The Lexit campaign, which is now celebrating what its adherents are somehow convinced is a victory (a conviction they share with every major figure on the European far right), is yet another case study in the crisis of strategic imagination that plagues the left in Britain and beyond.
A brief modern history:
In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the left dedicated massive energy and resources to planning a march on Downing Street and Whitehall. The turnout was indeed massive, at least in the six-figure range. Those assembled marched from one place to another, and then listened to a series of speeches, whilst organisers coordinated the whole thing with the police in order to ensure that any disruption to the ongoing war planning was minimised. Even as the war on Iraq is in its thirteenth year, it is common to hear this event described as an anti-war victory.
Much more recently, the Labour Party resoundingly lost a general election after attempting to unseat a hard-right government by plagiarising its worst policies. Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had done as much as anyone to lead the party into the abyss, resigned. A leadership contest between people who made Ed Miliband look good in the first place suddenly became interesting when Jeremy Corbyn, one of a handful of surviving ‘Labour left’ MPs, became an official candidate with the blessing of Blairite MPs keen on ‘rebranding’ the disintegrating party. Throughout what fancies itself the revolutionary left, proclamations abounded that This Changes Everything, and those voices only got louder when Corbyn beat the right-wing competition by an unheard-of margin. No one ever seemed to have any thoughts on how Corbyn’s victory was meant to change everything, even as left-of-Labour organisations such as Left Unity and the Socialist Party seriously considered dissolving in order to join Labour. Since then, the thoroughly right-wing Labour machine has engaged in one campaign after another to undermine their alleged leader and his supporters, and Corbyn’s only response has been to move to the right in an effort to appease them.
What do all of these debacles have in common with the so-called ‘Lexit’ campaign, which argued that a vote to exit the EU on the terms of the most reactionary segments of the British ruling class would be a working-class victory? Each is an example of a failure of strategic vision that is so complete that the absence of a strategy was scarcely felt.
The most charitable reading of the failure of the 2002 – 2003 anti-war mobilisation is that those who organised it massively overestimated the democratic instincts of the ruling class, and thus assumed that proof of the sheer numerical strength of anti-war sentiment would suffice to cause the US and UK governments to reconsider their war plans. This naive faith in the democratic nature of the society – again under the most generous possible interpretation – was compounded by the fact that the strategic horizons of the organisers found their limits in the terms of their permits and the Public Order Act. It takes a truly staggering lack of imagination to see well over 100,000 people assembled in a highly strategic location for a common purpose and not think of anything better for them to do than go for a walk, listen to some lectures, and go home.
A similarly naive faith in the democratic instincts of anti-democratic institutions can be seen in the response of much of the left to the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. By the time Corbyn became leader, the Labour party machine had firmly established that the grassroots membership were utterly irrelevant to party policy. Even conference resolutions, such as the resolution on rail renationalisation, that are passed by overwhelming margins and reflect majority public opinion are routinely disregarded by a party machine dedicated to marginalising the majority of the population. Given all this, the only way Corbyn’s leadership could possibly result in a fundamental reorientation of a party that has become the acceptable face of the British right is if there was a clear, well-thought-out plan of action independent of the party to force the issue. From countless discussions in which I have raised the issue and equally numerous articles on the ‘Corbyn Changed Everything’ theme, it is clear that scarcely anyone was even considering the issue, let alone proposing a solution. Once again, the underlying idea is that benevolent members of the ruling class will fight our battles for us if only we vote the right way.
Even against that lacklustre background, however, ‘Lexit’ is a particularly pungent testament to the intellectual bankruptcy of a certain segment of the left, and is all the more damning because it – like much of the rest of the examples of left strategic agnosticism – comes from those who presume themselves to be the intellectual heavy-hitters of the revolutionary left.
At this point, it is worth recalling a few basic things about what was at stake in the EU referendum. The EU referendum was not merely a vote about whether it might be a good idea to leave the EU at some unspecified time in the future; it was a vote on whether to leave the EU on the terms set by the most right-wing elements of the most right-wing government in recent memory, and at a time when the left particularly in England and Wales is not in a position to exercise any meaningful influence on the outcome.
As such, any attempt at a ‘left case for Brexit’ cannot merely point out that the EU is an undemocratic, unaccountable, neoliberal capitalist institution with the blood of thousands of refugees on its hands. That it undeniably is, but it does not automatically follow from that the UK leaving the EU under the current circumstances will necessarily improve things, or even that Brexit under current conditions will not make things worse. Anyone wishing to claim that Brexit in this context will improve the situation in Britain and/or Europe as a whole must provide actual argument in support of that assertion. They must explain how Brexit can be beneficial from a left perspective and how the left can avert the obvious dangers of making such a substantial institutional shift under a right-wing government. This is the bare minimum that one must offer in order to make a case for ‘Lexit’ that is worthy of being taken seriously.
