SWP prepares the ground for Brexit volte face

Voting at the conference
The SWP national conference

In a highly unusual (for them) move, the SWP have published a piece, in their “theoretical journal” International Socialism, opposing the group’s majority line: In a hole and still digging: the left and Brexit by Wayne Asher

This is a welcome indication that the SWP’s de facto Stalinist position on Brexit is coming under pressure from some of its members and periphery. Much of Asher’s assessment of the current situation is rational, although his account of Momentum bears little relation to what actually happened.

Asher’s biggest mistake is to attempt to justify the International Socialists’ (IS – the proto-SWP) position on the 1975 referendum, when it also advocated a ‘leave’ vote. He wrongly states that: “The left’s opposition to the European Union goes back to the early 1970s”.

Actually, the roots of opposition to the EEC on the British left can be traced to Stalinism, both as the foreign policy of the USSR under Stalin and to its agent, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). It goes back at least to the 1940s when the first moves to European bourgeois integration began to emerge.

Until 1971 the vast majority of the Trotskyist left took a roughly internationalist position on the EEC (ie: neither for nor against). IS and the rest collapsed into nationalism/Stalinism after Labour (parts of the right and most of the left) and the trade union bureaucracy came out against the EEC. It was craven tailism.

So Asher is simply wrong to state: “Still, it is important for what follows to note that the 1975 analysis was an accurate picture at the time and remains true today.”

Everyone on the left said the EEC was a bosses’ club – ignoring the fairly obvious point that the British state is also a bosses’ club. At no point after 1971 did the IS/SWP leaders draw up a political-economic analysis of the EEC that differed from what they had written for a decade previously when they had been neutral on the question of British membership. What happened was that Cliff, Harman, Hallas etc switched to opposing the EEC because of the perceived “mood” on the left, in workplaces and wider society. Their volte-face was opportunist positioning.

Asher gives this away when he writes: “In other words, the pool in which we swam in 1975 was much bigger, the chance to build an authentic left-wing opposition movement much greater and, it must be remembered, this was pretty much a clear left/right split.”

Actually in the referendum in 1975 the IS misjudged the mood amongst millions of workers. The 1975 referendum was not a clear left/right split. Hard right wingers like Enoch Powell and the National Front opposed the EEC, as did many right wing Labour MPs as well as left reformists like Foot and Benn. And, anyway, serious socialists don’t decide issues by which way the wind seems to be blowing, but by honest, independent assessment of reality.

Asher himself (in a btl comment at Tendance Coatesy) downplayed the significance of his article, saying:

“I very much doubt there is any change of line in the SWP, although I was very indeed very surprised that they agreed to print such a critical piece. I would be surprised too if there is not some sense of uneasy [sic] among a section of the SWP membership about this

“The criticism, be it noted, is not only towards the SWP, almost the entire left got Brexit wrong and continues to do so” (either Asher is unaware of the AWL’s long-standing stance on the EU and its forunners, or chooses to ignore it -JD).

SWP Conference report (from Socialist Worker 1st January):

Conference also debated the Tory crisis, Brexit and Labour, and what socialists’ position should be on the European Union (EU).

Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber said Brexit has caused the biggest split in the Tory party for over 150 years. Sabby from north London argued that a “low level of class struggle” meant that the debate has been pulled to the right. He said socialists should not support leaving the EU.

Others strongly disagreed. “If you really think the EU gives a space for progressive politics, think again,” argued Alex Callinicos from the central committee.

Charlie argued the key divide in British society must not be over Brexit, but over austerity and racism.

The Tories couldn’t withstand mass strikes or movements.

But Labour and the trade union leadership “are doing nothing to challenge the Tories or define a working class position,” he said.

And Labour’s focus on electoral politics limits it. People debated how socialists should respond to calls for a “People’s Vote”—effectively a second referendum.

This would split the working class and the SWP is opposed to it. But if there was a referendum the central committee would call a meeting of the SWP’s democratic bodies to decide on the party’s position.

If it was a choice between Remain and May’s Brexit, a possible option would be “active abstention”—a campaign to reject both options.

“Active abstention isn’t easy, but it is possible,” argued Dave from south London.

Several people said it is possible to win people to opposing the EU.

Rena from north London said, “There’s a lot of people out there who voted Remain that would be open to left wing arguments if they heard them.”

Karen from Manchester said that there were “secret Brexiteers” at her workplace who weren’t initially open about it for fear of being seen as racist.

Charlie argued that the key way to engage with wider layers of activists was through united fronts such as Stand Up To Racism.

Building for that also means building an independent revolutionary party.

Someone I know who works with an SWP’er commented:

“So the argument I was given for the (possible) change of line is: in any new referendum the issues will be different: the offer will be a brexit that isn’t a workers’ brexit so it can’t be supported. I said I thought they they were trying to be clever by saying something that could (if you squinted whilst drunk) have a logic to it, but they obviously were just sick of not being able explain to young people that they support an initiative which most left wing people see as racist. The SWPer basically said that it was because they’d framed the debate on rival blocks in the ruling class disagreeing about trade agreements whereas in popular imagination brexit was a fight about immigration. He had no answer when asked if it was simply about trade agreements why you’d back the more backward block of the ruling class giving them left cover.

“I think their issue is most younger SWPers are quite pleasant left liberals who think the EU position is wild and there has been a nod-nod wink-wink acceptance that people would not really have to put the line some new recruits don’t really know what the SWP position is. Now another referendum may be coming and the minority (led by Kimber?) are making a play for those people.”

  • JD acknowledges much help and information provided by PH

3 thoughts on “SWP prepares the ground for Brexit volte face

  1. There was an “abstentionist” unofficial faction in the 1975 referendum year IS. I seem to recall that the two most connected with the opposition to Cliff and Harman were the unlovely pairing of Jim Higgins and Roger Rosewell.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was in IS in 1970 71 I do not recall any discussion on the EU at all and this was the time when Heath was taking the British Capitalist State in to the capitalist Common market. Practically all of the other left wing Groups were campaigning against it with the Stalinist lining with tory racists and the labour left like Foot and Benn.
    I spoilt my ballot paper in 1975 by writing Workers power.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked the comment about the SWP members being like” nice liberals” because I, an ex-member (who had been a member since the International Socialist days) now consider them to be a sect of something like extremist liberals, who have no Marxist perspective anymore. Their membership is aging, with few younger recruits to replace them. Trust me, I am still friends with some of them and go to the occasional meeting at which they gather. You see the “usual suspects” and few others.

    Incidentally, at the recent anti Trump demo I had a discussion with a SWP member who was holding up a placard that stated, “Socialists Oppose All Borders”. I tried to point out to him the contradiction between that and his group’s position on Brexit, but he couldn’t see that.

    Finally, I asked him what was the most important reason for leaving the EU , and he said, “the EU is racist”. At that point, I realised there was no point in further argument and that I was dealing with a kind of mirror-image of a UKIP/Brexit Party supporter, someone who reacts with emotion, not with analysis.

    It was distressing to me, a lifelong socialist, to hear such idiocy, and it made me lament for an organisation that I had helped to build at one time.

    Finally, how does an organisation of about 1000 active members think they have any real influence on anything?

    Liked by 1 person

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