Should socialists support a border poll? 5 – a socialist approach

The leader of the SDLP Colm Eastwood has claimed that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a referendum on Irish unity without a plan, saying a border poll should not be held until work to build a new and reconciled Ireland was completed.  Gerry Adams has made a similar statement on the need for preparation.

We have seen in earlier posts that unity of the working class, especially within the North, does not mean reconciliation to bigotry and sectarianism.  It does not therefore mean the sort of reconciliation that Irish nationalism, endorsed by the British State, has put forward in the name of “equality of the two traditions.” These traditions are defined by sectarianism in one case and by a nationalism incapable of going beyond Catholic support on the other.

Nationalism is now dead as a practical programme, in the sense that the objective of an economically and politically independent and sovereign nation is now impossible.  Brexit is demonstrating this is the case for a much larger and more powerful nation, never mind for a much smaller and weaker one.  We are seeing that the attempt to do so is inevitably reactionary as it seeks a world that has disappeared.

This is not to say that the demand for self-determination by the Irish people is not a democratic demand that socialists should endorse.  It is one of many democratic demands that cannot be fully delivered under the current capitalist system; but in terms of setting up a wholly separate sovereign state Ireland has missed that nationalist bus.  Small nations, in fact even the big ones, are now subject to international capital, an international division of labour, and international political organisation in a way that did not exist 100 years ago.

The fate of the nominally independent part of Ireland, which started its road to statehood almost 100 years ago, demonstrates this today through its reliance on multinational capital and its membership of the European Union.  To seek an Irish capitalism without such capital, and outside the EU, is to doom the Irish working class to a perfectly national form of capitalism that can no longer exist, and which would be reactionary from the point of view both of capitalism and socialism.

It is no accident that the most militant republicans support Brexit, but this is only testament to their programme of independence being utopian – it is not possible to achieve. Utopias can be forward or backward looking and theirs is forward looking in terms of seeking the end of direct foreign rule, a rule that has engendered deep and malignant division, but is backward, not only in its continued devotion to militarism, but also to the idea of undiluted and undivided national sovereignty and independence.

Socialists seek not only the unity of the working class within nations but between nations.  This unity cannot be the unity of self-sufficient and independent states, since the productive powers of capitalism have long ago burst out of such narrow confines.  The unity of nations that socialists seek is now one of mutual dependence and cooperation.

This is obviously a long-term perspective but it informs our attitude to a border poll today, for example in the primacy of the pursuit of working class unity.  For socialists, removal of the border is a necessary part of the struggle for working class unity.  So too is opposition to Brexit, which much of the Irish Left and militant republicanism support.

Unfortunately, the working-class movement is a very long way from being able to offer a credible plan for unification based on its existing organisations and structures.  If the call for a border poll means anything more than a statement of principle then this must be accepted.  The only possible form a united Ireland could take today, after a majority in favour of it in the North following a poll, would involve the incorporation of the North into the South.

While much of the left might propose a left Government in the South, this too is far off and is not a perspective that would convince anyone that the immediate result of a United Ireland would be incorporation into a left social democratic state.

Support for a border poll is not therefore a stand-alone demand but focuses the socialist and working class movement on what it can do to make such a poll an opportunity to fight for the unity of the working class.  Today, when there is no immediate likelihood of a border poll, it requires that socialists state what we would mean by having a ‘plan’ of our own, to put it in the words of Colm Eastwood.  Or as socialists would put it – a programme to fight for that would, if successful, lead not only to territorial and state unity, but also the much increased unity of the Irish working class, as part of a wider united European working class.  Obviously, this last objective would mean opposition to Brexit and Irexit.

Since leading by example far surpasses any other means of seeking support, what this must involve is the growth and strength of the working class movement itself – its trade unions, political parties and campaigns.  At present the meshing of the trade unions in social partnership and the devotion of the left to state ownership as socialism, means the working class movement does not offer Northern workers any alternative to simple incorporation by the southern state.

The working class movement itself is in many ways a husk, with empty trade union branches and hollowed out parties.  This is the case even in its supposed advanced, activist form.  In the last Southern local elections a spokesperson for People before Profit stated that it lost seats because it could not get its vote out – a humiliating admission that its support is not more political than the bourgeois parties but less so. Many unions are no advertisement for democracy and most parties on the left are sects incapable of containing political differences that will and must arise in truly mass parties of the working class.

As we have noted before, much of the left is actually reactionary, including its support for Brexit, accompanied by its dishonesty in not fighting openly for Irexit.  Not all members of the relevant organisations support Brexit but where then is the open debate that might inform workers of the issues at stake?  In its approach to democracy, the internal regimes of these organisations contain little debate of political principle and not much on strategy and tactics.  How to implement the line is usually the only thing up for some discussion.

If we accept that there must be no coercion of a nationalist majority, under the guise of any requirement for an increased majority (or the latest version of this – parallel majorities), it is also true that there can be no coercion of Protestant workers. This does not mean acceptance of a veto by loyalism, of the sort we have examined in the last few posts.  There can be no admission that any loyalist reaction must have its objections accepted.  The unity of the working class requires the defeat of sectarian division and the political forces that represent it.

While the Socialist Party for example has also expressed opposition to coercion, it is clear that this concern is rather one-sided.  History has shown that democracy in Ireland has been subject to coercion mainly from the British State, usually in alliance with unionism.  It is not only possible but inevitable that a majority vote for a united Ireland in the North would be subject to unionist threats and violence. As this series of posts has made clear, the answer to the first question that this poses is opposition in principle to this veto.

The second question is how to minimise this coercion, and this firstly means opposing any threat by the British State, or any section of it – national or local – seeking to prevent unity or determine is nature and shape.  This is where the unity of workers across the two islands and Europe is necessary to isolate and repulse such coercive threats and actions.  This is not just a question of opposing and preventing loyalist intimidation of Catholics, the first victims of loyalist intimidation are always fellow Protestants who don’t accept that their religious identity requires them to be sectarian.

