Is a Left Government a good idea?

PBPA-header-w814It reminds me of a football club that tries to buy a player from another club but fails because it can’t afford the transfer fee.  It is soon made clear that they didn’t really fancy the player anyway, that the price was too high, they wouldn’t be held to ransom and in any case, they’ve got better players in their own ranks.

So some recent statements by the Left on the question of forming a Left Government appear to throw doubt on this project, state that the political price of signing up to one is too high and anyway, they’d prefer to be in opposition.  In fact it’s maybe not even a good idea in the first place.

This is the impression given by the People before Profit Alliance (PbP) who, in a statement on a left Government, nowhere say that it is a good idea but instead pour cold water on the whole notion. It states that “our willingness to enter or, alternatively, support a left government from outside depends on agreement that our red line issues will be carried through.” So which is it – enter or support, and how might we expect the difference to be arrived at?

In terms of my previous posts, the strategic gap in the perspective of seeking a left Government is made to go away by seemingly orthodox Marxist criticisms of the whole idea.  So the statement quoted from above was preceded by a political article from a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) journal explaining its view of the socialist attitude to a Left Government.

“The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the logic of parliamentary politics is a reformist politics that sees Cabinet as the place where changes are made, drawing movements into compromises, undermining the mobilising capacity of the working class and leading to the defeat of Left Governments and the wider working class movement . . .  spreading illusions in reforming the State can be fatal.”

Further on we are told that “we can also see in the desire for a ‘left government’ an initial and vague rejection of capitalism on the part of masses of workers. The growth of an ‘authentic’ Social Democratic or left reformist consciousness amongst hundreds of thousands of workers is a vital stepping stone to a revolutionary consciousness.”

And in the next paragraph:

“They [left formations seeking office] appeal to the desire to change things but they do so within the limits of the existing capitalist economy. Capitalists today cannot afford the reforms that they could during the post war boom, which lasted from the 1940s to 1973, and so any left government will very quickly have to decide whether or not to fight or capitulate as the ruling class can use their economic might, control of the banks and also the media to strangle the left or to force a capitulation which demoralises the working class support base of the Government.”

So where we have got to in this analysis is that left governments can result in compromise, which can be fatal, but reflect a vague rejection of capitalism by workers that is a vital stepping stone to revolutionary consciousness.   Since this social-democratic consciousness, which is “vital”, is based on illusions in the state bringing in reforms, and even socialism, we can see the immediate problem expressed in the view that such “illusions in reforming the State can be fatal.”

What makes everything even more difficult is that a left government doesn’t have very much time to turn this consciousness around because “any left government will very quickly have to decide whether or not to fight or capitulate.”

If all this is true then the SWP/PbP is correct to be lukewarm at best about any near-term prospect of a left Government, if this is what it is saying.   The Irish working class is not currently even vaguely rejecting capitalism and, if it did elect a Left Government, it would never develop the revolutionary consciousness or practical power to successfully challenge capitalism in the short period during which a Left Government would exist before it either compromised or was overthrown (according to the SWP).

My own view, expressed before in a series of posts, is that a more or less long period of preparation is needed before the working class can prepare itself (not by a left Government) to take power in society.  I have therefore argued that it is not the perspective of capturing office that is central to socialist strategy but building up the independent power of the working class in society which is fundamental.

The SWP states that:

“For revolutionaries though, the battle to render workers fit to self-govern is connected to the revolution itself- for it is in mass struggle that people throw off ruling class ideas and begin to grow in confidence. For us the foundation of socialism is not about a slow accumulation of reforms that gradually evolve into a new society – for revolutionaries the key foundation of socialism is the throwing off of ruling class ideas, what Marx called the ‘muck of ages’, the pessimistic, sexist and racist filth that flows from the ruling class and is accepted by workers because of oppression and atomisation.”

