The Socialist Case for Leave

Neil Davidson

The European Union provides internationalism for the bosses, not for workers. We should join the vote to leave it tomorrow.

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Tomorrow, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union. While the reformist left, centered around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and the Green Party, are largely for staying in, those identifying as radicals or revolutionaries widely consider the EU to be an antidemocratic, unreformable institution.

The European Union has acted as an uncompromising vehicle of neoliberalism — both economically, in its forced imposition of austerity on Greece and several other member states, and institutionally, in its hollowing out of democratic governance.

Meanwhile, the free movement of EU citizens across its internal borders has been accompanied by the increasing militarization of its outer frontier. Those trying to reach the continent die in the thousands in the Mediterranean, or are forcibly removed to an increasingly authoritarian Turkey, in which they are denied any possibility of refugee status.

But what may seem a simple choice for the Left is complicated by the current political conjuncture. This referendum was demanded by the Right and has been dominated by the Right, highlighting the degree to which the material experience and public perception of the EU varies greatly between member states.

In Britain, neoliberal austerity is an entirely home-grown product. As a result, the EU is popularly imagined not as the imposer of reactionary economics, but as an imposition on the sovereignty of a British state which could otherwise “control its borders,” keep out immigrants, and free the petit bourgeoisie of the minimal rights guaranteed to workers under European law.

The immediate beneficiaries of a Leave vote would be the Tory right, the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and even more unsavory and openly racist forces; migrants feel under threat, and rightly so.

In a horrific testament to the volatility of today’s atmosphere, Labour MP Jo Cox was recently gunned down in broad daylight. She was known as a politician who defended migrants and refugees, as well as campaigning for Palestinian causes and aid for Syria. The man arrested for her murder, Thomas Mair, was influenced by fascist ideology: in court, he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

The Left is stuck between remaining within an institution antithetical to our aims, and gambling that we can turn the period of crisis which would undoubtedly follow a Leave vote to our advantage.

If this gamble is seen as too great, what does it say about the self-confidence, organizational capacity, and political horizons of the British left? If it is taken, what is the process whereby a blow for the British and European ruling class is translated into an opportunity for progressive, rather than reactionary, politics?

In this interview, Jacobin talks to Neil Davidson, who makes the socialist argument for a Leave vote.


You advocate “a socialist case for leaving the European Union.” Could you explain the history of the EU’s development and why it, in your eyes, represents an un-reformable obstacle to left-wing goals?

Neil Davidson

The movement towards European integration began soon after World War II, in 1947 with the establishment of various regional institutions (e.g., the United Nations European Economic Commission) and treaties (e.g., the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), all designed to restart the devastated continental economy and unify the western half of Europe against Russian influence.

The origins of the EU as we know it today lie in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which established the European Economic Community (the EEC or “Common Market” as it tended to be called in Britain).

There were four main drivers behind the project. The first was to expand the size of the market beyond the boundaries of the individual nation-states, in a situation where the European powers were losing their colonies, but where the system was also experiencing the greatest period of growth in its history.

The second was to abolish the protectionism which was widely seen as contributing to the post-1929 depression – or rather, to abolish protectionism within the EEC, but to reimpose it at the level of the EEC itself, in relation to the Third World in particular.

The third was to contain the interstate rivalry between France and Germany, in a situation where the latter was temporarily weakened by territorial division: this is the element of truth in the canard about “preventing war in Europe” — although the implications are quite remarkable because of the suggestion (quite realistic, incidentally) that otherwise these two countries might have gone to war yet again, despite their “shared European values.”

The fourth is the Cold War — in a sense France and West Germany were less inclined to threaten each other because both were directed against an external enemy in the shape of the Stalinist bloc.

As this last point suggests, the United States was not in any sense opposed to or threatened by the EEC – indeed it saw Western European integration as a necessary institutional compliment to NATO.

This point is important, as some people on the Left argue that the EU is a block against US interests; but while it is true that the major EU states compete economically with the United States, and that they do not always politically agree (e.g., over Yugoslavia or Ukraine) they are united in the same imperialist alliance.

Given these origins it is scarcely surprising that the EU reproduces internally the structured unevenness of the capitalist system, in which the dominant members, namely Germany and — some way behind — France, determine the fate of the weaker.

