The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 3

2014-10-18_iri_4011307_I1An old military maxim is that no battle plan survives engagement with the enemy.  And so it proved when the Government thought it could impose water charges on a population ground down by austerity. Unfortunately for them a sizeable section of the Irish working class decided it had had enough and that this was one bite of austerity that wouldn’t be taken.

As I said in a previous post, it began to appear in the last few months that this was a battle the Government was losing.  The announcement of further drastic changes to the Government’s plans this past week suggests that this is even truer now.

The charge that was provisionally priced at €176 in July is now €60 and is €160 for households with two or more adults – if the charge is paid and an absurdly name conservation rebate of €100 is claimed.  The cap on charges will be in place until the end of 2018 with the promise of continuing caps thereafter.  The introduction of charges is postponed for three months to January 2015; late/non payment penalties will be €30 for a single adult and €60 for other households.  PPS numbers will not be required and trickle water restrictions will not be imposed, with promises that court action will not be taken against non-payment.  Privatisation of Irish Water is off the agenda with other promises that legislation will be introduced to require a plebiscite before such action could be taken in future.

The Right2Water campaign noted “that the level of charges has been significantly reduced” and the Socialist Party TD Ruth Coppinger, interviewed on RTE Six One News, noted that they were low.  The Socialist Party has claimed that the non-payment charges will kick in at the time of the next general election and will become the major issue within the election campaign but then make the argument that the Government won’t be able to impose them.

The argument of the campaign is that the water charges need to be scrapped, that promises of future low levels of charging are worthless, that Irish Water should either be scraped as well or else it should be retained in ‘public’ ownership, and that promises not to privatise it are also worth nothing.

The argument can also be put that for many working people €160 is €160 they already can’t afford and for others it will tip them significantly into financial hardship.  The amount is not a lot but its impact is so much more painful the less it can be afforded.

None of this however may be enough; for now it is the campaign that is faced with its battle plan’s survival after further engagement with the enemy.  A campaign that has highlighted the cost of water charges and the tactic of non-payment now has to answer when the cost has been significantly reduced and a credible promise is made that it will not be increased quickly.  Can the campaign be maintained and can it grow and develop?

The current weakness of enforcement measures means that non-payment may not immediately have the intimidatory effect that they might have had, but the flip side of this is that the cost of paying for many is no longer prohibitive.  As I noticed in the previous post, given European Commission clearance the amount of money involved for the State is not unmanageable.  It can afford to retreat on this.

So as things stand the victory is not complete, but then no success is ever permanent until the final victory.  One small part of austerity has been rolled back but the decisive question is how the success that has been achieved can be copper fastened and advanced.

There is no silver bullet as an answer to this question or even a combination of answers such as sunlight, garlic and a wooden stake through the heart of the vampire.

But we do know that the answer lies with those who have been mobilised in the Right2Water campaign and the militant and active campaigns that have been organised at a local level.

The immediate requirement is to make the campaign a real coherent movement with democratic functioning so that all those involved can contribute to deciding what their collective attitude is to the Government’s concessions and what they are going to do next.  No one is going to decide for them. If they have the power to put the Government into disarray they should and must have the power to make their own decisions.  See the initiative launched here.

It is likely the case that the issue of water charging is still the struggle that will unite active opposition to austerity and that other issues might accrete to the campaign at a local level but cannot do so as part of an overall policy unless and until the democratic organisation into a State-wide campaign has been achieved.

Time now gained can be used to campaign among the trade unions and workers to boycott and black charging and create a real campaign against water charging within the union movement.

Despite the reduction in charges there is no reason that non-payment should not be a part of the campaign.  It should not however be allowed to become a means of dividing those opposed to the charges and should not be made into a loyalty test of opposition.

This does not exclude putting it up to political parties to state their policy.  It is not the views of individual TDs or councillors that is the issue.  It is a political question, a question of tactics not a moral obligation that failure to live up to will mean eternal damnation.

Some on the left appear to want membership cards, justifying it by reference to the Labour Party having subscription charges.  I think this is misplaced and the necessity of having an organisation to belong to i.e. a real democratic state-wide organisation comes before the levying of membership charges.  Membership of what and what are my rights of membership in this organisation would be the first questions if a membership card was put in front of me

The comparison with Labour raises the question whether the campaign can be treated as a political party or at least a political vehicle that stands in elections.  This is a question particularly exercised by the Left whose reformist politics leaves no conception of an alternative to electoral intervention, tailor made as it is to sectarian competition.

The failure of the Left to unite despite minimal political differences disqualifies them as adequate vehicles for the workers involved in the campaign to join as a means for electoral intervention.

In relation to the water charges electoralism only has meaning if it has the potential to see those opposed to charges become a majority in the Dail. But even this is not enough since it has become obvious that the charges could be abolished with little respite from the rest of the austerity agenda.   Standing in an election requires an alternative to this and as I have posted before, the Left doesn’t have this alternative.

In this respect the weakness that is exposed by elections – that an anti-austerity majority will not be elected – means that a full political programme is not required for electoral intervention.  We won’t be the Government so we don’t need to pretend we will.

But this means understanding the limits of the intervention and not seeking to provide comprehensive answers that are thereby comprehensively wrong.  A more limited programme would make clear that the elections are subordinated to the campaign rather than the Left which has a shameful history of subordinating the campaign to electoral intervention.

This is therefore the first reason why the elections are important (although they should not form the basis of a timetable for activity now).  They allow an opportunity for the campaign to grow and develop; for the election to produce a bigger campaign at the end of it and not for the campaign to produce a bigger number of TDs.

The second aspect of this is that when the elections arrive they will be the biggest task facing the opposition to austerity and they therefore need an intervention by those opposed to it.  The scale and political programme that this challenge to austerity will pose will be determined by the political development of the campaign between now and the election.  This is another reason why a functioning campaign must be created as quickly as possible.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 2


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The demonstrations against the water charges last Saturday showed that the Right2Water campaign is supported by local groups in towns and cities right across the State.  This grass-roots organisation is a reflection of the strength of feeling among the working class and is its greatest political strength.  It is not the creation or front of one or other, or even the whole collection, of political groups although they are deeply involved.

