Brexit Socialism

The left argument for Brexit starts and ends with the observation that the EU is a capitalist construct devoted to neoliberalism.  The British State must free itself from it so British workers can use it to their benefit.

That this is a nationalist project is obvious, since it prioritises national sovereignty and the freedom of the British state over the sovereignty and freedom of the working class. In this view the sovereignty of the British capitalist state is the mechanism to advance and achieve the interests of British workers.

‘We’ must reclaim our nation in the form of the freedom of ‘our’ state even when, as socialists, we are not supposed to let nationality define our politics, or regard as ‘ours’ a state that is the instrument of capitalist rule.  But unfortunately the Brexit illusion is not uncommon within organisations that describe themselves as Marxist, an illusion applying equally to support for Scottish nationalism and ‘our’ prospective free Scottish state.

In this approach only the interests of British workers are considered (or Scottish, when it comes to creating a new Scottish capitalist state), which is why exiting the EU is advanced rather than any reform to it, or even any international campaign to achieve referendums across the EU seeking similar leave votes in France, Slovenia, Finland etc.

The organisations in Britain supporting Brexit have been careful not to trumpet and advance this agenda in Ireland because of its unpopularity.  Of course, in demanding a deep Brexit and no hard border within Ireland, they are effectively demanding that the Irish State significantly remove itself from the EU, without acknowledging it and without having to openly and honestly argue for it amongst the Irish people.

The problem for any such pan-European campaign isn’t that it would fail, and would garner support mainly from the extreme nationalist right – so exposing even further the primary source of support for Brexit in the UK. The more embarrassing problem would arise from success.  Because if such a campaign of mobilisation of a united working class across Europe were successful there would be no excuse for Brexit, or any other exit.  The task would so obviously be to reform and transform the EU by strengthening the political and organisational unity of Europe’s working class.  Returning to local nationalist designs would be seen for what they are and narrow projects for national sovereignty would be toast.

Lenin took up similar arguments in ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ when he argued against the Polish Socialist Party position on the separation of Polish socialists from others in the empire ruled by Tsarism, and on the question of separation generally. The Polish Party, he says, believes that the Party “can only weaken tsarism by wresting Poland from it; it is the task of the Russian comrades to overthrow it.”  In doing so Lenin unfavourably compared the increasing unity of the capitalist class internationally with the weakening of the unity of the working class through separation of its national components

British left supporters of Brexit in effect take the same approach, and in their opposition to the EU seek not to overthrow it or reform it or transform it, but simply to walk away from it, with the vacuous claim that they are offering an example to the rest of Europe.  In fact, as we have seen, Europe’s workers have looked on in bemusement at the mess that Brexit has created and viewed the threats of a dumbed down society it promises as a warning not to do it themselves. Far from encouraging the break-up of the EU the experience of Brexit has confirmed the necessity to counter the unity of Europe’s capitalist class with increasing the unity of Europe’s working class.

Lenin makes a similar point in relation to the Jewish socialist organisation – the Bund – and does not accept the existing weakness of working class unity as an alibi to weaken it further:

“What we have said on the Polish question is wholly applicable to every other national question. The accursed history of autocracy has left us a legacy of tremendous estrangement between the working classes of the various nationalities oppressed by that autocracy. This estrangement is a very great evil, a very great obstacle in the struggle against the autocracy, and we must not legitimise this evil or sanctify this outrageous state of affairs by establishing any such “principles” as separate parties or a “federation” of parties. It is, of course, simpler and easier to follow the line of least resistance, and for everyone to make himself comfortable in his own corner following the rule, “it’s none of my business,” as the Bund now wants to do. The more we realise the need for unity and the more firmly we are convinced that a concerted offensive against the autocracy is impossible without complete unity, the more obvious becomes the necessity for a centralised organisation of the struggle in the conditions of our political system—the less inclined are we to be satisfied with a “simple,” but specious and, at bottom, profoundly false solution of the problem.”

The primacy of the international unity of the working class is made very clear:

“As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.”

In a separate article – “Corrupting the Workers with refined Nationalism” – the requirement for the unity of the working class and its organisations is stated clearly:

“The class-conscious workers fight hard against every kind of nationalism, both the crude, violent, Black-Hundred nationalism, and that most refined nationalism which preaches the equality of nations together with … the splitting up of the workers’ cause, the workers’ organisations and the working-class movement according to nationality. Unlike all the varieties of the nationalist bourgeoisie, the class conscious workers, carrying out the decisions of the recent (summer 1913) conference of the Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.”

Brexit provides no rationale for the unity Lenin sought, and as we noted, is not even considered by its left supporters as a means of trying to unite across countries to reverse the internationalisation of capital that is the purpose of the EU, which anyway would also be wrong.  The complete escapism of Brexit explains the failure of both its right and left supporters to have the least realistic or practical plan how to implement their chosen vision, and especially how to deal with increased national isolation Brexit must inevitably bring. Slogans are all that are provided, with a blind faith in the power of the British State to fashion a new society.  The vision is so backward it is reactionary not only from the standpoint of the working class but also from the point of view of the development of capitalism.

It is understandable that some sincere socialists might follow the political line of the Brexit supporting organisations that they are either members or supporters of; or that there are those who can’t otherwise explain the fact that the small left organisations are mostly in support of it.  But there is nothing very new about such reactionary socialism and it has been contested right from the start of our movement.  As Marx said in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, such reactionary ideas arise again and again on the basis of the petty bourgeois class from which they emanate.

He identified three forms of such reactionary socialism which exhibited properties that are today expressed in left support for Brexit.  These included petty-bourgeois socialism:

“In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.” (Emphasis added – SM)

Of ‘True Socialism’ it is noted that “It proclaimed the German nation to be the model nation, and the German petty Philistine to be the typical man. To every villainous meanness of this model man, it gave a hidden, higher, Socialistic interpretation, the exact contrary of its real character.”

So, for both right and left supporters of Brexit, Britain will bring a new internationalism to the world in the shape of either globalised free markets or a socialist British State. Replace German with British and one has replicated Marx’s caustic remarks in relation to this latest manifestation in Brexit socialism.  As before, a “Socialistic interpretation” of this Brexit and its supporters are ”the exact contrary of its real character.”

‘The Communist Manifesto’ sets out the principles that still inform socialists today, even if some of his disciples seem determined to prove Lenin right when he declared that no one can discredit revolutionary socialism as long as it does not discredit itself. For Marx and Engels the first of the distinguishing hallmarks of such socialism is that “In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.”

We have seen that Brexit starts and ends with opposition to an expression of international capitalism and starts and ends with a form of national socialism, which because it is national is nothing to do with socialism.

Should socialists support a border poll? 5 – a socialist approach

The leader of the SDLP Colm Eastwood has claimed that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a referendum on Irish unity without a plan, saying a border poll should not be held until work to build a new and reconciled Ireland was completed.  Gerry Adams has made a similar statement on the need for preparation.

We have seen in earlier posts that unity of the working class, especially within the North, does not mean reconciliation to bigotry and sectarianism.  It does not therefore mean the sort of reconciliation that Irish nationalism, endorsed by the British State, has put forward in the name of “equality of the two traditions.” These traditions are defined by sectarianism in one case and by a nationalism incapable of going beyond Catholic support on the other.

