III. The YES-Camp: Pro-EU Social-Imperialism

As we have seen, the dominant forces of left-reformism and centrism support Britain’s exit from the EU. However, while in the referendum of 1975 virtually the entire left took such a position, the situation is somewhat different today, and there are a few leftists groups advocating Britain’s remaining inside the EU.


III.1.       AWL: Is European Imperialism in Fact a Lesser Evil?


The most renowned of these forces is the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) which unequivocally states: “We will vote “Yes” to keep the UK in Europe.[1]

The AWL is a national-centered group without any international affiliation. Furthermore, it represents a particularly right-wing form of centrism which supports the existence of Israel. Nor have they ever supported the struggle of colonial peoples who are oppressed by “their” British imperialism: neither the Irish, nor during the Malvinas war, nor in any Middle East War. Worse, their historic leader, Sean Matgamna, even wrote in their paper that one could hardly criticize the arch-reactionary Zionist Apartheid State of Israel if it would attack Iran! As Matgamna wrote in 2008:

We do not advocate an Israeli attack on Iran, nor will we endorse it or take political responsibility for it. But if the Israeli airforce attempts to stop Iran developing the capacity to wipe it out with a nuclear bomb, in the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?[2]

In short, the AWL is one of those bizarre “socialist” groups which still believe in the “progressive” potential of imperialism. It is therefore hardly surprising that they prefer a greater imperialist power, the EU, to Britain’s becoming an isolated imperialist power. Consequently, they end up becoming a cheerleader for pro-EU social-imperialism. This is of course hardly surprising from an organization whose leaders implicitly side with the most reactionary watchdog of imperialism against a semi-colonial country which until just recently had been strangled by the Western Great Powers for decades!


Is the EU a Progressive Historic Achievement?


Let us now examine the main arguments of the AWL. Basically it considers the EU as an expression of a progressive historic task: the unification of Europe. Their criticism of their centrist rivals in the NO camp is that they do not recognize the EU as a historic step forward towards the overcoming of the nation state.

The abolition of serfdom also allowed the emerging bourgeoisie to exploit a vast pool of cheap labour. Marxist socialists do not fight capitalism by advocating historical regression; we fight for the socialisation and democratisation of the economy, for labour to take control! In the referendum, where there will be a choice between in or out of the EU, Workers’ Liberty will vote to keep the UK in the EU. We will do so for reasons similar to those that motivated our call to Scottish workers to vote against independence. In general, we are in favour of fewer and weaker borders and barriers between peoples.” [3]

We will be asked our opinion about European unity and (given the tone of the debate) about migrant workers. The left should say we are for European unity and for migrants. We should vote to stay in the EU.[4]

(Dis)armed with the same logic, the AWL accuses its opponents of being nihilists who want to destroy every gain which has been created under capitalism.

And this is the fifth problem: what is wrong with the anti-Europe left? These groups misunderstand the relationship between the socialist project and advanced capitalism. They set themselves against the flow of history. Socialism comes out of advanced capitalism, and is made possible by advanced capitalism. Socialism requires the scientific, economic, technological, cultural and democratic progress made by capitalism. We don’t want to destroy everything capitalism has produced — very far from it.

Who would suggest, for example, the destruction of our NHS — built within capitalism — so we can rebuild a socialist NHS at some point in the future? It is obvious to us that the route to a better NHS lies in defending the existing one, and planning to reshape it after the working class comes to power. The question of Europe is no different. The SWP and SP want to destroy the existing unity in Europe so they can build a socialist united Europe in the future. They can’t see the contradiction because voting for a UK exit is a political collapse under nationalist pressure — and that pressure doesn’t exist on domestic questions such as the NHS. In Europe we want to build on what is positive, not start again from Year Zero.[5]

What we see here is the nonsensical mirror image of the centrist anti-EU camp. The AWL distorts the meaning of the referendum in the diametrically opposite direction than do the Stalinists and SPEW/CWI did. While the latter claim that this is a referendum about being in favor or against the EU and its policy of austerity, the AWL claims that the issue to be decided at the referendum is whether the people of Britain are for or against the unity of Europe.

