Covid, Brexit, Protest, and the Left too

A couple of months ago in a Facebook discussion with a supporter of Zero Covid I argued that if he really did believe that Covid-19 represented the threat to humanity that he appeared to claim he should demand (albeit critically) more coercive restrictions on democratic rights from the State.  Nothing, after all, is more important than life.

He disagreed, insisting that socialists can never support restrictions on democratic rights by the capitalist state.

Unfortunately the proponents of Zero-Covid supported all the previous restrictions and if they are to be consistent then these new restrictions must also be an unfortunate necessity.  All the rest of the Zero-Covid demands have been made to the state and who else is going to implement them?  Again, it was they who have been hysterical in their claims that capitalism was engaged in what amounts to mass murder.

Of course, Covid-19 did not and does not represent the existential threat claimed and much of the left is wrong about this.  Their position becomes more and more untenable as people appreciate the personal threat to themselves, they tire of lockdown restrictions and more people, especially the vulnerable, get vaccinated.  Were it to become clear that Covid-19 is endemic and therefore requires regular vaccination, as with the flu, their policy would become obviously stupid.

So it should only be embarrassing that they now condemn the rough tactics adopted by the Metropolitan police when it broke up the protest of the murder of Sarah Everard.  To be consistent they should have defended the policy of the police while salving their conscience by condemning the roughness of its implementation.

Of course, the Tories have taken advantage of the widespread acceptance of restrictions of social interaction by proposing to introduce new laws that go a long way to criminalising protest altogether, as should have been feared from the start.  I recently posted another comment on Facebook pointing this out and suggesting that those who didn’t see this coming should avoid politics and find something else to do.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is to engage in ‘parliamentary warfare’ over NHS pay while forgetting that austerity would be worse had the Tories implemented the greater lockdown restrictions demanded by Labour.  The cost would have been even greater had the Zero-Covid policy of some on the left been adopted; a policy that is the product of an opportunist attempt to attack the Tories but like all opportunism is incapable of taking a longer-term view.

It is no defence of this policy to declare that you also have a policy against austerity; one which makes heroic assumptions about the capacity of the working class to resist it.  Opportunism here is accompanied by ultra-left perspectives that envisages the capitalist class paying hundreds of millions of pounds for furlough payments, loans and grants to business and the shortage of tax receipts from workers etc.

Again, the Tories will claim the legitimacy of the bill to be paid and the left will again be exposed as it argued a policy that would have needlessly cost more. The policy of Zero-Covid simultaneously relies on the repressive apparatus of the state to work, while positing that this state can be defeated in the implementation of austerity that the policy requires.

We will leave aside any stupid notion that the combination of pandemic and austerity will somehow galvanise the working class to revolution; although these conceptions are precisely how much of the left envisages socialist revolution coming about – capitalist crisis producing a mass political consciousness that their political conceptions and interventions are incapable of envisaging coming about in any other way.

Despite their serial corruption and incompetence in most of their response to the pandemic the Tories are ahead in the polls.  Their bedrock support has relied, and continues to rely, upon their support for Brexit.  The pandemic has been used to hide the damage done by it and the Labour Party has been too afraid and too stupid to lead a political attack on it.

The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee can write that “Labour will plug away, exposing myriad flaws in the dreadful trade deal” but this is meaningless if you don’t oppose it.  It looks hypocritical, since Labour supported the deal, and it looks like the dishonesty typical of politicians given Starmer’s avoidance of even mentioning the word, refusal to seek renegotiation of the deal, and previous policy of pushing the Tories to ‘get Brexit done‘.

But once again, while Labour fails, much of the left is actually worse, having supported Brexit from the start and campaigned for it in the referendum.  The damage to working class living standards and the austerity it will entail is on them.  They too, just like the Tories, are relying on Covid and the Tory press to hide Brexit’s damaging effects and just like Boris Johnson they will – child-like – deny any responsibility.

Two alternative narratives have developed – the fault is with Brexit or the fault is with the big bad EU.  The left that thought it could move on will be cut in two by these scissors but there is little chance that it will fess up and admit a mistake.  As a rule the left does not admit mistakes and certainly not ones as big as this, especially as they cannot consign it to history.

A few years ago a comrade on the left from the Official Republican tradition said to me, while we were watching the May Day parade in Belfast, that so much of the left was rotten that it basically had to die away before a new generation of socialists could make progress. He may even have included his own tradition in that, and in my view this should certainly be the case, but it isn’t as simple as that.  The corruption of Marxism perpetrated by the nationalist and statist left both in Ireland and Britain will not be easily cleansed.

In the meantime, you can hardly blame the British working class if it ignores much of the left, it is quite right to do so.

A year of Covid-19 (1) – following ‘the science’

On 20 April last year the lead story in ‘The Irish Times’ was a report of research led by an Irish scientist that there may have to be repeated waves of Covid-19 epidemics until enough of the population is infected to provide herd immunity.  At best there would be three more infection cycles before 60 per cent was infected, enough for immunity.

It reported intense debate on the subject, with World Health Organisation epidemiologists warning that there was no proof yet that having the infection would confer immunity for a significant period of time.  Later, when it was apparent that immunity did occur, the response was that the level of antibodies recorded in previously infected cases declined more or less rapidly so that immunity would also decline.  This however did not take account of the body’s reduced need for higher levels and its newly acquired capacity to ramp up again if required; it also did not take account of the role of T-cells in fighting infection.

The point however, is that herd immunity was not dismissed as beyond the pale and was not considered a euphemism for mass murder.  In fact, as the link to the debate below records, herd immunity is not so much a strategy as an outcome, the inevitable outcome of defeating the pandemic.  That it has been understood as anything else illustrates the impairment of critical thought that has accompanied the physical restrictions introduced by lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere have been keen to demand that people follow ‘the science’ (as they put it), backed up by certain scientists or doctors, usually on the state payroll, who have given authority to government policy even when it is sometimes reported that they don’t agree with it.

The appeal to authority, the idea that there is one ‘science’ with one rational direction available to policy makers, the unwillingness to debate, and repeated charges of lack of transparency; all these are very far from any scientific approach.  The debate here on what the correct approach should be is an example of what has not been presented to populations.  The effects of this have been many and not always acknowledged.

I recently had a disagreement on Facebook with a supporter of a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, who refused to accept our differences were political, claiming that there was a psychological issue involved with my approach (along with some other remarks I have committed to amnesia).  The alternative that I argued, of focused protection of the vulnerable and opposition to generalised lockdown, was not received as a legitimate one to be considered, but simply one to be condemned and damned as so mistaken as to be the product of some psychological imperfection.

What was remarkable was that the principal issue facing the world was argued as something above, beyond or otherwise disassociated from politics.  Marxists, and this guy is one of long standing, are supposed to base their ideas on the reality that science, morality and all aspects of human behaviour are permeated with politics.  Science has its political aspects and the actions of the Government and state obviously does, especially when they involve drastic restrictions on human activity.

So, to regard Covid-19 as a non-political issue is absurd.  That such an argument could arise on social media is not at all surprising since everything under the sun appears on it.  In this case however the response is not uncommon, and is a mirror reflection of the approach taken by almost all Governments, which is to deny legitimacy to any questioning of their policies.  We can see this clearly for example in the pathetic ‘opposition’ of Keir Starmer, whose only point of disagreement is that the lockdown policy of the Government has been implemented incompetently and incompletely.

The policy of inducing fear into the population is ably assisted by a willing media seeking the simple and the sensational, through stressing the lethal nature of the virus; repetition of statistics on cases, hospitalisation numbers and patients in intensive care; the numbers with ‘long-Covid’; the prominence given to sufferers among the young, and of course the rising number of deaths.

