The EU Referendum: Learning from History

Learning from History

The European Union Referendum has become an exercise in capitalist propaganda. The use of crude and sophisticated “statistics” and “economic models” by “experts” are constantly drawn upon by politicians to persuade the working class to vote either to stay in or to leave the EU.

The use of propaganda in this manner is not new. Workers could do no better than look at the partisan propaganda used by both sides in the Corn Laws dispute which took place in the 1840s. The division then was between the free trade industrialists who wanted the Corn Laws repealed and the landed aristocracy who wanted them to remain. The effect of the corn Laws was to act as a tariff keeping the price of bread high, in the interest of the landowners, while free trade was urged by the industrialists expecting that this would lower food prices and so make it easier for them to keep wages down.

Both sides needed working class support. Each side told workers that wages would increase or decrease, prices would rise or fall and the unemployment rate would be higher or lower depending upon whom they supported.

The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846. The free traders won against the protectionists but continued to exploit the working class, introduced new machinery to displace workers, maintained an industrial reserve army of the unemployed to act as a down-ward pressure on wages and tried to reduce pay and conditions of work as and when they could.

Those workers who supported the free traders found that their interests as wage earners were not served once the Corn Laws were repealed.

Of equal interest is what Marx and Engels at the time wrote of the Corn Laws. Marx and Engels refused to support either the free traders or the protectionists.

This is not the case today with the capitalist left. The Socialist Workers Party, The Communist Party, the RMT Union and Counterfire have formed Lexit and are urging workers to vote to leave the EU on the spurious grounds that it will damage the Tories and capitalism if the exit vote was successful. All Lexit can offer the working class is state capitalism.

As early as 1845 Engels wrote to Julius Campe:

We have no intention of defending protective tariffs any more than free trade, but rather of criticising both systems from our own standpoint. Ours is the communist standpoint (Marx and Engels Collected Works 38, p. 34)

And three years later, in January 1848, Marx gave a speech in Brussels on The Question of Free Trade (COLLECTED WORKS 6, p. 450ff). Marx attacked the “free trade sophism” of the industrialists who claimed free trade benefitted the working class but were at the time opposing shortening the working day.

Today, we see David Cameron’s government asking for working class support in the EU referendum while passing anti-trade union legislation – legislation that is also supported by the Brexit Tories: Boris Johnson, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Gove.

Workers have no interest in either remaining in the EU or leaving it. Workers interests are in becoming socialists and establishing socialism. Workers have their own distinct class interests; the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Just as no socialist would urge workers to support of the different interests of the capitalist in the EU referendum so Marx and Engels rightly refused to do so in the 1840s with respect to the repeal of the Corn Laws. If socialism had already been established during the 19th century we would not have to waste time with the political pantomime known as the EU referendum.

Ruling Class Ideas

What of the propaganda aimed at the working class? Fast track forward about two hundred years from the Corn Laws and the same form of deceitful propaganda are still being used today. Stay in the EU and wages will fall say Brexit. Come out of the EU and wages will fall say the remainders. 3 million workers will become unemployed say those wanting Britain to remain in the EU. Three million jobs will be made if Britain comes out of the EU say the other side.

The Governor of the Bank of England, for example, said Brexit would cause an economic recession without having the first idea of why the trade cycle exists and what economic forces cause a crisis and subsequent trade depression. Then we have Boris Johnson claiming that the EU was heading for a United States of Europe envisaged in different ways by Napoleon and Hitler, conveniently forgetting that Britain had previously imposed a world-wide empire of plunder, death and destruction over millions of lives.

As polling day gets nearer and nearer, the propaganda will become more and more hysterical. Already the Remain side are saying that house prices will crash if Britain leaves the EU. Soon it will be warnings about the immanent arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Both sides need workers support. Fear is the propaganda they will use to win that all-important vote.

And there is also racism and xenophobia used by the Brexit campaign. They blame immigrants from the EU for low wages, poor housing, over-crowded schools and pressure on health services. Under capitalism, with or without immigration, the working class will always struggle to make ends meet.

Workers should also remember that it is employers who pay low wages not immigrants. The economic answer to low wages is trade union organisation and trade union struggle for higher wages and better working conditions. Workers should not blame each other for their economic predicament but capitalism.

It is because the profit motive dominates society and social relationship that workers are unable to adequately house themselves and their families, receive poor education fit only to produce new workers for the labour market and a level of health services for a class stamped with the mark “second-best”.

Workers should ignore the false arguments from both sides of the EU debate. Workers should think for themselves. Workers should become active socialists. That is the only answer to the EU referendum.

One amusing example of the problem the propaganda is causing those defending the economic and political interests of one side or the other in the EU referendum is the spectacular own goals against capitalist institutions themselves.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), until recently, was always held up by the economic journalists of the DAILY TELEGRAPH as an institution for economic stability and shrewd analysis of the state of the world economy. Then The IMF came out in support for the remain-in side.

Suddenly, the IMF was no longer the paragon of virtue it once was for the TELEGRAPH’s leading economic journalist, Ambrose Evens-Pritchard.

Here is a sample Evens-Pritchard’s criticism of the IMF:

Perhaps it is churlish to point out that the IMF completely missed the onset of the global financial crisis, and was blindsided when the US went into recession in November 2007. The Fund’s staff were still predicting sunlit uplands as far as the eye could see, even when the blackest of black storms was upon them…Its forecasts for Greece were wrong every single year following the rescue of the euro and the north European banking system…They originally said the Greek economy would contract by 2.6pc in 2010 and then recover briskly. What actually happened -…-was the most spectacular collapse of a developed economy in the post-war era…Output ultimately fell by 26pc from peak to trough

Why wait now for telling readers what an economic shower the IMF is; that its track record on predicting the future is worse than the daily predictions of Mystic Meg.

Of course, what determines the increase unemployment is generally an economic depression which no politician has any control over. And what determines pay going up or down is again the state of the trade but also the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class over the intensity and extent of exploitation.

Workers have no Interest in Capitalism

Whether Britain remains or leaves the EU the trade cycle will remain in place just as will the class struggle between workers on the one hand and capitalists and their state on the other.

In fact the reality of the EU debate is a political one; an issue of political control of taxation, of passing and imposing laws and protecting national boundaries; the issue of national sovereignty. The economics is largely a side-show. Both sides of the EU debate accept capitalism, labour markets, commodity production and exchange for profit. The last thing on their mind is the abolition of the wages system.

Workers, then, have no interest as to whether British capitalism remains in the EU or leaves. The working class has no interest because it does not own the means of production and distribution at the moment with British capitalism in the EU and still would not own the raw resources, factories, transport and communication systems and distribution depots if British capitalism left the EU.

Workers have no interest in the politics of the EU. And they have no interest in getting involved with various sections of the capitalist class and their political agents.

The interest workers do have though is a political one. And it is this. For workers living in Britain it means organising consciously and politically with workers elsewhere in the world to replace world capitalism with world socialism.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.