If we look at this statement firstly from the beginning – the battle to render workers fit to govern is indeed connected to the revolution but what socialism involves is a social revolution, not just a political one of taking over or replacing one form of political rule by another.  It is simply incredible to believe that in a few short months or even years workers will learn to be able, or even want, to take over the running of the economy from the capitalist class (without previous years of making attempts to do so).  Even in the Russian revolution, still held up as some sort of model, the workers looked to state ownership under the Bolsheviks as their saviour.  Mass political struggle is insufficient to generate the revolutionary consciousness or capability necessary for social revolution, and certainly not in the truncated period foreseen by the term of office of an uncompromising left Government supported initially by ‘vague’ ideas about anti-capitalism.

Thus when we approach the statement from its end, the ‘muck of ages’ will not be swept away in a few short years but will require an extended period of workers, not ‘vaguely’ seeking to overthrow  capitalism, but actively hoping for and fighting for socialism.  As Marx put it “they know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

The lack of revolutionary consciousness among workers is not simply due to “oppression” and “atomisation” and is not simply reflected in pessimism, sexism and racism: it arises fundamentally because of the subordinate role the working class plays in capitalist society.  Their social consciousness is determined generally by their social position, the most fundamental aspect of which is their separation from ownership of the means of production and compulsion to sell their labour power to capitalists. Steps to challenge and begin to change this are fundamental to any social revolution and this isn’t the work of a parliamentary term of office, which the SWP appear to think a left government wouldn’t even get.

The problems that face the SWP perspective are actually demonstrated by the article to be worse than this – “clearly any movement that has illusions in the state, and believes that this machinery serves any purpose other than oppression, is blinding the working class to the key task of any revolution – the life-or-death necessity of dismantling these oppressive structures”; but isn’t it PbP which says that one of its red-line issues in determining support for a left Government is that it has a “strategy of using public resources to empower an active workers movement – the way that the state has been used up to now to shore up corporate interests”?

And further, having said that “we can also see in the desire for a ‘left government’ an initial and vague rejection of capitalism on the part of masses of workers”, and that this isn’t revolutionary consciousness, the article then says: “hence the all-important paradox: the advent of a left government will only strengthen the workers’ movement inasmuch as the class, or at least its vanguard, do not have illusions in this government.”

This must then rule out the pursuit of a left Government not only today but for ever in the future according to the analysis presented by the SWP writer.

Of course the get-out is reference to the vanguard, but it is the working class which will create socialism or it won’t be created at all so no devolving of tasks required of the working class to an undefined vanguard will solve this problem.

The conclusions of the article would appear to rule out the perspective of trying to form a left Government – “In the past socialists have dealt with left governments through the tactic of ‘external support’ – that means we would never run the oppressive state machinery but we would explain to workers that we are willing to support a left government as long as it acts in worker’s interests but from the opposition benches.”

This means that all the proposals in the PbP manifesto that require action by the state are a fraud – the PbP never intends to implement them because it will never be in government.  Are the PbP going to tell working class voters this when it knocks on doors?  Saying “we will not be joining any government that includes Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour in its present form” is misleading and should be replaced by “we will not be joining any government.”  What it means by saying that it may talk to Sinn Fein and the left after the election about forming a left Government is anyone’s guess.  Since the Anti-Austerity Alliance is very much in favour of forming a left Government just what is their electoral alliance with it about?

If the left Government would receive PbP support when it acted in workers’ interests why would it not seek to act in their interests itself by joining the government?  In this we are back to the difficulties of trying to remain pure by staying outside government while still having to take political responsibility for keeping it in office (see the previous post).

The SWP is clear that “based on this understanding of the nature of the state machine as a repressive mechanism for holding the working class down, no revolutionary socialist can ever join a government under capitalism.”

It draws the conclusion that “therefore socialists should support a left government but from the opposition benches. We stand in elections for the sole purpose of building the extra-parliamentary struggle.”

So it would appear that it maintains its revolutionary purity, except that it stands in elections promoting reformist policies that could only be implemented by forming a government, not by “extra-parliamentary struggle.”  Its Marxism becomes an article of faith, with quotations from the prophets in special books to be read by members and might-be members, but with no practical programmatic application on this earth, in this world.

