The essay “Going into Europe”, written by the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, was first printed in the Sunday Times on 27 April 1975 – the pre-Murdoch era, for anyone wondering. It was published ahead of the June referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the European Union). The article was later republished in a book of collected essays titled ‘Writing by Candlelight’ (London: Merlin Press, 1980).
Although not without its problems, Thompson’s essay is a good synthesis of the socialist arguments against the EU (then the EEC) that were once common currency in Britain, even in the mainstream press.
I have transcribed the article because, firstly, it is an interesting historical document that does not appear to be available elsewhere in a digital form – at least not outside of specialist archives or behind paywalls. It is written in Thompson’s own inimitable style, which some might say is reason enough for its reproduction: the article is genuinely funny!
But the article is also relevant today because it demonstrates a strand of left opposition to the EU that is currently undergoing a revival, especially since the onset of the 2007-2008 capitalist crisis. There are many things currently driving this rejuvenation, but the treatment of the EU’s economically weaker member states, particularly Greece, has certainly been one of the main contributing factors.
In Portugal, for instance, the chairperson of the Left Bloc, Catarina Martins, has spoken of the need to prepare for leaving the euro if their anti-austerity party came to power. During the party’s election campaign in October 2015 Martins stated, “if it’s necessary to choose between dignity and the euro, Portugal should choose dignity” and that “any government which disobeys [Wolfgang] Schäuble has to be ready for the ECB [European Central Bank] to close up on it and for Schäuble to kick them out of the euro.”
Previously the Left Bloc had been in favour of remaining in the EU, but following the Greek experience they have had pause to reconsider their position.
In Spain too, Izquierda Unida (IU), a major component of Podemos – the largest left party in Spain – has taken an increasingly oppositional attitude to the EU in recent years. Indeed, a political motion put to the IU assembly last year by its leader Alberto Garzon, which won over 70% support, clearly states: “[the] EU is un-reformable and incompatible with the sovereignty of peoples or with any policy of social transformation”.
And earlier this year, Jean-Luc Mélenchon came within a whisper of the final round of the French presidential elections, which he would likely have won had he got through. Mélenchon was unequivocal when it came to the EU and its treatment of Greece: “I am not Alexis Tsipras [the Greek Prime Minister and leader of Syriza], I don’t negotiate for 17 hours with people who offend me,” he told the French daily Le Parisien. Mélenchon had pledged to renegotiate EU treaties and put them to a referendum.
Finally, in the UK, the Labour Party is now led by Jeremy Corbyn, a seasoned left Eurosceptic who voted against continued EEC membership in 1975. Since his election as Labour leader, however, Corbyn has made many serious compromises with the capitalist wing of his party (which remains in control of the party structure) – not the least of which was his decision to campaign for a remain vote in the 2016 EU referendum. And just yesterday, it emerged that Labour’s new position on the EU was to campaign for a “soft” Brexit and to remain within the Single Market – i.e. a Brexit in name only.
Because of its more recent association with right wing populist parties like UKIP, many young socialists today are only fleetingly aware, if at all, that the left has a proud history of standing against the bosses’ EU. But left Euroscpeticism lives on amongst many of Britain’s most committed working class fighters. Indeed, during the referendum, four of the most militant trade unions (RMT, BFAWU, ASLEF, and NIPSA), with a record of fighting hard for the interests of their members, all campaigned for a socialist Brexit.
Right wing trade union leaders and Blairite MPs, by contrast, claim that we need the EU to protect workers’ rights. This simply provides cover for the fact that they are unwilling to support workers in struggle themselves.
This does not mean that Socialist Brexiteers are not internationalists. What it means is that we reject the false internationalism of capitalism – a predatory economic system based upon violence, division, and exploitation. As intimated by Thompson’s essay, we call for a voluntary, democratic, socialist federation of European states.
That said, I hope the essay is of some use.
Going into Europe
The first person who enthused to me, some years ago, about ‘going into Europe’ went on to enthuse about green peppers. This gave a clue as to what the great British middle class thinks ‘Europe’ is about.
It is about the belly. A market is about consumption. The Common Market is conceived of as a distended stomach: a large organ with various traps, digestive chambers and fiscal acids, assimilating a rich diet of consumer goods. It has no mind, no direction, no other identity: it is imagined as either digesting or as in a replete, post-prandial states easily confused with benevolence of idealism.
The images vegetate in the British middle-class subconscious. This Market has no head, eyes, or moral sense. If you ask where it is going, or why, no-one knows; they give an anticipatory post-prandial burp (‘it will make us viable’) and talk about bureaucratic procedures in Brussels. It has no historical itinerary. It lies in a chair, hands on its tummy, digesting a pasta of Fiats, a washing-up machine meunière and (burp!) that excellent concorde thermidor which may not have been as fresh as it should have been.
This Eurostomach is the logical extension of the existing eating-out habits of Oxford and North London. Particular arrangements convenient to West European capitalism blur into a haze of remembered vacations, beaches, bougainvillaea, business jaunts, and vintage wines. At the referendum the sky will darken with charter flights from the Dordogne, each passenger’s mouth puckered into a oui.
