Chris Harman


The Common Market

3. The Attitude of the Left

From International Socialism (1st series), No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.15-18.

ENTRY into the Common Market is one means, among others, by which British capitalism is attempting to rationalise itself and become more competitive internationally. But such changes never take place without a cost – and in the case of the Common Market some of the cost at least will be laid at the door of the working class.

Prices and Taxes

Part of the price British Capitalism is having to pay for acceptance into the Market is adoption of the EEC agricultural prices. British farmers, whose costs of production are well above the world average, have in the past been enabled to sell at world prices because of direct government subsidies. In the Common Market, on the other hand, consumer prices are raised above those prevailing on the world market by means of levies (i.e. taxes) on imports, and by government buying of domestic produce to force prices up. All told the result is that farmers are subsidised by consumers, rather than by direct government grants. The British government’s white paper estimates that adoption of the EEC system will increase food prices at about 2½ per cent a year, which it claims means an increase in the cost of living of ½ per cent a year.

But these are average figures. In reality there are enormous divergencies between the proportion of their incomes that families in different income groups spend on food – varying from a mere 15 per cent for the top income groups up to 50 per cent for the bottom. In other words, lower paid workers will be hit more severely than others.

Again, the price increases for certain foods basic to working class eating patterns will go up by considerably more than the average.

‘For beef and butter ... retail prices could go up by as much as 50 per cent ... Pork and poultry prices will almost certainly go up ... and imported lamb will be subjected to a 20 per cent tariff by the end of the transitional period.’ [1]

A second precondition for Britain joining the Common Market is a change in the system of indirect taxes. Present purchase tax is to be replaced by Value Added Tax. This might seem to be a merely technical change, of little consequence to workers’ interests. But there is likely to be an attempt with the introduction of VAT to shift the burden of taxation by increasing indirect taxes (which hit the lower paid most heavily) and reduce direct taxes. The CBI has expressed itself strongly in favour of this.

‘The adoption of VAT would also encourage investment, provided it was accompanied by a reduction of corporate profit taxation, because of the incentive effect of a shift from a tax on profits te a tax on costs.’ [2]

Rationalisation of industry

One of the motives behind the desires of industrialists to get into the Common Market is the belief that it will somehow automatically increase the competitiveness, and therefore the profit margins, of British capitalism. According to the Financial Times

‘the increased competitive environment at home should stimulate investment, productivity and structural change and thus lead to an improvement in British exporters’ competitiveness.’ [3]

The Economist has similarly argued:

‘Firms will be forced into greater specialisation, abandoning product lines which might otherwise have drifted on for years. Fear of greater competition on the home market will lead if only defensively, to a change in the attitude towards exporting.’ [4]

There is no certainty that the overall standing of British capitalism will be improved in the way that such commentators take for granted (as we pointed out above). It is also extremely difficult to predict the extent of the post-entry shake up.

‘The experience of regional liberalisation of trade inside the Common Market has not led to close-down of industries or an increased rate of redundancies.’ [5]

However, regardless of the extent of the shake-up, it is likely to be at the expense of workers’ conditions. A changed job structure necessarily implies disruption in many workers’ lives – particularly at a time when unemployment is already rising. It will also be used by employers as a weapon to erode working conditions, push productivity dealing further, and uproot shop-floor defences (so-called ‘restrictive practices’). Insofar as there are ‘dynamic effects of entry’ they will be at our cost.

In general it can be said that entry into the Common Market will be used by the government as part of its overall strategy of trying to solve the problems of British capitalism by eroding workers’ wages and conditions. In certain respects, it has advantages for the government over other measures designed to achieve the same goal. Once entry is completed, it can hope that the free play of market forces will achieve what would otherwise require government intervention. Instead of the government having to bear the political onus of forcing industry to cut costs and declare redundancies, it hopes to be able to rely upon increased competitiveness (over which it will claim to have no control because of EEC regulations) to achieve the same end.

The Reaction of the Labour Movement

Within the trade unions and the labour movement the polarisation over the Common Market issue has to a very large extent reflected the wider polarisation between left and right. Those labour leaders who identify most closely with the ruling class on other issues have also done so over the Common Market. At the opposite extreme, those trade unionists who oppose government policies on the Industrial Relations Bill, productivity deals, etc., also tend to be opposed to the Market.

Underlying this alignment is the fact that many rank-and-file militants instinctively distrust the government’s entry policy. They feel that it will be used to weaken their position. However, the most common political expression of such fears is expressed via the left trade union bureaucracy and organisations that align themselves with it (e.g. the Communist Party).

The bureaucrats feel compelled to give some expression to rank and file discontent, but want to do so in harmless ways which do not entail any real struggle. Their whole perspective is reformist, based on the idea of pressurising the existing State. The natural tendency of such elements is to articulate opposition to the government’s strategy in chauvinistic language.

