Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2

Towards a Revolutionary Party in Ireland?

swpieA friend sent me a link to an article he thought was dreadful saying it might be worth me replying to.  By coincidence I had looked at the site on Sunday to see the latest on what the Socialist Workers Party was saying and thought I would read one of the articles.  I saw this one but thought I wouldn’t waste reading yet another article on the revolutionary party.  Read one you’ve read them all.

Of course being bad isn’t necessarily a good reason to review something but I read it in my lunch break anyway.

Having done so I thought that it really is woeful and although it makes some unremarkable decent points these are put in the service of an argument so flabby it barely evokes disdain.  Lots of questions are raised but only in the question-begging sense and all the real difficulties are avoided.  Like when was the last time a party that could reasonably call itself revolutionary was built in Europe?

The article gives three reasons “why a revolutionary party must be built.”  The first is to “bring together activists from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot, Artane and Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Sligo, Wicklow and Wexford.”  The author has in mind the recent anti-water charges campaign but also recent strikes. “Without a party the tendency would be just to sit back as individuals either cursing at the TV or worse being influenced by it.”

A revolutionary party will tell workers not to trust their trade union leaders.  Their activists will provide workers with good arguments against racism because they have “people who know the facts, the history and the arguments.”

Why you need a party for activists to unite, in the water charges campaign for example, is not explained. In fact pretty obviously you don’t need a party, never mind a revolutionary one, you just need a democratic campaign.  Unfortunately the anti-water charges campaign never became such an organisation, which it should have been the priority of socialists to create.

Why you need a revolutionary party so you don’t sit on the couch and swear at the TV is beyond me.  I recall the SWP standing one of its leading members for leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union SIPTU but his manifesto never mentioned social partnership and the policy of open collaboration of the unions with the bosses and the state.  One part of history with its arguments and facts the author appears to have forgotten.

The second reason for needing a revolutionary party is that “forming a left government is, in itself, not enough.” The working class has to “move towards revolution and smashing of the capitalist state.”  Were I an innocent abroad I would wonder why the SWP, as part of People before Profit, stands in elections with a programme totally devoted to winning governmental office.  Because if it doesn’t the manifesto doesn’t make any sense.  No mention in it of distrusting the capitalist state never mind smashing it.

The final reason is that while revolutions may break out spontaneously they don’t succeed without a revolutionary party.  The author gives the example of the Irish revolutionary process between 1919 and 1923 and “the counter-revolution” that betrayed the 1916 rising.  A perfect example of what is wrong with the whole article.

Between 1919 and 1923 there was no socialist revolution to betray and 1916 was no such a revolution.  More facts and history misunderstood and arguments I take to task here, here, here and here.  To be fair to the SWP I don’t recall reading any left wing group doing anything other than paint the 1916 rising in colours of red that it didn’t display at the time.

The reason a revolutionary party is needed in a time of revolution is apparently because the working class will not have a uniform level of political consciousness.  And this is true.  What we don’t get explained is how the majority of workers will develop revolutionary consciousness.  It is this problem that I have been looking at in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  And this is the real problem, given the total lack of real revolutionary challenge to capitalism for nearly a century.  In some countries, including Ireland, the challenge has never occurred or even looked likely.

The real deficiency with the hastily constructed article is the avoidance of this problem coupled with a view that a revolutionary party will be built by groups like the SWP.

Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society.  In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.

This is what Marx meant by “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism.  It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power.  Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation.  This prognosis becomes ridiculous when the smallness of the organisation reveals itself clearly to be inadequate to this historic task.  And the SWP author cannot help betraying this reality.

He claims that there is substantial radicalisation of the working class in Ireland North and South and that significant progress can be made in building a revolutionary party.  The first slip is to fail to define ‘significant’ and the second is to assume that the SWP is that revolutionary party.  The final one is the conclusion to the article where the task is reduced to recruiting individuals and having regular and interesting meetings.  In between is the attempt to buttress the first claim by pointing to the anti-water charges movement and the marriage equality referendum victory in the South.