This goes along with a determined policy of down-playing the specificity of those most under threat, and claims that the virus is either out of control or will utterly swamp the health service.  The fear generated has enough truth behind it to get acceptance of actions that would in normal times have generated heated opposition; including cancelled urgent cancer operations and a policy of isolation of individuals that admits that increased domestic abuse and enormous deterioration in mental health will follow.  The cumulative effect in generating fear is to dampen and discourage further the exercise of people’s critical faculties.

Instead of opposing all this, much of the left has echoed it and amplified it, as my minor Facebook argument illustrated.  This Left demands stricter and longer lockdowns and ‘zero-Covid’, i.e. no cases and no deaths from Covid.  To state that there is an alternative approach to generalised lockdown, and admit that some deaths will almost certainly result, is to damn oneself out of one’s own mouth.  How dare you advocate a policy that accepts any deaths!

We will, for the moment, leave aside the obvious truth that the current lockdown policy has abysmally failed to prevent avoidable deaths, and that the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy has yet to indicate what injury and deaths would flow from its implementation.  It has failed to admit that it would have to be enforced; that the state would have to do the enforcing and that it would have to apply much enhanced powers of coercion to attempt to achieve it.  An additional result would be to limit further the space for open debate on different approaches and alternative futures following the pandemic.

The policy of the Left has not been to encourage scientific debate but to back one element of the consensus view that lockdowns are the answer.  The problem here is that there has been far from a free debate on what the best approach to dealing with Covid-19 is and not, as the left would have it, a refusal to follow through on what is so obviously the right, or rather only, one.

These two articles, here and here, show that there is no single and unequivocal scientific approach that supports lockdown.  Rather, there is an intensely political debate within the scientific community that has suffered from, but resisted, restrictions on discussion.  The result of the attempt to impose a single approach has been the development of what has been called ‘groupthink’, censorship and self-censorship and something of a climate of fear, in which critical thought is seen as criticism of the scientific establishment, which might be damaging to the careers of those who engage in it.

The inevitable uncertainties generated by a new viral infection requires engagement with the issues that the political establishment does not believe the population can handle, something the media reinforces with its superficial treatment of every issue.  The mechanisms and apparatus that circumscribes political argument has been easily employed to narrow debate on the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.  The idea that the issues around it are non-political is, to repeat, ludicrous.

This political debate has been grossly distorted by an anti-scientific assault by the far-right, typified by the often-imbecilic antics of Donald Trump, with his alternative denial of the virus, its importance, his success in dealing with it, and his recommendation about drinking bleach.  The mass base of scientific ignorance he mobilised in the US has been reflected everywhere to a greater or lesser extent.  The effect on rational criticism of the prevalent lockdown approach has been to prejudice reception of it and create a barrier to its discussion.  Sections of the left have joined in, unwittingly contributing to the anti-scientific shut-down of rational debate.  As with so many issues, the opposition to lockdown by sections of the right, whether of the crazed anti-vaxxers or libertarian conservatives, has been the cue for some on the left to take an opposing view.

We are over a year into the pandemic, about a year since it hit Europe, and there is no excuse for lack of debate on how to deal with it. Only episodically has one taken place in Ireland and like everywhere else, any alternative to lockdown has been subject to condemnation. It has had its own share of far-right sceptics that have made the task of challenging the lockdown consensus harder; but the fact is that the policy of lockdown has failed, and the experience of the last year has proved it, which is what we will review in the next post.

Forward to part 2

Is learning from Brexit possible?

Last week the ‘Financial Times‘ revealed that the Tory Government is working with big business on plans to tear up those workers’ rights enshrined in EU law.  This would include ending the 48-hour limit on the working week; changing rules on work breaks and ending the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday entitlements.  This is the list reported but there are undoubtedly others.

That this was one purpose of Brexit and its likely effect was both predictable and predicted, it comes as a surprise to no one.  Yet large swathes of the Left in Ireland and Britain supported it, although much less vocally in Ireland because it is so unpopular.  In any case their support for it has assisted putting in place these projected attacks and is indefensible and inexcusable.

An analysis of why they took such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their nationalist perspective arising from the view that the nation state will introduce socialism and come to embody it; general simple-minded opposition to the EU on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are against than what you are for.  There’s also a large dose of ignorance and stupidity involved.

The significant role of stupidity first hit me when I read that left supporters of Brexit were complaining that the negotiations on the British side were being conducted by the Tories.  Further examples became clear when they, like the rest of the Brexit movement, demanded a harder Brexit as the only one worthy of the name, and for the same reason – there was no point otherwise.

Now that even a blind man can see what the future invites, what are the chances that this left will reconsider its support for Brexit and the political approach that led to it?  What might this involve?

Well, much of this left also supports Scottish nationalism, which perhaps should be no surprise since this too involves an obviously nationalist project that harbours illusions in a separate capitalist state.

In the weekend’s ‘Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole has a long article on Scottish nationalism that is quite good.  It notes that in 1979 the referendum on devolution and creation of a new Scottish parliament couldn’t even get 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate to support it.  Now opinion polls show majority support for independence.  O’Toole looks for reasons for the change.

The first is the decline of the Empire that Scots played such a prominent and profitable role in creating, before it shrunk to the extent that many middle class Scots saw potential for better career opportunities in a separate state.  Some on the Left present this opportunist turn as some sort of anti-imperialism.  That some Irish accept this is where another heavy dose of stupidity comes in, although again, a common nationalist outlook is a more adequate political explanation.

The second reason is the growth of the idea that Scotland is more progressive than England (Wales hardly ever gets a mention), an idea O’Toole correctly describes as a ‘myth’.  This is traced to the idea that Thatcher and her policies came to be seen as an imposition on the country from outside rather than as a class-based assault on the whole British working class.

This isn’t really an explanation, more an outcome – why did Thatcherism come to be seen as a rallying cry for Scottish nationalism and not British working class struggle?  The venom of nationalism is now so prevalent in the bloodstream that even when English and Welsh workers try to move to the left, through the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the Scottish left prefers its own nationalism and opposes it.

O’Toole notes the mass opposition of 70,000 Celtic and Dundee United fans during Thatcher’s attendance at the Scottish cup final in 1988.  Many Celtic fans, traditionally a base of support for the Labour Party, are now ardent nationalists.  Again, their existing (partial) identity with Irish nationalism assisted the switch, although with just as little justification.

O’Toole notes that the Scottish National Party tacked to the left in order to garner support from those opposed to Thatcherism, but Scottish nationalism is not a complement to Celtic supporters’ residual Irish identity but a dilution of it, if not a rival.  Recent criticism by the SNP government of the actions of Celtic Football club and praise for Rangers may mainly be a piece of opportunist tacking to a part of the electorate it hasn’t had success with, but it is also politically consistent with any idea of Scottish nationalism.

What O’Toole doesn’t cover is the employment of constitutional solutions by the Labour Party to cover up for its hostility to a militant class opposition to Thatcherism.  Ultimately this played into the hands of the more aggressive nationalists, but then the Scottish Labour Party was even more venal and rotten than the rest of the party.

The third reason advanced by O’Toole is that Scottish nationalism is very much bolstered by the rise of English nationalism.  How else, for example, can you account for the popularity of the SNP Government’s handling of Covid-19 as opposed to widespread criticism of the Tories?  Objectively, the differences are much less than the similarities and both have a very poor record in terms of deaths, making the same mistake of seeding care homes with infected discharges from hospitals.

The Tories have repeatedly used the rise of Scottish nationalism to attack the Labour Party, which plays very well for the SNP. It can hardly be a surprise that nationalist division encourages divisive nationalism.  Yet this too seems to have escaped much of the British left, which supports Scottish nationalism but deplores English nationalism, except for the most degenerate Stalinist section that is now buying into it.