It is united in total opposition to the charges and to the tactic of non-payment and it should expect to be challenged by the State on both.  Concessions by the Government will be offered in the next days and afterwards stronger tactics will be employed against those who remain in opposition, if they can be sufficiently isolated.  This is always the way it works.  Every carrot is followed by a stick.

The various organisations involved in the campaign have put forward their own perspectives for the way forward.  By looking at the leaflets given out at the demonstration last Saturday I want to review what they are proposing.

Sinn Fein put out a leaflet ‘Stop the Water Charges’ which promises to reverse water charges when in Government, which rather admits it will be in some form of coalition with one of the capitalist parties after the election.  Otherwise it has little to offer those who want to see the charges scrapped.  Simply waiting for a new Government on the other hand is something that would paralyse and then kill the campaign.

Sinn Fein claims in the leaflet that it blocked the introduction of water charges in the North.  As Eamonn McCann noted in his article in ‘The Irish Times’ I referred to in the previous post – all four main parties in the North have claimed the credit for not introducing water charges.

Eamonn McCann claims “that it was a mass non-payment campaign that prevented the introduction of water charges by Stormont in 2007.” As someone who went round doors helping to organise meetings and speaking at them I know this is, unfortunately, not true.  There were numerous campaigns but none of them had a mass character and lots of signatures on a pledge of non-payment doesn’t make a mass campaign.  Meetings were usually small and when candidates from the Left stood on anti-water charges tickets they generally got the same derisory vote they always got.

The parties in the new Stormont regime did indeed refuse to introduce water charges because it was very unpopular with their own supporters, and it was something that they could manage without – so they did mange without.

The Socialist Party leaflet doesn’t mention it’s a Socialist Party leaflet but hides itself, as usual, behind some party front; this time it’s the ‘We won’t pay Campaign.’  Since it already dominates the Anti-Austerity Alliance, this method of organisation it appears wedded to wouldn’t seem to be useful even to the SP.

The leaflet is however very good at putting the case for non-payment and explaining the position of the State and the legal implications of the tactic.  It looks back to the successful water charges campaign in the mid-1990s but provides no indication that the lessons of more recent failures such as the anti-bin tax campaign have been assimilated.

The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet also argues strongly for non-payment and advises on the real situation that non-payers will face.  It is also honest enough to explain the counter-measures that the State could adopt to thwart the non-payment tactic, but then also points out the problems this would give to the State.

So the State could deduct the charge from wages or benefits but this would require a change in the law and would make it impossible to privatise Irish Water, which they say is the primary reason for imposing water charges.  On this I am unconvinced.  Charging is necessary in order to raise revenue to reduce the budget deficit, meet demands from the Troika and get the debts of the company and its future debts off the Government’s balance sheet so its debt ratio looks better.  Direct State intervention to make deductions from salaries and benefits go against this project whether privatisation is hoped for in the future or not.

That the amounts might today be relatively small does not invalidate this view but does raise the point that retreat on the issue by the Government would not involve an enormous monetary cost.

In any case we should not lose sight of the fact that it is under public ownership that this attack on workers is taking place and it is under public ownership that the water service has been a disgrace with flooding, poor water quality and leakage at atrocious levels for years.

Public ownership is a euphemism for State ownership and is misleading because the public don’t actually own it and don’t, as we can see, have any say over how it is managed or run.  There is no need to bum up the benefits of such ownership when it’s not the socialist alternative.

With this in mind, calls for a referendum to prevent privatisation might allow some to avoid taking a strong position on opposing the charges.  It is not that surprising that Jack O’Connor appears on the television supporting the call for a referendum while SIPTU fails to back the Right2Water campaign.  SIPTU members should challenge its leadership on this failure and anti-water charges campaigners should stand outside Liberty House demanding the union’s support.

The Socialist Workers Party issued a leaflet from its own political front – People before Profit, practicing the politics of feeble reformism that it condemns in its other publications.  It has its own euphemisms that it uses to straddle the contradiction.  So it calls for ‘people power’ instead of teaching Irish workers that the people are divided into classes and that the power and interests of the working class are different from those of the people who belong to the capitalist class.

This way of approaching politics allows the issue of class to be side-lined and, for example, the class nature of the state ignored, so that the State can be called upon to provide solutions; such as their leaflet calling for taking ‘Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership’.  Like Irish Water?

The leaflet also appears to call fort a general strike on 10th December but doesn’t have the courage of its convictions to say so.  On the usefulness of this demand see a previous post.  It calls for a ‘revolt’ but it’s not clear if this means revolution or is something short of it and what this might be.

The fear of using socialist terms to define socialist concepts and therefore a socialist programme and strategy sits in opposition to what appears as a hyping of the existing struggle.  So the leaflet says that ‘the battle against water charges is part of a wider revolt.’

If only it were.

Its importance however is not that it is part of a wider revolt, but that it is the exception to the rule of general working class passivity and acceptance of austerity.  Its wider political significance is actually that it might herald the start of a wider resistance.  But then the question is how do we achieve this, or can we?  Not that it already exists.

The article in ‘The Irish Times’ noted that one reason behind the anti-water charges campaign was that the people cannot “give any more” and “the people have been pushed too far.”  The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet notes that ‘hundreds of thousands of people are now saying ‘No More’”. In other words many workers have decided that they won’t pay this bill.  They have not decided to stop paying the price of austerity they are already paying or perhaps new ones that will heaped on them in the future should the new boom prove temporary.

If the strength of the campaign is its local organisation then an effective national campaign structure would help to leverage that strength to support activity in weaker areas or where no campaign currently exist.  Above all such a structure should provide for democratic accountability to the members of those speaking for the national campaign.  It would provide the means by which a collective view can be determined and publicised on such things as the response to whatever partial concessions the Government dreams up to stifle opposition.

At this stage it would not appear to advance the overall struggle against austerity to demand that the campaign take on wider objectives.  It is clearer however that at some stage it should.  The best grounds on which to do so would be success in defeating the water charges.  Such a step however needs preparation now for an extension of the objectives of the campaign down the line.

Fighting tax increases, cuts to public services and cuts to wages and welfare will not be easy and the tactic of sitting tight involved in ‘we won’t pay’ is obviously not an answer to these.  A debate on what we are for and how we might build it is also just as necessary, if not more so.

