Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

The second point I want to respond to in the response to my initial posts is what Socialist Democracy have to say about the nature of Sinn Fein (SF), which in my view is once again confused.

SD state that it is a serious weakness of mine that I see Sinn Fein in the North as a Catholic Party and equivalent to the DUP.

I do indeed assert that it is a party that defends Catholic rights but that does not mean I assert equivalence between it and the DUP.  I don’t assert this, and in fact my analysis has been that Sinn Fein’s project of seeking equality of sectarian rights is not only not the same as the DUP’s but has been rejected by the DUP, which wants superiority of sectarian rights for unionism and rejects such equality.

What this means is that Sinn Fein fights for Catholic rights, for communal sectarian rights, but is not equivalent to the DUP, which continues to seek Catholic subordination.  How could the Socialist Democracy author have missed this?

It is nevertheless the case that Sinn Fein has asserted and defended sectarian rights and does so straight from entering Stormont, when declaring itself as part of one of the sectarian blocs for voting purposes.  Even the SD author acknowledges that in relation to defense of Catholic rights that “it is true that this is their mode of operation in the various carve-ups in Stormont.”

It is at this point that the SD author attempts something extraordinary.  First by saying that this “does not sum up the party itself or the dynamic of their supporters.”

We have already quoted from SD itself on the dynamic of its supporters – “popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist.”  As SD have also said: “the majority of the population accept the framework of the Assembly and the idea of a balancing of sectarian rights.”  It has also pointed to Sinn Fein conciliation of unionism in its response, which, let’s be clear, means conciliation of sectarianism.

As for the party itself, interested readers are free to read article after article on the Socialist Democracy web site slating the political practices of Sinn Fein and its support, and its collaboration with imperialist rule and the most outrageous facilitation of loyalist corruption, including its own description of Sinn Fein’s politics as “Catholic populism.” (article 1 June 2017)

In an article published on 10 March this year we read this:

“the central tenets of the peace process, equality of the two traditions and the Government of Ireland Act, remains a barrier to anything other than the institutionalisation of sectarian division.”

“they (SF) were facilitating, and participating in, the corruption and sectarian carve-up of resources that is the everyday activity of Stormont.”

“the St Andrews Agreement and the settlement around it is based on communal rather than civil rights.”

Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein “went from opposition to Britain rule to administration for British state and comfortable membership of a nationalist family of church and state.”

“McGuinness and Sinn Fein surrendered to the Catholic Church and the Catholic bourgeoisie represented by the Derry Traders Association.”

In another article from 5 January this year we read that “structural sectarianism extends into the internal life of the parties. . . The main business of the assembly is to share-out resources on the basis of sectarian privilege.  Its output is a routine of scandals based on sectarian corruption. . . But to really get to the heart of Arlene’s impunity we must take into account the role of Sinn Fein. . . In this environment, they must desperately wave their presence in government and the share of sectarian patronage they control as proof of the success of their strategy of working within the colonial system.”

If one wants to read a textbook case of the sectarianism that Sinn Fein defends then one could do no better than read the Socialist Democracy article published on 8 December 2016.  It sums up the political practice of Sinn Fein in Stormont by stating that “the consequence is that sectarianism – rather than being allowed to wither away – is being artificially kept alive.”

Yet, in his reply to my critique, the SD author finds that “Sinn Fein presents itself as a part of the left.  Their main demands at the moment – an Irish language act, LGBT marriage rights, investigation of state killings, are essentially democratic demands. . . . It is not long ago that the SM (Sráid Marx) blog itself proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state!”

It’s not clear at all what we are supposed to make of all this. Previous SD commentary on Sinn Fein speaks repeatedly of Sinn Fein “lies” and states that “Sinn Fein have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth since the beginning of the peace process.”

So, what point is the SD author now making?  Is SF still up to its neck in sectarian patronage, or is it in some way a party of the left, putting forward democratic demands?

Did SD not write on 10 March that “Sinn Fein itself was unconcerned about state murder, about corruption or about the Irish language until their own members revolted.”  Is it now implied that this revolt has changed the nature of the party?

Just as on the question of reforms, which are supported in general in order to be dismissed in particular, Sinn Fein is sectarian in particular but dare not be compared to the unionists in general because it puts forward democratic demands.

Oh, and isn’t it noticeable that while PbP gets slated for putting forward demands for reform, Sinn Fein’s claims to do so are presented as some sort of defense or exculpation for its less appealing practices?

But perhaps it really is that Sinn Fein have changed. So, for example, in its article on the elections on 1 June, Socialist Democracy say that “The political campaign that Sinn Fein ran in the March elections was much sharper than the vague populism of the SWP.”  After another paragraph, we learn in the same article that “The Sinn Fein slogans were insincere.  They allowed all these issues to fall in order to keep Stormont running, but now they put forwards substantive policies that reflected the anger of their supporters.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

This indeed would now appear to be the SD argument, for it says in its response that “It is true that Sinn Fein voters, along with the majority of the nationalist population, hold the illusion that reform will come through Stormont, but it is not the case that they seek only rights for Catholics. There is all the difference in the world in looking to Stormont for reform and supporting Stormont as the bulwark of reaction.” (Of the last sentence, we can only agree!  It is SD that, in its criticism of PbP, appears not to see any difference, as I pointed out in the first of these posts.)

