Visiting Trier

DSC_0208Last year I went on my holidays to the French wine region of Alsace although I did very little drinking as most of the time I was driving.  As a quid pro quo I was able to take the opportunity to drive over and visit Trier in Germany.

Trier is a contestant for Germany’s oldest city, a UNESCO world heritage site and the location of notable Roman buildings. Of course for a Marxist it is also distinguished as the birthplace of Karl Marx, which has been turned into a museum, and it was for this reason that I ventured out of France.

If I thought the French didn’t pay much attention to speed limits it appeared to me that the Germans didn’t have one.  On two rather short journeys to and from Trier to the French border I came across three traffic accidents including one rather nasty one in which an occupant was being cut out of a car.

Having arrived safely at our very functional hotel, which consistent of separate concrete boxes called rooms and a bigger box that doubled as reception and breakfast area, we took a dander round the town where I explained that it was unusual to have anything to do with Marxism as a local tourist attraction.  It was pointed out to me that the most memorable aspect of this was the local tourist bus painted with Karl Marx’s mug.

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The next morning we had breakfast in reception, in which the juice and Rice Crispies were almost in the street.  All very lean I was told, proving to me that I am not the only one who doesn’t really switch off when on holiday.  The big TV behind the desk was showing the news on some local channel.  I was too far away to hear but this wasn’t a problem as I don’t speak German anyway.  And in any case my eagerness to see who had won the Scottish referendum was being addressed by an interview with a guy who had a very bad Mel Gibson Braveheart haircut, and a Saltire painted across his face.  He had the demeanour of Mel at the end of the film when he was on the rack.  I guessed who had won.

We then took in the museum and the audio tour that outlined Marx’s family background and history, the story of his political involvement and an AB of his ideas.  It was competently done, without being ruined by the reformist bias I had feared from it being run by the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands  (SPD) and its Friedrich Ebert Foundation, named after a real reactionary bastard, whose historical role might well make those who think social democracy has turned right under neoliberalism rethink just how left it was beforehand.

It was a bit bemusing to find out that the young Karl had hardly got out of his nappies before he had moved house along with his family, but you hardly treat such a visit as a religious pilgrimage, in which you touch the foot of the statue of the blessed man or feel his earthly presence.

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Like all museums it had a shop but inexplicably nothing for lovers of Flat Whites or three-shot Cappuccinos.  Being a sucker for a certain type of tat I attempted to buy a bust of the man himself ( you’ve already got one); a Karl Marx mug (it’s too tacky); some red wine (I’m sure it’s just not nice) and a fridge magnet (you don’t even know what it says because you can’t speak German).  However I did get away with the museum exhibition booklet and a bar of ‘Karl Marx Fine Chocolate’, which I haven’t yet opened just for badness.

What didn’t fully strike me as very poor until much later was the paucity of Marx’s writings that were for sale, but then the SPD believes that his writings really are only a museum piece, and the shop is for taking things away.  The best the exhibition booklet could come up with, in its final words on ‘Marx in the Twenty-First Century’, was that “engagement with the methods of Karl Marx and the questions he posed will continue to be meaningful”.  You don’t say.

The final chapter, on ‘Embracing of the Ideas of Karl Marx Worldwide’, cited the following, among others, as coming under his influence or claiming to express his ideas – Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, the ANC, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and liberation theology.  When we add the various ‘Marxist’ schools including the Frankfurt school, structuralism, post-Marxism and Analytical Marxism etc. and the experience of the various state regimes that have laid claim to Marx as their inspiration – from the Soviet Union to Albania – we can see the obstacles to engaging with Marx in a way that is not only meaningful but faithful to his writings.

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So why bother?  A look at the activities of today’s organisations claiming to be Marxist shows that the political programmes put forward hardly correspond to his oft-stated views.  From capitalist state ownership as the road to, and destination of socialism, to strikes for higher wages as ‘going to the heart of the system’, if you hang around the Left long enough you will hear every competing conception of socialism that Marx fought against being presented  as the authentic expression of his views.

Quotes from Marx are regularly thrown about but rarely after actually reading the original.  In Ireland our latest Marxist TD is shown on YouTube commencing an educational meeting with a quote from Marx’s Capital, which he admits he hasn’t read but which the chair of the meeting assures him ‘nobody has’.

By reading the original the original meaning might actually be understood.  A very simple reason why to bother.

But the answer is not simply to ‘go back to Marx’ as a way of overcoming the obstacles created by the distortion of his teachings by many who have claimed to be his followers.

This is not least because they have sometimes genuinely sought to apply his teachings, albeit often in a one-sided and partial way, providing one-sided and partial truths.  The direct words of Marxism expressed by Marx have been supplemented by the history of the development of his ideas and of the working class movement and it would be in complete conflict with his method to seek to go beyond the failures of both by simply claiming they are ‘wrong’, isolating ourselves from them and ignoring the lessons to be learned.

The history of Marxism and of the working class movement is now the ground on which both must be renewed.  Such renewal requires not just engagement with the direct views of Marx but also with the fragmentation and degeneration of Marxism and the labour movement.  The experience of both cannot be ignored or wished away and the alienation arising from them must be overcome because this alienation is now part of the reality we must seek to change, just as Marx sought to change the reality that he faced, including the various schools of socialism that he considered must be overcome and banished during his time.

Syriza and Ireland

syrizaimagesThis Sunday the Greek people will go to the polls in an election that could see the beginning of the end of austerity in Europe.  That anyway is the view of some on the left across Europe.

The potential election of a Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) Government, promising a radical reduction in the debt burden, has the potential to galvanise and set an example to the rest of the PIIGS.  It could incite a combined movement in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain that would reduce the debt of these countries which has been a prime driver of austerity.  Through radically reducing the requirement to service and pay down enormous debts such a step could launch a definitive movement away from neoliberalism towards a radically different Keynesian social democratic alternative.

The elections in Greece will be followed this year by elections in Spain, in which a like-minded Podemos movement has grown, and in Portugal, and may also be joined by an election in Ireland despite the claims of the current Government that it will run in office until 2016.  Of the five PIIGS therefore at least three and possibly four may see elections this year.  Even elections in Britain could see the ousting of the Tory devotees of austerity and neoliberalism.  In fact the policy that might inspire the PIIGS is not confined to them but might apply right across Europe.  And Syriza is in the vanguard of this movement.

