The next step in the campaign against water charges?

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 01.50.42_0The Right2Water Campaign posted a message at the very end of 2014 setting out the tasks for 2015:

“So where to now? If we are to elect people who enact the laws we, the people, need in the next election to continue to unite on what we agree on and not sow division and discord over tactical approaches as some are currently endeavouring to do. We need to grow and develop the unity that has rocked the establishment and the media – not splinter in 100 different directions as Irish people have (to their great cost) many times before thereby allowing an elitist minority to reap and sow at great cost to the common good. It’s been the way of it for much too much of our history. Can we unite and through solidarity fundamentally change how our water, our housing, our jobs, our education and our health services are paid for and delivered in all our interests?”

The statement, and let’s leave aside the exact status of it for the moment, has been criticised on the Revolutionary Programme blog.  The criticism of ‘electoralism’ is correct in my view but the first problem is not the desire to somehow, in some way, at some time, lever the people mobilised by the campaign into support for some electoral initiatives, alliances or whatever.

There will be elections at some point not too far away and those opposed to water charges and austerity in general would be remiss in not seeking to utilise them to advance their struggle. Of course critics will claim, with previous ‘form’ for justifying such claims, that elections are typically used not to advance the struggle but the struggle used to advance elections.

For Marxists like the Revolutionary Programme blogger and myself the road to change, even for any significant reforms, never mind revolutionary change, will come primarily  from the actions of working people themselves and not from legislators “that enact laws that are wanted and needed by the people they are elected to represent, not Corporations and their cronies.”

Our view comes from our understanding of how the state works and how the nature of the state is such that it cannot fundamentally change society or challenge the priorities set by the corporations and their cronies.  This is because power and resources are distributed and reproduced by an economic system over which the Dail has little, and certainly no fundamental, control.  In Ireland this is much more obvious since the most dynamic sector of the economy is that controlled by US multinationals and Irish people are used to accepting that neither they nor their legislators control these multinationals.

To fundamentally challenge the priorities of the capitalist economy would mean either putting the system in crisis or compelling more radical transformation to a new system.  It stands to reason that if people are put before profit in a system that puts profit before people that the system will start to malfunction or at the very least not function as well – through capitalists taking their money out of the country, failing to invest or simply stirring up political opposition to change.  Alternatively, a completely new system requires something much more fundamental than changing the 166 people sitting in the chamber of the Dail.

This doesn’t mean nothing can be done short of some revolutionary change but it does mean that certain limits are put on such change; the fundamental driver for it will exist outside the Dail; such change can only be temporary if more fundamental change is not made and essential change requires action by the working class itself and not by people elected by it to do it on their behalf.

At the very least those advocating the election of those who will “enact the laws we, the people, need” are required to explain what will be done, who will do it and how it will be done.

If this really is the way forward there can be no objection to debating it.  If Marxists lose the debate and such a reformist road is carried then that will be accepted because it is only by changing workers’ minds that the Marxist alternative can come alive anyway.  Marxists are not opposed to reforms, we are in favour of them, strongly in favour of them, especially when they are posed as a real alternative not to revolution but to no change at all.

What’s more we do not believe that no reforms are possible, just that they will be contested, limited and will not conflict fundamentally with putting profit before people.

What Marxists might really object to now is that such top-down politics is often advanced in a top-down way by those most loudly proclaiming their bottom-up politics.

In Britain a working class party, at least in terms of support, exists in the form of the Labour Party through which the struggle to advance such reforms can be made.  In Ireland the Irish Labour Party excites the hopes of a smaller or larger minority of workers at various times, only for it to betray those hopes.  But it does not retain workers’ allegiance so that some continuing struggle within it can form the basis of advancing Irish workers political consciousness and organisation.

So no obvious candidate for the party needed to fulfil the perspectives of the Right2Water Campaign’s authors exists.  For many people newly drawn into political activity against the water charges this will be an obvious difficulty.  But it is not the most immediate.

The most immediate is the fact that what exists is a campaign against water charges that has no structure, or rather no democratic structure, so that it cannot decide whether any of the ideas put forward in the statement should be supported, because ‘it’ – a campaign – does not exist in any sort of form that could make a decision.  Nor is there any proposal in the statement to bring one into existence through, for example, a national conference and a democratically elected leadership accountable at all times to campaign supporters.

In a previous post I noted that it would be necessary to develop the scope and demands of the campaign but that this would need to be prepared.  Such preparation involves creating arrangements that allow people to discuss what they think collectively, whether they think the campaign should adopt additional objectives to that of opposing charges, and whether certain tactics should be promoted or not.  Even the statement leaves open the reality that the charges still exist, have not been killed off, and have a zombie-like existence – being half-dead and half-alive.  We have all seen enough zombie movies to know they keep on coming back to life to bite us.

Finally, but perhaps firstly, those involved in the campaign could hardly do better than follow the advice, once given by Tony Benn, and ask five questions of the campaign leaders: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

This is all very simple.  If someone thinks the campaign should support certain candidates in an upcoming election they must be able to answer these questions when anyone in the campaign asks them.

Two films: ‘Pride’ and ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’

JS45320465When Margaret Thatcher died my daughter asked me if I could recommend any books that would explain who she was and why she raised such strong views on her death.  I struggled to think of one that would convey the political issues and the raw emotion that she generated.  Even the youngest who are semi-interested in politics know that in some way that Thatcher helped shape politics today, not only in Britain but much more widely, and that at the very least she symbolises changes we are still living through.