This has been most obvious in the case of Greece, but also in those of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and even Italy, which earlier belonged to the top tier.

However, uneven though it is internally, the EU presents a unified face to the Global South outside Europe, both economically, since it both dumps food exports there and blocks imports in return, and geopolitically, in the shape of the “Fortress Europe” it presents to refugees and other migrants.

It might be argued that these aspects of the EU could be subject to reform, but the mechanisms by which this could take place are never made clear.

The dominant bodies in the EU are either unelected, like the Central Bank or the Commission, or like the Council, consist of government leaders from the member states, who are elected by their own voters, but not by those of the EU as a whole, even though they are making decisions which affect it.

The parliament, as is well known, cannot initiate legislation on its own behalf, but simply ratify or at best amend initiatives from the Commission.

In a way, the entire setup was mapped out by Hayek in a 1939 article called “The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism,” in which he argued for an EU-type body which would be run primarily by bureaucrats — so that interfering voters, and by extension politicians, would be unable to make demands threatening to the market order, and that economic policy would be governed by a set of unbreakable rules, constitutive of what we now call neoliberalism. Sound familiar?


Was there a time when the EU really did represent a progressive institution in certain ways? And how do you explain the shifting position of the Left regarding the EU?

In the early days the International Socialists were strongly in favor of Britain seeking EU membership; by the 1970s, the British left was largely for an exit position. Now things seem more split, roughly but by no means exclusively along “revolutionary” and “reformist” lines. What accounts for these shifts in position?

Neil Davidson

As I’ve suggested, the EU and its predecessors have always been capitalist institutions, but during the postwar boom (roughly, 1948–1973) they shared the same Keynesian approach to economic management that was typical throughout the West and among the member-states.

As you might expect, when the neoliberal order began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the EU then shifted towards this mode of capitalist organization — something that was actually easier than among the member states themselves, precisely because of the institutional lack of democracy in the EU.

The attitude of the far left was always correctly hostile to the EU as being a bosses’ club which could override even the limited democracy that existed in its member states, although it is important to note that this was not based on a left-nationalist British argument, which members of the Labour left and Communist Party tended to fall into.

The International Socialists had an internal debate about the EU but it was resolved in favor of an “out” position by the early 1970s (Tom Nairn actually discusses the debate in his New Left Review special issue, The Left Against Europe, from 1972). So I don’t think it is correct to say that the IS was ever strongly in favor of going in or staying in.

I do agree that the division on the Left now isn’t a straight reformist-versus-revolutionary one, although the overwhelming majority of the Left, on whatever side of the divide (which is in any case is far less clear than it was in the 1970s), are supporting a Remain position.

This I largely put down to the experience of defeat — the ascendancy of neoliberalism was above all the defeat of the labor movement, at least on a temporary basis.

In other words, leaving aside contingent arguments about how a Leave vote will only strengthen the hard right, many people on the Left believe that the labor and socialist movement is so weak, that the prospects of even a Labour government or coalition are so slim, that the EU is the only protection for workers’ rights and the environment. I don’t agree.


Can you talk about the EU referendum in relation to last year’s Scottish independence referendum? There, the Radical Independence Campaign competed with more right-wing sections of the independence movement, including the Scottish National Party (SNP), to define the meaning of a pro-independence vote. What power do we have now to shape the vote?

Neil Davidson

When the Scottish referendum was announced in early 2012, the radical left was not in a good way; it was only in the last nine months or so that the popular dynamic from below seized the campaign.

So the Yes arguments were actually made in less than a year; up to the beginning of 2014, the campaign was an entirely conventional affair dominated by the SNP’s extremely conservative agenda of maintaining the monarchy, retaining sterling, and remaining in NATO.

The Yes movement from below was able to make a positive case for independence as a potential way of breaking with neoliberalism and austerity. The SNP adopted this, at least rhetorically, for the final stages of the campaign.

There are obvious differences between the two referendums. First, the radical left is far more divided over the EU than it is over Scottish independence.

Second, in Scotland, there was at least a well-established narrative around the case for independence among the radical left, which had been thrashed out over the previous two decades, but there was no comparable narrative for leaving the EU.

Until the last year, most critical work on Europe was done outside of the UK left by the likes of Guglielmo Carchedi and Wolfgang Streeck. Where comparable British work did exist, it was saturated with “British road to socialism” declamations about “sovereignty” and the sanctity of the Houses of Parliament.

