has made it quite clear that if a post-Brexit Britain wants to be part of the single market it will have to accept free movement of people: the Leave campaign has stoked up demands which are actually impossible to satisfy.

May’s decision to call an early election was a desperate attempt to resolve this contradiction, and appears to have involved four calculations. At some level May was aware that, whatever form it ultimately takes, the Brexit over which she (at the time of writing) will preside will not benefit the majority of the British people, including the section which voted for it. It would therefore be in the best interests of the Tory Party to secure another five years in office before the disaster begins to unfold, a process otherwise inconveniently synchronized with the next scheduled election in 2020. The temptation to circumvent this outcome will have been heightened by the chance to take advantage of a Labour Party suffering historically low levels of popular support, with a supposedly unelectable leader and badly-divided internally that even the pretense of unity would collapse under the pressures of the campaign.

These two calculations were obviously not stated openly, but the remaining two constituted, as it were, the official reasoning. Winning an election victory could therefore be claimed, however unjustifiably, as advance endorsement of whatever deal—or no deal—that May is either able to achieve or is forced to accept. It would, in other words, be used to argue against any demands for a further referendum to ratify the eventual agreement between London and Brussels. May also claimed that an enlarged Tory majority would increase her freedom of manoeuver in the negotiations: but in relation to whom?

The European Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhorfstadt has stated that his team regards the scale of May’s mandate as irrelevant, and though his views have been dismissed by liberal commentators, there is a sense in which he was telling the truth. The EU would have preferred the UK to remain and representatives had previously hinted that the very narrowness of the Leave victory might offer the possibility of a rethink—referendum decisions by member states have been rerun or ignored in several other contexts, after all.

But any perceived increase in support for Brexit, such as that signaled by a Tory landslide, would remove any chance of the Brexit outcome being reversed, and consequently any incentive negotiators may have had to make concessions. (Nevertheless, we can only admire the audacity, and perhaps wonder at the naïveté of those Tory Brexiteers who rail against the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels, but now expect them to respect elected outcomes, even though they have never done so in the past except where these aligned with EU objectives.) No, the main group against whom May needs to bolster her support are the hard right Brexit ultras of her own party whose intransigence is threatening to turn a crisis for British capitalism into a catastrophe. May evidently believed that an increased majority would reduce her reliance on them. In other words, she was not seeking a mandate for a hard Brexit, but a mandate to avoid one: this is what “strengthening her hand” actually means. But this was unlikely to have been the case given that Tory candidates will be elected precisely because they cleave to hard Brexit positions, if only to attract the votes of former UKIP supporters, which suggests some of the desperation involved.

The gambles of 2014 and 2016 led to one near and one actual unintended outcome; but May clearly thought that this snap election did not involve a risk of similar proportions. After having proclaimed the necessity for a landslide, anything less was going to be regarded as a disaster for the Tories. But this gamble, like the EU referendum, has also failed and, as I write, the disaster is unfolding with—as Rosa Luxemburg liked to say—all the inevitability of natural law.

This takes us to the crisis of party. It was clear even before the General Election that the Tories have no idea how to proceed. The details leaked to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung about the Downing Street dinner held for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his negotiating team reveal a British side which is apparently uncomprehending about the technicalities of the withdrawal process, over-optimistic about the speed at which the different aspects can be agreed, and deluded about the terms which the UK can expect to be offered. Now, the quality of British ruling-class leadership has certainly declined terribly over the last seventy years, but their ineptitude is not because the politicians involved are particularly unintelligent—in the majority of cases, anyway. Rather, their situation has rendered them so. As Theodor Adorno once pointed out, “Stupidity is not a natural quality, but one socially produced and reinforced.”61 In any event, we are not faced with a leading group finely attuned to the needs of their class and implementing carefully considered strategies for meeting them, but one desperately scrambling around for the least bad of the available options.

In these circumstances, the expressions of serenity which cling to the faces of Tory Brexiteers David Davis, Liam Fox, and Boris Johnson as they bumble from one diplomatic gaffe to another is not because they have a cunning plan unknown to the rest of us, but precisely because they do not. As Alan Finlayson has observed, there is an “unusual political philosophy” behind “Brexitism”: “‘You don’t know what will happen,’ these Brexiters will say if they catch you speculating as to the likely negotiating position of Estonia or the prospect of continued passporting rights for London-based banks. ‘Nobody can know the future.’”62 But perhaps this is less about the impossibility of prediction as a refusal to consider what it might involve. “They . . . see rainbow dreams as they drown,” as Trotsky wrote of another ruling class similarly groping with sightless eyes towards destruction, almost exactly a hundred years ago.63

The problem for British capitalism is compounded by the fact that there is no obvious alternative “party of capital” on which it can rely. For the moment at least, the Labour Party cannot play this role—no longer because of its internal divisions, but because it has moved decisively to the left, a turn which has proved electorally popular. The continuing unbridled hostility of the majority of Parliamentary Labour Party to Corbyn is not because, as they previously claimed, they fear he will inevitably lose a General Election, but precisely because they now fear he would win one—and the next may not be far off. It is therefore conceivable that the Labour Party could be either fundamentally transformed into an organization nearer to the new formations emerging in the south of Europe, or fragment entirely. But the party crisis is wider than the changes within the Labour Party—indeed, in some ways this transcends individual organizations to threaten the party system itself. The Tories are the largest party in England, but no longer completely dominant in face of the Labour revival; Labour is dominant in Wales; the SNP, although weakened, is still the largest party in the Scottish Parliament and has the most Scottish MPs at Westminster; and the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein are now almost evenly matched in Northern Ireland. There is no longer a single party that commands support across the whole of the UK—an unprecedented development in the history of the British state.