Is such a scenario a real possibility?

Let us notice what makes such a claim plausible.

Firstly the proposals of Syriza are not solely on behalf of the Greek people although as a Government it will be able to negotiate only on their behalf.  Syriza proposes a European Debt Conference modelled, with delicious irony, on effective debt forgiveness of (West) Germany in 1952.  This was carried out explicitly in order, or so it was claimed, to normalise relations between Germany and its creditors and to promote economic development.   That deal wrote off half of the debt, stretched repayment of the rest and for the first few years provided only for payment of interest, which was also limited.

Syriza proposals are more limited. Their policy could be based on an academic paper which proposes that half of the debt would be bought up by the European Central Bank (ECB) with either an interest holiday or interest charged on the remaining debt at a low rate.  The debt taken on by the ECB would not be written off but would be paid back only when the remaining debt left to the country had been reduced to 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In effect economic growth and inflation will have eroded the real value and real impact of debt repayment.

However in one very important sense the proposals are much more radical than the German precedent, because the Syriza proposal is that this plan applies to every country in the Eurozone with debt over 50 per cent of GDP (all but three countries).  The Irish state for example would see its debt reduced from 108 per cent of GDP to 50 per cent, saving €3.7 billion each year in interest payments, so reducing the need for cuts or tax rises and facilitating greater state spending and investment.[i]

It has been estimated that this would reduce sovereign debt in the Eurozone area by about €4.5 trillion.  It is asserted that this would not risk inflation because the ECB debt purchases would be funded by massive borrowing from private banks.  There would be no money printing since the money is borrowed.  And sure why worry about inflation when deflation is so clearly the enemy?  And who pays the interest on these loans?

Well, it is recognised that there will be losses in paying back the private banks, between €50bn – €60bn in each of the first 5 years, and €1trilion over 40 years, but it is argued that the borrowing costs of the ECB would be low and that renewed economic growth would compensate.  It would be cheaper than the current policy of austerity and expansion of the ECB balance sheet required to bail out the banks.

It is recognised that this may not be enough in the short term for some countries so that, for example, in order to prevent continued austerity in Greece the ECB would have to take over the debt that would be required to be issued in the next five years.  This would also be required because over 50% of outstanding debt has to be paid back within the next 5 years in Italy, Spain, France, Holland and Belgium and to cover this new debts would have to be taken on.

For Marxists the point is not that some monetary scheme has been devised that will solve capitalisms’ problems.  Nor is it the point that Syriza will go into negotiations and cannot expect, as in all negotiations, to get its original plan agreed, even discounting some conscious intention to betray the hopes of its supporters in order to accept the logic of capitalism.

The significance of the proposals is that it provides a concrete platform around which workers across Europe can organise and struggle together, and a series of elections that can be a focus for such struggle.  This is not to invest illusions in either elections or Syriza, who are condemned by some for having shifted from a policy of debt repudiation to one of simply extending repayment under more favourable terms.   If a practice of simply condemning the limitations of reformist politics were the answer we would no longer have the problem.

The Syriza programme is one that workers and socialists can support because it reduces the burdens they face and would deal a big political and ideological blow to austerity and the parties who have peddled it.  It would deal a real blow to reactionary political parties seeking nationalist or fascist solutions.  Through a successful campaign workers could gain strength and confidence to build up their organisations, their own social and political power and their own confidence and class consciousness.  The latter is the role that Marxists can play by advancing a programme that does all these things.

The victory of Syriza would allow an opportunity to directly organise workers on an international programme on an international basis.  It is remarkable that this significance has been somewhat missed.  So, for example, the call promoted by the Fourth International correctly argues that “their victory will be ours, but their defeat too” but appears to fail to appreciate that this can be so because other European workers will not just be in solidarity with Greek workers but can actually be part of the same struggle, demanding the same deal for their country, so that “our victory will be ours and our defeat will be ours too.”

This is made tactically easier by Syriza not proposing either to leave the Euro or leave the EU.  There can be no pretext that the demands of Syriza can be dismissed because they no longer want to belong to the club.

These policies have been condemned as examples of betrayal of earlier more radical promise but they are not just tactically recommended.  As argued before in the various posts on ‘The Left Against Europe’, the growing unity of capitalism provides the material basis for the international unity of the working class.  This is why a united international struggle against austerity is more immediately and concretely possible in the Eurozone than one against similar policies pursued more or less independently by separate capitalist states each with their own currency.

So to return to our question – is such a scenario possible?

It is possible to argue that it is, for the simple reason that the Greek debt is too big to be paid back anyway.  Some means of addressing it is required and the Syriza route is eminently preferable for workers than the slow death march of austerity and repeated minor debt ‘haircut’ so far embarked upon.

The second is that by the very fact that the Syriza plan is reformist there is no necessity for a life and death struggle by the forces of capitalism to defeat it.  The Syriza plans do not call the system into question, which both sets limits to what it can achieve but also provides scope for negotiations between a Syriza Government (and other PIIIGS Governments should they be elected or so inclined) and the IMF/ECB /EU/German State alliance.

The rallying of the Greek workers behind Syriza is one of many proofs that a revolutionary overthrow of Greek capitalism is not currently on the cards and is not therefore a realistic immediate alternative.  The revolutionary alternative today consists of preparing for such an eventuality tomorrow.

Not by either passively or even ‘aggressively’ preparing for socialist revolution but by the cumulative development of the power of the working class suggested above, with the certain knowledge that a revolutionary break with the capitalist state and system will be required.

To condemn Syriza for negotiating with capitalism when it cannot be overthrown is a bit like condemning trade unions for negotiating a pay award when they should be overthrowing the wages system.

The third has been pointed out here – Syriza will be damned if it does not get some sort of result and the executor of that judgement may be the fascists of New Dawn.  It is not only Syriza who has an interest in ensuring this doesn’t happen.

‘Ireland is not Greece’ we have been told repeatedly over the past five years or so.  If Syriza is anyway half successful Ireland will look pretty stupid if it isn’t.

