Socialism beyond borders

A left government cannot hope to succeed through British isolationism, writes Hilary Wainwright. It must make a new kind of pan-European alliance

November 6, 2018
12 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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In an age of transnational corporations and global finance-driven speculation, socialist strategy is doomed if it focuses exclusively, or even primarily, on any individual nation state. Yet, at the same time, popular struggles for control over nation states are an essential part of a necessarily international strategy. This is my starting point in responding to Costas Lapavitsas (page 38) and his call for socialism to ‘start at home’.

We must learn from the recent successes of cross-border movements and their distinctive capacity to counter the power of the huge corporate lobbies, most recently in the defeat of the TTIP trade deal between the EU and the US.

Contrary to the options implicit in Lapavitsas’s approach of choosing between independent left government at national level or European integration, which is seen as a recipe for neoliberalism, what is needed is a multi-level strategy. The transnational nature of the challenges we face points to the need to work simultaneously for a left government and to make political alliances across Europe to build social controls over corporate power and financial speculation, for example. ‘And’ rather than ‘or’ must be the watchword.

Local, national, European

Moving beyond this national-versus-international dichotomy, the local level is also vital in this hybrid approach. Local gains can be fought for and won simultaneously and in a positive dialectic with engagement at national and European levels, as we are seeing with the municipalities refusing and reversing privatisation across the continent that are now co‑ordinating internationally through the Fearless Cities network.

Indeed, the local or regional state, especially with greater devolution of power and resources, is a more favourable base for socialist change than the nation state. While the latter was built for war and has militarism as well as the protection of private property built into its foundations, the local state was built primarily for social care and the reproduction of human life in conditions conducive to good health, education and cultural development.

We also should not fall into the trap of considering the EU as another institution along the lines of NATO (nothing but a military alliance), or the WTO and IMF, the disciplining organisations of neoliberal trade. The EU was originally founded for peace, combining market-based economic integration with significant measures of redistribution, through regional and social funds, for example.

The 1957 Treaty of Rome, which created the precursors of today’s EU, is, like all the institutions of the post-war settlement, full of contradictions. It aimed to facilitate trade and with it the movement of capital, but also to reduce the regional inequalities and social hardships that – in the language of the cold war – had created the conditions for ‘political extremes’. Just as socialists in the UK worked ‘in and against’ the 1945 welfare state settlement, seeking where possible to radicalise it and resist the pressures of capital, so the left on the European continent worked in and against the Treaty of Rome, pressuring, lobbying and organising for the kinds of socially and environmentally protective measures later introduced in the EU social charter.

The institutions are not unchangeable

As we know from the British experience, these post-war decades were ones in which, due to full employment – and in some countries, the legacy of labour’s central role in the defeat of fascism – the balance of power was favourable to labour, even while generally moderate social democracy dominated politics.

By the late 1980s, with the defeat of labour under Thatcher and Reagan and the impasse of Mitterrand, the economic balance of power had shifted to capital. Ruling institutions, national and continental, were no longer under pressure from self-confident and left-leaning labour movements to concede social policies. On a European level, these national victories of the neoliberal right were consolidated and institutionalised in 1993 through the Maastricht Treaty, which creates the constitutional basis of European integration on the pro-market, anti-democratic principles of neoliberalism.

As the product of and a means of reproducing a balance of forces favourable to capital, these particular institutional arrangements are not unchangeable – having been re-made once, they can be re-made again. They are vulnerable to the realignment of the power of labour in alliance with others hit by austerity – and this re‑emergence of anti-austerity, pro-social protection forces is already clearly the product of progressive developments at different levels: national, local and European.

Moreover, there are resources for such a hybrid strategy in the traditions of the continental left, as well as strategic reasons why a change in government at Westminster could itself make a difference in the balance of power across Europe beyond what one would expect from a mere change of personnel in 10 Downing Street. Jeremy Corbyn, if he becomes the next prime minister, could use his new position – and Labour’s growing influence among social democrats throughout Europe, as they look to its successful model for reinvention – to give a lead to anti-austerity forces across the continent.

A different Europe

Long before the current EU, before even the Treaty of Rome, there was another, different vision of a united Europe. The origins of European integration lie 16 years earlier, in 1941, with a group of socialist and communist anti-fascists, imprisoned by Mussolini on the island of Ventotene. Led by Altiero Spinelli, they produced the Ventotene Manifesto (see box on next page), a strategy for a united socialist Europe as ‘the only way out of their common predicament of domination by Hitler’.

In today’s context of a new ‘common predicament’ – of austerity and the corporate-driven market – this socialist European tradition needs to be retrieved in a modern, pluralist form. Certainly, it is needed to counter the decline of social democratic parties across Europe, where only the Portuguese Socialists under António Costa (in coalition with parties to its left) and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, with its unique success in re-building the party’s membership and voter base, have bucked the trend.