Nationalism is now dead as a practical programme, in the sense that the objective of an economically and politically independent and sovereign nation is now impossible.  Brexit is demonstrating this is the case for a much larger and more powerful nation, never mind for a much smaller and weaker one.  We are seeing that the attempt to do so is inevitably reactionary as it seeks a world that has disappeared.

This is not to say that the demand for self-determination by the Irish people is not a democratic demand that socialists should endorse.  It is one of many democratic demands that cannot be fully delivered under the current capitalist system; but in terms of setting up a wholly separate sovereign state Ireland has missed that nationalist bus.  Small nations, in fact even the big ones, are now subject to international capital, an international division of labour, and international political organisation in a way that did not exist 100 years ago.

The fate of the nominally independent part of Ireland, which started its road to statehood almost 100 years ago, demonstrates this today through its reliance on multinational capital and its membership of the European Union.  To seek an Irish capitalism without such capital, and outside the EU, is to doom the Irish working class to a perfectly national form of capitalism that can no longer exist, and which would be reactionary from the point of view both of capitalism and socialism.

It is no accident that the most militant republicans support Brexit, but this is only testament to their programme of independence being utopian – it is not possible to achieve. Utopias can be forward or backward looking and theirs is forward looking in terms of seeking the end of direct foreign rule, a rule that has engendered deep and malignant division, but is backward, not only in its continued devotion to militarism, but also to the idea of undiluted and undivided national sovereignty and independence.

Socialists seek not only the unity of the working class within nations but between nations.  This unity cannot be the unity of self-sufficient and independent states, since the productive powers of capitalism have long ago burst out of such narrow confines.  The unity of nations that socialists seek is now one of mutual dependence and cooperation.

This is obviously a long-term perspective but it informs our attitude to a border poll today, for example in the primacy of the pursuit of working class unity.  For socialists, removal of the border is a necessary part of the struggle for working class unity.  So too is opposition to Brexit, which much of the Irish Left and militant republicanism support.

Unfortunately, the working-class movement is a very long way from being able to offer a credible plan for unification based on its existing organisations and structures.  If the call for a border poll means anything more than a statement of principle then this must be accepted.  The only possible form a united Ireland could take today, after a majority in favour of it in the North following a poll, would involve the incorporation of the North into the South.

While much of the left might propose a left Government in the South, this too is far off and is not a perspective that would convince anyone that the immediate result of a United Ireland would be incorporation into a left social democratic state.

Support for a border poll is not therefore a stand-alone demand but focuses the socialist and working class movement on what it can do to make such a poll an opportunity to fight for the unity of the working class.  Today, when there is no immediate likelihood of a border poll, it requires that socialists state what we would mean by having a ‘plan’ of our own, to put it in the words of Colm Eastwood.  Or as socialists would put it – a programme to fight for that would, if successful, lead not only to territorial and state unity, but also the much increased unity of the Irish working class, as part of a wider united European working class.  Obviously, this last objective would mean opposition to Brexit and Irexit.

Since leading by example far surpasses any other means of seeking support, what this must involve is the growth and strength of the working class movement itself – its trade unions, political parties and campaigns.  At present the meshing of the trade unions in social partnership and the devotion of the left to state ownership as socialism, means the working class movement does not offer Northern workers any alternative to simple incorporation by the southern state.

The working class movement itself is in many ways a husk, with empty trade union branches and hollowed out parties.  This is the case even in its supposed advanced, activist form.  In the last Southern local elections a spokesperson for People before Profit stated that it lost seats because it could not get its vote out – a humiliating admission that its support is not more political than the bourgeois parties but less so. Many unions are no advertisement for democracy and most parties on the left are sects incapable of containing political differences that will and must arise in truly mass parties of the working class.

As we have noted before, much of the left is actually reactionary, including its support for Brexit, accompanied by its dishonesty in not fighting openly for Irexit.  Not all members of the relevant organisations support Brexit but where then is the open debate that might inform workers of the issues at stake?  In its approach to democracy, the internal regimes of these organisations contain little debate of political principle and not much on strategy and tactics.  How to implement the line is usually the only thing up for some discussion.

If we accept that there must be no coercion of a nationalist majority, under the guise of any requirement for an increased majority (or the latest version of this – parallel majorities), it is also true that there can be no coercion of Protestant workers. This does not mean acceptance of a veto by loyalism, of the sort we have examined in the last few posts.  There can be no admission that any loyalist reaction must have its objections accepted.  The unity of the working class requires the defeat of sectarian division and the political forces that represent it.

While the Socialist Party for example has also expressed opposition to coercion, it is clear that this concern is rather one-sided.  History has shown that democracy in Ireland has been subject to coercion mainly from the British State, usually in alliance with unionism.  It is not only possible but inevitable that a majority vote for a united Ireland in the North would be subject to unionist threats and violence. As this series of posts has made clear, the answer to the first question that this poses is opposition in principle to this veto.

The second question is how to minimise this coercion, and this firstly means opposing any threat by the British State, or any section of it – national or local – seeking to prevent unity or determine is nature and shape.  This is where the unity of workers across the two islands and Europe is necessary to isolate and repulse such coercive threats and actions.  This is not just a question of opposing and preventing loyalist intimidation of Catholics, the first victims of loyalist intimidation are always fellow Protestants who don’t accept that their religious identity requires them to be sectarian.

Before all this however comes the task of reducing Protestant support for unionism and increasing support for a democratic solution.  This means the socialist and working class movement breaking from its alliances with the Northern and Southern States and asserting its independence. It means demonstrating through deeds, and not just expression of principles, that it opposes sectarianism no matter from where it comes.  On this it does not have a very good record.

In the South there has been no anti-clerical movement and the left has avoided direct challenge to the power of the Catholic Church.  It has not been the left that demolished the reputation of the Church but the actions of the Church itself and media exposure of its crimes, particularly against women and children.  If any movement deserves credit for openly campaigning against the church it is the women’s movement, and at most the left can claim some credit for having supported it.

What the left has not done is seek to demolish the structural power of the Church.  Instead it almost appears content to believe that the power of the Church has gone, rather than confronting the reality that as long as its structural supports are maintained it has not been defeated.

Such defeat means something more than a loss of reputation, it means a debate on the democratic alternative to Church control of education and health services.  So, for example, despite the victory for abortion rights the Church’s potential role in maternity services shows the importance of destroying this structural power.

In terms of the North it also means opposing Catholic Church power in education and health, something the left has not done and radical nationalists have opposed.  For example, I recall at one meeting in a republican club in West Belfast, when an ex-IRA prisoner complained that he could not get a teaching job, one of my comrades told him – it wasn’t the British who discriminated against him.

Yet there has been no campaign against Church control.  Such opposition would of course  be vigorously opposed by the Church, on the basis that it was yet another sectarian Protestant assault on Catholics.  And there is no doubt widespread support among Catholic workers for sectarian education, simply assumed by them to such an extent that it is not even considered to be sectarian.  I have been to enough Masses to know that the clergy regularly ask congregants to pay for ‘their’ Catholic schools.

I also recall one member of the organisation I belonged to resigning when he found out that socialists do not support more state funding for Catholic education on grounds of equality, but an end to church control in the first place.  Such mistaken ideas hide behind the argument that state control is control by the imperialist state, ignoring the fact that British rule has long supported Catholic Church control.

