How left does a Left Government have to be?

AAAdownloadThe weakness of the left’s strategy is revealed in the proposals upon which they would proclaim their difference from Sinn Fein and their preference not to seek a common platform.  If we look at the Anti-austerity Alliance (AAA) proposals for the 2016 budget we can see this illustrated in a number of ways. The gap in the strategy of the Left, evidenced in the AAA proposals, therefore also raises the question of how left the policies of a Left government have to be.

But first there is the reluctance of the AAA to accept that there is an economic recovery and one that many have benefited from, if only to the extent that the cuts appear to have relented.  Of course, that the rich do best is a permanent result in capitalism.  The issue here is not that the rich do best but the view that “for us, for working class people, for the majority of young people, unemployed people, pensioners and small farmers – there is no recovery.”  (AAA)

But this isn’t true.  Unemployment has fallen, and not just as a result of emigration, and wages are beginning to rise again while taxes are no longer increasing as before.  These things matter to people and go some way to explaining why there will be no left Government elected in 2016.

Stating otherwise allows the opponents of socialism to claim that socialism is politics for the poorest only.  It sits comfortably in right-wing rhetoric that socialists are only interested in those at the very bottom of society as opposed to better off or better placed workers.  It makes poverty the issue rather than the class inequalities and class divide in society.  It does not make one more of a socialist, or revolutionary, to deny that capitalism can improve the living standards of workers in particular ways, within particular limits and with regular crises that threaten the lifestyle that workers have slowly tried to create for themselves.

Worst of all, it fits with the view that socialism is created not out of the strength of the working class – that it has employment, that this employment is often skilled, that society is dependent on this skilled labour, that the working class is increasingly educated, and that it is not on desperation and oppression that socialism will be built but on hope, expectation and confidence of the working class in its potential power.

Above all, the unity of workers is based on shared interests regardless of more or less temporary differences in status and income.  The income inequalities within the working class are barriers to its political unity while the reformist emphasis on redistribution ignores what all workers share regardless of levels of income.

Poverty, unemployment and marginalisation are most important from a political point of view because they present barriers to a common class identity and unity.   Denying what little improvement there is robs whatever else is said by socialists of some credibility and it is not necessary to deny the growth of capitalism in order to argue for its greater failure and the need for an alternative.

When we move to the programme of the AAA the gap in the perspective of the left becomes apparent.  In proposals to repudiate the debt the case of Syriza’s attempt to renegotiate the Greek debt is recalled.  While it is proposed that “a left government in Ireland would demand a negotiated write-down of debt to a sustainable level” it is acknowledged that “if as the Greek experience indicates seems likely, it did not have success at the negotiating table, it (a left government) would then turn to the option of repudiation.”

The proposals state that this would involve an audit of the debt and that “it is reasonable to estimate that such a debt audit repudiation would result in a reduction of the total debt to at most 50% of GDP.”  The issues this proposal throw up – of opposition by the EU and of private capitalist measures that would be taken in retaliation, in other words of everything that makes this option a challenge, is unexplained.  The unwillingness to state how this would be successfully implemented and the opposition to it defeated hides an inability to explain how it could be carried out.

No amount of rhetoric will hide the failure to explain what needs to be done to implement the policy.  In a previous post I have looked at the lessons that the Greek experience might teach us, which elicited some discussion, but none of the potential lessons touched upon there are presented in the proposals of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.   Unfortunately problems are not overcome by ignoring them.

A second area in which purely reformist perspectives are evident is in the proposals for ‘Public Investment, Jobs and Decent Work’.  Here it is argued that “the state should not only be willing to employ people in public services, but rather should also invest and create jobs in “wealth creating’ sectors of the economy – construction, communications, natural resources.”

This proposal cannot be confused with the demand for employment presented in the Transitional Programme written by Leon Trotsky, which was written to “deal with the present catastrophic period” and which was not a perspective for long term development of the (capitalist) economy.  It was required in order to protect the working class “under the menace of its own disintegration.”  Its purpose was not primarily to protect living standards or to provide a long-term solution to the ravages of unemployment but was necessary because “the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. . . Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility.”  Its purpose was plainly mainly a political one, to put the workers in a better position to take over society, not to confuse such measures with socialism itself.

The proposal is mistaken not only on the grounds of principle, that it proposes, and expects, that the capitalist state  could “provide the investment necessary for the creation of a an economically and environmentally sustainable recovery”, in other words a more efficient and effective capitalism, but that its proposals are concentrated on development of infrastructure that private capitalism has been so bad at providing almost everywhere and on which it has often relied on the capitalist state to provide.  In other words state investment in infrastructure is complementary to private capitalism not a competitor to it, even if state ownership in itself could be so considered, which it can’t.

The specific proposals for investment make this clear, mostly directed to traditional state sectors – a public works programme based on the water and sewerage industries, healthcare and education; childcare and development of wind energy.  All are complementary to existing private capitalist accumulation and are supportive of it.  Even development of the wind industry is already well established and already has state companies at its core – ESB and EirGrid.

The most dynamic industries situated in Ireland are in the ICT and chemicals sectors (including pharmaceuticals).  Encouraging the setting up of workers cooperatives in these would signal a real appreciation of the possibility of a workers’ owned cooperative sector of the economy growing in competition with the private capitalist sector, laying the basis of a future economy totally based on cooperative principles.   But there is no evidence that this has been considered at all.

Finally, the AAA proposes not to raise the corporation tax rate but simply asks that the headline rate of 12.5 per cent becomes the effective rate.  It is obviously aware of the timidity of its approach despite saying that: “by maintaining a regime of low effective corporation tax to entice foreign multinational companies, Irish society pays a heavy price by depriving our wrecked public services of the funds they require to provide decent living conditions for all.”

Given its view of the paramount need to redistribute income from the richest corporations to workers it makes little sense to propose that these corporations incur a tax rate of 12.5 per cent while the lowest income tax rate for workers is 20 per cent (excluding the universal social charge).  The reluctance to even make them equal arises from the knowledge that such a rate would not be considered credible.  The AAA is unable to rebut the claims of establishment society that low corporate taxation is essential for the State’s economic sustainability:

“If it is truly the case – as claimed by the entire political establishment (as well as Sinn Féin, who support not only maintaining corporation tax at its current levels but extending that rate into the North) – that the slightest rise in effective corporation tax, to say fund the expansion our healthcare system and end the scandal of homelessness, would lead to a flight of companies out of Ireland then that is an indictment of their system, not a mark of economic irresponsibility on the part of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.”

So despite stating that “it is not simply a matter of tweaking with elements of the system here and there”; that a “rupture is needed”; “rules must be broken” and “a fundamental transformation of our society  . . needed”, it becomes clear that this rupture lacks foundation, except as a generalised declaration of the existence already of “the wealth and resources . . to deal with all the ongoing problems of the crisis”.

The calls for a “move to a socialist economy, with public ownership of the key sources of wealth, under democratic control of working people, and planned in the interests of the majority”, like the AAA “indictment of their system”, becomes a moral condemnation separated from a programme to achieve the goals desired.

If the AAA cannot have the confidence that multinational capital will not up-sticks and leave upon increased corporate taxes, never mind actively seek to sabotage a left Government’s plans, then what confidence can workers have?  More importantly – what will give workers this confidence to take steps to tax the rich, tax the corporations and slash corporate welfare?  The AAA itself admits that: “as was unfortunately demonstrated in Greece, the wealthy are unreconciled as a class of people to any encroachment on their privilege. . . . the rich . . . will attempt to do whatever it takes to avoid paying for the crisis in their system.”

Unfortunately the AAA comes nowhere near explaining just what “whatever it takes” means, or whatever it takes would mean for the working class to defeat this capitalist resistance.  A radical left Government that truly sought to introduce a socialist society could not do whatever it takes, and this wouldn’t be mainly because of the opposition of capitalism, but because socialism can only be the creation of the working class itself, not a left government sitting atop a capitalist state.  If multinational capital struck against a radical Irish state this state is not capable of taking over the production vacated even if it were able to sell internationally what it produced.

This demonstrates in a very practical way how reformist notions of a state-led transformation of capitalism into socialism cannot work.  Only working people themselves can take over production and organise it on a cooperative basis.  Only workers can implement a radical restructuring and development of a cooperative economy and only they can replace, if necessary, the production vacated by fleeing multinationals.  That no significant section of Irish workers sees this as a possibility, as a mission, is why they buy into the fear that to challenge multinational capital too hard would only invite a retaliation they would be unable to cope with.

All this is why the creation of workers’ cooperatives is so necessary – in order to establish in the minds of workers the realisation that they can own and control production themselves; that they can create their own firms, provide their own jobs, develop their own products and markets, and impose their own discipline in the workplace.  On such a basis the failure of capitalist production will more and more witness a successful rival that, as the cooperative sector grows, would provide a potential alternative to it, one based on more than simple propaganda or agitation.

This alternative would involve the realisation of workers that their future lies not in sacrifices for the capitalist system but the development of their own cooperative sector to cover the whole of production.  In this rival sector of working class power all firms would be under the ownership and control of their workforce, all jobs their creation and all products those that workers see a genuine need for.  Within this sector of the economy their own discipline would determine the relations of power which would more and more come into conflict with the relations of power across the rest of society.  Such an exercise of power would see them shed illusions in the neutral role of the state and would see them stop looking to the state as the solution to all their problems – a state that they can never control and that can never reflect their interests or will.

Unfortunately the AAA like many others present the state very differently, as all its proposals demonstrate.  I will not dwell here on whether its devotion to the capitalist state as the vehicle for socialist transformation is a result of electoralism, which posits a left government at the top of the state as the key task, or whether worship of the transformative power of the state makes pursuit of a left Government the only rational objective.  But even the AAA sometimes can’t help expose the contradictions in its whole approach, as when it states that: “the contrast between the state’s efforts to publicise its corporate welfare schemes and its miserly approach to social welfare claimants could not be starker, or more revealing of the capitalist interests the state exists to serve.”

So if the state exists to serve capitalist interests why would it tax a resistant capitalist class, provide jobs for workers and strengthen their bargaining power; attack corporate welfare; countenance the replacement of private capitalist investment for its own and agree to a programme that clams will lead to socialism?