[i] It is interesting that the authors go beyond the argument that this is some sort of socialism saying that “The left ought to be strategically against privatizations, having at the same time as an ultimate target the gradual historical replacement of “state control” by democratic forms of social control (unfortunately this type of discussion has not been adequately developed within the left).”

The Paris attacks

paris imagesWhen the events in Paris unfolded last week I initially thought that I was witnessing marginalised and alienated young people involved in acts of reactionary medieval brutality.  However the terrorists, and that is exactly what they were, employing the weapon of violence in order to terrorise into silence critics of their religion, were not young.  Nor was their inspiration.

Perhaps this does not matter.  Seeing them as marginalised and alienated adults is not so very different from seeing them as disaffected youth who are rebelling against an authority they despise.  It does however make it easier to appreciate that not every act of the marginalised and alienated is a distorted expression of progressive impulses.  For the second half of my initial view can hardly be challenged – that the Islamic fundamentalism expressed by the attackers is reactionary and characterised by medieval barbarism.

The forces mobilised by fundamentalism in such attacks should no more be seen as potential candidates for enlistment in the socialist cause, but who have unfortunately been led astray,  than are those who normally make up the ranks of the lumpenproletarian supporters of fascism.  Not all victims of capitalism are candidates for its socialist opposition.  That has never been the case, nor will it ever be the case.  The basis for socialism is not the most angry, desperate or oppressed but the working class and particularly its most enlightened sections.

These are not people who seek a failed or counterproductive means to an end with some progressive content.  The victory of Islamic fundamentalism over imperialism in countries with a Muslim majority is no sort of victory for the working class.  The enemy of my enemy is not by this fact my friend and the view that the greatest enemy is imperialism does not relegate to minor status the reactionary forces that seek to take society backwards.  This is especially true for socialists in those countries in which fundamentalism is strong and who do not have the luxury of seeing these forces as second order opponents or worse, genuine expressions of some sort of anti-imperialism.

The Anti-Capitalist Party in France states:

“This murderous violence comes from somewhere. It’s created in the heart of the social and moral violence which is very familiar to large numbers of the young people who live on the working class estates. It’s the violence of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and the violence of unemployment and exploitation. This barbarous violence is the monstrous child of the social war that the right and the left are waging in the service of finance. On top of this there are the wars they have started against Iraq, in Afghanistan, Libya, Africa and Syria. . . .”

But we can identify the ‘somewhere’ more accurately, for there is a direct connection between the murderous violence and reactionary social forces in what is called the Middle East, reactionary forces that are the enemy not only of French workers but of young people and workers in the countries of the Middle East.

The Anti-Capitalist Party also says that “there is no answer to the social decomposition of which the crime against Charlie Hebdo is a dramatic expression unless we fight the politics which make it possible.” But this social decomposition has taken the form in this case of Islamic fundamentalism, which must be fought.

The argument that the enemy is imperialism and the task is to oppose it as the root cause of the Paris events cannot excuse the need to respond to these attacks in the appropriate way, to identify the actions as wholly reactionary – the acts themselves, their motivation and their consequences.

In any case imperialism and fundamentalism are not opposites.  State sponsors of Islamic fundamentalism, such as Saudi Arabia, are often supported by imperialism and no general distinction can be drawn between the two such that opposition to one can be fundamentally separated from opposition to the other.  The forces of Islamic fundamentalism are at least partly the direct and indirect result of the actions of imperialism.  That they are only partly the result means that while opposition to one cannot be separated from opposition to the other neither can opposition to one be reduced to opposition to the other.

While some of this fundamentalism now pretends to an anti-imperialism this is the purest opportunism behind which lie reactionary class and ideological interests.  That first great fundamentalist state, Iran, now collaborates with imperialism in fighting a separate fundamentalist movement in the shape of the Islamic State.  The Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan were for long dismissed by the Pakistani people as the B-team for the army that was the solid ally of the United States.  And we all are aware of the alliance between fundamentalism and the US in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Above all Islamic fundamentalism is an enemy of democracy and socialism.

It is therefore appropriate that the terrorist attacks have been used by the security agencies of western imperialist States to seek greater powers.  Even while the terrorists were known to these agencies and they failed to prevent the attacks.

Ordinary citizens cannot rely or place their trust in these agencies.  Their original sponsorship of Islamic fundamentalism in the war against the Soviet Union cannot be dismissed as a ‘mistake’ nor, as noted, can their continued collaboration with the most barbaric regimes that support various branches of fundamentalism be ignored.  “Saudi Arabia Launches Huge Arms Buying Spree; France to Net Most Orders” is one headline that shows both ugly faces of this alliance.

The restriction of democratic rights in France, Britain or Ireland will not come from these fundamentalists who do not have the power to implement their political programmes in these countries but from security apparatuses demanding greater powers.  It is not that the terrorists seek the implementation of repression in some misguided belief that this will stir resistance.  They do not seek resistance to the restriction of democratic rights because they do not support such rights themselves.  The whole idea of such a motivation would not cross anybody’s mind.

The reactionary character of these attacks is widely understood, which is why in France there has been widespread expression of the view that the division that the attacks seek to create must be opposed.  The latter is a progressive impulse that can only be consistent if it expresses complete opposition to fundamentalist terror and any racist or anti-Muslim response.

The indiscriminate murder of writers and journalists and any person that was in the Charlie Hedbo offices can also therefore only be seen as an attack on the right to freedom of speech, in this case the right to criticise Islam.  The attack was not an attack on Islamophobia or on racism.  The political programme of Islamic fundamentalism does not care for the equality of religious affiliation but regards non-believers in its faith as infidels.

In this sense statements that express the view that the “cartoons such as those published by Charlie Hedbo do nothing to advance the cause of freedom of speech. Rather, they amount to hate speech” do not change the nature of the attack.  In this situation it is necessary to identify clearly what has happened without fear that it compromises some political standpoint, which by virtue of being compromised demonstrates its misconception.

Such rights are purely bourgeois democratic rights?  Of course they are.  Is France not a capitalist country?  Bourgeois freedom of speech leads to the expression of views we dislike, even abhor?  How could it be otherwise?

But is it not better, much better, for French workers of all religions and none to have such democratic rights?  Are we only to defend freedom of speech when it is to our taste?  And for how long would that position be taken seriously?

