James Connolly, Socialism and Sinn Fein

The front-page headline of ‘The Irish News’ yesterday read ‘Sinn Fein and DUP accused of ‘political carve-up’ of £4m’ – a report on the joint decision of the two parties in Belfast City Council to spend £2m on museums and a ‘training hotel’.  The training hotel is a ‘social economy training hotel’ in the loyalist Shankill area and the museums include an Orange Hall museum and a ‘James Connolly Interpretive Centre.’

The latest collaboration between the two best of enemies has not been prevented by their failure to agree terms on a return to Stormont rule, and has been compared to the paramilitary slush fund that is the Strategic Investment Fund.  Opponents have claimed that the funding of the projects in the home base of the two parties has not offered “even an illusion of fairness” and has been put forward with a “complete lack of transparency”. According to ‘The Irish News’, Belfast City Council could not provide minutes of the committee meetings at which the decisions were taken.

The justification for the museums etc. is that they will hugely develop tourism and promote heritage.  So very Irish and very peace-process; money to oil the wheels of ‘peace’.

What James Connolly would have thought of his relatively short stay in Belfast being employed as part of a political carve up, with him on one side and an Orange museum on the other, is not hard to guess.  A report of the new ‘interpretive centre’ has a link to a speech by Martin McGuinness, stating that the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising and subsequent events should be “mature and inoffensive”.  One must therefore look forward to any new centre providing such an interpretation of Connolly’s views on Orangeism, with which his memory will now be twinned.

I also look forward to its interpretation of Connolly’s socialism, which is the very opposite of Irish republican and of much socialist opinion as well, and which is particularly apposite to this proposed municipal initiative.  The following article – ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism’ – written by Connolly in the ‘Workers Republic’ in 1899 is more relevant today than when it was written over a century ago:

“One of the most significant signs of our times is the readiness with which our struggling middle class turns to schemes of State or Municipal ownership and control, for relief from the economic pressure under which it is struggling. Thus we find in England demands for the nationalisation of the telephone system, for the extension of municipal enterprise in the use of electricity, for the extension of the parcel system in the Post Office, for the nationalisation of railways and canals.”

“In Ireland we have our middle class reformers demanding state help for agriculture, state purchase of lands, arterial draining, state construction of docks, piers and harbours, state aid for the fishing industry, state control of the relations between agricultural tenant and landlord, and also nationalisation of railways and canals.”

“There is a certain section of Socialists, chiefly in England, who never tire of hailing all such demands for state activity as a sign of the growth of the Socialist spirit among the middle class, and therefore worthy of all the support the working-class democracy can give. In some degree such a view seems justifiable. The fact that large sections of the capitalist class join in demanding the intervention of the State in industry is a sure sign that they, at least, have lost the overweening belief in the all-sufficiency of private enterprise which characterised their class a generation ago; and that they have been forced to recognise the fact that there are a multitude of things in which the ‘brain’, ‘self-reliance’, and ‘personal responsibility’ of the capitalist are entirely unnecessary.”

“To argue that, since in such enterprises the private property-holder is dispensed with, therefore he can be dispensed with in all other forms of industrial activity, is logical enough and we really fail to see in what manner the advocates of capitalist society can continue to clamour for such state ownership as that alluded to – ownership in which the private capitalist is seen to be superfluous, and yet continue to argue that in all other forms of industry the private capitalist is indispensable. For it must be remembered that every function of a useful character performed by the State or Municipality to-day was at one time performed by private individuals for profit, and in conformity with the then generally accepted belief that it could not be satisfactorily performed except by private individuals.”

“But all this notwithstanding, we would, without undue desire to carp or cavil, point out that to call such demands ‘Socialistic’ is in the highest degree misleading. Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism.”

“The demands of the middle-class reformers, from the Railway Reform League down, are simply plans to facilitate the business transactions of the capitalist class. State Telephones – to cheapen messages in the interest of the middle class who are the principal users of the telephone system; State Railways – to cheapen carriage of goods in the interest of the middle-class trader; State-construction of piers, docks, etc. – in the interest of the middle-class merchant; in fact every scheme now advanced in which the help of the State is invoked is a scheme to lighten the burden of the capitalist – trader, manufacturer, or farmer.”

“Were they all in working order to-morrow the change would not necessarily benefit the working class; we would still have in our state industries, as in the Post Office to-day, the same unfair classification of salaries, and the same despotic rule of an irresponsible head. Those who worked most and hardest would still get the least remuneration, and the rank and file would still be deprived of all voice in the ordering of their industry, just the same as in all private enterprises.”

“Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials – but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.”