In the last week I have watched two films that provide some way of appreciating Thatcher while also immersing one in the feelings generated at the time.  The first – ‘Pride’ – tells the story of a lesbian and gay group in London, which raised more money for miners in a South Wales valley than any other group, during the miners’ titanic strike in 1984-85 against Thatcher.  It’s rarely sentimental, the performances are wonderful and if you don’t walk out of it feeling proud that this is the side you are on then there’s no hope for you.

If you’re older then you’ll remember the struggle with pride and not a little bit of sadness.  If you were in any way involved in solidarity in this side of the Irish sea then you’ll now appreciate the importance of the struggle and perhaps realise you didn’t quite understand its importance then.  You’ll also appreciate the need for unity and solidarity of the oppressed and that only when we fight together do we make real the unity that underlies our oppression and our liberation.

Of course what you take out of any artistic creation partly depends on your own experience and you will only learn from a political film what your political understanding will allow.  Some things will stand out more than others – for me the performances of the actors, including Ben Schnetzer who plays Mark Ashton, the spokesperson for the gay and lesbian solidarity group and originally from the North of Ireland – brave and tender;  or Paddy Considine as the miners spokesperson Dai Donovan, who welcomes against opposition within his own ranks the support of the gay and lesbian group with understanding and appreciation for the bravery of the miners’ new supporters and the value of their own struggle.

Uplifting and inspiring as it is the significance of the miners’ struggle was illustrated for me by the miner’s banner that proclaimed their adherence to international workers unity and the struggle for socialism.  Of all the reference points that they had, as Welsh, as miners, workers and brothers they stated on their banner that what would always define them was international unity and socialism.  Through the strike they demonstrated in their solidarity with gay and lesbian activists from London a unity that went beyond nationality and sexual orientation to recognition of their shared and common interest in fighting oppression.


And a miner’s banner also featured in another film – ‘Tony Benn Will and Testament’ – a documentary covering his life and political activity, including the miners’ strike and his inclusion on a new Miners’ banner.

It showed Benn narrate his personal and political life and his acceptance of his death that must have followed shortly after the film.  It shows his journey through politics and his affirmation that he moved to the left through joining government and not, as everyone else does, to the right.

He explained his determination to become an MP and change the world because of an encounter with one of the Americans involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, eventually becoming the minister responsible for the civil nuclear programme in Britain.  In this role he explained how he was completely kept in the dark about the fact that the plutonium waste used in this civil power generation was sent to supply the US nuclear weapons programme.   More widely he explains that he came to realise that while in Government he didn’t have any real control and that the Labour Party became simple managers of the system when it achieved office.

The film covers many of the class struggles in Britain over the latter half of the twentieth century, from the campaign against nuclear weapons, to  the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in, the ‘winter of discontent’ provoked by attacks on workers by the labour Government, the miners’ strike and the anti-Iraq war movement in our current century.

His bid for the Labour Party deputy leadership in 1981 against Denis Healy, which he very narrowly lost by barely 1%, does not get the attention it deserves but it does turn the spotlight on Neil Kinnock – the so-called left who abstained in the vote.  He later became leader and was leader during the miners’ strike, which he more or less also betrayed, later being rewarded with a place in the House of Lords.  A fighting leadership of the British labour movement could have made the difference between defeat and victory.  Watching the film I found myself getting angrier with him than with Thatcher, but isn’t that always the way with traitors?

He brings to attention the possibility, since the 1970s, of using North Sea oil to modernise Britain but identifies the failure to do so in the pro-big business policies of Thatcher.  Some on the left today see the possibility of modernising Scotland based on what’s left of North Sea oil. However they base this not on any lesson drawn from recent decades but on nationalist division.  The political leader they in effect followed, Alex Salmond, proclaimed that his SNP “didn’t mind the economic side so much” of Margaret Thatcher, while claiming that “the SNP has a strong social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself.”  So that puts the rest of us in our place.

I remember listening to Tony Benn speak and someone asked him about the idea that socialism could be brought about through parliament and whether the capitalist class and its system would allow such a transition without mounting a violent coup to prevent it.  Ah, he said, the Chile question, referring to exactly such an attempt to introduce reform in Chile at the beginning of the 1970s, which led to the least politically interfering military in South America mounting a coup, deposing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and murdering thousands and thousands of workers and socialists.

Unfortunately having identified the question he didn’t give an answer to it and this might seem to be the major point to highlight in a Marxist review of a film of his political testament.  And so it is.  But by his own experience and through his own words he demonstrates these lessons and the film is valuable for showing them.


After recounting how he wanted to become an MP the film a few minutes later shows him speaking in the House of Commons – to row upon row of empty green benches.   Having had the experience of Governmental office noted above he later announced, in a line provided by his wife, that he was leaving Parliament to spend more time in politics.  We then see him on the campaign trail at meetings and demonstrations until his death this year.

So whatever his reformist words his practice in this way became the opposite of the fetishism and ‘cretinism’ of parliamentary activity for which Marxists would criticise reformist politics.

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Unfortunately today , it is the so-called Marxist left who argue that the big question is the ‘crisis of working class representation’ and pursue one electoralist intervention after another, like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere, fed on the most piss-poor politics that they otherwise condemn in other times or in other places.

So it is not just the young that could learn from these two films.  Very straightforward as they are in political terms, there are basic lessons to be learnt from them – the need for unity of the oppressed, workers internationalism, the futility of seeking fundamental change through capitalist parliaments or the capitalist state, and the need for class struggle.

The defeat of the miners’ strike and the experience of social-democratic politics cast a long shadow over the working class and socialist movement today.  We can learn vital lessons from them and their failure.  That we do not do so is partly because we cannot see the shadow, since it is overcast by an even darker one – that of Thatcherism and the rampage of what is now called neoliberalism.  To come out of the shadows we need to come out of both.  These two films can help us.