Why do they not get that the former has helped the latter?  Why do those who did oppose Brexit not see the parallels with Scottish nationalism, both movements championing the magical powers of ‘national sovereignty’?  Did they really miss the absence of a Scottish component of the Corbyn movement, the potential base of which had already been partially vaccinated against left politics by nationalism?  Do they really think that the left of the nationalist movement in Scotland was the equivalent of the Corbyn movement in the rest of Britain; ignoring the project of the supporters of Corbyn being to move the Labour Party to the left while the most distinguishing mark of the left supporters of Scottish nationalism is the militancy of their nationalism?  Do they also have to actually witness its full reactionary effects before they discover that nationalism really is not the friend of the working class?

An analysis of why these socialist have taken such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist (but successful looking and therefore trendy) position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their lapse into a statist conception of socialism and mistaken assumption that national separation is the default democratic position of socialists; general simple-minded opposition to the UK on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are for when it doesn’t actually entail any element of socialism.  Not to mention that dose of simple stupidity.

If the Left that supported Brexit had any idea what mistake it had made in supporting leaving the EU it would be revising its support for nationalism of the Scottish variety.  It would even wonder whether any newly gained national sovereignty for Scotland might unleash demands for workers sacrifice for the newly won ‘independent’ Scotland in the same way the Tories seek to make Britain competitive against the EU.

Of course, it can be argued that Scotland voted against Brexit and a separated Scotland will seek to join the EU; although this is not an argument open to supporters of Brexit.  But even in this case, the point is not that the EU is something in itself that socialists should support, rather it is to be accepted as an exemplar of the progressive development of capitalism, which to the extent that it is progress is also progress towards socialism, as it increases the international socialisation of the forces and relations of production.

The point is that this internationalisation of capitalism, that by this fact brings forward the grounds for socialism, only does so because it strengthens the potential unity of the working class across nations.  It is exactly this unity that Scottish nationalism opposes and destroys.

We have seen this above; through its arising upon the bones of the defeated British working class movement under Thatcherism, and its opposition to workers seeking to mobilise to the left under Corbyn: its opposition to spreading this movement and assistance to those also opposed to it in the rest of Britain.

There is very little indication that the Brexit supporting left has learnt any lessons.  Although it may be viewed as early days, it is a sign you aren’t stupid when you can see the policeman’s truncheon falling and you decide not to put your head in the way, rather than wait until it cracks your skull, whereupon you declare the need to defend yourself against police brutality.

The Left and Covid crisis

The policy of lockdowns has been approved by many on the left, with the additional argument that they have not been strict enough.  Some appear to believe that pandemic induced crises necessarily open up opportunities for revolutionary crises.  These are considered opportunities to mobilise the working class to resist attacks on its social position and turn it towards socialism.  Crises then become both the necessary and sufficient condition for political revolution.  What these sufficient and necessary conditions might actually be is not considered.  That question has been answered and is no longer a question.

Previous crises have not entailed socialist revolution, but rather than investigate why this is, the approach has been to lament the weakness of the revolutionary left and the treacherousness of existing working class leaders.  Crises therefore are expected to do much of the heavy lifting of working-class political consciousness, allied to an unexplained rise to prominence of revolutionary organisations.  Rather than see such crises as occasions of potential radicalisation which must be based on prior conditions giving rise to class consciousness, this consciousness is assumed to arise from crises itself and the spontaneous activity generated.  This latter activity is then fed by Left economic and political demands that further radicalises it.

This process however requires prior development of the working class, including organisation and consciousness which already disposes the working class to defend itself through ‘spontaneous’ mobilisation that rests on some prior socialist consciousness.  We know that a lack of such consciousness has not been overcome by crisis in itself because of previous decades of defeats of working-class struggle; from a sober assessment of current working-class consciousness and passivity, and from appreciation that the last real revolutionary period rested on this prior development of socialist organisation.  Of course, many struggles in this period were betrayed by reformist and Stalinist leaderships but these betrayals had precisely the effect of setting the working-class back decades.  It’s why continuing opposition to these political trends in the working-class movement is a continuing imperative.  But it is wrong to simply repeat the explanations of previous defeats that happened decades ago as applicable now to much later generations.

In demanding a more stringent lockdown the purveyors of this general view rally behind the most lurid and sensational predictions of the effects and deaths that will be caused by Covid. The pandemic itself has become a ruling class conspiracy – “as far as the ruling elite is concerned, if the old and infirm die and allow for further cuts to pensions and health care, that is to be regarded as a positive good.”  As has been pointed out: across the world capitalist governments have spent fortunes in response to the pandemic.  If their objective has been to save money they have failed abysmally. In Ireland and UK the state has borrowed billions and seen their debt mushroom as a result.

If their favoured policy of total lockdown requires emulation of the approach of China, Australia and New Zealand etc., as some have claimed, then why are these countries not also in on the conspiracy?

This left appears oblivious to the cost of lockdown in terms of deaths, illness and social and economic loss; and sliding over who suffers these costs: from the lost jobs, education, domestic violence and damage to menial health.  It may point to the massive and wasted expenditures on testing and tracing systems that don’t work, and from failed and corrupt contract awards for PPE etc., but what has facilitated this?

They don’t stop to consider how their approach supports the politicians and state bureaucrats who cancel cancer and other life-saving treatments in order to protect their politicised health choices, and a health system that is failing and for which these politicians and bureaucrats bear responsibility.  Instead, their demand for lockdown puts the onus on the population to accept the most restrictive forms of social control and denial of civil rights, opposition to which is another one of their conspicuous silences.

Instead they oppose the opening of schools, though children are not at significant risk and infections in schools are low (see here and here and here).   One organisation dismisses schools as a “child-minding service’ employed to force parents into work, oblivious to this being a service that many parents are very glad of. It complains of trillions going to corporations but ignores that this is a product of lockdown; or do they believe that the state would give money to furloughed workers and not corporations?  What would happen if they didn’t, would all these corporations survive?

This organisation proposes committees that “would provide the means to organize a Europe-wide general strike to compel the closure of schools and nonessential production and allow workers to shelter at home.”  A stay away from work in order to get paid to stay away from work!  Since when did the capitalist class pay for an indefinite general strike? And how would one be organised with the mass of workers at home and socially distancing?  How would any revolutionary potential of a general strike be realised, i.e. acknowledging that society cannot simply close down but must continue to run, raising the question of who runs the economy – who rules?  How would this be possible unless major sections of the working class were actually at work?

“Massive resources must be invested to provide a high standard of living to everyone throughout the pandemic, including the resources required to maintain online learning for students.”  But how could anything be invested if the workers required to deliver the investment are to stay at home?  Or is this yet another essential section of the working class that must work – like so many the total-lockdown supporters refuse to acknowledge.

“The claim that there is “no money” for such measures is a patent lie. Trillions of euros have been handed to the banks and corporations in bailouts since the beginning of the pandemic. The resources exist, but they are monopolized by a corporate and financial oligarchy.”  The utterly un-Marxist idea is again advanced that money can equal “resources” and that pieces of paper are of use without human labour to deliver the real goods and services for which they are exchanged.  And anyway, isn’t the monopolisation of productive resources by a separate class not called capitalism?

Indeed it is, which once again demonstrates that every intervention by the ultra-left telescopes into demanding the overthrow of capitalism.

“The fortunes of the rich must be expropriated and the major corporations transformed into public utilities, democratically controlled by the working class as part of the socialist reorganization of economic life on the basis of social need, not private profit.”  But how are “the major corporations” to be put under the control of the workers unless they are actually at work?

As we know, Covid-19 is a specific threat that must be defended against.  When advocates of total lockdown call young people having a party ‘granny killers’ they acknowledge this reality.  Yet the pretence is still made that everyone is equally threatened at least to such degree that no strategy must distinguish between those who are old and/or otherwise vulnerable and those who are relatively young and healthy.  Students must go home, schools must close and young people socialising is an existential threat.

What this does is weaken the protection of those most at risk because it calls into question any restrictions.  If there really was no significant differential impact then many thousands of young people would have died. They haven’t.  Many working class people, as I have noted in previous posts, and here in a previous comment by a reader, are ignoring the rules when it suits.  The left advocates of complete lockdown are really now following Bertolt Brecht when he said – should this left not just elect a new people?

