As we head into the last ten days of the general election campaign the failure of Fine Gael’s strategy of ‘stability or chaos’ tells us not only that a majority would like to see a new Government, something explicitly polled and confirmed, but that there really is no threat of chaos that Fine Gael can hold itself up as protection against. The liberal author Fintan O’Toole has cited pursuit of foreign investment, membership of the EU and a ‘consent’ approach to the national question as the reigning consensus. Even if we added such things as social partnership, fake neutrality and unwillingness to challenge the Catholic Church this consensus holds.
So even after a full scale crisis, encompassing banking meltdown and the approach of sovereign bankruptcy, plus a grossly unfair transfer onto the majority of the reckless gambling debts of a privileged minority, the Irish working class is not threatening to overturn the existing political order. Not that this is a shock, having voted into office the traditional Tweedledum alternative of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition to the thoroughly but not completely discredited Fianna Fail Tweedledee in the last election and then confirmed its choice in the 2012 austerity referendum.
This current vote will again demonstrate that elections will usher in no fundamental shift in the political power of the working class without a previous shift in its economic and social power and how to achieve this is hardly apprehended never mind understood. Instead, it appears that the only stable configuration of parties that could form a Government after the vote is a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition, although opinion polls put them at just under 50 per cent of the vote.
So while nothing fundamental will change, and the inability of Irish workers to break from the rotten political culture of the Irish State is once again confirmed, this does not make the election unimportant. A marriage of convenience between the civil war parties would be a step forward in removing the false alternative they have claimed to offer for the best part of 90 years. Nor is the search for some sort of alternative by many workers without importance, even if most seek it in independents who are utterly dependent on the rotten political culture that is often seen as the problem, and in newer versions of the old populist nationalism that has already failed them.
The most striking expression of this search for an alternative is the potential vote for left parties made up of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit Alliance and others such as Clare Daly and Joan Collins. Irish workers should be encouraged to vote for this left alternative.
As regular readers of the blog will know I have many criticisms of the politics of this left and I do not consider their political programmes either adequate or Marxist, in fact not even socialist, except in the popular understanding of what socialism means, in itself a misunderstanding that these parties unfortunately only confirm.
The manifesto of the AAA/PbP Alliance puts forward a mixture of increased state intervention into the economy and redistribution of income through taxation. The first involves an increased role for the existing capitalist state, which in the form of taking over of the banks was a weapon against the majority, while the second is predicated on existing property relations, the redistribution of income presupposing the existing ownership which alone can allow such a redistribution to take place.
It is however an alternative in the sense that it breaks from the right wing consensus and in doing so opens up space for a debate on more radical alternatives. It impinges on the current choices of private capital and by seeking to protect workers from the worst ravages of the system increases their social power, which should also increase the scope for their political development. That ultimately this Keynesian programme will not work, as indeed some of its authors admit, does not currently matter since it will not be called upon to be implemented.
The problems created by the view that the limited programme will be naturally outgrown by the need to go further, in order to realise even the limited aims of the proposals offered, remain but will therefore not be exposed. The fight for more radical change based on a strategy centred on electoral and parliamentary success, but without the necessary building of the working class’s social power, will prove disastrous, since it fights precisely on the terrain favoured by the political and social forces that are the bulwarks of the current system. No amount of rhetoric about support for a left Government from mass action outside the Dail makes up for the weakness of seeing the state as the mechanism for social and economic transformation.
Nevertheless the left’s alternative creates openings and if even minimally successful would create more favourable political and social conditions for the political development of the working class. The organisations involved would not be able to cope in their existing form were masses of workers to join them, seeking to make them vehicles for their political advance. These organisations would be changed more by a large influx of workers than the workers would be changed by these organisations. Already their sometime declared revolutionary politics has been diluted by their electoral activity and hasn’t withstood the necessity of knocking on doors and asking for votes.
The less than revolutionary character of their programmes is due to their inability to conceive of revolutionary politics in a non-revolutionary situation, reflected in the low level of political consciousness of the workers from whom they have sought votes. In this the left are not an obstacle but not much of a help either, certainly not as much as they should be.
The lack of democracy and dogmatic character of the left organisations would shatter if masses of workers raised within them the real questions facing the construction of socialism. This lack of democracy is not primarily because of undemocratic restrictions, such as lack of rights to organise political tendencies, but because the memberships see no fundamental problems that need debate in the first place; despite or perhaps because of the lack of any revolutionary success. For them the strategic questions have already been answered. However for workers this might not be the case.
