It should probably come as no big surprise that the preponderance of articles appearing on CounterPunch favored Brexit. It goes hand in hand with the tilt toward Vladimir Putin whose hostility to the European Union is generally considered in these circles as practically on the same level as Che Guevara’s call for “two, three, many Vietnams”.
Most of the authors are sensible enough to admit that there were nativist tendencies at work but they were secondary to the more important need for allowing Britain to return to the pro-working class economic policies that Tories and treacherous New Labour overturned. Jeremy Corbyn’s role in all this is ambivalent. On record for opposing Brexit, some thought he dragged his feet in speaking against it under the influence of his press secretary Seumas Milne who was about hardcore a Putinite you can find.
Leave it to Diana Johnstone to break with the sane Brexit consensus at CounterPunch and plunge deeply into UKIP territory. An ardent fan of Vladimir Putin, Johnstone was bold enough to tell CounterPunch readers a while back that Marine Le Pen was on the French left:
If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left. And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States.
This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes. Her “far right” label is due primarily to her criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas, but her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States.
Much of the United States? I suppose so if you are referring to the sort of people who listen to Rush Limbaugh every day and look like the people Diane Arbus photographed.
In today’s CounterPunch Johnstone ruminates on how “How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart”. Well, heavens yes. As David Duke once put it, forcing whites to live next to Blacks is inviting disaster. The best thing would be to have separate homelands for each race. No matter his excesses, the white nationalist is savvy enough to take Putin and Trump’s side against the dreaded globalists.
Of course, the main cause of friction is immigration. You get all those Jamaicans, Pakistanis and Poles swarming into good British neighborhoods with their strange clothing, foods and musical tastes. Feh, who needs them. Even worse, their foreignness goes hand in hand with stealing jobs from good Englishmen whose ancestors after all have been here for millennia and invented democracy. Johnstone hones in on the immigration issue:
In reality, for the majority of working class voters, opposition to unlimited immigration can be plainly a matter of economic self-interest. Since the EU’s eastward expansion ended immigration controls with the former communist countries, hundreds of thousands of workers from Poland, Lithuania, and other Eastern European nations have flooded into Britain, adding to the large established immigrant population from the British Commonwealth countries. It is simply a fact that mass immigration brings down wage levels in a country. A Glasgow University study shows statistically that as immigration rises, the level of wages in proportion to profits drops – not to mention the increase in unemployment.
Okay, let’s call a spade a spade. This shit is exactly the same thing you would hear from the worst nativist in UKIP or in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Johnstone observes that “In reality, for the majority of working class voters, opposition to unlimited immigration can be plainly a matter of economic self-interest.” This is not “pro-working class”. It is reactionary crap that has plagued the working class for the past 150 years at least. From its inception, the radical movement has had elements that embraced the same kind of nationalism Nigel Farage espouses but formulated in the same demagogic “leftist” terms as Johnstone.
Even among Karl Marx’s supporters in the USA in the 1870s, you can find the same divisions that are reflected among Brexit supporters like Johnstone and those on the other side who believed in open borders. Samuel Gompers, who was the first labor leader to openly espouse class collaborationism, agreed with Johnstone. As Gompers climbed the ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be “distinguished from those made by the Chinese.”
The First International socialists led by Friedrich Sorge were just as bad. A member of his faction in New York held forth at one of their public meetings:
The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.
In reality the debate over open borders has been going on for almost as long as the socialist movement has existed. Germany, which always had the most advanced Marxist thinkers, was a test case for the two perspectives.
Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) led to increased mobility in the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country just as proposed by backers of the EU today. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.
Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel freely to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.
While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.
Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration”, he wrote:
There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.
Two years later in a letter to the Socialist Propaganda League in the United States, Lenin specifically took on the nativism that had held back the American left:
In our struggle for true internationalism and against ‘jingo-socialism,’ we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America, who are in favor of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907, and against the decisions of Stuttgart).
We think that one cannot be internationalist and be at the same time in favor of such restrictions. And we assert that Socialists in America, especially English Socialists, belonging to the ruling, and oppressing nation, who are not against any restrictions of immigration, against the possession of colonies (Hawaii) and for the entire freedom of colonies, that such Socialists are in reality jingoes.
In my view, those who supported Brexit are largely sincere in their belief that this was a measure that could have repudiated the neoliberalism of the EU and put Britain on a new course. The debate on the left over such perspectives is not one that lends itself to litmus tests even though the stakes of the outcome are quite high. As happens many times in politics, it is impossible to know what the future has in store so a leap in the dark is unavoidable.
That being said, Diana Johnstone’s opinions on immigration are pure filth and should be rejected by the entire left as a concession to the nativism that is threatening immigrants all across Europe and that will force desperate people trying to flee violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to remain in jeopardy.
This has not been the first time in history when our movement has become very confused over basic questions of left and right. In Germany there were two instances where the left ended up supporting the right. The first was when Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the USSR that led the German Communist Party to back its government against Anglo-French imperialism rather than maintaining an independent class position—in other words the same mistake many CounterPunch writers make with respect to the “New Cold War”. Instead of analyzing Ukraine or Syria on their own terms, they simply follow whatever position favors the Kremlin.
In 1922, the French army invaded the Ruhr to seize control of mines and steel mills in order to force the Germans to pay debts extracted through the punitive Treaty of Versailles. The German capitalist class screamed bloody murder and proto-fascist armed detachments marched into the Ruhr to confront the French troops. At the height of the anti-French armed struggle in the Ruhr, the German Communist Party issued feelers to the right-wing nationalists.
Comintern representative Karl Radek was totally into this Red-Brown alliance. He urged that the Communists commemorate the death of Albert Schlageter, an ultraright fighter who died in the Ruhr and was regarded as a martyr by the right-wing. His lunacy struck a chord with some German Communists, including the generally unreliable Ruth Fischer who gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:
Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.
Is Diana Johnstone channeling the ghost of Ruth Fischer? It would seem so.
It was this sort of Red-Brown idiocy that discredited the German CP but not so nearly as bad as after it had been consolidated as a hard-core Stalinist group during the “Third Period” madness that led it to support a Nazi referendum that would unseat a Social Democratic politician.
In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold. The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum. The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.
Is there an element of “third period” thinking in support for the Kremlin’s various positions on the EU, Syria, Ukraine, et al? I am afraid that this is the case. While one could possibly excuse the mad policies of the late 1920s and early 30s as a poorly thought out strategy to punish the treacherous Social Democrats, who after all had murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht, they would only end up punishing the left itself that would soon be Hitler’s victims.
The only way to avoid such catastrophes is to be committed to a class analysis that is combined with a party-building strategy that avoids opportunist mistakes on both the ultraleft and right. This is not easy, of course, but it is necessary for the survival of our movement and our ultimate victory over a social system that will destroy the planet if not stopped dead in its tracks.