Most people however do register the greater threat to older and vulnerable people but rather than this being informed, encouraged and organised it has more or less been ignored by the authorities when it comes to organisation of the response.  Tightening restrictions affects everyone, and in some ways young people more, and undifferentiated relaxation exposes older people more because it cannot be admitted that they should still be shielded or socially distanced; just in case everyone decides that is the way it should stay, that this is the correct approach that should now be implemented and those in charge have got it wrong.

This approach has failed in Ireland, Britain and across Europe and further afield.  Part of the left doubles down and says the lockdown is not tough enough, without weighing up the cost or admitting that total lockdown has never actually been implemented because it can’t.  You cannot close down society, which relies on the continuous labour of millions of workers.  Admission that ‘essential’ work must continue never admits the enormous extent of what this entails given the development of the forces of production and division of labour involved.

A blanket threat in many ways protects the authorities from blame for failure because Covid-19 becomes an all-embracing indiscriminate threat that is difficult to defend against because of this character.  It allows them to introduce harsh social restrictions and coercive powers that for most people are totally unnecessary, and which some on the left who, were they consistent, should support because (1) they should endorse a fair claim to be necessary and (2) totally warranted given the assumed threat.  What could be more important that saving lives?

The longer the pandemic lasts the more incredible become the demands for total lockdown and ‘zero-Covid’.  The failure of existing restrictions has been too great to inspire notions that just more of the same will be both successful and at an acceptable cost.  Given the attacks stored up for the future, there will be plenty of time to reflect on the lessons.

Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 4 – the failure of the Left

 

In looking back at the civil rights movement Eamonn McCann argued that “the left had a lot of influence in the early days of the civil rights movement. We frittered it away. No question of that. We frittered it away. We have to learn lessons from that and look back.”  In doing this on the fortieth anniversary of 1968 he wrote that “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight.”

McCann also noted the weakness of republicanism in Derry in the 1960s, which won less than 3,000 votes in a constituency with more than 25,000 Catholics in 1966, while in West Belfast IRA leader Billy McMillen came fourth out of four with just 6.3 per cent of the vote in 1964.

However, McCann also made the point that the radicals of around twenty to thirty in Derry were weak – a “relatively small, raggedy band of socialists”; “no sizeable socialist party was built from the experience, no distinctive socialist current emerged”. “What was needed . . . were clear ideas and coherent organisation, which wasn’t our strong suit.”

He complained that it was difficult to engage in political debate within the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, with anyone raising class politics denounced as splitting the all-class unity of the Committee.  He remarked on the radicals “blithe disregard for organisation and structure, because we had underestimated the depth of the sectarian division and the hold of nationalism on the Catholic community, because we had not been engaged in building a serious socialist party.”

McCann states that there was no clarification of differences, with “little serious effort to draw a line of demarcation with nationalism.’  This was especially needed in 1969 as the anger of youth flowed “through unimpeded among nationalist channels, eventually, into the IRA.”

He noted the way barricades were thrown across the entrance to Catholic areas, which he saw as confirming sectarian division, and the absence of the organised workers’ movement from the civil rights struggle.  In relation to the latter “we were too far out in front. [We] had lost contact with the main formation of the class and the only institution in the North which organised across the sectarian divide, the union movement, in which we might have grounded ourselves, or cleared ground for a new departure.”

McCann does record that in the 1969 Stormont election Peoples Democracy “was able to address mainly-Protestant workforces, emphasising the class basis of its hostility to unionism . . . but given the spontaneous nature of the socialists’ main organisational expression – the PD – and the absence of clear-cut ideas, the militancy came across as much as a reflection of gut opposition to the Northern state as of conscious adherence to socialist politics.”

He quotes Bernadette Devlin, after she won a by-election to become a Westminster MP –“there may not be 30,000 socialists in this constituency, but it has a socialist MP.”  As he also records, “events had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.  It was vital not to be left behind.  So no time to stop, analyse, synthesise.  In the blur of activity, we missed the moment.”

“This is not to say that if we had all been hardened revolutionaries with clear ideas, working patiently, efficiently to build a revolutionary socialist party, things would have worked out very differently”, acknowledging the historical weight of communal rather than class allegiance and the failure of the official labour movement.  His “realistic possibility” was one of “recruiting relatively rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth” and “entering 1969 not as a hubbub of socialist individuals but as a serious socialist organisation, capable of taking on and competing for popular support. . .” (all quotes from ‘Socialism and 1968’, in ‘Spirit of ’68’ edited Pauline McClenaghan)

If we review this argument, we can see that it isn’t altogether consistent.  It is argued that the left did not punch its weight but began the struggle as a “small, raggedy band”.  Before civil rights agitation took off the group was presented with a perspectives document that acknowledged their poor prospects, with the great mass of people seeing “religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”

Elsewhere he notes that although the left played a prominent role in organising marches; putting out leaflets and bulletins; running a radio station and in standing as candidates in  elections, that during their speeches “when the people were applauding [it] was not so much what we said but the way we said it.”  He notes correctly that prominent involvement in mass agitation did not mean that they had real political leadership or, as Bernadette Devlin put it – she was a socialist MP but not elected by socialist constituents.

McCann argues in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’ that mass influence is meaningless “unless one is in the process of forging a political instrument necessary to lead such agitation to victory . . .” and “we have learned that it is impossible to do that if one is not forearmed with a coherent class analysis of the situation and a clear programme based on it.”

Both of these are claims are true but his later assessment that things might not have worked out very differently had this been the case – and it can be argued that socialists at the time did argue vociferously for a socialist approach – nevertheless is also true.  These two requirements posed by McCann were not enough and their absence itself needs explanation, not simply in terms of the failures of individuals involved.

Perhaps they could have done better, as we can all have done better in our political careers, but this does not make our failure to do things as best they could be done the cause of wider failure by the movement or the class.  The point of this series of posts has been to understand what happened in order to do better now, but what happened was the outcome of forces much stronger than the left input into these events.

The left perspective document in 1968 quoted by McCann was not wrong to note the strength of sectarian division and the unionist and nationalist politics that divided workers within the North.  As I have noted a number of times, the short duration of the civil rights struggle, as well as its very uneven development, meant there was little time to challenge the historically developed political consciousness already imbued within Irish workers.

And this partially explains why republicanism, despite its obvious weakness in Belfast and Derry, was able to grow rapidly while the left did not.  Irish republicanism is not an alternative to nationalism but simply a variety of it, its most militant manifestation.  The transformation of consciousness required to move from support for the Nationalist Party to Republicanism is qualitatively different from one required to move from any sort of nationalism to socialism.  It should be recalled that, for many Catholic workers, this move to more militant nationalism was not made until republicans stopped being republican, in the traditional militant sense, and had given up armed struggle.

McCann notes that it was difficult to engage in debate within the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) because this would be denounced as political and divisive of Catholic unity.  He also argues that not enough was done to distinguish the socialist case from the nationalist one.  But there is ample evidence of socialists arguing the case for class politics through many of their interventions, and while their failure to build a significant socialist organisation was something that might otherwise have been achieved, this outcome was not primarily due to their failure to distinguish themselves as socialists.

Both McCann in Derry, Bernadette Devlin in her election campaign, and Peoples Democracy generally, were all loud in their opposition to green capitalism and their support for working class unity.  They failed because of the strength of its division, and while as Marxists this may be regrettable to have to admit, it is not at all incomprehensible. The difficulty of intervening in the DCAC that McCann noted did not make refusing to enter it an answer, but reflected the consciousness not only of the middle class leadership of the DCAC but of the Catholic workers it led, as McCann himself has noted.  The difficulty also remained outside the DCAC and most leftists joined it (although it would appear with little influence) because they feared isolation outside it.

The forces overwhelming the small and divided socialist movement, as McCann appears to recognise, were the events that “had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.”

