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Ian H. Birchall

[to Chris Harman’s Common Market]

Special Feature: EUROPE 2

(Autumn 1971)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.18-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘IT is not, however, the long-run effects that will occupy our movement in the coming months, but the threat to our traditional organisations and forms of struggle, the threat to full employment, of further fragmentation in the labour movement and the decanting of politics out of it, the threat that its weaker sections – the Old Age Pensioners, for example – will be passed over in the scramble and, most important of all, the threat to world peace implied in strengthening the economic base of NATO. These are part of cartel-Europe; how big a part must depend upon the action of the European working class ... For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure.’ (Editorial, IS 6, Autumn 1961)

‘It is true that Wilson’s Common Market policy does involve a serious threat to working-class living standards, and is designed to strengthen the hands of the employers in the fight against workers’ defence organisations in the struggles over speed-up, rate fixing, and working conditions. But inside or outside the Common. Market, that particular battle is going to be fought – indeed, outside the battle is likely to be more ferocious.’ (Editorial, IS 28, Spring 1967)

In face of the attempts to enter the European Common Market by both MacMillan and Wilson, the editors of International Socialism once argued, clearly and consistently, that we must not carry out any kind of campaign against entry. Now that Heath appears to be about to succeed where his predecessors failed, Chris Harman argues that it is ‘imperative for us to oppose entry’.

Two kinds of argument are possible to justify such a sharp change of direction on a major issue of political policy. One is that the objective conditions have changed; that either the EEC itself, or British capitalism, or the predictable effects on the British Labour movement are sufficiently different now from what they were four years ago to mean that opposition to entry is a central part of opposition to British capitalism. The other possibility is that the subjective factor has changed; and indeed it is true that while in 1961 and 1967 the International Socialists were a small tendency within the Labour Party whose activity was very largely confined to propaganda, we now have a small but growing independent organisation, with the perspective of establishing a revolutionary party and the possibility of significant areas of political intervention. In such conditions a merely passive commentary would have to be replaced by agitational slogans.

It is my view that Harman has not demonstrated the need for a change of position in terms of either of these arguments. This is not to deny that there have been changes; and I am certainly not claiming that all that is required of us is to reprint our old editorials. Indeed, I shall attempt to suggest some of the slogans and demands we should try to raise in the present situation.

The least substantial of Harman’s points is (3), the suggestion that the Common Market aims to create an ‘effective independent arms potential’. This is supported merely by a quotation from the woolly rhetoric of the White Paper. The failure of the Common Market to achieve integration in other fields is argued elsewhere in this journal; there is no reason to expect a frightening success in the military sphere. Indeed, the view of the Common Market as essentially a Cold War military alliance rather than an economic bloc is normally confined to the fantasy world of the Communist Party.

Point (2) likewise depends on a piece of rather obscure logic-chopping. It would indeed be a correct refutation of the argument that the Common Market is historically progressive, because it lays the basis for socialist internationalism. This position has been argued by Eric Heffer, and still is by Paul Rose. But it has never been the position of any of the genuine left. Beyond this Harman’s position seems to be that capitalism cannot solve its problems any more, and that we should stop it trying. It is, of course, true that the very nature of capitalism means that it cannot achieve a genuine international organisation; this is shown by the failure of the Common Market to exert any real control over the international companies or to solve the problems of such underdeveloped regions as Southern Italy. This does not, however, mean that capitalism is incapable of making any technical or administrative innovations which could not be taken over by a socialist society. We do not oppose either automation or mergers as such; we oppose them if and when they cause attacks on workers, through redundancies, etc.

Point (2) is therefore only valid if seen as a rider to point (1). The real theme that does emerge is that we have to argue that the fundamental problems of Europe – the international companies, economic backwardness in Southern Italy and Scotland – can be solved only by international socialist planning, and that the only social force capable of doing the job is the European working class. To argue this is to develop the concrete content of the ‘United Socialist States of Europe’ slogan.

Point (1) is the more substantial argument, and Harman marshals some considerable evidence in its favour. Much of this is unexceptionable on the factual level, though some comments should be made. While one can hardly go wrong with a prophecy of price rises, in a situation of world inflation it is going to be difficult to disentangle those rises due to Market entry from those we would get anyway. On the question of taxation too the argument is a little thin. The Tory government was, of course, committed to Value Added Tax before Common Market entry was negotiated and if we stay out for some reason we shall still get it. The more general process of shifting a heavier proportion of the tax burden on to the less wealthy section of the community has, of course, been going on for some time already (see Jim Kincaid’s article in IS 43).

But for Marxists prediction is not separated from action. One reason why the whole range of bourgeois economists are able to make only the most vague and diverging estimates of the effects of Market entry is that to some extent at least these effects depend on the response of the working class to the various attacks on its conditions. The White Paper is quite clear on this:

‘The influence on wage movements of the increase in the cost of, living is not expected to have any significant effect on the costs of industry, nor, therefore, on our balance of trade.’ (Paragraph 43.)