As the author says, the anti-water charges movement reflected not only anger at this measure but also at the economic crash, the bank bail-out, wage cuts, the USC, Household Charge, community cuts, health cuts, housing crisis and “everything else”.  However the “water charges were a piece of pain that the working class felt it could do something about.”  However if we were really approaching the creation of a mass revolutionary party then this would simply not be the case.  The working class would feel it could do something about all these other injustices and would reflect its knowledge that it really did have the power to do something about all of them.

The anti-water charges campaign has led to no cumulative mass organisation of workers able to take up the other attacks.  The marriage referendum involved a democratic question that did not question capitalism so why would it lead to mass socialist radicalisation?  In the North the case for radicalisation rests on flimsy evidence that amounts to a few strikes, “small campaigns” and the election of two PbP candidates to the Stormont Assembly.  It therefore has to ignore the failure of the strikes, the smallness of the campaigns and the continued dominance by two sectarian parties one of which has ideological views about gay rights, women’s rights and evolution that might embarrass Donald Trump.

This overestimation of the significance of current facts is testament to a small organisation that thinks it has made it big, which it has in comparison to its previous history and others on the left, but which retains a narrow view of the world that ultimately reflects its still limited position in society.  The small mindedness of its politics is the failure to appreciate just how far away we are from revolution being on the agenda.  A cause for despair only if you fail to appreciate the facts, fail to understand history and have no arguments as to how revolutionary politics would be relevant in a prolonged non-revolutionary situation.

The SWP author is right to note that in Ireland there is no mass social democratic or Stalinist parties.  It is therefore the case that formations like the SWP/PbP and the similar Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance can potentially play a much more significant role in advancing the political organisation of the working class.  However to do this they will have to discard the narrow sectarian practices of the past, and face up to the more difficult questions that they face.  To do this would mean a truly revolutionary evaluation of their political history, the arguments they have unthinkingly relied upon and the real political facts of Irish society and its place in the world.  This article shows how far they are from carrying out such a task out and ironically how far they are from any sort of revolutionary party.

Brexit or Lexit?

CjC9SHcXAAAU8OOWhen the campaign over Brexit kicked off it appeared as an internal Tory argument over just how tough Cameron’s deal with the EU would be in hitting the welfare entitlement of migrant workers.  Two cheeks of one arse, as my granny would have said.

Socialists are against restrictions on the movement of workers and against cuts in welfare that are simply a means of hitting not only migrants but putting pressure on workers further up the ladder.  So socialists were on neither side of this particular argument.

The debate moved on to the economic impact of Brexit, with dire warnings of the impact on living standards of the UK leaving.  House prices will fall 18% says George Osborne, as if this were the worst nightmare of every civilised human being. The IMF also predicts drastic consequences while the OECD says it will cost UK households £2,200 by 2020 if we leave.  PricewaterhouseCoopers states that “by 2030 . . . EU exit could result in total UK GDP in 2030 being between 1.2% and 3.5% lower in our two exit scenarios”.  The UK Government brochure put through my door says “voting to leave the EU would . . . reduce investment and cost jobs.”

The ‘Northern Ireland Better in Europe’ leaflet that has sat about my house before I read it for this article lays it on thick – “leaving Europe is a leap in the dark for you and your family” – “NI Jobs AT RISK”; “Investment AT RISK”; “NI Security AT RISK”; “NI Farming AT RISK” and “NI Trade AT RISK”, at which point the author ran out of paper or things to put on the risk register.

In my work I get an email every morning, which is a digest of the local economic stories in the press and invariably over the last few weeks it has consisted of warnings of job losses and reductions in living standards if Brexit takes place.

Socialists don’t take kindly to such warnings as they usually greet any demand by workers for higher pay or better terms and conditions.  We are told that a major change like Brexit will create uncertainty and involve a leap in the dark, while socialists are of course in favour of even more fundamental change (though it cannot be a leap in the dark), so instant or unreflective rejection of such claims might be an instinctive reaction.