What is truly remarkable is that, not only did no Lexit advocate ever attempt to address these basic questions – the indispensable starting point of any strategic analysis of the referendum – the questions do not even appear to have occurred to those purporting to make a left case for Brexit. Nor has anyone attempted to argue against the importance of these questions either in the countless debates in which I’ve participated or any of the pro-Lexit articles that have been published. The extent of the analysis, such as it is, has been ‘The EU is shit; therefore, leaving is good no matter what the circumstances’. One could just as reasonably argue that, since Ryanair is crap, the only thing for it is to jump out of the plane 30,000 feet over Yeovil without a parachute.
This is strategic incompetence on a positively epic scale. The basic questions that Lexit advocates never even acknowledged are not arcane considerations that only a Clausewitz scholar would think to raise. They are questions we all ask and answer on a daily basis when faced with a decision: What are the likely consequences? Given that, which is the better option? What will I need to do in order to see that it turns out the way I want? Yet, these common-sense questions elude those who presume themselves the intellectual vanguard of the movement. To be sure, it is not a good look.
In assessing what our response to something like the EU referendum should be, it is essential to have as clear a picture as possible of the relevant factors: Why does this referendum exist? Is it the result of working-class struggle from below or has it been imposed from above? What forces are arrayed on each side? Who is in the best position to take advantage of each result? Who has the most to fear from each? Which option offers the left the most favourable conditions, given the current state of left organising?
By none of these strategic measures did it make even the slightest bit of sense for the left to support the UK leaving the EU at this time. This referendum was not the fruit of struggle from below; it was imposed in order to settle a disagreement within the ruling class, between the modernising, internationally orientated élites who seek to take advantage of Britain’s status as a subaltern imperial power at the interface between the US and the EU, and the more reactionary, traditionalist sector who think that everything would be better if the UK simply pretended that the sun never set on it, and who rely to a much greater extent on mobilising xenophobic and white nationalist sentiment in order to push their reactionary agenda.
On the former side, we have David Cameron, much of the Labour Party, the trade union bureaucracy, and the bulk of the multinational corporations; on the latter, we have the likes of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Ian Duncan-Smith, UKIP, and virtually every fascist group in the UK. Given this array of forces, the most reactionary segment of the ruling class was poised to benefit from a leave vote; it is they who have pushed the issue for decades and almost certainly have detailed plans at the ready for the event of Britain’s departure from the EU. They have prepared this pitch, and given the current government, they were obviously going to supply the umpires and the ball as well.
It is an utterly trivial matter to see who will have the most to fear from the triumph of the reactionaries: migrants, both EU and non-EU, BME communities, actual and suspected Muslims, unemployed workers and people with disabilities, and the working class more generally.
For the left, the strategic question posed by the referendum was, thus, whether to maintain an unfavourable but relatively stable status quo in hope of regrouping and building the strength needed to take the initiative with some hope of success, or to opt for a dynamic situation in which the most reactionary sectors of society would have well-nigh unprecedented opportunities to create facts on the ground.
It is certainly possible to come out ahead from a position of great weakness. The history of revolutionary movements and guerrilla resistance offers plenty of examples. But it as at least as possible to be crushed like an Ewok under an anvil. The riskier option can pay off – sometimes – but those advocating it have the responsibility to go into some detail about how they propose to go about it. To do so, by definition, it is necessary to acknowledge the reality of one’s own weakness and the inherent risks, and to base one’s plans on those realities rather than vague hopes and platitudes about faith in the working class.
Not only did Lexit advocates fail to offer even the beginnings of a plan, by and large, they refused to acknowledge the risks inherent in handling a win to reaction or the position of weakness in which the left finds itself.
It is long past time for accountability. The same self-styled leaders who called on the working class to walk into a dangerously volatile situation in which reactionaries held the initiative with no plan and no ideas are the same people who regularly insist that a quick A – B march is the miracle cure for everything. They are the same ‘leaders’ who measure success in terms of turnout rather than results, and who believe the police when they claim a fascist rally has been cancelled. And when proven utterly wrong, they are the ‘leaders’ who change the subject and accuse critics of ‘sectarianism’.
We now find ourselves, following the narrow plurality for Leave in the EU referendum, in the dangerously volatile situation that these ‘leaders’ claimed would be a good thing for unspecified reasons, And we must think and act quickly if the worst is to be averted.
But whatever hope we have of avoiding a massive deterioration in the situation will prove illusory if we allow those whose utter incompetence and refusal to admit mistakes got the left into the sorry state it’s in to continue acting as if they had any credibility. It is long past time the left as a whole recognised these leaders for the liability they are and sought a new approach.