The anti-Islam cartoons did not advance freedom of speech?  But were they not an expression of it?  And if there were no more cartoons ridiculing Islam, what would that be an expression of?  Is the Marxist critique of Islam also to be subordinated to the view that the oppression of Muslims means that the religious sensitivities of that people must not be offended lest their oppression be enhanced?  Where then are these peoples’ route out of oppression?  How are socialists in ‘the West’ to point out the hypocrisy of Christian support for war if religion is above criticism?

Perhaps it is only the religion itself that should be spared criticism but not its institutions?  But what of states where there is no separation?  Like many where Islam is the majority religion.

So the immediate response must be that of defending democratic rights and opposing the terrorism that seeks to destroy such rights.  It requires opposition to the security agencies of the State and the attempts to turn the actions of fundamentalists against every adherent of the Islamic faith through attacks on mosques and individual Muslims.

Such a defence must raise the banner of democracy against the fundamentalists that would destroy it, the repressive agencies of the State that would subordinate it to their control and to its false friends in the capitalist parties for whom it is accepted only in so far as it does not develop to threaten their system.

Does all this get to the root of the problem?

Is this root the alienation of capitalism or more specifically the imperialist domination and war against countries that are mainly Muslim?  Is it Islamic fundamentalism or religion in general?

I have mentioned a number of times that socialists are defined by what they are for but knowing what you are against is not a small thing either.  In Ireland we have socialists who are sanctimonious in their opposition to religious sectarianism but studiously avoid determining its exact concrete nature.

So yes capitalist alienation is expressed in the acts of desperate people who engage in barbarous acts of violence but we know that this alienation arises from the rather more concrete circumstances of imperialist domination and war in certain Muslim countries.  It would be impossible to effectively fight the violence of the Paris attacks without also opposing imperialist violence in these countries.  But the fundamentalist response to this imperialist violence in Paris and in these countries themselves is itself barbaric and must be opposed, in the interests of the potential victims of terrorism in France and in the Muslim world.

But if we know the causes of this alienation we also know how it has come to express itself in the backward form of Islamic fundamentalism.  We are therefore required to fight this reactionary, obscurantist ideology and programme.

Fundamentalism has grown not just because of the actions of imperialism, and the failure of nationalist and leftist programmes and movements in many Muslim countries, but also because it can more readily gain acceptance due to the fact that the populations are already deeply religious.

Combatting this is no easy task and, while opposition to religion must be a principle, its prosecution can only be carried out with regard to ensuring that those who want to fight for a better world in the here and now are not rejected for their belief in a hereafter world.  Such a fight will involve opposition to the material privileges of religion through its support by the state and through an alternative to the social programmes of well-funded fundamentalist movements.

In ‘the West’ it also means fighting the privileges of religion and for complete separation of church and state, in circumstances where it is rather easier to fight the material and ideological basis of religion.

As in all struggles it is necessary to be with the workers, in this case in their genuine expressions of revulsion at the terrorist attacks and their sincere advocacy of democratic rights, even, if not especially, when these are cynically and hypocritically appropriated by the likes of the dignitaries of such imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism who took part in the million person march in Paris.  At the same time it is necessary to put forward the equally sincere and honest programme that such violence can only be ended by opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, the imperialism that is its partner in barbarism and the irrational belief systems that so easily sanctify both.

The next step in the campaign against water charges?

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 01.50.42_0The Right2Water Campaign posted a message at the very end of 2014 setting out the tasks for 2015:

“So where to now? If we are to elect people who enact the laws we, the people, need in the next election to continue to unite on what we agree on and not sow division and discord over tactical approaches as some are currently endeavouring to do. We need to grow and develop the unity that has rocked the establishment and the media – not splinter in 100 different directions as Irish people have (to their great cost) many times before thereby allowing an elitist minority to reap and sow at great cost to the common good. It’s been the way of it for much too much of our history. Can we unite and through solidarity fundamentally change how our water, our housing, our jobs, our education and our health services are paid for and delivered in all our interests?”

The statement, and let’s leave aside the exact status of it for the moment, has been criticised on the Revolutionary Programme blog.  The criticism of ‘electoralism’ is correct in my view but the first problem is not the desire to somehow, in some way, at some time, lever the people mobilised by the campaign into support for some electoral initiatives, alliances or whatever.

There will be elections at some point not too far away and those opposed to water charges and austerity in general would be remiss in not seeking to utilise them to advance their struggle. Of course critics will claim, with previous ‘form’ for justifying such claims, that elections are typically used not to advance the struggle but the struggle used to advance elections.

For Marxists like the Revolutionary Programme blogger and myself the road to change, even for any significant reforms, never mind revolutionary change, will come primarily  from the actions of working people themselves and not from legislators “that enact laws that are wanted and needed by the people they are elected to represent, not Corporations and their cronies.”

Our view comes from our understanding of how the state works and how the nature of the state is such that it cannot fundamentally change society or challenge the priorities set by the corporations and their cronies.  This is because power and resources are distributed and reproduced by an economic system over which the Dail has little, and certainly no fundamental, control.  In Ireland this is much more obvious since the most dynamic sector of the economy is that controlled by US multinationals and Irish people are used to accepting that neither they nor their legislators control these multinationals.

To fundamentally challenge the priorities of the capitalist economy would mean either putting the system in crisis or compelling more radical transformation to a new system.  It stands to reason that if people are put before profit in a system that puts profit before people that the system will start to malfunction or at the very least not function as well – through capitalists taking their money out of the country, failing to invest or simply stirring up political opposition to change.  Alternatively, a completely new system requires something much more fundamental than changing the 166 people sitting in the chamber of the Dail.

This doesn’t mean nothing can be done short of some revolutionary change but it does mean that certain limits are put on such change; the fundamental driver for it will exist outside the Dail; such change can only be temporary if more fundamental change is not made and essential change requires action by the working class itself and not by people elected by it to do it on their behalf.

At the very least those advocating the election of those who will “enact the laws we, the people, need” are required to explain what will be done, who will do it and how it will be done.

If this really is the way forward there can be no objection to debating it.  If Marxists lose the debate and such a reformist road is carried then that will be accepted because it is only by changing workers’ minds that the Marxist alternative can come alive anyway.  Marxists are not opposed to reforms, we are in favour of them, strongly in favour of them, especially when they are posed as a real alternative not to revolution but to no change at all.

