Workers' Liberty #56


We need an honest debate on the left

By Alan Thornett

The February edition of Workers' Liberty carried a transcript of a debate between Martin Thomas and myself on monetary and the European Union. In his reply (which concluded the debate) Martin makes great play of a remark I made during my summation to the effect that that I regretted accepting the invitation to the debate given the way the discussion had gone from the floor of the meeting - which was comprised mostly (though not only) of AWL members - and that I would not be accepting similar invitations in the future. This remark has been taken up by AWL members in various ways since that meeting.

My response to this is that political debate is a very good thing, but it needs a minimum degree of honesty if it is to be of value.

There are important political difference between the AWL and Socialist Outlook (and myself) on the nature the EU and of EMU. For example, you appear to see the creation of the EU as a progressive development in itself, despite the Maastricht Treaty, the social implications of the introduction of EMU, the democratic deficit, Schengen and everything else.

In this particular meeting some of your comrades seemed to compare the creation of the EU favourably with the unification of capitalist states in the progressive period of capitalism in the 19th century prior to the rise of imperialism. We disagree with such an analysis. We think the EU is a reactionary institution aimed at increasing the exploitation of the European working class to the advantage of big business. But such things are a legitimate subject for debate. There can be misunderstandings - which have to be cleared up - and the different positions might get caricatured, but it is a useful and legitimate debate none-the-less,

My problem on that particular night was that there was no possible room for misunderstanding about the things I was denounced for from the floor of the meeting. I was denounced for holding views I was known to oppose. Speaker after speaker denounced me as a "nationalist", a "little Englander", and for being "in league with the Tory right", in the most sectarian way. One of your comrades even said: "I am not saying this as an insult, I am saying it as a considered and objective political opinion: you are a nationalist, comrade!" This was not a legitimate and honest debate. Nor was it a misunderstanding. lt was a set-up. All your leading comrades present knew those allegations to be the opposite to the truth, yet not one intervened to say so. More than that, this kind of intervention was openly encouraged by Martin Thomas and others. A Socialist Outlook comrade speaking from the floor and objecting to this was heckled by your comrades.

Why do I say that the debate was dishonest? I say it because we (the AWL and Socialist Outlook) worked together in the 1997 Euromarch campaign and these issues were absolutely clear between us.

We worked together in that campaign on the basis of two points of political agreement - which were also the basis of the campaign. The first was the slogan "Single Currency, Not at our Expense" - which focused on the social effects of the introduction of EMU. We agreed that there was a clear and valid case against EMU from a working class perspective (i.e., the defence of jobs, working conditions, the welfare state, etc., opposition to racism) and that this was the basis of the campaign. The secondly was that any campaign must be internationalist in character and rigorously separated from either the Tory right or those in the labour movement who seek to defend the pound or British national sovereignty. And we implemented this at every stage!

The Campaign Against Euro Federalism (CAEF) split with us because we insisted that our campaign must be separated from nationalism in any form. We intervened at the CAEF meeting at the Birmingham G7 summit demonstration to challenge them for sharing a platform with the Tory right. We argued that the Tory right may oppose EMU as we do but on a totally different agenda to ourselves. Their's is a nationalist, pro-Atlanticist, even racist, agenda. And it is advanced on behalf of, and with the backing of, a section of the British bourgeoisie. Ours was (and is) an internationalist, working class campaign based on the building of international solidarity amongst the working class and oppressed people across Europe. No Tory would touch it with a barge pole.

This issue came up again at the Cardiff demonstration last year. When a group of right-wingers arrived with "save the pound" slogans we excluded them from the demonstration on the basis that they opposed the political basis on which it was called. I asked them to leave personally, on behalf of the organisers. In the end they formed their own demonstration separated from ours by several hundred yards and a cordon of police. No grounds for misunderstanding there!

My objection at the meeting, therefore, was that given this background all your leading comrades were fully aware of the stance we had jointly taken on all this but cynically allowed the "debate" to go the way it did. Consequently I was met with knowing, wilful, distortions of my positions (and Socialist Outlook's) at a meeting to which I had been invited as a guest speaker.

Genuine difference on the EU and EMU remain between us of course.

The AWL argues that we should not be either for or against the EU (or for or against the single currency) since the EU is a capitalist institution and Britain is a capitalist country and therefore there is little to chose between them.

But it is not a matter of choosing between the EU or Britain, it is a matter of what is best for the working class - Europe-wide. From this perspective opposing the single currency is not a matter of defending the pound but of defending the working class. The Maastricht treaty, and its core provision EMU, the single currency, is the central project of the European bourgeoisie aimed at increasing the exploitation of the working class in Europe. It is difficult to see how the working class can be defended effectively without taking it into account.

The Maastricht treaty is designed to ensure the imposition of a neo-liberal agenda within the EU and to force member states to cut government spending to meet the requirements of the Stability Pact. That means attacks on jobs and welfare. It is one of the driving forces behind the massive privatisation programmes and deregulation being carried out across the EU by mostly social democratic governments, who hold power in 13 of the 15 members states.

All these governments are running tight fiscal policies and introducing extensive marketisation, deregulation and privatisation programmes. And they are being far more effective, in most cases, than their right wing predecessors - some spectacularly so. After two years in office, Jospin (seen as heading one of the most left of these governments, in France) has sold off more nationalised property than all his right-wing predecessors together managed in the previous 13 years! True Jospin is more pragmatic than Blair, and his rhetoric is different, but the end result is the same as far as privatisation and the neo-liberal agenda is concerned.