European unity, and the reduction and abolition of the borders that separate the peoples of Europe are gains made under capitalism that we will maintain and extend, not something we want to abolish. European unity is part of our democratic programme. So to agitate to pull the UK out of Europe so that, in the future, it can form a part of a European federation makes no sense at all.[6]

As we have explained above, the only meaning of the referendum is how British imperialism is to be organized politically: either as part of the EU or “independently” (again, as the complete poodle of US imperialism).

It is true that the rulers of the EU present their project as motivated by their desire to unite Europe. But only a fool would believe them. Thus, it obviously escapes the AWL’s attention that Europe’s monopoly bourgeoisie is “uniting” Europe by:

i) Intensifying the exploitation of the European working class;

ii) Squeezing out extra-profits by super-exploiting semi-colonial countries like Greece and Eastern Europe;

iii) Strengthening the EU as a global rival of the other great powers;

iv) Cultivating the EU as a great power which exploits the countries of the South and increasingly intervenes in them militarily.

AWL’s comparison of an imperialist-imposed “unity” of Europe with social gains for the working class like the NHS is idiotic. Can it really have escaped the attention of the AWL that the EU is attacking such gains like social and health benefits and not defending them?! And democracy: isn’t the EU ruled by a government which has never been elected by the European parliament, nor is this government under any parliamentary control? How can the AWL possibly speak about the EU as a democratic achievement?! Once again, we repeat: The EU is an alternative form of state, an alternative political form of imperialist domination and exploitation and not a democratic or social historic gain of the working class.

Naturally, Marxists take the issue of democratic rights seriously not only for semi-colonial countries and dictatorships but also for Western Europe. [7] Similary, we would defend a bourgeois democracy in the event of a military coup. [8] But the “conflict” between an imperialist nation state and an imperialist federation can hardly be compared with the conflict between a bourgeois democracy and an authoritarian regime!

In short, the few rights the EU is giving people living inside its borders with one hand (like the freedom of movement), are being taken away twofold and threefold with the other hand, by transforming its exterior borders into walls of a fortress, by increasing the exploitation of its workers and particular migrant workers domestically, and by becoming a more powerful imperialist player in the world market.

Of course, as we have explained above, there is no reason to conclude from this that one should support Britain’s exit from the EU, since Britain is similarly an imperialist state, only weaker. But to whitewash the EU by praising its democratic and internationalist achievements is both wrong and, for Marxists, embarrassing!

The AWL might protest our criticism and claim that they too are for a “Workers’ Europe” and that have said so in their statements. We don’t doubt this; but the point is that the AWL considers and defends the creation of a stronger imperialist power – the EU – as an interim stage towards such a socialist Europe; an interim stage which they support. This is, irrespective of their subjective intentions, nothing but pro-EU social-imperialism!


Is the Imperialist EU a Necessary Interim Step towards a Socialist Europe?


In fact the AWL applauds the formation of the imperialist EU as a “democratic gain” – as it has applauded Western imperialism on many other occasions. This becomes clear from statements they have made like “European unity is part of our democratic programme” or “We are for a Federal Europe.[9]

Here we have to emphasize the ostensibly minor but actually cardinal difference between the social-imperialist slogan of a “federal Europe” and the Marxist slogan of a “socialist (or workers’) Europe”. A “federal Europe” is – and can only be – an imperialist Europe, a reactionary super-state with more power to oppress and exploit the global working class and poor. It in no way constitutes a step towards the United Socialist States of Europe!

In fact, while the pro-British centrists commit the error of national localism, the AWL replicates this error inversely on the European level. Their outlook is characterized by EU-localism which entirely ignores the reactionary consequences of the formation of an imperialist super-state for the international working class and oppressed people. Specifically, they ignore the second part of Trotsky’s advice about the need of the working class to break all links to “their” fatherland.

Workers‘ action can only begin by absolute opposition to the national bourgeoisie and its international combinations.[10]

Contrary to the AWL’s claims, the imperialist unification of Europe is not part of the democratic program. The democratic program for Europe rather includes the self-determination for the oppressed nations and the destruction of the imperialist EU by the European Revolution – not as a means of returning to the framework of individual imperialist nation states but as a step towards the United Socialist States of Europe.