At a poor second, the middle class thinks the Market is about Culture. Bob of the Likely Lads has long been taking Thelma earnestly to Fellini and Godard. The academic and television Bobs and Thelmas, after their long and abject mid-Atlantic enchantment, have entered a no less abject enchantment with ‘Europe’. But it is the same image. Culture is what we consume; it is bestowed, without participation, engagement, dialogue – a common cultural stomach.
For ‘going into Europe’ is also a Magic. It is the Necessary Miracle. Utterly without self-confidence, hemmed in at every side by the defensive organizations of a humane working class (the ‘English disease’), the British bourgeoisie prepares, as its last hope of survival, to surrender its identity to the larger rapacity of the European bourgeoisie. It may not survive itself: but at least it will make sure that Money does.
What is sick about this is that, in national as in personal matters, only an individual with a firm identity can make effective relationships. This ‘going into Europe’ will not turn out to be the thrilling mutual exchange supposed. It is more like nine middle-aged couples with failing marriages meeting in a darkened bedroom in a Brussels hotel for a Group Grope. The gruppensex will rejuvenate no one. But in the recriminations of the bitchy afterglower we can expect a resurgence of bourgeois nationalist rancour of sensational intensity.
The offence of the ‘going into Europe’ humbug is fourfold. First, we are there already. Second, Europe is not that set of nations but also includes Warsaw, Belgrade, Prague. Third, the Market defines the diversity of European cultures as its crassest level as a group of fat, rich nations feeding each other goodies. Fourth, it defines this introversial white bourgeois nationalism as ‘internationalism’.
It will not, of course, work. But the spoof about internationalism remains offensive. And dangerous. For when an altruistic glint gets into the bourgeois eye one can be sure that someone is about the catch it. Once replete, the eurostomach will want to euronate. The present idea is to do it on the British working class. ‘Going into Europe’ will mean ‘rationalization’, ‘winds of competition’, getting rid of ‘restrictive practices’ (i.e. humane safeguards and self-protection), ‘facing up to things’. We can be sure that the things faced up to will be very different through the open shutter of the Dordogne and a bedroom window in Bolton.
These arrangements of capitalist convenience have nothing whatsoever to do with internationalism, political or cultural. What they will do is distance decision-making from its subject and mystify what remains a democratic process. They provide no opportunities for common fraternal action or intellectual exchange which could not be conducted better without them. And have been, for some hundreds of years. Surely Hugh Thomas knows that his “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have been happily absorbing ‘a few doses of latinity’ periodically for centuries, without any license from a Treaty of Rome?
Some sillies in the labour movements suppose the Market will facilitate socialist and trade union activity. It will do the opposite. It will put the bourgeoisie twenty years ahead at one throw. Luigi and Kurt and George and Gaston, with their secretaries, their linguistic skills, their massed telephones, their expense-account weekends, their inter-locking euro-directorships, their manipulation of the rules and of the Brussels spouters, will always be smiling at the table, with the agenda cooked, the day before the workers get there. And British labour will cast away its one incomparable historical asset (a united movement) in anxious negotiations with its fragmented and ideologically embittered counterparts.
Meanwhile the Dutch elm disease (Europe’s most viable export to England in the past decade) is nothing to the beetles being bred by the bureaucrats in Brussels to blight what remains of our active democratic traditions. True, there are plenty of people high in the British state who would like to do the same. But that’s the point. The enemies, as well as the friends, of democratic process are everywhere and anywhere: internationalism falls along the line of that horizontal fracture, not within a set of vertical alliances.
There is a more momentous point. As British capitalism dies above and about us, one can glimpse, as an outside chance, the possibility that we could effect here a peaceful transition – for the first time in the world – to a democratic socialist society.
It would be an odd, illogical socialism, quite unacceptable to any grand theorist. That is perhaps why most British Marxists have long ceased to attend to British actualities and, at a time of unparalleled socialist opportunity, play to each other their amateur revolutionary theatricals.
But the opportunity is there, within the logic of our past itinerary. The lines of British culture still run vigourously to that point of change where our traditions and organizations cease to be defensive and become affirmative forces: the country becomes our own. To make that leap, from a market to a society, requires that our people maintain, for a little longer, their own sense of identity, and understanding of the democratic procedures available to them. It requires also the holding open of every international option: for trade with the developing world, for dialogue with the Communist world, for informal intellectual exchange.
It is fear of this transition – of Money toppled from power – which makes our good bourgeois contort his face into an unlikely expression of internationalism. And, equally, the effecting of this transition is the most substantial contribution to internationalism which our people could make.
That is what we could offer to the European dialogue. And to a Europe which includes Oslo and Belgrade. Long, very long after that, a true idea of ‘Europe’ might return: as a cautious federation of socialist states. It will develop slowly, tetchily, with jealous regard for individual identities. And so it should.