“Schemes of state and municipal ownership, if unaccompanied by this co-operative principle, are but schemes for the perfectioning of the mechanism of capitalist government-schemes to make the capitalist regime respectable and efficient for the purposes of the capitalist; in the second place they represent the class-conscious instinct of the business man who feels that capitalist should not prey upon capitalist, while all may unite to prey upon the workers. The chief immediate sufferers from private ownership of railways, canals, and telephones are the middle class shop-keeping element, and their resentment at the tariffs imposed is but the capitalist political expression of the old adage that “dog should not eat dog.”

“It will thus be seen that an immense gulf separates the ‘nationalising’ proposals of the middle class from the ‘socialising’ demands of the revolutionary working class. The first proposes to endow a Class State – repository of the political power of the Capitalist Class – with certain powers and functions to be administered in the common interest of the possessing class; the second proposes to subvert the Class State and replace it with the Socialist State, representing organised society – the Socialist Republic. To the cry of the middle class reformers, “make this or that the property of the government,” we reply, “yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.”

 

 

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

concluded

Back to part 2

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Socialist strategy – reply to a critic 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reforms

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

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

In my post, I noted that Socialist Democracy’s programme for the NI Assembly election was a call “for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.”  I wrote that “obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any other objective than ending Stormont.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 19 – forces and relations of production 2

If the production of a surplus over more or less immediate consumption by those who work in a society is small or too hazardous or costly to collect, or slavery (for example) was a better option, development of other classes would be stymied, because any surplus would be inadequate to allow the generalised development of other classes and the instrument of their rule – the state.  This includes not just non-producing classes that live off the labour of others but those engaged in production of goods not strictly required for consumption, such as handicrafts or luxury items.

A small surplus that periodically disappeared could not support any permanent class that did not work but lived off the products of the labour of others.  This class would be unable to develop its own consumption to allow it to develop the ostentatious wealth to be found today as the artefacts in museums, or to build themselves palaces or Cathedrals and churches that validate the divinity of the rulers.

Historically, the non-existence of a sustainable surplus has meant an egalitarian society simply because appropriation of wealth would leave the labourer who produced the wealth unable to reproduce themselves.  No parasitic ruling class could develop because everyone had to work to ensure survival of the community. As productivity improved this surplus was able to support a ruling class that lived off the labour of others and the greater and more sustainable the surplus the greater the social and political edifice that could be created by the ruling class to support its rule.

Sharp increases or deterioration in the level of surplus could lead the ruling classes to either seek to maintain their level of consumption by increasing their exploitation of the exploited classes, or by relaxing it in order that the producing classes may recover, and some historical debate revolves around the conditions that lead to one or the other approach in particular periods in particular places.

On the other hand, the capitalist development of production continually revolutionises the means of production and constantly seeks to expand consumption, even when this may be considered harmful to humanity, either directly or through the destruction of nature. This expansion creates huge deposits of wealth and the most outrageous extravagance, which recent research has suggested the majority of people massively underestimate.

Finally, the development of society’s productive potential can open up the possibility that it is no longer necessary that the level of surplus be monopolised by one class, and that its extent is so great that all can share in the surplus created by the productive forces.  Relations of production based on class are no longer necessary in order to divide an inadequate surplus that compels some to work on behalf of others.

It is the Marxist case that capitalism has developed the forces of production to such an extent that the potential surplus that can be produced allows the disappearance of exploiting and exploited classes.  A social revolution led by the working class can lead to the abolition of all classes, not immediately and all at once, but over a historical period, achieved through further development of the forces of production, possible through more appropriate relations of production – fully cooperative production by the associated producers.

For critics of Marxism the existence of egalitarian societies in the past really is history, and irrelevant, or alternatively an opportunity to level the old charge that socialism is about levelling down.  That so many differently organised societies – from different types of feudalism to different types of oriental despotic societies – can exist with not so very different levels of surplus extraction, is held to cast doubt that the analysis of Marx has much use in understanding society.

Finally, the view that Marx’s understanding opens up the possibility of a radically egalitarian society in the future is labelled utopian.  To sum up – history is deliberately narrowed to blinker appreciation of the full course of its development or its future possibilities.

For Marxists, the explanatory power of the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production is not limited to the scale of surplus extracted and the implications of this for the form of class rule, if any.  The development of the forces of production, whether it be the replacement of living labour power by machines or, it is increasingly speculated today, by robots, is a powerful contributor to the class struggle, as workers seek to protect their employment and the conditions of that employment, including their wages, which are threatened by reduction due to de-skilling.

