Brexit Ungagged Writing

The Insanity of Brexit debates

Originally published in International Green Socialist

The Insanity of Brexit debates.



The Marxist method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, concerns the construction of conceptual models (theory) which correspond to things which have material existence. In the political sphere of course, we are concerned with human social practices. Practices of course are in turn, based on some sort of conceptual framework which we can call ideology.

However, ideologies can be at odds with what is possible on a practical level. This is encapsulated in a quote from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “It is not enough for thought to strive for realization, reality must itself strive towards thought”. It is precisely when theory and practice align with each other, that we can refer to this combination as praxis.


If we set aside the left wing Brexit propositions for a moment, we can see that the remain side is defending the status quo. In direct opposition to this, the Brexit side appears to be suggesting a different future. The irony is that although in general, as socialists, we don’t defend the status quo, we do from a defensive stance. We will for example defend wage levels or jobs when they are threatened by cuts or closures.

But looking more closely at the Brexit side, is this really a forward looking perspective? I’d argue that it isn’t. I think we need to consider which politicians are its major promoters. Whenever as Marxists, we apply the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, we must do so in recognition that what we are studying is dynamic, we must look at practices as they develop over time, according to their contradictions. We call this historical materialism.

Brexit began in its current incarnation, as a project by Cameron’s wing of the Tory party, to deal with internal dissent and also see off an electoral challenge from UKIP. Rather than being forward looking, as we might ordinarily understand the term, it was the exact opposite. Here again let me quote from Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language”.

The idea of Britain heading off into the sunset in order to restore its former glory as a great colonial power, is frankly delusional. Nineteenth century Britain stole a march on other developed nations because it had coal, cotton from the colonies and had industrialised production way ahead of any other sovereign nation. Twenty first century Britain is dominated by services and Finance Capital. In terms of its productive capacity it is a small nation with an over inflated self-image.

The debacle in Parliament

The British Parliament at the time of writing, is in an impasse. Neither side seem to have the wherewithal to realise their thoughts. Every class in the land: bourgeoisie, petit bourgeois, workers etc are divided, as are their parliamentary representatives. So far as our own class is concerned, these divisions are toxic. Comrades engage in bitter debates full of denouncements and vitriol. What is much more important than membership of the EU or otherwise, is the unity of the class around class interests. Theresa May launched a snap election last year and rather than getting the majority she expected, Corbyn’s labour party made significant gains. I for one think that had there not been the distraction of Brexit, May would have lost the election.

May’s deal, from the viewpoint of British capitalism, is probably sensible, though as Corbyn has pointed out, offers no protection for independent decisions on state intervention etc (no protection from New EU directives during the transition period, where Britain will have no say and therefore no opt outs). This is a very real problem and one which could at some stage in the future, have been a basis for a genuine lexit.

The DUP of course will not support it. Not only are they ideologically rigid concerning defence of the Union, they will also fear anything which might lead down the road towards a united Ireland. May doesn’t have the support of her own back benchers and the developing position in the Labour party is heading towards a sort of Norway plus arrangement. There is increasing support for the Liberal position which is a second referendum but I think the Labour leadership are wise to resist this.

A second referendum would quite likely involve a further round of immigrant bashing and since positions are entrenched in all classes, could quite feasibly result in a stalemate, prolonging the agony for everyone. The lyrics of Bob Dylan spring to mind here when he says “how much do you have to pay to avoid going through these things twice”.

The Remainers

I’m frequently called a remainer with disdain because that’s how I voted. I did so however, in defence of class unity and internationalism, not in defence of the EU as an institution. Neoliberalism, as far as I’m concerned, represents the ideology of modern capitalism. We oppose this because we see right through it. It manifests as Blairism, centrism, new “improved” one nation conservatism. It has many names and labels. But here is the crucial point: it is no more a European disease than influenza. It’s global!

