People before Profit and preventing a Brexit hard border

In my last post on Brexit I argued that if the Labour Party seeks to implement Brexit, or facilitate it in any form, it will suffer severe consequences.  These will result not only from the effects of Brexit but also from failure to offer leadership to those opposed to it.  Last month’s demonstration in London of perhaps 700,000 people indicated the potential such a movement has.

Left supporters of Brexit damned its composition and the presence of Liberals, right wing Labour figures and the odd Tory, who were all in attendance. As I pointed out in a discussion on Facebook – had we witnessed 700,000 demonstrating for Brexit the Left supporters of Brexit would really have had something to complain about. There is zero chance that a demonstration in favour of Brexit of such size could be anything other than thoroughly reactionary and worryingly threatening to everything that the working class movement has stood for.

Yet we still read nonsense from the supporters of Lexit, who maintain their position by failing to engage with reality.  At least Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party opposed Brexit.  The supporters of Lexit have no such excuse.

The stupidity of their position is no more obvious than in relation to the sticking point of the Brexit negotiations – the claim that there can be Brexit and no hard border in Ireland.  Theresa May has claimed that the UK can leave the EU and its Single Market and yet maintain the current frictionless arrangements.  But this is impossible, and she is running out of time to either reverse her position on the Single Market or dump us into a no deal.

In the first eventuality there would be no strong reason to seek an exit from the EU in the first place, and in the second scenario there will be what’s called a ‘hard’ border.  The supporters of Lexit in Ireland, People before Profit, have announced that they are “ready to oppose a hard border” and “will advocate mass civil disobedience against the imposition of a hard border . . .”

So just what form should or would this civil disobedience take?  And how would it be more than just a token protest and actually be effective?

Will, for example,  PbP seek to persuade lorry drivers to refuse to submit papers on the border that validate their imported or exported load?  Will they picket workplaces of hauliers, ports, factories and warehouses telling the workers not to process export or import paperwork?  Will this be done both North and South for those exporting and importing into the North?

Will PbP tell Environmental Health Officers and other border control officials to ignore any changes to regulations and continue to enforce current food and phytosanitary standards etc?  Does their support for Lexit entail opposition to these EU standards or to new ones?  Or is all this just so irrelevant to their thinking that they have ignored these issues?

What about all the loads that don’t get sent because the companies aren’t prepared for the bureaucracy required to trade across a hard border: the knowledge of regulations, how to implement them and demonstrate compliance  with them? What form of civil disobedience will take place here?  Or will they magic up a slogan – workers’ control of Single Market regulatory compliance?  And since People before Profit are opposed to the EU, will this workers control involve refusal to process regulations under Single Market rules or refusal to implement changes?

But maybe it will ignore the everyday reality of what Brexit entails and just have a political campaign around the Single Market?  But since only this can ensure a continuation of the current border arrangements, is People before Profit proposing to campaign in favour of the Single Market or against it?

Or perhaps they want their cake and eat it as well.  Get out of the EU but keep all the benefits.  Or simply ignore reality and persist with meaningless protest politics which are incapable of addressing the questions raised?  For example, how will civil disobedience address the inflation caused by the devaluation of the currency?  How will it make up for the fall in investment, or drop in tax receipts as a result of reduced growth, or the recession that will be brought about by the disruption to trade?  Have they got proposals that will boost trade with India, China and the “third world”’ or is it not really their place to say?

Will they picket airports and tell pilots that, in the event of a no deal, they should take off and fly to Paris, Malaga and Faro even though they and their aircraft will not have been approved by the EU to fly over its airspace and land at its airports?  Is it telling people not to worry and book their two weeks in the sun next year anyway because civil disobedience will sort it all out?

To ask these and a thousand other questions that arise from supporting Brexit show how detached from reality PbP is – protest politics  against reality that shows reality more effective in protesting against its politics.

Once again, some on the Left appear incapable of learning that its ‘principled’ politics are no substitute for a real, concrete alternative, i.e. one that makes sense in the real world.

In previous posts I have argued that the objective of seeking to leave the EU and supporting Brexit is not a route to the unity of the working class. This argument is at the level of principle and programme.  I have also argued that the practical effects of Brexit are contrary and hostile to the working class’s most immediate interests.

In this post it is clear that even if we start from the Lexiteers own demands, they have no idea how to make them effective; no idea how they could be made to work; and in fact, it is not at all obvious what it is they would be seeking to make effective.  Outside immediate socialist revolution they make no sense whatever, and probably even less sense within one.

But that’s what you get if you vote for Brexit, which, by definition, means the erection of new borders, and then you complain that a new border might be created!

PbP want a way out of the contradiction they have walked into by appealing to the Fine Gael led Government – “If a deal is agreed between London and the EU that includes measures like a hard border, the Irish government must veto it. Should a ‘no-deal Brexit’ occur, then Varadkar should clearly state that his government will not implement any measures that would lead to hard border.”

But this just shows that PbP has failed to learn anything from its mistaken support for Brexit and is demanding that the Southern State also leave the EU! And even here, in this statement, there is not the slightest recognition that this is what it is doing, never mind an open argument why this would be a good thing to do.

Once again there is a failure to think things through, to think concretely about what exactly, in practice, its political positions mean, what in the real world are the implications. Because failure by the Southern State to implement the Single Market endangers that market and fundamental rules of the European Union,.  There is not even the demand that the rules should be changed – just ignored!  In everyday language this is, as they say, just asking for it.

PbP claims that “neither side in the Brexit debate has the interests of working class people at heart, and we refuse to be bullied into backing one or the other.”  But that of course is exactly what People before Profit did.  It voted for Brexit.  And the vacuity of its attempts to deal with the consequences show that they really didn’t know what they were doing and that now, having bought it, they don’t know what to do with it.

But, as the Left is known for saying quite often, it is not the case that there is no alternative – there is.  It may involve a shift in the political method of PbP but this should be eased by the fact that changing its mind will lead it away from its current exposed position.

Opposing Brexit entails no support for the EU, or its policies, and involves no renunciation of political principle.  It recognises that the unity of the international working class rests on the international development of capitalism and that the creation of a socialist alternative will be based on this development and not on its retrogression. Socialism is a move forward to the future, not back to the past and a national road to socialism.  The political tendency behind PbP used to know this.