The socialist position is democratic control of schools by workers themselves and complete separation of church and state.  To put it bluntly – Protestant workers should not pay for Catholic Church control of education, and neither should Catholic workers, or those who don’t define themselves as either.  This means there should also be no exemption from discrimination legislation allowing Church authorities to discriminate against non-Catholic teaching applicants.

The demonstration of opposition to all sectarianism is the alternative to “equality of the two traditions” and its ‘left’ variant of the Socialist Party, which seeks its own reconciliation with sectarianism through, for example, conferring legitimacy on loyalist reaction.  The only possible grounds for the latter is that it has some positive content.

For Catholic workers it means that they identify themselves not as a religious group defending a sectarian interest but as a section of the population that has faced discrimination and seeks an end of all privilege and sectarian rights. The view that because Catholics have historically been the sufferers of sectarian oppression, they can be relied upon to oppose all cases of it in the future is to believe that oppression somehow makes whole populations more righteous by virtue of their oppression, something that does not bear any historical investigation.  One only has to think of the appalling fate of millions of Jews at the hands of fascism and the repugnant use of this suffering by Zionism to excuse and justify the shocking oppression of the Palestinian people.

The strength of the Catholic population’s support for sectarian education is simply an example of the impact that the existence of a sectarian state has on how the society within it operates.  It is yet another illustration why the destruction of that state is required to eradicate it.  Too many Catholics object to a sectarian state but not to one sectarian policy of that state – a united Ireland but not a united classroom.

Without a strong working class and socialist movement it cannot be anticipated that a united Ireland can be brought about without coercion, even with the validation of a majority vote for it within the North.  This does not lessen our support for it as a component part of the necessary struggle of the working class in Ireland, because such a struggle will minimise such coercion and maximise the working class unity to be gained.

On the other hand, opposition to a border poll and a potential majority for a united Ireland on the grounds that this in itself involves coercion of Protestant workers must be rejected, not least because in such circumstances coercion will come immediately, if not long before, from loyalist reactionaries, with or without support of the British State or elements of it.  Such a position does not represent opposition to coercion but support for it.

Such then are examples of the issues faced by socialists, and the approach that should be taken.  There is little likelihood of a majority vote for a United Ireland within the North in the near future, and nationalist calls for a poll without a wider programme that demonstrates its progressive content is not something we should support.  Our support for a poll, in principle, and in practice, arises from our objective of a united working class and the achievement of this requires more than simply a majority vote.  Our support therefore rests on quite different grounds and we should neither reject this support nor surrender the grounds for it.

Concluded

Back to part 4

Belfast meeting discusses Marxism and Brexit

Sixty or so people attended a meeting on Friday night organised by academics and the Slugger O’Toole web site entitled ‘Brexit, Borders and Beyond: Marxism as a guide in turbulent times.’  It was interesting in a couple of respects worth recording.

The first speaker gave a broad description of the Marxist view of the state – “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  It was an instrument of class oppression.  Unfortunately, at the end the meeting in replying to points from the floor, and in attempting to defend the idea of Brexit, she argued that it would allow the working class more say than continued membership of the EU.

The second speaker was an advocate of Green politics and argued that the ecology of the planet could be saved, but could be done in one of two ways.  Through oppression and exploitation or through a progressive and democratic road.  He argued strongly that important to the second was an emphasis on industrial democracy as well as political democracy.  He was also rather dismissive of the traditional Marxist view of insurrectionary revolution and the necessity of social change coming through violence.

A comrade beside me made a comment to the effect that revolutionary change can only come through violence but this ignores the point made by the speaker that the growth of industrial democracy is important, and this does not necessitate violence.  This is something I have argued in this blog in relation to the importance of the creation of workers’ cooperatives.  While political revolution involving the State often requires violence it also often entails no fundamental social change, which requires a change in ownership of the productive forces.

The Marxist idea of revolution is too often conceived in terms of destroying the capitalist state, leading to a one-sided focus on what is bad for capitalism, while ignoring the much more important concept of revolution, which is a revolution in the consciousness of the working class.  This shifts the focus to what is necessary for the working class and doesn’t assume that what is bad for capitalism must be good for workers.  It also brings to light the importance of the growth of workers’ cooperatives in changing the social life of the working class and thereby its political consciousness.  It addresses the otherwise impossible to answer question how revolutionary politics can be effective in times of peace.

The meeting was in part ill-conceived, since I can’t have been alone in thinking the meeting was about the left case for Brexit.  The third speaker was Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek academic working in London and ex-member of the Greek parliament.  He recently wrote a book entitled ‘The Left Case Against the EU’, which more or less did a reasonable job of achieving the aims of the title but didn’t make a strong case for Brexit.  In speaking at the meeting he argued more forcefully for it.

He argued that the EU was irretrievably neoliberal and could not be reformed since this neoliberalism was enshrined in basic Treaty law, although he did acknowledge, as he did in his book, that the EU was once dominated by a Keynesian approach to economic governance.  Since changes could only be made by unanimity it was impossible to foresee such unanimity and therefore impossible to see how there could be any reform.  He declared that no advocate of ‘remain and reform’ had been able to explain how they could carry it out.  His speech was well received and there was only one intervention from the floor in opposition to Brexit.

This intervention argued that the proof of the pudding was in the eating and that so far Brexit was a disaster. Lapavitsas did reply at the end that Brexit had yet to happen but didn’t go on to explain how the pudding was going to improve on what we had already seen.

The speaker from the floor argued that Costas had come to the wrong country if he wanted to argue that the British State was reformable in a way that other capitalist states were not (otherwise of course we could reform the German and French States and therefore why not the EU?).  It was pointed out that at another recent meeting on trade unions and Brexit one speaker had argued that the EU had held workers back, but that the idea that the EU was the obstacle to workers unity and mobilisation in Ireland was hard to take seriously.

It was the British State that had divided Irish workers and had been responsible for such things as internment, torture, Bloody Sunday etc.  But this was the State that was almost uniquely reformable?  A later speaker from the Socialist Party pointed out that the EU had approved or failed to criticise the actions of the British State in Ireland but this didn’t really answer the point – it hadn’t been claimed that we would or should rely on the EU or that it was in some way expected to have prevented British oppression.

The speaker also argued that the EU did not prevent nationalisation as seemed to be the argument of left supporters of Brexit, and pointed out that, in so far as critical industries were concerned (as argued by Lapavitsas), the energy industry in Ireland was dominated by state-owned companies; the water and sewerage industry was state owned; the banking industry had more or less been nationalised at one point, and the transport industry had a large state-owned presence.

Lapavitsas responded that what was important was not that state industry was allowed to compete with private capitalist concerns but that it was prevented from monopolising an industry. While this is not even strictly true – state ownership enjoys a more or less monopoly position in electricity transmission and distribution, water and sewerage, and railways for example – it avoids the much more central question that ownership by the capitalist state is NOT socialism. This is so fundamental an issue that failure to recognise it shows the complete degeneration and disorientation of the self-styled Marxist left. But we will look at this further in a minute.