And so we turn to the crisis of that state. As noted earlier, it began in 2011, in the context of the long depression beginning three years earlier, when the SNP first got elected with a majority government in Scotland. The 2014 referendum that followed was a close call, but what Brexit has put on the agenda is of course the possibility of a second Scottish referendum, more quickly than I or most other people thought possible in 2014. The loss of Scotland would be infinitely more important to the British state than the loss of part of Ireland, for if Scotland goes then the United Kingdom is well and truly finished. And yet here too the question of the EU has had an impact. The SNP responded to the Brexit vote by arguing for a second independence referendum on the basis that the majority of Scots voted Remain, and it was this that cost it votes and seats in the General Election. Scotland remains the weak link in the structure of the British state. One of the key issues facing the Left in Scotland is to argue, against the SNP (and the Scottish Greens), that the question of Scottish independence from the UK and Scottish membership of the EU are entirely separate questions.


The task of the Left is to build an alternative to the different political wings of capital: the real neither/nor formulation today is “neither social neoliberalism nor right-wing populism but international socialism.” And if the Left is not yet in a position to offer a concrete organizational form as an alternative, it must still argue against the capitulation to the former or the alternative will never be built, the evasion will never stop, because reactionary populism is not going to vanish: there will always be a Trump or a Le Pen, or a Farage whose defeat requires us to support a Clinton, Macron, or Juncker.64 In this scenario, we will be told once again that our duty is to support the dominant faction of the capitalist ruling class. And once the support has been delivered, the neoliberal saviors will continue with the very policies that helped produce the racism in the first place. The resurgence of the Labour Party in the UK under Corbyn’s leadership has meant that, quite unexpectedly, an alternative is now available. It is not a revolutionary one, and no one should pretend that the structural impediments to parliamentary socialism have magically vanished: but it does mean that we are no longer simply faced with a choice of evils; and this may demonstrate that if this is possible in the UK, birthplace of neoliberalism, it may also be possible elsewhere. It is, at any rate, surely time to put the notion of “the lesser evil” out of its misery and give it the pauper’s burial it deserves.