A second tactic is to stand in elections and electoral intervention is now the favoured method of moving forward by Sinn Fein and most of the Left groups.  The latter confidently argue that the former will betray the hopes of their supporters, and Sinn Fein’s support for austerity budgets in the North is all the confirmation one needs for this argument.

Unfortunately the Left’s own claims are hardly consistent either.   They regularly denounce the capitalist state but their programme fully relies on it doing what they want.  On this blog I have posted numerous times on how their support for capitalist state ownership and taxation of the rich are not socialist and won’t work.  In other words they would effectively end up betraying their supporters were they in office just as effectively as Sinn Fein.  Sincere intentions don’t enter into it.

At the more immediate level the Left does not provide an example to follow.  The anti-water charges campaign relies on unity and agreement on total opposition to the charges in any form.  Any sense by its supporters that it did not respond to their feelings and demands would see it lose support.

Unfortunately the Left has a culture of manipulation and a lack of critical and free debate within its ranks.  It regularly calls for workers’ unity while being utterly incapable of unity within its own ranks.  In fact in this respect it has gone backwards, with the demise of what limited unity there was in the United Left Alliance.  It is simply incapable of containing within its present organisation and politics any mass radicalisation of workers.

A potential for radicalisation arises from the sudden upsurge against water charges, posing the need for increased organisation and politicisation of the campaign.  A victory is possible, giving rise to the possibility of further advances and the need to debate now how these could be achieved.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 1

anti-water-charges-campaigns-protests-4-390x285I was sitting in a small café at 12 o’clock having a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, with customers at only two other tables.  A group of four elderly people were talking at one while three middle aged men were talking at the other.  Both were discussing the water charges, their opposition to them and the march they were going to join in one hour’s time.

I joined a feeder march at Pearse Street that went up Dame Street, up to York Street, where it collected some more supporters, and then went round to St Stephen’s Green to stop  a few minutes outside the Dail to tell the Government that they “could stick their water meters up their arse”.  Even the Guards on duty outside had a smirk.  The thousand or so then took off to join the main rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street where a number of other marches converged.

The demonstration was not as large as that of a few weeks before, which was estimated as 100,000, but this time there were dozens of other marches being held right across the State in cities and towns big and small.  Estimates are that in total the numbers were greater – 150,000.

On 11 October the apparently sudden scale of the opposition to water charges was reinforced by the victory in the Dublin by-election of the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, who defeated the firm favourite from Sinn Fein because that party had done a little too much talking out of both sides of its mouth and was seen as insufficiently opposed to the charges.

Sinn Fein posters were in evidence on the march on Saturday and it was noticeable that flags and banners from other republican groups were also in evidence.  The left groups were more peripheral than is usual in such marches and I didn’t see one trade union banner, although I could easily have missed it.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly working class, composed of what many on the left call ‘ordinary people’, although I’ve never considered myself extraordinary for example.  The other noticeable thing was the folk songs sung from the stage, the references to James Connolly and 1916 and the general referencing to Ireland’s rebel history.  It is as if, at least sections of the Irish working class go to sleep for a few years and that when they periodically wake up they look back to their greatest struggles and leaders, when their intervention into Irish history appeared to promise a new future. That hasn’t really been the case for a long time, at least in the South.  A Northern banner in solidarity might have highlighted the unfinished business.

While I was in the café I was reading ‘The Irish Times’ and in particular an article by Eamonn McCann entitled ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’.  I’m sure he didn’t write the headline so it is no criticism of him to point out that demonstrations in Dublin of 100,000 against austerity have already taken place over the last five years or so.  They were organised by the trade union movement and the demonstrators were betrayed by the leaders of that same movement, as McCann alluded to in his article.

So what makes this movement different, if it is?  Firstly there is a view that it could succeed, in fact an argument can be made that it is already succeeding.  The Government parties have already responded by concessions in the budget to lessen the impact of the charges and did so in such a hurry they messed it up.   The newspapers, radio and television news are full of reports of the panicked reaction by Government politicians, especially with an election around the corner; hundreds of thousands of registration forms sent by the new Irish Water company have not been returned and the deadline for returning them has been extended to the end of the month.

Opinion polls confirm the unpopularity of the charge and the effect of this on the popularity of the Governing parties.  Labour is already a dead duck and Fine Gael support has fallen while support for Sinn Fein and ‘independents’ has grown.  The new company is particularly disliked because of the millions of Euros being spent on consultants for a service the state has been providing for years (the same thing happened in the North when Northern Ireland Water was created).  Bonuses are also to be paid to Irish Water staff with those at the top getting much larger amounts than those at the bottom, with the added insult from the company that they continue to peddle the line that they aren’t really bonuses.

Irish workers facing these costs believe that they are already paying for water so in effect they are being asked to pay twice and for huge management consultant bills and bonuses on top.

But previous, more outrageous decisions have failed to generate resistance that actually looks like it might win.  The decision to bail out the banks, costing over €64 billion, dwarfs the water charges in scale, with bankers hardly more popular than the Executives of Irish Water – and bankers’ bonuses have certainly been larger.   So what has changed?

Going back to Eamonn McCann’s article in ‘The Irish Times’:  he says that paying for a substance so natural sparks a particular anger.  But this isn’t really the case – in the café one guy was saying that he would be prepared to pay for water, but not twice and not for the consultants and bonuses.  This, I think, is the widespread view.  People are aware that they have to pay for water and sewerage services and they know this because it is obvious.

The headline over the article by Eamonn McCann in ‘The Irish Times’ said ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’; and that is the main reason for the resistance – it is one step too far.  As one of the leaflets given out at the demonstration put it -“No more.”

The whole austerity offensive, austerity budget after austerity budget, the state effectively bankrupt, posed the question of how to resist – what to do?  And resistance had to have some idea of an overall alternative.  The Irish working class didn’t know what such an alternative would be and didn’t buy the one sold by most of the Left.  I have examined this alternative in a series of earlier posts, for example here, here and here.