Before all this however comes the task of reducing Protestant support for unionism and increasing support for a democratic solution.  This means the socialist and working class movement breaking from its alliances with the Northern and Southern States and asserting its independence. It means demonstrating through deeds, and not just expression of principles, that it opposes sectarianism no matter from where it comes.  On this it does not have a very good record.

In the South there has been no anti-clerical movement and the left has avoided direct challenge to the power of the Catholic Church.  It has not been the left that demolished the reputation of the Church but the actions of the Church itself and media exposure of its crimes, particularly against women and children.  If any movement deserves credit for openly campaigning against the church it is the women’s movement, and at most the left can claim some credit for having supported it.

What the left has not done is seek to demolish the structural power of the Church.  Instead it almost appears content to believe that the power of the Church has gone, rather than confronting the reality that as long as its structural supports are maintained it has not been defeated.

Such defeat means something more than a loss of reputation, it means a debate on the democratic alternative to Church control of education and health services.  So, for example, despite the victory for abortion rights the Church’s potential role in maternity services shows the importance of destroying this structural power.

In terms of the North it also means opposing Catholic Church power in education and health, something the left has not done and radical nationalists have opposed.  For example, I recall at one meeting in a republican club in West Belfast, when an ex-IRA prisoner complained that he could not get a teaching job, one of my comrades told him – it wasn’t the British who discriminated against him.

Yet there has been no campaign against Church control.  Such opposition would of course  be vigorously opposed by the Church, on the basis that it was yet another sectarian Protestant assault on Catholics.  And there is no doubt widespread support among Catholic workers for sectarian education, simply assumed by them to such an extent that it is not even considered to be sectarian.  I have been to enough Masses to know that the clergy regularly ask congregants to pay for ‘their’ Catholic schools.

I also recall one member of the organisation I belonged to resigning when he found out that socialists do not support more state funding for Catholic education on grounds of equality, but an end to church control in the first place.  Such mistaken ideas hide behind the argument that state control is control by the imperialist state, ignoring the fact that British rule has long supported Catholic Church control.

The socialist position is democratic control of schools by workers themselves and complete separation of church and state.  To put it bluntly – Protestant workers should not pay for Catholic Church control of education, and neither should Catholic workers, or those who don’t define themselves as either.  This means there should also be no exemption from discrimination legislation allowing Church authorities to discriminate against non-Catholic teaching applicants.

The demonstration of opposition to all sectarianism is the alternative to “equality of the two traditions” and its ‘left’ variant of the Socialist Party, which seeks its own reconciliation with sectarianism through, for example, conferring legitimacy on loyalist reaction.  The only possible grounds for the latter is that it has some positive content.

For Catholic workers it means that they identify themselves not as a religious group defending a sectarian interest but as a section of the population that has faced discrimination and seeks an end of all privilege and sectarian rights. The view that because Catholics have historically been the sufferers of sectarian oppression, they can be relied upon to oppose all cases of it in the future is to believe that oppression somehow makes whole populations more righteous by virtue of their oppression, something that does not bear any historical investigation.  One only has to think of the appalling fate of millions of Jews at the hands of fascism and the repugnant use of this suffering by Zionism to excuse and justify the shocking oppression of the Palestinian people.

The strength of the Catholic population’s support for sectarian education is simply an example of the impact that the existence of a sectarian state has on how the society within it operates.  It is yet another illustration why the destruction of that state is required to eradicate it.  Too many Catholics object to a sectarian state but not to one sectarian policy of that state – a united Ireland but not a united classroom.

Without a strong working class and socialist movement it cannot be anticipated that a united Ireland can be brought about without coercion, even with the validation of a majority vote for it within the North.  This does not lessen our support for it as a component part of the necessary struggle of the working class in Ireland, because such a struggle will minimise such coercion and maximise the working class unity to be gained.

On the other hand, opposition to a border poll and a potential majority for a united Ireland on the grounds that this in itself involves coercion of Protestant workers must be rejected, not least because in such circumstances coercion will come immediately, if not long before, from loyalist reactionaries, with or without support of the British State or elements of it.  Such a position does not represent opposition to coercion but support for it.

Such then are examples of the issues faced by socialists, and the approach that should be taken.  There is little likelihood of a majority vote for a United Ireland within the North in the near future, and nationalist calls for a poll without a wider programme that demonstrates its progressive content is not something we should support.  Our support for a poll, in principle, and in practice, arises from our objective of a united working class and the achievement of this requires more than simply a majority vote.  Our support therefore rests on quite different grounds and we should neither reject this support nor surrender the grounds for it.

Concluded

Back to part 4

The Socialist Party and Brexit 2 – part of the programme?

Following economic recession the second possible consequence of Brexit predicted by the Socialist Party is increased division and instability in the North.

Increased division on the island is of course inevitable, since that is the purpose of Brexit – to exit the arrangements that entail the existing unity of the European Union that includes the whole island.  On exit the UK will become a ‘third country’ and the only question is the degree of separation.

Given that left supporters of Brexit see the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union as so harmful to the interests of the working class it must be expected that the sort of Brexit they seek involves a high degree of separation and therefore a meaningful and significant border.

It  doesn’t matter that left supporters of Brexit blame the EU for this – the Socialist Party says that “after a hard Brexit the logic of the workings of the EU is that a hard border would have to be put in place” – the result is the same.  The Party states that “a Labour government should seek to re-open negotiations and demand an entirely different relationship with the EU, based on the interests of working-class people, not the 1%.”

One has to ask however – why would the EU, if it is the irreformable neoliberal construction that is claimed, strike an agreement in the interests of the working class, whatever that might be?  If it were possible there would seem to be little reason to leave in the first place.   Why not use membership to effect such changes for the whole EU instead?