  1. Neil Davidson, “Choosing or Refusing to Take Sides in an Era of Right-Wing Populism,” Part one, International Socialist Review 104 (Spring 2017).
  2. Ibid., 54.
  3. Natalie Nougayrède, “The Nightmare of a Le Pen Win Could Still Come True,” The Guardian (April 25, 2017).
  4. Laurie Penny, “The Backlash to Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ is Bathing America in Anger. What Comes Next?,” New Statesman (February 3–9, 2017), 38.
  5. Davidson, “Choosing or Refusing to Take Sides,” 57–61.
  6. Charles Post, “We’ve been Trumped,” International Socialist Review 104 (Spring 2017), 45–46.
  7. Davidson, “Choosing or Refusing to Take Sides,” 61–71. Since the ISR has already published a number of analyses of the Trump campaign and subsequent presidency—by people much better qualified to write about these subjects than me—I will focus here on the EU, which is likely to be less familiar to readers in the US.
  8. Guglielmo Carchedi, For Another Europe: A Class Analysis of European Economic Integration (London: Verso, 2001), 8–10.
  9. Nigel Harris, “The Mountains of Profit,” Socialist Worker Review 94 (January 1987), 7.
  10. Andreas Bieler and Thorsten Schulen, “European Integration: A Strategic Level for Trade Union Resistance to Neoliberal Restructuring and for the Promotion of Political Alternatives?,” in Labour and the Challenges of Globalization: What Prospects for Transnational Solidarity?, ed. Andreas Bieler, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pilay (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 233.
  11. Christopher Hermann and Ines Hofbauer, “The European Social Model: Between Competitive Modernisation and Neoliberal Resistance,” Capital and Class 93, special issue on The Left and Europe (Autumn 2007), 132.
  12. Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Europe Isn’t Working (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 93–94.
  13. Bieler and Schulen, “European Integration,” 233.
  14. Michael Roberts, The Long Depression: How it Happened, Why it Happened, and What Happens Next (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 169.
  15. Ibid, 167–172.
  16. In so far as it does attempt to act in its own interests—in the Ukraine, for example—it has proved to be ineffectual. For the record, I regard Russia as the main imperial threat to Ukraine, not the EU.
  17. Mike Haynes, “Setting the Limits to Europe as an ‘Imagined Community,’” in The European Union and Migrant Labour, ed. Gareth Dale and Mike Cole (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 18.
  18. Fezyi Baban, “Cosmopolitan Europe: Border Crossings and Transnationalism in Europe,” Global Society, 27, no. 2 (2013): 229.
  19. Phillip Cunliffe, “After Brexit: Ending Out-Sourced Anti-racism,” in The Current Moment,
  20. The slogan, “Another Europe is possible,” completely elides the difference between the continent and the European Union.
  21. Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 107–108.
  22. Friedrich von Hayek, “The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism,” New Commonwealth Quarterly, 5, no. 2 (1939). See the discussions in Perry Anderson, “Origins,” chap. 1 and “Outcomes,” chap. 2, in The New Old World (London: Verso, 2014); and in Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), 97–103.
  23. Claus Offe, Europe Entrapped (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), 114.
  24. Edward Luttwak, “Central Bankism,” [1996] in The Question of Europe, ed. Peter Gowan and Perry Anderson (London: Verso, 1997), 231–232.
  25. Streeck, Buying Time, 105.
  26. Agata Pyzik, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Winchester UK: Zero Books, 2014), 23, 38.
  27. Offe, Europe Entrapped, 111.
  28. Anderson, “Origins,” 23.
  29. Luke Cooper, “Europe’s Problem with Nationalism,” in Free Movement and Beyond: Agenda Setting for Brexit Britain, ed. Kate Hudson (London: Public Reading Rooms, 2017), 64–70.
  30. Tony Norfield, The City: London and the Global Power of Finance (London: Verso, 2015), 218. Like most people on the left, Norfield thought that “exit . . . looks unlikely,” but “the outcome is far from being certain.”, 219.
  31. Yanis Varoufakis, “Macron Backed My Nation: The French Left Should Back Him,” The Guardian (May 5, 2017),
  32. Yanis Varoufakis, “Why We Must Save the EU,” in Free Movement and Beyond, 24.
  33. Ed Rooksby, ‘The Brexit Disaster,’
  34. Jamie Allinson, China Mieville, Richard Seymour, and Rosie Warren, “Neither Westminster nor Brussels,” Salvage 3 (May 2016), 17.
  35. bid., 16. For the purposes of full disclosure, I should point out that this argument is partly directed against my article, “A Socialist Case for Leaving the EU”, Socialist Worker, Also, see Allinson, Mieville, Seymour and Warren, “Neither Westminster nor Brussels,” 18.
  36. Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 136.
  37. Ibid., 195.
  38. Ibid., 241.
  39. S. A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890–1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 157.
  40. Merridale, Lenin on the Train, 253.
  41. Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution (London: Verso, 2017), 159.
  42. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 619 and 596–623 more generally.
  43. Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol. 3, Global Empires and Revolution, 1890–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 144–145.
  44. Smith, Russia in Revolution, 157.
  45. Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917–1923, Historical Materialism Series, trans. John Archer, ed. Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce (1971: Leiden: Brill, 2005), 89–142.
  46. Davidson, “Choosing or Refusing to Take Sides in an Era of Right-Wing Populism, Part One,” 54–55.
  47. Leon D. Trotsky, “For a Workers’ United Front against Fascism,” [1931] in The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 103.
  48. Liz Fekete, “Flying the Flag for Neoliberalism,” Race and Class, 58, no. 3 (January–March 2017): 18.
  49. Wolfgang Streek, “The Return of the Repressed,” New Left Review II/104 (March/April 2017), 18.
  50. Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (London: Bodley Head, 2017), 482.
  51. Robert O Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2015), 43.
  52. Nancy Fraser, “Progressive Neoliberalism versus Reactionary Populism,” in The Great Regression, ed. Heinrich Geiselberger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 46–47.
  53. Slavoj Žižek, The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 249.
  54. Neil Faulkner, “Brexit, Racism, and the Crisis of European Capitalism,” in Free Movement and Beyond, 131.
  55. Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, [1993] (London: Harper Voyager, 2009), 543.
  56. The atmosphere of the time is well conveyed in David Widgery, Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll (London: Chatto and Windus, 1986) and in the more recent memoirs of the RAR/ANL era; see for example, Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (London: Picador, 2016), 96–113.
  57. Kenan Malik, “How Did the Left Radicalism of My Manchester Youth Give Way to Islamism?”, The Observer (May 28, 2008),
  58. Neil Davidson, “After Brexit,” International Socialist Review 102 (Fall 2016),
  59. Hamish Crooks, “Love Thy Neighbour,” The Guardian (Weekend) (March 18, 2017),
  60. Christakis Georgiou, “British Capitalism and European Unification: From Ottawa to the Brexit Referendum,” Historical Materialism 25, no.1 (2017), 124.
  61. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, (1951; London: Verso, 1978), 105–106.
  62. Alan Finlayson, “Brexitism,” London Review of Books, 39, no. 10 (May 18, 2017): 22.
  63. Leon D. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (1932; Pluto Press, 1977), 113.
  64. Jean-Claude Juncker is president of the European Commission.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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