On the other hand workers are now being told that economic growth is not only on the way but has actually arrived.  Unemployment has fallen and tax cuts are promised while cuts in services will end.  Things look like they may have bottomed out.  They don’t think that they need to pay this unfair bill and what’s more they think that there is something very practical that they can do to stop it.

They won’t get their water turned off if they don’t pay.  As a commercial semi-state company the money can’t be taken off them through deductions to their salaries and wages.  Sure there is the possibility of court cases but cases against hundreds of thousands?  Even reduction of water pressure to the home is not so easily achieved and possible to prevent with direct, mass action.  In other words it is beatable and the disarray of the Government has demonstrated to many that it can be beaten.

To be continued

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 2

detroit-industry--north-wall-diego-riveraIn the first post I looked at those aspects of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that I thought were broadly correct.  In this part I want to look at their other criticisms of what they see as the revolutionary approach and what I see as valid in their criticisms of what passes for revolutionary Marxism but what I believe is not necessary to it.

They state of the revolutionary approach that “destruction of the state is the order of the day, with the point of note being the sequence: first, the state, as the godfather of capital, must be taken out of the equation; only then can the working class organise, through new forms such as workers’ councils, the mass participation in public life necessary to the complete the journey to socialism.”

“Until a revolutionary situation arises in which the state can be smashed there are limits to what can be achieved on a mass scale since it is the process of revolution itself that draws the masses into public life.”

“The party that revolutionaries seek to build interacts with the masses during the revolutionary process and is the repository of the historical mission in less propitious times. But the revolutionary party itself has a different role than the workers councils and remains separate from them and pre-revolutionary mass organisations.  By separate we mean institutionally distinct, not that they never try to influence them.  Although naturally a pro-insurrectionary party would like to grow, it doesn’t aim to win a majority support for itself. . .”

“If anything the creation of permanent mass institutions becomes a fetter which prevents a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the treacherous actions of its bureaucratised leadership when the hour strikes.”

It is not that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are unaware of the dangers of bureaucratisation in the building of a socialist workers’ movement: “Clearly there is a danger that the day-to-day concerns force the grand vision into the background. Such is the risk of engaging with reality. But without being able to relate the day-to-day with the longterm project, the proponents of socialism will remain very isolated intellectuals.”

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien also make criticisms of what they see as the anti-party and anti-political mindset of those who advocate workers’ councils but since I think this criticism is aimed mainly at anarchism and perhaps council communists I won’t take these arguments up.

If we work our way backwards through the criticisms above the first is the danger of bureaucratisation of workers’ organisations, especially through the long years (decades!) of non-revolutionary circumstances.  They are right to say that to try to seek to protect against this by avoiding the day-to-day concerns and small struggles of working people is failing to engage with reality.

We must start from where we are and not where we might want to be.  This might seem so obvious as to hardly require saying but take this from the British Socialist Workers’ Party article referred to in my last post:

“Who, after all, thinks that ‘in the present situation’ in France (or anywhere else) workers are going to try to centralise the power of their workers’ councils? The very precondition of such a development is that the ‘present situation’ has changed. The idea of revolution in a non-revolutionary situation is absurd. Every revolutionary situation has involved a split within the existing state apparatus and the existing ruling class. A revolutionary situation involves a crisis for the state, a loss of effectiveness. Without such a crisis there can be no revolution: that is part of the ABC of Marxism. It is precisely the crisis in the state which permits the emergence of a situation of ‘dual power’ and the possibility of a new form of state power conquering.”

The reformist approach to socialism is criticised by this writer for believing “the transition to socialism is to occur from the ‘present situation’ and without ‘economic collapse’.  In practice . . .  all reformists—seek(s) to construe a transition to socialism from the ‘present situation’.”

In other words revolutionary politics comes into its own when there is a revolutionary situation.  But of course how we get to this situation, how the working class is ready for it, how it has built its power and consciousness to the point where it can successfully challenge for power – all this has to be done precisely from the present situation.   After what has been decades in which there has patently not been revolutionary crises in the advanced capitalist states it is manifestly not enough to say that when such crises eventually erupt – although they will not even erupt without a prior revolutionising of working class consciousness, organisation and social power – we need to smash the capitalist state to effectively respond to the needs of such events.

Without a prior strategy to build up the power of the working class it will in all likelihood not be in a position to effectively challenge for power no matter what objective crisis capitalism undergoes.  The merit of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument is that they present this problem and it is the responsibility of Marxists to address it even if these authors use it as an argument against revolutionary destruction of the capitalist state.

There are other less crass ways of Marxists failing to engage with reality, such as demanding that campaigns or activity must meet some level of demands and therefore class consciousness that workers patently cannot rise to, at least not in current conditions or with the current level of political consciousness.  Some sections of the Left can then turn political demands not into bridges to advancing political consciousness but obstacles to action and subsequent rise in consciousness.

It is no doubt true that part of the reason for this is a belief by Marxists that the purpose of Marxism is to promote a revolutionary rupture and so seek to further this by advancing demands associated with partial struggles that if accepted by workers in such struggles can more or less quickly objectively clash with the logic of the capitalist system and therefore lead to revolutionary crisis.  The only problem of course is, as we have said above, it should be obvious that workers are many years from being in a position to perform such a role.  That many, many struggles cannot have a perspective of more or less raising the question of state power is hard to accept.

But it must be accepted because without being with the workers, no matter how backward their consciousness, socialism, real socialism, the socialism which is about the power of workers and not of the state, can by definition achieve nothing.

There are no formulas that guarantee this but it is important to dismiss formulas that guarantee against it.

Of course most left organisations claiming to be Marxist make the opposite mistake of dumbing down socialism so that it becomes an appeal to the state to accomplish what the working class is not yet willing or able to accomplish itself.

It is my view however that revolutionary politics not only exists in periods of relative class peace but must exist in such periods, if only because we have lived through decades of non-revolutionary conditions and the level of working class organisation and consciousness is now such that we cannot expect that this will be changed quickly.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien put forward similar ideas, without the view that revolution is necessary, but their argument is not always consistent.

Speaking of the tasks of the socialist movement now they say that: “We want to merge the socialists into mass organisations so that ideologically socialist parties exist on a truly large basis over a prolonged period of time, for decades at least, for centuries if necessary.”

