The weakness of Irish workers resistance to austerity cannot be explained as a supposed result of this austerity having less effect than in other countries. We have just witnessed the eighth austerity budget, the previous seven having cumulatively accounted for 17 per cent of current Gross Domestic Product.
The budget deficit in 2013 is higher than that of Spain, Portugal or Greece; there is at least another austerity budget pencilled in and the State debt is continuing to rise. Next to nothing of the debt taken on in order to bail out the banks has been paid back and these banks are still saddled with mortgage customers who can’t pay their loans back. Were the much trumpeted rebound of the property market to be anything substantial the banks would be repossessing and selling the vacated properties. They’re not.
In other words the crisis isn’t over and neither is austerity, although faint hope that it is coming to an end plays one part in explaining latterly the weakness of protest and resistance.
The answer to the problem lies in the weakness of the Irish working class itself. For Marx capitalism, in creating the working class, created its grave digger. The nature of a particular capitalism goes a long way to explaining the nature of a particular working class and the weakness of the Irish working class is a reflection of the weakness of Irish capitalism.
An objection might be made to this that the Russian working class was the most ideologically advanced working class a century ago while Russian capitalism was weak. On the other hand capitalism in the United States has been the most advanced for a century or more but its working class is a byword for exceptional weakness.
The uneven and combined development of both societies has gone a long way to explaining this apparent anomaly and it is beyond the scope of this post to compare and contrast the development of the US and Russian socialist movements. Over 100 years ago Karl Kautsky wrote on this question in ‘The American Worker’, relatively recently republished as part of a symposium in the journal ‘Historical Materialism’.
What we can say here in respect of Ireland is that its uneven historical development both inside the country, and as a region within the wider British economy, mainly as a reserve of agricultural production and labour power, has accounted for its historical weakness.
I was reminded of this nearly a year ago when I received a United Left Alliance (ULA) email newsletter what presented a series of proposed meetings to be organised by the ULA against austerity. These meetings were to deal with different aspects of the issue such as the economy, health services etc. In Russia a noteworthy feature of political and intellectual life a hundred years ago was the strength, vibrancy and hegemony of Marxism such that it dominated even the thinking of Russian liberals.
How different a situation from Ireland! The speakers proposed for the ULA list of meetings demonstrated the reverse – the domination of Irish socialism by liberalism. We can see this in everything from the Left’s opportunist search for unity with organisations that are far from working class in political character, from the Greens to Sinn Fein and populist independents, to their Keynesian economic alternative that relies on the goodness of the liberal capitalist state –taxing the rich and nationalising industry.
This of course feeds into the mis-education of workers who, while they may not reject the ULA’s state-reformism from a revolutionary perspective, have a healthy distrust of the really existing bureaucratic state they know. And they have a healthy scepticism that this state will create a new economy and tax the rich when the most widespread view of politics and government is that the politicians and the state mandarins are only in it for themselves.
Acquaintance with the occupational training by FÁS and the decades-long state attitude to tax dodging by the elite has convinced workers that the state is rotten; a source of corruption, incompetence and of patronage which moves according to who you know or who you can lobby or to whom you can provide supplication. Meanwhile Irish liberals bemoan the population’s lack of civic virtue and the Left feeds it nonsense about the capitalist state as the solution to austerity and poverty.
Lack of a response to austerity is in small part a result of this but more significantly a long result of Irish economic development and the working class and its movement, which it has produced. The weakness of the working class movement is therefore of long vintage in Ireland. The outstanding figure of Connolly, who remains a giant of working class history, and the courage of the 1913 lock-out, are today appropriated by the bureaucrats of ICTU and the Labour Party wielders of the austerity knife. Where is the movement that can legitimately claim this heritage?
Connolly and 1913 shine so brightly because the working class movement has for most of Irish history been subordinated to other forces. While capitalist relations developed early in Ireland and industrialisation grew beside that in Britain it was much reduced by its greater development in the latter so that by and large it became limited to the north-east of the country. There a relatively compact and developed working class developed but the fatal disease affecting it has long been known. It could therefore play no wider progressive leadership role for the rest of the country
There the creation of a reserve of agricultural production for Britain created the conditions for the famine in the middle of the 19th century that devastated the country and led to reactionary social and political consequences everywhere.