 

 

Visiting Amsterdam

In May I visited Amsterdam.  The weather was lovely and I had a great time.  Before I left I got unsolicited instruction on what coffee to look out for in the coffee houses and where the best places to eat were.  Unfortunately, the restaurants were a bit pricy and I’m no longer as keen on mind-altering substances of which I know nothing as I might have been in the past, not that I was ever very interested.

I’d been twice before but didn’t think I would be back as my partner doesn’t like the red-light district, and if you have been there then you will know that if you amble about Amsterdam for any length of time you’re bound to walk into a window with scantily clad women selling their services. But since she was attending a conference because of her work, I flew in at the end of the proceedings to share a short break.

As I like to read up about places I visit, I read some articles on the sex work/prostitution debate, which I will discuss in a future post.  More generally, knowing something of where you’re going always makes a place more interesting and can also give you a fresh appreciation of where you live the rest of the time.

So, for example, I learned that in Amsterdam squatting in a building unoccupied for a year was legalised in 1971, although the law was later changed in 2010.  Given Dublin’s acute housing crisis, this would be one initiative that would pay immediate dividends.  Housing cooperatives could organise the squatting and renovate the properties, connect to utilities and take a reasonable rent to cover expenses and to facilitate expansion of their business.  The only role for the state would be to pass a law allowing legal occupancy and working people could then do the rest for themselves.

Something else I read about Amsterdam also reminded me of Ireland.  Erasmus, after whom the student exchange programme is named, lived in the city for a few years.  He famously dissented from the structures of the Catholic Church, though remained a Catholic all his life and had a priest as his father.  When both parents died he was given over to the care of a monastery, an institution within which occurred the “whipping [of] boys to death every day.”  There was, he said, “more innocence in a brothel.”

And also like Ireland, with Saint Patrick and the snakes, Amsterdam has its own religious myths to explain its own particular christianity.  We are told that an old and dying resident of the city, shortly after taking his last Holy Communion, vomited up the Eucharist whole and intact.  When the women attending to the old man then threw the vomit in the fire the host didn’t burn.  Some time later, a church was built on the site of the old man’s house and when it burnt down (twice!) there are no prizes for guessing what survived unharmed, whole and intact.  The “miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval wonder, which, like moving statues in Ireland, became good for business.

The religious flocked to Amsterdam, becoming its core residents, but it is reassuring to read that while fights broke out between the competing religious orders, the greater tension was between these orders as a whole and the rest of the city residents, who objected to the monasteries taking so much of the best land along the canals.  If only the anti-clerical feeling in Ireland could be married to the acute demand for housing in the same fashion.  Perhaps then, all the property belonging to the Sisters of Charity Property could be confiscated to alleviate the housing problem and pay for their misdeeds. Today these Amsterdam streets with their names derived from the religious foundations which were once their most prominent residents are the location of the red light district.

Not that the two were always very far apart. After all, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, sparking the dramatic change that was to affect Amsterdam and many other cities, the Catholic Church was licensing brothels, fathering children openly and appointing an 8-year-old as bishop of Lisbon.

One of the most dramatic episodes of this Reformation revolt was the emergence of the Anabaptists, who proclaimed a religion that included rebaptism, polygamy and common ownership of property.  When the Amsterdam Anabaptists took advantage of drunken revelry to take over City Hall they were suppressed and killed, or at least the lucky ones were.  Those that were captured didn’t survive for very long.  Their chests were cut open and their beating hearts thrown into their faces, just before they were beheaded and then quartered. Amsterdam’s famous tradition of tolerance has clearly not always been quite what it’s been cracked up to be.

The major cause of this tradition, which is not without foundation, was the development and expansion of capitalism in the Netherlands and the trading and intermingling of peoples that merchant capitalism gave rise to.  Historians also point to the tradition of cooperation necessary in what was otherwise an inhospitable land – required to ensure that it was not overtaken by the sea.  The massive network of dams, dykes and canals required widespread cooperative labour to build and maintain.  This, on top of the lack of historical roots of the feudal system, has been credited with the individualism that has characterised something of Dutch culture.

Thus, Amsterdam has few grand buildings or palaces like Paris or even London, but is better known for its more human-scale canals, canal-boats and narrow canal houses.  One British resident, writing of the Dutch, could thus conjure up the stereotypical image of the country as “a place where office workers smoked weed over their desks, visited prostitutes at lunchtime and euthanised their grandparents in the evening.” (‘Why the Dutch are Different’).  Not, as he notes, that his Dutch friends were wholly accepting of the caricature.

Of course merchant capitalism, and its pioneering by the Dutch East India Company, which preceded the British one, also entailed colonial plunder and disastrous speculation.  It is no accident that many knowledgeable-after-the-fact economists have noted that the first speculative bubble was for tulips in the 1630s.  The darker history of the Dutch State and its capitalism includes slavery, which it was late to take up and also late to abandon, and colonial conquest, which it fought to retain after the Second World War – despite its own recent escape from occupation.

But, as Marx explained, capitalism meant progress, even if this progress comes dripping in blood.  One result of it was the growth of publishing, for which Amsterdam became an important world centre, significant to this day.  In the seventeenth century, it was estimated that half of all books published in the entire world came from the Dutch Provinces, implying that about 30 per cent came from Amsterdam.  The city became home to leading philosophers of the day in the shape of Locke and Spinoza.

Of course, capitalist rivalry led to war, in this case with England on four occasions.  It is not really surprising that most British people think they haven’t been successfully invaded since 1066, but in believing this they are mistaken, and ignorant of the successful Dutch invasion of 1688 and the installation of a Dutch stadholder as King of England.  Better known as King Billy where I live.  But then, if Churchill with his many failures and the rout leading up to evacuation at Dunkirk are held up as successes, and still inspire patriotic films today, why not say the Dutch were invited?  If only such ignorance didn’t provide the soil within which such ideas as Brexit could grow.

The Anglo-Dutch rivalry, it has been pointed out, has had its amusing side, looked at from centuries later.  So, one tract from the period had this title: ‘The Dutchmens Pedigree; Or, A Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box’.  Apparently, the terms ‘Dutch courage’ and ‘going Dutch’ are a few of the surviving derogatory usages from this time.

The Dutch state subsequently went into relative decline as the larger European powers took centre stage.  In the First World War the Dutch state was neutral and again declared its neutrality in the Second World War, once again expecting this to be respected.  In a speech to the Reichstag Hitler did say that he would honour it , but the next day ordered the invasion.  On 9 May 1940 the Dutch newspaper ‘Algemeen Handelsblad’ ran with the headline ‘Tensions Defused. Expected Events Not to Occur’, hours before Nazi tanks and troops crossed the border.

