The British state, its ruling class, its economy and its political system have all been thrown into chaos by the vote to leave the EU.
Some 52 percent opted for exit, on a turnout of 72 percent, higher than any general election since 1992. They did so in the face of opposition from three quarters of MPs, the leadership of all three of the biggest parliamentary parties — the Conservatives, Labour and the Scottish National Party — the overwhelming bulk of British industry and almost every major capitalist institution, from the Bank of England to the International Monetary Fund.
David Cameron, who confidently called the referendum to lay to rest debate on Europe in his party has announced that he will resign as prime minister by autumn. He leaves behind a weakened and divided party with a slender parliamentary majority.
The pound fell to its lowest value against the dollar in three decades and markets globally were plunged into turmoil. The EU, which has operated as a dysfunctional junior partner to US imperialism in its attempts to police the world system, has lost its second largest member — an event in many ways of greater magnitude than the Greek exit threatened over recent years.
EU leaders, meeting in Brussels in the wake of the vote, feared a domino effect in which further countries, potentially the Netherlands and Denmark, perhaps even France, leave the union.
There is now a demand for a second referendum on independence in Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU. If it went ahead, it would probably see the breakup of the British state.
A neoliberal organisation, which has again and again acted in the interests of European capital, grinding the Greek people under the heel of austerity, supporting Francois Hollande’s assault on French workers and seeking to implement the TTIP free trade agreement with the US, with contemptuous disregard for any opposition, has suffered its greatest blow to date.
Yet the mood of many on the left in Britain is despondent. For them, the referendum is seen as an outpouring of nationalism and racism directed against migrants from the EU.
It is a gross oversimplification to reduce this to a vote over racism.
The vote was, above all else, a rebellion by working class people who feel they have had their lives torn apart by the ruling elite. Two-thirds of those classified as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers voted to leave, compared to just 43 percent among those in “intermediate” or “higher” managerial, professional or administrative roles. A third of Asian and a quarter of black voters chose Leave. Large, ethnically diverse cities in the north of England voted for exit — including Sheffield, Birmingham and Bradford.
Why should these people, many of them traditional Labour supporters, vote to defend an undemocratic and neoliberal institution that has done nothing to shield them from growing inequality and austerity?
That is not to downplay the racism that has characterised the referendum campaign.
The racism is obvious on the Leave side, where anti-immigrant arguments from the UK Independence Party and Conservative politicians played a prominent role, especially in the final weeks of campaigning.
However, the Leave campaign did not invent racism. The referendum came in the wake of an unremitting barrage — stretching back decades — of xenophobia and scapegoating spewed out by the press and politicians to deflect from anger over austerity and privatisation or to justify foreign wars. Much of this came from those in the Remain camp.
It was Cameron who launched an Islamophobic campaign against Labour’s successful candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, earlier this year, attempting to associate him with ISIS. It was Cameron’s government who drove through parliament the most draconian Immigration Bill in generations, which will make border guards of estate agents and employers.
In the context of this racist offensive it is no surprise that racist movements can emerge or that anti-migrant racism can sometimes act as a symbol of wider discontent among working class people over what has been done to their lives.
We should never make concessions to the argument that migration is the problem — as sadly even shadow chancellor John McDonnell did when he argued that Labour should “look again at the free movement of labour” in the event of a Remain vote. But nor is the solution to lump together all those voting Leave as ignorant racists who have thrown their lot in with Nigel Farage.
Socialists have always recognised that workers can hold in their heads contradictory combinations of ideas, some based on solidarity and common struggle, other uncritically absorbed from society and reflecting the market ideology that sees us as isolated individuals destined to compete for jobs and resources. This is an unstable combination that can, in times during which mainstream politics and ideology are disrupted, explode to the right or to the left.
Our challenge is to combine struggles against racism with struggles against the wider attacks on the working class.
The method here is not new to British politics. Indeed, it is the method eventually adopted by the sections of the left in the East End of London in the 1930s. Faced with the rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), which preyed upon social discontent and tried to direct it against Jewish people, the left had both to confront the racists and take up the issues, particular the issue of housing, feeding the discontent.
Phil Piratin, then a Communist councillor in the area, recalls in his memoir the case of two families facing eviction. “I discovered that in both cases they were members of the BUF and obviously wanted no truck with us. One family would have nothing to do with us whatsoever that evening. The other was prepared to listen.”
While the BUF did nothing to help the family, the left mounted a defence, successfully fighting off the eviction after battling the police and bailiffs. Piratin writes: “The lessons did not require to be pressed home. BUF membership cards were destroyed voluntarily and in disgust... The kind of people who would never come to our meetings, and had strange ideas about Communists and Jews, learned the facts overnight and learned the real meaning of the class struggle.”
These are not the 1930s and UKIP are not the BUF, but the lesson remains relevant. We have to demonstrate that it is the ruling elite and the bosses who are to blame, not immigrants, and to build a militant unity between migrant and non-migrant workers. But we cannot do this if, out of fear of the racist right, we throw our lot in with mainstream politicians and institutions of neoliberal capitalism such as the EU, which, in practice, offer no protection against growing inequality or racism.
This is not a problem confined to Britain. The decline of mainstream politics is more general. In the Spanish state support for what were once the two major parties has fallen to below 50 percent. In Greece, the traditional party system has long since fallen into disarray. In Ireland, support for the three biggest parties has fallen by 25 percent since 2007.
We should not surrender the critique of institutions such as the EU to the likes of UKIP, the French National Front or the German Alternative Für Deutschland. The British vote ought to lead to a European-wide renewal of the radical left argument to break up the EU.
What are the next steps we need to take in Britain?
Here the role of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will be crucial. Sadly, in the referendum campaign he did not stick to his historical position of opposition to the EU, and this limited the breadth and penetration of the Left Leave Campaign. Instead Corbyn struck a deal with his MPs to support Remain.
But unlike some in his party, he stopped well short of endorsing the EU in its current form and refused to share a platform on this issue with Cameron. As Socialist Review went to press, the right-wing of his party were striving to oust him from the leadership, launching a long-anticipated and long-plotted coup attempt.
The idiocy of the Labour right is beyond compare. When Cameron steps down he will be replaced by a Tory prime minister who has not faced an election and has no mandate to drive through further austerity. This is the moment for the left to unite to demand a new general election — and to renew the fight over austerity and racism.
The potential audience for this is certainly not confined to those who supported the Leave campaign. Very large numbers of those who identify with the left voted to Remain and did so for principled anti-racist reasons. They are our allies in the struggles to come.
Placing ourselves firmly on the side of those defending Corbyn from the right-wing in his own party, and calling for extra-parliamentary struggle to win the kind of reforms he espouses, will help to reorient a divided socialist left. But as well as drawing in Remain voters, this strategy must also connect with millions of Leave voters who feel crushed by austerity and neoliberalism.
Two pillars of our approach already exist. Stand up to Racism has been at the centre of large mobilisations in support of refugees and against racism, notably the 50,000-strong march in September of last year. The People’s Assembly has called a number of huge demonstrations, most recently a protest of 150,000 in April. These two organisations should be built everywhere.
There will also be strikes in the coming weeks, including the one called by the National Union of Teachers for 5 July. Industrial action will in the current climate be highly politicised.
Above all, the left has to avoid passivity and despair.
The process through which Britain disentangles itself from the EU will be long and complex, and will be presided over by a capitalist class and by politicians who are badly bruised by losing the referendum. There will be opportunities for the left to shape events if it can come together to seize them.