What’s more we do not believe that no reforms are possible, just that they will be contested, limited and will not conflict fundamentally with putting profit before people.

What Marxists might really object to now is that such top-down politics is often advanced in a top-down way by those most loudly proclaiming their bottom-up politics.

In Britain a working class party, at least in terms of support, exists in the form of the Labour Party through which the struggle to advance such reforms can be made.  In Ireland the Irish Labour Party excites the hopes of a smaller or larger minority of workers at various times, only for it to betray those hopes.  But it does not retain workers’ allegiance so that some continuing struggle within it can form the basis of advancing Irish workers political consciousness and organisation.

So no obvious candidate for the party needed to fulfil the perspectives of the Right2Water Campaign’s authors exists.  For many people newly drawn into political activity against the water charges this will be an obvious difficulty.  But it is not the most immediate.

The most immediate is the fact that what exists is a campaign against water charges that has no structure, or rather no democratic structure, so that it cannot decide whether any of the ideas put forward in the statement should be supported, because ‘it’ – a campaign – does not exist in any sort of form that could make a decision.  Nor is there any proposal in the statement to bring one into existence through, for example, a national conference and a democratically elected leadership accountable at all times to campaign supporters.

In a previous post I noted that it would be necessary to develop the scope and demands of the campaign but that this would need to be prepared.  Such preparation involves creating arrangements that allow people to discuss what they think collectively, whether they think the campaign should adopt additional objectives to that of opposing charges, and whether certain tactics should be promoted or not.  Even the statement leaves open the reality that the charges still exist, have not been killed off, and have a zombie-like existence – being half-dead and half-alive.  We have all seen enough zombie movies to know they keep on coming back to life to bite us.

Finally, but perhaps firstly, those involved in the campaign could hardly do better than follow the advice, once given by Tony Benn, and ask five questions of the campaign leaders: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

This is all very simple.  If someone thinks the campaign should support certain candidates in an upcoming election they must be able to answer these questions when anyone in the campaign asks them.

Workers’ cooperatives as an alternative to Capitalism – 2

10698536_420301091453164_5593204590190940624_nMarxists believe that conditions determine consciousness.  The ideas that most people have are products of their circumstances.  Currently workers sell their labour power as a commodity.  That is why they concentrate efforts on the price of their labour power (wages) and the terms and conditions at which it is sold.

It is why they value those services that they cannot provide for themselves individually but are unable to provide collectively because they lack the consciousness and organisation to do so.  This includes such things as unemployment insurance, pensions, health care and education.

The sanctification of capitalist private property means that the former is not strictly political while the distribution of the revenue from capitalism is.  Through the latter the working class is made dependent on the state for these services, including through employment in their delivery.  The welfare dependency culture repeated like a mantra by the right has this much basis in fact.

What there is not therefore is the material basis for the growth of a consciousness that workers should own, manage and control the productive activities of the economy and the state.  Instead the growth of the state and its acknowledged political leadership are the grounds for the view that the redistributive powers of the state are the basis for a solution.  This mistaken view takes the extreme form on the Left that the state should take over production itself.  Of course this has been tried.  It didn’t work well.

What we have with the Keynesian alternative then is an expectation, doomed to disappointment, that the capitalist state will divide the fruits of capitalism to benefit those who have first been exploited in opposition to those who have carried out the exploitation, which must remain in place in order to continue funding the redistribution.

Marxists believe that the future socialist society is not utopian because current society contains its anticipation in various ways.  Capitalism is pregnant with the future socialism; except that if the state is the embryo then the pregnancy taken to full term does not result in socialism but something else entirely.

Workers’ cooperatives are one of the crucial elements of this anticipated new society growing within the womb of the old.  It reunites workers with the means of production and removes the capitalist from the workplace.  It gives ownership to the workers and elevates their power, confidence and consciousness.  It can prepare the workers involved and other workers for the task of making the whole economy the property of the working class, which is socialism.

Workers ownership can provide the basis for workers to provide the services that are currently provided by the state and which leaves them at the mercy of the state and the politicians who preside on top of it.  Such services include education, health, welfare and pensions.  Workers self-provision of this would result in their own priorities being imposed on their provision.

However to posit this as the alternative immediately demonstrates a major difficulty.  While it is possible to envisage workers cooperatives supplanting individual capitalist production it is much more difficult to envisage this in regard to the services now provided by the State.  What this once again demonstrates is the role of the state as defender of the capitalist system – through exclusion of the working class from direct control within society and protection of the accumulation needs of capitalism.

Workers’ self-provision of what are now services provided by the state would necessarily lead not to demanding more taxation by the state but less, so that workers would have more control of their earnings and would have more to pool together and employ to their collective benefit.  In short workers would take more and more responsibility for their own lives, even when temporarily or permanently unable to work.  The dependence on the capitalist state would be weakened, at least in this respect.

In Ireland workers would have the grounds for recognising that there is an alternative economic development model to reliance on US multinationals.  They would have an example of a model of development that didn’t rely on the state.  They would have a living alternative to the threats that they need the capitalist banks.

Instead of workers relying on the state to provide for them by taxing the rich or investing in infrastructure to promote private capitalist investment they would have an alternative in which it is their own activity which is the alternative to capitalist crisis.

Is this the viewpoint of a reformist and utopian scenario?  I think not.

Firstly thousands of cooperatives already exist; they are not purely idealistic mental constructions.  What’s more they can be, and many are, very successful; providing hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Living proof that workers can do without capitalists to tell them what to do.  Workers can take control, can make decisions and can be successful.

The spread of workers’ cooperatives in entirely possible, their growth and development is not precluded by any necessarily limiting factor in capitalist development, at least to the point where capitalist accumulation appears threatened by it.

The trade union movement and the political organisations of the working class can play an important role in their development.  Workers’ cooperatives are therefore not an alternative to the existing workers movement but are something that can be complementary to its development, freeing it more and more from dependence on private capital and the state.