The results were catastrophic.  In 1940 there were 80,000 Jewish people in Amsterdam, while there are only around 15,000 today.  And while 75 per cent of Jews in France survived through the Nazi occupation only 27 per cent of Dutch Jews did so, an estimated 58,000 being killed, mostly in concentration camps.  While the Dutch labour and socialist movement launched an unbelievably courageous general strike in February 1941 to protest at the increasing persecution of Jews and deportation of Dutch workers to German factories, the efficiency of the Dutch state bureaucracy meant that you were more likely to die if you were Jewish in the Netherlands than almost anywhere else in Europe.

Today, you can visit the house of the Jewish teenager Anne Frank, which I had done on a previous trip, but it is much less well known that the Frank family were arrested by three Dutch policemen, at least one of whom continued to serve in the Amsterdam police until 1980.  Yet an American anthropologist writing a report on the Dutch near the end of the war could write that “no country in Europe is so jealous of its moral rightness as Holland.”  In one example quoted in her report, a German officer complained that the Dutch acted as if they had won the war.

In fact the Netherlands yielded up the highest number of volunteers for the Waffen SS of any country in Europe both relatively and absolutely, although the numbers were small – up to 25, 000 in a population of 9 million. Volunteering was supported and given some legitimacy by a member of the Dutch armed forces General Staff.  Of course, the occupation was not popular but collaboration was significant.

Such divisions in Dutch society were apparent before the war – the Amsterdam police commissioner had reassured the Gestapo in 1935 that the Dutch would cooperate in the fight against “Communist and Marxist machinations”, and the city Attorney General called for “the establishment of concentration camps where all undesirable communist elements could be sheltered.”

The war led to near famine conditions as the progress of liberation from Nazi occupation was delayed.  An estimated 210,000 Dutch were killed and another 70,000 died through starvation and general hardship, while the Dutch economy shrank by around 40 per cent.

The subsequent post-war recovery was remarkable with growth of almost 20 per cent a year between 1945 and 1950, fuelled by the American Marshall Plan,  The Netherlands receiving around ten times more per capita than Belgium. One early sign of what came to be seen as Dutch liberalisation was the setting up of the world’s first organisation to advance gay rights in 1946.

Today, the limits of the liberalism for which the Dutch state is famous is exposed by the rise of prominent reactionary individuals such as Geert Wilders and movements that employ the language of liberal secularism to promote reactionary politics.  I have seen this described as showing the limits of a tolerance based on a liberal commitment to rights and freedoms, expressed only as simple passive acceptance of difference, which might be true of some, but hardly explains the legalisation of same-sex marriage or euthanasia, or regulation of prostitution.

Bill O’Reilly, the US conservative , once called Amsterdam a “cesspool of corruption, crime, everything’s out of control – it’s anarchy!”  In response, one twenty-five year old Dutchman put up a video on the internet claiming that over 40 per cent of Americans had used cannabis while less than 23 per cent of Dutch people had, and drug-related deaths in the US were 38 per million while being only 2.4 in the Netherlands.

Today the number of coffee houses has declined and there is increasing expressions of concern that legalised prostitution in one country doesn’t work.  As I’ve noted, the Dutch have also seen a rise in racist movements which have increasingly collaborated with like-minded organisations in Europe and the US.  Dutch society is therefore not so different after all.

I, Dolours

‘I Dolours’ is a film about the life of Dolours Price, and her activities as a member of the IRA during the 1970s.  It is part dramatisation and part interview conducted by the journalist Ed Moloney, who is also the Producer and has written an important book on the history of the IRA.

Actor Lorna Larkin is excellent as Dolours and she needed to be, because the most arresting parts of the film are excerpts of the interview with Dolours.  She is determinedly articulate, direct and forthright.  One review has described her as a “terrifying and bitter woman”, but one person’s bitterness is another’s righteous anger.  She is unrepentant about her activities in the IRA and brutally honest.

And it is this honesty that so jars with the present, where a principal republican leader claims never to have been a member of the IRA and another claimed never to have killed anyone. While mainstream commentary ridicules such claims, it fails to register the service they do to its own anti-republican narrative.

Her unflinching justification of the IRA and its campaign will be shocking only to those too young not to have come across the ‘arrogant’ and ‘elitist’ republicans who regarded themselves as ‘defenders of the truth’, as described in Dolours’ own words.

It contrasts with the mealy-mouthed political sophistry of today’s Sinn Fein, many of whose members justify their current opportunism with their experience of previous sacrifice. As one comrade of mine put it, their descent into corruption is justified by the phrase ‘we’re worth it.’

Dolours’ interview is also interspersed with archival footage of the civil rights movement, which Dolours and her sister Marian joined, and the attacks on the movement by loyalists and police.  The demand for the most limited reforms was met by naked state and loyalist violence, with footage in the film of the ambush at Burntollet and the RUC attack on the 5thOctober civil rights march in Derry.

This has generally been passed over quickly in reviews but in the more recent media coverage, marking the 50thanniversary of these events, their importance to the creation of ‘the Troubles’ has been at least partially recognised.  It was obviously crucial to Dolours’ political development and from a socialist point of view led to a political and personal tragedy.  From such a viewpoint the alternative to the reform strategy of civil rights was not that of militarist republicanism, which Dolours notes she had at one time herself rejected.

From these attacks however, Dolours learned that “change would not be brought about by marching” and the objective of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers was the wrong one.  She came from a family steeped in republicanism, with her father taking part in the bombing of England during the Second World War, which Dolours seemed to regard as almost surreal in conception, while her aunt lived her life in the family home, having had her eyes and hands blown off while attempting to recover an IRA arms dump.

She was ultimately to be the third generation of the family to end up in jail, which might appear to lead to the belief that she was born to be in the IRA.  But if this were so then she would be less intelligent and less human than the woman that appears on the screen.  She embraced the idealism of the civil rights movement and then rebelled against its perceived ineffectiveness in fighting oppression.  She devoted herself to the IRA and consciously submitted to it discipline.  She didn’t seek to avoid danger, and refused to present herself as a hero.