This intervention from the floor finished by recalling a debate in which a left supporter of Brexit had mocked the idea of defending the EU’s freedom of movement by stating it showed concern only with the freedom of white Europeans.  It was noted that in that debate, and at the meeting, the participants were mainly white Europeans, and white Europeans had rights too; as did non-white Europeans who had been forgotten about by dismissing free movement in the EU.  It was observed that ‘the free movement of people’ had for some incomprehensible reason become a dirty phrase for some on the left.  And as someone else had remarked – left opponents of freedom of movement in the EU want to extend this freedom beyond Europe by getting rid of it within Europe first.

In relation to this Lapavitsas claimed that open borders was not a socialist position and that the alternative was Marx’s declaration in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that workers of all countries should unite.  What he seemed to mean was that workers in each country should stay in their country with some sort of fraternity between them, but that the nation state would persist. He claimed that Brexit was not nationalist, but if restricting workers freedoms to within nation states looks like a form of nationalism it is because it is a form of nationalism.  And this nationalism informs Lapavitsas’s and Brexit supporters’ whole conception of socialism.

This involves socialism being ownership by the capitalist state, and since the capitalist state is still primarily a national one it means defending the sovereignty of that nation state. Defence of national sovereignty was another assertion Lapavitsas was keen to make.  But the supreme power, supremacy and authority – sovereignty – of the capitalist nation state is NOT socialism but reactionary nationalism that even modern capitalism is leaving behind.  In this sense Lapavitsas and supporters of Brexit like him are not only wrong about the way forward but are reactionary because they want to take us backwards.  Far from separating the working classes by nationality, as he wishes to do, it is the Marxist view that workers should identify themselves as a class irrespective of nationality.  This is obviously at odds with a political view that the nation state will define their liberation and emancipation.

The true relationship between Marxism, Brexit and Borders is the recognition that the development of capitalism brings socialism closer, that the revolutionising of the means of production ,and society generally, creates the preconditions for socialism, and that the increasingly international character of capitalism creates an increasingly international working class.

Lapavitsas referred to Marx’s remark that “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”, but this was written when a world market had begun and world production had not, when capitalism and the capitalist class and its state were purely national.  The working class could not settle matters with the capitalist class of all countries ‘first’.  But the EU is precisely confirmation that capitalism and the capitalist class are now internationally organised.  The failure of the workers movement to keep up has led some of its political representatives to seek to address this failure by seeking to drag capitalism back to the primitive state the workers movement is still in.

The international organisation if capitalism exists and is therefore what the proletariat faces “first”, and must face as an international class by building up its international organisation and programme.  This is precisely the perspective of reform and remain, although Marxists will of course have their own view of what this entails.

More than this, the purpose is not so much to remain in the EU and seek its reform, but to accept the breaking down of national restrictions as the most appropriate framework for the reformation of the European working class more and more into a single class. For Marxists it is the sovereignty and independence of the working class which is the objective of socialist politics not only in relation to the nation state but in relation to the proto-international EU state, and not the reform of either.

As Marx stated before the line quoted above – “though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.”  The existence of the international economic and political organisation of capitalism through the EU shows that increasingly the struggle of the proletariat must not only be international in substance but also international in form.

As Lenin put it in ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’– “The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them.”

In seeking to deny this approach the left supporters of Brexit unknowingly deny not only the reality of capitalism but also the possibility of socialism.  No wonder their conception of the latter involves ownership by the capitalist state and not by the working class.

It’s not about supporting Jeremy Corbyn anymore

The article below was written just before Jeremy Corbyn decided to enter ‘stupidest politician of the year competition’. Having seen Labour punished in two elections for supporting Brexit he has decided to reaffirm this support and again put on a very long finger the prospect of a second referendum, this time even ruling out Remain as an option.  In doing so showing as much contempt for democracy outside the Labour Party as he has shown for it inside, ignoring as he does the shift to a Remain majority.

Socialists should be clear that his position on the most vital question of the day is thoroughly reactionary. Most people can record this empirically through the leadership and support for Brexit coming from the right and far-right and through the growth of racism and general xenophobia that it has encouraged. Others have realised the damage it will do to the capitalist economy, also realising that such damage has nothing to do with creating a socialist alternative.

It is fundamentally reactionary because it seeks not to replace capitalism, as a reformist we would not expect that, but to make reforms to it through winding the clock back to a time when capitalism was essentially a national phenomenon, where there may have been a world market, but not world production.  Brexit, in fact, implies such a disruption and narrowing of trade that it seeks even to retreat from the world market never mind the international division of labour.

It seeks not to replace the capitalist state, again as a reformist we would not expect that, but to make more perfect the capitalist state that exists, a more perfect national state, without the international features that arise from the internationalisation of trade and production.  Worse, it is a belief that what international interaction that must exist can involve influencing international political arrangements but not being subject to any influences in return, which by necessity limit national policy making.

This is clearest in Corbyn’s idea that Britain can be in a customs union and wider trading arrangements within the EU, and have a say in its policy, but not be a member, with all the obligations this entails.  It is also clear from his opposition to free movement of people and belief that socialism will come to Britain by its own state, and not by the actions of the working class, which cannot ultimately be defined or limited by nationality.

Brexit thus has to compress the productive forces that have spread across the world into a purely national framework that they long ago burst asunder, within a declining nation and its weakening economy.  This project can therefore only fail and fail so badly that it will not get past the first engagement with the EU.  Britain can no longer determine the terms of its interaction with the rest of the world, which is why it only makes sense from the right-wing reactionary point of view that somehow Britain is still or will become a world power again, or Empire 2.0 as it has been dubbed.

It is reactionary because it attempts to change the world by taking capitalism backwards, not build on its growth, development and achievements.  Any such attempt, if it were successful, would produce the monstrosities of Stalinism that came into being during the twentieth century.  But of course, it won’t even get that far.  Even the attempt to go back to the national stage of capitalism championed by the reactionary right cannot succeed, because capitalism will not go backwards, unless it transforms itself/is transformed into something else entirely.

Socialism will be built upon the creations of capitalism and its highest developments, not its earliest and most primitive forms.  Only a fully developed, educated and cultured working class can build a socialist society, which depends on it being an international class, and this in turn depends on the international development of capitalism itself.  There is not, and cannot be, an international working class without an international capitalism from which it arises.

This is what is truly reactionary about any idea of socialism that seeks to retard capitalism and turn it back from its international development – it sets back and subverts the only possible source of socialism.

*         *            *

“Let the people decide the country’s future, either in a general election or through a public vote on any deal agreed by parliament. For Labour any outcome has to work for our whole country, not just one side of this deliberately inflamed divide.”

So said Jeremy Corbyn after the disastrous European election results.  It’s his version of Theresa May’s “nothing has changed” – the world changes dramatically, but their view of it is frozen.

Which isn’t necessarily a problem if your view of the world is correct, if it has understood the change and determined correctly the course of action. Theresa May’s “nothing has changed” came to reflect her inability to get a Brexit that fulfilled the impossible promises of Brexit with the only deal she could negotiate.  She only said it once, but sometimes once is more than enough.

And now Jeremy Corbyn continues to proclaim that he wants an outcome that works for everyone – Leavers and Remainers – as thoroughly dishonest as Theresa May’s version because it’s Brexit with similar impossible promises as her’s.  In his case, it’s a policy that opinion polls show must ignore the wider and stronger identification people have with Remain and Leave than with Labour and Tory, so that hoping to rely on the latter to over-ride the former just won’t work.

