I was very disappointed to see so many otherwise decent progressive - some even radical and socialist - historians lining up with reactionary, pro-imperialist and racist historians like Niall Ferguson and Michael Burleigh* to sign this letter in the Guardian this week:
As historians of Britain and of Europe, we believe that Britain has had in the past, and will have in the future, an irreplaceable role to play in Europe. On 23 June, we face a choice: to cast ourselves adrift, condemning ourselves to irrelevance and Europe to division and weakness; or to reaffirm our commitment to the EU and stiffen the cohesion of our continent in a dangerous world.
Would any seriously progressive, radical or socialist historian sign such a statement? Lets deconstruct it a little:
We believe that Britain has had in the past, and will have in the future, an irreplaceable role to play in Europe.
Yes - certainly since becoming a major imperial power in the 18th century, Britain has played an 'irreplaceable' role in Europe - that much is true in the sense it is historically accurate. Will it have an 'irreplaceable' role to play in Europe in the future? Well, as one of the world's richest countries and still an imperialist power in its own right, it seems destined to have such a role in the near future - whether we leave or remain in the EU - simply because we tend to follow America in terms of our foreign policy and so while America remains a dominant (but declining) imperial power on the global stage, all this seems true. In the long term, Britain's role in Europe depends on our economic and military might - but this looks unlikely to fade away in the short to medium term, whether we stay or leave in the EU. What any of this has to do with progressive, radical or socialist thinking however is another question.
On 23 June, we face a choice: to cast ourselves adrift, condemning ourselves to irrelevance and Europe to division and weakness...
Would Britain really be so 'adrift' and 'irrelevant' - and Europe even more 'divided' and 'weak' if Britain left the EU - given the balance of forces in terms of British capital / imperialism vis a vis European capital?
...or to reaffirm our commitment to the EU and stiffen the cohesion of our continent in a dangerous world.
Again, is there anything inherently progressive, radical or socialist about reaffirming one's commitment to the EU - part of the infrastructure of capitalism like the IMF or World Bank? As for 'stiffening the cohesion of our continent in a dangerous world' - again - what is progressive about this? It implies the rest of the world outside of Europe is 'dangerous', while 'our continent' needs strengthening - this seems to me to rest on some appeal to ideas of white European supremacy against the 'darker nations' of the world which are rooted in racist and colonialist discourses. How is stiffening the cohesion of European identity going to bring down the borders of Fortress Europe? How is 'stiffening the cohesion of European identity' going to block the rise of dangerous and poisonous racist and fascist parties within Europe such as in Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, etc etc?
I do wish most of the historians who had signed this statement had read it properly and not signed it - even if they do believe in remaining in the EU. There is nothing internationalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist or even just vaguely progressive about this statement at all. By signing it they have been recruited into an argument between different sections of our ruling class - and so lined themselves up alongside the likes of Niall Ferguson and Michael Burleigh and so behind the American Empire and the vast bulk of international and British capitalism who know that it is in their interests for Britain to stay in the EU. What is needed is at the very least for socialist and radical historians to be making their own arguments for or against the EU independent of our ruling classes - and ideally for socialists and radicals to be making the case that 'Another Europe is Possible - but another EU is not' - and for a genuinely internationalist and anti-racist argument against the EU - in other words a campaign of #HistoriansforLexit.
* On Michael Burleigh, remember Eric Hobsbawm even refused to speak to him.
Edited to add: Keith Flett on why EP Thompson would in all likelihood vote #Lexit