by Paul O´Connell
Great historical events generally … concern whole social systems. The result is that to the typical modern mind they assume a catastrophic character, with all that this implies in the way of emotional shock and intellectual confusion. To the Marxist, on the other hand, the specific historical (i.e. transitory) character of capitalism is a major premise. It is by virtue of this fact that the Marxist is able, so to speak, to stand outside the system and criticize it as a whole.
Even though it is often derided and dismissed, the exuberant rhetoric of capitalist triumph and neoliberal ascendancy characteristic of the 1980s has seeped into the core of political theorising, and activism, particularly on the left. While mainstream thought and politics has always taken capitalism, as such, as its perennial premise; the seemingly relentless march of globalisation (with its privatisation, deregulation, and commodification of the entire life course) led many, whether consciously or not, to internalise Thatcher’s mantra that There Is No Alternative (TINA), or Fukuyama’s declaration that while there had been history, with the collapse of the Soviet Union it, now, had ended. Even the most significant crisis of world capitalism, albeit centred on North Atlantic capital, since the early Twentieth century led, for the most part, to a consolidation of neoliberalism and the class interests it supported, rather than any serious challenge to it.
Events of the last two years, however, have thrown the certainty of the status quo into the air, and ruffled, but by no means displaced, the complacency of the mainstream commentariat. The Brexit vote in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the rise of the genuine far right across the West, as well as other authoritarian formations around the world, have ushered in a period of panic, and tin pot prognoses: populism, Fascism, the “white working class” and sundry other terms have been wheeled out to try make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible. Briefly, here, I want to argue that the Marxist tradition (broad and wide as it is) provides us with the analytical tools to allow us both to understand the current conjuncture, and point the way to how we should orientate ourselves, strategically, to the challenges that confront us today. Using the Brexit vote in the UK as an entry point, it will be argued that our era of crises and dislocation calls upon us to fundamentally challenge the extant social order, and to develop ideas, organisations, and movements for transcending the archaic and barbaric social system which confounds us today.
II. A Way of Seeing
To understand Brexit, truly understand it, and related phenomena, we must move beyond appearances, and excavate essential causes. As Georg Lukács argued, it ‘may be the sacred duty of every genuine Marxist to face the facts squarely and without illusions, but for every genuine Marxist there is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies – namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development’. There are four key elements to Marxist analysis which help us grasp, not merely in retrospect, the the nature of the contemporary era and the challenges it poses: (i) the nature of capitalism as an historically contingent and crisis ridden system; (ii) the centrality of class antagonism to the production and reproduction of this system; (iii) a dialectical understanding of social processes, which has many elements to it but, following Lukács, has as its major premise the insight that ‘contradictions … are the basis and kernel of all events’;(iv) the agency of working class people in transforming the world around them.
The absence of an orientation that foregrounds these insights leads to confusion, eclecticism and unhelpful analysis. Rather than understanding specific events and processes in their broader, historical, political and social context, specific surface factors are seized upon and made the basis for all encompassing explanations that do not actually explain much at all. The failure to understand capitalism as transitory and means that any purported “fixes” remain within the confines of the system that generates the problems in the first place; a failure to understand the centrality of the current crisis of capitalism, and the class dynamics and antagonisms which this has produced, means roots causes are never identified, much less addressed; and all of the foregoing means that working people, in all their richness and diversity, are never imagined to be the agents that can actively transform the failing order around us.
To counteract such tendencies, any analysis of the present moment has to be one that is sensitive to geographical and temporal specificities, but also one that foregrounds the issue of class and class analysis, that is ready and willing to challenge the entire edifice of the existing capitalist order, and that draws on the dialectical method inherited from Marx and others. As C.L.R. James has written.
Today when all thinkers are groping like drunken men, with all their points of support and reference gone we have here a weapon [dialectical materialism] whose power and value was never so great as in the prevailing confusion.