A whirlwind of events can sometimes suggest more fundamental changes occurring than actually are, and that requires analysis, which McCann notes was missing.

But this is still true today, with this lesson still unlearned, with the left now bigger but no nearer building a genuine working class party, which requires not just a much bigger mass membership but a class conscious class from which to draw its ranks and a democratic culture that can provide the analysis with which it can take leadership.

Today the left in Ireland, and not not just Ireland by any means, is still too much impressed by action and not by the consciousness that drives it, and is in turn derived from it.  Honest and sober analysis still escapes it, with support for Brexit a particularly egregious example of a mistaken political programme.  Even when criticising what he sees as the failure of the left in the late sixties to build a serious socialist organisation he repeats the idea that what was needed was to recruit “rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth”, themselves the product of the “pell-mell, helter-skelter” of events that the left sought to keep up with.

As these lines are posted mass demonstrations and riots are taking place in the US following another racist killing by the police.  References have been made to this being an American ‘revolution’ when in fact we are a very long way from the American working class posing a socialist revolution,  Presenting the missing ingredient as a revolutionary party begs all the questions about the nature of the working class and its movement from which it alone can be created.

The erection of barricades to separate Catholic areas under attack from the RUC and loyalists, symbolising for McCann the obstacles to unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, is testament to the strength of sectarian division but does not make their erection mistaken.  Hence the tragedy.

His speculation that socialists might have grounded themselves in the trade union movement, but had become separated from it, does indeed argue correctly for an orientation by socialists to the working class as it is, and not to counterpose one’s own sectarian interests, organisation and programme to the workers own movement, but McCann himself notes the passivity of the official movement and its effective abstention from the civil rights campaign.  To reverse this would have required a fight inside the trade unions, against its leadership, and this could only have succeeded in a struggle in which socialists had won the support not only of many Catholic workers (from nationalism) but also Protestant workers (from unionism).

No one can claim that this could have been achieved in a few years; it is the work of many years and involves forces greater than exist within the six counties.  In the meantime it could not have been wrong to orient to those willing to campaign for democratic rights in order that they might be directed to such an orientation.

That there is still no settled view on what socialists should have done in 1968 – 69 is not surprising since this is largely fed by what socialists think we should be doing now.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Civil rights and socialist strategy 3 – the weakness of the left

The strategic differences that existed and discussed in the previous two posts had implications for the tactics to be pursued, although the relationship was not straight-forward.

In order to appreciate the different viewpoints, it is necessary to look at the balance of political forces in the civil rights movement and in particular the strength of the left and its potential influence and power.

We have already noted the weakness of the political influence of the wider labour movement in previous posts but it is important to recall it again as it is the primary candidate as the mechanism by which a working class and socialist strategy could have been pursued.

While the Northern Ireland Labour Party and trade union movement passed a few resolutions supportive of civil rights no trade union affiliated to NICRA and neither the industrial or political wings of the movement would mobilise their membership in support.  The reason is obvious.

The members of the trade unions were not a different species from the majority of workers who voted unionist, nationalist, or on occasion the very homeopathic socialism of the NILP; and, of course, others were apathetic and unpolitical as is the case everywhere.  The trade union movement reflected this, with a survey in 1959 revealing that Catholics were 46% of branch secretaries in the mainly unskilled ATGWU, 12% in the AEU, 9% in the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians, and 0% in the Boilermakers.  Of 53 unions surveyed and 379 branch secretaries, 80% were Protestant.

This is not to employ sectarian prejudice that assumes a person’s politics, including a trade union rep’s, can be read across from their religious background, but it is unfortunately the case that in the majority of occasions this is true, and is precisely the problem.

One might expect this not to be so much the case with trade union representatives, precisely because they have sought active participation in the union, but this doesn’t get away from the problem, because all trade union reps are acutely conscious of their role as a representative of their members and are careful not to tread too far from those whom they represent.  Where radical motions are passed at trade union branches this often reflects the influence of a few activists carrying a room consisting of a small fraction of the membership.

For most union officials the primary concern is the organisation within which they hold a position and the primary concern of the members they represent is wages and conditions.  In the North of Ireland there is strong pressure against raising political issues that would upset working relationships, and the trade union apparatus is keen that this remains the case, with policy not usually going beyond platitudes.

The problem of course is that the ‘unity’ then trumpeted is weak and subject to official public opinion relayed through the state and employer, and then imported through the trade union apparatus.  What this unity very definitely isn’t is socialist.  That it exists is not unimportant, in fact it signals a general and widespread aversion to conflict, especially sectarian conflict, but it is not the grounds on its own for creation of a radical alternative, and can only be presented as such by those with a willing blindness and by denuding this alternative of all political content.  The utterly reactionary content of unionism and its unsuitability to play any role in a trade union meant it only occasionally intervened in the scope of trade union affairs, which facilitated the weak ‘unity’ existing.

The very partial exception to lack of direct labour movement involvement in civil rights agitation was Derry, which was the second city in Northern Ireland and had a Catholic majority, and where the local Labour Party was central to the early civil rights struggle.  It was also in Derry that the civil rights movement exploded onto the stage and thousands of people were repeatedly mobilised.  If intervention by the left would make any difference, then Derry was as good a place for this to happen as anywhere.  That it didn’t should be taken into account when weighing the different arguments.

The prominent socialist and civil rights leader Eamonn McCann has written that almost all of those involved in organising the October civil rights march were “socialists of one sort or another.”  They were involved in the Derry Labour Party, but despite the blatant sectarian discrimination and poor housing the local trades council barely took up the latter, condemning the corporation but refusing in June 1968 to receive a delegation from the Derry Housing Action Committee.  It opposed a harsh fine imposed on its members as a result of a protest but would take no real action.

Civil rights did not come before the council until the month before the October 1968 civil rights march, when a delegate wanted to know what its position on it was.  It was agreed to have a special session if the council was invited to participate and to wait until its observers reported back on a march organising meeting.  It then decided that it “supported the establishment of equal civil rights in Northern Ireland for all citizens regardless of class or creed” and “participation . . . should be left to individual trade unionists”, before turning to the question of a pedestrian crossing at Westland Street.”

It played no role in a number of spontaneous strikes by Catholic workers that followed the October march, especially during 18 – 19 November, but decided to pledge support to the moderate Derry Citizens Action Committee and did not seek representation in it, although it did agree to send delegates to a NICRA meeting in Belfast.  Following the O’Neill reforms that month it went back to where it had been before, with economic and social issues to be pursued through official union and Government channels.  At its annual general meeting in April 1969, Billy Blease, who was a senior officer of the Northern Committee, told the audience to concentrate on the ‘real issues.’   As has been noted before, the Citizens Action Committed had more influence over Catholic workers than their trade unions.

McCann notes that no sizable socialist party was built from the experience of building the October march and “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight,” but he also describes those involved as “our relatively small, raggedy band of socialists’, who had “a loose style of organisation . . . coalescing on an ad hoc basis against the wishes of party leaders and without fretting about the contradictions which all knew must be lurking.”

In his book ‘War and an Irish Town’, McCann states that “the leftists involved carried out no clear political struggle within either organisation [Labour Party and Republican Club].  We could not, because what we shared was not a common programme but a general contempt for the type of politics which prevailed in the city.”

He records that an attempt had been made to “codify our ideas’ in May with a ‘perspectives document’, which stated that ‘the situation which confronts us is not promising.  The great mass of the people continue, for historical reasons, to see religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”   What was required was a socialist party but he notes that “any perspective of building a clear-minded political organisation in opposition to the dominant tendencies within the Labour or Republican movements was forgotten in the frenetic round of breaking into empty houses, organising pickets and encouraging individuals to stand up to the landlords and local bureaucrats.”

Neither the labour movement as a whole, at least in its attitude to civil rights, or the radical socialists on its periphery, were in a strong position as the campaign exploded into a struggle on the streets.