In fact workers’ cooperatives will inevitably demonstrate through their development the antipathy of the state to workers ownership and the power that workers as a class will develop as a result of its development.  The state will inevitably be used by the class it serves, the capitalist class, to undermine competition from workers cooperatives and support private capitalist accumulation.  Such a development will clarify the lines of battle between the workers’ movement and the capitalist system.

Workers’ cooperatives are not an alternative to class struggle but a means of carrying it out.  The creation of workers’ cooperatives in Argentina following its capitalist crises is evidence of this – how much better to promote workers’ cooperatives before such cataclysmic crises rather than in their midst or aftermath.

When workers say – “where is your socialist alternative after over a 150 years of your movement?”, we might have a living movement to point to rather than a simple promise for the future.

And such a movement will be an international one because just as capitalist development has become international there is every reason why workers’ cooperative production should also be international.  Every bit of such development will strengthen the international bonds between workers and undermine nationalist solutions that are currently growing.

In other words workers’ cooperatives provide the living link between resistance against the injustice of the current system and the creation of a real alternative.  Instead of simple rejection of cuts and lack of democracy workers’ cooperatives not only posit employment and democracy within the cooperative but the transition to a new society.  Workers’ cooperatives thus provide the material basis for linking the struggle against capitalism to the creation of socialism.

Workers’ cooperatives are not a magic bullet answer to the current crisis on the Left.  There is no simple or singular programmatic answer to a crisis that exists at the level of working class consciousness and organisation.  But for the Left a programmatic answer is currently by far and away the most important contribution that it can provide to workers.

Traditionally the revolutionary left has rejected workers’ cooperatives because they have been seen as an alternative to revolution – a militant class struggle against capitalists and the state culminating in an insurrection, the smashing of the capitalist state and creation of a new one.  I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the patient work of class organisation involved in union organising, party building and creation of workers’ cooperatives would get in the way of a burgeoning revolutionary movement.  Anyway, when was the last revolution in an advanced capitalist state, one in which the working class is the vast majority of society?

It can be legitimately claimed that workers in existing cooperatives lack socialist consciousness so how can they provide the material basis for socialism?  This objection however must also take on board the reality that decades of union organisation has also not turned the majority of trade unionists into socialists.  However no one advocates abandoning the organisation of trade unions.

Finally an objection is made that workers’ cooperatives will simply teach workers to exploit themselves within a market economy based on competition.  They will simply become their own capitalists.

However, at the extreme, the ownership of all production by the working class would not only remove the capitalist class but would also remove the need for all allocation by the market, or by socially necessary labour time, to use the strictly Marxist definition.  In other words workers’ cooperatives would cooperate with each other.  Such competition as would exist would not play the same role as capitalist competition just as the continued existence of money tokens would not make it a capitalist system.

So for example, a factory making shoes that became unfashionable would not close down and throw its workers into unemployment but would see them transfer to either production of shoes that were in demand or to some entirely different branch of production.  Other workers would support this because they would all know that what they produce might equally go out of fashion, become technologically obsolete or have its workforce reduced by automation.  In the same way the receipt of money as salaries and wages would not mean that this money would exist as capital, able to purchase labour power in the pursuit of profit.

The current value of workers’ cooperatives is not just as living practical examples of socialism but that they allow theoretical and political clarification of just exactly what socialism is.  They shine a light on the difference between workers power and all the solutions that rely on the state – from Keynesianism to nationalism.

This is the second part of the post.  The first part appeared here.

Belfast socialists discuss Scotland after the referendum

A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

Last night I went to a meeting organised by the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) on Scotland after the referendum in the Realta Centre in Belfast.  The speaker was Colm Breathnach, who is Irish and a former member of the ISN but is now living in Scotland

He said at the start that he was not going to go over the pros and cons of the vote but look at the situation now.  In fact a lot of what he had to say was about the pros and cons of the referendum campaign and his impressions of it, and particularly of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) , of which he is a supporter.

He enthused about the activity of what he called this ‘mass movement’ the like of which he had not seen or been involved in before.  It was described as a grass-roots progressive campaign that effectively led the Yes campaign in the referendum and dragged it, and thereby the SNP, to the left.

He supported independence because it gave the working class a ‘better terrain’ on which to fight.  He gave a consistently positive and enthusiastic account of the pro-independence movement and of his impressions of those involved.  He criticised the fear spread among workers by the No campaign while acknowledging that their fear of the consequences of independence was at least partly justified.  He claimed the independence movement was a reflection of progressive working class politics while also acknowledging that a lot of working class people voted No.

He claimed to have no illusions in the SNP but his criticisms of it were muted, very muted in fact, and he didn’t find it necessary to provide any clear characterisation of the nature of that party. His attitude to the Labour Party on the other hand was scathing – a ‘husk’ that no one progressive could possibly support.

He rejected the charge that the left in Scotland were following reactionary nationalism and told me, it was me who put this to him, that I hadn’t been listening to what he had said.  The Yes campaign had been about the vision of a new fairer society and not about national identity or nationalism.

The debate therefore started and ended where it might have been expected to – impressions of a movement for independence that wasn’t nationalist and an incredulous denial that the campaign for a separate state had been a nationalist one.  Weren’t there different sorts of nationalism anyway e.g. British nationalism and Palestinian nationalism?  They weren’t all the same.  He was in favour of internationalism and working class solidarity and unity among Scottish, English and other European workers.

He said accusingly, that if I wanted the Scottish, Welsh and English working class to be united in one state why wouldn’t I want the Irish to be included as well?  Why wouldn’t I be in favour of the Irish Republic rejoining Britain?

Oh my god!  If ever an argument could be expected to crush opposition to nationalism (or whatever it is) in front of an audience from a republican background this was it!  How on earth could anyone succumb to a view that had this as its logical conclusion?

All this was at the end of the meeting so there was no opportunity to reply.  I’m glad however I have a blog.

Listening to a speaker it can be very easy to follow their stream of argument without noticing the holes and contradictions within it, especially if one hasn’t got a strong and considered view on it already.  But surely I cannot have been alone in wondering why it was necessary to claim there are different sorts of nationalism when the Yes campaign was very, very definitely not a nationalist one.

Surely it was noticed that the claim he wanted unity among Scottish, English and Welsh workers sat in flat contradiction to the view that he very definitely didn’t want them all to coexist in the one state. Was this not privileging the interests of separate (capitalist) states over the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality?  Well that’s how it looked to me.