Perhaps some defence of the AAA proposals is possible by recalling its statement that “the purpose of the Anti-Austerity Alliance budget statement is to give an illustration of how things could be organised differently – how the wealth exists to provide decent living standards for all.” Except that what it holds up is more than an illustration but is proposed as an important step on the road to a socialist society.  Of course socialists should not oppose the measure proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance but only because their implementation, even partially, would make taking the right steps on the right road to working class power easier.

One purpose of the examination of the AAA proposals has been to demonstrate that the conception of change held by the left is not so very different from that of Sinn Fein; one based on state led economic development directed by a left Government with popular support.  In the next post I will look at further proposals to separate the left from the Sinn Fein by People before Profit and what approaches the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have for dealing with the situation after the election when there will not be the left Government they seek.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

The gap in the strategy of a Left Government

ireland IT map-480x360In the first part of this post on a left Government I stated that I did not believe that it was going to happen in the coming elections and also that this left a strategic gap in the perspectives of the left.  The fixation on electoral intervention and its potential success are therefore misplaced.    I have argued many times before in this blog that the reformist politics of the Left is inadequate to the objectives it professes to advance.

The focus on achieving a left government as the key to fighting austerity, and implementing policies that would mean a fairer capitalism, are misguided and bound for ultimate disappointment.  To put the argument at a very summary level: they fail to target the foundations of the capitalist system and avoid what is the root of the working class alternative.  The foundation of capitalism is the ownership of the means of producing everything we consume and rely upon for a remotely civilised existence by a separate class of capitalists and the resulting necessity of the working class to sell their labour power in order to earn the money to live. Workers do not own the product of their labour because it belongs to those who also own the means of production.

This is ABC for Marxists but unfortunately it is not carried forward to argue that the means of production should belong to the workers and thus support for measures that lead to this workers’ ownership of production, such as the formation of workers’ cooperatives.  Instead the Left argues for increased state ownership and argues that democratic control of the state and/or workers’ control under state ownership makes their programme different from the frequently employed policy of capitalist nationalisation.  I have argued differently here and here.  I have also addressed some arguments against workers’ cooperatives that are often advanced by the left here and here.

The Left’s alibi is that a revolution will accomplish the necessary transfer of property ownership, although this ignores a lesson of the Russian revolution that state ownership of property is not the same as workers’ ownership.  It also leaves the idea of a revolutionary approach, not as something that can grow today (before culminating in a transfer of power through creation of a new workers’ state after the capitalist one has been destroyed) but as something for the future, between now and which all sorts of very non-revolutionary methods are acceptable, if sometimes not actually desirable.

Because such non-revolutionary approaches are not in themselves fundamentally different from more or less radical alternatives that seek to reform capitalism a problem arises in distinguishing the proposals of the left parties from those of parties that do not seek to break from capitalism, such as left liberals or in Ireland – Sinn Fein.  As I have argued, this also leaves a strategic gap in perspectives aimed at fundamental transformation of society.

Again to summarise: without adequate preparation and prior strengthening of the working class through building strong trade unions, parties and workers’ cooperatives the fundamental break from the  diktats of capitalism becomes much harder and workers themselves,  as witnessed recently in Greece for example, are unwilling to consider a revolutionary leap.

Strengthening of the state, through state ownership and growing its power by increased taxation and spending does not increase the power of the working class but often leads to increased working class dependency on it.  Such dependency is something that should be argued against, not encouraged either directly or indirectly.  Workers doing it for themselves should be the maxim, not least because state initiatives proposed by the left are almost always national ones that are at best nationalist solutions.  It’s why nationalisation is nation-alisation.

Capitalist state ownership is not socialism and democratising the state does not make it socialist.

On practical grounds the reform of capitalism is easier to consider and to implement when the particular capitalist state is both strong economically and has greater political and social capacity to mobilise and organise wider society.  The relatively weak fundamentals of the native Irish economy reproduced also in the machinery of the Irish state, reflected in its endemic corruption and lack of developmental capacity, make the reformist development of a strong reforming state and dynamic economy less credible and more difficult to achieve.

This was the fundamental problem facing Syriza in Greece when it sought to confront the demands of the European Union led by Germany.  There was no strong Greek capitalism that it could rely upon both to increase the costs to the EU of any measures it might take against Greece or strong economic base on which to venture an alternative international economic strategy outside the EU.   This weakness of Greek capitalism is reflected in Greek consciousness through support for the Euro even while this was portrayed by many as the source of its disaster.

images (12)Similarly in Ireland the weakness of Irish capitalism is reflected in Irish workers acceptance of sycophantic policies towards the richest global corporations while suffering austerity themselves.  It is why the ability of the Irish State to set a low corporation tax and defend this policy against other countries’ opposition is held up as the peak of Irish sovereignty and is by and large accepted as such.

The latter view is in turn reflected in the policies of the left, which proposes not to raise the corporation tax rate but simply ask that the headline rate becomes the effective rate.  The existing rate of 12.5% thus lies below the rate of corporation tax that Thatcher found acceptable in Britain – when she resigned it was well over 30 per cent.  Such modesty must have an explanation.

This is only one aspect of the various proposals of the Left to increase state intervention which, of necessity, take into account the capacity of the capitalist economy to deliver.  We will see this again and again in the next post.

Finally, the necessity for international working class action to achieve socialism is clear when it is appreciated that a radicalised Irish state, even if it was not socialist, would be in a very weak position set against the ranks of the British State, its historic oppressors, occupiers of part of its territory; the European Union and its control of the currency; and the US, not least through its multinationals.  It is well known that the US, in the person of its treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, vetoed haircuts to senior bondholders of the insolvent Irish banks, which would have hugely reduced the burden on Irish workers.

It hardly needs saying that in a socialist society international economic links with the rest of the world will increase and so dependency on the outside world will also increase.  A hostile capitalist world would not see a radical Irish state survive in its radical state very long.

The left’s approach leaves a strategic gap which even the existence of a left Government does not fill because it is not a answer to these problems.  The gap is further evident in the separation (or lack of it) of the left’s proposals from that of non-anti-capitalist forces such as Sinn Fein.  As I have said, fundamentally the difference in proposals between the Left and Sinn Fein is one of degree and not fundamental.  This does not make the differences unimportant but it is not the difference between socialism and ‘progressive’ capitalism.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Prospects for a left Government in 2016

10/12/2014 Anti Water Charges Protests. Pictured are members of the public protesting against water charges at the Right 2 Water event outside Government Buildings in Dublin today. Picture: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland

10/12/2014 Anti Water Charges Protests. Pictured are members of the public protesting against water charges at the Right 2 Water event outside Government Buildings in Dublin today. Picture: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland

Twenty sixteen will see a general election in Ireland, one that will be a referendum on the policy of austerity and by implication the continued subordination of the Irish State to global multinational capital.  Austerity will be hailed by the Government as a success and the policy of bailing out the banks and bondholders inevitable and unavoidable.  Rising employment and falling unemployment; small reductions in taxes instead of large increases, and small increases in public expenditure will be held up as proof that the return of economic growth is no mere statistical artefact.

The policy of giving enormous tax breaks to the richest multinationals while Irish workers tightened their belt, or left the country, will continue to be hailed as successful and absolutely necessary.  So, for example, the takeover of Allergan by Pfizer will result in hundreds of millions of tax Euros for the Irish State every year and is the latest illustration of its importance.

Yes, times were tough but we had to tough them out, and we did.  This essentially will be the argument of the supporters of austerity and these are the arguments that those standing in the election will have to address.  They will have to present a critique which means presenting an alternative.

Central to this alternative is the idea of creating a left Government.  The strategy of most of the left in Ireland has centred on protest politics through single issue campaigns and building up constituency bases from which to launch a credible electoral campaign.  The ultimate purpose of this is to get a left Government elected because without it there is an enormous hole in the strategy of the left organisations.

Single issue campaigns, such as over water charges, can push back attacks but the bulk of austerity caused by pay reductions, unemployment, tax increases and cuts in services will not be reversed by protest and are the results of the actions of the Government.  This shows how central the perspective of entering government is to the left despite often protesting that it is subordinate to mass action by workers, although it is usually difficult to see by what mechanism mass action will achieve stated aims.

The left in Ireland has now developed to a scale where some electoral success is more than probable and such success can always be relied upon to cover up for deeper strategic failure and political weakness, such as failure to achieve a left Government or to satisfactorily address the arguments for austerity.

There will however be no left government elected in 2016, even by the widest interpretation of ‘left’.  In December the Red C/Sunday Business Post opinion poll put Fine Gael on  32% [+1]; the Labour Party on 9% [+2]; Fianna Fail on 17% [-2]; Sinn Fein on 19% [+1] and Independents/Others on 23% [-2].  Of the last figure, independents were 14 % with the left Anti Austerity Alliance and People before Profit Alliance on 3% and, the Greens, Renua and the Social Democrats all at 2% support.  In other words the three main parties that have implemented austerity are receiving 58% support, rising to well above 60% if we include the smaller right wing fragments of these parties and right wing independents.

Clearly the argument for an alternative has a long way to go. As it is obvious that there will be no left government elected in 2016 the left is beginning to address what the implications of this are.

Most obviously, the immediate prospect of a left government has no credibility if it does not include Sinn Fein.  Of course the idea of ‘the left’ is a purely relative one and in the past has included the Green Party, which implemented the biggest single attack on workers in the history of the State through the bank bailout and consequent austerity.  Sinn Fein itself has dropped much pretence of opposing austerity in the North, where it will implement most of it by itself in a coalition with the most reactionary party on the island, while handing powers back to the Tory Government in Britain to implement the bits it promised to defeat.

The idea of being on ‘the left’ is one easily appropriated and needs a clear context in which to be meaningful, but the traditional left organisations have for a long time sought to describe themselves in ways that they see as more immediately accessible to Irish workers, who have a very weak socialist tradition and low level of political class consciousness.  They have led the way in diluting political descriptions so that all sorts of words are used to replace the traditional vocabulary.  Misappropriation is one price to be paid for this.

There therefore exists a need to identify what exactly constitutes ‘left wing’, requiring a fight over ideas, which will ultimately be determined only when these are allied to a practice that demonstrates what they mean in reality.  The relationship of Sinn Fein to the idea of a left Government means that the left has had to address this in order to retain the perspective of a left Government at the centre of its strategy.

