‘If we’re socialists, we’re internationalists,” MP Alex Sobel told a meeting of Labour Party members recently.
That’s why—he argued—Labour has to come out in favour of stopping Brexit.
Some left wing figures feel that the European Union (EU) embodies the progressive values of international solidarity and cooperation.
It can certainly seem better than the racist and xenophobic nationalism of high profile Tory Brexiters Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
So MPs such as Sobel talk about the EU as if it fits with the left wing tradition of internationalism.
This is the idea that working class people across the world are united by the same exploitation—so their struggles must be united too.
But if the EU really is internationalist, why does it cut deals to shut refugees out of Europe? Why does it lock them up in camps, deport them or leave them to drown in the Mediterranean?
This is a more serious appeal to internationalism in defence of the EU. But it’s not the same as the internationalism that has united working class struggles across borders for nearly two centuries
There’s another, more sophisticated, version of the left Remain argument.
This version accepts that the EU is guilty of drowning refugees, of punishing Greek workers with austerity, and of driving privatisation and cuts.
But it says the answer is for left wing forces to work together inside the EU’s structures to reform it.
This is a more serious appeal to internationalism in defence of the EU. But it’s not the same as the internationalism that has united working class struggles across borders for nearly two centuries.
When the revolutionary Karl Marx wrote about internationalism, he saw how industry and finance grew beyond borders and spread across the world as capitalism developed.
This expansion brought the biggest capitalist powers into conflict as they competed to dominate new markets.
But Marx also saw how the growth of capitalism was creating a global working class—one that could unite across borders against its rulers.
In 1870 two major powers—France and the German state Prussia—went to war. Both governments tried to rally support for the war with patriotism, jingoism and nationalism.
Yet in both countries, branches of the First International, which united trade unions and left wing groups in different countries, opposed this.
In France the International released a statement. “French, German, Spanish workmen! Let us unite in one cry of reprobation against war!
“Brothers in Germany! Our division would result in the complete triumph of despotism on both sides of the Rhine.”
Marx said the statement “expressed the true sentiment of French working people,” as large working class demonstrations demanded peace.
In Germany, the working class organisations did the same.
One mass meeting declared, “We shall never forget that the workmen of all countries are our friends and the despots of all countries our enemies.”
internationalism wasn’t just a nice socialist ideal. The Bolsheviks knew that because capitalism is international, the struggle against it must be too
The statements and demonstrations weren’t enough to stop the war. But they are an early example of how working class people tried to unite across borders through their own organisations and activities.
The internationalist ideal behind them was soon realised in the Paris Commune.
Workers took control of the French capital in March 1871. They were furious at the appalling living conditions created by the war and the way France’s rulers had sacrificed thousands of workers.
The city’s new democratic ruling body, the Commune, was made up of working class people. It elected people from all over Europe to its highest positions.
The best socialists have always acted in this spirit. During the 1917 Russian Revolution the socialist Bolshevik party fought to end the First World War and for freedom for countries colonised by Russia’s empire.
This internationalism wasn’t just a nice socialist ideal. The Bolsheviks knew that because capitalism is international, the struggle against it must be too.
The revolution had to spill beyond Russia if it was to survive—and it did inspire revolts across the globe.
That shared struggle was all the more significant in the face of the failure of other so-called socialist parties in Europe to unite against the war.
Before the war, all the left wing parties in Europe vowed to oppose it. But many of them looked to parliament—rather than ordinary people—to bring change.
The problem with this is that the capitalist state is an instrument of class rule.
Its health relies on a “strong” capitalist economy in competition with others. And managing that state means defending its interests against its rivals.
So when the war began the left parties supported it to defend their countries’ “national interests”.
Left supporters of the EU today share more of this attitude than they may think.
Rather than unity in struggle between ordinary people across different countries, they look to deals and lash-ups between political parties inside an existing, capitalist organisation.
Members of the EU—even if they have left wing governments—don’t represent working class people. They’re there to act on behalf of their own national capitalist interests.
The EU was set up on that basis. After the Second World War, Europe’s rulers realised their interests were in clubbing together as an economic bloc in competition with Stalinist Russia.
They formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1953, then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
This role of the EU means that, when faced with resistance to austerity or the refugee “crisis,” it acts in an appalling and brutal way
This was always about facilitating trade between EEC members and pushing their interests outside Europe—never internationalism.
The Maastricht Treaty transformed the EEC into the EU in 1993. Its rules, which all members have to follow, enforce privatisation and spending limits.
When Eastern European states tried to join the EU after the collapse of Stalinist Russia, they first had to implement strict pro-market economic changes. These were closely monitored and policed by EU bodies and officials.
The EU has also used its economic weight to force its members’ interests on countries outside Europe. In 2015, for instance, the EU imposed heavy import taxes on Kenya to bully its government into signing a trade deal.
This role of the EU means that, when faced with resistance to austerity or the refugee “crisis,” it acts in an appalling and brutal way.
At the onset of the economic crisis, the EU gave “bailouts” to countries such as Greece, on the condition that they push austerity and privatisation.
When people in Greece elected a left government to end austerity, EU rulers feared that people in other European countries would follow.
Yet the EU is becoming increasingly divided over how to deal with the refugee crisis.
The EU’s international “unity” is exposed as a myth as its members come into conflict in defence of their own capitalist interests.
Any left wing force that wants to change the EU will have to face the undemocratic laws and institutions that make reform impossible. And they’ll also have to deal with the fact that they’re there to manage nation states with interests of their own.
Is the alternative isolation and nationalism? Not really. The other sort of internationalism—solidarity between working class people—didn’t end with the Russian Revolution.
Ordinary people have always taken action in support of others elsewhere.
Internationalism means organising struggles against the forces of austerity, privatisation and racism wherever we can—including those that want to rescue the EU
Some recent examples include the massive demonstrations against the Iraq War, against bombing Syria, or in support of Palestinians and refugees.
Or take the reaction to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”. When Trump imposed restrictions on people from certain Muslim countries entering the US, there were major demonstrations across the world.
The big protests set to take place when Trump visits this week will be another example of this.
None of these have needed to work through nation states or the EU. In fact when ordinary people score victories against their own rulers, this can inspire people elsewhere to fight and do the same.
When Greek people overwhelmingly rejected yet another EU austerity bailout in a 2015 referendum, everyone fighting austerity in Britain and across Europe cheered.
Internationalism means organising struggles against the forces of austerity, privatisation and racism wherever we can—including those that want to rescue the EU.
That sort of internationalism offers a real alternative to war, racism and austerity.