She does not embellish events or her participation in them, and attributes her passion and zeal to youthful ardour.  She makes statements she knows will not gain her any sympathy, such as her defense of the killing of informers, while she displays sympathy of her own years later for only one disappeared, someone who went to his death believing that this death was deserved, just as Dolours did.

The film shows a number of clips of IRA car bombs in Belfast City Centre, and some of their grisly effects, and records her seeming endorsement of the view that one bomb in England was worth many times that number in Ireland.  It dramatises her volunteering to participate in the bombing of London, having had the risks explained, and even as other IRA volunteers walked away.

While noting the immature behaviour of some of the male IRA volunteers in England, who failed to follow orders and got drunk, she also acknowledges that this made no difference, because the whole operation had already been compromised by informers.

She and her sister were caught, imprisoned in England, and went on hunger strike to demand that they serve their sentences in Ireland.  For most of the hunger strike, which lasted over 200 days, she and her sister were force fed, an experience that eventually resulted in Marian’s, and then her, early release.

The film invites some sympathy for her during this period and her resulting continuing ill health, which led to her eventual premature death.  It can hardly do anything else, just as the picture of bomb explosions and their aftermath can hardly do anything other than evoke the opposite. But it also should prompt questions, because it does an injustice to Dolours to assume that the decisions she made were inevitable.

How, for example, was it hoped that these bombs would achieve republican objectives if bombs in Belfast mattered so little?  And why did they continue for so many years?

That Dolours was not asked these questions is understandable.  The interview was a last testament, to be shown only after her death, and her ill health at that time made her vulnerable.  The journalist Ed Moloney has explained the backstory to the interview on his blog.  She therefore said what she wanted to say.

This must also, unfortunately, explain rather unsatisfactory aspects of the film.  As has been noted elsewhere, it feels incomplete, not only on the political side but particularly in relation to Dolours future life after release. The ending feels rushed, and her opposition to the betrayal by the movement of the cause she dedicated herself to is not fully explained.  She does however say that what Sinn Fein had achieved was not worth missing a good breakfast.

Most media attention has focused on her admitted role in the killing of the disappeared: those who were considered to be informers and who were driven across the border, often it seems by Dolours, where they would be shot and their bodies buried.  Some of these bodies have not been recovered. This, she admits in the interview, was a war crime, but only it seems because families did not know their loved ones’ fate and could not be given a body for proper burial.

Of all those disappeared, the most notorious case was that of Jean McConville, a widow and a mother of ten children, who were separated from each other and put into care following their mother’s death.  Dolours is not kind after the event and makes no attempt to soften what she and her IRA comrades did.  The lack of any attempt at sugar coating gives her statements greater credence, although Jean McConville’s family protested at the film’s opening in Belfast and dispute some of her assertions.

Her other claim is only superficially more controversial and was aired long before the film, which was that Gerry Adams was not only in the IRA but also ordered the killing.  That the former has been denied by him is taken seriously by no one, which leaves denials of the latter also suffering from a problem of credibility.

The worst review of the film I have read ends with these remarks:

“Perhaps that is the saddest part of I, Dolours, is that she died feeling let down, deceived and unfulfilled, having not achieved her ultimate goal in life. Though, she does serve to be a forgotten relic of a time which indeed many would never wish to see the likes of again. Ultimately, Dolours is an unreliable narrator and we must remember that this is one woman’s perspective, and that everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

The film itself is testimony to her not being forgotten, and the poignancy of her story is an invitation not to forget but to learn from.  This includes the political lessons that are especially important, since she lived and died a political woman.  She makes clear that she did not seek to excuse or exonerate her activities, on the contrary she saw no reason to do so, and the film stands as a challenge to her erstwhile comrades who have made political careers doing so.

That she is an unreliable narrator seems hard to sustain given her definite and precise approach to the telling of her story; her complete avoidance of seeking after sympathy, and plain admission to her unpalatable actions. There is no reason to believe that “everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

On the contrary, it is the truthfulness of her words that cuts through the carefully constructed silences and avoidance that characterises today’s approach by Sinn Fein to the actions of the IRA.  Continued embrace of IRA history, along with denial of everything it entailed, or attempts to make us “all” responsible for actions which specific actors were only too willing to claim for themselves at the time; all this is incompatible with the truth that Dolours continues to speak.

On the question of Dolours feeling let down by not having achieved her ultimate goal, I get the feeling that, apart from the physical and psychological damage she suffered from her experience in prison, republican defeat was not decisive in contributing to her death.  Coming from a republican family she grew up and had lived with its consequences. She understood defeat and faced it when it happened.  Not for her black taxis driving up and down the Falls Road hooting its celebration. It was the betrayal of the movement that she devoted her life to which must have demoralised more than mere defeat.

She must have been aware that she drove to their deaths members of the movement whose betrayal, in the great scheme of things, was so much less than the movements’ later complete capitulation.  And just as she did this, so later did the republican movement do it to her.

The film is authentic in its showing of a republican view of ‘the Troubles’, free from today’s spin and bogus self-justification.  In this way it is an honest and faithful portrait of its subject.

A Labour Party Brexit

It used to be the case that the British Labour Party conference was interesting and important, because it involved real debate and some chance that the left could win victories.  Then Kinnock and Blair deprived it of this significance and crushed party democracy, such as it was.  The mass media, if I recall correctly, was not much concerned by this.

Now, the Labour Party conference is relevant again, it is interesting and important, the left can make advances and democracy has made some sort of return, and the mass media is concerned.

Unfortunately, this being the Labour Party, we are also going back to the bad old days when union bureaucrats would frustrate this democracy, cobbling together back-room deals that mollified the right in the party while taming the left.  So, the overwhelming desire for open selection of MPs, that they should have themselves put up for endorsement by the people who get them elected – the party members, was prevented from being voted on and passed.

Democracy in the Party has always been imperfect like this, but it is easy to forget that democracy in the unions is probably worse in many cases, and democracy in the left groups definitely worse.  If even Momentum was as democratic as the Party it seeks to democratise the left would be far stronger, and more democratic.

A similar thing happened to the views of the membership on Brexit.  The vast majority oppose it and want another referendum to reverse it.  The leadership of the Party have attempted to frustrate this movement.  In doing so, their views hark back to the most reactionary nationalist ideas about socialism which used to revolve around import controls to protect British jobs; nationalisation, with emphasis on NATIONalisation; and opposition to the EEC.