In plain English – we hope we can put through the attacks deriving from entry without the working class fighting back. The timing of the entry negotiations after the defeat of the postmen’s strike and the Croydon TUC was far from coincidental. It is possible to stigmatise the slogan ‘In or out of the Market it’s all the same for workers’ as being ‘abstentionist’. The slogan ‘In or out of the Market the working class must not be made to pay’ is not, and it is one that could be central to our agitation.

One suspects that Harman’s ‘fourth, subordinate reason’ is in fact more central to his argument than he suggests here. It is hard to know what is the precise point of Harman’s assertion that ‘many rank and file militants instinctively distrust the government’s entry policy’. It is undoubtedly true that working-class opposition derives from a sort of class consciousness. It is equally true that, for example, hostility to foreign workers in Britain derives from a form of class consciousness – concern to defend employment and conditions, recognition that immigration is manipulated by the bosses in their own interests. We have to relate to these forms of distorted class consciousness; we certainly do not adapt to them.

As far as the political crisis caused by the question of Market entry is concerned, it is possible to agree with Harman on one thing at least. ‘We are for the defeat of the Tories and for purging the labour movement of those sections of the Labour leadership whose votes help to keep the Tories in power’. In the remote possibility of a referendum we would vote against the Government; a revolutionary MP would vote against, after doing his (or rather her) best to speak on the issue to show the vote was cast as a vote of no confidence in Toryism. If the votes of revolutionaries at Labour Party conference and the TUC were so numerous as to affect the outcome we would be able to formulate our own resolutions in opposition; in the present state of affairs to cast our few votes for blatantly nationalist resolutions would not seem to contribute much either way. In any case, Harman rather overestimates the nature of the crisis. Whatever manoeuvres Wilson may go through to ensure his own survival as leader, it is quite clear that the Labour Party has no serious intention of forcing the defeat of the Tories on this issue. (Transport House is not even allowing constituency parties to select candidates yet.)

There is a danger that, within the revolutionary left, the fake ‘great debate’ of bourgeois politics will be mirrored by our own ‘little debate’ – opposition versus abstention. This would be a pity, and a waste of the opportunity to fight for what is significant and unique in our own politics. For the real weakness of Harman’s programme is that it is not an interventionist one. In the present state of forces, revolutionaries can only intervene by means of the united front. And as Harman quite correctly points out, we cannot have a united front with the CP or Tribunites against the Common Market because their nationalist illusions would be spread thereby. This leaves us with very little to do except sell our own propaganda and vote for other people’s resolutions. If on the other hand we raise a series of concrete demands in the context of Market entry then we can seek allies in agitation around them.

Clearly we are in no position to formulate an international programme. As Harman quite correctly says, capitalism is not yet sufficiently internationalised, nor is there any international workers’ organisation to formulate such a programme. But there are concrete issues – the international companies, labour migration, etc. – which call for international action here and now. What we can and must do is present an internationalist programme – this is something that no-one else is doing and which is much more important than how we cast (or decline to cast) our votes on confused resolutions. We must then approach other sections of the Labour movement around these demands. Of course, when we ask Labourites for a consistent opposition to price increases, or the official trade union movement what it is doing to link workers in international companies, we shall get embarrassed retreats into simple opposition to Market entry.

A further consideration in this context. Over the last few years the International Socialists have developed some useful contacts with revolutionaries in Western Europe and last year was joint sponsor of an international conference. While our main audience is the British working class, we must remember our responsibility to work towards the formulation of a genuinely international strategy.

The following, then, is the outline of a possible internationalist programme:

  1. Opposition to all attacks on the working class, all attempts to make workers pay for entry (or non-entry) via rising prices, taxation changes, unemployment, etc. For a strong shopfloor organisation as the only way to defend workers’ conditions.
  2. Parity with the best available conditions in the Common Market. It is essential in this context to smash the myth of the docility and industriousness of European workers, and to show that where conditions are better they have been won in struggle (e.g. of French workers’ four weeks’ annual holiday, three were won by general strikes, in 1936 and 1968).
  3. International cooperation of workers. Combine committees in the international companies. Transferability of union membership and development of union facilities for migrant workers. All international contacts must be developed with maximum rank-and-file participation and with no ideological discrimination between the various trade-union bodies in Western Europe.
  4. For the United Socialist States of Europe as the only way to overcome the anarchy of international capitalism.

Such a programme may not get much of a hearing during the slogan-shouting of the ‘great debate’ (though more workers than we think might recognise its relevance), but it will be a programme that will still be meaningful when the rest of the opposition has rolled up its union jacks and admitted defeat. The essence of it will be relevant even if British entry should still somehow be obstructed. As such it must be central to the work of revolutionaries.

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Last updated: 18.2.2008