But this is not the perspective of the Socialist Party, which is wedded to a very particular scenario of the way forward, which is “the necessity of a left government having to carry through a rupture with capitalism and adopting a socialist programme.” This “rupture” with capitalism is to be achieved through the “democratic public ownership of the key sectors of the economy”; i.e. through nationalisation supported by the mass activity of the working class.  This must be carried out by each state separately as nationalisation is by definition the action of an individual state.

This essentially nationalist approach to socialism lies behind the Party’s support for Brexit.  At the immediate level this perspective takes shape in the following expected results:

“Socialists in Ireland would welcome the return of a Labour government in Britain. If such a government were to adopt a position of socialist opposition to the EU this would transform the situation. Corbyn should speak over the heads of the Commission, reaching out to working class people across Europe in rejecting neo-liberal rules, calling for co-ordinated action for Green Energy on a Europe wide basis, and popularising a socialist vision of Europe. A left Labour government would be able to call on workers throughout the continent to fight the ‘race to the bottom’ in their own countries and mobilise against attempts by their own governments or the EU to pursue punitive measures against other workers whether in Britain or elsewhere.”

Why a left movement in Britain would be more powerful in reaching out to the rest of Europe’s workers by leaving the EU, instead of remaining and seeking unity of the workers’ movement across Europe, is unexplained.  But this is precisely what supporters of Brexit would need to demonstrate – why an exit was necessary and why it would be more successful in achieving wider European unity. How would leaving assist “co-ordinated action for Green Energy on a Europe wide basis” for example?

Unity of Europe’s workers, through its trade unions, works councils, political parties and workers’ cooperatives is possible but it is made easier by being within a common EU framework, in which Europe’s capitalist classes are seeking their own form of unity.  Only from a perspective in which the rupture with capitalism must first come from national governments in each individual capitalist state is it possible to simply assume without argument that international workers’ unity must follow this and not be immanent from the start.

So at an abstract level the Socialist Party maintains its international socialist credentials by considering such unity only as an end result after almost all the problems have previously been solved:

“Socialists are in favour of a genuinely united Europe. This will only be possible when the socialist transformation of society allows the coming together of nations of Europe in a democratic, European-wide confederation.”

The Party considers its approach to be consistent with the approach of the transitional programme as codified by Leon Trotsky.  This can be stated rather briefly as a programme fought for by a revolutionary party that starts from today’s objective conditions and from the existing level of consciousness of the working class.  It demonstrates through the demands raised in today’s struggles the necessity to take ever more radical measures that culminate in the working class seeing the need for, and being organised to achieve, socialist revolution.

This is the transition that the programme is meant to achieve, as opposed to demands that simply reform aspects of capitalism but do not fundamentally change it, and the maximum programme which demands this fundamental change through demands for socialism and socialist revolution.

There are lots of issues bundled within such a view, and lots of Trotskyists who would hotly dispute that the Socialist Party’s version is consistent with Trotsky’s programme, but that is not what I want to discuss here.  Rather it is to question how support for Brexit can possibly be seen as being part of any transitional approach.  I have written many posts on why I think socialists should oppose Brexit so the purpose here is a much narrower one and is confined to the role that supporting Brexit plays in the Socialist Party’s politics.

The first problem in the Party’s support for Brexit is that it then either abstains or is confused on just what this policy entails.  So it says that:

“We say that whatever way the different capitalist vested interests resolve their business dispute, it must be done without any physical or repressive borders.”

So having voted for a Brexit, to be determined by a reactionary Tory Government and EU bureaucracy, the Party leaves it for these capitalist interests to decide what it means, to ‘resolve’ the issues (within certain limits).  How does this engage the working class in seeking to impose its own solutions?

The view that a Corbyn led Government could simply re-negotiate all the bad neo-liberal rules away and leave the same market access is even more delusional than the Boris Johnson idea that Great Britain can get Johnny foreigner to allow it to have cake and eat it.  Does the Socialist Party really think Jeremy Corbyn could negotiate away the bad bits of the Single Market and customs union for the whole EU, or even just for the UK? And if it was just for the UK, would this not mean that there wasn’t really a Single Market? And if only for the UK, what then for the rest of Europe’s workers, including the Irish?

Would those Irish workers not within the UK have to await its own left government, one that is not on the horizon, before it too would attempt to copy any Corbyn success? Or would it not make a lot more sense for a left Labour government in the UK to fight within the EU alongside allies across the continent, including in the Irish State?

Since we don’t have a left Labour Government in Britain or the short-term prospect of one in Ireland, what is the policy that the workers movement should fight for right now to make Brexit a ‘good’ Brexit, or does silence on this indicate that one does not exist?

So, the first problem is that the Socialist Party has advocated a policy of Brexit for which it has no concrete idea how to give any progressive content.

In an instinctive reaction against their own sterility members of the Party have made a virtue out of their impotence and argued that no positive policies should be put forward in this situation, but instead only negative demands:

“Deliberately not putting forward positive demands, or advocating a particular arrangement post-Brexit, has been correct, and broadly remains correct however. There are issues on which it is not for the worker’s movement to come forward with solutions which address the concerns of the ruling class, and in the main this is one such.”

But of course, a content will be given to Brexit and it will be a wholly reactionary one, and it is really not good enough to vote for a reactionary policy, saying it is progressive and a step forward, and then be unable to build positive demands out of it and arising from it.

The final illustration that the policy of Brexit has no place in any socialist programme is that the Socialist Party is totally silent on the most obvious of questions.  If Brexit is the right policy for the British working class, indeed for all the workers of the EU, why does the Party not follow up on the ‘success’ in Britain and call for the Irish State to leave the EU as well?

It would appear no one in the Party wants to do this, but it is not because they all believe it is wrong. Instead they have saddled themselves with a policy that they dare not proclaim. Every argument defending Brexit and every claim that it is necessary is but another demonstration of the dishonesty of the Party to workers that it proclaims require its leadership – because it is not actually asking the workers to follow it.  It is not leading but hiding.

Once again, the political impotence of the policy is so clear that it cannot be replicated: the nationalist nature of it imposes its own logic regardless of the left illusions of its supporters.  There is no transitional content whatsoever.

Brexit has thus exposed fundamental flaws in the state-socialist programme of the Party, a programme which identifies socialism with state ownership and the route to working class power with governmental office.  Since the state is a nation state this almost inevitably involves conceiving of socialism, and the road to it, in national terms.  And so the Party gets it totally wrong when it comes to key international questions such as the European Union and Brexit.

In the final post I will look at the national question and how the Party’s policy on Brexit fails the challenge of uniting Ireland’s workers.

 

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (6) – the opposition “strategic hypothesis”

Given the circumstances as set out in the opposition document, the key question for  revolutionary politics would seem to be how working class political consciousness can be advanced. And the authors are aware; the text says “In that sense, our main task is to re-build class consciousness.”

To this question, they provide the following answer:

“The most effective way to do so is still by the struggle of the working class interest against that of the bourgeoisie. Rallies, demonstrations, occupations, assemblies, strikes; those are still the best tools for raising the consciousness of the oppressed. This does not mean that we ignore parliamentary elections. But we do subordinate them to mobilization.”

No doubt the comrades would say that this must be combined with revolutionary propaganda and agitation and raising the demands contained within the transitional programme, but this is still a very incomplete understanding of how class consciousness is created.  It also involves an instrumental view of the working class, one that sees it coming to socialism not through well thought-out conviction, based on its experience within the forces and relations of capitalist production, but because it arises as a result  of carrying out much more limited aims that have been posed through strikes and assemblies etc.

It is assumed that more or less spontaneous and partial opposition to the harmful effects of capitalism, which by their nature can only be episodic (see below reliance on this not being the case), will be transformed into comprehensive opposition to the system itself and commitment to a socialist alternative. The missing catalyst being revolutionary propaganda, slogans and agitation; in other words, the presentation of socialist ideas.

Of course, it is always rejected that this is a rather idealist (propagandist) view, and that it is the experience of collective action and struggle, combined with socialist agitation and propaganda, that will effect the necessary changes in consciousness. But it is nevertheless the case that, in the case of the traditional Trotskyist conception of a transitional programme, that workers are led to socialist revolution through a rising set of demands that arise from more limited struggles over narrower objectives.

One problem is that such periods of heightened class struggle are necessarily brief, and the period in which the more advanced demands and slogans of the struggle are to be raised even briefer.  Yet this is not consistent with the need for the working class to be fully informed and committed to the task of owning, controlling and developing the complex society within which we live, with a more or less clear idea of what it will do as the new ruling class.  Instead such a role is to fall to it as a necessary, but initially unforeseen, requirement in order to achieve more limited objectives.[i]

This is not such a stretch if the objective is simply seen as the capture of political power, however conceived (involving governmental office, regime change, or a brand new machinery of state), but this is not what socialist revolution is primarily about.  Political power is necessary in order to defend new relations of production, not to create them, otherwise these new relations will more likely become the creation of the state itself.  We know that this has failed and has never been the definition of socialism anyway.  Socialist revolution is above all a fundamental social revolution and such nature distinguishes it from all the radical political revolutions that do not signify fundamental reorganisation of society.

The conception of how working class consciousness develops put forward in the document  is therefore a limited and partial conception, one that also ignores the economic and social circumstances of workers as lived in their everyday lives, and which has historically been the impulse behind their seeking after an alternative society, one that arose even before Marx studied this experience and developed his ideas on how the development of capitalism gives rise to its gravediggers.

Since this has been a long-standing theme of the blog I won’t go into it here, except to say that the anticipation of socialism through worker cooperatives, and the role that these can play as concrete ‘schools of socialism’, and not just strikes as “schools of class-struggle”, has not been appreciated by the opposition.

This is important because consideration of this would help the opposition grapple with some of the problems they recognise but which their overall “strategic hypothesis” blinds them to a solution:

“The strategic hypothesis we advance to end capitalism and patriarchy is a non-stop series of mobilizations that make the working class aware of the necessity of taking power for real social change. Strikes are not a fetish but an essential route to raise workers’ reliance on their own potential power. Strikes are “schools of class struggle” because they are moments in which the working class can self-organize. It is by means of conflict that workers create automatic responses and mechanisms to resist the bourgeoisie’s policies. Revolutionaries should not ignore today’s struggles, even if they are small. To the contrary, we must take part in them. Therefore, we need to find solutions to our deficiency in having a strong presence within the working class and taking part in its battles.”

It is not so much that the perspective of an ‘insurrectionary general strike’ is wrong; although with a large worker-cooperative sector and a perspective of taking state power, a simple strike is clearly inadequate if not misdirected.  It is that the “automatic response and mechanisms to resist the bourgeoisie’s policies” is also obviously inadequate since the point of revolution is to impose an alternative, not simply to resist the existing one. Why should those demanding such an alternative become the leader of the working class when the class fights simply within the existing relations of production and assumes their continuation, which is, after all, what strikes in and of themselves do?

What has come to fill this incomplete and inadequate conception of working class consciousness and revolution is a conception of the revolutionary party as an unduly separate agency in the revolution.  As I have noted in earlier posts on the FI debate, the working class party is often seen as arising from Marxists building their own organisations instead of it being the creation of the working class itself.

Obviously, Marxists will debate what they have to do; but what they have to do must proceed from what has to be done, in the sense of what has to happen, what has to be achieved, by the working class itself, which must itself build its own party. Otherwise it will not be its own party, but a political layer of the working class with greater potential to separate itself from it. As it has done, repeatedly, in the past.

So, the question is, how does the working class generate the class consciousness and organisation to fight capitalism and impose its alternative? This is not the same as, and is not reducible to, capitalist crises generating mass mobilisations, which a bigger or smaller party leads to overthrowing the state and introducing a different one.

The opposition seeks to replicate the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but even this paradigmatic conception of the revolutionary party fails to understand that the Bolshevik Party became the party it was because the working class made it their own instrument of revolution.  The subsequent failure of that party and revolution was the failure of the Russian working class itself, its size, its own weakness, dissolution, re-composition and incorporation of its best (and worst) elements into the bureaucratisation of the state.

The perspective of building mass action to a climacteric episode reduces the goal of socialist revolution to a single event and to a single path to it, one focused on state power and destruction of the capitalist state. It is to reduce such revolution to a political process only, which is only one (crucial) aspect of a wider and deeper social transformation.

Political revolution can only also be a social revolution if it is the culmination of much deeper developments within the social and economic progress of capitalism.

If the destruction of the capitalist state is to inaugurate working class power, or rather to be a necessary step to creation of a workers state that will defend the already advancing social and economic power of the working class, the working class must already have taken major steps to economic, social and political hegemony, steps which political revolution seeks to complete.

The more common reduced focus, reflected in the opposition “strategic hypothesis”, leads to many weaknesses, some of which appear in the text. So, in promoting a “transitional programme for the 21stcentury” it is stated that:

“A primary focus of this program is the expropriation of the key sectors of the economy. The bank crisis and bail-outs provided a new opportunity to explain and popularize the need for bank nationalization.”

But expropriation is not at all the same as nationalisation and those who think ownership by the capitalist state is progressive have not, for example, considered the experience of the Irish State, in which nationalisation was the means of transferring the liabilities of the banks to the shoulders of working people.

Similarly, we are invited to have illusions in the progressiveness of the creation of new capitalist states:

“In the oppressed nations we support a balance between the democratic fight for the right to self-determination and the fight for a society without classes. It means that, according to our strategy, the struggle for national freedom can be useful for working class emancipation only when led by the working class itself.”

While, with regard to the second sentence of this extract, it may sometimes be necessary for the working class to seek to lead such struggles, it is not always the case that this assertion is true.  It is however very definitely not the case that we should seek to balance the struggle for democratic freedoms under capitalism with the struggle for socialism. If the former is not a necessary part of the struggle for the latter why would socialists and workers support it? Why should workers sacrifice any of their struggle for socialism in some balancing exercise?

This repeated deference to the state, the capitalist state, which is the only one existing, arises from the surrender of tasks that belong to the working class to this state – nationalisation rather than workers’ cooperative ownership; welfare states rather than workers control of welfare provision, previously done through friendly societies, and defence of the democratic rights of capitalist states as the default position in national conflicts rather than workers unity.  It reflects the growing power of the capitalist state over the twentieth century; the influence of social democracy and Stalinism, and the increased role of the capitalist state in the capitalist mode of production, ‘neoliberalism’ notwithstanding.

Socialism has thus become synonymous with statification for many, and this error is not corrected by thinking a workers’ government or a workers’ state carrying out the task of social transformation solves the problem.  The workers’ state is a transitional concept in which the latter part of the term suffocates the former to the extent that it predominates.  This is because the state, even a workers’ state, is a body separate from society and standing over and apart from it. Socialism involves the withering away of the state and this can only be so if working class rule is based outside the state and reflects its role in the new relations of production, which the state is called upon to defend but not be the substance of.

In summary, the opposition is caught between defending what it considers the historic programme of the Fourth International in a different historical period and attempting to square this with the decline of working class consciousness that has occurred since that programme was first promulgated.  The answer is not to stake a claim to false optimism, which foresees a future rapid radicalisation sweeping all before it in rather short order, but understand why it didn’t work before and what the lessons are of the much longer and wider experience of the vastly larger working class has been since 1938.

The majority appear to have a more sober appreciation of the political situation but no way of not capitulating to it, while the opposition seeks not to capitulate but unable to come to terms adequately with the demands placed on revolutionaries arising from it.

[i]This is not to deny that socialists should not seek to radicalise such struggles and the working class itself in the process; but it is to deny that this is the highway to socialist revolution, considered in its totality.

Back to part 5

Forward to part 7

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (5) – the opposition need for a revolutionary party

The documents of the opposition to the leadership of the Fourth International have the benefit a greater clarity of exposition. In their document ‘Let’s seize the opportunities, and build an international for revolution and communism’ the opposition criticises the majority line of building broad parties “without clear programmatic and strategic boundaries”, leading to betrayal of the traditional revolutionary programme of the International.

Thus, they point out that in Italy for example the “FI comrades supported in Parliament the formation of a Prodi government and voted for the war budget.”  Furthermore –

“Our ability to defend either the principle of class independence or to maximize the ability of our social class to act independently from the bourgeoisie and its State, is undermined when support is given to a politician linked to a bourgeois party, like Bernie Sanders, or to a personality with no ties to the labour movement, like Pablo Iglesias.”

Through this mistaken policy of the FI, the opposition argues that the majority “implicitly gave up on the relevance of revolution, seeing it as something to be accomplished in the distant future.”

It is not however clear to me that the opposition document makes any more convincing case that (their conception of) revolution is more relevant today, or in the short term, than that of the majority.  Small organisations without the participation or support of the mass of the working class bring the reality of revolution no nearer if they have no means of making their revolutionary programme the activity of the working class itself.

As Marxists, and therefore laying claim to a theoretical understanding superior to that of the mass of reformist (at best) workers, the opposition text should set out what the preconditions for socialist revolution are, and how Marxists might contribute to the working class accomplishing such a revolution.  But these preconditions appear to be assumed rather than explained.

Assertion of working class independence is fine and many of the criticisms of the experience of carrying out the majority perspective are true, but the traditional programme put forward by the opposition is presented in abstract terms and for Trotsky a programme must be concrete and have practical relevance.  I have addressed this problem before – here, here and here – so I will not repeat the arguments there.

The document fails to explain what independent working class politics means in a period like today, which is decidedly not a revolutionary one, or to be more specific, not one in which the working class in its majority seeks to conquer political power.