I heard echoes of the view that working class unity among nationalities is possible without their being in the one state but the ridiculous argument that being inside one state doesn’t makes this easier was not advanced in justification. Instead I was asked why I supported the existence of the British state formation, the implication being that one formation of capitalist states is as good as another (although the implications of this for the demand for a separate Scottish state were probably furthest from the speaker’s thoughts).

I would have replied, had I the opportunity, that the British State has the advantage of already existing and containing within it a voluntary union of nationalities; that socialists are in favour of the voluntary union of nationalities; that the working class in Britain is united in one labour movement irrespective of nationality with a long tradition that includes exemplary struggle and that, yes ,this should even include the Irish if such unity could be voluntary and on the basis of equality.  That is, there would be an absence of the national oppression that has characterised previous and current British rule in Ireland and that has been absent from relations with Scotland except in relation to the latter’s role as oppressor

There is nothing special about the form of the British state in achieving this except that nationalist division would be a backward step away from it.  If the British state proved a barrier to wider unity on a continental state then calling for its supersession would be progressive.  In any case the creation of a European working class movement is required and every step in defeating nationalist division is to be welcomed.

None of this would have convinced the speaker because for him the British working class does not exist.

I put it to him that when I used to live in Scotland in the 1970s the Left in Scotland opposed Scottish nationalism as reactionary and it now supports this nationalism, but that this support does not make it progressive.  He said things had changed.  And so they have, in the way I have just described.

I also put it to him that the rise of Scottish nationalism had divided the British working class and divided the working class in Scotland.  The demand for independence if successful would mean dividing the British working class movement including its trade unions.  It was in reply to this that I was told that the British working class doesn’t exist ‘except in some peoples’ heads.’

This is no doubt why left supporters of Scottish separation hardly ever consider the unity of the British working class or factor it into their analysis.  It’s much simpler to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. We have had this argument on the blog before.

What we might have expected was some explanation of why socialists should support a separate Scottish state.  Providing a ‘better terrain’ was as much as we got, yet no one thought to ask what this meant or, more bluntly – is that it?

All in all I didn’t learn anything new from the meeting but most of the participants will at least have been exposed to some of the arguments and will have found it in some way informative.  The meeting was therefore a modest success.

I had however hoped that I would have learned more, which is why at the start of the meeting I asked some questions.

Colm said during his speech that he accepted the result of the referendum so I asked him what he meant by this and in order to explain what I meant by asking him this I said did he accept it as an exercise in self-determination by the Scottish people.

In reply he said that in saying he accepted it he meant he did not go along with the conspiracy theorists who claimed the result had been the subject of fraud, as some nationalists have claimed. But he asked what I meant by the question to which I explained – did he think the referendum was a legitimate exercise of self-determination?  His answer was less than clear.

He criticised the pro-union bias of the media – the newspapers and particularly the coverage of the BBC in Scotland.  The bias of the media is not new but such bias is a part of what Marxists call bourgeois democracy and the referendum was a part of this democracy.  He did not address the real point of the question and by failing to do so he and the nationalist movement consciously or unconsciously avoid its implications.  That is the implications of having lost.

The point of the question was to elicit his view whether, in saying he ‘accepted’ the result, he was accepting that the Scottish people had been given the opportunity to freely exercise self-determination and had done so by supporting union within the UK state.  Many nationalists appear to believe that self-determination only exists if it results in a separate state, as if determining one’s future only takes place when you vote the way they like.

The very non-committal answer showed an unwillingness to accept that the referendum was a legitimate exercise in self determination that should be accepted as such.  Whatever grounds for demanding separation exist they can not therefore include the claim that the Scottish people have not been given the opportunity to freely vote for ‘independence’ and were thereby subject to some form of national oppression. In this respect the answer showed that the left supporters of separation appeared no more inclined to really accept the result than the broader nationalist movement.  In doing so they ignore the implications for what they do next.

And this was my next question.  I asked what the strategy of the left supporters of independence was now?  Did they still hold that independence was necessary for the working class to move forward?  Or did his claim that this was really not a nationalist movement but a movement for social justice mean they would fight austerity without also requiring unity around independence?

Would they recognise that the austerity offensive from the Government in London is enforced by the Scottish Government, just as it is being enforced in the North of Ireland by Stormont, and seek unity with English and Welsh workers to oppose it?  Or would they seek to fight alone, so unnecessarily weakening themselves and the rest of the British working class?

I got a very unclear answer which involved acknowledging that whether the demand for independence was a high or low priority would be determined.  He was still strongly in favour of it.

Since the immediate requirement is to fight austerity and a new referendum is not immediately on the cards the prevarication revealed the divisiveness of the nationalist project.  In practice this means continued division of the British working class, which the nationalists appear to think doesn’t exist but the Condem Government is screwing nevertheless.

Repeatedly the speaker said that the Radical Independence Campaign was not a nationalist movement but he admitted that half of its supporters were members of the SNP, which has grown very significantly since the referendum.  They will no doubt campaign for and vote for this party.  The SNP is riding high and is reaping the benefits of relative success in the referendum.  Majorities in favour of ‘independence’ were recorded in Glasgow, Dundee and many other mainly working class areas.

Only by being unclear about what the SNP is; only by denying that a separate state is a nationalist and divisive demand and only by failing to recognise the harm this does to a united working class response to austerity can this be seen as in any way progressive.  Nationalism is what was on offer in the referendum and nationalism is what many voted for regardless of what they thought they were doing.  Colm mentioned false consciousness in his speech but didn’t properly identify who was falling victim to it.

Already figures on the Left are calling for a vote for the SNP at the next election.  The same SNP that colluded with the Tories when first entering into government in Scotland.  The same SNP that repeatedly accused the Labour Party of cuddling up to the Tories in the No campaign and the same SNP whose leader was such an ally of Rupert Murdoch.

This makes perfect sense if, as much of the Left appears to believe, ‘independence’ is the indispensable condition for progress.  The left voting for a right wing, pro-capitalist, pro neo-liberal party is the result of its collapse into nationalism.  Going by the meeting there is precious little sign of re-evaluation

Workers’ Cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism – 1

420389_494371703955556_1654331871_nIn October I was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Glasgow South branch of Left Unity on the subject of workers’ cooperatives.  The post below is the first part of the text on which the speech delivered was based.  I would like to thank the comrades for the invitation and for the couple of pints in the pub afterwards.