But this sits uneasily with recognition of the dangers of bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement and how this weakens their case for a long term strategy of attrition: “The pressure of the wider pro-capitalist culture combined with the tendency towards increasing conservative apparatus makes the strategy of attrition a risky one. There is a race on between the socialist organisations aiming to transform capitalist society before capitalist society transforms them.”  A race lasting centuries?

Part of the problem Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien have is expressed in their description of their own strategy:

“The strategy of attrition is, therefore, compatible with a type of politics that is close to where many people already are. Its radicalism lies in its goals, not in its practice and this makes it easier to interact with non-socialists on an open basis. There is no need to hide its insurrectionary orientation because it doesn’t have one.”

The separation of goals and the practice of getting there inevitably means a failure to achieve the goals or leads to a different practice.  The view that socialism can be delivered by the state taking ownership of the economy, or redistributing wealth, does not lead to the working class achieving power but the extension of the power of the state.

Revolutionary politics therefore involves workers achieving what they can achieve by themselves.  The revolutionary content in any demand, or action or programme is the growth in the independent power and consciousness of the working class.  This obviously achieves its fullest extent when workers challenge for state power by attempting to destroy the state power wielded by the capitalist class and by creating its own.  But this does not prevent, rather it requires, years of workers learning that it is their own action that will deliver them what they want and what they need.

Building an independent trade union is more revolutionary than calling for increased taxation of the rich by the state even if some success attends the latter.  Creating a workers’ cooperative is more revolutionary than calling for the nationalisation of the banks even if banks, as they have been, are nationalised.  Workers fighting to control their own pension funds and taking them out of the hands of the bankers is more revolutionary than demanding that the state jail the corrupt bankers.  The latter happens in the US and the trial of the Anglo Irish bankers has begun.  They get jailed?  How does this advance the independent power of the working class?

We are now able to see how revolutionary politics is compatible with the long years of relative class peace as well as revolutionary crises.  We can evaluate political programmes as more or less revolutionary or reformist without being obliged to speculate on near-hand revolutionary crises.

We can say with Marx that:

“It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.”

But what the working class is and what it therefore does depends on its own existence, its own struggles and not on the actions of the state and those who inhabit it.

Much of the ‘transitional’ character of Trotsky’s transitional programme, upon which for many revolutionary politics must rest, does not connect the class struggle to the creation of an entirely new socialist mode of production.  This was something we saw in the first post and taken up in the comment to it.

That which does, the expropriation of capitalist enterprises, is wrongly bastardised into nationalisation by the capitalist state, see my earlier post.

We can now therefore look again at the description of revolutionary politics from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien which we quoted earlier.

It is not necessary for revolutionary politics to claim that only revolution that can bring the working class into mass participation in politics.  Building workers cooperatives, trade unions and a workers’ political party are all necessary to stimulate and develop working class consciousness and organisation.  A revolution is not necessary for any of them.

It is a truism to say that only revolution expresses this participation to its fullest extent but even here the prior establishment, development and political defense of workers ownership requires certain levels and type of workers activity that political revolution is not a substitute for.  Cooperative production involves the working class learning the skills and experience of the future mode of production.

Revolutionaries do have to separately organise but this does not necessitate institutional separation in terms of a completely separate party.  Revolutionaries can seek to win a majority of the working class prior to a revolutionary situation.  It is not a fetter to win the majority of the working class to socialism; even if the majority of the working class did not actually support a revolutionary perspective.

The dangers of bureaucratisation and conservatism are real but deliberate minority status of the revolutionaries doesn’t protect either this minority or do anything to win a reformist majority.  Often of course reformist leaders will not give revolutionaries the choice of working within a larger reformist working class party but it is no answer to seek separation if revolutionaries are otherwise free to organise.

Revolutionaries do not believe that it is only after the working class has smashed the capitalist state that it can organise or we would have a classic chicken and egg situation – we can’t destroy the capitalist state until we are organised and can’t organise until we have destroyed the state.

It is in fact my argument that it is precisely the view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, of attempting to use the existing state to create socialism and to organise primarily through electoralism, that restricts and limits the participation of workers in political activity and heightens the bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement.

It is obviously true that socialist revolution has not succeeded during the twentieth century but it is also true that this has been partly because the workers’ movement has been bureaucratised by and through the capitalist state that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien think is the answer to the former failure.  And the strategy that produced this bureaucratisation was one of seeking election to office within the capitalist state when the working class was in a position only to administer capitalism not overthrow it.

In the next post I will look at the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien view of the capitalist state some more.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 1

revolutionA couple of leading figures in the Irish Left Forum , Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien, have written an extended piece on socialist strategy published here.   This has been subject to a ‘health warning’ and a critique on the Revolutionary Programme site here.  The latter is carried out mainly by simple reference to large quotations from Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.  The author gets away with this approach because these quotations are so apposite.

I welcome the intervention from the members of the Left Forum for the following reasons: They propose a strategy and practice that is already that of the Left groups in Ireland who claim to be Marxist.  The latter’s arguments are that the capitalist state can play a progressive role in the movement to socialism and that the main activity that workers and socialists should engage in is electoral intervention.  The left groups demands for nationalisation, increased state expenditure and taxation of the rich plus activity geared excessively to elections are evidence of this.

The difference between these groups and the Left Forum authors is that the latter put up an argument for such an approach.  Since it is common on the Left not to bother with such things this is to be welcomed.

The second reason is that the arguments put forward are important and some of them are correct.  These are not addressed in the reply noted above so I believe that some of the most important issues which they raise have not been adequately answered.

The third reason is that a debate on strategy is to be welcomed and if there is to be a debate there will be differences.  We should develop an ability to discuss them.  If we don’t or can’t then future initiatives at uniting socialists will be as unsuccessful as those in the past.

So what are the arguments and issues raised that are important and by and large correct? These are made mostly in the second part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien piece.

The authors make the entirely valid point that “when capitalism tottered in September 2008 there wasn’t the slightest question that there was an alternative economic system that could step in and immediately take over.”  What this means is that we do not have an alternative, to be exact – an alternative that is both global and immediate.  We do have one that can grow and develop but not one that can challenge the capitalist system now.

