Communists have steadfastly supported Brexit, or, more specifically, Lexit, the left alternative to the Tory ambition of turning the UK into the “Singapore of the West”. While we found much of the official Brexit campaign distasteful and dishonest, and while we are concerned about how the official Brexit campaign was financed, our support has not waivered. In part, this is because we can draw support from the Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels wrote:
Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.
While communists do not treat the works of Marx and Engels as holy writ, we do find their overall logic reliable, persuasive and borne out by subsequent history. Their advice here is therefore worth re-examining and can help us navigate the current confused and confusing Brexit debate on the Left.
Written some 170 years ago, the terminology used by Marx and Engels is now a little obscure. The term “proletariat” is no longer in everyday use. While it is still employed (in Marxist economic theory concerning labour value), its meaning in the Communist Manifesto, as Engels made clear in his preface to the 1888 English edition, is simply “workers”, i.e. all those who live by selling their labour and who lack an alternative source of sustenance. Similarly, since Marx and Engels employed the term “bourgeoisie”, it has come to mean the aspirational, salaried middle class. Marx and Engels were not referring to these. They were referring to “capitalists” and what we now sometimes refer to as “the 1%”.
Given these clarifications, what did Marx and Engels mean by the struggle between workers and capitalists being “though not in substance, yet in form….at first a national struggle”? This was their recognition that, even in the first half of the nineteenth century, national economies were inter-connected and the exploitation of workers does not stop at national borders. Thus the struggle between workers and capitalists takes place initially within the context of the nation state and workers are therefore well advised to concentrate first on the struggle for state power before seeking to change supra-national structures.
With these clarifications in mind, how should we apply the advice in the Communist Manifesto to the current Brexit situation? There are undoubtedly risks for workers in Britain in any meaningful form of Brexit. These risks are especially acute for workers in our export manufacturing industries and those employed by our “financial services industry”. As the excellent film The Spider’s Web, recently shown at Ruskin House to unanimous acclaim and now available on U-tube, argued, much of this activity is parasitic and concerned with tax avoidance, but it does,nevertheless, employ many ‘workers’ as defined above. There will, however, be economic gains from curtailing much of this activity, and these gains can be put to good use, once we are outside the EU, promoting more useful employment. Less of a threat is the loss of workers’ rights bestowed by the EU on workers in Britain. The most worthwhile worker rights that still exist are those we won ourselves in domestic struggle. The EU did nothing to protect workers in Greece in 2015 and has done nothing to inhibit the disastrous growth of zero hours contacts and the undermining of trade union rights in the UK. The loss of its ‘protection’ will be of little significance.
Notwithstanding the risks to export industry and City jobs, Brexit can provide an opportunity to “settle matters” with our own bourgeoisie, i.e. the capitalists who own and run our country and their hangers on and spokespersons. The first step must therefore be demand a general election so we can kick out this rotten and corrupt Tory government and give a Corbyn led Labour government the opportunity to negotiate a Brexit that ensures that the interests of workers and their families are prioritised. The Tories, with the assistance of the Lib Dems, made us pay for the 2007-8 financial crisis. They must not be allowed, with the assistance of the Ulster Unionists this time, to make us pay for turning the UK into the “Singapore of the West”.