The Left and the fight for reforms

SFimagesIn the first of these posts I argued that the apparent differences in various contributions to the debate on recent developments in Irish politics, including the prospects for the left, did not reveal fundamental disagreements.  Everyone from Sinn Fein to the Left alliances looks forward to a very significant challenge to the establishment and see great potential for success.

In the previous post I mentioned that the general policy platform of anti-austerity and its implementation through forming a Left Government, supported by mass mobilisation outside, is endorsed by these same organisations.

Yet proposals for an overarching alliance formed by these organisations are rejected by both sides.  Sinn Fein rejects “the Trotskyist left” because it has sought to divide the anti-water charges movement formed under the banner of the Right2Water campaign.  And it is clear that it is also rejected because Sinn Fein thinks this Left is unwilling to form a Government with the Labour Party, and incapable of any sort of political unity with the trade unions that support the Right2Water campaign.

Of course there are good grounds for these positions.  The Labour Party has spent four years inflicting austerity in Government with Fine Gael in the South and Sinn Fein has been in office with the even more rabidly right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in the North, also inflicting austerity, while claiming to oppose it through vetoing some welfare changes.  In the South Sinn Fein also voted for the justification for much of the austerity by voting to bail out the rotten banks and their gambling investors.  In this way the Irish State transferred the debts of the banks to the working class.

However the centre piece of the Left’s strategy is the formation of a Left Government in order to reverse austerity – they propose no other effective or credible means of doing so.  As I have also argued – their privileging of the non-payment tactic as the only route to defeating water charges leaves them otherwise naked when it comes to explaining how they would defeat the much greater effects of the other austerity measures.

In their arguments, despite claims to prioritise mass mobilisation over electoral success, they reveal the central and indispensable role in their strategy of electoral success.  Only by forming a Government could their demands for reversing austerity be carried out: through taxation increases for the rich and reductions for the rest; for increased state spending to create jobs; for reversing privatisation and for repudiation of the state’s debt.  The actions proposed by the Left are inconceivable without forming a Government to do these things, which is why they naturally call for a Left Government.

The Left say that mass mobilisations are key and elections are there to support them but what these mobilisations are supposed to achieve in themselves, beyond single victories on various issues that develop, is never explained.  Mass mobilisation is not itself a programme, not itself a strategy unless given some purpose and objective, given some content.  What for? To achieve what?  How and in what way would such mobilisations put forward and actually implement an alternative, except other than through a Left Government?

The genuine order of priority is made clear when Paul Murphy explains the real importance of the anti-water charges campaign – “Winning the water charges battle is strategically central to the prospect of building a left that can fight for a real left government.”

The strategy of capturing government office in a capitalist state is what Marxists call reformism and I have written a series of posts criticising this view, beginning with this one.

I’m not going to criticise the Left here for being reformist but simply to point out that their strategy requires capturing Governmental office while rejecting any arrangement with Sinn Fein or the Labour Party.  The prospect of them doing this in the foreseeable future is therefore practically zero.

I have criticised the specific proposals of the Left before not because it has proposed reforms but because they are viewed, not as making capitalism less oppressive and creating better conditions within which workers can fight for a replacement, but because the reforms themselves are seen as in some way instituting an alternative to capitalism.  In this sense their policies are not an alternative to capitalism but an alternative to the real alternative to capitalism, which is socialism.

To sum up what their approach involves – it entails the capitalist state, presided over by the Left, intervening much more into the economy and creating a fairer and more just system.  It doesn’t involve a fundamental change in the economic or political structure and amounts to a fairer form of capitalism, full stop.

If their strategy ‘secretly’ involves revolution in the traditional sense of an insurrection, one that aims at the destruction of the capitalist state, this isn’t going to happen either, if only because they haven’t gone around doors giving out leaflets and telling the only people who can carry it out that this is what they should do.

Paul Murphy presents a related reason for opposition to unity with Sinn Fein and/or the Labour Party.   He says that the latter involves “the notion of constructing a “social majority”, instead of building a class based movement.”  Unfortunately this opposition of a social majority to a class based movement is false since a working class movement in itself will be a majority and its creation will win to its ranks individuals and social layers who are not working class.  The idea of a ‘social majority’, however described, should not be, or allowed to be, counter posed to a working class movement.

It is almost as if what this reformist strategy needs, and what its reformists-in-practice require, is some concrete reforms in an explicit strategic alliance with reformists.

So the Left says it cannot countenance a coalition that would include the Labour Party and/or Sinn Fein because these parties have already and will in future impose austerity when in Government.

However to many voters the alternatives offered by Sinn Fein and the Left do not seem very different.  The by-election victory of Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party over Sinn Fein, in part due to a more militant stance on opposing water charges, is not unfortunately likely to be the template for the general election.

The actions of the trade unions involved in the Right2Water campaign and their transparent attempts to endorse a left alternative that includes Sinn Fein, and even Labour if it went along with it, demonstrate this.

But the answer to this is not to simply denounce these parties, for if that were all that was required, as I have said before, we wouldn’t have the problem.  The answer must be to challenge the credentials of these parties and to win the trade union members and other workers who have supported the Right2Water campaign to a real anti-austerity alternative.  If such a process were to take place it could only be through joint activity and joint debate with the leaders and members of these parties.

In such a process it would be my view that the weakness of the Left’s own anti-austerity programme, in no essential terms different, would be exposed.   However such a strategy makes sense even from the Left’s point of view.

So, in order to begin to demonstrate their claims and in order to be seen to be seeking the maximum unity of anti-austerity forces the Left, perhaps paradoxically, would need to take its pretensions to reform the Southern State and economy more seriously.

It might do this by, for example, proposing the specific measures that it would take in the first 100 days and first year in office while demonstrating that unity around these policies is essential, challenging both Sinn Fein and the Labour Party to endorse them and fight for them together.  The Left would openly propose and debate these measures, this strategy, and seek to make itself accountable to its constituency, in the process attempting to leverage this support to engage with that of Sinn Fein and the trade unions.

The purposes of this would not only be to win these supporters to more radical politics but to promote their capacity and willingness to make the parties they currently support more accountable.  The aim of this is not so much to put pressure on these parties to keep their word, or even to facilitate their rejection when they do not, but to encourage and stimulate the independent political activity of these workers.

So, for example, the mechanisms put forward in the contribution by Rory Herne come across as elaborate and wishful scenario building that involve earnest but utopian blueprints for the ‘perfect’ movement.  But they do offer some sense of how such accountability might be achieved.

Would such tactics work? Maybe, maybe not.  But the point is that a means has to be created that allows the Left to engage with those voting for Sinn Fein and (more importantly from my point of view) for Marxists to go beyond denunciation of the Left’s Keynesianism to engage it and its supporters in clarifying the means to advance working class politics and organisation.

As Marx said:

“. . nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

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