It was lack of an alternative that explains why workers accepted, some even voted for, the imposition of manifestly unfair and hurtful measures in the EU referendum in Ireland in 2012.  In the post after the referendum I argued that it was precisely this lack of an alternative that was the main reason for the defeat in the austerity Treaty referendum, despite workers’ anger and frustration at what they were being asked to endorse.

is an expression of the weakness of the workers’ and socialist movement existing more or less everywhere, which Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien also note. Their argument is that the perspective of a workers’ revolution to overthrow the capitalist state and usher in socialism is mistaken.

In making this argument they make some valid observations. They finish their analysis by saying, although they could have started it from here, that “Our short-term tasks do not involve overthrowing capitalism — a mode of production cannot even be overthrown. . .”  By this I assume that they mean that the capitalist mode of production cannot be overthrown without it being replaced (unless we envisage ruination as Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto) and it is the latter that is important, which might seem an obvious point except the question arises – replaced by what?

In the model of socialist revolution this is usually thought to mean replaced by ownership of the means of production by a workers’ state.  But states are just people organised in a certain way so how is this group of people to know how to run an economy and do so better than the capitalists if they have never done it before, have no practice and no plan to do so?

They have no plan to do so because the typical scenario for revolution is that it is a revolt against attacks on workers’ rights and not a conscious offensive to change the mode of production, which rather simply appears as a by-product of the need to smash the capitalist state through a mass strike and the creation of workers’ councils.

Some advocates of revolution accept this argument and therefore accept that socialist revolution will lead to economic collapse.  And although of course this is only temporary, a bit like a loss of form where your football team drops a few points – before going on to win the league, the prospect seems far from one that will sell socialism to most workers.  In fact it sometimes seems entirely light-headed and the product of a mentality entirely alien to most workers.

Take this example from the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. The writer says this – “we must be clear: a transition to socialism, to the complete reorganisation of society by the working class, cannot occur without ‘economic collapse’.  A socialist revolution involves ‘economic collapse’: the problem is to carry it through, decisively, so that economic recovery on a new basis can be started immediately.”

Let’s be very clear – if the socialist revolution leads to economic collapse it calls into question the readiness of the working class to be the new ruling class in the first place since it obviously lacks the power to prevent collapse and if this is the case what guarantees can there be that it would be capable of reversing it?  Especially “immediately”.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien state correctly that “getting past capitalism is an incredibly difficult problem,”  “At the outbreak of mass protest or revolution this is not a problem since the issue presents itself to the opposition in a simple way, e.g. “down with the regime”, “against the 1%”, “they all must go” (Argentina 2001). Sooner or later, however, it becomes necessary to move beyond a simple formulation of the problem and to advance structural solutions. “

“This transformation to socialism can only come from the working class having a pre-existing organisational capacity to take advantage of these developments, especially in the most advanced countries, of which the United States is currently the most important. That capacity takes decades to build up and it’s not a process that can be rushed or circumvented by some clever shortcuts and nor should it be.” “Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to get big and capable institutions in one go.”

This seems obviously true and it is the necessity to build up the working class movement to such a position to effect revolution that is the task. Unfortunately this is not the task that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien seek to solve by the strategy of increasing the power of the working class for they see the above problem as one that means that a revolutionary strategy is not appropriate.

One reason they posit for this is that the division of labour within modern economies has so developed that the intricate coordination necessary cannot arise from what is an essentially spontaneous process of revolution.  This view might therefore legitimately say that simply trying to make a virtue of this fact by admitting the inevitability of economic collapse also involves tacit admission of the dangers they see in revolution.

These include diminishing enthusiasm of the masses, because their revolutionary fervour is of recent, and therefore limited, vintage  since otherwise we would have had decades of a revolutionary situation, which is hardly credible.  This would be exacerbated by the drop in living standards consequent on ‘economic collapse’ and a similar consequential fall in political support for the revolutionary process.

These seem reasonable objections and it is up to those who defend and argue positively for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state to present their strategy in such way that it plausibly answers this criticism. Before we look at this aspect however we should note other correct arguments advanced by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

They rightly argue that there is “no shortcut to building up mass, popular organisations” and they are guilty only of exaggeration when they say that “in the absence of mass socialist-labour institutions workers’ capacity for action is restricted to protest and destruction.”

Protest demonstrations are the staple of left group activity and their electoral interventions are also a pure protest since they nowhere claim that they will form part of a government if elected. Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argue that this is not enough “for the project of raising a socialist mode of production to dominance, via co-ops and labour unions.”

It is on building up this alternative that they concentrate their argument, pointing out the need to build specifically working class organisations , as the socialist movement used to do before the functions these organisations performed were taken over by the state and the majority of socialists took to believing that state action was somehow equivalent or substitute for working class self-activity. They point out the need for working class mass media and to the early history of the German Social Democratic Party and its ‘eco-system’ of social clubs, publications and summer camps etc.

They point out the failures of the Left’s favourite tactic of ‘single-issue’ campaigns which, besides usually being sectarian and right-ward looking fronts of one particular organisation, are incapable of getting beyond a single issue, incapable of broader radicalisation “so that when that campaign is over, irrespective of whether it has ended in victory or defeat, the next campaign must start from the same low basis.” These campaigns are structurally incapable of persisting through time and of achieving the cumulative growth of membership, organisation and consciousness on which alone a truly mass socialist working class movement can be developed

Some remarks on the internal organisation of the socialist movement are also in my view correct although not because of any original insight by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien or myself.  Thus there is a need to fight for socialism within the working class movement of party, unions and cooperatives using the weapon of “freedom to organise and the freedom to articulate criticism and dissent.”  The petty bourgeois character of much of the left organisations is revealed by their inability to organise democratically.

So what is essentially valid in the argument is that while destruction of the capitalist state might solve the problem of armed reaction by that state (which is no small issue!) “it doesn’t . . . solve the problem of being able to transition to a socialist mode of production.” In the next part of this post I will look at what Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien have to say about the state itself.

Why have the Irish not revolted? Part IV

gustave_dore_fourth_circle_dante_infernoIn much of Europe the workers movement developed in the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th through industrialisation, the growth of trade unions and socialist parties and the radicalisation caused by two world wars, in particular by the first.  The socialist movement often led the struggle for democratic rights and freedoms and gained support as a result.