And we know it won’t work because we have had local elections and now European elections that reveal the collapse of the Tory and shredding of the Labour vote.  But still we get the Corbyn meme that Labour policy must work for everyone.  He fails to appreciate that Brexit is a policy for the (very) Few and not the Many. And that millions of Labour voters didn’t vote for the Party, or voted for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP.  After all, they have a range on Remainer choices.  Only a much smaller number voted for the Brexit Party, which shows the reactionary character of the policy Corbyn clings to

It is claimed that a general election will be different because the Tories will be offering a hard Brexit and Labour supporters will be compelled to vote against them.  There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to say what is the most important.  A ‘Corbyn’ transformation based on no more than hatred of the Tories?  A vote against a Tory no-deal Brexit which would mean supporting another Brexit prospectus based on the same impossible conditions that led to a withdrawal deal so pointless it led to support for no deal – in other words a vote for a Labour Brexit that has nowhere to go but the same dead end that May ended up in? And all those voters will be won back to gain a Labour majority when Labour is 5th in Scotland, third in Wales and down to 14%?

The Tories only need a new leader promising Brexit, with a bit more credibility, to have a hope of some recovery, and they’re electing one.  And if they fall short it will not be because Labour has surged forward but because Farage has managed to carry forward his success into a general election.  And how would this be a success?

Brexit will still be the issue in a general election.

It is also claimed that Labour’s message was confusing, but Corbyn’s policy of attempting to cover-up policy by process was supposed to be confusing.  Except most people are not confused – they understandd perfectly well that his policy is to support Brexit.  You can’t repeat “respect the referendum result”, put forward your own Brexit ‘plan’ and spend weeks negotiating with the Tories to get a joint Brexit without revealing that you support Brexit.

Now there is a debate raging about whether the Party should support a Peoples Vote.  But the majority of Labour supporters of a ‘Peoples Vote’ only want it to stop Brexit.  It’s not about a referendum – if Labour supported some version of Brexit to be approved by a referendum Corbyn would be politically as dead as a Monty Python parrot. On the other had, If the Labour Party had vigorously opposed Brexit the march of 1 million people would have been demanding a general election and a Labour Government.  Instead it was led by Liberals who were allowed to come back from the dead and Chukka who is now irrelevant.  The real leader of that demonstration was missing, so no wonder so many on it kept on walking into the polling booth and will continue to do so, ignoring him as he ignored them.

The increasingly delusional and rancid nature of Brexit statements by supporters on the left reveal the growing contradiction between its claims about the progressive character of Brexit and the more and more obvious reality.  From being a necessary break from neoliberalism they went on to claim that it really wasn’t that important after all, to some now saying that Corbyn’s problem is that he isn’t Brexit enough.  They seem utterly oblivious to the fact that this trajectory of supporting Brexit (without a clue as to how it could happen), to support for the most extreme version, is exactly the same as the right-wing leadership of the movement they are so obviously trailing behind.

A similar process is now underway inside the Party, with the Brexit supporters more and more exposed as their ‘confusion’ becomes less confusing and the disastrous results of their policy bears fruit.  The latest article in ‘The Guardian’ is but one more example.

Inside it Ian Lavery, the Party chair, puts together an article less rancid than the Stalinist nonsense in ‘The Morning Star’ but every bit as delusional and misleading.

“Our duty is to heal rifts, not exacerbate them”, he starts, as he surveys the failure.

“Polls in the run-up to the European elections showed that voters did not understand Labour’s position on Brexit. Conference had voted to leave all options on the table to stop a destructive Tory Brexit and our position has been fairly straightforward.” So all options were on the table and this is straightforward?

We are told that “Labourlost voters in all directions and polling appears to show middle-class voters moving to the Lib Dems and Greens, with working-class people moving to the Brexit party.” A repeat of the nonsense that the working class voted Brexit and the middle class Remain – a middle class that is getting bigger by the day it would appear.

He claims that he “has opposed a so-called public vote, not least because parliament has no majority for it in principle and nobody has the faintest idea what we would actually put on the ballot,” although I think most Remain supporters would be able to help him with the wording.

“It does feel that a certain portion of “leftwing intellectuals” are sneering at ordinary people and piling on those trying to convey the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Labour voters. Perhaps, in reflecting on the results, we should consider the effect all of this has had.”  So, it’s ‘not my fault guv’nor’ – it’s those intellectuals, who, like the middle class, seem to have developed extraordinary powers.

“We’d do well to remember that Labour is an internationalist party of social and economic justice”, says the advocate of the policy of national isolation – called ‘sovereignty’; restriction on freedom of movement and a British road to social democracy.

“We cannot win a general election by simply fighting for the biggest share of 48% and, while some polling data suggests more people left Labour for the Greens and the Lib Dems, it is equally concerning to see leakage to the Brexit”, says he who thinks the percentage of the Labour vote going to the Brexit Party is the same as that going to Remain parties.

It reminds me of the Paul Merton joke on ‘Have I got News for You’, who proclaimed concern for the ‘ho’s’ when Czechoslovakia split between the Czechs and Slovaks.  His policy must presumably be to go for the 0% who don’t give a f***.

“The reason we are in this mess is because those in government who engineered the original referendum had no idea what to do if they lost” – as if it was the Tories responsibility not to shred the Labour vote.

“Polling expert Professor John Curtice has lambasted the People’s Vote campaign because of its failure to attract any significant support from the leave side of the argument”, he says, except when you go to the link the Professor doesn’t lambast the People’s Vote campaign.

But, it is, as they say, a poor book from which you can learn nothing, and Lavery manages to say something very true: “Given that it is associated almost entirely with the remain campaign, it does raise the question as to why its proponents don’t simply issue a call to remain . . .”, which is of course correct.

As I have said, the only point of another referendum for the large majority of Labour activists, members and voters is to prevent Brexit.  Lavery tells us that we are headed for a no-deal but he is mainly concerned simply to accept it – “For some, the prospect of no deal is too frightening to countenance, but we need to be prepared for what is an ever growing threat.”

“If we do crash out on 31 October some on the right will be eager to exploit their newfound freedom to roll back protections in the workplace, exploit the environment and enrich themselves. We need to be united and ready to rally the entire Labour movement and all progressive forces in the country against this.  If the Tories do take us over the edge, we must be ready to spell out what a Labour future for our country looks like outside of the EU.”

He doesn’t explain why such freedom should be given to them and why therefore we shouldn’t campaign against their reactionary project by opposing Brexit altogether.  It would therefore be good if he could actually explain what a Labour country would look like outside the EU, after a fall in the value of the currency; capital flight; drop in new investment; disruption to trade and its consequent reduction in jobs and incomes.

Perhaps he believes that the British State, which alone seems to be potentially uniquely progressive (or why leave all the other capitalist states in the EU?), will start making cars made only in Britain and all the other goods that cannot be made in the UK.  Perhaps he believes that having blamed foreigners for the austerity and inequality he can then turn round and reject charges that it is immigrants and non-whites who are still the problem for the greater austerity and inequality that must follow Brexit.

The real consequences of Brexit, and not delusions about what might happen, are what has led a majority to now oppose Brexit.  The elections now confirm opinion polls and other evidence such as the enormous demonstrations and the petition of six million.