Of course, they claim to be internationalists, but their internationalism is of a very restricted kind.  It’s more a sort of solidarity of left nationalisms, just like ‘national liberation’ movements support each other in their desire to set up separate, and nominally independent, states.  They are suspicious and opposed to a unity that swears loyalty, not to its own nation and state, but to the unity of its class regardless of nationality.

No one is claiming that the vast majority of the members of the Labour Party subscribe to Marxist ideas about international workers’ unity, but they do realise the disastrous consequences of capitalist separation from the EU and the reactionary nationalist politics behind it.

So, it is on this basis that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has thwarted the desire to have a second referendum and has held the ground against coming out squarely against Brexit.  It has nevertheless been forced to have the debate, when it was able to prevent one last year, revealing that the current mangled and incoherent policy has a use by date that is rapidly running out.

Labour policy is open and clear – it is not seeking to reverse Brexit but to deliver a good Brexit.  One that defends jobs and living standards as well as maintaining regulations which support workers’ rights and protect the environment.

Tory ineptitude, in-fighting, mad-as-a-hatter ideas about a free market nirvana, and normal anti-Tory antipathy have not been enough to divert Labour members from recognising that the leadership’s position is wrong.

In many statements this policy seems to suffer from the same level of ignorance as the Tories.  Its repetition of the importance of a customs union ignores the much more vital role of the Single Market.  The former will not remove the need for a ‘hard’ border in Ireland while it won’t prevent huge trade frictions for Britain.  In its illusion that some sort of progressive Brexit is possible its position is actually worse than the Tories.

Its six tests cannot possibly be met by any deal, including any deal the Labour leadership could possibly negotiate itself. It wants a deal “to deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union.”  But the EU has made it absolutely clear, repeatedly, that Britain will inevitably be worse off because of Brexit.  It even admits that the EU itself will suffer.

Pressure from within the Party and the logic of the evolving process have compelled Jeremy Corbyn, in his conference leader’s speech, to state clearly that the Party is set to vote against any deal Theresa May comes up with, and will also oppose no deal.  So perhaps it might be said that the mass membership opposed to Brexit, and the leadership in favour of going ahead with it in some form, are going to arrive at the same destination by different routes.  Both roads seemingly leading to opposition to Brexit.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with such a view. Firstly, if no deal is agreed or approved by Parliament there will be a no deal exit, unless the EU itself postpones this eventuality itself, through some sort of extension, or fudge that allows the transition period to kick in.  But in this case the problem is postponed not avoided.  Such a scenario is a cross-your-fingers-and-toes wish that the ‘better prepared for a no deal’ EU is not yet prepared enough.  Simply running out of time is not unthinkable.

And what if time did run out and Theresa May claimed that it was the Labour Party which scuppered her deal and was now responsible for a no deal outcome?  How would Labour deal with that if the EU said ‘times up – you’re out!’

Undoubtedly the Tories have made such a hash of things that they would continue to shoulder much of the blame, and deservedly so. A no deal situation would have arisen where they had continued to push a plan that the EU had repeatedly said was unacceptable.  The Labour Party would then also have to rely on continued lack of scrutiny of its own proposals., which otherwise might reveal that they would not be accepted either.

But if the Tories were backed down to agree a deal that the EU would accept, even for a transition period, the Labour Party might find itself in strange company voting against it.  Failing to prevent the deal going through in this situation might be the least of its possible failures.

If it succeeded in voting down such a deal it would be much harder for the Labour Party to pin the blame for no deal on the Tories, and their own proposals would come under greater scrutiny, revealing the reality that their criteria cannot be delivered by any potential Brexit deal.  There would be no reason why both the Tories and EU would not jointly blame the Labour Party for the subsequent disaster.

Secondly, even if all went well and a general election was held, which Labour won, it would quickly become clear that it could not deliver a Brexit deal which would pass its own tests.  In other words, it would also have to deliver no deal or deliver something that would be inferior to EU membership.  Both would antagonise its Remain members and supporters, and also antagonise those voters who continued to support Brexit.

Of course, these voters are deluding themselves in believing that Brexit could deliver anything that was any good.  But who would have fed them this illusion and who would now be responsible for failing to deliver on it?  It would not just be the Tories. Now it would also be the Labour Party, the Party who had promised that a good Brexit was possible and had failed to deliver it.

If the Labour Party also backed down and agreed a deal that was acceptable to the EU this would be something on the lines of EEA membership or Canada-style free trade agreement.  The latter would rather quickly demonstrate how much inferior to EU membership this is for British capitalism, but would still require an extensive period of negotiations where British weakness would be exposed.  The former would require perhaps even greater negotiations, not just with the EU but with other EFTA countries.  The former leaves Britain’s role in the world hanging and unresolved and the second is not a long-term solution for anyone, for it would leave Britain as a rule taker in a small club instead of one of the leaders of the large club it had just left.

However, long before any of this became obvious, it would be clear that the Labour Party had not won over the majority of the fans of Brexit through delivering it, but would instead be savaged by them for having sold Brexit out, for having delivered Brexit in name only, a betrayal of Brexit, of all the benefits to the British people that were possible and that had been promised. And again, we would be back to the question – who was it that promised a good Brexit?

Labour leaders such as John McDonnell have embarrassed themselves and the movement they lead by proclaiming fears that Brexit cannot be stopped because it would provoke a violent reaction from the hard right. But since there isn’t going to be a good Brexit some sort of reaction like this is almost inevitable.  In this case, one delivered via a Labour Party promising that their Brexit would be so different would be a real promise broken, and would provoke an even more violent reaction from the hard-right.

There is of course a way to avoid these scenarios, but this requires being honest with workers and stating that Brexit is a disaster that must be opposed.  That if the Labour Party was elected it would reverse the decision or, at the very least, would hold another referendum to do so.  Otherwise Labour, having bought Brexit, would then own it, including all the shit that would come with it.

It would have no argument to put to Brexit supporters who would say that it had failed to deliver on its promises, and it would have nothing to say to its own supporters who would have opposed it.

Jeremy Corbyn may think his current approach to Brexit is politically shrewd, but reality is currently crushing Tory Brexit dreams and it will just as surely do the same to Labour.

The members and supporters of the Party should continue their opposition to Brexit and argue a socialist alternative.  The stronger such a movement becomes the clearer it will be that the current Labour policy is not only wrong from a principled point of view but ruinous to its future.

Ironically, it might only be the referendum that it is trying to avoid that might save the Party leadership, since it would be compelled to oppose Brexit and once again argue for Remain.