 

The first thing I want to do is look at two problems to which I think workers’ cooperatives can play an important role in providing an answer.

In 2008 the Irish banking system was on the verge of complete collapse.  It had lent exorbitant amounts of money to commercial property development and for the construction of houses.  Not only finance but employment and state revenue became overly dependent on construction.  When the price of houses rose beyond a certain point, and when the commercial property market became saturated, the over-extension of property developers became evident in bad loans that bankrupted the banks.

This was an international problem because much of the financing of Irish banks came from Britain, the US and Germany for example.  The bankruptcy of the Irish banks would thus have had severe repercussions for investors in these and other countries, including the financial institutions in these countries.

To save the Irish banking system, to bail out the native bankers and foreign investors, the Irish Government launched a bailout of the banks through a state guarantee of all their liabilities, worth around €440 billion in an economy nominally producing €154 billion a year.  It was declared ‘the cheapest (bailout) in the world’ by the Irish Finance Minister.  This could not possibly be afforded and has so far cost an estimated €64 billion, although the exact figure is still a matter for development.

This bill and the huge budget deficit caused by the collapse of construction resulted in a series of attacks on working class living standards involving seven austerity budgets consisting of a variety of tax increases, cuts in public services and investment, the robbery of workers’ pension funds, massive unemployment, emigration and lots of praise from around the world at how well the Irish swallowed the austerity medicine.  From poster boy for the boom the Irish have become poster child for austerity.

In the following election the ruling Fianna Fail party was badly mauled and a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour Party was elected on the promise of a ‘democratic revolution’ and by Labour the promise it would reign in Fine Gael.  The vote was a choice between ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way.’

In truth however no one could really be surprised that this coalition continued and intensified the policies of austerity began by Fianna Fail.  That anyone thought differently demonstrated only a very low political awareness.

On the ‘left’ 5 United Left Alliance candidates were also elected and 14 Sinn Fein TDs out of a total of 166, although Sinn Fein had also voted for the bail-out.

In 2012 the Irish State was compelled to hold a referendum on the new EU Fiscal Compact that limited state deficits and debt.  It basically required signing up to continued austerity which is why it was called the ‘austerity treaty’.  Despite the unpopularity of austerity it was approved by 60% to 40%.  In my view a crucial reason for this was the complete lack of a convincing alternative.

What was the alternative proposed?

This consisted of a number of elements – repudiating the debt, opposing austerity, taxing the rich, and increasing public expenditure in order to improve public services, boost employment and further economic growth.

There are two points to note about this alternative – first it doesn’t change the nature of the economic system, it is what is called Keynesianism.  This does not mean that socialists should not support some of these measures, or point out the hypocrisy in their not being implemented.  But the question is, if the problem is capitalism and this alternative doesn’t threaten the system then quite obviously it cannot be a solution.

The second flows from this, because if it isn’t a solution would it actually work?  I’ll just take two examples from this programme – why on earth would the rich allow their wealth and income to be taken off them?  And how then could the state increase public sector investment when it was heading towards budget deficits of over 13%?

This illustrates a deeper problem with looking to the state as a solution.  This is because the burden placed on Irish workers was not simply, or even mainly, carried out by the banks and property developers.  It was the State that made their debts the debts of the Irish people and it has been the State that has increased taxes and cut services, making their own particular contribution to cutting wages and increasing unemployment.

Since the state is a capitalist state, funded and staffed at the highest levels by the propertied classes this can really be no surprise.  The actions of the capitalist state are not therefore the answer.  Not only does it not have any interest in providing a solution but it is incapable of being the solution.  State ownership, bureaucratic ownership, is not democratic and is totally unsuited to running productive activities the civil servants that staff it have no knowledge of.

There is no point calling for the state to nationalise the banks – they did and that was precisely the problem!

At bottom this is the root of the failure of resistance to austerity and is why it has not only failed in Ireland but in every other country affected by the financial crash.

The second point is connected to all this.  If the Keynesian alternative is not a road to socialism what is the road to it?

The alternative to the view that the capitalist state will reform society is that the state is actually the mechanism for enforcing oppression and exploitation and should therefore be smashed.  In this scenario of revolution the oppression of capitalist society breeds resistance which develops into a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class that then proceeds to build a new socialist society.  In this society the market is replaced by planning and capitalist economic crises become history.

But how are workers to become aware that their own ownership and control is the alternative?  How does it not only come to consciousness of this but is actually trained, ready and able to play this role?  How in the middle of crisis is a workers’ economy supposed to rise from the ashes more or less fully formed and present itself as a qualitative advance on what has went before?

Of course in some ways capitalism itself anticipates this planning through the growth of big business with advanced forms of planning within it, increased cooperation between companies that ostensibly are in competition and increased interdependency of different firms and different countries, encapsulated in the term globalisation.  This has all been demonstrated negatively through the simultaneous near collapse of the financial system, world trade and economic growth through the credit crunch plus the increased role of the state despite privatisation.

There is however one thing missing from this anticipation of the new society in the existing one and one thing missing from the scenario of revolutionary overthrow.

The missing factor is what the new society, the harbinger of socialism, actually is – the rule of the working class and its allies; the rule of the majority of society in place of the capitalist class and its managers, bureaucrats and politicians who all currently administer its rule.

Where in the anticipation of socialism within existing capitalist society is the growth of workers participation in running the economy, in preparation for taking over complete control?  Where are the grounds for workers to build a new society before, during and after revolution?  Where is the alternative that would avoid a new version of Stalinism where the State rules society rather than a society ruled by workers subordinating the state? Where even arises the motivation for workers to see that their own rule is the only valid unfolding of their resistance to the exploitation, oppression and iniquity of current society?

How are workers to come to see that it is they that not only can but must take control of society and its productive powers if they do not first take initial steps now through workers’ cooperatives?  Are we to believe they will suddenly come to realise through a revolution – an episode of at most a few years – that they must take over the economy?  How will they come to seek this as their solution unless many of them have already tried to do it and become committed to it?