Skip to main content

Brexit offers the possibility for socialists to lead a political transformation

The immediate task before us is to leave the EU and to break the constraints on democracy that it represents, argues MAURICE GLASMAN

THE history of the British left is one of crises that promise victory but result in domination by the right.  

In my lifetime I have lived through the stagflation of the ’70s, the miners’ strike in the ’80s, Black Tuesday in the ’90s and then the crash of 2008.

All seemed to promise radical change, yet this did not happen. On the contrary.  

In response to successive democratic defeats, Labour adopted a strategy of the subordination of national democracy to finance capital and the European Union.  

That describes the political economy of New Labour and its fatal inability to distinguish between globalisation and internationalism.

The free movement of labour, capital, goods and services, on which the European Union is based, is a vision of eternal capitalism in which it is illegal, by treaty law, to challenge the domination of finance within the economy.  

While the unmediated movement of commodities through space was written in indelible ink with the seal of each member-state parliament, the “social chapter” was written in the lightest of pencil.

The alignment of the progressive left with the EU was its greatest delusion and has led to the progressive weakening of every socialist party that has pursued this goal. We are witnessing its palsy across the continent.  

It is still the case that opposition to this is denigrated within the mainstream of progressive thought as populist, nationalist, racist and xenophobic.  

The false promise of Jacques Delors corrupted the praxis of two generations of Labour and trade union leaders.  

The primacy of democracy as the principal practice through which to resist the commodification of human beings and nature, which is the fundamental process of capitalism, is the real meaning of Brexit for the left.  

Brexit is the real deal and offers the possibility for socialists to lead a political transformation that can redefine the meaning and practices of the nation.  

It breaks the stranglehold of the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties and the enforcement of rules by the European Court of Justice over the single market and the customs union. It makes our politics possible.  

Leaving the EU is a necessary condition of a democratic socialist politics. That is the starting point of this argument.  

Brexit is also a cause that can unite all of the different currents of left-wing thought that hold democracy as their core belief.  

The organisation and articulation of a constructive alternative to the status quo, a politics that would be illegal under EU law, is a necessary part of this.  

The Brexit negotiations are an object lesson on how democracy is subordinated to capital and we should use it to educate, agitate and organise around a renewal of democracy and the primacy of politics.  

The left needs to lead the politics of Brexit, not endure it in a defensive crouch in which “but” is the most important word when “respecting” the referendum result.

The inability of the Labour leadership to make the argument for Brexit and democracy, to lead the renewal of democratic sovereignty and articulate clearly the possibilities that leaving the EU open up for the democratisation of the economy and the redistribution of power and assets in our society is extremely unfortunate.  

It offers no way out of the interregnum that we are living through. Rather it opens the space for the right to claim democratic sovereignty as its own.  

We need to disrupt the dynamics that have taken a grip since the referendum result which have focused on the “deal” and stigmatised “hard” Brexit and “crashing out” in favour of the endless accumulation of details.  

We need to leave the EU and concentrate on pursuing a national renewal based upon democracy and the dignity of labour, a defence of freedom and humanity from the iron cage of Napoleonic directives and Thatcherite economics that the EU has become. It is not a “cliff edge.”

Antonio Gramsci defined an interregnum as a time “when the old is dead and the new cannot be born … when there is a fraternisation of opposites and all kinds of morbid symptoms pertain.”

It is as good a description of our time as I have found. It makes sense of the spectacle of a Remain Prime Minister who claims to represent Brexit and a Leave Labour leader who has become the tribune of the hopes of Remain.

The first demand of capitalism as a system is the removal of its fundamental practices from democratic or political “interference.”  

The internal imperative to maximum returns on investment in the shortest period of time leads to an enormous pressure of commodification and the monetisation of relationships and institutions.  

“Everything solid melts into air and all that is sacred is profaned.” It is an inhumane system that is merciless and relentless in its pursuit of profit.  

It can lead to a nasty politics, of which fascism was the demonic form or a democratic politics, of which socialism is the sublime form.  

What is impossible is the avoidance of any kind of politics at all and that is what the EU represents. It sets such strong parameters on what can be democratically decided as to be considered a menace to democracy itself.  

Capitalism is based on the price system, which in turn is based on fluctuation, and when applied to the substance of society, human beings and their natural environment, it leads to the relentless discombobulation of the stability required to lead and live a life in which monetary concerns are not primary.  

