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International Socialism, Autumn 1961


Notes of the Quarter

2. Britain and Europe


From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, pp.2-3.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For British socialists to approach the Common Market with suspicion is one thing. For them to oppose outright any connexion with it on the grounds that it ‘would be’, in the words of Tribune, ‘to turn our backs on the Commonwealth, to abdicate our independent role in world affairs, to join the most virulent cold war crusaders in the world ... and to postpone the introduction of further measures of Socialism until the Christian Democrats of Germany and Italy are prepared to accept them’ is another.

If British capitalism is turning its back on the Commonwealth there are good reasons for it doing so: the old, imperial basis of the economy – industrial exports to backward countries in exchange for food and raw materials – is being undermined as the industrial countries themselves become the cheapest suppliers of (synthetic) raw materials and food. At the same time there is a need to find a new basis to carry the industrial diversification that this implies, and to introduce the more intense division of labour which it requires. Such a basis might be found in Europe in the near future and within the present scheme of things. It cannot be found in the backward and non-industrial countries of the Commonwealth without far-reaching, revolutionary changes both here and there. So long as more is taken out in private profits than is put back in grants and loans rapid industrialization of India, Ghana and the rest is unthinkable; industrialization at all is barely conceivable so long as these government capital flows prop up regimes that perpetuate agricultural and social stagnation; and the flow of funds itself can be no more than a trickle so long as Britain is wedded to the monstrous waste of a permanent arms economy, to Cold War and so long as her anachronistic struggle for economic independence in an economically interdependent world lays her open to an exchange crisis every second summer. Were British assets overseas handed over to the people of the host countries without compensation; were Britain to contract out of the military stance essential to modern capitalism; were such a Britain to encourage and sustain revolutionary movements for land reform and workers’ control in the backward Commonwealth countries – in a word, were socialist revolution in Britain and the Commonwealth immediately possible there might be hope for eventual economic complementarity between the two. As it is, who conceives of such a denouément? Certainly not Tribune, the New Statesman and those that follow them. And even if it were conceivable one need only begin to imagine the difficulties of an isolated British socialism to realise that without Europe – without international socialism – these tasks would strain us far beyond cracking point.

The second argument need not detain us. After the snuffing out at Suez anyone who can talk of ‘Britain’s independent role in world affairs’ is in enduring thrall to a Tory public relations gimmick.

But there is substance in the third argument. A sacrifice of sovereignty will enhance De Gaulle and Adenauer’s powers to intervene in British politics. To take one example – an important one – the anti-nuclear campaign will face a different, complex and incredibly more difficult situation. That European reaction will stiffen the backs of the British ruling class is certain. The only questions relate to the importance of their intervention and to its unilateralism.

It is clear that the role of the state as the major agent for social reform within capitalism – the cardinal premise of all reformist politics – is narrowing. On the one hand, large-scale private capital is encroaching on many of its traditional welfare functions (pensions, housing, health); on the other, growing economic interdependence internally is setting stricter limits to what a government can do without the concurrence of foreign capital. Without doubt Europeanization will contract these limits further, but to oppose it on these grounds is tantamount to protesting that a cosh has studs.

Tribune’s case against the Common Market remains unproven. The more one looks at it the more unrealistic seem the alternatives and the more it appears to be a defense of reformism. ‘Let us have a rich and sovereign Britain’, is what they are saying, ‘because only in such a Britain can we hope to use the State to better workers’ conditions’. That riches cannot flow from the Commonwealth under modern capitalist conditions is ignored; that the state is declining as the locus of reform is ignored; that social democracy is losing its importance as the motor of such state reformism as remains – witness the greater specific gravity of welfare payments in workers’ standards in Adenauer’s Germany – is ignored. Everything is forgotten in a blind, unenlightened struggle to shore up an expiring tradition.

This is not to say that we must be transfixed by inexorable economic trends, or that we must accept entry on the bosses’ terms. God knows the transition can be brutal. Rationalization of European capital might mean deep unemployment in some industries – shipbuilding, textiles, coal, agriculture, and more; it might mean a British loi unique to pass the costs on to the workers as a whole; it might mean concentrated European capital bearing down on a disunited, nationally-separate and -disfigured European working class. It might mean these but it can mean more: in the same way as takeovers and the concentration of capital in this country have encouraged combine-wide organization of workers in joint shop-stewards’ committees, so we can expect to see – hesitantly at first – the internationalization of similar rudimentary working class organizations. Even more important in the long run might be the effect on working-class politics: the state’s decline in importance as a centre for welfare and other political decisions has weakened the traditional division of labour between worker-voters and their (middle-class) representatives in Parliament, the law courts and such like – has weakened the division of labour that nurtured reformism. As the struggle over fringe benefits and welfare conditions shifts towards the factories, workers become their own reformists, become more jealous of their own power to extract concessions, more chary of delegating it to the politicians. This diffusion of militant reformism amongst the working class is the death of classic political reformism as it was in the United States. But at the same time it augurs the birth of a none-too-classic revolutionism: where the parliamentary reformist braked and broke any movement striking beyond the confines of capitalism, the militant worker-reformist is himself the potential revolutionary; where politics had to be subtracted to free working class militancy, it will have to be added to direct the constant background of militancy towards power. If, in the long run, Europeanization hastens this process, as it surely will, cartel Europe will have laid, as surely, the basis for the United States of Socialist Europe. For revolutionary socialists in Britain there is no greater aim. We should be the first to clasp hands across La Manche.

It is not, however, the long-run effects that will occupy our movement in the coming months, but the threat to our traditional organizations 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. In our small way, revolutionary socialists can further this action by linking its parts and clarifying its aims, specifically by showing – in contrast to Tribune – that to hark back to an independent capitalist Britain is illusory, and – in contrast to the Crosland-Gaitskell variety of labour leaders – that to look forward to elysium in the new natopolitical set-up is as illusory. 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.

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