Brexit humiliated

The humiliation of Theresa May at the Salzburg EU meeting came as a shock not just to her but to the British media.  They had obsessed with stories, largely an invention of themselves, that foretold a story of the EU having problems with the Chequers plan but needing May as someone from the British side with whom they could negotiate.  The alternative was ultra-Tories like Johnson and Rees-Mogg.  Coming up to the Tory Party conference, the EU would see the need to help her deal with her fractious party so that a deal could eventually be struck.

Behind such invented calculations lay an implicit understanding that Britain was negotiating with the EU from a position of some strength, and a deal was equally vital for both.  Once again, unfortunately, the relationship with Europe was being refracted through disputes within the most successful political party in the world.  No one stopped to think what use Theresa May was to the EU with her unacceptable plan anyway.

The outcome was May giving a shell-shocked press conference at the end of the proceedings having suffered utter humiliation.  What had been said a hundred times before about the flawed plan was said again, and this time on social media with the EU Council President Donald Tusk offering cake to May on Instagram, but with no cherries.

British journalists cannot be accused of not being self-aware.  They are most aware of their position in the gossip chamber of Westminster with its paintings and busts of previous great British leaders who once stood astride a world empire.  They are aware that by being there they are part of this history.  As media creations themselves, they know that they are part of the show and that, after the important political personalities, the story is often about them, what they think and what they say. And what they think and what they say is a product of this environment, the environment of a great nation with a singular history.

So their views and their impressions are the great British public’s window into this world of high politics.,  When a sweaty Theresa May appeared in a cramped room in Salzburg desperately trying to recover any sort of composure in order to present some sort of reassuring message, the assorted British journalists reported what they saw in front of them – desperate humiliation.

This was easy because it’s not as if it was new – May has a habit of drowning on stage.  She coughed and spluttered for hours through her Party conference speech and stood as a rabbit in the headlights for weeks during the last general election, a very strong and very stable rabbit.

Both media and politicians were acutely aware of these unflattering optics, so May decided to have another go, and change them by making the same stupid speech again when she got home, this time in Downing Street, in front of wood panelling and two union flags.  A “stern word” was given, according to the Daily Express, and May warned the EU – she wanted RESPECT! – as she looked directly at the camera and gave everyone a “stern” look.

If only the words coming out of her mouth made any sense.

“At this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals”, she said.  As if we had all forgotten that the reason we were only being told now that her plan was pants was because she had spent eighteen months trying to find one.  Not easy with the light shining in your eyes.

As if we had not also just heard her say in her speech, only seconds before, that in fact the EU had given her not one but two “counter proposals” and had, ad nauseam, explained to her that she could not cherry-pick the Single Market – the “detailed explanation” why her Chequers plan was unacceptable.

This nonsense after May had turned up at Salzburg having informed her EU hosts that this was the deal, take it or leave it.  She had met the Irish Taoiseach in the morning and told him that despite promising it for months, the British would not have a detailed backstop plan to prevent a hard border ready for an October meeting.

Instead, in her Downing Street speech, she said that “I want to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that in the event of no deal we will do everything in our power to prevent a return to a hard border.”  A statement so jaw-dropingly at variance with reality one wonders if she had taken some mind-altering substance before saying it.

But this sort of duplicity was also hardly new. Her Brexit secretary had already said that their Withdrawal Agreement with the EU committed Britain to nothing.  Her environment secretary Michael Gove speculated just before Salzburg that “Yes, the Chequers approach is the right one for now . . . but there’s one critical thing, a future prime minister could always choose to alter the relationship between Britain and the European Union.”  Why then could anyone in the EU believe that any agreement reached with these people would be honoured?

“In the meantime, we must and will continue the work of preparing ourselves for no deal” said May.  ‘So we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress.”  Unfortunately, by saying that it’s now over to the EU, and that she will walk away from a bad deal, she really means that she won’t be going anywhere, or rather, with her strategy, she has nowhere to go.

Having threatened the EU with no deal, and then complaining that the EU were threatening Britain when starting to prepare for one, she faces the consequence that a no deal will only bring her utter discredit at a personal level and the UK a disaster at the economic and social level.  Her foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt aks the EU not to look at the “abyss’ of a no deal even while his leader is busy threatening it again.  Not since the sheriff in ‘Blazing Saddles’ threatened to blow his own head off has a threat seemed so bizarre, except this time it’s not funny.

Napoleon is often credited with saying that you can doing anything with bayonets except sit on them, although the quote has been attributed to Talleyrand, Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister, who said: “… My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them… “.  This appeared to mean that Napoleon had to make the decision to move forward with his campaign or die by failing to act.

Sooner rather than later someone will tell Theresa May that she can do lots of things by wrapping the butcher’s apron round herself, including making stupid speeches at Downing Street, but she will die a political death and take the UK into the ‘abyss’ if she thinks she can wrap it round herself and wait for the EU to come up with something to save her.

Her problem is that while you may be able to do lots of things with a flag there is not a lot useful you can do with Brexit.  May and her ultra-Brexit colleagues in the Tory Party have argued that Britain can make a success of Brexit.  So, unfortunately, does Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, but at least with them it is to be fervently hoped that 86% of the Labour Party’s members will save them from themselves, something the Tories will not do for May.

The EU says Brexit will weaken and damage the EU never mind the UK and no one will be a winner.  EU sources have also said that it’s not their business to make Brexit a success (even if that were possible) and it’s not in the EU’s interest to help the British become more competitive against the EU as a result of it.

The EU is of course correct.  It is much bigger and more powerful.  Trade with it is much more important to the UK than trade with the UK is for the EU. It has by far the bigger market, with a much more competitive productive base, and in those sectors it is not so competitive in, such as financial services, it is gaining by the relocation of companies from the City of London as the reality of Brexit bites.  Unlike Icarus, the hubristic Brexit project of a still greater Britain will never even get off the ground.

Britain can leave the EU, and can do so in a manner that may, or will, receive the cooperation of the EU, but only if the means by which it is done does not threaten the integrity of the EU and its Single Market. Despite it not being their problem, the EU has an interest in these steps being taken – the British can stay in the European Economic Area (EEA) or it can negotiate a free trade deal like that of Canada.