Machines make humans agents of their needs and requirements, rather than being the creation of humanity for the purpose of relieving it of the worst aspects of labour.  This results in more intensive exploitation as the restful pores within the working day are filled by more intensive and continuous labour, with work sometimes filling all 24 hours of the day.  On the other hand, new forces of production develop new skills and, as we have seen, the possibility of an entirely new society.

The development of the forces of production fundamentally involves the development of the working population, the greatest productive power, both within historically developed societies, through for example more women participating in the non-domestic labour process, and geographically, as more and more previously undeveloped countries become the home of growing capitalist production.  We are familiar with the development of East Asia and China and also of India, but one can now read reports in business papers noting the potential development of industrialisation in Africa..

For some decades now humanity has become increasingly aware that the uncontrolled increase in productive forces, which pay no heed to the full material effects of their growth, threatens humanity through degrading the planetary environment in which we live.  However, while the forces of production develop, it is the relations of production which are key to making a qualitative change to the mode of production as a whole.  Humanity’s interface with nature, whilst being itself a vital part of that nature, can only be made complementary and supportive if the relations of humanity to itself are not exploitative and antagonistic.

In these many ways, we see the primacy of the development of the forces of production, not as some autonomous force derived from a disembodied internal logic of the system but from the effects of their material growth, derived from the class relations in which they are sited, and which in turn affects these class relations.  Much of the misunderstanding of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production arises from an analytical failure that views them as wholly separate, with material forces such as technology on one side and human relations on the other.

A second misconception is to see the development of the forces of production in history almost automatically and inevitably resulting in changed productive relations.  Automatically – no, inevitably – perhaps, but the latter does not mean linear or inevitable progress, and productive forces can be fettered, to use Marx’s term, for a very long time.  Marx did not claim to have a “master key of a general historico-philosophical theory” the virtue of which was that it “consists in being supra-historical.”

The relationship between the forces and relations of production will be developed more in the next post.

Back to part 18

 

Never mind Brexit?

When I wrote against Scottish independence in the run-up to the referendum I noted that one of the strongest motivators of many in the Yes campaign was the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the campaign itself, not the actual goal.  The latter promised wonderful things but these were free floating and detached from reality, and no amount of wishful thinking could make up for the lack of any realistic case.  Instead, the campaign itself gave tangible reality to the demand for independence.

It is now apparent that this is a cause that has to have such a movement, now through Indyref2, or it starts to crumble. The Scottish working class dodged a bullet when the majority of people in Scotland voted No.  Even prominent supporters of independence and erstwhile opponents of austerity are now saying that independence would need five years of austerity to work.  Of course, we’re told it would only be temporary, but then so is Tory austerity. When is austerity not temporary?

I was reminded of this when I read Owen Jones article in today’s ‘Guardian’, whose headline said it all – ‘As the media obsess over Brexit, they’re missing Labour’s revolution.’  In other words – forget about Brexit and look at the movement for change in the Party.

If you think my characterising this position is not really forgetting about Brexit, then consider the report – again in ‘The Guardian’ – that, “on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, McDonnell said it could not be guaranteed that Labour’s position on the single market would be finalised if there was an election in six months.”

When Theresa May made her Florence speech last week much media coverage concentrated on her ‘change of tone’ from the bombastic declarations of her Lancaster House speech. The usual in-depth reporting perhaps.

The media repeatedly tells us that Brexit is fiendishly complex while generally ignoring this complexity; although now and then it makes pathetic attempts to explain it; that is when it’s not wallowing in the knockabout political manoeuvring at Westminster and, as it has done from the start, treating Brexit as mainly an intra-Tory fight.  On this occasion however, the obviously superficial attributes of the speech were indeed the most significant thing about it.

Where the media failed yet again, was to explain why this change of tone came about. Or how the rest of the speech was actually a continuation of the La La Land Tory dream of Brexit, which some more informed commentators think will, to the Brexiteers delight, be delivering Brexit before Christmas.  Again unfortunately, before the Labour Party might decide to get its act together.

What appeared as the most significant policy initiative was May’s statement that there had to be a transitional phase, which she couldn’t even force herself to describe as a transition.  In this transition she hopes that some unspecified super trade deal, unlike any other, can be negotiated; one that will save the UK from the consequences of Brexit.

This reflects simply that Brexit is a looming disaster, with the hope that it can be made less so by postponing it, perhaps similarly to the way it is said that justice delayed is justice denied.  Unfortunately for her, and for us, Brexit won’t be delayed, or at least not by anything she’s doing.

