29 January 2017

Brexit: victory for the British far right

Brexit and right-wing xenophobic nationalism are symbiotically related. Each is the result and cause of the other.

The decision by the May government to plough on with its preparations for a hard Brexit is certainly injurious to business, but it is even more harmful to the interests of ordinary working people. Let’s list the damage:
  • Economic pain: sterling down, lower investment and the prospect of tariffs
  • Workers rights: a bonfire of EU-created employment rights can be expected..
  • Mass insecurity: for millions of EU residents in the UK and reciprocally for UK citizens in other EU states;
  • Locked in: British citizens will have no right to live and work in mainland Europe.
  • Scotland: to be taken out of the EU against its will.
  • Northern Ireland: the re-imposition of a ‘hard’ border will threaten the peace process;
  • Racism and xenophobia: stimulated and legitimised in Britain.
  • European Identity: undermined and fractured.
  • Pan-European socialism: a united fightback across the continent undermined.
The May government has now become the willing vehicle of Ukip inspired right-wing populism, the poisonous ideology which has brought about the Brexit nightmare. But while the formal raison d'etre of Ukip has always been the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, that goal alone could never have motivated millions of ordinary people to back Brexit with such appalling enthusiasm. “Taking back control”, the defining slogan of the Brexit campaign, was never mainly about transferring to London full control over food labelling, or other such intricacies of EU law. No, taking back control was shorthand for cleansing Britain of “foreignness,” and junking tolerance and liberal values. Brexitmania was and is a movement primarily within the white “indigenous” English (and to some extent Welsh) to affirm their dominant status within “their” community and in “their” country, against outsiders, who were taking “their” jobs and making demands on “their” housing and “their” social services.

In the first instance Brexit propaganda targeted East European EU citizens in the UK, but behind that veneer lay racist antipathy to anyone not white British. Thus the defining moment in Ukip's campaign was Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster showing long queues of Syrian refugees in Slovenia - an issue nothing to do with Britain’s EU membership. But that did not matter a jot to Farage; the poster was promoting racist fear of ‘the other’, and the message hit home in its intended constituency.

The causes of the current explosion of right-wing populism are various, but one idea needs to be knocked on the head. It is false to claim the existence of high numbers of non-British EU citizens in a locality caused a high Leave vote. It did not. Those areas with the highest number of non-British EU citizens, such as London, Manchester or Bristol, voted Remain. Ukip propaganda was most successful wherever multicultural communities were lacking, not where they existed.

Right-wing populism is the diametric opposite of everything socialists stand for. The Labour Party is not properly the party of British working people; it is the party of workers in Britain, irrespective of race, ethnic background or nationality. Socialists support multicultural and cosmopolitan communities across the UK, and defend the free movement of EU citizens as a basic acquired right. There is no such thing as a Left-wing Brexit because the political reality is that Brexit is a tool of the right to restrict individual freedoms and social solidarity in favour of authoritarian nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism.

Labour has responded badly to the referendum result. While the result does give Prime Minister May a mandate to pursue Brexit, it does not bind the Labour Party to anything. If a majority in a referendum had voted for capital punishment, would Labour then support it? Of course not. Labour policy is made by its members, not by national referenda.

Sadly, Labour has backed the triggering Article 50, mostly in a misguided attempt of stave off Ukip’s advance in northern seats. Yet, the more right-wing populism is accommodated, the more acceptable and stronger it becomes. The more Labour capitulates to Ukip’s agenda, the more it betrays the young, and the multicultural and progressive communities in the metropolitan centres across England.

On Labour’s right-wing, politicians have been quick to accommodate themselves to the xenophobic upsurge. Rachel Reeves among others has sung the praise of immigration controls on EU citizens. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for mayor of Manchester, has chided Labour for prioritising access to the internal market over ending free movement. But the left, too, has not disentangled itself entirely from the right-wing populist offensive. John MacDonald has foolishly spoken of Brexit as an “enormous opportunity.” Well it is, but only for the enemies of the left. Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, while courageously defending free movement, has sometimes given the impression that Brexit is a low priority issue.

Labour should echo the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP in opposing Brexit. Insofar as Brexit is unstoppable, we should strive to remain in the European Economic Area (the so-called Norway solution), and with that retain free movement. And, if Britain does in the end leave the EU, which seems likely, we should work with the left across Europe for Britain to rejoin.

27 January 2017

Does socialist consciousness originate in the working class?

The claim that socialist consciousness has and will emerge in the working class is a dogma without evidence behind it.

If by socialist consciousness one means a relatively well worked out theory of how society is and how it should be, then socialist consciousness has seldom originated, nor flourished, as a major force among working people.

Socialist ideas have historically originated in the minds of intellectuals (e.g. Marx, Methodist reformers). In the case of Karl Marx his discovery of historical materialism was based on borrowings from haut-bourgeois intellectuals, especially Hegel (history as an all-embracing totality) and Feuerbach (being determines thinking and not vice versa). Of course, while intellectuals discovered and articulated historical materialism, the socio-material conditions had to be right for their emergence, and for them to have relevance. That proves the rule that the generation of ideas, even Marxist ones, must be grounded in social-material reality.

Once in the world, socialist ideas were then adopted by the leaders of political parties, either because they believed them to be correct and helpful, or for more opportunistic reasons. In the last century, large numbers of workers and others voted for these parties in many developed countries because ordinary people felt left-wing parties better represented their practical interests than did non-socialist ones.

Only a tiny fraction of people in manual jobs ever concerned themselves with the theoretical and ideological issues connected with socialism, probably fewer people than were involved in religious sects. Remember George Orwell entering Catholic workers houses in the 1930s: the communist newspaper Daily Worker on the table and a crucifix on the wall.