The Left are now recording around 10 per cent in Dublin and such a result would be a significant step forward. Such results do not however confirm the strategy of seeking creation of a Left Government as the way forward, and given the political and economic crisis of the last decade may be seen as a relatively poor return. What the left offers however is a class identification even if somewhat diluted. This is evidenced in their ideological background, their manifestos and subjective intentions. On this it may be possible for something more adequate to the tasks to develop.
A vote for these left candidates is therefore important and would strengthen the resistance to existing austerity. It would place the existence of an alternative on the political agenda in a much more elevated way and make it the subject of increased debate.
The question then arises whether a vote for Sinn Fein should also be called for. After all, I have previously argued that the difference between the policies of Sinn Fein and the Left is one of degree – greater state involvement and greater redistribution but no fundamental change in property relationships. I noted that involvement of Sinn Fein in a left electoral alliance would add some credibility to the perspective of electing a Left Government, which is the left’s own perspective, and I recommended that the left seek agreement with Sinn Fein on the platform for such a potential alliance and future Government.
However, the pursuit of some sort of agreement was put forward in order to better expose the limitations of Sinn Fein’s claims or alternatively to lock them more effectively into an agreement of more substance. In the event this approach was not attempted and neither objective can be said to have been achieved. There is no real left alliance regardless of Sinn Fein signing up to the principles of Right2Change or agreements on voting transfers.
Sinn Fein is therefore standing as a purely independent party and can only be judged on its own credentials. In the North it has been tried and tested and has not only failed to offer an effective fight against austerity, or alternative to it, but has actually implemented it in coalition with one of the most right wing parties in Europe. It is a purely nationalist party that abandoned its core rationale a long time ago; it has no class perspective, even of a limited kind, and its interventions in actual struggles against austerity have been opportunistic.
Of course it can be argued that the smaller organisations of the left have the luxury of not having been tested either and their constant refrain of betrayals of the working class have been made without themselves having withstood the pressures of office. Indeed my argument has been that their reformist and electoralist strategy puts them precisely in the position of those such as Syriza in Greece that they have condemned for selling out.
There is however a difference between those who have been tested and failed and those who have not. A difference between those who offer some perspective of struggle, even if subordinated to electoral and parliamentary calculations, and those for whom such calculations are everything. A difference between those whose politics are purely nationalist and those whose policies are limited to the nation state by virtue of other weaknesses of their political programme. A difference between those for whom the working class has some independent political interest and those for whom it is simply a sociological category denoting the poorest sections of society.
There should be no vote for Sinn Fein even though a strong showing for it would also reflect opposition to austerity and pursuit of an alternative. While it is possible that the working class could develop its political strength and its class consciousness through left organisations, in my view the possibility of doing this through Sinn Fein is excluded. A strong vote for Sinn Fein is as likely to lead it into coalition with Fianna Fail as it is to result in increased pressure for concessions to workers. This is more so the case because of the lack of any alliance of Sinn Fein with the left, for which of course the fault lies also with Sinn Fein itself.
Workers in the Irish State should therefore vote for the Left.
Why do you give so little weight to the question of working class political independence in this analysis?
Any vote for SF should surely be ruled out as a matter of principle. And the “open to negotiations with SF about forming a govt” of the left likewise makes it hard to see how critical electoral support could be given to them – if working class political independence is given the importance it deserves.
The economic crisis that afflicted the Irish State almost completely discredited the party, Fianna Fail, that had the largest support among the working class. The political establishment as a whole also suffered a loss of credibility and legitimacy, which came on top of the discrediting of the Church in the numerous revelations of child abuse carried out and covered up by that institution. Yet the main beneficiary of this process has not been the Left but firstly the Labour party and now Sinn Fein. As to be expected it didn’t take long in office before the former itself became discredited, while the latter has not been exposed through participation on office and still faces barriers to this that may prevent this happening soon.
Of course Sinn Fein voted for the bank bailout that necessitated much of the austerity; has imposed this austerity in the North and its ministers have been criticised for doing less than nothing to break down sectarian education and the power of the Catholic Church. As I said in my post, Sinn Fein’s participation in protests against austerity has been opportunistic.