The latter will not make up for the market access lost by Brexit and will confirm the stupidity of Brexit.  Canada has its own regional free trade agreement in NAFTA so the agreement with the EU is an extension of its capacity to trade.  The British however, will be replacing one big trading arrangement with a much smaller one.

Britain could also negotiate access to the EU Single Market through the EEA, but this will mean subordination to EU rules, which the British can attempt to influence but cannot help determine.  The EEA also involves negotiations on what the EU will accept or reject so the problem is displaced into a more orderly framework but the fundamental issues of difference are not thereby resolved, and nor are all the problems created by the Tories’ duplicitous approach.

Theresa May will either have to capitulate or drive into the wall of a no deal.  In the first case she may be removed by the Tory Party before she can get away with it, and in the second case it would be better for her if she was.

The Brexiteers could replace her and either go for no deal themselves or do their own volte-face and go for the Canada type free trade deal, although in this case they are more likely to fall out with each other, as would certainly be the case when it became clear to them that this wouldn’t solve the question of the Irish border and further retreat was required.  Taking the blame for the disaster that a no deal would entail has so far prevented them from wielding the knife on May. The whole shower are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

All this would not be the case if Brexit made any sort of sense but of course it doesn’t.

So what about our side?

It is not the job of socialists to cheer Emmanuel Macron when he calls the Brexiteers liars, even when they are, or to wave EU flags, as if the EU was a force for good.

It is our job to oppose Brexit because doing this lies on the route to our alternative – the unity of Europe’s workers – not its capitalist states.  It is not possible to achieve this unity while accentuating national differences, by erecting national borders, and seeking solutions through nationalist initiatives.  ‘National sovereignty’, however understood, is not our goal.

The rise of xenophobia in Britain facilitated by Brexit will not be effectively countered by portraying its supporters as simply fascists that should be opposed, while having nothing to say about the Brexit they promote.  Or even worse, actually supporting their Brexit policy as some on the left stupidly do.

The socialist alternative is not about destroying workers’ living standards, wrecking the place and pretending we can start from scratch, in some misguided ground-zero approach unpolluted by foreign interference.  The Brexit disaster provides socialists with the opportunity to deliver an important blow against great British nationalism and it should be taken.

The disaster of Brexit should be condemned for what it is.  Its architects should be pilloried.  The alternative should be spelled out, which isn’t a good Brexit, because that doesn’t exist, but a defeat of the Tory Government and a reversal of the Brexit decision.  Not as the end of the struggle over Europe but as the starting point of a fight to unite Europe’s workers.

We should state clearly that the problem has not been too much European unity, but too little, and the wrong sort of what there has been.

The Greek Crisis and the Fourth International (6) – what is a ‘workers government’?

The problems arising from the perspective of a workers and farmers’ government have been shown by John Riddle, who has his own blog here and who wrote an article explaining the different views that arose when it was discussed by the Third International.

He notes that a typology of five was contained in the final resolution of the 1922 Congress, not all of which were considered to be real and genuine workers’ governments:

“Illusory: Liberal workers’ government (Britain).

Illusory: Social-Democratic Party workers’ government (Germany).

Genuine: Government of workers and peasants (Balkans).

Genuine: Workers’ government with Communist Party participation. (Germany).

Genuinely proletarian workers’ government (Soviet Russia).”

He notes that at this time three previous examples of workers’ governments had existed, “none of which fit neatly into this five-point schema. Thus:

“The Paris Commune, an elected revolutionary workers’ government at war with a still-existing bourgeois regime.

The early Soviet republic: as noted, a coalition regime based on revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ soviets.

The revolutionary governments of Bavaria and Hungary in 1919, where, as Chris Harman and Tim Potter have noted, “bourgeois power virtually collapsed…. The workers’ government came into being and afterwards had to create the structure of proletarian power.”

He records that some delegates to the Congress, keen to distinguish the illusory from genuine workers governments, proposed an amendment to the Congress resolution:

“. . . the German delegation . . . submitted an amendment distinguishing between “illusory” and “genuine” workers’ governments. The amendment also specified that the illusory “liberal” or “Social Democratic” workers’ governments ‘… are not revolutionary workers’ governments at all, but in reality hidden coalition governments between the bourgeoisie and anti-revolutionary workers’ leaders. Such “workers’ governments” are tolerated at critical moments by the weakened bourgeoisie, in order to deceive the proletariat … fend off the proletariat’s revolutionary onslaught and win time. Communists cannot take part in such a government. On the contrary, they must relentlessly expose to the masses the true nature of such a false “workers’ government.’”

“Although adopted unanimously, the amendment was not incorporated into the published Russian version of the resolution, which has served as the basis for translations into English. As a result, English-language comment on this issue, singling out Zinoviev’s position for attack, has criticised the congress for the very weakness that its delegates sought to remedy.”

“During the editing process, the congress text was progressively aligned with a “transitional” concept of a workers’ government. The final text sharply counterposed it to a parliamentary-based “bourgeois-Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised”.

The final draft thus states that a workers’ government can be sustained only by the struggles of the masses – its enumerated tasks begin with “arming the proletariat” and end with “breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie”.

“Communists should stand ready to “form a workers’ government with non-Communist workers’ parties and workers’ organizations”, the resolution states, but only “if there are guarantees that the workers’ government will carry out a genuine struggle against the bourgeoisie along the lines described above”, and subject to other safeguards.”

Riddle argues that “The clarity of this position was seriously undermined, however, by the simultaneous use of the term “workers’ government” to describe rule by bourgeois workers’ parties that, while introducing some reforms, acted as loyal administrators of the capitalist order. This concept was voiced mainly by Zinoviev, who thus managed to stand simultaneously on both the left and the right wings of the discussion.”

Riddell therefore thinks that a definition of a workers’ government that was put forward in a previous contribution to the discussion is useful – “a government of working-class forces in a capitalist state …. that objectively doesn’t rule for capital.” He considers that this is “consistent with the position of the Comintern’s 1922 congress.”

Given this history, it should not be surprising that much confusion has surrounded the whole idea of a workers’ government. Trotsky, while supporting it, described it as “an algebraic formula”, and it is unfortunate that too much of what is now called Trotskyism is governed by such formulas.  Trotsky noted that “its drawbacks, deriving from its algebraic nature, lie in the fact that a purely parliamentary meaning can be given to it.”

For Riddell , standing back from this history a little, “without a governmental perspective, socialist policy has no compass. Socialist strategy is then reduced to three disjointed elements:

  • appeals to capitalist governments to improve workers’ conditions
  • efforts to build trade unions and other social movements
  • hope that the situation will be transformed some day by revolution.

