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Brexit, Corbyn and beyond

Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

June 25, 2017
8 min read

As with the Brexit result, the success of the Labour Party in the elections has caught both the mainstream commentariat (unsurprisingly) and many who place themselves on the political left by surprise.

The centre is frantically scrambling around for soft explanations of the phenomenon; one line of thought wants it to be a ‘rise of the Remainers’ moment, even though Corbyn has consistently said he will see through Britain’s exit from the EU, if elected, and the fact that only 8% of Labour voters said Brexit was a key issue for them.

Failing this, it was the unprecedented mobilisation of young voters that swung it – while this is certainly significant and important, it sits uneasily with the obsession, less than six months ago, with the idea young people were more right wing and authoritarian than previous generations. If there was any truth at all in the idea of ‘Millennials’ being more right wing, then their increased turn out at the polls should have benefited the right at least as much as it benefited Labour, and this is simply not borne out.

Material interests

Again, these surface explanations, as with Brexit, are insufficient. It will take more time to unpack the results, and draw firmer conclusions, but what seems clear from the result is that the Labour vote increased (and decreased) across the demographics of age, gender, race and so on: but the one constant, which won’t show up in Lord Ashcroft surveys, is that Corbyn and Labour presented a manifesto which rejected the logic of neoliberal capitalism, and appealed to the material interests (better wages, social services and benefits) of working class people.

Corbyn and his team saw in the current crisis of capitalism the potential, which has always been there, to build an alternative to the extant system. This potential was there at the time of Brexit, and is still there now. The challenge for the Left is the have the clear analysis, and concrete political conviction to support and nurture this potential into more concrete and sustainable alternatives, both within the electoral arena and beyond.

What’s important now is that the unwarranted pessimism around Brexit and leading into these recent elections does not turn into unwarranted optimism about what Corbyn has achieved. The reality remains that the Tories were a mere 75 votes (in 5 marginal constituencies) away from attaining a majority in parliament, and that notwithstanding eight years of brutal austerity and reductions in living standards and real wages, more than 14 million people voted for the most reactionary Tory party in a generation. While there is potential for progressive change and politics, there is equally the potential, and likelihood, of right wing consolidation and counter-offensive.

In the face of this, the left has to learn the lessons of the Brexit debate, ensuring that its analysis of contemporary capitalism and its crises, and the political positions it adopts in response to this analysis, are not overwhelmed and swayed by superficial analysis and liberal moralism, but instead are centred in an understanding of the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system (class antagonism and its crisis/historically transient character) and utilise, in real terms, the weapons of dialectical analysis.

Nation states and internationalism

To illustrate this potentially abstract point in a concrete manner: One of the concerns with those on the left who oppose Brexit, and also those in the wider European left (for example Yanis Varoufakis’ Democracy in Europe Movement) is that leaving the EU will necessitate a retreat into nation states, which will be a backward step and contrary to the principles of internationalism (a core value of any left worth the name). On its face, this is a plausible argument: if we apply formal logic, the EU is a transnational political formation, which, according to its own lights, is committed to internationalism, solidarity etc, therefore a move to the nation state as the principal site of political action is a step away from this progressive, international arena.

The problems with this argument, however, are twofold: first, the EU has only ever represented a truncated and narrow form of internationalism; and internationalism in the service of capital is of no use to the drowning refugees in the Aegean, the Greek people caricatured, dehumanised and left to their own devices, or the African, Asian and Latin American countries further impoverished by trade agreements with the EU. As well as this, and crucially for our purposes, this analysis is also superficial, one sided and undialectical. It ensnares itself in unhelpful and static abstractions, without taking account of the concrete realities (of national sovereignty today, of the nature of the EU, of the opportunities that the contradictions of the current crisis present and so on).

Thankfully, not everyone is drawn in by the gravitational pull of such arguments. The Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin, commenting on the Brexit vote, makes a few crucial points. He notes, first, that the ‘framework defined by the (“nation”) state remains the one in which the decisive struggles that transform the world unfold’ He notes further that the ‘European project is based on an absolute denial of democracy (understood as the exercise of choice between alternative social projects)’. Of crucial importance, and bringing the issue of agency back to the fore, Amin argues:

“This crisis created opportunities for consistent advances, more or less bold, provided that the fighting movements adopt the strategies that aim at them. The affirmation of national sovereignty then becomes obligatory to enable those advances that are necessarily uneven from one country to another but are always in conflict with the logic of ordo-liberalism. The sovereign national project that is popular, social, and democratic proposed in this paper is designed with this in mind. The concept of sovereignty implemented here is not that of bourgeois-capitalist sovereignty; it differs from it and for this reason must be qualified as popular sovereignty.”

The crucial point then, and one which the Brexit/Corbyn conjuncture feeds into, is that a radical, left struggle for popular sovereignty at the national level, which challenges the common sense (including its institutional manifestations) of the prevailing order can attract the support and commitment of working class people, and present a genuine bulwark to the rising barbarism of late capitalism in its stage of decline. As a final word, Amin concludes that for him ‘there is nothing to expect from the European project, which cannot be transformed from within’ instead, he argues, ‘we must deconstruct it to possibly rebuild it later on different foundations’.

This then is the crucial point, in a context in which the truncated internationalism of the EU, the internationalism of capital bolstered by the class consciousness of the frequent flyer, now exists as a fetter on progressive change, the apparent return to the nation-state as the locus of political action and change, can represent a crucial advance for a substantive internationalism which challenges the logic of the extant order. In Europe today a fundamental rupture with the existing institutions of the EU is a necessary condition for the development of popular, democratic socialist movements and organisations at the national level, which, in turn, can and must build transnational networks of solidarity and mutual support, to re-found ‘another Europe’, beyond the horizon of capital’s logic.

History on the table

What the Brexit vote and the election success of Corbyn-led Labour show is that in the UK, as elsewhere, history is on the table once again. The crisis-ridden social system we live under is an historically transient form of social organisation, there can be an alternative to it and the impoverishment it guarantees.

The Scottish Marxist James Connolly once remarked that ‘Revolution is never practical – until the hour of the Revolution strikes. Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings.’ While the results of the UK general election are not revolutionary, nor, at this stage, epoch-defining, the gains made by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represent a welcome, and unexpected, victory for democratic socialism.

Corbyn’s supporters and voters are immensely enthused, and rightly so, but going forward such enthusiasm must also be tempered by rigorous analysis. This does not mean a lowering of expectations, but rather a more rigorous understanding of what is concretely possible, what challenges and limitations lie ahead, and an understanding that in the current conjuncture any movement for even modest progressive change has to be ready to fundamentally challenge the entire edifice of the existing social order.

This piece is an extract from a longer article which can be read at In the Half Light.

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