Politics isn’t about forgiveness.  As Corbyn seeks to continue his dissembling support for Brexit the membership cannot afford to wait to give, or withhold forgiveness.  It’s time to change party policy to complete opposition to Brexit, and if Corbyn gets in the way that’s his problem.

Should socialists support a border poll? 4 – working class unity

It has been noted in an academic study  of the flag dispute that “it has taken a unique political ideology to turn a clear ‘victory’ – a triple lock on the union,a change to the Republic’s constitutional claim, the signing up of Sinn Féin to ‘partitionist’ institutions – into abject insecurity.”

But insecurity in unionism is nothing new, thirty-five years ago a book on Protestant politics was entitled ‘Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders.” Uncertainty and political paranoia are inevitable when sectarian rights are based on proxies (such as bourgeois democracy) that either reject such politics implicitly or threaten to undermine it.  A demand for equality is especially pernicious since it appears reasonable but threatens loss when your claim to sectarian rights is necessarily based on inequality – every issue is zero sum game precisely because supremacy is what is being defended.

The Socialist Party defence of the rights of Protestants is a defence of their rights as Protestants and thus lapses into a defence of sectarian rights.

It leads to seeking justification for the claims of Protestants as a sectarian group, with its own anterior rights, and covering up for its sectarian and reactionary character. So, even when that Party has in the past defended civil rights (by their nature civil rights are not sectarian group rights) the Party claims that such rights were, and still are, not enough, because equality of poverty holds no attraction for Protestant workers.  What good is equality of misery it says?  What is required is a socialist programme.

But whatever justification there is for a socialist programme, which of course I support, and regardless of what this might look like, it cannot be advanced in order to obfuscate the opposition of many Protestant workers to equality per se.  It is not therefore the case that Protestant workers oppose a united Ireland because it may not be socialist. Their pro-imperialist, monarchist and reactionary politics makes the majority averse to socialism in any case.  The possibility that a united Ireland might in some way be socialist is against everything their political heritage defends, and is enough to guarantee the opposition of those who maintain allegiance to any specifically Protestant politics.

How can Protestant workers be won to socialism and the radical equality it promises if they do not accept the equality of Catholic workers in the first place?  Unless they accept the political emancipation of Catholic workers they will be unable to play any positive role in achieving the social liberation of the working class that includes themselves.  To believe that they can fight for the latter while opposing or even being passive to the former is to excuse their prejudice and undermine the possibility and meaning of socialism.  That this is also true of the perspective that Catholic workers must take is simply to state that sectarian division must be ended by mutual recognition by all workers of their equality regardless of religion or nationality.

It is still unfortunately the case that the majority of Protestant workers are attached to reactionary unionist politics, so that it is necessary for socialists to oppose both their unionism and their sectarianism.  There is an alternative political identity that must be fought for and is in their interests as workers, not as Protestant workers.

So, to employ episodes such as unionist opposition to the reduced flying of the union flag outside Belfast City Hall as justification for acceptance of limitations on one’s programme is to leave one defenceless against whatever reactionary veto unionist reaction decides to erect to any progressive change.

Loyalists now claim that it is Protestants that are discriminated against and it is they who are disadvantaged, and there is even some slight evidence of the latter.  The Northern Ireland Labour Force Survey recorded that over the period 1993 to 2017 the proportion of working age economically active Protestants with no qualifications has decreased from 30% to 12% while that of Catholics decreased from 32% to 11%, so Catholics were in a slightly better position.

It is a repeated complaint of loyalists that working-class Protestants, especially the young, are educationally disadvantaged.  In the same academic study referenced above the authors record interviews with loyalists and others that “the importance of education was stressed, but education with a very particular purpose, as a community project leader explained: We’ve got the programme there and it’s empowerment through education … once you teach them about their own identity then they understand what’s going on around them, cos I would say 100 per cent of our kids haven’t a clue about where they came from. “

“In the interviews we conducted the issue of Protestant/Catholic reconciliation did not arise unless raised by us [i.e. the academics]. It simply was not on any interviewee’s immediate agenda.”

“For those, within the PUL [Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist] community trying to re-build after the ruptures that opened up during the protest the key category is cohesion, not reconciliation. There was seen to be a strong imperative to build unionist unity, and to imbue young people with a deeper awareness of their unionist identity.”

The authors quote another academic study dealing with a small Derry town, which finds that loyalists “see no purpose in conflict transformation as their cultural identity is built on a glorification of sectarian conflict, and they reject democratic politics as ‘it did not stop the flag from being ripped down.’“

Yet another study based on North Belfast finds that even the Protestant church representatives did not talk about reaching out across the sectarian divide, but rather about: “The need to create a new confidence and a new identity around loyalism, one that was not demonised, and one that people could easily understand what it represented.”

As one flag protestor said: “They talk about a shared future. I don’t think the Protestant community is ready for a shared future.”

In other words, these loyalists want to see reinforcement of their sectarian identity. Why would socialists, as the Socialist Party does, erect such views as the limit to a democratic and socialist programme?  The Party ends up deferring to those most bitterly opposed to workers’ unity on the grounds of supporting it.

Of course, not all Protestant workers are sectarian and for such workers it is reactionary to seek to win them to socialism by offering to accommodate a sectarian identity they either don’t have or can be more easily broken from.  But many are sectarian, to varying degrees, and it is only blind political correctness that prevents acknowledging the obvious.  Socialists will get nowhere by pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it is marginal, or in some sense justified, or must be deferred to in some way.  They will get totally lost if they hand over a veto to the most sectarian voices just because they advance protests and politics with which many other Protestant workers have sympathy.

None of this means we do not advance a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian programme, and a socialist programme.  We must do so, obviously because we are socialists and socialism is our goal – a society governed by the workers themselves.  But we must be clear what it means.

Socialism is just the rule of the working class, as a whole, not a part of it.  To say that socialism is the answer to the division of the working class is just to say that working class unity is the answer to working class division.  To claim that a working class party is necessary to unite the working class is to say that the party created by the working class should unite the working class.

Escape into such truisms arises because real answers beyond such abstractions do not present themselves as obvious solutions, but as political programmes that offer particular courses of struggle.  James Connolly is famously noted for having denounced partition, but to end it means going beyond what he said –

“. . . the betrayal of the national democracy of Industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted.”

A role for those dedicated to the interests of the working class must mean that we are not paralysed.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

 

Should socialists support a border poll? 3 What sort of Protestant opposition?

I have stated that the purpose of a united Ireland for socialists is not to unite the nation or the territory but to unite the working class.  The Socialist Party opposes a border poll, which might be one way to move in this direction, because it says that the Protestant working class in the North will oppose it and may do so violently.  It has pointed to Protestant opposition expressed in the flags dispute beginning in 2012 as an example of such opposition, opposition which socialists should concede makes the initiative one that will increase sectarian division.

In this post I will look at this opposition and argue that it is not an example of an initiative that socialists should accede to, and certainly should not be presented as an example of the sort of response that should determine socialist views on the way forward, even if by necessity such actions must of course be taken into account.

