One of the peculiarities of being a Marxist and living in an advanced capitalist country is dealing with the contemporary irrelevance of your ideology. Of course plenty of individuals of any political persuasion are personally irrelevant, but a young ecologist, let us say, can at least feel that they belong to a current of thought which is itself very relevant. They have an existing structure within which to contribute their ideas, and an existing audience which is receptive to their type of thinking. They can approach problems in the energetic hope that their breakthroughs will be built on by others, that their work has some meaning. Marxists have none of this, and indeed worse, because we are not even building an ideology from scratch, but rather consigned to endlessly shouting over the white noise of the failures of the twentieth century, hoping that some of what we say can be heard. As such it is very easy to fall into a number of traps: thinking that anything I say is irrelevant, so I may as well say nothing at all; thinking that anything I say is irrelevant, so I may as well say what I think without any strategic purpose or intent (a tendency which the internet greatly amplifies); thinking that I may as well spend my energy campaigning on this or that single issue out of basic human decency, because there at least the structures exist which will offer the chance of relevance, and perhaps selling Marxism to a few of your co-campaigners along the way. The third of these is often wrapped up in misleading analogies with the behaviour of worker's parties around the beginning of the 20th century, but it is as empirically ineffective at rebuilding a living Marxist ideology as all the others. We expend a great deal of energy turning ourselves in circles and running around offering our help to people who don't really care for it or need it, hoping to get a hearing, and falling on self-recrimination when these strategies lead nowhere.
Now if history were standing still all of this might not be so bad. We could spend our time and energy on issues which concern the problem of managing a capitalist society in a minimally anti-human manner, but which have very little to do with progressing beyond capitalism itself, without doing any active harm. As an aside, I do not mean, obviously, that we must never intervene in "single issue" type struggles—wanting to make people's day-to-day lived experience of capitalism better is a perfectly healthy moral and political response to living in a capitalist society. But it should not become the overwhelming focus of work for anyone who thinks of themselves as a Marxist, however much we have all (the author very much included) been guilty of this at one time or another. In any case history is moving on, with or without us, and problems which do go to the core of capitalism as a system are coming up. But because our energies are overwhelmingly directed at trying to participate in the mitigation of capitalism's worst excesses, Marxists often have surprisingly little to say about them. One such issue which will become increasingly relevant throughout 2014 in the UK is the future of nation states in Europe, expressed most directly through the referendum on Scottish independence and the potential referendum on British membership in the EU. Aside from the historical importance of whether Europe consolidates further into a superstate, this issue also brings to light many of the difficulties of operating as an irrelevant Marxist, and is therefore worth a closer look.
One of the contradictions inherent in the European Union is that even as it shifts more power to the federal level, its ideology encourages the fragmentation of the existing member states. I call it a contradiction because it is not at all obvious that the bureaucrats in charge of the European Union would like to see Scotland splitting from the United Kingdom, or Belgium fragment, Catalonia secede from Spain, etc. At the same time, whenever the European Union has been faced with a country which does not long for the embrace of Brussels the response has been to paint the anti-European segments as backwards and bigoted, and support the pro-European elements to the point of secession if necessary: a pattern we are witnessing most clearly now in Ukraine. The problem for the EU with using the right to "self-determination" as a recruitment tool is that there is then no ideological barrier to using this right to settle grievances within existing EU states. Indeed Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, and so on might quite reasonably judge that if they are to be part of a federal Europe, they may as well be a separate "top-level" entity in the European Union, instead of having to funnel their participation through an intermediate decision-making layer in the form of the UK, Spanish, or Belgian parliaments. Furthermore, the prospect of joining the EU softens many of the potential worries about going it alone, whether in terms of trade or foreign policy, because the nationalists do not have to explain how their new state will fit in the wider world order: it will simply enter the EU and function through it1. Now as much as the public arguments are almost always economic (i.e. about money), you cannot make even the most sophisticated and urbane (i.e. penny-counting) argument for secession without stoking nationalism of a much more primordial kind. So the EU, in the course of expanding itself as a federal state, simultaneously foments micro nationalisms in its existing member states, inflating historical grievances about power and control into reasons for modern-day secession.
All of this makes it quite hard to know what to say about the European Union or the connected independence referenda such as the one coming up in Scotland. The arguments which get typically thrown about are not, frankly speaking, terribly appealing. Support Scottish independence because an independent Scotland will be a 70s social democracy! Until the SNP transforms itself into the Scottish Tories, that is, and you won't have to wait very long 2. Oppose Scottish independence because England and Wales will be forever ruled by a Tory majority! Yes, because New Labour—one supposes the limit of ambition for those making this particular argument—was really much better, comrades. Support the EU because only bigoted little Englanders oppose it! Sure, support an entirely undemocratic technocracy because the alternative is the flag of St. George, what an argument for progress that is. Oppose the EU because it is an imperialist project which wants to compete with the US and China! As if the constituent member states would not engage in imperialism of their own—they are capitalist countries, after all. Of course I am caricaturing these arguments but the problem is exactly that there is some truth in all of these points: everything is worse. It is very tempting to simply throw one's hands up and say "neither Brussels nor London nor Edinburgh", particularly because we know full well that the outcome of these referenda in no way depends on what Marxists and other "Left" persons think about them. We can do no great harm whatever we say or agitate, but it would clearly be more satisfying to have a progressive argument to put forward, even if few are likely to listen to it. What could such an argument consist of?
