State of the union

Issue: 130

Chris Bambery

Perry Anderson, The New Old World (Verso, 2009), £24.99

Given the crisis that has gripped Europe over the last year, exposing deep faultlines within the EU, there is no better time for a Marxist examination of the union to appear. That it’s written by Perry Anderson, former editor of New Left Review, ensures it’s written with panache, is hugely enjoyable and that it provides a broad historical sweep. That said, it is not without some question marks.

The book brings together essays written in publications such as the London Review of Books and New Left Review, but that’s no bad thing. It provides a concise history of the EU’s formation and development which is a tour de force. Anderson draws on the work of economic historian Alan Milward, to whom the book is dedicated.

For Brits whose eyes glaze over whenever matters European are discussed, this book provides the antidote. This indifference to Europe has meant that throughout the last decade hundreds of thousands of European trade unionists, from east and west, have marched against neoliberal measures being proffered by the EU Commission but their British counterparts have stayed at home. Talk of the EU being “boring” plays into the hands of those who want it run in secrecy at an elite level, with EU citizens being told its affairs are too complex to be grasped.

Anderson’s starting point is the correct one. How come the EU, whose economy is greater than the United States, Japan or China, has so little political clout? The obvious answer is because it is not a state. This is underlined in this recession by the fact that each bailout and rescue plan, for the banks and the car industry, has been implemented on a national level.

Anderson follows Milward in stressing the economic realities that drove the EU project forward. For France it had the advantage of containing Germany. The latter might be the economic powerhouse of Europe but France was the key military and diplomatic power. That was reflected in Paris’s abandonment of its alliance with London in the wake of the Suez debacle in 1956.

The US also encouraged the project because it would help contain Russia. The Eisenhower administration put military and diplomatic considerations before economic ones. That changed in the Nixon-Kissinger years with the first great post-war depression when Europe was seen as a rival.

The “father” of the EU, Jean Monnet, looked towards the creation of a single European state, but the EU evolved through closed door deals done between different governments. The fact that it rested on nation states also ensured the survival and regeneration of those states in the immediate post-war years.

The New Old World contains essays on Germany, France and Italy, the key EU states, and on two fault lines, Turkey and Cyprus, both hot potatoes for the EU club. All are fascinating, though all will create debate.

This book begins with a calculated snub: Anderson says he does not regret the omission of any analysis of Britain because its “history since the fall of Thatcher has been of little moment”. The great mobilisations against the Iraq war are thus ignored.

Despite his critique of the EU Anderson remains a supporter of the project. This is accompanied by a deep pessimism about the left in Europe and the ability of class struggle to shape events. Yet the European ruling classes are nervous over the possibilities of resistance. EU-wide resistance cannot be predicted, but the left and the working class remain players who can help determine the outcome.

The race to the bottom will go on across the EU, with the Channel providing no barrier to protect us. That, not the threat to “our” pound, is the biggest danger the people of this island face. It is the same danger faced by our brothers and sisters across the EU.

The political tradition associated with this journal opposes the EU as a bosses’ club. Others on the European left support membership of the EU. That should not stop us resisting attacks together or striving to get the best social and economic conditions within the EU extended to each member state, east and west.

The New Old World contains a good explanation of what the EU is and should be read for that alone. Anderson seems to swing between wanting to expose how undemocratic and pro free market the EU is and advocating the creation of a European state. The book does not offer a way forward but, in truth, I was not expecting this. Do not let Anderson’s pessimism stand in your way of enjoying his book—I didn’t