The only legitimate form of fighting for the unification of Europe is the Marxist slogan of a “socialist (or workers’) Europe”! As we have shown above, this was exactly the reason why Lenin correctly opposed the slogan of the United States of Europe:

From the standpoint of the economic conditions of imperialism — i.e., the export of capital and the division of the world by the “advanced” and “civilised” colonial powers — a United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary. (…) On the present economic basis, i.e., under capitalism, a United States of Europe would signify an organisation of reaction to retard America’s more rapid development. The times when the cause of democracy and socialism was associated only with Europe alone have gone for ever.”[11]

This problem was only overcome when Trotsky further developed the slogan and called for the Soviet United States of Europe.

The AWL might object that Trotsky himself initially called for the “republican United States of Europe” (or “democratic or federal Europe”) and not for a “socialist Europe.” This is true, but the AWL seems to have gotten historically stuck. At that time – during World War I – Marxists were involved in fundamentally rethinking their assessment of the character of the epoch and the programmatic consequences. They were in a process of recognizing the limitations inherent to the classic division of the program into minimalist and maximalist approaches. Ultimately, they reached the conclusion that a transitional program was necessary. The slogan of a “republican United States of Europe” was part of the old social democratic program as was Lenin’s slogan of the “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry”. Both were finally overcome by Marxists and replaced by the slogans of the “Soviet United States of Europe” and the “Workers (and Peasants) Government”.

The AWL is reintroducing old, worn-out formulas which were a legitimate part of the Marxist discussion a hundred years ago, but which were subsequently dropped by Marxists due to their historic experience. The AWL chooses to completely ignore these hundred years of experience! They are like the Bourbons who have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing!


Is the Referendum About the Unity of Europe or About Imperialist State Organization?


The AWL claims that it is a contradiction for socialists to agitate for an exit from the EU if at the same time they support the formation of the United Socialist States of Europe. (“So to agitate to pull the UK out of Europe so that, in the future, it can form a part of a European federation makes no sense at all.”) Surely, as we have argued, for decades Marxists too reject the national-chauvinist slogan calling for the exit of imperialist nation states from the EU. However, as the AWL quote just cited demonstrates yet again, the AWL considers the formation of the EU primarily as the democratic overcoming of national borders instead of recognizing that it is, first and foremost, the formation of a more-encompassing imperialist entity.

In fact, without acknowledging it, the AWL views the formation of the EU as Marxists viewed the formation of nation states in the early period of capitalism, when oppressed peoples were struggling against foreign oppression.

The European bourgeoisies have substantially united Europe, politically and economically. They have done it in their own way, in their own interests. Nevertheless, despite all qualifications, that work is positive and progressive. Our job is not to try to destroy that work — any more than socialists would bulldoze the capitalists’ factories, rip up railway lines or pull down libraries and museums.[12]

The AWL “forgets” (or either has never known or prefers to forget) that we are not living in the epoch of capitalist ascent but rather in the epoch of capitalist decline. Similarly, they “forget” that today’s Western European countries are not oppressed nations shaking off foreign domination, but are among the strongest, richest, most parasitic nations in the world who are exploiting other peoples and who are uniting in order to intensify this exploitation!

Furthermore, the AWL confuses the Marxist opposition to Luddism with the Marxist opposition to the imperialist state (be it the nation state or the pan-European version). Nothing could be more mindless. It is obvious that as the pro-British social-imperialists hope to reform the imperialist nation state, the AWL believe that the EU can be transformed into a “Workers’ Europe.”

But, as a matter of fact, the socialist revolution will have to smash both – the imperialist nation state (like Britain) as well as the imperialist pan-European state! Marxists must never forget that the future United Socialist States of Europe will have nothing to do with the EU. It will not retain a single institution of the EU but will dismantle them all!

The AWL suggests that the referendum is primarily about a geographically smaller or bigger state, about the first step to overcome the nation state, and towards the achievement of European unity. This is simply wrong. The ruling class doesn’t hold a referendum about geography because they don’t need to care about such issues. They hold a referendum about the concrete state form of imperialist rule: the British imperialist state as part of the imperialist EU or independently (as junior partner of US imperialism). This is the real issue of the referendum and no geographical question!


Should We Support Britain’s Membership in the EU as Part of Our Struggle for the Rights of Migrants?


