Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

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?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  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 different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.

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A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

Remembering the Rising part 4 – revolution and counter-revolution?

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In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State.  This is not the view of many on the Left:

“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . .  . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . .  and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’.  A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal.  That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)

There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here.  There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.

Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.

The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it.  The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms.  For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.

As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce.  It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.

Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation.  As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic.   In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”

By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.”    “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”

When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents.   In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic.  In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.

In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions.  Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target.  This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.

The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.

In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?

An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities.  What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations.  This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status.  It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro.  But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.

In opposition to such a view the historian Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a ‘veteran Irish political correspondent’ James Downey (very recently deceased) in 2012:

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution?  It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?

Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising?  But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?

Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.

In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.

He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution!  “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’  He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”

Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.”  Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”

This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement.  The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class.  As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.

The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”

The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.”   Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish.  Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.”  And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . .  As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers.  Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”

Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.”  In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.”  However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.”  (Ferriter)

And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.

But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.  But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this?  And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?

At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?

Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society.  What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?

But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership?  Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).

The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).

With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?

As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed  –  but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.

On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.

Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country.  Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation.  So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it.  But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much.  The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.

The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there.  Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.

Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle.  In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.

So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense?  The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.

Postscript:

I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?

I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply  as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.

So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind.  In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.

I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising.  I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it.  What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.

We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration.  I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!

Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.

Of course the other signatories would not have signed it.  It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.

And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?

What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.

Back to Part 3

Remembering the Rising part 1- the men of 1916

brendanrebels1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When British Army reinforcements arrived in Kingstown to put down the Easter Rising in 1916 many of the soldiers thought they had been sent to France and one Cockney soldier ‘wondered how everyone he met spoke such good English.’  On Wednesday morning, on day three of the Rising, hundreds of these soldiers marched into South Dublin along Northumberland Road where Eamon De Valera, who was commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, had anticipated this approach and had placed two outposts along the Road approaching Mount Street Bridge.

The Volunteers here waited until the advance detachment of the British had passed before opening fire: ‘those who came in our direction were completely wiped out’, said one Volunteer.  “Isn’t this a great day for Ireland” said Volunteer Paddy Doyle.  The engagement that followed at Mount Street Bridge accounted for almost half British Army casualties in the Rising and only sheer weight of numbers and superior firepower allowed the British forces to eventually push through.  Volunteer James Doyle, who had been knocked unconscious during the fighting, woke up to find that his outpost had been ripped apart by bullets and explosions and that his comrade Paddy Doyle was dead.

The 4th Battalion, ordered to take over the South Dublin Union -, the largest poorhouse in the country with three thousand inmates – included William Cosgrave who was quartermaster to Eamonn Ceannt, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Republic.  Cosgrave later took over command from Cathal Brugha after Brugha was so badly wounded by a grenade that he was not expected to survive.

Brugha “was a hard hater of everything British” and “knew nothing of fear and had little sympathy for anyone who did.”  When the Volunteers were forced to vacate their position in the nurse’s home  one asked Cosgrave if they would take Brugha with them even though Brugha, thinking he was done for, had told the volunteers to leave.  Cosgrave replied that “a soldier’s duty was to obey and pointed the way with a .45 revolver swinging on his finger.”  Nevertheless Brugha was later to say that he remembered Cosgrave’s “extreme kindness” when he was wounded and would not forget it.

Cosgrave had been at the inaugural meeting of the Volunteers at the Rotunda in Dublin and took part in the gun running at Howth. His brother also participated in the Rising and was shot dead by a British sniper during the fighting.  Though his garrison was complimented by one of the British commanders for having fought against great odds his court martial, lasting only ten to fifteen minutes, declared a sentence of “guilty, death by being shot.”  However, like many others receiving the same verdict he escaped the death penalty.

Commandant De Valera, who was responsible for the Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge and for the extent of the British losses inflicted there, also escaped execution by the British, the only commandant not to be shot by a British firing squad.