May’s transition assumes more or less continued EU membership, perhaps without EU judicial authority continuing, which even the most ignorant must surely know is not possible.  Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator has made it clear again and again, immediately before and immediately after May’s speech, that the UK is leaving the EU in March 2019.  If it wants to discuss anything else, it has to first sort out the rights of EU citizens in the UK, agree the financial settlement for leaving, and propose a special deal to avoid a new border in Ireland.

May made unspecified promises on citizens’ rights, offered £20 billion – which I’m sure the EU welcomes although that is quite beside the point – and said nothing about Ireland.  In other words, the UK is heading for the exit with no deal unless it practically addresses these three issues, and that includes any deal on a transition.  They have been calling it a cliff edge for a while now.

Clearly the bitterly divided Tories are drowning and trying to take everyone down with them, if allowed.  Their position on Brexit is incoherent.  They cannot possibly get the trade deal they say they want, one that gives them more or less the same arrangements as retaining single market membership while leaving the EU.  To get the former they must ditch the latter, or rather to get the latter they must ditch the former.

The problem is that the Labour Party’s position, in so far as it has one, is now perhaps even more delusional than the Tories’.  Certainly, the Labour Party demanded a transitional deal before the Tories, but only the blind could have believed that the exit terms could be agreed, and then new arrangements negotiated, within Article 50 requirements.  These requirements were written precisely to ensure it made no sense to use them.  A classical Catch 22 – to get out you must use them but if you use them it shows it makes no sense to get out.

But Labour too wants just the same sort of wonderful trade deal as the Tories while leaving the EU.  ‘The Guardian’ article reports the following – “Speaking later at an event with Labour’s MEPs, Starmer said he believed a Brexit deal could be achieved that would be as good as being in the EU.”

This is as much a ‘have your cake and eat it’ policy as the Tories.  Leaving the EU means the UK becomes a third country, so it will have to face barriers to trade.  New trading arrangements will take potentially years to negotiate and the EU will not allow the UK to cherry-pick what it will buy into and what it will not.  There is no point looking at existing comparators because the UK is the only country ever to seek to leave.  It is both too important to let cherry-pick the power wielded by the EU bloc and too weak to impose its demands.

What sets the Labour Party position apart is not the claim that it can have a Brexit that cherry-picks the best bits, but one that appears to believe that you can have a Brexit that puts “jobs and living standards first.”  Such a Brexit does not exist.  Trading barriers and their consequences will hit both – that’s how capitalism works.

Socialists opposed to Brexit have argued that socialism cannot be built in one country, cannot arise by separating the UK or any other country from the international capitalist system, but can only arise from an international struggle for international socialism based on existing global development.

in more immediate terms however, socialists will not build an alternative by acceding to a Brexit policy that can only damage jobs and services and reduce wages, processes already in train, while blithely claiming the opposite.  No amount of social democratic intervention by the UK state can ameliorate the effects of increased isolation from the world capitalist market, or the alternative of supplicant trade deals with major power blocs.

The traditional socialist value of international solidarity is based on the identity of interest among workers in all countries because these interests can only be defended successfully together.  We are not talking merely of identification of common interests, but the identity of circumstances at the most basic level.  Socialist advances cannot be successful if not extended internationally, or imposed, for example at a European level, from the very start.

Just as in Scotland, celebrating the movement while ignoring the goal is a mistake; a Brexit Britain under a Corbyn Labour Party will fail, just as similarly if not identically, a separate Scotland would also fail to advance the interest of workers there.

There is still time to dodge the Brexit bullet; but if or when it comes don’t ask why everything is turning to shit – “send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”  How appropriate this passage starts with “no man is an island entire of itself, each is a piece of the continent.”

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 18 – forces and relations of production 1

We have seen the importance of production to individuals and to society and how the relations of production condition our lives and thus how changing these is fundamental to any alternative that seeks to radically transform these lives.

An alternative view is that it is not possible to ascribe any objective primacy in historical explanation to any of the multiple factors that bring about a particular event.  Since multiple factors create history and all are necessary for any particular outcome there can be no fundamental ordering or understanding of historical development.  This view therefore implies that pursuit of any alternative can have no secure foundation because any particular outcome is a combination of causes, each of which is necessary for the existence of that event and its consequences, and it is impossible to control for all these multiple causes.

It is not my purpose to go into a philosophical interrogation of this claim but to point out that Marxism demonstrates the cogency of its alternative not by the attractiveness of its ideas but by their consistency and correspondence to reality; that they explain the real world, how it develops and how it may be changed.  Its correctness therefore arises from real history which must evidence its ideas and the persuasiveness of its alternative. Marxism does not therefore impose formulas on history to which the real world must adhere but establishes the laws through which history develops by looking at history itself. The existence of such laws is demonstrated by interrogation of history itself.

