Britain  •  Debate

We need an internationalist alternative to Brexit

14 February 2019

Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of Labour votes for a Tory Brexit – on conditions impossible for Theresa May to accept without splitting her own party – shows Labour’s Brexit policy is governed by narrow electoral calculation, and not by what is in the interests of the working class.

Not only did this gambit simply give May a chance to kick the can a bit further down the road – it also unilaterally rewrote conference policy by dumping the ‘Six Tests’ and, again, refusing to commit to a new referendum, which is the only democratic solution to the Brexit impasse.

Labour’s fixation with delivering Brexit demonstrates that the horizons of Corbyn and his inner circle’s long term project can be drawn at the English Channel. Their’s is first and foremost, a national project, based on protectionist measures which it is supposed will offset the worst consequences of Brexit and grant a Labour government greater room for manoeuvre.

Like all nationalist schemas, Labour’s ‘People’s Brexit’ is a utopia which ignores the actual character of global capitalism, Britain’s role within it, and the objective necessity of increasing the integration of the working class as a precondition for mounting an offensive against the neoliberal world order.

The reactionary kernel of the whole project is most shamefully revealed by the fact that it is all being driven onwards by the iron-hard commitment to ending free movement, selling-out the rights of EU citizens, which both Labour and Tories have made the litmus test of delivering Brexit.

To sum up: as long as Labour remains committed to any kind of Brexit – it is a nationalist party, not an internationalist one. If Labour is to have any chance to credibly taking on British capitalism, one of the oldest and most powerful components of an international class, this must change.

Corbyn certainly understands the importance of paying lip service to internationalism; it is not (yet) fashionablefor self-professed socialists to candidly advocate a retreat towards nationalism or accept concessions to racist narratives. Perhaps, with his history of support for national liberation movements across the world, Corbyn once knew better. But there is a difference between international solidarity and real internationalism; it is the latter we need now, and which Labour is incapable of delivering. In steering Labour’s ship firmly away from Europe, Corbyn has turned his back on a collective alternative to the common exploitation of workers and migrants across the continent and world.

A section of the left in Britain maintains that Brexit will be a catastrophe for the living conditions of workers and migrants, a capitulation to the racism and xenophobia which have always driven Brexit, and bad politics for Labour to boot. With the immediate goal of stopping Brexit, we have nevertheless sought to raise demands and arguments that link the fight against Brexit with the struggles to come – setting out a perspective that goes beyond the legal framework between Britain and the EU on 30 March.

Defending Corbyn from his opportunist enemies on the right, and at the same time, challenging the electoralist triangulation which underlying the party’s opposition to free movement and support for Brexit, the internationalist left can expose not only the damage that Brexit is doing to the party – but also the limits it places on the whole ‘Corbyn project’. In this way we can put the questions about how to surmount such narrow perspectives, drawing out answers about the kind of socialism we fight for, and act as a rallying point for a layer of internationalist activists.

Calls for freedom of movement and a socialist Europe express something much more than a vague and naïve hope that EU institutions can be reformed. We raise these demands as stepping stones in the fight for world socialism, and advocate staying in the EU not as the end-point, but as a pre-condition for more effective struggle against all political and economic institutions, in Brussels and the City, which stand in our way.

Brexit should be fought while there is still any sliver of possibility that through an extension of Article 50, a snap general election, or enough pressure from the membership, Labour’s position might shift and force the hand of the government. While there is still time, Labour should call a special conference, allowing members to take back control of Labour’s policy, bringing it into line with the overwhelming opinion of its supporters and voters.

Yet the window of opportunity narrows each day, and still Corbyn refuses to give an inch. If Brexit happens, demoralisation will cascade through the party’s ranks, and the coalition of leftwing anti-Brexit forces will be in danger of disintegrating. We must fight against this at all costs, instead finding common purpose to sustain the movement and elevate it to a higher level of struggle. This means beginning to articulate a strategy for mobilising the international resistance in whose name we fought against Brexit, demonstrating that our internationalism is not just expressing solidarity, but aiming at common international action.

While Brexit is a peculiarly English tragedy, with roots in Britain’s nostalgia for empire and tortured history with Europe, its immediate causes and consequences are not unique. Seemingly endless economic stagnation, compounded by the effects of austerity, has led to increased xenophobia and a boost to populist, nationalist, and far right forces in every European country.

The refugee crisis, which has severely exacerbated anti-migrant sentiment on the continent, has had a profound impact on Britain’s national psyche despite our relative immunity from its immediate effects. Faced with the same fall in real wages, decimated communities, and decaying public services, other European countries blame migrants from the Mediterranean, while the English blame migrants from Eastern Europe.

False solutions travel two ways across the Channel, with nationalism and anti-European isolationism equally posed as answers elsewhere. Brexit has fueled a cross-border chain reaction, legitimising nationalist narratives, encouraging their further growth, and demonstrating to nascent anti-migrant, Eurosceptic parties that it is possible to go from fringe protest movement to holding the country hostage in just a few years.

Thus a real resolution of the crisis was never going to end at stopping Brexit, and has always demanded something greater. It will require genuine international cooperation to develop an international alternative to nationalist xenophobia. We should recall that this is eminently possible – in the early 2000s, the European Social Forums assembled tens of thousands of activists for political debates and organising, initiating the millions-strong movement against the Iraq war. In November 2012, more than ten million workers participated in general strikes in support of a European TUC day of action.

Fortunately, the international nature of the current crisis also means that the Left everywhere is likely to be asking similar questions and seeking to orient their strategy. Now is the time to look towards a genuinely international campaign with the capacity to build links between activists in different countries, develop common activity, and build joint campaigning organisations.

Kick-starting such collaboration in a serious and sustainable way will require conferences and organising events attracting rank-and-file activists with shared goals from across Europe. The Labour Party could be the force to convene such events on a mass scale, making use of the credibility it still holds on the European Left as a mass party with a nascent social movement behind it. This should be the call we begin making in the Labour movement, Brexit or no Brexit.

Yet with Labour tacking to the right on nearly every front as it wanders through its Brexit fever-dream, we cannot wait for the party to discover new principles. We must win the argument within the Left that we can sidestep Labour’s inadequacies and look beyond Brexit through international cooperation; that this is not only possible but essential to preparing the ground for a Europe-wide offensive against austerity; an offensive that a left-wing Labour government is best-placed to initiate.

Such a movement would allow the new connections and experience acquired by the anti-Brexit campaigns to grow, invigorating the resistance to the consequences of Brexit in the face of defeat, and laying the foundations of co-ordinated international action that is the first step on the road to the unification of Europe on a democratic and socialist basis.


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