Rejecting the simplistic, superficial logic of cause and effect, and instead exploring the deep, contradictory relationships and potentials in any given context allows us to better grasp the situation before us, and to orientate ourselves in terms of concrete political responses and proposals. Of course, this is not some reified celebration of dialectical analysis, any such analysis must also be rooted in concrete struggles, and informed by history, context and nuance, to be really useful.
III. Brexit and Its Causes
It is undoubtedly true that the Brexit referendum was called by an arrogant Tory Party with a view to both appeasing and challenging the more right wing, Eurosceptic elements of the Party and its support base. It is also true that, as a consequence, much of the Brexit debate dealt with issues of immigration, and carried a specific racist character; this is true both of the dominant Leave campaign, and the dominant Remain campaign (it’s important to say this because it is often overlooked that the basis of the dominant Remain campaign was that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, had gained from the EU specifically racist and xenophobic concessions around reducing immigration, rights of EU citizens in the UK etc.). One consequence of this framing is that many people on the left in the UK, including the Labour Party, argued against the Leave position, in large part, because it was seen as being solely a xenophobic vote, and contrary to commitments to internationalism and anti-racism.
Likewise, then, when a small majority (52%) of those that voted in the referendum chose to leave, this was seen as, primarily, a reactionary, racist vote by a disenfranchised, revanchist “white working class”. And certainly, in the period around the Brexit campaign and vote there was a spike in reported racist crimes and incidents (though the data indicates that such incidents have now returned to “normal” levels). The problem with this almost exclusive focus on the question of race/immigration, is that it failed to acknowledge the very real and legitimate criticisms of the EU as a set of institutions that lock in neoliberal economic and political logic and how this relates to a thirty-year process of deindustrialisation, disempowerment, and marginalisation rights across around Europe.
It also failed to address the ways in which, in a period of severe crisis when working class people, were looking for and open to some sort of an alternative, the EU (through its treatment of Ireland, Greece and other countries) constitutes a very real barrier to meaningful change. Indeed, it is noteworthy, in light of the recent election results in the UK (June 2017), that prior to Brexit a little reported survey revealed that a small majority of the British public said they preferred socialism to capitalism. In spite of this, the die had been cast: the Brexit result was seen as a triumph of reaction, which would lead to the emergence of a veritable neoliberal caliphate ruled over by an ascendant Tory party with no hope in sight. Perhaps such pessimism is warranted, indeed the working class in the UK—and throughout the world—has witnessed far too many defeats over the last forty years. As the great historian of the English working class, E.P. Thompson, has noted, at times of ‘defeat and mass apathy’ it is common for a fatalistic quietism to become ascendant. With that said, there were some who argued, prior to the referendum, that even though the debate had been launched by reactionaries on a xenophobic and racist premise, the nature of the crisis of capitalism and the legitimate critiques of the EU, meant that there was scope to use the debate to present working people with a radical alternative to the existing order, and begin working towards a genuinely transformative politics. At the time such arguments were ignored, at best, or dismissed as Utopian.
IV. The Road Before Us
Less than a year after the Brexit referendum Jeremy Corbyn, the most derided and actively undermined leader of the UK Labour Party in living memory, lead his party into a General Election called by the buoyant and confident Prime Minister, Theresa May. In the Brexit debate Corbyn had, for some people, failed to make a sufficiently strong argument for Remain, and following the vote it was felt by many liberals and soft-left socialists that his acceptance of the referendum outcome was a failure and concession to reactionary nationalism. It was expected by all and sundry that the Labour Party would be wiped out by the Tories in this “Brexit Election”. Instead, under Corbyn’s leadership the Labour Party presented the people of the UK with a set of policies which, in the context of the last thirty years of capitalist development in Western Europe, were essentially radical, social democratic proposals around wages, workers’ rights, housing, health care, education and public transport. Against all expectations Labour increased their vote substantially, the single biggest increase in the Party’s vote since 1945, and dramatically undermined the authority and Parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party (who, at the time of writing, look to be reliant on a small, religious, reactionary party from Northern Ireland to keep them in government).