Seemingly the AWL’s strongest argument is their claim that Britain’s exit from the EU would have negative consequences for migrants. Such an argument gains credibility given the overtly racist character of UKIP and its backward co-thinkers among the Tory right-wing village idiots. To make gains for it position from the spewing of such reactionary forces, the AWL claims that the EU has actually brought about democratic progress for the migrants from Eastern Europe.

The benefits of the free movement of labour do not exist in inverted commas, nor are they “alleged”; the benefits are real and to be defended. Just ask any Polish worker. (…) Racism and the right will grow and migrants’ right to work will be further restricted; many migrant workers will simply find it impossible to work in the UK.[13]

It is of course true that Marxists have to defend the right of migrants to move freely within the European Union. However, as on all other issues, the AWL distorts the question and transforms the necessary defense of a democratic right into a social-imperialist apology for the EU.

First, let us not forget that the EU is constantly trying to reduce the rights and benefits for migrants inside the EU. Secondly, EU treatment of migrants originating outside its borders is barbaric.

In addition, the AWL is simply ignoring the key source of migration in the imperialist epoch: As monopoly capital rapaciously hunts for extra-profits, imperialism increasingly destroys the living conditions millions upon millions of oppressed persons for whom migration is often the only option for survival. While migration takes place under all circumstances, it does so particularly during the period of capitalist decline which began in the early 1970s with the end of the long mid-twentieth century boom. [14]

Since then migration to all imperialist countries has increased, irrespective of and long before the EU announced its policy of “freedom of movement” in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. In Figures 3 and 4 we can see how migration to the imperialist countries has exponentially increased during the past decades. Furthermore, vast waves of migration have taken place not only to the EU but to other imperialist countries in North America or Australia as well.


Figure 3: Migrants as a percentage of the population, 1960-2005 [15]


Figure 4: The share of migrants in the population, 1960 and 2005 (in %) [16]


It is simply not true to claim that migration to Britain would stop or would even be significantly reduced if Britain would leave the EU. Look at other European countries which are not members of the EU. The migrant population in Norway grew from 59,000 in 1970 to 805,000 in 2015 and today migrants in Norway comprise 15.6% of the country’s population. [17] A similar process took place in Switzerland which consequently became one of those countries with the highest share of migrants in all of Europe, today constituting about 36% of the Swiss population. [18]

So we see that increased migration is not at all related to membership in the EU! Rather it is a manifestation of monopoly capital’s need to find young and cheap labor. This is particularly true in the old imperialist countries – Western Europe, North America, Australia and Japan – since, as decaying powers, they are experiencing a decline of their populations and a process of overageing. This is why Britain, even if it would leave the EU, would still be forced to continue importing migrants.

Furthermore, it’s revealing to examine a bit of Britain’s history. In 1931 Britain had a total of 1,080,000 foreign-born persons representing 2.7% of the population. By 1971, i.e., before Britain even joined the EU, this number had already grown to 3,100,000 people, representing 6.4% of the population. [19] Again, we see that massive increase of migration is not caused by the EU but by the fundamental laws of capitalism.

Of course, migrants are super-exploited and oppressed in Switzerland and Norway. But does the AWL want to claim that migrants in Switzerland and Norway, i.e., outside of the EU, are qualitatively more oppressed than migrants inside the EU?! Obviously, there is no qualitative difference between oppression of migrants in imperialist countries whether inside or outside the EU. Likewise there is no qualitative difference between oppression of migrants in imperialist Britain before and after it joined the EU in 1973. So why should the membership in the EU in itself be a decisive issue for the status of migrants?! And why should the issue of migration and our struggle against racism be an argument to support Britain’s membership in the EU?!

No, our internationalist approach of fighting both against British as well as EU imperialism obliges us to fight against the oppression of migrants under all circumstances. But this struggle cannot be combined with either advocating membership in the EU or exiting from it.

In summary, the AWL’s call for a YES vote in the EU referendum is nothing but another opportunistic adaption of this group to the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy. Marxists must make no concessions to the pro-Western, in fact, pro-imperialist liberalism which includes the hypocritical applause of the EU as a project of European unity and democracy.