Third, as a consequence of this, most of the anti-EU running, for at least the last two decades, has been made by the hard right, almost always using the issue of migration — either (as seems to be the case for Nigel Farage) because they actually believe their own populist rhetoric about returning to the 1950s, or (as is certainly the case for Michael Gove) because they want to use migration in order to construct an electoral base to take British capital in a different direction, more oriented towards Asia and the United States.

Fourth, and fairly obviously, the mainstream “out” campaign was never going to adopt the arguments of the radical left in the way the Yes campaign did in Scotland.

So, in a sense, I agree that the radical left was very late in coming to the argument, and had less well-worked arguments than in the Scottish case. It is also true that we have a much less defined outcome to offer people — this is one of the reasons why I referred to the indeterminacy involved.

The argument that a Leave result will cause a crisis for the dominant party of British capital and that it will put it at odds with the majority of the capitalist class they seek to represent is true, but will only lead to a positive outcome for the working class if the Left has some strategic idea of how to take advantage of the situation, in quite concrete terms.

It seems obvious, for example, that if there was a Leave vote, agitation for a general election, and for an alliance of Labour, the Greens, the SNP, and any left MPs, would have to start immediately.

However, in spite of these problems, I don’t think that socialists — and certainly revolutionaries — have any choice but to argue for Leave. It is different if you genuinely believe that the EU is essentially a beneficial institution, but if you don’t, then you have to tell the truth about it, what it is for and what it does.

Saying “we know the EU is terrible but this isn’t a good time to leave” is simply setting a trap for yourself.

What happens if Corbyn’s Labour Party wins the next election and then finds that its path to reform is blocked by the EU — do you at that point say, “Er…sorry we didn’t mention this before, but the EU is actually a regime for imposing neoliberal austerity which we should maybe think about leaving”? Why would anyone listen to you then?

If you put off taking a position on the substantive point because of local circumstances which might be quite short-term, you’ll never do it.

Think about those socialists at the beginning of the Great War who argued for war credits by saying, “Of course we’re opposed to imperialism in general, but we need to consider the specific circumstances under which this particular war is taking place: what will happen if the Germans win? We will lose all our precious democratic freedoms!” And so on.

To be clear, I’m not comparing Remain supporters with the traitors of 1914, but the logic of the argument is the same. If socialists don’t start arguing the case for leaving the EU now, when will there ever be “better conditions”? We’ll be subjected to the same blackmail over and over again.

Finally, it is not the case that everyone who supports Leave is a paid-up racist xenophobe who wants to stop migration. If Remain campaigners really believe that a potential majority of the British working class fall into this category then despair would be the only appropriate response, but they do not, and writing off entire communities off in this way is simply patronizing.

I’m from the northeast of Scotland, where the fishing industry has been devastated by the Common Fisheries Policy. Now, there are certainly valid environmental concerns about overfishing, but to establish a limit with no attempt to find alternative employment for the workers in that industry was always going to be catastrophic for the area, and the people who object to it have a perfectly good case against the EU which has nothing to do with migration.


There are also some contradictions within the Scottish independence movement, which wants to break away from the British state, but is largely in favor of retaining EU membership.

How do you see the EU referendum impacting the Scottish independence movement, and how do you see these potential contradictions playing themselves out, in the case of Remain and Leave votes?

Neil Davidson

The independence-supporting parties — the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) — have all taken Remain positions, with greater (SNP) or lesser (SSP) degrees of enthusiasm.

The existence of an official line does not, however, mean that everyone in these parties adheres to it. SNP veteran Jim Sillars has been arguing hard for Leave and claims that as many as 40 percent of the party share his view.

This is impossible to confirm with any certainty, but from speaking to SNP members at demonstrations and meetings, I have encountered considerable dissent.

If we focus on the SNP, since they are currently the dominant party in Scotland, then there are both positive and negative reasons why its members and supporters want to remain.

On the positive side, there is a general revulsion at right-wing Anglo-British nationalism and an identification with whatever it is opposed to — in this case “Europe,” defined here not specifically as the EU, but more the site of border-less cosmopolitanism in which small nations may thrive.

This is a mistake, but it is possible to engage in an argument with people who hold this view.