Corbyn himself, while opposed to the neoliberalism of the current EU, has also pledged himself to work for an ‘anti-austerity Europe’, most recently at the Durham Miners’ Gala. This was well-received even in the predominantly Brexit-voting north east. And it was more than a rhetorical flourish: it is a signal that Corbyn is more pro-European than the press conveys, albeit not in conventional terms.

His fullest statements on Europe – shockingly under-reported – clarify that being in the EU does not necessarily prevent public intervention in industry, and show a well-informed commitment to European social regulation. In February 2018, for example, he said we should not abandon ‘rules that have served us well, supporting our industrial sectors, protecting workers and consumers and safeguarding the environment’.

There is significant UK support for these regulations – crossing the Remain-Leave divide. Some 73 per cent of the public either support the working time directive or feel it should go further, while four-fifths back a bankers’ bonus cap and oppose any lowering of food safety standards. Anecdotally, I found confirmation of this view at the Durham gala, where it was clear that trade unionists who support leaving the EU do not want to lose regulations covering areas such as employment protection, food and health and safety at work.

As these and many more protections need to be on a European scale to counter the power of transnational corporations, now as large as countries, it means a new approach to Europe could prove very popular. Its fundamental ingredient would be a new relationship of  an anti-austerity Britain in an anti-austerity Europe: an alternative to both a deregulatory, free-market Brexit and to a neoliberal EU.

A Europe for the many

As a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and a member of Momentum, I want him to work with the Portuguese and Spanish governments as well as labour movements and left parties resisting austerity across the continent, to map out a strategy for a socialist Europe. We should extend the principles of Labour’s 2017 manifesto to the goal of a ‘Europe for the many’.

British governments have been at the forefront of turning the EU into an instrument of market politics, from vetoing or opting out of key elements of Jacques Delors’ Social Charter (attacked by Thatcher as ‘socialism by the backdoor’) to David Cameron’s veto of the financial transaction tax. The various possible Tory Brexits, whether a hard, hedge-fund Brexit or a softer Theresa May Brexit, continue this anti-social approach.

Only a Corbyn-led Labour government can prevent the legacy of this disastrous market-led politics haunting the UK for a generation. In the same way that New Labour once shifted European social democracy to the right, Corbyn’s Labour could shift it to the left – for example, by supporting the new social democrat German finance minister in putting the transaction tax back on the table, and backing measures now under discussion to end undercutting, by requiring companies employing migrant labour to respect union agreements and pay the wages of the host country.

Labour has coherent national policies for public-led economic development, addressing the inequalities that underlie support for Brexit in the north of England. Why not extend these principles of public productivity on a European scale? Public ownership of the railways, for example, could enable Corbyn to champion an integrated, reasonably priced and publicly owned European railway system, providing an alternative to airport expansion and taking freight off the roads. Similar Europe-wide applications of Labour’s manifesto commitments could be developed by bringing together decentralised city-run public companies for renewable energy and expanding the co‑operative sector – both of which already have considerable support across Europe.

An anti-austerity vision, based on collaboration and solidarity, can provide a framework for a new relationship across Europe. Labour can go radically beyond the terms of debate – and the division – set by the Tory referendum in 2016. Of course, such a new relationship must address trade, but the question is what frames and drives trade policy: market competition, or the meeting of social need, where market exchange is subordinated to a framework of public and co‑operative ownership?

A new relationship

A new relationship depends for its elaboration on democratic debate, so that both ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ escape from the dead end of the referendum. We must heed the wisdom of the great English radical John Milton, who insisted in his Areopagitica that ‘where there is much arguing, much writing, many opinions, there, there is knowledge in the making’.

The clash over EU membership up to now has not been a debate of this kind. The two sides have simply shouted past and denounced each other. Argument over Brexit could, however, instead generate an engagement with pan-European issues long absent in Britain. Labour is uniquely placed to achieve this as it contains both Leavers and Remainers and draws on voters from both sides. Democracy in our party must recognise the wisdom of which everyone is capable and the importance of deliberation to the discovery of truth. 

This spirit of debate is already evident in the bottom-up processes that are feeding in to Labour’s new economic policies. The first stage for developing a new relationship, having cleared away the debris of Theresa May’s broken Brexit plans, will involve argument and debate across the Labour Party and Momentum and its allies on the European left. A ‘new politics’, based on a belief in the extraordinary capacities of ordinary people, requires breaking from the presumption that the people can only say yea or nay to the proposals of the political class. Britain’s future relationship with Europe should be discussed out in neighbourhood and town meetings across Britain. To build a Europe for the many – one that lives up to the Ventotene vision – the many must be actively involved in its creation.

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper