Brexit Done? Long Live the United States of Europe!

Neil Faulkner argues that a united Europe has been a revolutionary demand for over a century.

15 February 2020.

[This is a long-read theoretical article.]

Had you been in revolutionary Petrograd in June 1917, you might have picked up the latest Bolshevik pamphlet hot off the press. Capitalism had plunged the world into the carnage of the First World War. The new pamphlet was called The Programme of Peace. It was written by Leon Trotsky. You would have read this:

The economic unification of Europe, which offers colossal advantages to producer and consumer alike, and in general to the whole cultural development, becomes the revolutionary task of the European working class in its struggle against imperialist protectionism and its instrument – militarism.

The Bolsheviks assumed it would take a European socialist revolution to end the war and unify the continent. But they argued that any sort of unification would be a massive advance.

If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working-class movement. The working class would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ nation-states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.

Even a capitalist united Europe, the Bolsheviks believed, would be an advance on a Europe of petty states, each setting up barriers to trade and economic collaboration, each peddling its own brand of nationalism and militarism.

Europe had been a continent of warring states since the fall of the Roman Empire, but the growth of big corporations within capitalism meant that the economic system had, in a sense, burst through the shell of the nation-state. Europe’s political divisions had become a barrier to its economic development.

In a divided Europe, the big powers dominated the smaller – economically in peacetime, militarily in wartime – so that small nations and oppressed nationalities got crushed. Therefore:

The state unification of Europe is clearly a prerequisite of self-determination of great and small nations in Europe. A national-cultural existence, free of national economic antagonisms and based on real self-determination, is possible only under the roof of a democratically united Europe freed from state and tariff barriers.

So-called socialists who succumbed to the nationalism of their own nation-state were denounced for their abandonment of revolutionary internationalism and branded ‘social chauvinists’.

To view the perspectives of the social revolution within a national framework is to succumb to the same national narrowness that forms the content of ‘social chauvinism’… The slogan, ‘the United States of Europe’, gives expression to this interdependence [of the European states], which will directly and immediately set the conditions for the concerted action of the European working class in the revolution.

German Unification

The Bolsheviks understood that European federation was progressive – even under capitalist rule – because it created a firmer framework for economic and social development, and provided a stronger foundation for overcoming national divisions and uniting the working class against an increasingly globalised system.

But they were not the first revolutionaries to reach this conclusion. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had come to precisely the same conclusion in the context of German unification.

Marx and Engels had both been active participants in the German Revolution of 1848. A central demand of both liberals and radicals had been German unification. But the revolution went down to defeat, and Germany remained divided into a plethora of small states.

German unification was then achieved in a different way: not by revolution from below, but by military force from above.

The architects of German unification were two Prussian aristocrats, the statesman Otto von Bismarck and the general Helmut von Moltke. They were servants of an autocratic Prussian king, William I, and they fought three wars, against the Danes (1864), the Austrians (1866), and the French (1870-1), in order to create what became the German Empire.

For Marx and Engels, the Prussian state was a bitter enemy. Its soldiers had shot down the revolutionaries on the streets in 1848. But they were clear that German unification represented an advance for the German working class – irrespective of the reactionary nature of the forces that had brought it about.

In short [wrote Engels of Bismarck’s achievement], it was a thoroughgoing revolution, carried out with revolutionary methods. We are naturally the last to make this a matter of reproach. What we reproach him for, on the contrary, is that he was not revolutionary enough, that he was only a Prussian revolutionary from above …

And of course, the Prussian state remained a bitter enemy, and the struggle continued, but now on the terrain of a united Germany.

The Marxian prognosis proved correct: the German economy grew at a phenomenal rate, the German working class became the largest and best organised in Europe, and between 1919 and 1923, following the First World War, Germany would be convulsed by socialist revolution.

The Balkans

Balkan revolutionaries – operating in a part of Europe subject to exceptional fragmentation – also raised the slogan of unification as an alternative to the warring nationalisms that, in the event, tore the region apart between 1912 and 1918.

Hundreds of thousands perished in the three Balkan Wars (1912-3, 1913, and 1914-8) as Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, and Turks were hurled into the maelstrom of modern industrialised warfare by their corrupt ruling classes.

Socialists from the different warring states met in conference in July 1915 and issued The Manifesto of the Socialist Parties of the Balkans. It was a thundering denunciation of their respective warlords and their ‘project of treachery and national murder’.

Balkan Social Democracy fights for a Federal Balkan Republic based on national autonomy, which will ensure the independence of peoples, cause the hate that animates them to disappear, unite them through their federal organisation, and give them their surest means of defence by the setting up of national militias in place of standing armies.

The Balkan Wars were wars of conquest, ethnic-cleansing, and genocide, waged in a region which had become an intricate mosaic of languages, cultures, and religions. No borders – created by war – could fail to cut through ethnic entities. Each redrawing of the borders would simply reconfigure ‘the national question’, setting the region up for the next cycle of bloodletting (which, as predicted in 1915, would come, in 1940-5, and again in 1991-2001).

Nor could the people of the Balkans, in their divided condition, prevent the great imperial powers of Europe from interference – forming alliances, fighting proxy wars, pursuing their rivalries by manipulating the petty states of the region.

The only solution to the murderous nationalism of Balkan politics and the constant interference of imperialist powers was a free federation of the peoples of the region. The revolutionaries imagined this would be achievable only in the context of an international working-class revolution. But even a capitalist federation would be an advance. As Trotsky, who covered the Balkan Wars as a radical journalist, put it:

The only way out of the national and state chaos and the bloody confusion of Balkan life is a union of all the peoples of the peninsula in a single economic and political entity, on the basis of the national autonomy of the constituent parts. Only within the framework of a single Balkan state can [the various peoples] be united in a single national-cultural community, enjoying at the same time the advantages of a Balkan common market.

The Resistance and the Ventotene Manifesto

The great revolutionary movements of 1917-23 went down to defeat. The Russian Revolution – based on mass participatory democracy – was smashed by Stalinist counter-revolution in the late 1920s, and a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship committed to building a state-capitalist economy was erected over the wreckage.

Most other European labour movements were crushed in a succession of struggles between 1922 and 1939. The 1929 Crash and the Great Depression (1929-39) was a period of economic collapse, social misery, and political polarisation. Fascists and military dictators triumphed across most of Europe, and when they did, they destroyed democracy and the labour movement.

Europe was again divided into hostile imperialist states, and once more exploded into war. The First World War had killed 15 million. The Second World War would kill four times as many – the majority of them civilians killed by bombing, shooting, and gassing at the hands of German Nazis and their allies in Europe and Japanese Militarists in the Far East.

In June 1941, a group of Italian anti-fascists imprisoned on the island of Ventotene – Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rosso, and Eugenio Colorni – produced a document called For a Free and United Europe: draft of a manifesto. It soon became known as The Manifesto of Ventotene.

It was written on cigarette papers and smuggled off the island in the false bottom of a tin box. It then circulated through the Italian Resistance. Later it circulated more widely among Resistance groups across Europe. It became the founding document of the Movement for a Federal Europe (which first met in secret in Nazi-occupied Milan on 27/8 August 1943). A direct line can be traced from this initiative to the subsequent history of the European Union.

Spinelli, Rosso, and Colorni were anti-Stalinist revolutionaries. Their response to nationalism, fascism, and war was to return to the tradition of the Bolsheviks and the Balkan Social Democrats at the time of the First World War. But they made a united Europe even more central to their politics. The most important passage in the Manifesto reads as follows:

The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy, or of more or less socialism to be instituted; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates party members into two groups.

The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power – and who, although involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again.

The second are those who see the creation of a solid international state as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.

Three visions

The vision of the Resistance and the Left at the end of the Second World War was never realised. The Ventotene Manifesto’s call for a radical break with the continent’s past to build a united, democratic, socialist Europe was crushed beneath the tracks of Cold War tanks. The Soviets and the Americans effectively divided the continent in two.

The European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 was therefore a Cold War bastion, the economic correlate of the NATO military alliance. Following the collapse of Stalinism, the European Union (EU) – as it was renamed at the time of the 1993 Maastricht Treaty – was turned into a neoliberal confederation of states hard-wired for corporate power, privatisation, and austerity.

Hard-wired, too, for racism, with its ‘Fortress Europe’ policy of letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean or rot in concentration camps run by Libyan warlords or Turkish police.

Nonetheless, a new, broader, more rational framework was created for European working-class action. The Marxist tradition – represented by Marx and Engels, the Bolsheviks, the Balkan Social Democrats, and the anti-fascist Resistance movements of the Second World War – is consistent on this.

Today, in a sense, there are three competing conceptions of Europe. The Far Right hates internationalism and multiculturalism, and wants to pull Europe apart and shore up the separate silos, filling them with nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and ‘blood-and-soil’ mysticism. Brexit is the British expression of this, and Lexit, with its rampant economic nationalism, is its left adjunct.

The Centre represents the failed neoliberal economic model of the last half century of capitalist crisis. For the system has never really recovered from the crisis of the 1970s – since when economic stagnation and social decay have been predominant – and, of course, lurched into deep crisis with the 2008 financial crash. This crisis has been the seedbed of a new kind of 21st century fascism – with the breakup of Europe and the return of nationalism as central features of the project.

And then there is the Left vision of a united Europe of working people, rejecting nationalism, racism, and fascism, and fighting together to create a new social order based on equality, democracy, and sustainability.

Three crises

The world capitalist system has experienced three great depressions in its history. The first, sometimes called ‘the Long Depression’, lasted from 1873 to 1896. It led to protectionism, intensified imperial rivalry, an upsurge in nationalism and jingoism, and an arms race that culminated in the First World War and 15 million dead.

The second, ‘the Great Depression’, lasted from 1929 to 1939, and the consequences were fascism, world war, and the unprecedented barbarism represented by Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima. The cost: 60 million dead.

The third perhaps began in 1973, since when the world economy has been afflicted with sub-optimal growth, or what the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes called ‘permanent underemployment equilibrium’. Certainly, since 2008, the world has been in a deep and protracted depression, sometimes dubbed ‘the Great Recession’.

This is our crisis – the crisis of our times, our world, our planet – and we do not yet know how it will end. That will depend on what we do.

I could be wrong, but my guess is they – our rulers – will not start another world war. The reason is this. In both 1914 and 1939, there was a close alignment between the nation-state and a national bloc of capital. When the British and French won the First World War, they hoovered up German and Turkish colonies. When the Americans and Russians won the Second, they divided Europe down the middle and turned the respective segments into captive markets.

But the big beasts of global capitalism today have largely burst through their national shells. It is hard to see how an imperialist world war to re-divide the world can be squared with this form of capitalism.

As long as the system lasts, there will be endless violence. Not just the violence of hunger, poverty, and displacement; but also that of repressive states, proxy militias, death-squads, and regional wars.

But my guess is that the barbarism of the system this time will not take the form of a world war between the great powers – a nuclear Armageddon – though the possibility remains very real as long as our rulers control vast arsenals of military hardware.

But there is another kind of Armageddon in prospect: ecocide. If capitalism is allowed to continue on its present course, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, will die due to the effects, direct and indirect, of ecosystem breakdown. They won’t be blown up: they’ll die of thirst, hunger, and disease.

War will be part of this. Wars over water and land. Wars to drive people way. Wars of ethnic-cleansing and genocide. But not necessarily a nuclear confrontation between major powers that irradiates the entire planet in a single conflagration.

This, by the way, is how very large numbers of people die in wars anyway. Take the Second World War, where discussion of genocide tends to focus almost exclusively on the Nazi extermination camps.

There is, of course, something exceptionally chilling about mass murder being turned into an industrial process. And the camps were above all an expression of Hitler’s psychotic hatred of the Jews: they were his ‘Final Solution’.

But the extermination camps accounted for only about one in three or one in four of the civilians who perished in the Second World War. The majority were killed – mainly in Poland, western Russia, and China– by bombing, shooting, or, more often, because they were driven from their homes and succumbed to hunger, cold, and disease.

This, finally, is the issue in contention between a nationalist Far Right and an internationalist Left in the early 21st century.

Earlier generations of European socialists pointed the way forwards – away from nationalism and war in a continent of warring states towards a united Europe, internationalism, and social transformation.

So we should continue to say: Bollocks to Brexit! We fight for the defeat of creeping fascism and corporate power, and an international struggle from below for equality, democracy, and sustainability.

Brexit is the nationalist programme of the Far Right. The century-old slogan ‘For a United States of Europe’ is a revolutionary demand.

Neil Faulkner is the author, with Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse, and Seema Syeda, of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

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