Democratic politics requires some shelter from this market storm and if we don’t provide it others will. That is what is at stake in this interregnum.  

It can go either way and we have the resources from within our tradition of analysis and political organisation to win the argument and to put together the class and cultural alliances required to secure a democratic victory.  

What are the forms of the Brexit crisis and why is it so serious?

I would suggest that it brings together an economic, political and cultural set of contradictions into a systematic crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class.

The economic crisis is the first and relates back to the financial crash of 2008. In a lightning flash of clarity it was apparent that the wealth of the nation had been lost in a frenzy of speculation, cheating and exaggeration and that the golden goose of the City of London had been fouling its nest all along.  

The City has been at the hub of global maritime trade for half a millennium and the actual country has increasingly become a costly appendage.  

As a set of institutions, including the Corporation of the City of London and all the leading financial corporations, they supported Remain.  

Brexit was supported more by farmers, landowners and those with assets that were less fungible.

The strategy of finance capital is to maintain its ability to invest globally without interference from internal politics, the stress being on “frictionless” trade.  

It pursues staying in the single market and the customs union while ditching the commitments to environmental and labour regulations.  

It is important to remember that 85 per cent of our economic activity is outside the “global” economy and serves local needs.  

An economy that serves the many and not the few requires a democratic polity that ensures that the interests of the City do not dominate the state.

Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg are doing the work of socialism by supporting the primacy of democratic sovereignty.

His hope is that the politics that emerges will be laissez-faire on economics and conservative on social and cultural issues without recognising the contradiction between those two commitments.  

He hopes that his hedge fund will uphold enclosure but the political space of Brexit opens up the restoration of the Commons.  

His is a politics that we can defeat after March 29 and is a prefigurement of the politic of the future. The Commons against the hedge funds.

The political crisis is that our ruling class, including the Civil Service and Parliament, setting aside the hysteria that pervades academia on this issue, has proved incapable of acting upon the referendum result and sustaining the politics of leaving the EU.  

Their only vision is more of the same. They have concentrated all their effort on the details of policy which end with us staying within the constraints of Lisbon and Maastricht.  

This leads to a crisis of legitimacy for our rulers which we should accentuate and exacerbate. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are clear about the changes they wish to make, but are opaque in their failure to admit that such reforms are illegal under EU law. 

This is the most grievous symptom of the crisis of legitimacy. Party management has taken precedence over political leadership and the result is the stasis of the interregnum in which Labour is unable to seize the moment.  

This leads to the temptation to extend Article 50, delay the moment of reckoning and to let the moment pass.  

The legitimacy crisis of the ruling class will then extend to the Labour Party and then the morbid symptoms will really kick in.  

The cultural crisis is the most difficult for the left and for the coalition we need to build. That is because the socialist tradition of which I am a part thinks that we are social beings, that we are constituted by unchosen traditions such as language, relationships and religions that are part of an inheritance.  

We are not defined as individual choosers or as acquisitive individuals motivated entirely by self-interest, narrowly defined.  

In contrast our sociability leads to a culture built around reciprocity, mutuality and collective democratic decision and these were the forms of the early labour movement and is what we often refer to as a culture.

This forms the basis of what EP Thomson called a moral economy. There is a part of the left that rejects this and views the very idea of a person is a socially constructed entity who can only be emancipated by a heroic liberalism of individual self-definition.  

This argument can only be resolved politically and is something we can look forward to renewing after we have left the EU.  

In the meantime there is enough common interest on the issues of class and democracy to co-operate in pursuing that outcome of Brexit and the restoration of democratic sovereignty.  

The cultural crisis of Brexit is the distance between the liberal assumptions of the rulers and enduring ethics of the moral economy held by the ruled. Brexit is a class issue.  

The immediate task before us is to leave the EU and to break the constraints on democracy that it represents while articulating a political and economic programme that can fill the spaces it leaves behind.  

An industrial policy that favours workers and neglected regions. A reform of banking to restore assets to abandoned places. A democracy, locational and vocational, that can resist the domination of the rich and the educationally qualified.  

No deal is the real deal and the left should unite in pursuit of that end. You might call it government of the people, by the people and for the people.  


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.



Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 6,572
We need:£ 11,428
17 Days remaining
Donate today