But of course, it must be noted that now SD is speaking not of Sinn Fein itself but of its supporters.  Yet this doesn’t quite tally with what it has previously said: of the working class, SD has said that “many oppose open sectarianism, but feel that there is some benign form that could share resources peacefully. They despise politicians, but feel that a team of better politicians could manage better. Politics are avoided as many have been convinced that the only alternative is armed conflict.”

Most importantly, this move to discuss aspects of the Sinn Fein support appears here to be employed with the effect of providing cover for the Sinn Fein party, for nowhere is it admitted that Sinn Fein is a bulwark of support for sectarian discrimination, something that was previously an SD commonplace.  This is a remarkable retreat on its part.

This shift in the assessment of the Party has been presaged with earlier SD condemnation of PbP while simultaneously at least partially exonerating Sinn Fein:

“Nowhere in the PBP narrative is there any recognition of the imperialist dominion of Ireland or an acknowledgement of the material base of partition in armed bodies of the state. The Sinn Fein narrative, while mistaken, is at least coherent. A presence in government in the North and South would so impress the British that they would immediately withdraw from Ireland, they believe. Exactly how having PBP candidates in Stormont would lead to a united Ireland is far from clear, given their frantic support for the institution.”

So, read that again.  As against the PbP narrative, the Sinn Fein one is at least coherent – get into government North and South and the British will withdraw, but the PbP strategy of getting into parliament is “far from clear.”  So, although both strategies are described as more or less the same – achieving power through parliament – the SF one is ‘coherent’ but the PbP one is not.

More importantly, the role of Sinn Fein itself in mobilising Catholic workers in support of sectarian arrangements, which in turn support loyalist intimidation of Protestant working class communities, one that “keeps sectarianism alive” (according to earlier SD analysis quoted above), is nowhere admitted in the response to my critique.  It all falls to the wayside in defense of what SD thinks is an anti-imperialist and revolutionary approach to politics in contrast to perceived reformist heresies.

However, SD notwithstanding, as long as Catholic workers support Sinn Fein they will be vicariously supporting sectarianism and this has and will continue to block development of a socialist alternative among these workers.  This is what is key, but is what is completely absent in the SD response, which consists of savagely criticising the failings of PbP, while now putting forward some meagre cover for Sinn Fein.

This bias for Sinn Fein and against PbP, even in particular cases where it appears that there is no essential difference in approach between them (and we leave aside whether this is in fact true) arises from a further aspect of SD’s politics, illustrated in a recent theme of their criticism of PbP – opposition to the slogan “Neither Orange or Green, but Socialist.”

However, before dealing with this and leaving this section of my reply, I want to address the SD point that while I criticize Sinn Fein for defending sectarian rights I also “proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state.”  This is correct, so I need to explain why I did so.

The posts in which I put this forward explained that the programmes put forward by the left groups in the South were reformist and different only in degree from that of Sinn Fein.  In order to put their strategy forward as a credible alternative, these groups would have to seek unity with Sinn Fein and seek to stiffen the latter’s reformist promises or expose them as fraudulent.

If this led to a larger reformist alliance there might be some greater hope that a break by Irish workers from the capitalist parties they have supported (in particular Fianna Fail) might be made on a larger scale, providing the grounds upon which Irish workers could learn and advance to more adequate socialist politics.

I understand that for SD this is to be regarded as a betrayal, involving the creation of a reformist movement, in which case I also await their opposition to Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain.  For my part, it is a judgement that at that time such an alliance would have been an advance for Irish workers upon which further advances could hopefully be made.

However, despite SD protestations to the contrary, it is clear that it envisages a purely revolutionary democratic road forward (and they criticise stagism!) when the comrades state that:

“As in the years following 1916, we should not wait for the British and for Irish capital to grant us independence. We must take it for ourselves. Given the number of parties who claim that they stand for a united Ireland and the widespread support for unity even while it is downplayed everywhere, is there any reason why a 32 county constituent assembly cannot be called to assert our democratic rights?”

So, SD believe the bourgeois democratic institutions of the Southern state can be overturned and replaced by a Constituent Assembly!  To answer their question – the reason why such an assembly cannot be called is that all the parties claiming to support a united Ireland don’t really mean it, and the mass of the population regard their bourgeois democratic institutions as legitimate and support them.  If the tiny number who support a constituent assembly attempted to turn their slogans into reality this vast majority would join in crushing them.

I have no idea how such a perspective could be defended from the charge of being ultra-left.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

2 thoughts on “Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

  1. There is still much scope for debate concerning the proper meaning of designations like colony and imperialism. In the past the term colony could be understood to be something bourgeois political science and political marxism could use in common conversation, a foreign territory ruled over, exercising few or none of the democratic rights. In short it was ruled over without the consent of the people. Things changed for bourgeois political science when the former colonial territories acquired democratic rights but not always so for marxist political science, for the term colonialism was combined with another term, imperialism, carrying more than just a political description, it also covered a certain state of society in the transition to capitalism, the colonies were not only denied democratic rights they were economically backward or underdeveloped, they were characterized as having not yet broken free of a pre-capitalist mode of production, whatever that mode might be, Feudal or Asiatic.