It enters an electoral alliance with the Anti-Austerity Alliance saying “we stand for a left government”.

It wants to “abolish austerity taxes and reverse the cuts.”  It wants to “invest in Health” and “build a National Health Service, free at the point of use and paid for through progressive central taxation.”  It similarly wants to “invest in education and childcare” and “reduce the pupil-teacher ratio” and “develop strategic public enterprise and industry and invest in public infrastructure” by making “the corporations pay their taxes”.  It wants to “take Ireland’s oil and gas resources into public ownership” and “recognise the Palestinian state” and much, much more; none of which is possible to implement without being in Government.

It is indeed difficult to make the pursuit of Marxist politics consistent with the current political development of the Irish working class, but Marx himself faced a similar problem.  The review above shows that the current approach by part of the Left is simply incoherent, an incoherence that fortunately for it will not be put to the test as a result of the election about to be called.

Back to part 5

One thought on “Is a Left Government a good idea?

  1. The people before profit method id flawed from the ground up because its diagnosis is not is not derived from a study of Irish economic history and political culture. The statement that things are different now due to the fact capitalists cannot afford to make the sort of concessions they made during the period of the long boom of the late 40s and mid 70s is hardly appropriate. The Irish society did not prosper in the period of the long post war boom and that was the very reason the policy makers instigated a radical change in direction in favour of becoming a European hub for American trans;nationals.

    The political correlate of the same misdiagnosis is that during the the period of the economic boom there a context more favourable to the political advantage of a certain kind of European Social Democracy. However European social democracy has never held sway in Ireland at any time, not even in the period of the long boom. Ireland can only be forced into what is in fact a diagnosis lifted from a study of post war British social conditions by pretending that the leading party of Governance in Ireland Fianna Fail is a typical social democratic formation, a sort of substitute British Labour Party. The frame of social democracy in Ireland was never made strong enough to get broke by recent events.

    The other thing I have a problem with is this supposed Marxists account of the State as a machine with a singular purpose of oppression. If this is the ‘Marxist’ account of the State then we would be well rid of it for it finds the fault in things only in the Institutions and not in a majority of the people who happen to support the Institutions. Or to put it context, the philosopher Kant, who was not the best student of political things, argued in his political writing that ‘hard as it may sound, the problem of establishing the just State is soluble even for a nation of devils, provided they have sense’ ie provided their individual selfishness is enlightened. The real problem with this German idealist account of the State is that it is derived from a political period when the people had no real representation in politics and had no influence over the State. Marx also lived at a time when democracy was not routine and normative and his political conclusion are therefore tainted by the thought that at best popular sovereignty constitutes only a minor obstacle to terrible capitalist exploitation.

    We might call the political diagnosis that plays down the influence of popular sovereignty over politics the technical or instrumental account of political society. Everything we find objectionable in our society is attributed to corrupt institutions, the people are the innocent victims of Institutional corruption. It is a bit hard to sustain this in Ireland. I watched a television programme the other evening about the brilliant political career of Michael Lowry the long standing TD for Tipperary North from 1987. The man has spent more time in court fending corruption allegations than he has spent time speaking in the Parliament. The moral conundrum the programme was wrestling with was how come he is still one of the most popular politicians in the country. The worry was expressed that he might end up being the King Maker for the making of the next Government, it was alleged that the other party leaders have already had secret talks with him to garner what he intends to do next.

    You cannot hold to the thesis that only the Irish State is in need of reform or revolution and some how forget about the people who are all too familiar with of Mr Lowry’s rather shocking personal failings. Aristotle used to make a distinction between form and matter in the study of nature. He sometimes used the same distinction in regard to political things as well. He argued that in politics sometimes the political form ie the best regime is not to be assumed to be applicable because the matter ie the people at this place and time is too corrupt for it. We might also wonder if the political form of the Workers Republic is too good for the Irish national matter at this time and circumstance. Therefore we might look to lower our expectations about what the next Government might become and ask ourselves what we might become without the assistance of the next Government.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s