In this series of posts I will look at two aspects of this – what the political weakness is of the left’s strategy and what proposals the two left organisations – the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party – have put forward in order to deal with the problems posed to their electoral approach.

On 9 December an article appeared in ‘The Irish Times’ by two TDs from the Socialist Party  about their views on a possible alliance with Sinn Fein in the coming elections.  The Socialist Workers Party has also published an analysis upon which it has constructed a policy on a left Government for its electoral front, People before Profit.

Two things stand out in ‘The Irish Times’ article.  First is the decisive role “of a left Government that can mark a fundamental and radical shift away from a society dominated by the profits of the 1 per cent to one where the needs of the 99 per cent and the environment come first.”

Second is the definition of left Government as one that excludes the “traditional establishment parties” of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour but which does not immediately reject the participation of Sinn Fein.  Instead, it is challenged to accept the following programme – that a left Government:

“would have to include the reversal of the cuts implemented over the last years, abolition of austerity taxes such as water charges and property tax, investment to resolve the housing crisis and increasing the minimum wage and improving working conditions.  Implementing these policies means prioritising public services and housing over paying the bankers’ debts, shifting the burden of taxation on to the wealthy, corporations and high-income earners and challenging the straitjacket of the EU’s “Austerity Treaty”. A left government would also repeal the Eighth Amendment and challenge the oppression faced by women, Travellers, migrants and others.”

The Socialist Party TDs state that “Unfortunately, we have major doubts as to whether Sinn Féin would agree to such a programme.”  The doubts are justified but this isn’t altogether the point.  There is nothing on this list which one could immediately say Sinn Fein could not accept.  This being the case the task would therefore logically be to fight to get an agreement with Sinn Fein to agree a programme for Government on these lines in order to maximise the chances of such a Government after the elections.

It could be argued that promises from Sinn Fein would be worthless and there’s a long history of broken promises in the North.  However the North isn’t the South and the South isn’t the North and the very fact the anti-republican Socialist Party even raises the possibility of a Government with Sinn Fein acknowledges this.  Challenging Sinn Fein and doing so in front of its supporters would help to either expose lack of seriousness in its proclaimed policies or pressure them to commit to formation of a left Government while setting out clearly the policies on which this would be based.

It could also be argued that Sinn Fein would not be prepared to take the steps advocated by the Socialist Party to the same extent; it would not raise taxes on the rich or increase state investment to the same extent.  This objection however is only one of degree and not fundamental.  If it is considered by the Socialist Party that the commitment of Sinn Fein is too weak it could state what level of taxation and state investment it would see as constituting a minimum anti-austerity platform – certainly for both it will be more than the effect of the 2016 budget, which is estimated to raise household disposable income by 0.7%.

Sinn Fein however has endorsed the Right2Water campaign’s policy principles which are supported by a number of significant trade unions within the anti-water charges campaign.  Again these principles are vague but they do include a commitment to public investment of between €6 – €7 billion in water infrastructure alone, funded through progressive taxation, and they have provided a more detailed document setting out fiscal planning that envisages total spending of €9.4 billion from 2016 to 2020.  This was written in June 2015 and will have come before the most recent economic growth so will probably understate the amount that the authors would commit to.  In any case the amounts proposed appear to be the minimum they considered possible.

The Socialist Party’s own budget proposals contained in the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) statement involve increased expenditure of €12.8 billion funded by increased taxation and savings of €16.4 billion and are clearly more extensive, but again it is a question of degree not of qualitative or fundamental difference.  For all the latter’s talk of “anti-capitalist” and “socialist measures” the budget proposals are in no sense qualitatively different from the former and the AAA budget is put forward only as “an illustration of how things could be organised differently”.

In terms of what is defined as a left Government there appears no decisive difference between the Socialist Party and Sinn Fein, regardless of what more radical ambitions to socialism the Socialist Party lay claim to.  It is what the Socialist Party proposes as the minimum programme for a left Government that is at issue.

Sinn Fein’s manoeuvring around potential coalition with what the Socialist Party calls the establishment parties, particularly the Labour Party, does not absolve the Party from responsibility to test the claims of Sinn Fein  and to fight to win it to a purely left Governmental programme.

None of this should be taken to mean that I endorse the strategic importance of a left Government as put forward by the Socialist Party or the rest of the left, or that I have any illusions in Sinn Fein.  Nor should it be taken that I endorse the measures proposed by the Socialist Party in the AAA budget proposals as essentially socialist, or even the road to socialism – I do not.

What I do believe is that the formation of a left Government in the Irish state would be a step forward for the working class and present much improved conditions within which workers could fight to advance their own organisational capacity and political consciousness.  This means that not only is the possible existence of such a Government important but so also is the programme on which it stands and the programme that it subsequently implements.

To simply damn the whole enterprise as reformist on the grounds that it will not see the overthrow of capitalism (which is true) is to abstain from the political issues as they present themselves and the struggles that are there.  In addition, to condemn the left organisations that proclaim to be Marxist for adopting a non-Marxist approach (which again is true) is hardly sufficient since the bigger question is not the erroneous views of these organisations but the much wider number of workers who are (rightly) looking for an alternative and see this project as involving an alternative (again correctly).

All these considerations matter, even though it is clear there will be no left Government in Ireland in 2016.

Forward to part 2

Nationalist answers 2 – Greece

Greece imagesIn the last post I noted that one view on the Left in Scotland was that it was not possible to call for a vote or support for a reformist SNP because, through being reformist, it could not face down the intransigence of international capitalism when it tried to introduce reforms.

This would seem to be confirmed by the experience in Greece in which a reformist formation Syriza has just performed a humiliating U-turn and supported a third bailout that will impose greater austerity than that which it had previously opposed.

One of the many evaluations of this experience is here, which is also written by someone from the SWP tradition and which is based on the same political assumptions.  Unlike Davidson, who claims that the distinctions between reformists, revolutionaries and centrists are only understood by a relatively few revolutionaries, Kieran Allan argues that understanding such distinctions is vital:

“Ever since the crash of 2008, there has been an increasing call among activists to forget ‘old’ debates about reform or revolution. Yet the betrayal of Syriza re-opens this very question.”

One line of argument in response might be that Kieran Allen doesn’t actually advance a revolutionary programme himself – the SWP in Ireland doesn’t stand candidates in elections under a revolutionary banner but consistently stands as part of alliances that exclude it.  His definition of reformism applies equally to the various electoral projects of the left in Ireland over the past number of years:

“Despite opposing neoliberalism, Syriza embraced a reformist strategy. The term ‘reformism’ is not meant as one of abuse but it describes a strategy of using the mechanisms of the state to effect substantial changes on behalf of working people. It operates within the framework of capitalism and uses Keynesian economics to increase demand – rather than proposing the outright expropriation of capital.”

His criticism of Syriza can be made just as cogently against the United Left Alliance, People before Profit or Anti-Austerity Alliance:

“Some object to describing Syriza as a reformist because a) it leaders used a rhetoric about moving beyond capitalism and b) because there were avowed anti-capitalists elements within its coalition. However, this objection is somewhat facile as it was only in Bad Gotesberg programme in 1959 that the German SDP dropped their formal adherence to Marxism. In the early twentieth century many reformist parties combined a rhetoric about moving beyond capitalism as their maximum programme with a practice of seeking social reforms as their minimum programme.”

While he criticises the view “of democratising the apparatus of the capitalist state, transforming it into a valid tool for constructing a socialist society, without needing to destroy it radically by force’,” this is the alternative put forward by all these left alliances in Ireland.

This is certainly a problem but not the one I want to address here.  The latter is the problem of the strategy Allen puts forward as the alternative to Syriza’s reformism, not the similarity of this reformism to the SWP’s actual political practice.

Allen criticises “Syriza’s strategy of working exclusively through the state and through negotiations with the EU [which] could not match the courage of the Greek electorate.  This historic defeat, therefore, arose from a belief that control of the Greek state apparatus and appeals to EU solidarity was the method for bringing change. It never entered their heads to think about how the NO vote could be mobilised within Greece to physically face down EU efforts at blackmail. The sole agency was the Greek cabinet and its ability to negotiate with the EU bullies.”

Allen says that “they [Syriza] placed little emphasis on the role of Greek workers themselves taking action to break from capitalist control. . .  The mobilisation of workers in every area of society can stop the power of money and market forces.  Against the economic terrorism of the EU, people power and workers action is the only way to achieve change.”

When discussing lessons for Ireland he says that “In recent months there have been discussions about the need for a ‘progressive government’ in Ireland and interesting debates have occurred about policies. But there has been little talk about the methods by which such aspirations might be achieved.”

Unfortunately in reality neither does Allen, although this is the centre of his critique.  There are plenty of evocations of the need to mobilise workers to “face down the EU” but what does this mean?  What methods does he propose by which the aspirations of progressive change could be turned into reality?

What we have are calls to take action but total lack of clarity as to what action should be taken.

The first question is to identify the problem. And it’s not Syriza’s reformism.  Why is there a crisis in Greece in the first place?  Why not in Italy or Belgium – both have large debts?

The answer is well known.  Greece is relatively poor with a weak and not very productive capitalism. This makes not only Greek capitalism weak but its working class also weak, in a manner for which an increase in class struggle cannot compensate, or at least not very quickly.  This doesn’t enter Allen’s analysis.

The second question concerns the EU: “After the Greek crisis, the Irish left needs to drop any idea about the progressive nature of a social EU. It should note that Syriza was wrong to believe that it could combine an anti-austerity programme with support for the EU.  The reality is that the EU combines a soft rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘respect for human right’ with a hard core neoliberalism that is embedded into its institutions.”

“The Irish left should, therefore, fully break with a ‘we will stick to the EU at any cost’ mentality because it was precisely this approach that gave the EU leaders a stick to beat Tsipras. Instead the left should advance its demands for a write down of debt, for nationalisation of natural resources, and a reversal of privatisation regardless of whether or not this is acceptable to the EU. It should indicate that it will not be bound by the rules of the Fiscal compact and that electoral support for the left means a mandate to defy such rules. It should make it clear that it favours the break-up of the EU in its current form and will seek its replacement by a federation of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.”