The problem that I pose is not one that the opposition would probably recognise, for they see the working class coming rapidly to political consciousness out of capitalist crises and the mass action prompted by such crises.  In the document they explain their conceptions, which are the traditional ones of many Marxists.  So, let’s look at what these are.

The opposition states that “We do not share the current FI leadership’s appreciation of the current situation. While it does feature an increasingly violent onslaught by the bourgeoisie, it is nonetheless contradictory and holds possibilities for revolutionary communists to be heard and to gain strength.”

It must be said that the last part of this involves a weak claim and one rather solipsistic.  No explanation is given as to how the mass of workers will come to socialist political consciousness, although it might be inferred this is a result of “revolutionary communists” being heard and gaining strength, that is, mainly through propaganda.

The epochal task of transforming the capitalist mode of production to socialism is however reduced to building an organisation that is currently without significant influence.  How this might be expected is unexplained.

One is left with an impression similar to that of listening to bold and incredible religious claims – the more enormous the claim the more requirement there is to provide equivalent justification for it.

The main opposition text asserts that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is at the root of the capitalist crisis but this is neither proved, nor is it necessary.  In the document, it is implied that the capitalist crisis will not be escaped from spontaneously but through a historic defeat of the working class. The assessment is therefore incapable of understanding the massive growth of capitalism over the last period, which is reflected in the document’s own acknowledgement that:

“In fact, the working class is globally more numerous today than ever. In South Korea alone there are as many wage-earners today than there were in the whole world at the time of Karl Marx. The working class, which in our view is composed of wage workers who do not exercise management power, today constitutes between 80 and 90 per cent of the population in the most industrialized countries, and almost half of the total global population.”

“Globally, the number of industrial workers worldwide went from 490 million in 1991 to 715 million in 2012 (ILO data). Industry even grew faster than services between 2004 and 2012! The industrial sector did not shrink, but the agricultural sector did, from 44 to 32 per cent of the global workforce.”

But this incredible growth could only happen through rapid accumulation of capital, which makes a nonsense of any claim that capitalism has been in more or less permanent crisis during this period.  How could such accumulation have occurred with a declining rate of profit?  Either it did not fall or a fall does not reduce massive accumulation of capital.  Neither of which is a comfortable view for those making the argument.

A large number of the authors are Greek and it is understandable that the crisis conditions in that country may have coloured conceptions of the world capitalist system. But Greece is not the world and the world is not Greece.

What the authors have confused is the ever-present contradictions of capitalism, with its exploitation, oppression and inequality, and its tendency to war and violence, with capitalist crisis.  The former exist, even when capitalism is booming, in fact such things as exploitation must increase in such circumstances, but this does not mean capitalism is in crisis, as if a non-crisis capitalism entailed peace, equality, and humane and genial progress.

The problem with capitalism is that even when it achieves progress it does so through brutal oppression and exploitation, and yes, through recurrent crisis, which is how the system resolves temporarily some of its contradictions, only to create the basis for further crises in the process.  But this isn’t the same as crisis as understood by the document, which is one that calls into question the reproduction of the system.

The authors of the document note that:

“By reorganizing industry worldwide, capitalist globalization created new working classes in the southern countries, whose potential was shown by the recent mobilizations: the wave of strikes happening in China since 2010, the 2015 massive strikes in Bursa, Turkey, the formation of mass militant unions in Indonesia, the role of the union movement and of mass strikes demanding the resignation of South Korea’s Prime Minister in late 2016.”

They note that:

“we also see the renewed interest in socialism illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s double leadership victory in the British Labour Party, and the renewed interest in socialist ideas in the United States. All these signs indicate that the elements for anti-capitalist awareness are present. It is, nonetheless, a very uneven and limited process. Currents hostile to socialism are reaping the fruits of the deep discontent. The electoral audience of the FIT in Argentina, the recomposition of the union movement in South Africa, despite the limitations of both experiences, and above all, the renewed interest in “socialism” in the United States indicate that anti-capitalist ideas can acquire a mass audience.”

The document notes that they need to build the labour movement independent of the official union leaderships, and so capable of self-organisation.  But they state that the “elements for anti-capitalist awareness” that are present are “very uneven and limited’, that anti-capitalist ideas “do not yet have “a mass audience” and the type of labour movement they seek has yet to be built.

So, we have recurrent capitalist crises.  We have huge growth in the size of the working class and the creation of new working classes across the globe with enormous potential. We are told that the elements for anti-capitalist awareness are present (but not what they are), while anti-capitalist ideas “do not yet have “a mass audience” and the type of labour movement sought has yet to be built.

We are also told that there is “an increasingly violent onslaught by the bourgeoisie”, and one that is usually considered to have gone on for years, with more than a little success.  Yet one other, it would seem, is that the current, more or less immediate, relevance of socialist revolution has not diminished.

To be continued.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

In a 1 June article Socialist Democracy (SD) wrote that “a popular slogan by People before Profit (PbP) candidates – “we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!” – is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism.”

In another post SD say that “This neutrality ignores socialist support for democratic rights and the frequent alliances between republicanism and socialism that are part of our history. It can blind workers to the very real mechanisms employed by loyalism and the state to combat radicalism amongst Protestant workers and prevent working class unity.”

First some basic points.  Saying you are neither Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, is not to equate the two, no matter how SD convinces itself it does.  It is a matter of fact, and a matter of principle that socialists are not unionists or nationalists.

It is similarly the case that socialists do not believe that workers should be led by either unionists or nationalists.  We do not believe nationalism can deliver the equality that socialists support never mind the fundamental reorganisation of society we seek, and which makes us socialists.

It is therefore not only permitted, but absolutely required, that socialists state that they are socialist!  At a very basic level it is as simple as that.  It is also the case that they need to do so to distinguish themselves from Irish unionism and Irish nationalism.  In the SD version of democratic alliances with republicanism it would seem that we cannot say that we are not unionist or nationalist, which amounts to politically surrendering your flag.