However, if it were enough to point these things out for this party to lose its support among the working class this would have happened already and we know that this will not be enough. How then does the Left challenge this party to achieve this aim?
I suggested that the Left should attempt this by trying to agree a platform for a Left Government with Sinn Fein which would limit the imposition and impair the effects of austerity and in so doing create better conditions for the working class to develop politically. This is what the trade union leaders in its Right2Change initiative did but with a common platform so weak as to be a cover for signatories to its alliance and not a challenge. So Sinn Fein could sign up to the principles involved while still presenting itself in the election as more prudent and conservative than the rest of the establishment parties.
Either Sinn Fein would agree to this more extensive platform and ally with the Left or it would reject it and be exposed, to a greater or lesser extent, in its false opposition to austerity and its claims to fairness, equality and economic justice. The extent of the latter obviously depended on the strength of the campaign by the Left for an alliance, of which there was none. If I interpret you correctly you would be happy with this approach of the Left of not seeking to challenge Sinn Fein in this way did not occur. You would also oppose agreement on a common Governmental platform between Sinn Fein and the Left even if this meant some promise of amelioration of austerity – on the grounds of the principle of working class independence.
However, as I argued in a number of previous posts the policies put forward by the Left are different only in degree from those of Sinn Fein and are not of a qualitatively different character. They both rely fundamentally on the actions of the capitalist state and not on the independent initiative and action of the working class; in other words the strategy compromises the independence of the working class. Does this mean that Marxists should reject voting for the Left on the same grounds that you reject any support to Sinn Fein?
This would certainly be a consistent position to take but again I think it would be a mistake for the reasons set out in the post – the fact that some sort of alternative is being put forward by the Left and it provides an opportunity to argue for something that is really socialist.
Having failed to carry out either approach we are left with Sinn Fein standing as a party completely free of any commitment forced on it either by alliance with the Left or compulsion to present a more radical face. In this situation I do not believe that a vote for Sinn Fein in itself or in its effects would advance the cause of working class independence so I reject a call to vote for Sinn Fein.
How we get to an Irish working class, or even a significant section of it, aware of its separate political interests as a class is not an easy problem to solve. There is no programmatic suite of demands, no political formula or set of rules leading unambiguously to a correct answer, as at the end of the day the correct answer is the one that works. What we have are certain principles but these do not automatically precipitate these correct answers.
Some sensible assessment and advice concerning the election that I can’t disagree with. The only description I would query concerns the description of Sinn Fein ‘It is a purely nationalist party that abandoned its core rationale a long time ago, it has no class no class perspective, even of a limited kind..’
I don’t think there is such a thing as a purely nationalist party anywhere or at any time. It is because it is so much less pure (I would prefer ideal ) than liberalism, social democracy or socialism that makes nationalism so flexible and infuriating. In a sense it expresses the confusions of a capitalist society more than the other competing political ideologies do.
The confusions may have something to do with the fact that in economical terms capitalist society is not constrained by political borders but in ideological terms it is constrained by well guarded political borders. The State and Government is self describing as first and foremost national and only second as capitalist. This confusing state of affairs finds some kind of more or less expression in nearly all the political party formations.
Marxist social science has usually not spoken about pure nationalism but rather has invoked terms like revolutionary nationalism, bourgeois nationalism, reactionary nationalism. This has much to recommend it for it as least recognises the flexibility of nationalist ideology. I think what you mean is that Sinn Fein has in the past been accurately described in terms redolent of revolutionary nationalism and now it no longer merits such a description . I would argue that it is now a bourgeois nationalist political formation with a unsteady standing in the working class in contrast to Fiannia Fail which is also a bourgeois political formation with a more steady standing in the middle class.
The most telling signification of Sinn Fein today is in fact its very unassuming acceptance of the process of steady European sovereignty sharing or stealing depending on your point of view.. This makes it less nationalist than UKIP or even the Unionists in the North. In the forth coming British referendum they are firmly calling for a yes vote in contrast to the various shades of Unionism, that are all very close to uniting with UKIP.
Here we have yet another SF borrowing of the policy programme long associated with the bourgeois nationalism of John Hume. The Sinn Fein party has become a pro-European party with hardly anyone even taking any note of it never minding arguing against it. If for some time Gerry Adams has been the actual leader of Sinn Fein, it should also be acknowledged that John Hume during the same time frame was its potential leader. In the metaphysics of Aristotle the potential ranks in important above what is only the actual