The EU is unreformable but if Allen has pretentions to Marxism he will also agree that the Greek State is also just as capitalist as the EU and also just as unreformable, yet he sees it as part of the solution through “a write down of debt, for nationalisation of natural resources, and a reversal of privatisation.”  Why would a capitalist Greece do this?  Is this not precisely the reformist approach that Allen excoriated earlier in his article? Or if an unreformable Greek state could do it why not a similarly unreformable EU?

He says that “Most modern European states are embedded in a network of EU institutions and so a strategy of working through the state also means working within those institutions. Syriza leaders correctly assumed that in an era of globalisation, there could be no purely national solutions to the crisis within capitalism.”

Yet in the proposals he advocates where is the recognition and incorporation of this impossibility of a “purely national solution”?

What we have in fact is the very opposite.  He proposes “A break from the euro [which] would have to be accompanied by a major programme to re-distribute wealth so that the costs of the change fall on those who can most afford it.”  But this is just the reformist programme he criticises while acknowledging that a new national currency cannot by itself be a solution. Yet a new national currency plus redistribution of wealth wouldn’t do it either.

Allen is right that any left Government “should [not] pretend that a different currency –such as the punt- can in itself solve problems. . . .  the key issue is not the currency but control of the economy.”  The problem, as we have seen above, is first that this economy is weak and second that the answer provided by Allen is always action by the state or rather by the national state, not internationally by the EU.

The nationalism that infects all inherently reformist projects appears explicitly in Allen’s perspective not just in rejection of the Euro or in rejection of the EU but in his support for “the break-up of the EU in its current form and . . . its replacement by a federation of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.”

This is something he “will seek” but as a policy it has no practical worth or educational propagandist value.  It simply states that a return to nation states and an end to capitalism is the answer and while the second is right and the first is wrong neither amounts to even the start of a strategy and adds nothing to any discussion of it.

This national road to socialism is made explicit in his statement that “it is possible to organise an advanced economy without a permanent need for substantial credit transfers. Ireland already has a high level of wealth but, unfortunately, its control lies in a few hands. Re-distribution of that wealth provides an alternative avenue to seeking ‘support’ from foreign creditors. Such a strategy does not preclude individual arrangements to access credit . Rather it suggests that a transitional economy that goes beyond capitalism would have to overwhelmingly rely on its own resources – rather than the type of EU ‘support’ that hung Greece.”

This in effect denies the international character of production from which there can be no going back and repudiates his statement that “in an era of globalisation, there could be no purely national solutions to the crisis within capitalism.” It asserts the opposite of everything that Allen professes to stand for.

He ends up arguing that “a transitional economy that goes beyond capitalism would have to overwhelmingly rely on its own resources” because the Greek crisis has not only tested and found wanting the reformism of Syriza but also exposed and found wanting the reformism within his own political conceptions based on action by the nation state.  In fact if anything, in its lack of any international perspective, it is worse than Syriza’s.

Nationalisation, redistribution of wealth and left governments astride capitalist states are not socialist solutions, even if in certain circumstances their effects can be welcomed and supported.  The example of Greece shows how one variant of such a solution can fail but the weakness of Greek capitalism placed major constraints on what could be done even if more could and still can be achieved.

Neither is nationalisation and redistribution by the state after a workers’ revolution socialism unless this state is the creation of workers themselves and not some minority party or group within it.  Freedom, as they say, is taken not given.

Socialism is the action of the immense majority of society, those who work and those rely on the wages of those who do so.  It is the actions of the working class that involve socialism.  It is not state ownership of production that is socialist but working class ownership that is socialist.  Before the political overthrow of the capitalist system and its state this must take the form of workers’ cooperatives.

The strategy of a purely political revolution, only after which comes social revolution; that is the strategy of seizing state power in advance of major gains in the economic and social power of workers achieved through workers ownership, leaves open the problem illustrated by the isolation faced by workers in the Russian revolution.

The alternative of more or less simultaneous revolutions in a number of economically advanced countries could only be conceived on the basis of a prior development of the economic and social strength and power of the working class on an international level.

This problem of isolation was and is faced by Greece but the socialism in one county approach of Kieran Allen is the wrong answer.

Seeking solutions at the level of the state in advance of the development of working class organisation at an international level provides the rationale for a programme which seeks not to advance beyond capitalist internationalism, which is what the EU is, but to regress from it mouthing fatuous phrases about international federations of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.

Nationalist answers 1 – Scotland

scoty images (11)A common analysis on much of the left is that the EU is a capitalist club that pursues an imperialist agenda, just confirmed by its brutal treatment of Greece.  The socialist answer is therefore to be in favour of leaving it.

Many of these same people argue that the UK is a capitalist state that has just re-elected a Tory Government committed to further austerity.  The election has shown that it too, just like the EU, is unreformable and should be split up; so for example Scotland should separate from it.

The answer to both is therefore a nationalist one.  Let’s not be distracted by the bells and whistles attached.  The objective is a change in the nature of the state but in both cases this means a return to the nation state, a smaller state, is the answer.

Ironically, as a recent post I read noted, while the treatment of Greece by the EU in the name of austerity has been acknowledged by more or less everyone to be brutal, the reaction of some nationalists has been much more muted.

Thus the SNP who are portrayed as opponents of austerity have rallied much of the British left around its nationalist argument for separation on the basis of its opposition to UK austerity.  It argues that any move to get out of the EU will see it demand a new indy referendum so Scotland can stay in.  Yet the austerity inflicted by the EU on Greece is of a magnitude many times greater than that directed from London.

From a socialist point of view it gets worse.  Their answer to this exposure to the contradictions of nationalism is to be even more nationalist than the nationalists.  Many of them demand that the UK (or the Irish State for that matter) leave the EU.  Of course it is claimed all the new states created will not be like their old incarnations  but progressive, if not socialist, but if they were there would be no need for them to be separate and if they are separate they will be in the position all nation states are in, which is in competition with each other.

We see such competition in the proposals of the various nationalists and left nationalists to reduce corporation tax.  Sinn Fein and the left in Ireland want to keep the low 12.5% rate but want it to be the effective rate while the SNP want a lower rate than the rest of the UK, whatever it is, and the Tories have just cut it to 18 per cent, so it now has to be lower than this.  When the Tories took office with the Liberal Democrats it was 28 per cent.  If my sums are right I think this makes Sinn Fein, the Irish Left and the SNP softer on the big corporations than Tony Blair.  But this doesn’t fit the narrative so let’s stick with it.

In an earlier post I promised I would look at an article notified to me by a friend, on the Left’s attitude to the SNP, just before the UK General Election so I’ll do that here.  I’ll also look in a second part at one of the many responses on the Left seeking to learn the lessons from the Syriza U-turn in Greece.  What they have in common is an accommodation to nationalism.

What they also have in common is being written from the Socialist Workers Party tradition.  As I noted before, this tradition, through their forerunner of the International Socialists, used to have much better positions on both the EU and Scottish nationalism.  However the two articles show that accommodation has not yet become capitulation.

The article in ‘Jacobin’ is in the form of an interview and it is revelatory that the first question doesn’t ask the interviewee why he supported Yes in the independence referendum but “what did you see in the movement that made it worthy of support?”

As I noted during the campaign, many on the left voted yes because they liked the campaign for it rather than any very compelling reasons for having a campaign for such an objective in the first place.

In this sense they were guilty of what Marx warned against – “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life. . “  Instead the Left supported a nationalist campaign, driven by social and economic concerns and desire for an alternative, and having done so declared it left wing.  It looked at itself in the mirror and liked what it saw.

Just like Sinn Fein in Ireland it does a grand job at telling itself and anyone else who will listen how great it is.  It might be something about nationalism.

I am also reminded by another less glorious figure in the history of the socialist movement who once declared “the movement means everything for me and . . . what is usually called “the final aim of socialism” is nothing.”

I exaggerate?  Well let’s look at the interview.  Davidson gives three reasons for changing his view to now supporting independence and, in his own words, he says that “the most important change was simply the nature of the campaign itself”

He says that “for many people it wasn’t about nationalism of any sort”. .  “It was about how to realise various social goals: an end to austerity, the removal of nuclear weapons, defence of the National Health Service”.  The fact that the answer to each of these problems is nationalism seems not to make the movement for it nationalist.

That the problems are not nationalist ones appears to mean that when the solution is national separation (“independence will improve their [workers’} situation immediately”) we don’t have to call it a nationalist solution.   Ironically if the problems were nationalist ones (like national oppression for example) a nationalist response might make more sense.

This self-regard leads to an exaggerated view of the role of the Left in the independence campaign, which, he says, dramatically changed its dynamic and drove the entire discussion of independence to the left.

In fact the landslide for the SNP in Scotland in the General election showed just who drove the campaign, who put independence on the agenda for decades before and who then benefited.

That the campaign for independence won the support of many working class people for a party Davidson admits is “on the extreme left of what I call “social neoliberalism” and “which broadly supports the neoliberal economic settlement”, i.e. austerity, is such an admission that it is simply staggering.

He supported separation because of the independence referendum campaign that led a neoliberal party to a landslide on the basis of that party claiming to lead opposition to austerity!

Davidson goes on to say that the SNP has moved to the left in economic terms “above all in rejection of austerity” and “is offering reforms” but also says they took up their “social democratic” position “in order to win votes” because “it would have been difficult to compete with New labour from the right”.

He accepts as good coin SNP claims of opposing austerity but fails utterly to examine its actual record in the Scottish Government, which would blow such claims out of the water.  Such an examination doesn’t fit the narrative.

In fact this narrative clashes obviously with reality.

He claims that the SNP sought an alliance with the Labour Party against the Tories, when in reality their strategy depended on destroying Labour in Scotland and keeping it to their right everywhere else.  Does he think the SNP would welcome a Jeremy Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership contest?

Why would it, since this would immediately demonstrate the efficacy of fighting together, that the Labour Party was not quite a dead loss and that there did actually exist a labour movement undivided by nationality.

He congratulates the SNP on their honesty, they’ll  never do a deal with the Tories he says, which means we can forget the one it had with them when in a minority administration in 2007 reliant on Tory support.

By supporting separation the pro-nationalist left has already separated itself from wider struggles.  In so far as there is a fight about austerity and its alternative in Britain today it is centred around the Corbyn campaign for leadership of the Labour Party.  I wondered on this blog whether the British Left would be part of it.  Were the unthinkable to happen and Corbyn actually win it could hardly be ignored.  Would an all-British movement against austerity in such circumstances be better than a purely Scottish one or would the Left insist on introducing national divisions where none were necessary?