First were the direct effects of death and emigration which robbed the country of a growing domestic market on which capitalist production could grow.
Then there was its effect on the land question that provided the social basis of Irish nationalism but which, because of the famine and its effects, including emigration, could be solved without a wider popular alliance of forces that included the working class. The Irish nationalist movement was thus alternately dominated by reactionary bourgeois forces heavily influenced by the Catholic Church or a republican tradition that had its most democratic leadership in the United Irishmen ripped from it at the end of the 18th century through severe repression and sectarianism. Republicanism became a petty bourgeois movement largely indifferent if not hostile to working class politics when at its strongest.
It did develop a wing which looked at the working class as ‘the men of no property’ but only so that they would help win national freedom. This grew into a socialist republican tradition but this has also looked to the working class as the force for national freedom. Where in other countries the socialist movement has grown through leading a fight for democracy, in Ireland this has never happened. The left wing of the democratic movement has on the other hand appropriated radicalism that might in different circumstances have flowed into the working class movement.
Instead of a socialist movement that has taken on board the tasks highlighted by republicanism we have had a republican movement with left wing views tagged on but which has more often than not simply not understood what a socialist programme is, although sadly they are not alone in this. Thus left wing opinions have abounded in this part of the republican movement but opinions have substituted for programme. Marxism, genuine Marxism, and not its bastard imitation Stalinism, has been almost non-existent. So many of the most radical spirits in Ireland have left the country or been absorbed in the dead end of republican politics.
The famine also resulted in the growth of the enormous power of the Catholic Church. It is commonplace to at least partly account for the weakness of the working class movement in Ireland by pointing to the sectarian division of the class. This division was hardened and strengthened tremendously by partition, creating an additional divide between workers in the North and those in the South, on top of the religious divide.
What is more and more apparent however is not simply the effects of the division itself, in preventing unity across state jurisdictions or in spite of sectarian identification, but the paralysing influence of the resulting political forces within the separate parts of the working class.
Sectarian division allowed the Catholic Church to engage in social repression involving sexual abuse, censorship and imposition of a reactionary ideological environment that was consciously and vehemently anti-socialist. The more that is learned about this repression the more its class aspects become apparent.
The extreme reactionary monarchist ideology is perhaps less important in the North among some Protestant workers than the sheer ideology of division itself, i.e. sectarianism.
The strength of both Catholic and Orange movements have in no small part been due to the creation of the two states issuing from the division of the country. Again and again even today we see the state protect the most reactionary elements in society both North and South – the Northern state facilitate loyalist paramilitaries and the Southern State finance the organisations found guilty of systematic child abuse.
National oppression has prevented the Irish working class from being an organic part of the growth of the British working class movement which means it has never availed of its strengths while it has on the other hand imported and copied all its weaknesses, including economism and trade union type politics.
Upon this weakness of the working class has been built its political subordination; its domination in the South until recently by the bourgeois Fianna Fail and its saturation by sectarian politics in the North. Without a strong socialist tradition the periodic shifts away from the traditional parties can go in almost any direction.
In the last election the Left captured the vote of a small bit of this but the apolitical and clientelistic character of Irish politics affects the Left. This and the state-centred nature of its politics is the basis for the chronic sectarianism that has shattered the alliance the Left had formed.
As Marx said the growth of sectarianism is in inverse proportion to the development of the class as a whole and the weakness of the class is the fertile ground on which the narrow and blinkered outlook of much of the Left has been established.
So what we have had is an historically weak working class. During the key episode of political struggle around and after the First World War it was subordinated and subordinated itself to bourgeois nationalist or sectarian forces. The victory of the most reactionary of these forces combined with retarded economic development prevented the growth of a strong working class movement thereafter. The Irish state did not participate in the Second World War so its working class missed out in the radicalisation that accompanied it in many countries.
Marx however called capitalism a revolutionary mode of production that continually creates and recreates the working class. While this historic political weakness weighs on today’s generations the system throws up new industries, new work relations, new circumstances enabling economic growth and new forms of working class development. The historical development of the Irish working class during the 19th and much of the twentieth centuries cannot explain the current lack of combativity of the Irish working class because this combativity is capable of being changed and transformed.
The Irish working class continued to develop after the Second World War but this subsequent development did not create a break from its historic political weakness and to the extent it has not done so the weight of history continues to oppress.