That the current EU model is unsustainable is clear to both its proponents and detractors: it is the worst of all worlds, an undemocratic technocratic structure laid on top of existing bourgeois "democracies", predicated on the assumption that the highest aspiration should be to manage the status quo effectively. The real question is whether we think history, i.e. the progress towards communism, is better served by a United States of Europe or by the refragmentation of Europe into a collection of nation-states bound loosely together by trade treaties. One way to approach this question would be to wonder which scenario will make it easier to rebuild a serious communist movement across the continent. As much as there is a certain comfort to be had in surveying the "new left" which is currently rising from the rubble of the Berlin Wall and spreading itself across Europe, this is a comfort born more out of wishful thinking than reality, since even at their best, projects like Front Gauche, Die Linke, Syriza, and so on, rarely depart from the 70s plus reformist model of which has been tried to death in Britain already. Nevertheless, the emotional desire to reform the Comintern, and that is at the core of all of the fascination with left unity projects, whether the participants realise it or not, is a perfectly healthy and historically necessary impulse. The bourgeoisie has had hundreds of years to develop a legal and social framework which enables it to operate effectively as a class, and in which the self-serving actions of individual members are generally harnessed for the benefit of the class as a whole. The proleteriat has no such structures, our attempts at forming them have ended in pretty universal failure, despite achieving some important things along the way, and creating such structures (and understanding why we failed to create them in the past) is therefore one of the highest priorities before us.
Precisely because this lack of a recipe for internal democracy within a communist organization, much less for a democratic society, is a universal problem in advanced capitalist countries, we are right to look at what communists across Europe are doing, in the hope that someone will find a solution which can be templated. The shared history and economic similarities across the continent are of course no guarantee that organizational forms which work in one European country will transport to others, but neither does one have to be a European chauvinist to think that they are considerably more likely to transplant than e.g. the organisational forms used by Chavistas in Venezuela. However, any communist movements which do gain a foothold in individual European bourgeois democracies will be and are at the mercy of the rest of the continent: not only in terms of extortion when they have gained the foothold, but also because they will tend to come to prominence in those countries which are getting the rawest economic deal on the continent. They will therefore be shaped in their infancy not by progressive demands for a better future but by reactions against an exploitative present, and their room for manoeuvre subsequently limited by the reaction against them 3, neither of which bodes well for the end product. Socialism does not have to be brought about everywhere at once for it to work, but equally it does need a big enough economic engine to sustain it and protect its character against the inevitable economic and social assaults from capitalist countries. A federated Europe can be that engine, and the real difficulties of developing a continent wide communist movement can only be lessened by replacing the current technocracy with a continent-wide bourgeois democracy. None of this means that communists should fall into the trap of supporting European integration for bourgeois reasons. But falling into the trap of supporting national chauvinisms would really be cutting off our nose to spite our face: for all the undemocratic character and imperialist aspirations which any United States of Europe would undoubtedly have, it is fundamentally hard to see how the communist cause would be helped by returning to a Europe of nation states.
1 Although it is not the central point of this article, I cannot avoid mentioning the historical irony of Yugoslavia, which disintegrated in such a bloody manner due to nationalistic tendencies, and whose fragmented remains have subsequently spent their entire time as independent states supplicating for the right to join the EU. There is something particularly macabre, even beyond the grotesque senselessness of the original breakup, about watching those who wanted most loudly to clense their regions of foreigners and non-Serbs/Croats/etc. now taking the Euro subsidies and most loudly cheerleading for entry into the EU. (back to citation)
2 That the SNP is vaguely a social-democratic party right now cannot be any surprise: its main competition is the Labour party in Scotland and the government in Westminster. Now since that particular government has spent the last 20 years dismantling the remains of the post-war social democratic consensus, and the Scottish Labour party is forced to support most of this dismantling, the SNP can easily differentiate itself from both by offering voters the promise of North-Sea oil fuelled 70s in perpetuity. That does not make them a left-wing party, even if, particularly on the issue of imperialist adventures, they have taken some principled and commendable positions along the way. (back to citation)
3 We have seen this with Syriza, and Syriza are, with no disrespect meant, a bunch of social-democratic reformists. (back to citation)