But such a reaction would be misplaced.  Going further, to conscious rejection, would be an example of taking one’s cue from the enemy and putting a minus sign where the establishment puts a plus.   In other words it would be a failure to form an independent view.

Similar warnings of disinvestment and threats to living standards surfaced in the Scottish independence referendum and I wrote at the time that there was no point in crying foul if you didn’t have a sound argument that either the threats were invented or that their effect could easily be countered.  Neither response could be said to be true in the Scottish referendum nor can they be said to be true now.

Whatever the exaggeration there is no doubt that a UK economy torn from the EU would witness increased barriers to trade and to domestic and foreign investment and that this would lead to job reductions and reduced living standards.  Since socialists are the most consistent defenders of workers and their conditions, and if we know that Brexit will have these effects, on what grounds could it possibly be supported?

Not caring for the good health of capitalism, which is a healthy socialist attitude, is not the same as basing one’s politics on seeking its malfunction and disintegration.  After all, we don’t advance policies to screw up capitalism, capitalist crises arise from its own contradictions – it screws itself up.  We advance a movement to replace it.

There are many people who claim to be anti-capitalist, but socialists don’t start from this but from the contradictions within capitalism, which show in what way the system contains an alternative, the replacement that is socialism.  We are not therefore in the business of seeking to prevent the development of capitalism, including its internationalisation, but in favour of building the alternative that will replace it as it develops.  It is this development that increasingly provides the grounds for the socialist alternative.

So on the two issues dominating the debate – on migration and economic consequences – socialists take a view.  We are not bystanders in this debate and when we look at the issues it should be clear on which side we stand.  We should know how this position not only informs our view of wider questions but how our wider view informs how we can understand the role of particular issues.

The left that supports Brexit have their own wider view of socialism, heavily reliant on action by the capitalist state as the vehicle for income and wealth redistribution and state ownership of the economy etc.  This nation-state centred view is revealed in their approach to Brexit.  They propose a different term -‘Lexit’, one with little currency that has even less purchase on either the debate or on the reality it purports to describe.  “Leaving the EU will be part of a process of creating a different Ireland which puts people before profit,” says one organisation, but what is this process?

People before Profit, from whom the statement above is taken, mention five grounds for leaving the EU and we will come to these in a moment.  But first, the essential socialist case for remaining in the EU is that it creates better grounds for fighting to create the international unity of workers than their separation into multiple nation states.

Those who propose Brexit base themselves in one way or another on nationalist solutions.  With the right wing of the Tory party this is obvious in what it says; when it comes to the left it is obvious in what it doesn’t say.

So we have a proposal that “leaving the EU is part of a process” but where is the international element of this process?  People before Profit believe that socialism is international so just where is the international aspect of this strategy?  In its statement on ‘Lexit’ it says nothing.  In its 2016 general election manifesto it also says nothing. (Opposition to war and to Israel do not constitute a strategy by which socialism may come about).

This stems from no serious consideration of how socialism can come about, aside from a moralistic opposition to an evil capitalism that culminates in a revolution that itself is just an accumulation of anger arising from this opposition. It’s a failure to understand that the alternative does not arise ex nihilo on the day of revolution but is built upon and arises out of the existing system and its development.  This is how the existing labour movement has been created; it could arise in no other way. The growth of People before Profit (PbP) itself is an illustration of this, being created out of the electoral system of the Irish state’s political structure. Whatever the limitations of this, and there are many, this is how People before Profit presents a strategy to Irish workers, so how does it think the socialist alternative can grow internationally?

As I said, it gives five grounds for a ‘No’ vote:

Neoliberal policies have been sealed into the EU – but the EU is a creation of nation states and so is its neoliberal policy but PbP wants to go back to these individual states.  It calls the EU a ‘bosses club’.  But who are the members of this club but the member states who in or out of the club will still be the bosses?  How does going back to separate bosses take us forward in defeating either particularly right wing policies or creating an alternative?