Cosgrave later became a leader of the pro-Treaty faction of the republican movement and became head of the Free State after the death of Michael Collins.  The split in the movement over the Treaty led to civil war, amongst the first casualties of which was Cathal Brugha.

In pursuit of this civil war Cosgrave introduced military courts, saying that “we are not going to treat rebels as prisoners of war.” This included the execution of four prominent members of the anti-Treaty movement in retaliation for the killing of a pro-Treaty TD, Cosgrave stating that “terror meets terror.”  One of the four was Rory O’Connor, who was wounded in the Rising, and another the radical republican Liam Mellows who in 1916 had led the biggest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in attacks in County Galway.

‘The Irish Times’ noted that this action “eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown” and even Catholic Archbishop Byrne expressed dismay.  Seventy more anti-Treaty republicans were executed in the next five months, including Erskine Childers who had been on board the Asgard when it landed guns in Howth.

As later head of the new Free State Government Cosgrave introduced a conservative policy of low taxation, balanced budgets and free trade, leading for example to a cut in the pension for the blind and a particularly unpopular cut in the old age pension of 10 per cent in 1924.  Social policy included heavy censorship of films and literature, including a Committee on Evil Literature, plus legislation to outlaw divorce and “the unnatural prevention of conception”.

In 1932 the Cosgrave led Cumann na nGaedheal party failed to convince the electorate that the Fianna Fail party was communist, beginning decades of domination of that party led by De Valera before the reins of Taoiseach passed to fellow 1916 veteran Sean Lemass in 1959.  His economic policy was less centred on agriculture and during the protectionist 1930s he was willing to promote national industrial development behind tariffs.  His new constitution of the Irish State in 1937 recognised the special position of the Catholic Church and the position of women in the home.

He kept the Irish State out of and officially neutral during the Second World War and also used hated Cumann na nGaedheal laws to drag members of the remaining IRA before military tribunals, introducing internment of republicans and letting prisoners die on hunger strike. He also, like the Free State forces during the civil war and indeed the British, carried out executions of IRA members by firing squad.  These included Patrick McGrath, another veteran of 1916.

While Liam Mellows had led the largest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in 1916 it was the Volunteers of the 5th Battalion led by Thomas Ashe in North Dublin and Meath that inflicted the most casualties.  These forces led by Ashe were joined by another smaller group of Volunteers led by Richard Mulcahy, a future chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army.

Mulcahy’s plans for Easter originally involved a three-day religious retreat and a holiday with his family and while he got away on the first the second had to wait.  Suffering from the same confusion of many volunteers who had seen the countermanding order against mobilisation by the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin Mac Neill, he went out uniformed ready to take part in the Rising if one was to take place.

After bumping into James Connolly, who didn’t confirm any plans to him, he later met Thomas MacDonagh, who told him to be ready to “strike at twelve”.  This involved destruction of cables at Howth railway junction and with two other Volunteers he set off to carry out his orders, only to find out that one of his comrades had left his gun at home!  Having got the errant revolutionary to go home and get his weapon the group came across two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who fortunately were so used to Volunteers marching about that they passed them by with hardly a glance.  The Volunteers then carried out their orders and cut the Howth communication cables.

Having met up with Ashe, Mulcahy was made second-in-command, together leading the attack on two RIC barracks at Swords and Donabate.  It was the attack on the barracks at Ashbourne however that was to be most dramatic and testified to the leadership qualities of Mulcahy.

Realising that the Rising had not gone to plan a number of the 5th Battalion Volunteers questioned the legitimacy of their actions and continuation of their attacks.  In response Mulcahy gave a lecture on their duty to their country and after calling a vote only a handful failed to take the step forward that indicated their willingness to continue the fight.

The next day the Battalion attacked the Ashbourne barracks, defended by only ten RIC men.  Just as the RIC inside were about to surrender a seventeen –strong column of cars containing at least fifty-four police appeared, threatening to reverse the outcome of the engagement and provoke a panicked rout.