It would appear that Davidson would answer the latter in the negative. “We must not give up the question of independence.  Unless a revolutionary situation emerges in England . . .”.  And of course Corbyn is far from being a revolutionary.

So it looks like English workers will have to deliver a revolutionary situation in England before the Scottish Left will be interested in political unity within one state.  (Talk about playing hard to get!) Not, mind you, that they are steaming ahead in the creation of a revolutionary party themselves because, Davidson says, “we are not in a position in Scotland to immediately set up a revolutionary party.”

Of course there are the ritualistic claims of wanting “solidarity” with English workers against the British State but not solidarity with English workers against a Scottish capitalist state which would replace the British one lording it over them come separation.  Joining with English workers to overthrow the Scottish state?  Now that really doesn’t fit the narrative.

Instead solidarity with English workers will mean we’ll demand the removal of Trident, which means moving these weapons to . . . err, England maybe?

And if the English follow this example and say that we’ll take the same position as you in Scotland and demand they’re not sited in our country, they can stay. . .err, in Scotland maybe?

What a splendid recipe for solidarity!

I mentioned that Davidson has accommodated to nationalism but not capitulated.  This is because although the article asks the question how the Left should relate to the SNP in advance of the General election he nowhere calls for a vote for the SNP.  The problem is, given what he says, I can’t see the reason for him not to.  Why not? given that he claims it opposes austerity, wants to introduce reforms, has moved to the Left and is now full of left-wing working class people who are ‘consolidating’ its position there.

It would be some slight comfort if it could be hoped that the reason for this is that, as a relatively recent convert to Scottish nationalism, at some level he just doesn’t quite believe his own argument.

Unfortunately the real reason may well be political sectarianism.  His reason appears to be that an SNP Government bent on reforms would face pressure and intransigence from capitalism when it would try to introduce its reforms.

He doesn’t say how this would not be the case in any other circumstance.  He doesn’t say how, what he might call a revolutionary party, would not face the same if not greater pressure.  He doesn’t say how it should be dealt with.  He doesn’t say why nationalist division prepares workers for such international capitalist intransigence and he does not say why this means that denial of support to the SNP now is justified by a future need for a revolutionary break, especially when he says the alternative party to be built now must not be revolutionary.  So how does he prepare all those inside and outside the SNP who must be prepared for this revolutionary break?

But what’s wrong with all this is not that Davidson should follow through on the implications of his analysis of the SNP and join it, but that his view of what is required of revolutionary politics now leads to a nationalist blind alley of supporting nationalist separatism now and being just as exposed to nationalist limitations when the grand day of revolutionary rupture might break out in the future.

His argument for national separation and endorsement of the SNP demand for independence falls apart because he refuses to support that party on the grounds that when it will be faced with international capitalist pressure it will be in no position to resist, most importantly because the working class will be divided by nationality whilst the capitalists won’t.

A convincing narrative or what?

The Left and the fight for reforms

SFimagesIn the first of these posts I argued that the apparent differences in various contributions to the debate on recent developments in Irish politics, including the prospects for the left, did not reveal fundamental disagreements.  Everyone from Sinn Fein to the Left alliances looks forward to a very significant challenge to the establishment and see great potential for success.

In the previous post I mentioned that the general policy platform of anti-austerity and its implementation through forming a Left Government, supported by mass mobilisation outside, is endorsed by these same organisations.

Yet proposals for an overarching alliance formed by these organisations are rejected by both sides.  Sinn Fein rejects “the Trotskyist left” because it has sought to divide the anti-water charges movement formed under the banner of the Right2Water campaign.  And it is clear that it is also rejected because Sinn Fein thinks this Left is unwilling to form a Government with the Labour Party, and incapable of any sort of political unity with the trade unions that support the Right2Water campaign.

Of course there are good grounds for these positions.  The Labour Party has spent four years inflicting austerity in Government with Fine Gael in the South and Sinn Fein has been in office with the even more rabidly right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in the North, also inflicting austerity, while claiming to oppose it through vetoing some welfare changes.  In the South Sinn Fein also voted for the justification for much of the austerity by voting to bail out the rotten banks and their gambling investors.  In this way the Irish State transferred the debts of the banks to the working class.

However the centre piece of the Left’s strategy is the formation of a Left Government in order to reverse austerity – they propose no other effective or credible means of doing so.  As I have also argued – their privileging of the non-payment tactic as the only route to defeating water charges leaves them otherwise naked when it comes to explaining how they would defeat the much greater effects of the other austerity measures.

In their arguments, despite claims to prioritise mass mobilisation over electoral success, they reveal the central and indispensable role in their strategy of electoral success.  Only by forming a Government could their demands for reversing austerity be carried out: through taxation increases for the rich and reductions for the rest; for increased state spending to create jobs; for reversing privatisation and for repudiation of the state’s debt.  The actions proposed by the Left are inconceivable without forming a Government to do these things, which is why they naturally call for a Left Government.

The Left say that mass mobilisations are key and elections are there to support them but what these mobilisations are supposed to achieve in themselves, beyond single victories on various issues that develop, is never explained.  Mass mobilisation is not itself a programme, not itself a strategy unless given some purpose and objective, given some content.  What for? To achieve what?  How and in what way would such mobilisations put forward and actually implement an alternative, except other than through a Left Government?

The genuine order of priority is made clear when Paul Murphy explains the real importance of the anti-water charges campaign – “Winning the water charges battle is strategically central to the prospect of building a left that can fight for a real left government.”

The strategy of capturing government office in a capitalist state is what Marxists call reformism and I have written a series of posts criticising this view, beginning with this one.

I’m not going to criticise the Left here for being reformist but simply to point out that their strategy requires capturing Governmental office while rejecting any arrangement with Sinn Fein or the Labour Party.  The prospect of them doing this in the foreseeable future is therefore practically zero.

I have criticised the specific proposals of the Left before not because it has proposed reforms but because they are viewed, not as making capitalism less oppressive and creating better conditions within which workers can fight for a replacement, but because the reforms themselves are seen as in some way instituting an alternative to capitalism.  In this sense their policies are not an alternative to capitalism but an alternative to the real alternative to capitalism, which is socialism.

To sum up what their approach involves – it entails the capitalist state, presided over by the Left, intervening much more into the economy and creating a fairer and more just system.  It doesn’t involve a fundamental change in the economic or political structure and amounts to a fairer form of capitalism, full stop.

If their strategy ‘secretly’ involves revolution in the traditional sense of an insurrection, one that aims at the destruction of the capitalist state, this isn’t going to happen either, if only because they haven’t gone around doors giving out leaflets and telling the only people who can carry it out that this is what they should do.

Paul Murphy presents a related reason for opposition to unity with Sinn Fein and/or the Labour Party.   He says that the latter involves “the notion of constructing a “social majority”, instead of building a class based movement.”  Unfortunately this opposition of a social majority to a class based movement is false since a working class movement in itself will be a majority and its creation will win to its ranks individuals and social layers who are not working class.  The idea of a ‘social majority’, however described, should not be, or allowed to be, counter posed to a working class movement.

It is almost as if what this reformist strategy needs, and what its reformists-in-practice require, is some concrete reforms in an explicit strategic alliance with reformists.

So the Left says it cannot countenance a coalition that would include the Labour Party and/or Sinn Fein because these parties have already and will in future impose austerity when in Government.

However to many voters the alternatives offered by Sinn Fein and the Left do not seem very different.  The by-election victory of Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party over Sinn Fein, in part due to a more militant stance on opposing water charges, is not unfortunately likely to be the template for the general election.

The actions of the trade unions involved in the Right2Water campaign and their transparent attempts to endorse a left alternative that includes Sinn Fein, and even Labour if it went along with it, demonstrate this.

But the answer to this is not to simply denounce these parties, for if that were all that was required, as I have said before, we wouldn’t have the problem.  The answer must be to challenge the credentials of these parties and to win the trade union members and other workers who have supported the Right2Water campaign to a real anti-austerity alternative.  If such a process were to take place it could only be through joint activity and joint debate with the leaders and members of these parties.

In such a process it would be my view that the weakness of the Left’s own anti-austerity programme, in no essential terms different, would be exposed.   However such a strategy makes sense even from the Left’s point of view.

So, in order to begin to demonstrate their claims and in order to be seen to be seeking the maximum unity of anti-austerity forces the Left, perhaps paradoxically, would need to take its pretensions to reform the Southern State and economy more seriously.

It might do this by, for example, proposing the specific measures that it would take in the first 100 days and first year in office while demonstrating that unity around these policies is essential, challenging both Sinn Fein and the Labour Party to endorse them and fight for them together.  The Left would openly propose and debate these measures, this strategy, and seek to make itself accountable to its constituency, in the process attempting to leverage this support to engage with that of Sinn Fein and the trade unions.

The purposes of this would not only be to win these supporters to more radical politics but to promote their capacity and willingness to make the parties they currently support more accountable.  The aim of this is not so much to put pressure on these parties to keep their word, or even to facilitate their rejection when they do not, but to encourage and stimulate the independent political activity of these workers.

So, for example, the mechanisms put forward in the contribution by Rory Herne come across as elaborate and wishful scenario building that involve earnest but utopian blueprints for the ‘perfect’ movement.  But they do offer some sense of how such accountability might be achieved.

Would such tactics work? Maybe, maybe not.  But the point is that a means has to be created that allows the Left to engage with those voting for Sinn Fein and (more importantly from my point of view) for Marxists to go beyond denunciation of the Left’s Keynesianism to engage it and its supporters in clarifying the means to advance working class politics and organisation.

As Marx said:

“. . nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

What exactly divides the Irish Left?

ballot downloadIn the last article on the debate on the Left and its potential in the upcoming general election I said that I would look at the most important area in which the Left generally, despite the purported differences, were pretty much agreed.  Not on everything, but what they don’t agree on is in principle secondary.

The fundamental unity is on the nature of the new society the different groups want to bring about and the means to achieve it.

Taking the contributions quoted in the last post:

Sinn Fein: “We need to present a clear, coherent and credible programme for Government, based on an alternative model of social and economic development, that offers people well paid secure employment, high quality public and community services, fair and adequate taxation – all rooted in a strategy for economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially just.”