The link between a reformist strategy and a chauvinistic attitude is made quite explicit in the Communist Party policy statements on the Common Market:

‘A new government, committed to socialist policies, would use its parliamentary majority, together with its mass support in the country, to challenge the power of the ruling class. The developing movement to the left over recent years points in this direction. That is why the ruling class, as part of its attack on positions gained by the working class, is out to deprive Parliament step by step of its authority, and to transfer it to the supranational institutions of the EEC ...’ [6]

From the reformist belief that somehow the working class can take over the structure of the capitalist state (as if the lessons of successive Labour governments have not proved exactly the opposite) is finally drawn the conclusion that: ‘Britain’s national sovereignty is of vital concern to the British working class.’ [7] Or, as a Communist Party Broadsheet puts it: ‘Sovereignty is a class issue’.

Over recent months many who have not been traditionally on the left inside the labour movement have also moved into opposition to entry into the Common Market. As on the Industrial Relations Bill, the welfare cuts, and so on, the Labour leaders feel the need to oppose measures that they pioneered when in office.

Because of their own very close links with the British capitalist state, the Labour leaders also emphasise the ‘sovereignty’ issue. But they do so in ways that enable them to remain on the terrain of an unreformed British capitalism. They try to justify an opposition designed to attract working class votes and trade union money in terms of the ‘real’ interests of the ruling class.

The central point in such arguments (as in the similar ones put out by the extreme right wing of the Tory Party) is basically that whatever may be the case for the international companies, most of British capitalism will suffer from entry. The rationalisation will hit the more backward section of industry, but few dynamic effects will follow. Indeed, they could, it is argued, have the opposite impact to that normally suggested. New capital will flow to the areas of highest growth, which will tend to be on the continent rather than in Britain, as higher prices and an increased drain on the balance of payments (due to the several hundred million a year subventions from the British treasury to the European Commission’s expenses) make British industry even less competitive than at the present. Established firms with a purely domestic base will then find themselves in a declining national area. New investment will further move abroad in an effort to find adequate markets. A vicious circle of industrial decline will follow, the only way out of which would be to cut real wages by repeated devaluations of the pound. [8] The alternative which the Labour leaders argue for is an increased role for the national state, which they claim, is incompatible with the terms the Tories have accepted for entry. This enables them to come out with rhetoric very similar to that of the CP and the left union leaders.

The Attitude of Revolutionaries

A consistent socialist position of the Common Market must begin by rejecting out of hand the chauvinism explicit in the approaches of the Labour leaders and the established left. The national state is not our state. It functions to defend the ruling class, and cannot operate in any other way. The harping of the left about ‘national sovereignty’ only serves to sustain the illusion that somehow we have an interest in common with those who run the state at present. It intensifies the differences between workers in different countries. And it does so at a time when the growth of international firms emphasises the need for united international working class action.

The advent of the Common Market in no way means that chauvinism ceases to he an ideological weapon in the hands of the ruling class. The very way in which decisions are arrived at – by continual, and often very bitter haggling between different governments – creates an environment in which nationalistic talk can flourish. National governments can blame unpopular moves on the pressure of the other member states and demand national ‘sacrifices’ in order to resist them. They can claim that they, are being forced by the EEC to carry through unpopular measures – even when, in reality they could ignore such Community rulings (as the German government, for instance, ignored the verdict of both the European Commission and the European Court in 1969 when it imposed border taxes on agricultural imports, or as the French government has refused to let the Commission interfere with its regional policies). They can simultaneously blame the Commission for unpopular policies, and divert protest into a nationalistic blind alley.

This also means that chauvinistic ideas can become the main competitors with socialist ones in movements expressing social discontent. Both the Labour Party right wing and the Powellite Tories can be relied on to use chauvinistic talk as a means of gaining a popular following without committing themselves to concrete popular struggles. And both Wilson and Powell know that they will be able to argue that the process of integration had already gone too far to be ‘unscrambled if they ever gain governmental power.

At the same time, the increased reliance on the national state which they argue for could well be in the interests of the majority of national capital – even when it is operating within the Common Market. The arguments of the Labour leaders are based in part on an expectation that this will be the case. Sovereignty is a class issue for that section of the capitalist class that might suffer in any moves towards thorough going European integration – quite possibly the majority section. Those, like the CP and the Labour left, who argue that it should be an issue for the working class are merely providing a convenient cover for that section and its political spokesmen to cloak themselves in.

Revolutionaries, then, must be adamant in their ideological opposition to those inside the working class movement who resort to chauvinistic arguments. But this cannot mean that we are neutral on the question of Common Market entry. There are a number of interrelated reasons which make it imperative for us to oppose entry.