As with the Brexit result, the success of the Labour Party in the elections has caught both the mainstream commentariat (unsurprisingly) and many who place themselves on the political left by surprise. The centre is frantically scrambling around for soft explanations of the phenomenon; one line of thought wants it to be a “rise of the Remainers” moment, even though Corbyn has consistently said he will see through Britain’s exit from the EU, if elected, and the fact that only 8% of Labour voters said Brexit was a key issue for them; failing this, it was the unprecedented mobilisation of young voters that swung it, while this is certainly significant and important, it is only a surface factor, and sits uneasily with the obsession, less than six months ago, with the idea young people were more right wing and authoritarian than previous generations. If there was any truth at all in the idea of “Millennials” being more right wing, then their increased turn out at the polls should have benefited the right at least as much as it benefited Labour, and this is simply not born out.
Again, these surface explanations, as with Brexit, are insufficient. It will take more time to unpack the results, and draw firmer conclusions, but what seems clear from the result is that the Labour vote increased (and decreased) across the demographics of age, gender, race and so on: but the one constant, which won’t show up in Lord Ashcroft surveys, is that Corbyn and Labour presented a manifesto which rejected the logic of neoliberal capitalism, and appealed to the material interests (better wages, social services and benefits) of working class people. Corbyn and his team saw in the current crisis of capitalism the potential, which has always been there, to build an alternative to the extant system. This potential was there at the time of Brexit, and is still there now. The challenge for the Left is the have the clear analysis, and concrete political conviction to support and nurture this potential into more concrete and sustainable alternatives, both within the electoral arena and beyond.
What’s important now is that the unwarranted pessimism around Brexit and leading into these recent elections does not turn into unwarranted optimism about what Corbyn has achieved. The reality remains that the Tories were a mere 75 votes (in 5 marginal constituencies) away from attaining a majority in Parliament; and that notwithstanding eight years of brutal austerity and reductions living standards, real wages etc. more than 14 million people voted for the most reactionary Tory party in a generation. While there is potential for progressive change and politics, there is equally the potential, and likelihood, of right wing consolidation and counter-offensive. In the face of this, the Left has to learn the lessons of the Brexit debate, insure that its analysis of contemporary capitalism and its crises, and the political positions it adopts in response to this analysis, are not overwhelmed and swayed by superficial analysis and liberal moralism, but instead are centred in an understanding of the fundamental contradictions of the capitalism system (class antagonism and its crisis/historically transient character) and utilise, in real terms, the weapons of dialectical analysis.
It will be useful to conclude this section by illustrating this potentially abstract point in a concrete manner. One of the concerns with those on the left who oppose Brexit, and also those in the wider European left (for example DiEM25) is that leaving the EU will necessitate a retreat into nation states, which will be a backward step and contrary to the principles of internationalism (a core value of any left worth the name). On its face, this is a plausible argument: if we apply formal logic, the EU is a transnational political formation, which, according to its own lights, is committed to internationalism, solidarity etc., therefore a move to the nation state as the principle site of political action is a step away from this progressive, international arena.
The problems with this argument, however, are twofold: first, the EU has only ever represented a truncated a narrow form of internationalism; and internationalism in the service of capital, and of no use to the drowning refugees in the Aegean, the Greek people caricatured, dehumanised and left to their own devices, or the African, Asian and Latin American countries further impoverished by trade agreements with the EU. As well as this, and crucially for our purposes, this analysis is also superficial, one sided and undialectical. It ensnares itself un unhelpful and static abstractions, without taking account of the concrete realities (of national sovereignty today, of the nature of the EU, of the opportunities that the contradictions of the current crisis present and so on).