Rory Hearne:   “There is, despite the caricatures of division, much ground for agreement on policy amongst the diverse groups, for example, reversing water and household charges and austerity hitting the most vulnerable, standing up to the EU on Ireland’s debt, a write-down of mortgage arrears, a living wage, proper public health, housing, education and delivering human rights for all, direct democracy returning power to local areas and communities and a state and indigenous-led economic strategy away from overreliance on foreign multinationals, wealth taxes, expressing solidarity with Greece for a European debt conference and much more.”

The joint statement of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit and others is:

“. . . committing to oppose and organise to fight against any more austerity and for an immediate reversal of key austerity measures such as water charges, property tax, USC for those on average or low incomes, health, education and welfare cuts. It also means developing a strategy for repudiation of the bankers’ debt; for a write-down of residential mortgages; for taxation of wealth and big business profits; and against privatisation of public services and natural resources.  Instead of putting money into bank debt, we think there should be public investment in housing, healthcare, education, childcare, public transport, water services, renewable energy and environmental protection – as the start of re-orienting economic activity to meet social need and provide useful work for young people and the unemployed.”

So if there is broad agreement on a radical but not revolutionary policy there is also broad agreement on how to implement it.

Sinn Fein: “We need to translate all of this activism into change at the polls to break the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael stranglehold on the southern Irish state and install a left wing Government implementing a left wing programme – if such a Government is not possible after the upcoming general election we should maintain the momentum and keep building until we have secured the requisite public support.”

“So the immediate tasks for those of us on the Left who want to seriously challenge the Right for control of the state are clear.”

“We need to ensure that popular mobilisation continues if and when a left wing Government is installed to act as a guarantor of the promises made by progressive politicians at election time.”

Brendan Ogle Right2Water: “We will win this campaign. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever. We will return a Government that will be voted in to reverse the current crazy, wasteful, ideological, neo-liberal privatisation of our publicly owned water. And then what? Is that it? What about our right to housing, to a job and decent workers rights, to decent healthcare, to education? Do we, those in what has clearly become a ‘movement’ care about these things? And if so, can a water movement become a vehicle of real social and political change?”

“The anger, and mass mobilisation necessary to reclaim our nation for its citizens are present. The citizen’s hunger for their democracy back is present and the electoral means are present.”

The joint statement of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit, said of the alternative that:

“It should fight for a Left government committed to breaking the rules that impose austerity and that prioritise the restoration of the profits of banking and big business; for a government committed to restructuring the economy and society to meet the needs of people and to protect our environment  – including unilateral repudiation, if necessary, of bankers’ debt.”

In commenting on these joint statements Paul Murphy says that:

“These statements were a positive engagement with the process – in particular focused on three areas – calling for non-payment as part of a non-electoralist, struggle orientation; a call to rule out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour; and a clear left programme, including commitment to debt repudiation and repeal of the 8th amendment.”

Ruling out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour is a central part of this. The left needs to be ambitious and inspiring – this means not settling for the old mistakes of coalition with the right, and betraying and disappointing people in order to get Ministerial positions. Instead, it means fighting for a real left government.”

“A left government is not just one where people who describe themselves as left-wing are in government. It is one that implements a left programme – which reverses austerity measures, which pursues a strategy of debt repudiation, which stands up to bullying from the EU, which uses the wealth and resources of society for people’s needs rather than corporations’ profits and which tackles the oppression of women, migrants and LGBTQ people.”

However where Murphy claims to be in disagreement with the likes of Sinn Fein, and those in the Right2Water campaign who wish to see it as part of a left alternative Government, is his claim that a real left alternative is not so focused on elections and would not include the Labour Party.

For him the real left alternative is one that is less focused on the elections, in particular the next election, and is orientated more to both struggles outside of the Dail and to using elections and elected positions to assist the building of these movements.

Of Eoin Ó Broin’s contribution he says that “The embracing of the Labour Party by someone who has a profile of being on the left of Sinn Fein is significant. It is an illustration that unfortunately Sinn Fein is prepared to be part of a government that will continue with austerity.”

So despite similar programmes the Socialist Party opposes an alliance with the Labour Party and Sinn Fein, which means that the prospect of a ‘left’ Government after the next elections is practically zero.

It is in this sense that Burtenshaw’s argument that the population has rejected the left’s alternative is rather obviously true, so obviously true it is difficult to see how it can be denied.  A left Government in the next election that does not include Sinn Fein and/or the Labour Party is not going to happen.

In the next post I’ll look at what the Left might do, even with a reformist strategy.

Has the Irish Left missed the boat?

Screen-Shot-2015-05-31-at-02.29.362An article in the ‘Village’ magazine presents the argument that the Left has missed the opportunity to translate widespread opposition to water charges into a significant challenge to the status quo in the coming general election.

As a hard fact that must be faced, the author of it notes that it’s now possible to imagine not only a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coalition but even the re-election of a Fine Gael/Labour Party Government.  What a kick in the teeth that would be!  Rather like the re-election of the Tories in Britain.  “It’s time for some serious self-criticism” he says.

The conclusion drawn, although it remains totally unexplored, is that the people “have found the alternatives unconvincing.”  That is, they have found the left alternative unconvincing.

It’s not clear to me from the argument of the article that many ever did but I’m not going to go very far in this post in looking at this either.

Instead I want to reflect on the response that the article has evinced from the Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy.  While there appears to be a debate here the grounds of it are very narrow indeed.

In his call for self-criticism Ronan Burtenshaw first points to opinion polls which showed a rise in support for independents during 2014, from 18% or 22% (depending on the poll) to 32% and 30%.  Support for the two established right-wing parties on the other hand had fallen from 30%/28% and 22%/22% for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail respectively to 19%/21% and 21%/19%.

The problem he points to is that in May this year one poll showed support for independents down to 24% and another back down at 22%.  Since he explains the original increase as a result of a series of mass mobilisations against water charges he argues that the effect of this “has evaporated pretty much completely.”

Paul Murphy argues that Ronan’s conclusion is wrong –

“His conclusion, that the fall in opinion polls is because people looked at the alternatives and found them to be unconvincing, simply does not flow from the data, or his preceding analysis. Instead, I would contend that the opinion polls worsened primarily because of the decline of major mobilisations as well as because the low point for the government wasn’t fully capitalised on by a sufficiently authoritative force to consolidate the indicated trends.”

The second part of this explanation is part-admission of Burtenshaw’s case – his argument that the alternative was not convincing might be seen as just another way of saying that there was no sufficiently authoritative force to consolidate gains.

Of course what Paul Murphy is arguing is that if the forces arguing for the left alternative were bigger its alternative would have been accepted by more people and there is nothing inherently unpersuasive about the left alternative.  But this leaves aside the problem why the left was not bigger and why its argument, if it was persuasive, did not lead to further growth than it did, or rather did not allow growth to be maintained.  If it was persuasive would it not also have been authoritative and, if authoritative is a euphemism for being bigger, how did being persuasive not lead to this increased size?

Paul Murphy argues that Burtenshaw’s case has two flaws, the first of which is that it ignores the temporary impact on the popularity of the governing parties of victory in the referendum on marriage equality.  He says that this allowed the Labour Party in particular “to wrap itself in a rainbow flag and present itself as socially progressive . . . I think much of that can be reversed as people are reminded by the real role of the Labour Party”, which includes further privatisation of Aer Lingus.

By the way, Murphy accuses Burtenshaw of ‘confirmation bias’.  That is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.  But Murphy is guilty of this himself, no more obvious than when he dismisses the Labour Party’s role in the marriage equality referendum.  The “real role of the Labour Party” that Murphy wishes to counterpose to its progressive role in the recent referendum includes support for such liberal measures as marriage equality.

But Paul Murphy’s bigger argument is that the decline in opinion poll ratings was due to the absence of visible mass mobilisations around water charges such as the huge demonstrations that started in Dublin and around the State in the last quarter of 2014.  There is no doubt some merit in this argument but it is not as strong as it is presented and does not bear the weight he places on it.

But he also acknowledges two things which again support Burtenshaw’s argument about the weakness of the Left’s alternative.  The first is admission that the role of the leaders of the Right2Water campaign cannot be substituted by the campaigns of the Left, (which calls into question the creation of separate campaigns by the Left groups).

Second is the acknowledgement that protest demonstrations cannot in themselves be the answer.  They cannot substitute for a movement, one that is organised with permanent structures, which provide it with a life of its own outside the calls of unelected leaders to come onto the streets.  So Murphy admits that “It may not be the case that the same level of mobilisation could be achieved now.”

So if the decline in poll ratings is at least partly due to the decline in mass protest and the decline in mass protest is at least partly unavoidable this looks very much like another admission of the weakness of the Left alternative.  Even with support from the Right2Water leaders a series of mass protests could not continue to have the same effect as the first demonstrations that were such a shock to the political system.

Partly this is because the political consciousness of many participants does not go beyond protest politics, involving illusions that the Governing parties will listen, content that they have protested, or simply unable to find a way to turn anger and protest into an alternative.

Less importantly, but necessary to learn, the decline is due to the excessive weight put on the tactic of non-payment by some on the Left.  This tactic might be helped by regular mass demonstrations of opposition but this is not an absolute requirement.   It does not justify a separate campaign with this tactic as its raison d’etre, with its necessary downgrading of creation of a genuine democratic and united campaign that the Right2Water should have been and should still become.

So another illustration of weakness is the inability of the Left to effectively challenge the Right2Water leadership to create a genuine democratic campaign.

The weight put on the tactic of non-payment can be interpreted to mean that more or less on its own it will deliver victory, so why be so concerned about anything else?  But this anything else, as I have noted before, includes the opposition responding to a particular tactic with one of its own such as deducting payment out of incomes.

The Government has also responded by major concessions in terms of the amount to be paid.  As I have also noted before with the carrot comes the stick and shortly after the carrot came the attempts to criminalise and intimidate opposition activists through arrests.

So no tactic by definition is a guarantee of success.