  1. Entry is being used, alongside other measures, to hit at working class living standards and conditions. Of course, if the ruling class could not achieve its ends through entry, it would try to get what it wanted through other means. We should never forget this as those who peddle chauvinistic ideas within the Labour movement do. But that does not provide us with a reason for not opposing entry. We should oppose it as we would oppose other forms of attack if they were used instead.
  2. Entry is aimed to rationalise and strengthen capitalism. It is an attempt to solve certain of capitalism’s problems by capitalist methods. There was a time when revolutionaries could regard certain such measures as historically progressive. Marx, for instance, gave support to the movement for German unity. Again, he could write during the Crimean War that ‘in this instance the interests of the revolutionary Democracy and of England go hand in hand.’ [9] But he did so in a period in which capitalism as a system was still struggling for supremacy against older forms of class society and, in the process, preparing the preconditions for socialism. Today, however, these preconditions exist. Rationalisation of the system means strengthening it at a time when we as socialists argue that revolutionary change alone offers mankind any future. We have to oppose such measures, counterposing not continuation of the system under its present form, but a. socialist transformation of it.
  3. Not only is the rationalisation of capitalism no longer progressive in any sense, it also speeds up the development of intrinsically destructive forces. In the case of European integration this is expressed in the aim of creating on a European scale what cannot be built up by the isolated states – an effective independent arms potential. According to the British government white paper there is no other way by which British imperialism could have the same opportunities to ‘safeguard’ its ‘national security and prosperity’. Revolutionaries have to oppose this as they have opposed previous arrangements serving the same purposes, e.g. NATO, SEATO, etc.

There is a fourth, subordinate, reason, that emphasises the need for clear opposition. All summer the makers of official opinion in this country have been worried about the difficulties of ensuring that the decision of the ruling class to go into the EEC is implemented politically. They fear that they might have difficulty getting parliamentary ratification for entry. And so they have been putting enormous moral pressures on sections of the Labour leadership to break with the party and to vote with the Tories for entry.

At such a political conjuncture the position of revolutionaries should be obvious. The defeat of the Tory government, in the present context of growing working class opposition to its policies, would give a new confidence and militancy to workers – even if the defeat occurred purely in the parliamentary sphere. Moreover, a defeat on the Common Market would not in fact be a defeat on that issue alone; behind much of the working class opposition to entry is a general, if vague and not fully conscious, distrust of the government’s intentions. The general anti-Tory feeling in the country is feeding the flames of opposition to the Market.

Revolutionaries in the labour movement have to make it absolutely clear that they do not abstain on such a question. We are for the defeat of the Tories and for purging the Labour movement of those sections of the Labour leadership whose votes help to keep the Tories in power.

In general, our position should be that

  1. We oppose the attempt through the Common Market to rationalise capitalism at our expense.
  2. We also oppose the ideological illusion being peddled in the labour movement that somehow a ‘sovereign’ capitalist Britain is a real alternative to entry into the Market for working people. We have to make clear that while we oppose the capitalist integration of Europe we would be for a Socialist United States of Europe. However, the demand for the United States of Europe is not going to be an immediate agitational demand in the conceivable future. That would require that political life was really moulded on a European scale. The fact, however, is that the failure of capitalist attempts at European integration means that national peculiarities still determine the tempo of the class struggle. In the Belgian and French general strikes (of 1961 and 1968) the key demands had to relate to class power in particular countries not in Europe as a whole.
  3. We argue, against the chauvinists, for a linking of opposition to the Common Market to opposition to the other attacks on working people – the Industrial Relations Bill, the welfare cuts and so on, so as to build up a class based opposition to the whole range of government policies, counterposing demands pointing towards a socialist transformation of society.
  4. At all possible times we put forward our own consistent class based viewpoint in opposition to that of the confusion of the CP and the Tribunites. But if we are unable to get a majority for our clear and consistent positions, we have to vote against the government Common Market strategy in the only way possible – by voting with the CP and the Labour left while making our reservations known (just as, for instance, we would, if we had no choice, give critical support to a resolution opposing the Industrial Relations Law, even if it spoke in terms of the law aggravating ‘industrial unrest’). We are completely steadfast in our opposition to the peddling of ideological illusions in the Labour movement, while being relentless in our opposition to government policy.


1. Financial Times, June 28, 1971.

2. CBI, Britain Into Europe, London 1970, pp.18-19.

3. June 29, 1971.

4. June 26, 1970.

5. N. Lundgren in G.R. Denton, ed., Economic Integration in Europe, London 1969, p.53.

6. Draft Resolution submitted for the 32nd Congress of the CPSU by the Party’s executive.

7. Ibid.

8. This is in essence the argument of the economist Kaldor (for instance, in the New Statesman of March 12, 1971)

9. Karl Marx, The Eastern Question, London 1969, p.19.

Last updated on 21 November 2009