In effect, what I am saying is that such opposition has no progressive content, should not be conceded to as legitimate barriers to fighting for progressive, democratic and socialist change, and are in fact wholly reactionary.  Rather than bow to them, it is the task of socialists to oppose such mobilisations – these do not constitute resistance reflecting legitimate interests of the working class but are defences of the most virulent division. Rather than being a reason to retreat or stand still, the forces behind the flag dispute are the most diehard defenders of sectarian division, which if it is to be defeated, will mean the defeat of the forces that defend it.  To do otherwise is to capitulate to sectarianism.

The flag dispute began at the beginning of December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag outside the City Hall to 18 designated days, instead of the existing arrangements of flying it every day of the year.  It led to a riot outside the building on the night of the vote by a loyalist crowd, which had been roused to anger by the distribution of 40,000 leaflets by the two main Unionist parties, who claimed that the unionist (with a small u) but self-identified non-sectarian Alliance Party was threatening unionist identity.

This led to a series of protests that involved almost 3,000 ‘occurrences’ according to police, which included demonstrations, riots and assaults on people and property, although no one was actually killed.  At its height it mobilised about 10,000 people at any one time, and in one night involved 84 different sites across the North.  It was therefore pretty widespread if not massively deep.

The mobilisations declined rather quickly, although continued into 2013, the following year, and a ritual demo takes place outside the City Hall every Saturday to this day.  In terms of previous decades of ‘the troubles’ it was small beer, except it was supposed to be after the success of the ‘peace process’ when we were all apparently to be living in a ‘post-conflict’ society.

However, in other respects it was typical of Northern Ireland politics, and therefore a reasonable controversy on which to hang the argument.  It suits the purpose of the Socialist Party position not only because it is relatively recent, no one was killed, and it obviously involved the question of Protestants’ identity as ‘British’, but also because, unlike other expressions of unionist politics in what they see as defence of their rights, which they could have used, such as the protests around the Drumcree Orange parade in the second half of the 1990s or Holy Cross Primary School in 2001, these would have too obviously demonstrated the naked bigotry of what often passes for Protestant defence of their rights.  No one outside the ranks of the bigots could ever be impressed by an assertion of Protestant rights that involves attacking primary school children and their parents going to school.

We don’t however need the worst examples in order to criticise Loyalist politics, and the example of the flag protest is neither ‘the best’ nor the worst.  It is the one that the Socialist Party writer decided to reference and the essential politics involved has wider application than the contingent factors involved in this particular episode.

The policy of flying the flag on designated days was a compromise from an original Sinn Fein proposal not to fly it at all, although Sinn Fein’s later support for the designated days policy could be guaranteed to anger loyalists, even though three councils with unionist majorities were already adhering to designated days before the Belfast council decision.

Policies on flying the flag had already been agreed for Government buildings and in workplaces (were they are prohibited) but not in local government, and the council already had legal advice pointing out the legal risk on grounds of equality legislation in the existing policy of flying the union flag every day.

The Unionist Parties were now in a minority on the council and the balance of power lay with the Alliance Party, which proposed the new designated days motion, and Catholics now constituted a majority in the city – 136,000 against 119,00 Protestants.  The equality and community relations industry was generally sympathetic to this sort of approach and two public meetings, entailed by official consultation on equality impact grounds, was attended at the first by two members of the public and by one at the second.  A petition of almost 15,000 supported existing policy but this was a result of many of the signatures being acquired at a loyalist celebration.

The Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, actually supported the designated days policy in its submission to the consultation, although quickly changed its mind. For some loyalists it is fine if they can determine what does and does not happen, but what does and does not happen cannot be because Catholics have either asked for it or demanded it.  In other words, they have the rights that are allowed to them, which is to say, more strictly and accurately, no rights at all.

In a poll almost three quarters of Catholic Council employees stated that they would be pleased or very pleased if the union flag didn’t fly, while 88 per cent of Protestant staff said they would be displeased or offended.

The successful motion in the council to fly it on only designated days, including on birthdays of members of the royal family, stated that “this reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories . . . it also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.”

When the result of the vote was made known outside the meeting loyalists at the back of the City Hall rioted and attempted to enter the building.  Later, on their way home to East Belfast, they attacked houses in the small Catholic area of Short Strand, which was to become a regular occurrence.

Protests at the City Hall also became a regular occurrence each Saturday, with the first appearing chaotic and without clear leadership, although a number of individual loyalists became recognised spokesmen for the protests if not the actual leaders.  One was Jim Dowson, formerly a member of the British National Party.  At the march round the City Hall protestors sang sectarian songs such as The Sash, the Famine Song and the Glasgow Rangers football ‘Bouncy’ song (if you could call it a song).

Police appeared to facilitate rather than stop protestors in what were illegal protests.  This was later challenged by a resident of the Short Strand, which was initially successful but then lost on appeal, with the judiciary declaring that not preventing illegal parades was within the discretion of the police.  Catholics had earlier argued that the police had used their discretion to arrest Republican protestors in Ardoyne while taking a different approach to loyalists.

The other significant target for the protestors was the property and personnel of the Alliance Party which were attacked and which had been the original target of unionist politicians’ leaflet campaign.  Most of these politicians kept quiet during the period of violent loyalist protest, with a few issuing ritualistic and general condemnations of violence while a few others were openly standing with the protestors.  However, the leadership of unionism was sufficiently rattled by the out-of-control protests for them to call for unity around a Unionist Forum, which included themselves and paramilitary figures, although this outward show of unity did little to dispel the obvious disunity among them.

The protests petered out although continue in a ritualistic form today.  On the first anniversary of the protest 1,500 took part when 5,000 or 10,000 had been predicted, while a year later only 200 showed up.  By this stage loyalists had found a new assault on their identity with the rerouting of a return parade past the shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area.

This did not mean that the cause the loyalists were protesting was not popular among unionists, or even that the protests themselves were unpopular.  An opinion poll shortly after the protests started found that, while among all respondents 44 per cent thought designated days was the correct policy and 35 per cent supported flying the flag all the time, 73 per cent of unionists wanted it up 365 days a year and 64 per cent of nationalists 18 days. While there was majority support (51 per cent) for the right to protest, after nearly two months 76 per cent wanted them to stop, although 45 per cent of unionists wanted them to continue.

A separate poll, as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, found that the designated days policy received the support of 53 per cent of all respondents while 24 per cent supported flying the union flag all the time.  In this poll 48 per cent of Protestants supported the designated days option while 44 per cent supported the 365 days option, although this may reflect the fact that most of this survey was carried out before the decision and protests had started.

A poll taken in August and September 2013, 9 to 10 months after the protests started and then died down – and been replaced to a great extent by those around Orange parades – found that 31 per cent of Protestants supported the all-year policy while only 8 per cent of Catholics did, while 19 per cent of ‘Other’ did, i.e. those who did not identify themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

It is clear that attitudes changed and the strength of Protestant opposition to the erosion of their British identity, as it has been put, was stronger during the height of the protests than after, and involved a more extensive identification of just what this meant during the protests than before.

It is clear that some of the most extreme elements of Protestant politics were involved in the flag protest.  The often primitive and disordered protests were satirised on line, most prominently in the LAD Site (Loyalists Against Democracy).  The originator of the site described how it began:

“I sat down at the computer one night and created a page and gave it this title, Loyalists Against Democracy – I’m trying to be humorous – and I went to bed and when I got up in the morning 50 people had ‘liked’ the page. I mean, I was trying to be as ridiculous as I could be. I posted one page in particular – it wasn’t very funny – complaining about Aer Lingus flying over east Belfast and next morning there were hundreds of comments agreeing with this, each one more vile than the last.”