“What’s missing here is a path by which working people can take control of their destiny and build a new society. Demands for social reforms ring hollow unless capped by the perspective of a workers’ political instrument to lead in carrying them out.”

“The relevance of . . . [the] workers’ government discussion lies rather in alerting us to the possibility that working people should strive for governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils.”

“The Fourth Congress decision suggest that workers’ efforts to form a government, far from representing a barrier to socialist revolution, can be a significant transitional step toward its realisation.”

As is clear from what I have written in this series of posts, I do not agree with this perspective.  The capitalist state cannot be expected to either give or allow workers real power, and “governmental power” is not real power for “working people”.

The capitalist state is not “a workers’ political instrument” and cannot lead them in taking “control of their destiny and build[ing] a new society.”  It cannot lead in carrying out social reforms that threaten the system, and ultimately it only makes them supplicants of the social reforms that do get implemented.

What is meant to provide glue to the “three disjointed elements” of socialist strategy which Riddell refers to, and which is in any case inaccurate and missing the element of workers cooperatives, is a working class political party.

As I have said, political crises will in future throw up occasions in which the political strength of the working class movement will be reflected in parliamentary majorities.  On its own this will not usher in working class rule, for this is something that lies outside both parliament and the state.

The potential for such a parliamentary majority to arise, and for it to be a genuine reflection of workers’ social and political power, will be exponentially increased if this power already exists through more or less extensive workers ownership and control of production, a strong and democratic trade union movement, and a mass working class party, which sums up, and seeks to give direction to, the general social power of the working class.  But in this case there will be no leading role for such a parliamentary fraction and it will be the struggle outside the capitalist state arena that will lead and be decisive.

Since this power is by its nature an international one and since this internationalism must reflect the consciousness of millions of workers, we can see that, absent this and absent an international movement that reflects this consciousness, at least across Europe, there could not have been in Greece any realistic hope that the struggle against austerity could give rise to a break from capitalism.

This does not mean the struggle was doomed, but that it must be constructed upon a different perspective of how working class struggle against austerity and all the other oppression imposed by capitalism can be repelled and a socialist alternative created.

Series concluded

Back to part 5

The Greek Crisis and the Fourth International (5) – the “standard approach”

Image result for syriza revolution

A common reference point in the debate on the way forward in the fight against austerity in Greece was the idea of a workers’ government as a bridge not only to defeating austerity but also to a “rupture” with capitalism.

For the FI majority, the fight against austerity created a political crisis requiring a political alternative, in other words a governmental alternative and a government of the left. It explained its approach in this way:

“So our approach to Syriza and the governmental question in 2012 was not an illusion, a hope, but an analysis of the importance of the issue and the need for concrete policy answers. This is a fairly standard approach for revolutionary Marxists.”

“Finally the conquest of the government, within a parliamentary framework, can, in exceptional circumstances, be a first step on the path to an anticapitalist rupture but, there too, this can be confirmed only if one government anti-austerity creates the conditions for a new power being pressed on Popular Assemblies, in the companies, the districts and the cities.”

The Greek FI section did not disagree with such a perspective in principle, but considered that a Syriza Government could not play this role:

“In this situation, the motto “workers’ government” becomes relevant. It is not applicable at once: it is even difficult to imagine its possible composition in the present situation. Nonetheless, it is indispensable to propose an overall political solution and to start to developing an understandable answer to the question: “who must hold power in Greece?”

“Such a workers’ government would have to put into practice a program against the crisis, would have to be ready to apply with key transitional measures, such as the socialization of banks and strategic sectors of the economy. A government resting on a general mobilization of the workers and based on their self-organization. A government that would regroup all forces ready to defend the masses’ demands. The revolutionaries would be ready to participate in such a government with other forces on the basis of a confrontational program and of a high degree of workers’ and youth’s mobilization. Because such a government would encourage the possibility for the workers to seize power themselves.”

“Under the present circumstances, and given the character of Syriza, a Syriza-government would not be something more than a mere left parliamentary combination, which is not the same as a workers’ government.” (For a program of confrontation with capitalism, for an independent anticapitalist and revolutionary party, 16 June 2012, by  Manos Skoufoglou.

The common pedigree of this perspective of both the FI majority and Greek section is the debate on a workers and farmers government that took place in the Third and Fourth Internationals.  I have already pointed to the incongruity of a perspective that involves “the conquest of the government, within a parliamentary framework, [that] can, in exceptional circumstances, be a first step on the path to an anticapitalist rupture” while also being considered “a fairly standard approach for revolutionary Marxists.”

I have also argued that the view that a left government could implement anti-capitalist policies and transitional measures that lead the overthrow of capitalism is mistaken.  Mistaken, not only because it confuses governmental office with state power, but also because of the idea that the capitalist state could be used as an instrument for transitional measures that entail the overthrow of capitalism.  It is fundamentally mistaken because it implies that the steps really necessary for socialism, such as workers’ ownership and control of production, can be contracted to the state who may then sub-contract them back to the working class.

For a genuine workers’ revolution it is not a question of mass mobilisation pressuring a left government, and the capitalist state it sits on top, to meet workers’ demands, including demands for economic control, but that workers have already substantially established ownership and control, or are in a position to make such ownership and control general. In such circumstances, workers are not reliant on the capitalist state giving them anything.

A common problem recognised in the perspective of relying, to greater or lesser extent, on a left or workers’ government to lead working class emancipation, is how to distinguish what might be called a workers’ and farmers government, considered as a means to implement ‘transitional’ measures, and left reformist governments which makes reforms valuable to workers and their interests but which will go no further than administering capitalism.

This problem also involves governments that concentrate power in the state, and take what can be considered ‘anti-imperialist’ measures against foreign interests, and even measures against certain domestic private capitalist concerns, but which again do not ultimately destroy capitalism or its state, and certainly do not promote workers power through working class ownership and control.

When a ‘standard’ strategy relies on the initiative coming from, and being determined by, a left government, it not only becomes a problem for analysis but also a problem for intervention.

That there will be political crises that will throw up occasions when the left will form an electoral majority and then take office does not make this the standard Marxist approach to the achievement of socialism.

A much better orientation in such circumstances comes from the pen of Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.”

Not a million miles away from Syriza and Greece.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6