Towards a Revolutionary Party in Ireland?

swpieA friend sent me a link to an article he thought was dreadful saying it might be worth me replying to.  By coincidence I had looked at the site on Sunday to see the latest on what the Socialist Workers Party was saying and thought I would read one of the articles.  I saw this one but thought I wouldn’t waste reading yet another article on the revolutionary party.  Read one you’ve read them all.

Of course being bad isn’t necessarily a good reason to review something but I read it in my lunch break anyway.

Having done so I thought that it really is woeful and although it makes some unremarkable decent points these are put in the service of an argument so flabby it barely evokes disdain.  Lots of questions are raised but only in the question-begging sense and all the real difficulties are avoided.  Like when was the last time a party that could reasonably call itself revolutionary was built in Europe?

The article gives three reasons “why a revolutionary party must be built.”  The first is to “bring together activists from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot, Artane and Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Sligo, Wicklow and Wexford.”  The author has in mind the recent anti-water charges campaign but also recent strikes. “Without a party the tendency would be just to sit back as individuals either cursing at the TV or worse being influenced by it.”

A revolutionary party will tell workers not to trust their trade union leaders.  Their activists will provide workers with good arguments against racism because they have “people who know the facts, the history and the arguments.”

Why you need a party for activists to unite, in the water charges campaign for example, is not explained. In fact pretty obviously you don’t need a party, never mind a revolutionary one, you just need a democratic campaign.  Unfortunately the anti-water charges campaign never became such an organisation, which it should have been the priority of socialists to create.

Why you need a revolutionary party so you don’t sit on the couch and swear at the TV is beyond me.  I recall the SWP standing one of its leading members for leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union SIPTU but his manifesto never mentioned social partnership and the policy of open collaboration of the unions with the bosses and the state.  One part of history with its arguments and facts the author appears to have forgotten.

The second reason for needing a revolutionary party is that “forming a left government is, in itself, not enough.” The working class has to “move towards revolution and smashing of the capitalist state.”  Were I an innocent abroad I would wonder why the SWP, as part of People before Profit, stands in elections with a programme totally devoted to winning governmental office.  Because if it doesn’t the manifesto doesn’t make any sense.  No mention in it of distrusting the capitalist state never mind smashing it.

The final reason is that while revolutions may break out spontaneously they don’t succeed without a revolutionary party.  The author gives the example of the Irish revolutionary process between 1919 and 1923 and “the counter-revolution” that betrayed the 1916 rising.  A perfect example of what is wrong with the whole article.

Between 1919 and 1923 there was no socialist revolution to betray and 1916 was no such a revolution.  More facts and history misunderstood and arguments I take to task here, here, here and here.  To be fair to the SWP I don’t recall reading any left wing group doing anything other than paint the 1916 rising in colours of red that it didn’t display at the time.

The reason a revolutionary party is needed in a time of revolution is apparently because the working class will not have a uniform level of political consciousness.  And this is true.  What we don’t get explained is how the majority of workers will develop revolutionary consciousness.  It is this problem that I have been looking at in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  And this is the real problem, given the total lack of real revolutionary challenge to capitalism for nearly a century.  In some countries, including Ireland, the challenge has never occurred or even looked likely.

The real deficiency with the hastily constructed article is the avoidance of this problem coupled with a view that a revolutionary party will be built by groups like the SWP.

Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society.  In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.

This is what Marx meant by “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism.  It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power.  Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation.  This prognosis becomes ridiculous when the smallness of the organisation reveals itself clearly to be inadequate to this historic task.  And the SWP author cannot help betraying this reality.

He claims that there is substantial radicalisation of the working class in Ireland North and South and that significant progress can be made in building a revolutionary party.  The first slip is to fail to define ‘significant’ and the second is to assume that the SWP is that revolutionary party.  The final one is the conclusion to the article where the task is reduced to recruiting individuals and having regular and interesting meetings.  In between is the attempt to buttress the first claim by pointing to the anti-water charges movement and the marriage equality referendum victory in the South.

As the author says, the anti-water charges movement reflected not only anger at this measure but also at the economic crash, the bank bail-out, wage cuts, the USC, Household Charge, community cuts, health cuts, housing crisis and “everything else”.  However the “water charges were a piece of pain that the working class felt it could do something about.”  However if we were really approaching the creation of a mass revolutionary party then this would simply not be the case.  The working class would feel it could do something about all these other injustices and would reflect its knowledge that it really did have the power to do something about all of them.

The anti-water charges campaign has led to no cumulative mass organisation of workers able to take up the other attacks.  The marriage referendum involved a democratic question that did not question capitalism so why would it lead to mass socialist radicalisation?  In the North the case for radicalisation rests on flimsy evidence that amounts to a few strikes, “small campaigns” and the election of two PbP candidates to the Stormont Assembly.  It therefore has to ignore the failure of the strikes, the smallness of the campaigns and the continued dominance by two sectarian parties one of which has ideological views about gay rights, women’s rights and evolution that might embarrass Donald Trump.

This overestimation of the significance of current facts is testament to a small organisation that thinks it has made it big, which it has in comparison to its previous history and others on the left, but which retains a narrow view of the world that ultimately reflects its still limited position in society.  The small mindedness of its politics is the failure to appreciate just how far away we are from revolution being on the agenda.  A cause for despair only if you fail to appreciate the facts, fail to understand history and have no arguments as to how revolutionary politics would be relevant in a prolonged non-revolutionary situation.

The SWP author is right to note that in Ireland there is no mass social democratic or Stalinist parties.  It is therefore the case that formations like the SWP/PbP and the similar Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance can potentially play a much more significant role in advancing the political organisation of the working class.  However to do this they will have to discard the narrow sectarian practices of the past, and face up to the more difficult questions that they face.  To do this would mean a truly revolutionary evaluation of their political history, the arguments they have unthinkingly relied upon and the real political facts of Irish society and its place in the world.  This article shows how far they are from carrying out such a task out and ironically how far they are from any sort of revolutionary party.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only it were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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