Does SD believe that Irish nationalism, in whatever form, can unite the Irish working class?  If so, it should reconsider its independent existence.  If not, it should drop this ridiculous line of criticism, and in doing so the comrades should consider how they ended up defending such a position.

I will venture that they did so because of their understanding of nationalism. As quoted above, SD states that “Irish republicanism . . (has a) revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content”, forgetting the fact that Sinn Fein is no longer standing by the traditional republican programme. The Provisional republicans, as SD say (in their article of 10 March) have moved from “armed struggle to constitutional nationalism.”

Their failure to register this when condemning PbP must have something to do with their declared opposition to the slogan of the PbP and their claim that this disregards “the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism.” (1 June 2017)

SD state in their response to my original posts that “all theories have to deal with real life”.  So how does the theory that the programme of Irish nationalism is “generally democratic” stand up to real life?

Let’s examine the concrete, real life expressions of Irish nationalism, and not the theoretical one clearly envisaged by SD.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the ‘United Ireland Party’ and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, are both reactionary Irish nationalist parties of the capitalist class.  Sinn Fein, by SD’s own admission, is a “constitutional nationalist” party and cannot be considered as either a party of working class interests or even of revolutionary nationalism.  The role of the real republicans is actually obstructive of working class unity, since they convince everyone including themselves that the only alternative to the peace process and the current sectarian arrangements is militarist violence.  In doing so they don’t threaten British rule but bolster it.

So, in the real world, just what nationalist movement does SD defend and support, so much so that it wishes not to declare socialist independence from it?

Socialist Democracy do advance correct criticisms of PbP, but they are lost in an avalanche of the good and the simply atrocious, which will convince no one who is not already convinced.  Its articles are written in such a way that it is not clear that they are designed to convince anyone not already on-side, but simply to declare a position.

This reaches the point that even when PbP make clear that it is not neutral on the question of democratic rights and the issue of the border this isn’t welcomed, but dismissed – “ A key slogan of the new [People before Profit] election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism? (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In summary, my original posts were designed to raise the problem of strategy that socialists face in the North of Ireland.  The response from Socialist Democracy does not take us any step forward.  My initial overall impression when coming to draft this reply to their criticism was that the comrades are wrong in several serious respects in relation to socialist strategy.  In drafting the response my final overall impression is now one of their more or less complete confusion arising from misunderstanding the reactionary role of Irish nationalism.

On this there is obviously much more to say (see this post and ensuing discussion for example). The demand for an end to partition and national self-determination has historically been reflected through Irish nationalism (and still is today by the real republicans), but the utter inadequacy of nationalist politics in maintaining any democratic content in these demands in its real world political manifestations, in its political parties and programmes, is something that must be understood.  Otherwise the essential role of socialist organisation and a socialist programme, based on the self-activity of the working class itself, and not on organisation and a political programme divorced from it, is not understood.

Irish nationalism must be combatted North and South because (among other important reasons) it cannot uphold the democratic impulses that are contained, and have erupted periodically, within the Irish working class.  This much should be obvious in the South of the country.  It should certainly not be defended because at some times and in some places it has taken leadership of struggles that have had such a democratic content.  Not least because it will fail and end up strangling such democratic dynamics while sidelining and opposing socialism.

This is what happened over the period following the rise of the civil rights movement, where Irish nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, substituted itself, its methods and its programme for this mass democratic struggle, and then helped bury it in the sectarian deal brokered by imperialism.

This is the underlying political analysis that answers a question that might be posed by my posts – does any of this matter?  The SD response states that “perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply commonplace”, but the author will know that it is, in fact, much more commonly ignored.

Socialist Democracy wants to resist the rightward drift of the socialist movement in Ireland, and its arguments would ideally be as powerful as pure argumentation can be in countering this drift. Unfortunately, its arguments cannot play such a role, and if the comrades seek that they should they will have to be seriously revised.

concluded

Back to part 2

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Socialist strategy – reply to a critic 1

In two recent posts I posed some questions about socialist strategy in the North of Ireland:

“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?

The answer provided in a response is summed up as follows:

“If the working class mobilises we will build a socialist alternative. If they do not we will have barbarism.  There is no third way.”

It must be obvious that such a reply is at a level of generality that simply doesn’t engage with the question.  For the question posed is how do socialists intervene to advance their politics; what strategy do they adopt to further working class consciousness and organisation?  Not wait until the working class catches up with the demands of certain socialists.  Either it does or it doesn’t isn’t an answer.

The view of my critic is that he is putting forward a revolutionary programme and I am not; so he says just before the quote above that:

“To search for the possibility of revolution we must widen our focus. Stormont is a rampart against the working class, so we must look to an all-Ireland perspective and to the actually existing struggles in Britain and Europe to build an alternative.”

The implication of this is to look away from the barrenness of the North of Ireland, and rather confirms the point of my question – that socialists must seek what purchase their politics have on reality within the North.  The reply says that we must look for revolution elsewhere, in the rest of Ireland, Britain and Europe.  In this respect, placing the problem within an all-Ireland perspective is a start and the comrades of Socialist Democracy (SD) might find it productive to consider and contribute to the debate carried out in the comments to another of my posts here.

In replying to this response, I want to cover three questions: the role of reforms in the SD programme, their characterisation of Sinn Fein, and an example of the damage done to their socialist politics through seeing everything through the prism of ‘anti-imperialism’.

Reforms

It is not clear to me that the comrades fully understand my argument, because some of what they say is a caricature, which conveniently allows deployment of seemingly convincing arguments that are beside the point.  This starts from the very first sentence, where I am accused arguing for a reformist movement.  The comrades are surely aware that a movement struggling for reforms can be led by revolutionaries; that revolutionaries are in favour of reforms, and of building movements that fight for them, and even if these movements are reformist.  This is the argument that I have put forward and at this general level I cannot see that they should disagree, although there is no sign that such an approach has informed their perspectives.