Thankfully, not everyone is drawn in by the gravitational pull of such arguments. The Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin, commenting on the Brexit vote, makes a few crucial points. He notes, first, that the ‘framework defined by the (“nation”) state remains the one in which the decisive struggles that transform the world unfold’. He notes further that the ‘European project is based on an absolute denial of democracy (understood as the exercise of choice between alternative social projects’. Of crucial importance, and bringing the issue of agency back to the fore, Amin argues that
This crisis created opportunities for consistent advances, more or less bold, provided that the fighting movements adopt the strategies that aim at them. The affirmation of national sovereignty then becomes obligatory to enable those advances that are necessarily uneven from one country to another but are always in conflict with the logic of ordo-liberalism. The sovereign national project that is popular, social, and democratic proposed in this paper is designed with this in mind. The concept of sovereignty implemented here is not that of bourgeois-capitalist sovereignty; it differs from it and for this reason must be qualified as popular sovereignty.
The crucial point then, and one which the Brexit/Corbyn conjuncture feeds into, is that a radical, left struggle for popular sovereignty at the national level, which challenges the common sense (including its institutional manifestations) of the prevailing order can attract the support and commitment of working class people, and present a genuine bulwark to the rising barbarism of late capitalism in its stage of decline. As a final word, Amin concludes that for him ‘there is nothing to expect from the European project, which cannot be transformed from within’ instead, he argues, ‘we must deconstruct it to possibly rebuild it later on different foundations’. This then is the crucial point, in a context in which the truncated internationalism of the EU, the internationalism of capital bolstered by the class consciousness of the frequent flyer, now exists as a fetter on progressive change, the apparent return to the nation-state as the locus of political action and change, can represent a crucial advance for a substantive internationalism which challenges the logic of the extant order. In Europe today a fundamental rupture with the existing institutions of the EU is a necessary condition for the development of popular, democratic socialist movements and organisations at the national level, which, in turn, can and must build transnational networks of solidarity and mutual support, to re-found “another Europe”, beyond the horizon of capital’s logic.
What the Brexit vote, and the election success of Corbyn-led Labour show is that in the UK, as elsewhere, history is on the table once again. The crisis ridden social system we live under is an historically transient form of social organisation, there can be an alternative to it and the impoverishment it guarantees. The Scottish Marxist James Connolly once remarked that ‘Revolution is never practical – until the hour of the Revolution strikes. Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings’. While the results of the UK General Election are not revolutionary, nor, at this stage, epoch defining, the gains made by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represent a welcome, and unexpected, victory for democratic socialism.
Corbyn’s supporters and voters are immensely enthused, and rightly so, but going forward such enthusiasm must also be tempered by rigorous analysis grounded in the best traditions of Marxism. This does not mean a lowering of expectations, but rather a more rigorous understanding of what is concretely possible, what challenges and limitations lie ahead, and an understanding that in the current conjuncture any movement for even modest, progressive change, has to be ready to fundamentally challenge the entire edifice of the existing social order.
 Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (Dennis Dobson Ltd. 1946) 22.
 Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought (New Left Books 1970) 18.
 ibid 55.
 C.L.R. James, ‘Education, Propaganda, Agitation’ in Glaberman (ed.), Marxism for Our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organization (University Press of Mississippi 1999) 4, 33.
 For further elaboration of this argument see: Michael Calderbank and Paul O’Connell, ‘Confronting Brexit’ Red Pepper May/2017 (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/confronting-brexit/).
 There isn’t space here to fully unpack this, but the use of the concept of class by almost all commentators on the Brexit debate, drawing for the most part on advertising industry classifications, was paltry to say the least.
 See: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/02/23/british-people-view-socialism-more-favourably-capi/.
 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin 2013) 34.
 See: Jen Wilkinson and Paul O’Connell, ‘Who’s Europe, Theirs or Ours?’ Critical Legal Thinking 29 March 2016 (http://criticallegalthinking.com/2016/03/29/brexit-whose-europe/).
 See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/thatchers-children-blairs-babies-british-social-attitudes-more-authoritarian-right-wing-a7557351.html.
 Samir Amin, ‘Brexit and the EU Implosion: National Sovereignty — For What Purpose?’ MR Online 08 August 2016 (https://mronline.org/2016/08/08/amin080816-html/).
This article was first pulished at inthehalflight.com.