    So a former colony, having gained democratic status could still be said to be under the economic control of foreign imperialism, and in the economic sense continue to be called a colony. However the Ireland of the nineteenth century was already a capitalist society, even before it won its democratic and independent status, so this did not make an easy fit with the concept of imperialism, a term that implied having a substantial pre-capitalist hinterland. The term neo-colony was then introduced into marxist political science to cover the emerged condition of a former colony, having reached a democratic and independent status yet still being under the economic control of foreign capitalists, some of whom used to rule over the population without their consent. You might then say that marxist political science to ‘save the appearance’ introduced the idea of a neo-colony so as not to abandon the politics of anti- imperialism.

    Whatever is the truth of the matter in respect of anti- imperialist politics, whenever the concept imperialism is invoked alongside the term colony or neo-colony what is usually meant is an economy that is failing well short of its true potential because of the influence of some foreign master. One interesting example in the news at the moment is the island of Puerto Rico, it has a democratic constitution, yet has a much poorer working population in comparison with the United States, so its relatively backward economic state seems to indicate it is a colony of the United States. This raises another question, can we speak sensibly of a prosperous colony? It seems to go against the grain to speak about a relatively prosperous colony, but Ireland, both north and south may actually fit the description more neatly than the more typical description of a colony / neo colony necessarily being impoverished. All this goes to show that the particularities of the actual world are not so easily matched to the universality of theories about the world.

  2. There seems to be a vacillation the SD analysis over the question of the reform of the north. One argument is historical in operation, the north is sectarian in origin and has been that way for many decades right up to the present, therefore the Political Institutions are not subject to a any solid reform, one uncertainty concern to what extent Sinn Fein has become sectarian political movement by agreeing to work the political institutions. The other argument is essentially for want of a better term, that the north is not subject to reform because it is has a capitalist economy that it is ‘ a basket case’ ie dependent on tax transfers from its imperialist benefactor. The two arguments may be convergent in conclusion but should be examined separately. There is in my opinion an over estimation of the sectarian part of the argument, party political competition in the north is beset by sectarian rivalry and there is way too much sectarian control over non-political parts of society, expressed in education and housing segregation. Yet this emphasis on sectarianism often gets in the way of the fact that we are dealing with a bourgeois society and a capitalist economy, formally speaking the sectarianism should be studied as something functional to the capitalist character of the economy. It was not sectarianism that made and shaped capitalism it was capitalism that made and shaped sectarianism.

    What follows then is that the SD conclusion is really predicated on the second part of the argument that capitalism in the north is a ‘basket case’ and is incapable of advancing beyond its dependency or colonial status. The implication here is that the economy of the north is a basket case because of its in origins as a political colony, the economic model of the north is a basket case because the colonial origin has been retained up to the present. The north is a political colony in origin and is incapable of breaking the condition short of a democratic and socialist revolution. What really separates SD form the SWP/ People before Profit and the Socialist Party is the retention of the colonial thesis, a thesis that has been dropped by the rest of the far left. Sometimes all of the Irish far left sounds like it is saying the same thing about social conditions in the north ie that the main task is to counter sectarianism, that the Good Friday Agreement institutionalized sectarianism, but this is not really the case, the agreement is really superficial.

    This brings me to my question as to your own analysis. In your conversation with Boffy you agreed that the south of Ireland had by now out grown its early neo-colonial origins and was best thought of as an independent capitalist economy and State with membership of the European Union. However you disagreed with Boffy concerning the colonial status of the north, he thought the designation colonial was a legacy of concepts of imperialism that are no longer appropriate to the condition of international capitalism.

    Yet if you retain the concept of the north as a colony then you are forced to agree with what is the essential part of the SD analysis, you points of difference must concern only the accidents rather than the essential. And there is a certain logic to the SD argument, that the north is not subject to substantive reform so long as it continues to be bound up as a political colony.

    My own viewpoint is that the north is a colony but not by deduction an economic basket case, the economic condition of the north is not determined by its current political status, I therefore disagree with the SD on this matter. Also I don’t think that knowing the north to be a political colony means that one should be calling for revolution as the only solution, on this matter I agree with you. Also it is not irrational of Sinn Fein to think that the north and south of Ireland could combine in an agreed process of negotiation. My disagreement with SF is that they believe that it is the bourgeois class both sides of the border that must come together to create an agreed Ireland, the Irish working class, in the Sinn Fein perspective is a lesser player and even a barrier to an agreed Ireland. It must be our common perspective that it is the historic task of Irish workers to agree to a united Ireland. I also disagree with SD over the lesser matter of the Assembly, socialists should try to participate in the elected Assembly as it is the only recognized forum we have for advancing socialists education and arguments, we should agree before we enter the parliament to not become part of the governing Executive, for that would mean merging into a State that is the agency of a colonial regime.

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