The negative reason is that the SNP is a party on what might be called the extreme left wing of the social-neoliberal spectrum: in other words it wants to stay in Europe precisely because it supports the current economic order with some ameliorative reforms thrown in.

Some in the SNP have speculated that if Scotland votes to remain, and England votes to leave, which would then lead to Brexit, then this would be the trigger for a second independence referendum.

I think this is unlikely. Support for independence is nowhere near the position where a referendum could be called with any certainty of winning, and Brexit would by no means alter this to the necessary extent.


Perhaps the most contentious issue on the Left — and probably the most compelling reason given by the Left for voting to remain — is the effect that a Leave vote would have on EU citizens currently living and working in the UK. How do you see them being affected in either outcome?

Neil Davidson

I agree that this is the most compelling argument of the Remain side, since solidarity with migrants is a fundamental duty for all socialists. Whatever the result, attacks on migrants will continue and I think it is a mistake to imagine that the EU will protect them.

For one thing, sections of the Remain campaign are now saying that we must take account of working-class concerns about migration and its impact on wages, social services, and housing.

To their eternal shame, this divisive nonsense has been repeated by members of the Labour Party like that self-promoting arch-buffoon, John Mann.

Inevitably then, more restrictions will be planned, even if there is a Remain vote. In any event I do not see a government of any stripe — other than an actual fascist regime — attempting to deport over two million workers, a move which would lead to the collapse of the British economy.

It is also important to remember that most migrants to the UK are not actually from the EU, and they are under attack already, given such measures as the demand that they earn £35,000 or more after five years before being given leave to remain — and you don’t earn that kind of money picking fruit.

Rather than relying on the EU, the Left needs to unite around a program of defense for migrants, whatever their status (i.e., economic migrant, refugee, or asylum seeker) which attempts to: one, end all restrictions on immigration, irrespective of EU membership; two, extend full rights of British citizenship to all migrants; three, unionize the workers, native and migrant, in the precarious sectors where the latter are most concentrated; four, close down the detention centers; five, establish an unconditional right to citizenship for refugees.


Much of your previous work has focused on nationalism, and both the Scottish referendum and this one are ostensibly votes on “national independence.” How has nationalism, or a more general sense of national belonging, been mobilized in each case?

Neil Davidson

We need to make two distinctions here. One is between the sense of mutual recognition implied by the term “national consciousness” on the one hand and “nationalism” on the other. It is perfectly possible for a people — including, until recently, the majority of modern Scots (and Catalans) — to develop the former without subsequently adopting the latter.

National consciousness is a passive expression of collective identification among a social group; nationalism is an active participation in the political mobilization of a social group for the construction or defense of a state.

The latter aspect is particularly important since defenders of the British state have a propensity to act as if British nationalism did not exist. This was perhaps the most significant difference in the way British nationalism was mobilized in the two referendums.

If you were a left-winger and supported independence in Scotland then you were inevitably denounced as “capitulating to nationalism” (I have some personal experience of this); but supporting the continuing existence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not in any way an example of British nationalism, perish the thought.

Now, as I’ve said, it is possible to argue for both positions without being either a Scottish or British nationalist, but the No campaign simply pretended that the problem didn’t exist for them.

This brings me to a second distinction. In one respect at any rate the question of EU membership is very similar to that of Scottish independence, in that you can have non-nationalist reasons both for wanting Scotland to leave the UK and for the UK to leave the EU.

In a sense it’s the reasons for making the demand which are important, not the demand itself.

The second distinction therefore concerns the reasons for desiring a nation-state, since there can be both nationalist reasons and non-nationalist (socialist, environmentalist) reasons for secession.

One legal theorist (and Scottish nationalist), the late Neil MacCormick, argued that nationalism could take either an “existential” form in which attaining statehood is an end in itself, or be a “pragmatic” means to achieving social and political ends through statehood.

MacCormick himself noted that the latter was a very “weak” form of nationalism, but in certain contexts it need not be nationalism at all.

As a political ideology, nationalism — any nationalism, relatively progressive or absolutely reactionary — involves two inescapable principles: that the national group should have its own state, regardless of the social consequences; and that what unites the national group is more significant than what divides it, above all the class divide.

It is clear from the Scottish experience at least, however, that non-nationalist arguments for supporting independence were widely used by many Yes activists, particularly around the Radical Independence Campaign.