The Irish experience has been different, leading to a working class with a lower level of class consciousness.  While Ireland started to industrialise early it was thrown back by the development of superior industrial development in Britain.  What industrialisation did occur was small and mainly concentrated in the north east of the country.  Defeat and brutal repression of Ireland’s bourgeois revolution in 1798 led to a bitterly divided working class with the most extreme reactionary ideology dominating the most advanced industrial area.

The land question was denuded of its radical potential by this counter revolution and by the effects of the catastrophic famine in the middle of the19th century when, in a population of over 8 million, around a million died and a million emigrated and the population began a decline that did not reverse until the 1970s.  The number of agricultural labourers fell by 700,000 from 1845 to the early twentieth century, the number of small farmers was halved and the cottier class almost wiped out.  All this could only but weaken the potential base for a radicalised land movement.

The result of all this was that when the national movement erupted in the first decades of the twentieth century in a battle for an independent state it was dominated by middle class revolutionaries who subordinated workers’ interests with the demand that ‘labour must wait’, which has been pretty much the policy of Irish republicanism since.

The new truncated statelet these most conservative of revolutionaries created was dominated by the same economic subordination as that which preceded nominal independence, resulting in economic growth after foundation of the new state at very much the same rate as before its creation; and a polity not much different than before except for the role of the new Irish bourgeoisie that often proclaimed its Catholicism more than its nationality.

The working class in its majority never broke from this political class and the socialist movement has been small and peripheral.  The Second World War passed the Irish State by and during the 1950s emigration was higher relatively than it had been almost 100 years earlier, sapping all social classes of vitality and energy.

The Irish State caught the tail end of the world-wide post war economic boom and the workforce in industry increased from 259,000 in 1961 to 363,000 in 1981.  Overall however there was little increase as the numbers employed as agriculture continued to decline.  This growth in the working class led to some limited revival in socialism reflected in the Labour Party claiming ‘the 70s will be socialist’ before that decade came and went  and republicanism being genuinely influenced by socialist ideas, although of a Stalinist-type that did not offer any real alternative.

This period saw a large growth in the number of strikes so that at one point the Irish State had the highest number in Europe (see below).

strikestats

It also witnessed huge demonstrations against the high taxes imposed by the State on the working class, which amounted to 87 per cent of all income taxes in 1978. In 1979 over 150,000 workers demonstrated in Dublin with many thousands in thirty other towns including 40,000 in Cork.

At this point the Irish State’s model of economic development began to collapse. World-wide economic crisis, a weakening of foreign investment and bankruptcy of indigenous industry led to massive unemployment, renewed emigration and a ballooning State debt.  That the Irish working class and small socialist movement were unable to offer an alternative to the resulting capitalist restructuring and political offensive should not surprise.  There was no successful resistance and alternative created anywhere else.

The defeat of the tax struggles in the late seventies and early eighties and the inability to take advantage of ruling class political disarray, evidenced by repeated general elections in the first few years of the decade, plus the mass unemployment and emigration during the decade, weakened the working class both materially and politically.  The graph of strike activity above clearly shows a steep decline from the 1970s from which there has been no recovery.  It was in these circumstances that social partnership was imposed in the late 1980s.

Partnership signalled the move away from bargaining with the employers and State through militant action and acceptance that when the solvency of the State was in question this took priority.  Beginning in 1987 a series of deals were negotiated that meant accepting major cuts in pay and state services in order to reduce the massive State debt.  The parallels with today are obvious.

There was resistance to social partnership but it came in its most militant form from outside the trade unions and the trade union leaders were decisive in its relatively smooth introduction.  This defeat of militant workers action and acceptance of the prerogatives of capitalism was, as we have said, not at all unique to Ireland.

Across the world the ability and willingness of the working class to fight back in defence of its interests was set back.  Strike statistics are only the most graphic measure of this development.  Taking 42 countries and looking at the period between 1981-85 and 1996-2000 the number of countries in which strikes increased was 8 while there were 34 countries in which they declined.  In the group of countries in which strikes had risen the increase was only 5,183 while the reduction in strike numbers was 63,657 in the group of countries in which there was a decline.

In the Irish State the annual number of days lost in strikes fell from over 580,000 in the 1970s to 26,650 in 2005.  In the latter year there were only 15 strikes and only 10 in 2006, in which only 7,352 working days were lost, the lowest since records began in 1923.  In 2007, the last year of the boom, there were only 6.

As a percentage of the employed workforce trade union membership fell from 56.2% in 1987 to 42% in 1998.  Separate figures record a reduction from 46% in 1994 to 35% in 2004 while the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has admitted that density continued to fall, being lowest among young workers.  Where unions did exist member participation dropped and some of the features of bureaucratisation long normal at higher levels of trade unions infected union representatives further down the ranks.

All this occurred during an unprecedented boom in the economy, the period of the Celtic Tiger, when GDP growth ranged between 7.8% and 11.5% from 1995 to 2000 and between 4.4% and 6.5% from 2001 to 2007.  From 1990 to 2007 total employment grew from 1.160m to 2.112m, an increase of over 80%.  While incomes fell during the 1980s they grew rapidly during the Celtic Tiger.  The historical working class was recreated in many ways as a result of rapid economic growth both quantitatively as a result of falling unemployment, immigration and increased labour force participation rates and qualitatively as a result of the increased employment of women (whose number grew by over 125% from 1990 to 2007) and an influx of foreign workers.

The Irish working class was recreated as a result of a boom fuelled primarily by foreign investment, which excluded unions from its workplaces, increasing corporatism and bureaucratisation of the unions that did exist.  This within a world in which the historic goals of the working class movement – from progressive reform of the capitalist system to the view that it could be replaced – was increasingly discredited through the fall of Stalinism and defeat and retreat of workers struggles and the claims of social democracy.

The boom saw no political strengthening of the workers’ movement even as unemployment fell and the class objectively, at least in numbers, grew enormously.  As we said at the end of Part 3 capitalism is a revolutionary mode of production that recreates the working class.  In the Irish State it did so in a way and in circumstances that did nothing to overcome the historic political weaknesses of the class.  Indeed the trade unions became weaker as they bought into social partnership and the view that the interests of workers, State and bosses were best aligned.  Even the historic nationalist politics that has been hegemonic became encapsulated in the need to have a low corporation tax for US multinationals.