While this says something of the political character of the flag protest it also throws into relief the approach of the Socialist Party, which wishes to employ this episode as justification for emasculating a socialist approach and acceptance of limits imposed by the most primitive unionism. Essentially the Party argues that those most wedded to reactionary sectarian politics must be conciliated in pursuit of defeating this politics.

In the next post in this series I will look at some of the implications of this.

Back to Part 2

Should socialists support a border poll? 2 – is a majority enough?

For some people, getting a simple majority in the North of Ireland is not sufficient to justify a united Ireland, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is not the first leading southern politician to question whether it would be enough.  The unionist leader Peter Robinson has also said that any border poll on Northern Ireland’s future in the UK could not be conducted on the basis of a simple majority.  Varadkar has said that an Irish unity poll would be divisive and “a bad idea”, that the idea of a “majority of one” would lead to chaos, and questioned whether it would be a “good thing”.

The Irish establishment, the classes it is based on, and the politicians who represent it are quite happy with partition, and are more or less at one on this with unionists.  As former Taoiseach Jack Lynch put it some decades ago, “if we were given a gift of Northern Ireland tomorrow, we could not accept it.”

In the North a recent opinion poll recorded that more than half of unionists rejected the idea of a referendum completely, while 90 per cent of nationalists wanted one within five years.  A slight majority of all respondents supported the idea of ’50 per cent plus one’, while almost 20 per cent said a two-thirds majority should be required.  A majority of unionists advocated a 70 per cent threshold while nearly 90 per cent of nationalists favoured 50 per cent plus one.

Behind the numbers however is the question of what the purpose of unity is and what it would be for. The SDLP leader John Hume used to repeat, seemingly endlessly, that it wasn’t territory that needed to be united but people.  And for socialists this is indeed the case, with perhaps a further three vital considerations.

The first is that the unity to be achieved is not just unity between North and South but within the North as well; secondly that it is the unity of the working class that is decisive for real progressive change and thirdly, that unity of territory really means a united State, and states and their practices have been decisive in the past in dividing the working class.  So, it isn’t simply a question of uniting two pieces of land or of territory, but of the political arrangements upon which they sit.

It might thus seem that the Socialist Party is correct for example to emphasise workers unity, and in tune with unionism and the southern establishment, to state that a border poll would be ‘very divisive’; could be seen as “a dangerous development”, is not a “democratic” solution”, would amount to “coercion”, and would be similar in effect to such things as the Anglo-Irish Agreement and flag protests in 2012/2013, which “will inflame opinion in Protestant working class areas . . . and will cause harm to the cause of working class unity.”

It is not necessary to agree with the strong formulations of the Socialist Party in order to start from the question of working class unity, because that is indeed the objective. But in doing so it is necessary to appreciate that at the present time there is an absence of such unity, between Irish workers in the North and those in the South, and within the North.  Such things as common membership of a trade union does not constitute such unity.

For a Marxist workers unity means some sort of political unity, based on material circumstances that includes union membership, but which must also take into account political consciousness and the existing profound political division of the working class.  Opposing a border poll on the grounds of protecting the status quo because it contains some sort of working class unity is not therefore an option, except in so far as we do not want to make the disunity that exists worse.

Unfortunately, given the economism of the SP, which routinely identifies purely economic issues with class issues and struggles around employment and wages etc. as precursors of socialism, it means that the Party consistently overstates the extent to which workers unity already exists.  This tends to lead to the view that any change to the current arrangements must entail some sort of promise of ‘socialism’.

So while the leaders of the Party state that “we are clear that we do not in any way ignore the rights of Catholics. It has always been the case that we take into consideration the intense desire for change of working- class Catholics and we recognise the positive side of this intense desire for change”, such a claim always struggles to find expression in their programme.

So while they oppose a border poll for not being democratic because it will “inflame Protestant opinion”, cause “widespread anger in the Protestant community”, “mass protests” and “street violence”, they seem not to comprehend the message thereby sent to Catholic workers.

For these workers, the Northern Ireland State is a single gerrymandered sectarian constituency that has routinely discriminated against them and used repression in every decade of its existence to enforce their subordination.  In the 1960s some campaigned for civil rights to overturn the most flagrant gerrymandering within the state, but they are now being told to accept the gerrymandering of the state, even if they are in a majority!

Having fought for ”one man one vote”, many unionists (and analogously the SP) are now saying to Catholic workers that they should either not be able to vote in a poll, or they can vote, but they will have to gain a two-thirds or 70 per cent majority; in other words they will still not be able to have ‘one person, one vote’.  A Catholic vote will not be equal to a Protestant vote and they will still in effect be denied their civil rights.

And for what reason? Because of opposition within the Protestant population to the denial of their ‘identity’ as British?  In the name of opposing sectarian division the Socialist Party has thus found itself opposing civil rights on the grounds of sectarian identity.  And this from a Party that claims to oppose ‘identity’ politics and base itself on class politics.

The position of the Party actually makes its position one of the most reactionary of those opposed to a border poll.  Like its position on Brexit its economism, and the general limitations of its politics, finds it planted in the most reactionary camp.  How bad this is is clear from its employment of the flags protest as a case justifying its opposition to the minor political border arising from customs and regulatory checks in any East-West border that might arise from Brexit.

There is no attempt by it to define or defend some arbitrary majority that should be respected in a border poll, should it be 50%+1 or 2/3 or 70%, but simply that a poll cannot be entertained because it will inflame Protestant opinion.  In effect what we have is a sectarian veto and a defence of the continued existence of the Northern State as a sectarian one, justified only by its sectarian composition, by the opposition of some part of the Protestant working class through its identification with Britishness, an identification defined by loyalty to the monarchy, the Protestant religion, and British imperialist conquest. The logic of such sectarian privilege could easily be extended to all political practices within the state  because no limits are placed on the salience of this Protestant opinion.

In such circumstances no amount of explanation that this represents legitimate opposition by Protestant workers to Catholic sectarian claims would be the least convincing.  Nor would any claim that there was anything progressive about it, such as Protestant opposition to a ‘capitalist’ united Ireland as if – given their wholly reactionary politics – unionists would not express even more opposition to a socialist united Ireland.

Such a political position would not be defensible by claiming that a non-sectarian workers unity might be built within the North around economic issue.  If there was a majority for a united Ireland, any attempt to deny this majority could not possibly be defended from a socialist perspective, although this does not exhaust questions that arise about implementation.

Whether such a poll should be supported now is not quite the same question, although similar issues arise, and with the same consequences.  Outright denial of a border poll in principle is a denial of democratic rights and, if expressed on the grounds put forward by the Socialist Party, is a capitulation to sectarianism.

This does not mean that the question of increased sectarian division should not be taken into account but it does mean outright opposition to a border poll for the reasons given by the Socialist Party is not the answer.

The flags protest is a good example of Protestant workers’ opposition to changes which should definitely not be accommodated or accepted.  Even a cursory examination of it illustrates that to do otherwise is actually to capitulate to sectarian demands.  In the next part I will briefly review this episode.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3