There’s growing demand in the remain camp for a second referendum. The labour front bench are wise to drag their heels on this. It might seem like a common sense solution but as Gramsci explained in his prison writings, common sense is not the same as good sense. Gramsci did so by reference to Marx. He called Marxism the philosophy of praxis. Not to avoid censorship, as some have said, but because it’s a very accurate description. You cannot unify theory and practice without a grasp of historical materialism and historical materialism would make no sense at all without the use of dialectical reason.  In other words, the flow of  ideology as it confronts itself in its own contradictions, the basis and testing ground  of which, is material existence.

Referendums under anything other than a truly classless society, are fatally flawed. Louis Napoleon obtained absolute executive power through a referendum on the basis of universal suffrage. Every referendum presents a simple binary choice and it’s conducted within definite limits imposed by its designers. Real life is rarely binary, although it is dialectical. Here is the difference: real life is historical which means it can consist of rapid series of binary choices analogous to data processing and to extend this to the level of society, trends arising over the internet.

It’s no accident that a rational discussion  over mechanisms of public decision making, descended into a xenophobic argument about foreigners, this is inevitable given the history of Britain as a colonial power and its inevitable decline about which , there is considerable denial. All this and returning to Gramsci, the cultural hegemony in Britain and elsewhere, is firmly imposed by the ruling class.

If the first referendum led to a significant increase of racial attacks, and it surely did, a second would embolden racists, xenophobes and fascists even more so. If as I’m suggesting, the entire debate is irrational, then a second run will ramp up that irrationality. I certainly do not detect a significant shift in opinion, as far as I can see, positions have become increasingly entrenched.  So here’s the rub: what sort of shit are we letting ourselves into, in the event of a marginal reversal? The Labour front bench are wise not to jump into that with abandon.

Hard Brexit

This is a really crazy idea and though some on the revolutionary left endorse it, they certainly do not do so with regard to a philosophy of praxis. Whenever I suggest any of the material consequences of this approach, I’m accused of project fear. When you have a marginal view, and this is a very marginal view, you need to back that up with sound arguments. As socialists we have a marginal view concerning society at large and the way it needs to be fundamentally reorganised but we can generally back that up with a multiplicity of sound arguments.

The no deal lexiteers just trot out the same moral judgments without a shred of practical proposition. It’s a narrative of heroes and villains which would find itself at home in the 13th century. There are no in depth perspectives, no resort to historical materialism, no appreciation of Marx’s dialectic. There is no explanation of the abandonment of Trotsky’s transitional demand in relation to Europe (1923). This was very much present in the CWI anti-EU campaign of !975 by the way. No explanation for this redaction. The city of Sunderland voted by a majority for Brexit. One of the biggest employers in that city is a car production factory. I think that will almost certainly close in the event of a hard Brexit.


At times of great adversity and despair,  we often get a light bulb moment when all those unsolvable contradictions suddenly click into totalisation. A general election seems unlikely but so do all the other road mapped options. I still think that’s a strong possibility. It would be a rational choice, even for someone as stubborn as Theresa May and her entourage. Stubborn could be the quality here which tips this into the unexpected. It doesn’t require a two thirds majority, all it needs is a successful no confidence motion against the government, this would need to be followed by an extension of Article 50.

A negotiated Brexit under a Labour government is something I think could be realistically achieved. Brexiteers would of course be unhappy about that but it would diffuse the issue. Labour could be given their chance to put their programme into force and of course we will watch them and push them forward when they seem to retreat. What this does is give us an opportunity to engage in class struggle at a higher level than we have done so for 40 years.  This should be our aim and we need to unite our class, putting the divisive Brexit behind us.

There’s a an urgent need to rebuild a workers’ international which is far more important than arguments over national sovereignty. Trotsky’s writing on this in in 1923 is highly pertinent. A clean break from Europe which is now part of the mantra amongst some of our comrades, might mean tumbling further into the arms of the USA. It’s connected world and the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, is all about observing the connections.


By Joanne Telfer


You can read more Ungagged Writing here or hear a range of left views on our podcast

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