One such exception in the twentieth century was an interest in socialist theory among a minority of skilled workers, particularly those working alone. We could mention the watchmakers of Jena, but also the role of cobblers, tailors and more recently left-wing train drivers in the ASLEF trade union in Britain.

Socialists were also likely to be found among upwardly mobile families whose members had left the manual working class. The connection between socialist belief, education and upward social mobility was well established in the twentieth century. This linkage is now largely something of the past.

Nevertheless the bulk of those interested in socialist and Marxist ideas are – and historically have always been – found among the intelligentsia. It is here among teachers and other professionals that discussions of what socialism is and how it can be realised have always been a fascinating topic for a minority.

Whether and how a socialist consciousness could emerge today, and whether and how socialist consciousness could embed itself among ordinary working people are difficult issues.

24 January 2017

Chesterfield Socialist Conference 1987

The Chesterfield Socialist Conference of 1987 attempted to revitalise the left in Britain. Instead it marked its demise.

The year 1987 was an important year, not just because I failed my driving test the day after Mrs Thatcher won her third term in office, but because – although I did not know it at the time – events that year would signal a speeding up in the collapse of the left in Britain.

In October 1987, the first Socialist Conference was held in Chesterfield, the mining constituency which Tony Been famously won in a byelection in 1984. Ralph Miliband described the conference, which brought together the Labour left with several outside groups and parties, as the biggest meeting of socialists since the Leeds Convention in 1918. Benn, Miliband and Eric Heffer all gave powerful orations in the hope of heralding in a rebirth of the radical left in British politics.

Yet, it was not to be. Kinnock (with Hattersley, Smith, Kaufmann and the then youngsters Blair and Brown in tow) announced a policy review, misnamed ‘Labour Listens’ which meant that the leadership listened to everybody except socialists. The remaining socialist policies were either dropped or sidelined. Inside the party de-democratisation took hold and the socialist left was marginalised or expelled. In this stifling atmosphere of party discipline, Kinnock stumbled on until losing to the Tories yet again in 1992.

John Smith’s leadership 1992-94 promised a Labour Party consolidation on the basis of some kind of mild social democracy – and, but for his death, he would have taken Labour to victory in 1997.

But that was not to be, either. In 1994 (the last contested Labour leadership election until 2010), desperate for success, Labour elected Tony Blair, whose drift to the right in the next decade and half would have been unimaginable in the early nineties. So New Labour was born and the Left and socialism ceased to be.

20 January 2017

Are the British UKIP and the American Trump fascists?

The fascistic aspects of UKIP and Trump are not enough to label them fascists

Talk on the left often compares the anti-liberal xenophobic nationalism behind Brexit and Trump with the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Is the comparison valid?

Some similarities clearly exist: the attack on liberal values, on rational expertise and cosmopolitanism, through a promotion of ethnic chauvinism, authoritarian nationalism and economic protectionism; and all of this tied up with a vision of a utopian future created out of an imagined past. These ideas do contain elements of fascism, so the label ‘fascistic” could be legitimately applied to the thinking and also to those who promote it.

Yet outside eastern Europe, the populist right has worked within, rather than threatened, democratic structures – and the mainstream populist right have so far not engaged in a cult of organised violence against their domestic opponents. Thus attaching terms like fascist, let alone Nazi, to UKIP and similar parties would be inaccurate.

But, of course, the world today is different from that of the 1930s. Then the workers’ movement was a powerful contender for power; now it is not. Business, today, much of it multinational, does not need nationalist extremists to protect its interests against a weak and largely unorganised working class. So the far right’s main opponent is bourgeois liberalism, not socialism or communism; and therefore its configuration and tactics are different.

But the lesson of the Nazi assumption of power should teach us one thing. Weimar democracy was far from perfect, but Germany until 1933 was a civilised country. In a relatively short time the Nazi regime was able create a chamber of horrors with the complicity of the existing state apparatus. The vulnerability of liberal democracy should never be underestimated. Who would have thought a year ago that EU citizens in the UK, many who have been resident for years, would be be reduced to bargaining chips in the May government’s Brexit negotiations?

16 January 2017

Trump promises UK a trade deal

Britain will become a US economic satellite.

Britain is inexorably hurtling towards a ‘hard’ Brexit. This is not only a disaster for the millions of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in other EU countries, but exiting the European internal market will throw Britain into the clutches of the Trump’s America, economically and politically.

In the EU British capitalism was a major player, but under US tutelage, Washington will have the whip hand. Trade agreement there may be, but it will be on US terms.

How will British capitalism operate as a US economic satellite? We know: freed of EU social legislation it will slash social spending, worker protections and wages. The working class Leave voters will rue that day in June 2016 when they backed Brexit.

1 January 2017

George Monbiot: no reference to Marxist classics

George Monbiot must rank among Britain’s top left-wing popular intellectual writing today

A few years ago when I first read Monbiot’s book, Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain I delved into the index to look up references to Marx. There was no such reference in the whole book.

At first sight that appears strange. The book is an excellent empirical study of corporate power within the neo-Marxist tradition, but it seems that Monbiot wants to present information within that intellectual interpretative framework, but without references to the corpus of Marxist classics. Maybe he is right to do so.

Much Marxist writing in the last three decades, if not before, has been couched in a cloud of jargon and impenetrable theory, written by university academics for other university academics. The result is that the whole corpus has become inaccessible, even for most of the university educated.

Monbiot, a trained journalist, is thus right to pen his articles and books in what amounts to a Marxian interpretive framework but without exploring its philosophical underpinnings. Those who have studied academic Marxism may be attracted by theory, but I doubt whether many of his readers think the same.

It’s far better for people first coming to left-wing ideas to get a grasp of how society works with practical example – and then later, if they are interested, to delve into the theory. Monbiot gets it right on that score.