[1] Mark Osborn and Vicki Morris (AWL): Open letter to members of the SWP and SP: Keep the UK in the EU, for a workers' Europe, 17 June, 2015, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/25259

[2] Sean Matgamna: What if Israel bombs Iran? in: Solidarity & Workers’ Liberty, Vol. 3, No. 136, 24.7.2008, p. 6, http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/07/28/discussionarticle-what-if-israel-bombs-iran

[3] AWL: No withdrawal from EU, Solidarity & Workers’ Liberty, Editorial, 10 June, 2015; http://www.workersliberty.org/node/25227

[4] Mark Osborn and Vicki Morris (AWL): Open letter to members of the SWP and SP: Keep the UK in the EU, for a workers' Europe, 17 June, 2015, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/25259

[5] Mark Osborn and Vicki Morris (AWL): Open letter to members of the SWP and SP: Keep the UK in the EU, for a workers' Europe

[6] Mark Osborn and Vicki Morris (AWL): Open letter to members of the SWP and SP: Keep the UK in the EU, for a workers' Europe

[7] We refer readers to an essay about the struggle for democracy in imperialist countries which we will publish in the near future.

[8] See on this e.g., our writings on the military coup in Egypt in 2013 and in Thailand in 2014:

RCIT: Egypt: Down with the Military Coup d’État! Prepare Mass Resistance! July 8, 2013, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/egypt-down-with-military-coup-d-etat/

Michael Pröbsting: The Military’s Coup d'État in Egypt: Assessment and Tactics. A reply to the criticism of the WIVP and the LCC on the meaning of the Military’s Coup d'État and the slogan of the Revolutionary Constituent Assembly, 17.7.2013, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/egypt-meaning-of-coup-d-etat/

Michael Pröbsting: The Coup d'État in Egypt and the Bankruptcy of the Left’s “Army Socialism”. A Balance Sheet of the coup and another Reply to our Critics (LCC, WIVP, SF/LCFI), 8.8.2013, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/egypt-and-left-army-socialism/

RCIT: Thailand: Smash the Developing Military Coup! No Trust in the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai PartyLeadership! Mobilize the Working Class and Poor Peasants to Defeat the “Yellow Shirts”, Army Command, and Monarchy! 21.5.2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/asia/thailand-coup/

Michael Pröbsting: Thailand: How Should Socialists Fight Against the Military Coup? A Critique of the Statement “Oppose the coup regime!” by several Asian Left Organizations, 27.5.2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/asia/thailand-coup-critique/

Michael Pröbsting: Thailand: Shall Socialists Defend the Government Against the Military Coup? Reply to a Neo-Bordigist Polemic of the “Liaison Committee of Communists”, 24.5.2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/asia/thailand-coup-reply/

[9] Mark Osborn (AWL): An Open letter to members of the SWP and SP, Leaflet distributed at the SWP’s Marxism 2015 event

[10] Leon Trotsky: Once Again the ILP (November 1935); in: Trotsky Writings 1935-36, p. 201 (our emphasis)

[11] V. I. Lenin: On the Slogan for a United States of Europe; in: LCW Vol. 21, pp.340-342

[12] Mark Osborn and Vicki Morris (AWL): Open letter to members of the SWP and SP: Keep the UK in the EU, for a workers' Europe

[13] Mark Osborn and Vicki Morris (AWL): Open letter to members of the SWP and SP: Keep the UK in the EU, for a workers' Europe

[14] See on this our publications on migration to which we referred above.

[15] Brian Keeley: International Migration. The human face of globalisation (2009), OECD, p. 113

[16] Rolph van der Hoeven: Labour Markets Trends, Financial Globalization and the current crisis in Developing Countries (2010), UN-DESA Working Paper No. 99, p. 11

[17] See Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes / Johann C. Fuhrmann: Einwanderungsland Norwegen – Demografische Trends und politische Konzepte, in: KAS AUSLANDSINFORMATIONEN No. 2/2011, p. 41; Statistics Norway: Immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents, 1 January 2015, http://www.ssb.no/en/innvbef

[18] See Statistik Schweiz: Bevölkerung mit Migrationshintergrund, http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/de/index/themen/01/07/blank/key/04.html

[19] Migration Watch UK: A summary history of immigration to Britain (2014), http://www.migrationwatchuk.com/Briefingpaper/document/48