Back to part 2

The Irish election, a victory for the left?

Lots of superlatives have been employed to describe the results of the Irish general election, almost all reflecting the dramatic growth of the vote for Sinn Fein, which is now the largest party in terms of popular support with 24.5%.  In 2016 it had only 14 % of the vote.

This is a bit of a surprise, not least to Sinn Fein, which was unable to capitalise fully on the votes received due to not having stood enough candidates.  The party had suffered badly in the previous Presidential, local and European elections and moderated its expectations accordingly.  Two stories indicate the abrupt turnaround.  One successful candidate topped the poll in Clare with 8,987 first preference votes after having failed to become a local councillor last May when she only got 385 votes.  Another successful candidate went off on holiday during the election and only campaigned for two weeks.

Two other changes were also notable.  The first was the comprehensive rejection of the ruling Fine Gael party, which had its worst result in 60 years, and the second was the failure of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, which had its worst result since 2011, when it paid the price for its role in the crash of the Celtic Tiger.  In 2007 these two parties totalled 68% of the vote, in this election only 43%.  Lastly, also worth noting in relation to other countries, was the failure of the far right, anti-immigration candidates.

This last phenomenon reflects both well and badly on the Irish electorate.  The Irish have no post-imperial hangover like the British and their history, in so far as they know it, is one of anti-colonial resistance.  The Irish are also much more aware of their true place in the world, as a home for mainly US multinationals, for whom no prostration to their needs is too much.  So, for example, the state’s inward investment agency gave a made-up award to the senior executive in Apple for the company having hung around Ireland for 40 years making money.  It should be recalled that according to the EU, Apple owes the Irish State €13.5 billion which Apple is contesting and so is the Irish State.

In any case the existing constraints on immigration and the treatment of immigrants in direct provision centres demonstrates the harshness of existing government policy.  The 80% majority in the racist referendum in 2004 is a stain on the country yet to be removed, although the views of younger people might now be very different.

So yes, the trouncing of far-right candidates is very much to be welcomed, just as long as we appreciate the context and its limits, which is what we should do when considering the overall results.

The election result is described as reflecting a ‘mood’ for change, and the sudden rise of Sinn Fein might reflect the fact that moods come and go and are never permanent. It might reflect not only the speed of change but also the indefinite character of the message being sent, just as we suffer moods but rarely experience them as well-thought-out drivers of definite objectives.

The ‘mood for change’ has however indicated some of the change demanded, primarily to housing availability and affordability and to access to health care, as well as a solution to the general malaise around state services, or sometimes their non-existence.  But how this change will be achieved is unclear, and how Sinn Fein would achieve it is also not clear.

Clear enough however is the rejection of the main bourgeois parties and a hope that the state can play a bigger role in sorting out the shortcomings of existing economic growth.  This growth has both caused the demand for change by making failures of the economic model and the government approach obvious, and made change apparently possible through the extra resources it has provided.

The question for socialists is how wide and how deep is the demand for change, reflected in the votes for Sinn Fein and rejection of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? An exit poll recorded that 48% felt it was ‘best to have a change of government’, while nearly one third believed that ‘the country needs a radical change in direction’.  Fifty-one per cent said that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were wrong to rule out forming a government with Sinn Fein. These figures are significant without being overwhelming.

Part of the reason for the result is the fact that we have had a Fine Gael government for 9 years that only had the support of one quarter of the voters from 2016, a narrow base of support for a party that has never had real majority support.  A lot of people started off not having endorsed it and Fianna Fail’s confidence and supply arrangement did not act to add any popular support.

Now the decline of the two major parties has allowed Sinn Fein to come to the fore and we have widespread commentary that we have the beginnings at least of the formation of a new Irish politics defined by a left-right division.  So who is this left?

If we add up the parties to the left of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael we reach a total of 41.5% (SF, Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, Solidarity/People before Profit) which will only be slightly greater if we include some independents, most of whom are not left wing.

There is some coherence to this left in that Sinn Fein voters generally transferred to some of these parties and research has shown that the voters for these parties generally define themselves as left wing.  Unfortunately, all this does is transfer the limitations of this purely relative term to the people who vote for these ‘left-wing’ parties. They are, of course, to the left of the two main bourgeois parties, but how much does this tell us?

Included in this list of parties is Sinn Fein, which has grown as it has dropped its core programme of support for armed struggle to force the British out of the North of Ireland.   A list as long as your arm could be written of the U-turns it has accomplished as a result, but in the South of the country most notable is that it has gone from opposition to coalition with the two bourgeois parties to openly flouting their availability for a lash-up.  If the development of Irish politics has been defined by the crash of the Celtic Tiger, it should not be forgotten that Sinn Fein voted for the bank bail-out whereby generations of Irish workers will pay for the debts of the banks.

It includes the Green Party with 7.1% of the vote, which as a partner in Government with Fianna Fail, took political responsibility for the policies leading up to the crash and those afterwards, including the bank bail-out, suffering for years afterwards as a result.  Although apparently not long enough.

It also includes the Labour Party with 4.4%, which was the only party to vote against the bank bail-out, but then entered Government to inflict punishing austerity to pay for it.  Never one to shirk this role in alliance with Fine Gael, the party may have performed this cynical trick once too often.  The point of its existence is now regularly canvassed, since its brand is discredited and other parties appear to have taken up its claimed position on the left and apparently with greater sincerity.

The Social Democrats with 2.9% is the party that most clearly represents the alternative to Labour while Solidarity/People before Profit, with 2.6%, failed to make gains and lost one seat.  In a number of seats it relied on Sinn Fein transfers to get elected, without it seems showing much appreciation.  The left changed names, split again and ‘allied’ again for the elections and hailed the mood for change but no more defined it than before.  That it failed to profit from this mood is a real failure.

For groups claiming to be Marxist it is its own judgement that their intervention always fails to call into question the role of elections or advance the organisation and political consciousness of the Irish working class.  The limits of this consciousness have instead imposed itself on this left, by which we mean reliance on the state and failure to make reorganisation of the labour movement its aim.

Behind this motley history lies a coherence that is not apparent at first glance.  Greater state intervention is common to all these parties with a preference for a left government to carry it out, however variously understood.  Now Sinn Fein has said it wants to lead negotiations of these parties to create such a government.

The numbers do not add up but this is not initially the point.  The point would be some agreement that these components should come together with their own proposal for government.  Whether it succeeds is not within its control, but it sends a message.  What happens when it does not succeed is something else again.  It would at least form a benchmark against which voters in future elections might seek reference and therefore accord relevance.

Of course, some on the left ‘left’ might denounce Sinn Fein sincerity, pointing to its implementation of austerity while in office in the North, or its use of such an initiative purely for leverage with Fianna Fail in coalition negotiations, but this would be seeking to avoid the problem.  If such denunciations were effective on their own Sinn Fein would not be where it is today.  An alternative would be to challenge the party to make real on commitment to a left programme and a left government; because of the left’s own Keynesian-type policies there are no qualitative differences with its own programme.

If this is not the approach then the claims to fight for a left Government by Solidarity/People before Profit is a fraud, for what they can only mean in such a case is that their policy is for themselves alone in Government.  Given the propensity to split this looks even further away than their already 2.6% vote would lead one to believe.  One problem is that these organisations don’t trust each other or themselves, the latter leading to splits, and if this is the case, why should the working class?

Only a united, democratic left, whatever its political shortcomings, could begin to repair this situation.

Of course, this is not a very revolutionary perspective, but there are no smart political policies or demands that will make for one.  It reflects where the working class is at, the degree to which the election results have shown the scope and extent of radicalisation.  We either meet it, and seek to develop it, or we present it with ultimatums to be more revolutionary than it is.

 

 

Sinn Fein in Government?