The anything else also involves the whole austerity offensive to which non-payment is so clearly not relevant.  Cuts in services, unemployment, increases in taxes and wage cuts are not going to be prevented or reversed by non-payment so an anti-austerity campaign that features so heavily on non-payment as the key to success has a big question to answer about how success will be achieved in all the other, bigger areas in which austerity has bitten into workers’ living standards.  How if only non-payment works can we fight back in these other areas?

The biggest challenge to the Left which the anti-water charges campaign cannot by itself answer is the seeming success of the governing parties in implementing austerity and now being in a position to claim success.

The upturn in economic fortunes is real.  Unemployment has fallen, the series of major cut-backs has ended and new increases in public spending, cuts in taxation and pay Increases are promised.

The contribution of Eoin Ó Broin from Sinn Fein makes a number of correct points in relation to this:

“Trying to read the poll-on-poll movements against specific political events is always speculative.

Fine Gael’s poll decline in the second half of 2014 was as much to do with the controversies surrounding medical cards, penalty points and Garda Ombudsman as it was to do with the politics of water.

Indeed middle class discomfort with water charges during 2014 had more to do with the initial charging regime, the handing over of PPS numbers and the excessive costs of Irish Water than with principled opposition to the charges and privatisation.

It is not at all clear that the Right2Water mobilisations had any material impact on Fine Gael’s poll numbers or standing with the electorate during 2014.

Replacing Shatter and Reilly with Fitzgerald and Varadkar coupled with the impact of job growth and tax cuts on middle class voters is clearly driving the Fine Gael poll recovery.

Alan Kelly’s revised water package will also have eased the concerns of some middle class voters.”

While one can argue that it is very unlikely that the protests had no impact on the polls, it would be hardly deniable that both the polls and the protests flowed from the same anger at austerity and the charges in particular.  As I have pointed out before, the fact that there appears a clear way of defeating them, through non-payment, has been a big spur to mobilisation.

Also suspect is Ó Broin’s focus on the influence of the events he mentions on the middle class.  There is no reason why changed economic conditions will not have influenced many working class voters as well

Finally, there are two other aspects upon which those involved in this debate are not really so very far apart.   Regardless of the recent movement in the polls, they all note positively the long-term decline in the support levels of the three establishment parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour).

Burtenshaw points out that these parties received over 90% of the vote in every election from 1965 to 1989 while he quotes one recent poll that now puts their support at 57%.

However the participants to the discussion acknowledge, but refuse to digest, the reality that the majority of the electorate have not broken from the politics that delivered them austerity.  The evidence for this is pretty clear – from the 57% figure just quoted, to the election of a Fine Gael Government in 2011, the passing of the austerity referendum in 2012 and the character of much of the opposition to the established parties today.

The biggest and most coherent bloc of this opposition is Sinn Fein, which only the politically naïve could believe will oppose austerity in any comprehensive way.  The experience in the North is well known to political activists on the Left, while workers supporting Sinn Fein will take it at its word, and will then judge it on its actions.  Sinn Fein is no more than a more modern version of the old populist Fianna Fail and neither its nationalism nor its political practice is left wing, never mind socialist.

Meanwhile the Left has collapsed its political judgement and political practice into seeking a ‘left’ alternative instead of a socialist one.  It moved from an analysis based on some version of socialism to one in which the alternative must be ‘left wing’, to one that is simply termed ‘anti-establishment.’  But much of this anti-establishment vote is not even left-wing never mind imbued with any sort of socialism.

As Burtenshaw states:  “In the vast majority these new independent voters weren’t defining as Left but were a nebulous grouping, supporting a wide variety of positions, who found a degree of representation in being “independent” of established politics or wanted an alternative to “party politics” as practiced in Ireland.”

Of independents he notes that “this category, of course, included People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, though neither registered more than one percent at any stage.”

No one disputes this, but it rather puts into perspective any illusion of a Left Government after the next election.

Burtenshaw is right that the Left needs to be self-critical.

The spontaneous outburst of anger that arose in the anti-water charges demonstrations and the organisation of it thereafter will not of itself create the working class movement that is needed.

It will not be a question of surfing the wave of working class struggle; not a question of seizing some short term opportunity that will render history the long term weakness of Irish workers’ political consciousness, and it is not a question of what the Left does or does not do before the next election.

In the next post I’ll look at the most important aspect in which the contributors to the discussion are more or less agreed – the political programme to be advanced as the solution, whether currently estimated to be convincing and authoritative or not.

Workers’ cooperatives as an alternative to Capitalism – 2

10698536_420301091453164_5593204590190940624_nMarxists believe that conditions determine consciousness.  The ideas that most people have are products of their circumstances.  Currently workers sell their labour power as a commodity.  That is why they concentrate efforts on the price of their labour power (wages) and the terms and conditions at which it is sold.

It is why they value those services that they cannot provide for themselves individually but are unable to provide collectively because they lack the consciousness and organisation to do so.  This includes such things as unemployment insurance, pensions, health care and education.

The sanctification of capitalist private property means that the former is not strictly political while the distribution of the revenue from capitalism is.  Through the latter the working class is made dependent on the state for these services, including through employment in their delivery.  The welfare dependency culture repeated like a mantra by the right has this much basis in fact.

What there is not therefore is the material basis for the growth of a consciousness that workers should own, manage and control the productive activities of the economy and the state.  Instead the growth of the state and its acknowledged political leadership are the grounds for the view that the redistributive powers of the state are the basis for a solution.  This mistaken view takes the extreme form on the Left that the state should take over production itself.  Of course this has been tried.  It didn’t work well.

What we have with the Keynesian alternative then is an expectation, doomed to disappointment, that the capitalist state will divide the fruits of capitalism to benefit those who have first been exploited in opposition to those who have carried out the exploitation, which must remain in place in order to continue funding the redistribution.

Marxists believe that the future socialist society is not utopian because current society contains its anticipation in various ways.  Capitalism is pregnant with the future socialism; except that if the state is the embryo then the pregnancy taken to full term does not result in socialism but something else entirely.

Workers’ cooperatives are one of the crucial elements of this anticipated new society growing within the womb of the old.  It reunites workers with the means of production and removes the capitalist from the workplace.  It gives ownership to the workers and elevates their power, confidence and consciousness.  It can prepare the workers involved and other workers for the task of making the whole economy the property of the working class, which is socialism.

Workers ownership can provide the basis for workers to provide the services that are currently provided by the state and which leaves them at the mercy of the state and the politicians who preside on top of it.  Such services include education, health, welfare and pensions.  Workers self-provision of this would result in their own priorities being imposed on their provision.

However to posit this as the alternative immediately demonstrates a major difficulty.  While it is possible to envisage workers cooperatives supplanting individual capitalist production it is much more difficult to envisage this in regard to the services now provided by the State.  What this once again demonstrates is the role of the state as defender of the capitalist system – through exclusion of the working class from direct control within society and protection of the accumulation needs of capitalism.

Workers’ self-provision of what are now services provided by the state would necessarily lead not to demanding more taxation by the state but less, so that workers would have more control of their earnings and would have more to pool together and employ to their collective benefit.  In short workers would take more and more responsibility for their own lives, even when temporarily or permanently unable to work.  The dependence on the capitalist state would be weakened, at least in this respect.

In Ireland workers would have the grounds for recognising that there is an alternative economic development model to reliance on US multinationals.  They would have an example of a model of development that didn’t rely on the state.  They would have a living alternative to the threats that they need the capitalist banks.

Instead of workers relying on the state to provide for them by taxing the rich or investing in infrastructure to promote private capitalist investment they would have an alternative in which it is their own activity which is the alternative to capitalist crisis.

Is this the viewpoint of a reformist and utopian scenario?  I think not.

Firstly thousands of cooperatives already exist; they are not purely idealistic mental constructions.  What’s more they can be, and many are, very successful; providing hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Living proof that workers can do without capitalists to tell them what to do.  Workers can take control, can make decisions and can be successful.

The spread of workers’ cooperatives in entirely possible, their growth and development is not precluded by any necessarily limiting factor in capitalist development, at least to the point where capitalist accumulation appears threatened by it.

The trade union movement and the political organisations of the working class can play an important role in their development.  Workers’ cooperatives are therefore not an alternative to the existing workers movement but are something that can be complementary to its development, freeing it more and more from dependence on private capital and the state.

In fact workers’ cooperatives will inevitably demonstrate through their development the antipathy of the state to workers ownership and the power that workers as a class will develop as a result of its development.  The state will inevitably be used by the class it serves, the capitalist class, to undermine competition from workers cooperatives and support private capitalist accumulation.  Such a development will clarify the lines of battle between the workers’ movement and the capitalist system.

Workers’ cooperatives are not an alternative to class struggle but a means of carrying it out.  The creation of workers’ cooperatives in Argentina following its capitalist crises is evidence of this – how much better to promote workers’ cooperatives before such cataclysmic crises rather than in their midst or aftermath.

When workers say – “where is your socialist alternative after over a 150 years of your movement?”, we might have a living movement to point to rather than a simple promise for the future.

And such a movement will be an international one because just as capitalist development has become international there is every reason why workers’ cooperative production should also be international.  Every bit of such development will strengthen the international bonds between workers and undermine nationalist solutions that are currently growing.

In other words workers’ cooperatives provide the living link between resistance against the injustice of the current system and the creation of a real alternative.  Instead of simple rejection of cuts and lack of democracy workers’ cooperatives not only posit employment and democracy within the cooperative but the transition to a new society.  Workers’ cooperatives thus provide the material basis for linking the struggle against capitalism to the creation of socialism.

Workers’ cooperatives are not a magic bullet answer to the current crisis on the Left.  There is no simple or singular programmatic answer to a crisis that exists at the level of working class consciousness and organisation.  But for the Left a programmatic answer is currently by far and away the most important contribution that it can provide to workers.

Traditionally the revolutionary left has rejected workers’ cooperatives because they have been seen as an alternative to revolution – a militant class struggle against capitalists and the state culminating in an insurrection, the smashing of the capitalist state and creation of a new one.  I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the patient work of class organisation involved in union organising, party building and creation of workers’ cooperatives would get in the way of a burgeoning revolutionary movement.  Anyway, when was the last revolution in an advanced capitalist state, one in which the working class is the vast majority of society?

It can be legitimately claimed that workers in existing cooperatives lack socialist consciousness so how can they provide the material basis for socialism?  This objection however must also take on board the reality that decades of union organisation has also not turned the majority of trade unionists into socialists.  However no one advocates abandoning the organisation of trade unions.