The author appeals to history in his denial of my argument that SD sees no room for reforms and is ultra-left, but it would have been more convincing if he had been able to appeal to what he had actually written.

In my post, I noted that Socialist Democracy’s programme for the NI Assembly election was a call “for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.”  I wrote that “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 other objective than ending Stormont.”

This judgement by me of the SD position is supported by reading an earlier SD article, which finishes by declaring the following:

“The call “Smash Stormont” and the struggle for a 32 county workers’ republic is the only legitimate response that socialists can make. Without this call we have not taken the first step to proposing an alternative society based on the Irish working class.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx)

The response to my posts by SD doesn’t challenge the logic of my argument but claims that “Of course socialists should support movements for reform. But we should also be honest and address the weakness of stageism, of the left populist, “people power” approach and its companion in narrow trade union economism. Capitalism is coming to the end of days.”

The author appears to conflate reforms and the struggle for them with the Stalinist programme of stages, so perhaps it is no wonder he finds no role for reforms in the SD programme for the North of Ireland.  But then he states, in old-style biblical eschatological form, that “capitalism is coming to the end of days’, which calls into question the struggle for reforms anywhere on the planet!

When it comes to concrete examples of fighting for reforms Socialist Democracy’s response has been utterly dismissive.  Of the People before Profit (PbP) initiative to pass legislation in the Northern Assembly to remove anti-trade union legislation SD has previously written the following:

“The main example of a parliamentary and reformist approach to the local assembly was when Gerry Carroll and Eamon McCann drafted a bill to abolish anti-union laws in the North of Ireland. McCann went on to explain the rationale in some detail at a May Day demonstration. Union laws, he explained triumphantly, were a devolved matter. A local campaign could force the Assembly to abolish them and free the workers.”

“This is stupidity on a grand scale. Echoing the line of trade union propaganda, the unionists are seen as part of an undifferentiated elite who can be pressured by “people power” and Stormont as a neutral local assembly rather than as a sectarian and colonial chamber of imperialist puppets.”

“The nature of the DUP and the unionists as parties of the far right is ignored. As long as there is a unionist majority (essential for the institutions to survive) there is no parliamentary road to abolition of trade union legislation, which is in any case completely unused.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In other words, or rather to extend its own words, there is no possibility of reforms while there is a unionist majority in Stormont.  While claiming that “all sorts of individual reforms may be possible under Stormont” Socialist Democracy sets out the argument above and also states that “it remains totally unclear what mechanism would bring about local reform.”

The author knows it is ultra-left to deny the fight for reforms but can’t help dismissing the possibility of it succeeding.  Even in relation to a fight against austerity, SD puts forward the “first task” as building “a movement to tear down the Stormont administration”. (article 30 May 2016)

But let’s take the anti-union law example quoted above – “the main example of a . . reformist approach”; even as described by Socialist Democracy, the initiative to remove anti-union laws was one that should have been supported, not summarily dismissed as “stupidity”.

People before Profit (PbP) were arguing for a campaign, not simply reliance on an Assembly vote.  Might not a campaign for a vote mobilise trade unionists?  Might it not put pressure on the trade union leaders to give it more support than they might wish?  And had it been successful, would it not have removed an excuse for trade union bureaucracy inaction?  There may have been all sorts of problems with the PbP proposals, including its campaign, but these are really irrelevant to the argument here because SD opposed it in principle.

Seeking to use the local Assembly to change the law does not automatically entail acceptance of it as anything other than a sectarian institution, as SD allege.  It simply means socialists don’t abstain just because the conditions in which they are compelled to fight are not ones that they would choose.

However, in formulation after formulation this is not the approach the SD comrades take and often their demands appear unpolluted by the reality of politics in the North of Ireland, which is dominated by sectarianism.

It is not dominated by any anti-imperialist struggle, however understood, but the SD perspective is that this must be the case, and reality must be made to conform to theory.  In my view, SD hasn’t adjusted to the defeat of this struggle, a defeat that happened many years ago and which it recognised, but which it has not digested and adapted to. In this respect, it displays similarities to the real republicans.

So, perhaps the demand for the removal of Stormont could be supported if it tallied with a popular movement, one that saw through its sectarian structures (as in the early 1970s); but there isn’t such a movement and SD knows there isn’t.  Yet it doesn’t appear to draw lessons from this for its strategic or tactical interventions.  As even they state themselves – “popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist.”

SD can see no role for workers in winning reforms.  Its response says that “we already know how individual reforms might come about”, but then allows the working class no role whatsoever, either in winning them or building a movement that could perhaps learn from any defeat.  Yet it still demands that workers smash the Northern State!

SD implies that fighting for reforms must involve a “reformist dilemma”, which means those seeking reform must support Stormont, but this is not necessarily the case.  As I noted in my original posts, fighting for reforms can expose the limits of potential reforms and the electoral forums within which they are fought for.  Socialist Democracy is aware of this, but at such an abstract level that it draws the wrong lesson that there is no point.

The intervention of SD in the elections was to put out a petition calling for the permanent closure of Stormont.  Who has the power to do this?  The British.  Is that who SD were appealing to?  If not, to whom?  If PbP put out a petition calling for an end to anti-trade union laws would SD support it, even though only the local Assembly could enact this?  Apparently not, but what’s the difference?  There is of course one obvious one, but it’s not one SD would want to draw attention to.

Perhaps the petition appeal was to Sinn Fein, or to its supporters, but if this was so it badly judged the mood of the latter and got the first totally wrong.  In fact, it’s hard to see the case for either of these explanations, given what SD has previously written about both, including in its reply that Sinn Fein is conciliatory towards unionism and argues that Stormont can reduce sectarianism.

PbP get it in the neck for placing no conditions on returning to Stormont but they would have looked pretty stupid if they had.  Putting forward permanent closure of Stormont as the key task for workers looks less and less persuasive the longer the temporary suspension lasts.