In relation to the EU referendum, however, “existential” British, or more precisely, English nationalism, has been absolutely central to the right-wing Leave case.


An argument often put forward by the Left for leaving the EU is that nation-states are potentially more amenable to reform via popular pressure; a tendency which the EU lacks. But even before Britain joined the EU, the ability of nation-states to impose compromises on capital had diminished. There is now so much investment of European capital across member states that there is a material basis for integration beyond the institutions of the EU itself.

My point is that meaningful reform, even at the national level, will surely require some form of continental organization and coordination by the Left — as will opposing EU-wide measures like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). How can we build that, and do you think the outcome of the referendum will have any impact on our ability to do so?

Neil Davidson

There are two issues here. One is the myth of neoliberal globalization and the supposed weakening of the nation-state. Inter-state investment is not very much higher than it was between 1871 and 1914, and while nation-states continue to vary in size and power, the idea that there is general retreat by the state tends to involve taking neoliberal ideology far too seriously.

What is characteristic of neoliberal regimes is the deliberate abandoning of powers (over exchange controls), or transferring them to unelected committees (in the case of setting interest rates) or contracting out functions to private operators (as is happening in the National Health Service).

This allows regimes to claim that they have “no choice” but to follow certain courses of action — this incidentally is one of the functions of the EU: to provide an excuse in the form of its rules for governments to take actions which they would have almost certainly have carried out anyway.

But of course, while the state withdraws in some areas, it advances in others, from the surveillance of the citizenry to bailing out financial institutions and guaranteeing returns to private providers of public services.

Now, this could all be reversed, and it might even be in the overall interests of the system as a whole for that to happen, but it would require a major struggle to do so, which would inevitably be against the interests of the individual ruling-class figures and their new middle-class hangers-on who have benefited so much from neoliberalism.

So it can only be done as part of the wider struggle for socialism, rather than the reform of capitalism.

The second point, about the need for international cooperation and solidarity across state borders is obviously correct — but what has that got to do with the EU? In what ways does it help trade unions, left parties, or social movements to organize that they cannot already do? By making it easier to travel, perhaps?

The EU organizes a section of the European ruling class, not us. Working-class internationalism has nothing to do with the internationalism of bourgeois states and to imagine otherwise is simply a category mistake.

New international structures of solidarity will have to be built, but this can only be done outside those of the EU.


Do you see any value at all in campaigns which aim to reform the EU, for at least bringing leftist movements from across Europe together, or is their foundational premise too misguided?

More broadly, do you agree that our approach to this is largely a tactical question, and that leftists on different sides of the debate have more in common with one another than differences? And strategically, how do we best respond to the result, whatever it is?

Neil Davidson

No — I think this is a strategic question, not a tactical one. It is not simply a question of individual nation-states leaving the EU, but one of destroying it, as one of the main institutional supports of the neoliberal capitalist order.

The problem with the “another Europe is possible” arguments, and with Yanis Varoufakis’s in particular, is that they outline brilliantly what is structurally wrong with the EU, but then, with a complete lack of logic or coherence, claim that we have to reform it.

At the root of this, I think, is a very deep pessimism about the prospects for socialism, and a belief that we have to restore capitalism to health before we can even think about moving beyond it.

The problem is that capitalism isn’t going to be restored to health — at least not to the kind of health it enjoyed in the West during the postwar boom, when most of the great social-democratic governments were enacted.

As is quite often the case, the reformist argument is actually more utopian than the revolutionary one.

I start from the assumption that the Left has to unite over as many issues as possible — obviously this is what has been happening over the trade union “reforms” in France, the junior doctors’ struggle in England, demonstrations of solidarity over the Orlando shootings, and so on. And I’ve argued here that is necessary over the defense of migrants, whatever the referendum result.

But what has been missing for many decades now is any serious — here comes that word again — strategic debate about the nature of state power, the contemporary forms of left organization, and the specificity of politics under neoliberalism.

The fate of Syriza obviously makes these debates all the more urgent. It would be absurd for me to attempt to answer these enormous questions here: as with most issues concerning the socialist project, they can only be answered as part of a collective project.

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Neil Davidson (1957–2020) was the author of several books, including How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood and Discovering The Scottish Revolution 1692–1746.

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