Finally an objection is made that workers’ cooperatives will simply teach workers to exploit themselves within a market economy based on competition.  They will simply become their own capitalists.

However, at the extreme, the ownership of all production by the working class would not only remove the capitalist class but would also remove the need for all allocation by the market, or by socially necessary labour time, to use the strictly Marxist definition.  In other words workers’ cooperatives would cooperate with each other.  Such competition as would exist would not play the same role as capitalist competition just as the continued existence of money tokens would not make it a capitalist system.

So for example, a factory making shoes that became unfashionable would not close down and throw its workers into unemployment but would see them transfer to either production of shoes that were in demand or to some entirely different branch of production.  Other workers would support this because they would all know that what they produce might equally go out of fashion, become technologically obsolete or have its workforce reduced by automation.  In the same way the receipt of money as salaries and wages would not mean that this money would exist as capital, able to purchase labour power in the pursuit of profit.

The current value of workers’ cooperatives is not just as living practical examples of socialism but that they allow theoretical and political clarification of just exactly what socialism is.  They shine a light on the difference between workers power and all the solutions that rely on the state – from Keynesianism to nationalism.

This is the second part of the post.  The first part appeared here.

Belfast socialists discuss Scotland after the referendum

A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     A left non-nationalist rally in Glasgow

Last night I went to a meeting organised by the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) on Scotland after the referendum in the Realta Centre in Belfast.  The speaker was Colm Breathnach, who is Irish and a former member of the ISN but is now living in Scotland

He said at the start that he was not going to go over the pros and cons of the vote but look at the situation now.  In fact a lot of what he had to say was about the pros and cons of the referendum campaign and his impressions of it, and particularly of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) , of which he is a supporter.

He enthused about the activity of what he called this ‘mass movement’ the like of which he had not seen or been involved in before.  It was described as a grass-roots progressive campaign that effectively led the Yes campaign in the referendum and dragged it, and thereby the SNP, to the left.

He supported independence because it gave the working class a ‘better terrain’ on which to fight.  He gave a consistently positive and enthusiastic account of the pro-independence movement and of his impressions of those involved.  He criticised the fear spread among workers by the No campaign while acknowledging that their fear of the consequences of independence was at least partly justified.  He claimed the independence movement was a reflection of progressive working class politics while also acknowledging that a lot of working class people voted No.

He claimed to have no illusions in the SNP but his criticisms of it were muted, very muted in fact, and he didn’t find it necessary to provide any clear characterisation of the nature of that party. His attitude to the Labour Party on the other hand was scathing – a ‘husk’ that no one progressive could possibly support.

He rejected the charge that the left in Scotland were following reactionary nationalism and told me, it was me who put this to him, that I hadn’t been listening to what he had said.  The Yes campaign had been about the vision of a new fairer society and not about national identity or nationalism.

The debate therefore started and ended where it might have been expected to – impressions of a movement for independence that wasn’t nationalist and an incredulous denial that the campaign for a separate state had been a nationalist one.  Weren’t there different sorts of nationalism anyway e.g. British nationalism and Palestinian nationalism?  They weren’t all the same.  He was in favour of internationalism and working class solidarity and unity among Scottish, English and other European workers.

He said accusingly, that if I wanted the Scottish, Welsh and English working class to be united in one state why wouldn’t I want the Irish to be included as well?  Why wouldn’t I be in favour of the Irish Republic rejoining Britain?

Oh my god!  If ever an argument could be expected to crush opposition to nationalism (or whatever it is) in front of an audience from a republican background this was it!  How on earth could anyone succumb to a view that had this as its logical conclusion?

All this was at the end of the meeting so there was no opportunity to reply.  I’m glad however I have a blog.

Listening to a speaker it can be very easy to follow their stream of argument without noticing the holes and contradictions within it, especially if one hasn’t got a strong and considered view on it already.  But surely I cannot have been alone in wondering why it was necessary to claim there are different sorts of nationalism when the Yes campaign was very, very definitely not a nationalist one.

Surely it was noticed that the claim he wanted unity among Scottish, English and Welsh workers sat in flat contradiction to the view that he very definitely didn’t want them all to coexist in the one state. Was this not privileging the interests of separate (capitalist) states over the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality?  Well that’s how it looked to me.

I heard echoes of the view that working class unity among nationalities is possible without their being in the one state but the ridiculous argument that being inside one state doesn’t makes this easier was not advanced in justification. Instead I was asked why I supported the existence of the British state formation, the implication being that one formation of capitalist states is as good as another (although the implications of this for the demand for a separate Scottish state were probably furthest from the speaker’s thoughts).

I would have replied, had I the opportunity, that the British State has the advantage of already existing and containing within it a voluntary union of nationalities; that socialists are in favour of the voluntary union of nationalities; that the working class in Britain is united in one labour movement irrespective of nationality with a long tradition that includes exemplary struggle and that, yes ,this should even include the Irish if such unity could be voluntary and on the basis of equality.  That is, there would be an absence of the national oppression that has characterised previous and current British rule in Ireland and that has been absent from relations with Scotland except in relation to the latter’s role as oppressor

There is nothing special about the form of the British state in achieving this except that nationalist division would be a backward step away from it.  If the British state proved a barrier to wider unity on a continental state then calling for its supersession would be progressive.  In any case the creation of a European working class movement is required and every step in defeating nationalist division is to be welcomed.

None of this would have convinced the speaker because for him the British working class does not exist.

I put it to him that when I used to live in Scotland in the 1970s the Left in Scotland opposed Scottish nationalism as reactionary and it now supports this nationalism, but that this support does not make it progressive.  He said things had changed.  And so they have, in the way I have just described.

I also put it to him that the rise of Scottish nationalism had divided the British working class and divided the working class in Scotland.  The demand for independence if successful would mean dividing the British working class movement including its trade unions.  It was in reply to this that I was told that the British working class doesn’t exist ‘except in some peoples’ heads.’

This is no doubt why left supporters of Scottish separation hardly ever consider the unity of the British working class or factor it into their analysis.  It’s much simpler to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. We have had this argument on the blog before.

What we might have expected was some explanation of why socialists should support a separate Scottish state.  Providing a ‘better terrain’ was as much as we got, yet no one thought to ask what this meant or, more bluntly – is that it?

All in all I didn’t learn anything new from the meeting but most of the participants will at least have been exposed to some of the arguments and will have found it in some way informative.  The meeting was therefore a modest success.

I had however hoped that I would have learned more, which is why at the start of the meeting I asked some questions.

Colm said during his speech that he accepted the result of the referendum so I asked him what he meant by this and in order to explain what I meant by asking him this I said did he accept it as an exercise in self-determination by the Scottish people.

In reply he said that in saying he accepted it he meant he did not go along with the conspiracy theorists who claimed the result had been the subject of fraud, as some nationalists have claimed. But he asked what I meant by the question to which I explained – did he think the referendum was a legitimate exercise of self-determination?  His answer was less than clear.

He criticised the pro-union bias of the media – the newspapers and particularly the coverage of the BBC in Scotland.  The bias of the media is not new but such bias is a part of what Marxists call bourgeois democracy and the referendum was a part of this democracy.  He did not address the real point of the question and by failing to do so he and the nationalist movement consciously or unconsciously avoid its implications.  That is the implications of having lost.

The point of the question was to elicit his view whether, in saying he ‘accepted’ the result, he was accepting that the Scottish people had been given the opportunity to freely exercise self-determination and had done so by supporting union within the UK state.  Many nationalists appear to believe that self-determination only exists if it results in a separate state, as if determining one’s future only takes place when you vote the way they like.

The very non-committal answer showed an unwillingness to accept that the referendum was a legitimate exercise in self determination that should be accepted as such.  Whatever grounds for demanding separation exist they can not therefore include the claim that the Scottish people have not been given the opportunity to freely vote for ‘independence’ and were thereby subject to some form of national oppression. In this respect the answer showed that the left supporters of separation appeared no more inclined to really accept the result than the broader nationalist movement.  In doing so they ignore the implications for what they do next.

And this was my next question.  I asked what the strategy of the left supporters of independence was now?  Did they still hold that independence was necessary for the working class to move forward?  Or did his claim that this was really not a nationalist movement but a movement for social justice mean they would fight austerity without also requiring unity around independence?

Would they recognise that the austerity offensive from the Government in London is enforced by the Scottish Government, just as it is being enforced in the North of Ireland by Stormont, and seek unity with English and Welsh workers to oppose it?  Or would they seek to fight alone, so unnecessarily weakening themselves and the rest of the British working class?

I got a very unclear answer which involved acknowledging that whether the demand for independence was a high or low priority would be determined.  He was still strongly in favour of it.

Since the immediate requirement is to fight austerity and a new referendum is not immediately on the cards the prevarication revealed the divisiveness of the nationalist project.  In practice this means continued division of the British working class, which the nationalists appear to think doesn’t exist but the Condem Government is screwing nevertheless.

Repeatedly the speaker said that the Radical Independence Campaign was not a nationalist movement but he admitted that half of its supporters were members of the SNP, which has grown very significantly since the referendum.  They will no doubt campaign for and vote for this party.  The SNP is riding high and is reaping the benefits of relative success in the referendum.  Majorities in favour of ‘independence’ were recorded in Glasgow, Dundee and many other mainly working class areas.

Only by being unclear about what the SNP is; only by denying that a separate state is a nationalist and divisive demand and only by failing to recognise the harm this does to a united working class response to austerity can this be seen as in any way progressive.  Nationalism is what was on offer in the referendum and nationalism is what many voted for regardless of what they thought they were doing.  Colm mentioned false consciousness in his speech but didn’t properly identify who was falling victim to it.

Already figures on the Left are calling for a vote for the SNP at the next election.  The same SNP that colluded with the Tories when first entering into government in Scotland.  The same SNP that repeatedly accused the Labour Party of cuddling up to the Tories in the No campaign and the same SNP whose leader was such an ally of Rupert Murdoch.

This makes perfect sense if, as much of the Left appears to believe, ‘independence’ is the indispensable condition for progress.  The left voting for a right wing, pro-capitalist, pro neo-liberal party is the result of its collapse into nationalism.  Going by the meeting there is precious little sign of re-evaluation