It is always necessary to repeat that the pressures towards these developments are many and that everything cannot be put at the door of the EU or EMU. There is a world-wide neo-liberal offensive which is very much alive and well despite forecasts of its demise by many, including those writing in the recent one-off edition of Marxism Today. There is the world-wide economic crisis of overproduction which remains unresolved despite the current spin being put on it by the representatives of capital.

And on top of this there is the crisis of (and political evolution of) European social democracy itself - which is rooted in the lack of reforms available today and the overall success of the neo-liberal offensive. This crisis has led European social democracy to assume the leadership of the central project of the European bourgeoisie - European integration through the EU.

To say that the EU and EMU are far from the only factors driving the neo-liberal agenda forward in Europe, however, does not diminish the role they are playing in any way or suggest that we should be neutral as to their effects. What EMU is doing is co-ordinating and systematising the neo-liberal offensive and providing the best framework for its introduction. It also gives cover to national governments to introduce austerity programmes or cuts in welfare since they can argue that they are only meeting their obligations to the EU.

The most militant sections of the working class across Europe have been pretty clear about the role of EMU whilst the conditions were being created for its introduction. That is why the Convergence Criteria, and the various austerity programmes designed to meet it, created the biggest wave of struggles across Europe for over 20 years. It triggered general strikes, direct action and mass protests - right across the EU (France, Spain, Belgium, Greece, Germany) following the mass strikes and huge demonstrations in France at the end of 1996 (the demonstrations were bigger than in 1968).

Although the AWL has been rewriting the history of this because it did not fit the script (Martin Thomas has repeatedly argued that mass demonstrations against the Juppé plan were not aimed at the effects of the convergence criteria at all - based on left leaflets he read whilst on them), most of them clearly did arise from EMU in one way or another.

Whether this was adequately reflected in the leaflets of the left on the day is a slightly separate matter. One person who was absolutely clear about it was Juppé himself, who said repeatedly that his plan was designed to prepare for EMU. Some of the strikes which followed, like the Greek farmers and seafarers, were absolutely explicit about it.

In any case it is hard to see how we can be neutral when the European employers reorganise to their own advantage and against that of the working class. We are not neutral when an individual employer reorganises against the workforce or when a national government takes measures which increase exploitation of or attack the working class. Why should we be neutral when this is done by the European bourgeoisie? We don't say all employers are capitalists so we are neutral as to what they do and the employment conditions they create, so why do we say it about the EU?

Politically EMU represents the biggest single step yet towards a European super-state - the project favoured by the most powerful sections of the European bourgeoisie when faced with increasing competition from Japan and North America.

The Single European Act of 1986 was designed precisely to challenge what was then Japanese pre-eminence in the world economy. It marked the transition from what had been until then a mainly economic project of a common market or customs union (aimed largely at avoiding further European wars) towards the highly political project of the European Union and eventually a super-state. EMU was the core provision contained in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. It would take away the ability of individual nation states to fix interest rates, the most important fiscal lever available to them.

Maastricht, therefore, represented not only an attempt by the European bourgeoisie to compete more effectively with rival power blocs in the world (where only the biggest and strongest can survive) but triggered a major attack on the European working class as austerity measures were introduced to meet the criteria. The various European welfare systems - now regarded by the European bourgeoisie as a luxury which could no longer be afforded - were the main target in these attacks.

To return, finally, to the issue of how debates should be conducted and how different sections of the left should relate to one another, there is a mood for unity on the left, and it is an important development. How do we create something new which can be useful to the working class and start to build a real political alternative to Blairism? The AWL is seeking to be a part of this process and you were party to the recent attempts to get a common slate on the London region for the European elections. It was a good initiative which was scuppered by the blind sectarianism of the SLP.

The AWL itself has called a forum to discuss "left unity" on Saturday 19 June and you are inviting others, including Socialist Outlook, to participate in it. Whether such a forum can make a contribution to the current unity process depends on the extent to which it is a genuine contribution to the process or simply a means to a different end for the AWL. Time will tell. And the different sections of the left will make their judgement - including the section I am a part of. But one thing is clear; if it is to make a positive contribution the AWL will have to make a break from the dishonest debating methods and macho posturing displayed at the forum I was invited to. Such methods are not the best way to promote and develop the important opportunities which exist at the present time.

Debate involves dispute and contradiction: Martin Thomas replies

We have argued against the "no to the EU" position held by Alan and his friends as nationalist for over 30 years now. Of course we continued to do so at the London debate! Several AWL speakers stressed that we were not questioning Alan's good intentions. To protest to someone "Your position is nationalist!" has no bite if you think they will reply: "Yes, of course it is! I'm a chauvinist and proud of it!"

Debate involves dispute and contradiction! If you enter a debate, you must be prepared to have your opponents say that your position is undesirable in some way or another: nationalist, pro-imperialist, reformist, ultra-left, whatever. The requirement for a proper regime of debate on the left is not that we all promise never to say anything impolite or wounding about anyone else's ideas - if we did, there would never be any debate - but open argument on equal terms with the widest possible audience.

We freely gave Alan equal speaking time before an AWL audience - including new AWL members, friends and contacts unfamiliar with the Europe debate and with no or little previous "conditioning" against his point of view. We gave further speaking time to Alan's friends on the floor of the meeting, who were limited in numbers only by Socialist Outlook not being keen to expose their members and sympathisers to the debate. The best way to improve debate would be for Socialist Outlook to adopt a similar open regime, and to debate with us both at meetings attended by members of both organisations and in the publications of both groups.

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