This week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll reported that Sinn Fein is potentially headed to be the biggest party in this weekend’s general election,  While it’s on 25% support, the governing party Fine Gale is on 20% and the opposition Fianna Fail on 23%.  Sinn Fein has almost reached these levels of support before in the Irish State but never in first place.

The Irish Times sketch writer, Miriam Lord, has described all three parties as now in various degrees of panic.  Fine Gael, because its loss of support reflects the depths of opposition to its years in office and it may be out of it soon; Fianna Fail, because of its years of keeping Fine Gael in office in an agreement between the two parties, and Sinn Fein, because it has come as a surprise to it as much as many others after very bad Presidential, local and European elections.

The Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has been described as looking like an OTR (as in an ‘on the run’- a member of the IRA who doesn’t have immunity from prosecution) on the grounds that now that they have reached this great height they don’t want to screw it up by having to answer any difficult questions.  McDonald has been acclaimed for good media performances and tapping into a widespread mood for change, while also being applauded for not being too specific about how she is going to solve the health and housing crises giving rise to this demand for change.

It would not be wrong to note that Sinn Fein’s opposition to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail does not exactly transmit into opposition to either of them being in office, only that they should be open to Sinn Fein joining them.  That of course would require a joint programme for Government, which by definition requires no significant differences between them in any potential coalition programme.  But if Sinn Fein can go into coalition with one of the most reactionary parties in Europe, I refer to the Democratic Unionist Party for those unfamiliar with Irish politics, coalition with either of these parties should not be a problem.

Fine Gael originates from part of the Irish Republican movement that fought the British in 1916 and in the War of Independence.  Leading figures in these struggles were also leading figures in the pro-Treaty side in the following civil war, including the prime military leader of the War of Independence, Michael Collins, and W T Cosgrave, the Irish State’s first Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail’s leaders also fought in 1916, the War of Independence and Civil War, just on the anti-Treaty side in the last conflict.  While the Pro-Treaty ancestor of Fine Gael supported the new Irish State from the beginning, because of the argument that it would provide ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’, the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail claim it is they who delivered it, (although it was a Fine Gael led government that declared the Irish State a Republic and Fianna Fail can’t explain what proved to be wrong with the pro-Treaty argument).

Sinn Fein holds itself to be the party both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail split from, except it itself is a split from the Official Republican Movement in 1970, its claim now resting on the fact that the Official Republicans abandoned the name and moved away from the politics of traditional Irish nationalism.  Like pro-Treaty republicans who rejected the British solution of Home rule; and like Fianna Fail, who rejected the new British solution of the Free State; Sinn Fein rejected both, but now accepts the latest British solution to ‘the Irish Question’, which on this side of the sea is more accurately described as ‘the British Question’.

All three parties now agree that the Free State/26 County State/Irish State is legitimate and now accept partition, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  They have their differing constituencies of support – Sinn Fein stronger among less well-off sections of the working class in urban areas; Fianna Fail among farmers, but also among other social layers; and Fine Gael among the better off middle class, but they all hail from the same tradition of militant Irish nationalism that isn’t militant anymore.  In the end all three provide proof of the old adage that fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

For many decades now there has been no essential, and little inessential, difference between Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), and many have ridiculed the competition between them.  It’s rather the political equivalent of club rivalry in the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), in which the cousins in one club beat the shit out of the cousins from a rival parish’s club.  If you’re in the club you don’t need explanation for the rivalry, but any explanation you might get for it will make not much sense.

Now we have a third force, which promises real change, and because of its youth, is not yet fully conscious of its position in the world and has yet to form a rounded, fully-developed and more or less permanent personality of gobshite politics. I have no doubt many Sinners believe they are opposed to austerity in the South and have not implemented it in the North, or will excuse themselves for it.  But reality says different.

Sinn Fein policies involve broadly social democratic promises, including significantly higher state spending, some lower taxes and increased taxation of businesses and higher incomes.  It has made hay with the now dropped plan of Fine Gael to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, the paramilitary police force the British used to police the whole of Ireland before partition.  There is no good reason why this particular revisionist step should suddenly detonate a reaction, but it is welcome nonetheless, even if it exposes once again the limited nature of popular nationalism.

Sinn Fein are opposed and rather hysterically denounced by both FF and FG, but both of these have recognised the electoral need to support increased state spending and reduced emphasis on tax cuts.

They and Sinn Fein also do so because, as the economic boom in Ireland has continued, the inherent imbalances in capitalist growth require a State to intervene to ensure these do not become an obstacle to further profitable expansion.  Poor infrastructure in health, housing, childcare and transport threatens to increase the cost of labour power (the value of labour power in Marxist parlance) and so provide both practical and cost barriers to capital accumulation and growth.

The two most pressing are housing and health.  The problem is that more money is not the (only) problem for both and there is no easy solution for any of the parties within the limits of their political ideologies and projects.  An unreconstructed health service could gobble up much more money without comparable improvement in the population’s health, although the worst experiences might be avoided. Pumping more money into housing could easily make it more expensive to buy and rents no more affordable.  The power of the middle class interests in both, and particularly of landowners and property developers in political networks, makes any radical solution (that doesn’t automatically involve capitalist expropriation) the last thing the major political parties will want to do.  And this will be true of Sinn Fein, as potentially a new addition.

However, in itself, the Sinn Fein economic programme offers no insuperable barrier to the formation of a coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.  The difference is mainly one of scale and the compromises involved in coalitions can cover that in every meaning of the word.  The economic boom provides as benevolent an environment as Sinn Fein is likely to get, even taking account of a potential hit from Brexit.

The potential for another recession, through another property crash (a couple of property investment funds have recently refused to allow investors to cash-out) might however reveal the underlying debt position of the state.  The bank bail-out that caused the bankruptcy of the Irish state has left an overhang of debt that is currently relatively easily affordable because of low interest rates, with yields on 10 year Irish bonds in negative territory.  But this cannot last and a recession could easily raise them.

But that is more than a problem for Sinn Fein, although it should not be forgotten that the party supported the bank bail out that made the debts of the banks the debts of the people.  Sinn Fein has thus shown that it is no more a real alternative to Fianna Fail than Fianna Fail is to Fine Gael.  It simply has yet to be demonstrated, which of course is not something inconsequential in itself.

Unlike the North, the Irish State is a sovereign state and acutely aware that the Provisionals were until relatively recently a subversive threat to the stability, if not the existence, of the state.  The Provisionals are no longer a real or a proclaimed threat but they are an armed force outside of state control, even if much diminished, and this is unacceptable.  Sinn Fein will still have much to prove and the political establishment in Dublin may make arrangements to ensure exclusion of Sinn Fein from office this time.  It may be possible, for example that Fianna Fail gains sufficiently in seats from the unpopularity of the Government that it is able to form a coalition, which some pundits predict will be the case.

The reaction of the left to Sinn Fein growth is to ask that it not enter coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.   But this left is in competition with Sinn Fein for the same constituency and has regularly denounced it as soft on both establishment parties and ever-ready to do a deal with either of them.  The alternative, which I noted in a series of posts on the strategy that the left has pursued, was to be more open to an alliance with Sinn Fein and fight to unite with it in a common alliance.  Of course, this would require some common programme, but since the left’s electoral policies are just souped-up social democracy, this too would simply be a matter of compromise without breaking any principle.  The policies of the left do not involve the overthrow of capitalism, not to mention any mechanisms for the development of socialism.

In the first leaders debate on television, the first question asked was all about why people should vote for a party if it couldn’t form part of a government.  And this was a reasonable question, because this is what elections are for.  And it was a question that rendered People before Profit/Solidarity irrelevant and Richard Boyd Barrett with nothing to say.  Listening to him there was no sense in which he spoke on behalf of a movement outside the establishment bourgeois democratic process that in itself was the alternative to the problems he and the others were asked about.