Lack of a strategic alternative, among other things, brought about defeat of the large struggles of the 1970s.  Unemployment, emigration and prolonged economic crisis brought an assault by the State on working class living standards and did so in such a way that it survived, even prospered, when the economy recovered and entered into a boom.  Social partnership sold the working class into sacrifices to bail out the State from bankruptcy and made the workers subordinate even when the boom gave them the conditions in which they could have recovered their strength and learnt to advance their own interests.  Instead, in so far as social partnership was later abandoned it was abandoned by the State.

The nationalist politics of the working class, the partnership with the state and the agreement of workers to sacrifice themselves on its alter came together in the reluctant acceptance of workers that they must bail out the banks and accept austerity when the economic crisis finally broke.  This dependence on the State can be seen in two other ways.

In Part 2 we noted that the left wing economist Michael Taft has claimed that the ‘squeezed middle’, the 4th to 8th deciles of income earners, suffered declines in direct income in the five years leading up to the crash, gaining only as a result of social transfers.  Social partnership involved a deal between the trade union leaders and the State/bosses in which workers refrained from industrial action and accepted lower than potential pay rises in favour of tax cuts.  This was not just the case in the final years of the boom but was the line pushed almost from the start – a policy that became more and more explicit as the partnership deals were negotiated.

Thus not only did the workers movement become denuded of any militant initiative but it became more and more dependent on the state, and this was true not only of public sector workers but of workers in the private sector as well.  Gross average industrial earnings grew by 25% in real terms in the 15 years between 1987 and 2000 but take home pay rose by 60% for a single person and 58% for married because taxation was cut.

Mainstream economists, in 2000, also reckoned that these tax cuts were regressive because they were largely achieved through reductions in tax rates, which favoured those on higher incomes.   It is well known that the State became excessively reliant on revenues from a credit boom but what this shows is that social partnership, and the whole strategy of the trade union leaders, was just as reliant.  But really, how could it be otherwise?

The second way this dependence increased can be seen in the simple growth of the state itself, true in all countries and not just of Ireland.  ‘The Economist’ reported that the average size of the state had grown from 12.7% of GDP in 1913 to 47.7% in 2009.  Even in the UK after decades of Thatcher and New Labour the size of the state remained around 44% from 1980 to 2005.  This translates into widespread and increasing dependence of the population on the state, which has become the supposed solution to every and all sorts of problems.

Such massive growth could not fail to have deep impacts on society at the ideological level and the ruling ideas that infect the working class.  Neoliberalism hasn’t done away with the State and neither has it weakened illusions in it.  The Irish State now presides over the world’s biggest property company (NAMA) after private capital made a mess of it.  The State is now the means by which the debts created by this private capital are made good by the working and middle class.

One business journalist has quantified some of the ways in which this dependency is transmitted:

“Irish Budget 2014: Half of Ireland’s population is on welfare and when recipients of child benefit, farmers dependent on public subsidies which are effectively welfare, accounting for 81% of average farm income in 2012; legal services costing the state about a half billion euros annually; public payments to doctors; a raft of corporate welfare schemes and the public service itself, at least while Karl Marx is likely to be disappointed that a few remnants of the failed communism experiment only remain, in Ireland there is a shining example of the halfway house known as socialism or to put it in non-ideological terms, dependency on the State.”

As we can see, he paints the growth of the capitalist state as somehow a practical example the ideas of Marx, and who can blame him?  It’s the view of most of the Left as well, who constantly call not on the working class to solve its own oppression but for the state to do it for them.

The journalist gives a host of facts that demonstrate the growth of dependency on the state -from the growth of social welfare expenditure from €9.5m in 2002 to €15.5m in 2007 when the crash came and to €20.7m in 2012.  The number of social welfare beneficiaries rose from 1.5m in 2002 to 1.6m in 2007 and 2.3m in 2012.  Of these 486,000 were on the Live Register.

He notes the increased number holding medical cards; the direct subsidies to private industry and agriculture – mostly to the biggest operators; the tax breaks for business and the direct procurement of goods and services from private capital.

However the bottom line with the austerity offensive is that the Irish State became bankrupt and could not afford to continue this, so introducing harsh cuts and tax increases.  The question we have sought to address is why Irish workers have not resisted, or resisted so little and to so little effect.

We have seen numerous reasons for this – from the historic weakness of the class; the recreation of such weakness in the defeats of the last few decades; international developments that have demonstrated the hardly unique character of the experience of Irish workers in this respect, and the particular role of trade union and political leaders, which again is far from unique to Ireland.  Only a few weeks ago I listened on the radio while a professor of economics in Madrid noted that commentators in Spain were wondering why Spanish workers were not reacting more angrily to austerity compared to their Portuguese neighbours.

The experience of Irish workers reflects the weakness of indigenous capitalism which the growth of foreign direct investment has not significantly altered.  The latter has only reinforced the weakness of Irish workers – they have hardly even attempted to unionise in the multinational sector and appear to have bought into the view that they must live through nine circles of hell before the proud Irish race will ever succumb to a headline corporation tax rate higher than 12.5 per cent.

Finally we have seen the very direct dependency of so many on the State that has just bankrupted itself bailing out the banks.  Unable to stop them doing so, in fact not even being asked if they agreed, and fed crap about the ‘cheapest bailout in history’, the working class was left with a choice – bail out the state it depended on for jobs and welfare or default when the only people in place who could carry out this policy was the same State that was demanding they pay up.  Without a mechanism to enforce default, even if that is what they wanted, and without an economic and political power base outside of dependency on the State, the choice was pretty clear, even if there could have been struggles that could have made it messy.

Put simply – how could workers tell the State to get stuffed when it relied on it so much?  The Left has peddled nonsense that the State can be made a means to redistribute wealth such that only the rich pay for capitalist crises but the workers haven’t bought this and some of the Left that calls itself Marxist is not actually supposed to believe it either.

The defeat inflicted on workers in the last five years should cause a rethink.  Renewed declarations of faith will not do.

Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!