Its claim is therefore that there are some things more important than others to understanding historical development and therefore fundamental in determining how it can be changed and placed under conscious human control, in so far that it can.  The claim by Marx is that it is how people cooperate to reproduce their conditions of life, and the forces of production and relations of production as the key aspects of this process, that can explain its overall development.  These aspects of history have to be identified and their mutually conditioned development explained by history and not by some theory imposed from outside.

The ‘Preface’ of 1859 contains some very short remarks setting out this view:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . . At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

The key part of this that is often misunderstood is “relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.”  For some this means that that forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development, in that the relations by which people come together to produce are determined by the level of development of these forces of production and that changes in these relations of production arise from the development of the productive forces.  An alternative view is that it is the relations of production, for example, of exclusive capitalist ownership of the means of production plus a working class without such ownership, and the competition among these capitalists, that is the motor of development.  In other words, two diametrically opposite views!

In the last post, I explained what was meant by the relations of production under capitalism.  Turning to the forces of production, these can be considered to be the instruments of production including technology (factories, offices, transport, machines etc. – the physical instruments used to produce material goods and ‘immaterial’ services); raw materials used in production; and labour used in production including its mode of organisation, cooperation and division of labour.

Human labour power is the most basic force of production and since relations of production are composed of people we can see that the forces and relations of production are not physically separate things but different aspects of the way individuals combine in society to produce and reproduce that society.  The most basic force of production under capitalism is therefore the working class.

There is not therefore a set of forces of production upon which a separate set of relations are imposed to make a combined mode of production.  These are two aspects of the one production process with their own features that entail the contradictory development of capitalism as a whole and explain its development.  Just as the commodities produced in capitalism have a use value – they must have some use in order to be bought and sold – and they must have an exchange value – they must have a monetary value that determines whether they are made and sold, and at what price they are sold at; so, the forces and relations of production are aspects of the one process of (re)production.

This means that production is capitalist production for profit, which is derived from the unpaid labour of the worker.  This however can only be profit if the commodities made by the worker are sold, which means the commodities must have a use value, for if they had no use they would not be purchased, and the lower the share of wages in the value created in production the greater must be the consumption of the capitalist and other parasitic classes.  The surplus value created by the worker, the unpaid labour transformed into money, allows the capitalist to purchase more instruments of labour and hire more labour power.

Production is therefore not just the production of material goods and services but the reproduction of class relationships and the relations of production. The forces and relations of production exist as a unity, as aspects of the same process.

The reproduction of classes thus involves not just the hire of labour to make a profit but assumes that the wage can function as a wage because the commodities the worker needs to consume can be purchased with money the worker receives and are thus themselves commodities produced by wage labour.  This is also the case with the instruments of labour which are not self-produced either by the capitalist, and certainly not by the worker, but are themselves commodities produced by wage labour.

Only when this is the case can we really claim that the relations of production and classes typical of capitalism are adequately developed so that the features of capitalism that we will later discuss are expressed and become typical, including separation of the worker from the means of production and their re-uniting only under the control of capitalists, who now monopolise their ownership.  Only to the extent that this is the case can we talk of capitalism and we can only know this by historical investigation.  While elements of wage labour and capital have existed for many centuries, the capitalist mode of production has not.

The first claim by Marx is that certain relations of production are appropriate to, or correspond with, a given stage in the development of the material forces of production.  But in what sense are the forces of production primary?

A second famous quote from Marx sets out in a more specific way than the 1859 Preface his views:

“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.”[i]

Marx is therefore saying that the level of productivity determines what forms of extraction of surplus from the exploited class are possible. He sets out a general relation between the level of productivity (size of surplus) and the forms of surplus labour possible given that level of productivity.  This form of surplus labour extraction is the basis for sustaining class relations in society and this class society determines the kind of political form the society takes or ‘the form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence.’

Class relations thus grow out of production so must in some way be separate from production for these relations to in turn react upon it, so that the class relations have to correspond with production.

Of course, at any particular time production takes place within class relationships but taken separately, in this sense, it may be considered as simply material production, as production of use values, as production in itself, a process between men and women and nature involving methods of labour.

This is an aspect of the actual mode of production useful in order to understand production as a whole, which also necessarily includes class relations.  The forces and relations of production therefore include the same people and the same processes but understood as different aspects of the one mode of production, aspects that are not simply conceptual but can be demonstrated through real history.

The ability of this production to support any class society, the scope and extent of this class society and the potential to abolish class society altogether, depends upon the productive forces creation of a surplus and the extent of this surplus production.

[i] Marx goes on to say that “This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.”

Back to part 17