That is because the left is currently now almost wholly an electoral force, something that limits its potential and limits its development.  A long time ago it ceased to fight for socialist politics in these elections and retreated to radical social democracy.  It clearly has no idea what sort of platform a Marxist organisation should stand upon in an electoral contest, or rather It thinks it already does.  However, its Keynesian policies and state-centred solutions render the working class absent as the agent of change, making it instead the supplicant of the state it must ultimately remove and replace.

The left has collapsed into social democratic politics in order to be consonant with the existing political consciousness of the Irish working class and to demonstrate its practical relevance to it by being elected.  But this ultimately means getting into office, a step it is both unprepared to take and to which it puts up unjustified obstacles, its opposition to Sinn Fein being one of them.

While it is possible to condemn Sinn Fein for its opportunism and its betrayal of working class interests, this has to be demonstrated.  Having decided to adopt electoralism as a strategy the left should either abandon the strategy and totally re-evaluate its understanding of Marxism, or it should follow through on its electoralism and take its social democratic programme to its logical conclusion.  If history is anything to go by, the latter is the much more likely road that will be taken.

Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward to part 2

Brexit and Ireland – part 3

The North of Ireland is the weakest part of the UK so should expect to be hit most by Brexit.  Local news has reported two companies as already shifting operations to the Irish State in preparation for the UK leaving.  The EU is the North’s largest export market and while for the UK as a whole, for the period 2004 to 2014, the share of exports going to non-EU countries has grown more than that to EU countries, this has not been the case for Northern Ireland. Since it has been pointed out that some agricultural products can pass across the border numerous times, the scope for tariff and non-tariff barriers to stifle this trade is significant.  Such tariffs generally range between 6 and 22 per cent

While for the three years reported in this paper, the share of EU exports going to the EU has been around 50% for the UK, it has been around 60% for Northern Ireland (NI). In terms of cross-border trade, exports from the North to the South are more important to the North than exports to the North are for the South.   Foreign Direct Investment uses Northern Ireland to export into the rest of the EU so any exit will hit this investment and this employment.

Finally, there is the loss of EU funding, especially for farmers, not that this seems to have prevented many unionist farmers from voting for Brexit.  The UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimated that direct payments to farmers under EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidies represented 87% of annual farm income in NI.

Brexit could impel the UK into trade based on World Trade Organisation rules, just when the US under Trump signals that it may ignore these rules when it doesn’t suit.  China is also reported to be breaking WTO rules but the length of time it takes to rule on any breach and the potential for retaliation are strong impediments to enforcement.   In any case the UK is already failing to manage its trade and might be fined billions of Euros by the EU for failing effectively to police the existing EU rules.  Hardly an endorsement of its ability to look after its own borders after Brexit.

The new US administration is hailed as a potential alternative to the EU even while Trump threatens to restrict and withdraw US investment abroad.  You know Brexit is a disaster when the nationalist policy of the Trump administration is put forward as the alternative, but more importantly you know how stupid the Brexit idea is in the first place when you admit you need an alternative and don’t already have one.

If Brexit makes no sense in the North it scarcely represents an advantage to the South.  It may benefit from firms relocating from NI and Britain but this is likely to be relatively minor compared to the disruption to trade with the UK, which is worth over €1 billion per week.  Exports from the Irish agri-food sector to the UK amount to over €3 billion or over 50% of that sector’s value.  The Irish State has the biggest share of exports going into the UK of any EU country, so has the greatest exposure to potential reduction of this trade.  It also has one of the biggest numbers of its citizens living in the UK of any EU country, exposing them to the threats to their rights the Tories are deploying in an effort to get a better deal.

Merchandise exports from the Irish State to the UK were over 25% of such exports in 2015 while services traded to the UK were nearly 19% of such services.  It has been estimated that in 2014 200,000 people were employed as a direct result of exports to the UK, or over 10 per cent of employment.   Again any reduction in markets could lead to reduced employment, wages, tax receipts and thus state-funded services.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that many of the economic forecasts of the quantitative economic impact of Brexit show greater falls in wages than in economic growth generally, which is no doubt a feature of the models but which shows that it is assumed that workers will pay most from Brexit.

None of this is particularly surprising and most people just get numbed by too many figures.  The effects are recognised and the question is how these are to be mitigated.  The Tories talk about opening up Britain to the world, but this world includes a growing protectionist US; a more powerful China that has already forced a British climb-down over a nuclear power station; Japanese car companies who have done the same; a Commonwealth that is supposed to welcome a return to a 21st century British Empire, and the rest of the world, much of which is part of trade blocs that the British are rejecting.  Given this context, were Brexit to go ahead, the direction of the British state will be less under its control than it was inside the EU.

Similar problems will face the Irish State if Brexit goes ahead. Up to now it could straddle a growing relationship to the EU with historic but declining dependence on the UK; and it could do this while acting as if it was the latest State to join the Union, that is the union of the United States of America.  Brexit threatens the second and Trump threatens the third.  The first is threatened by the nature of the type of Brexit that may occur and by being squeezed by the US and Britain.

If controls on immigration that are under the authority of the EU and British impede migration to the UK, the importance of this migration will decline relative to the Irish State’s greater trade with the EU, making it more attractive to enter into the Schengen area to facilitate such trade.  Entry into the Schengen area for any reason would make problematic any more favourable Irish migration arrangements with the UK compared to others, who might object to less favourable arrangements for their own EU citizens. Either way migration links to Britain could suffer, and such migration (just like that to the US) has always been a safety valve for the young fleeing a country that is regularly unable to promise it a future.

So, if the UK leaving the EU will hurt both Irish States, it is hard to see the sense in advocating that the Irish State also leave.  Unlike in Britain this policy is really confined to sections of the Left and more ‘radical’ nationalists and republicans.  But at least it is consistent with the latter’s nationalism, while how the Left expects workers to become more internationalist while their country becomes more isolated is another sorrowful mystery; even the Tories recognise the need to develop international links.  But why would European workers rally to a movement that declares that the problem is their ‘foreign’ capitalist states and not its own.

But of course, some new orientation to the world would be necessary for an Irish State outside the EU and there is really only one immediate candidate – back to the loving embrace of the similarly isolated British State, ludicrously trying to re-live its imperial youth.  A death-embrace of two states simultaneously pursuing a race to the bottom as a low wage, deregulated, offshore tax haven.

In doing so an Irish State would suffer badly, and just like the economic models relating to Brexit, we can be certain that it would be Irish workers who would suffer most for the nationalist fantasy that is Irexit.  The idea that something progressive or even socialist could develop out of such a project is preposterous.

The Euro area is by far the Irish State’s biggest trading partner, €109 billion in combined exports and imports in 2013/2014, compared to €52 billion for the UK.  Much of the foreign direct investment in the Irish State is because of its access to the EU market and could be expected to leave if it left the EU.  Foreign owned companies account for more than 20 per cent of employment while they dominate exports.

The Irish State would have to create a new currency, especially if (in the very unlikely event) its exit was motivated by the nationalist Left, which regards the Euro as a devil incarnate.  Establishing the credibility of this currency would require massive austerity while failure to do so would guarantee massive inflation.  In either case living standards could be expected to plummet.

In both parts of Ireland Brexit and Irexit is and would be a disaster.

The Left supporters of Irexit would have to find a new name for the above description of the results of Brexit and Irexit, as dismissing it as another ‘Project Fear’ wouldn’t quite cut it, as the experience of attempting to destroy capitalism by destroying capitalism only became a reality.

How ironic that it is the ideological supporters of capitalism itself that are inflicting this damage, rather than the relatively irrelevant proponents of Lexit.  Not only is this Left’s programme of breaking with the EU being implemented by the likes of UKIP, Tories, the Daily Mail and The Sun but the nonsense of a ‘progressive’ Brexit is being pursued by Corbyn’s Labour Party.  And we can see how useless that is as well.

Rarely does this Left get such an opportunity to see its big policies implemented. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely they will learn anything from their errors, since they seem barely to recognise that what they have wanted is actually being implemented.

Concluded

Back to part 2