The EU is developing military structures to fight ‘resource wars’ – this is possibly the most patently weak argument because the EU is noted for not having an army, not having an armed force capable of asserting its collective capitalist interests and not being able to punch its weight in world affairs.  Again it is the individual states that have armies and that deploy these in capitalist wars.

The EU is fundamentally undemocratic – and so it is and so are the individual member states which are responsible for the EU’s undemocratic structure and functioning.  However it is not the job of socialists to exaggerate the democratic opportunities offered to the working class by the democratic features of capitalist states.  While these are important it is the democratic content of the working class’s own movement that will be decisive in the fight for socialism and the division of this movement by nationalism is one of the key fractures that has historically divided it and disfigured its development.

The EU legitimises racism though fortress Europe – the EU has indeed acted scandalously in its treatment of the refugee crisis but the actions of many individual states has been just as bad if not worse, including the British.  The refugee crisis is a particular example of a crisis that can only be addressed at a European level and hardly even on this scale.  It certainly cannot be solved at the level of the individual states.  How does Brexit or Lexit help?  How does Brexit help the common travel area within the EU or will this be sacrificed because it does not go far enough for those outside?  Will we go backward because we’re told we can’t go forwards?

Finally it is argued that claims that the EU protects workers’ rights are false – PbP argue that these came about during the boom times and capitalism is no longer booming.  In fact this isn’t even true and can British workers expect better working conditions arising from a right wing Tory Government?  One doesn’t need to dress up the EU to see this.  People before Profit say workers can defend existing gains, which draws attention to the real motor of advancement, but it should be obvious that separate states in competition to lower conditions is not advantageous to workers in defending legal rights and working terms and conditions.

The policies of People before Profit are themselves a good example of the difficulty of resisting this sort of capitalist state competition.  The Irish state’s 12.5% corporate tax rate is a central part of the state’s competitive strategy and has gained widespread acceptance in the process.  People before Profit also support it but just demand that 12.5% equals 12.5%.  It has accepted this race to lower taxation on corporate profits.  If there were a common EU-wide tax rate the grounds for such a strategy would be removed.  Why then would this not be supported rather than creating more grounds for state competition that impact negatively on workers?

The arguments for ‘Lexit’ do not add up.  We are debating Brexit, not the fantasy of a left exit, which is so fantastical that it cannot even be hypothesised how workers would be better off the day after exit and what the second step is to follow this first one.

The establishment say that Brexit is a leap in the dark and should be avoided.  In fact a vote to stay in the EU is more a vote for an unknown future than is voting to leave.  The political consequences, and onerous tasks, facing the British state for example, are known to a degree –   joining “the back of the queue in seeking a new trade deal” according to Obama, or making “the UK a less attractive destination for Japanese investment” according Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Staying in the EU on the other hand is not a vote for history to stop.  The EU will either move forward to further integration or it will start to move backwards; the Euro crisis and the treatment of Greece and the breakdown of the free movement of people within the EU are examples of this. Do we want to be part of this fight or declare that it is worthless because the EU cannot be changed?

The fundamentally conservative approach of People before Profit is illustrated when we consider how it would answer this question.  This conservatism appears everywhere, assuming bad things would change and good things not.  It assumes that border controls would not return within Ireland or between Ireland and Britain.  But why, when trade treaties are being torn up, would we have any reason to assume this to be the case?  Why would a common travel area continue when preventing unwanted migration is the major impetus behind Brexit?  Why would the Irish state be allowed to become the back door to entry into Britain from the EU?  It assumes the world will not essentially change for Ireland from a Brexit vote and that partition will not be strengthened.

It assumes that voting to exit is a ‘No’ vote to bad things it cannot possibly believe that it will be interpreted positively as a vote for workers and refugee rights, a vote against imperialist war, against neoliberalism or for a different national democracy.  But it is not even a negative vote, it implies something affirmative.  But what it affirms is nationalist – that in their separate little national states workers will be in a better position.

Voting in the 2016 election

aaapbp imageAs 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.

aaapbpimages (13)

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.

Is a Left Government a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the next paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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

The SWP states that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 5