Mulcahy prevented the panic and led the outnumbered Volunteers in holding their ground against the new RIC column, surrounding it and subjecting it to relentless fire from all angles – one volunteer Bernard McAllister recalled that “we had a clear view and decimated them with our fire. Some took cover under the cars but were visible to us there. . . our fellows were making bets as to who would shoot the most.”

Pressing home the advantage in an engagement that lasted over five hours the Volunteers led by Mulcahy pushed forward, resulting in fierce close-quarters fighting:

“John Crinigan of Swords looked through a gap in the ditch to locate any police, he was seen by D.I. Smith [Smyth] who fired at and shot him through the head with a revolver.  Vice-Commandant Frank Lawless who was immediately behind joined fire on the D.I. with a Howth Mauser rifle at a distance of about 6 yards and shot him through the head.”

Richard Mulcahy then led a bayonet charge against the RIC who surrendered by throwing their rifles out on the road.

The victory was possible for a number of reasons, including that Mulcahy was able to convince Ashe not to retreat when the RIC column stumbled on the original attack.  In many ways this action was significant because it prefigured republican military tactics during the later War of Independence in which Mulcahy was to play a major role.  One of Mulcahy’s colleagues was to remark that he was the only one to come out of 1916 with a military reputation.

In the history of the later struggle however Mulcahy was very much overshadowed by the figure of Michael Collins, Minister of Finance in the Republican Government, Adjutant-General of the War of Independence Volunteers and Director of Intelligence, often portrayed as the tragic hero of the war against the British, comparable to those who were to be executed at the end of the Rising.

Collins too had taken part in the 1916 rebellion and though not then the renowned figure he was to become it has been noted that he stood out in a number of atypical ways.  Before and during the Rising Volunteers showed remarkable piety and religious observance.  This was a reflection of the strength of Catholicism in Irish society at the time, a strength which captured many later popular perceptions of the Rising as enshrining a Catholic ethos, leading to portrayal of the Rising in quasi-religious terms.

There are many reports of the Volunteers praying, holding rosary beads along with their guns, attending confession and receiving Holy Communion before and during the Rising.  But this was not true everyone.  Near the end of the week’s fighting as the morale of some began to falter Collins rounded on a fellow Volunteer for neglecting to focus on fighting by saying “Are you fucking praying too?”

Collins and Mulcahy were to become leading figures in the guerrilla war against Britain and then in the pro-Treaty regime that arose from acceptance of the peace terms dictated by the British.   During the war Collins became the celebrated organiser of a special assassination unit called ‘The Squad’ formed to kill British agents and informers.  Although criticised for his apparently ruthless approach he cited the universal war-time practise of executing enemy spies who were, in his words, “hunting victims for execution.”

In 1920 a bounty of £10,000 (equivalent in 2010 to £300,000/€360,000) was offered for information leading to his capture or death.   One of his operatives in the Squad was Vinnie Byrne who had also ‘fought’ in the Rising as a fifteen year old, although he later admitted he never fired a shot and was released when the Rising was over after a stern lecture by a British officer.

Collins shared the leadership of the military campaign against the British with Mulcahy who also supported the Treaty, serving as Defence Minister in the new Free State Government from January 1922 until March 1924.  During the civil war that followed the signing of the Treaty Mulcahy earned notoriety through his order that anti-Treaty activists captured carrying arms were liable for execution and a total of 77 anti-Treaty prisoners suffered this fate.

Another of Collins’ associates in the War against the British was Joseph McGrath who had taken part in fierce fighting in Marrowbone Lane in 1916 under the command of Eamonn Ceantt.   He also supported the Treaty and as head of the Criminal Investigation Unit was responsible for abducting and killing Anti-Treaty republicans during the civil war.  A policy of repression was also used against the regime’s first striking workers in September 1922 when the Free State Government opposed the right of postal workers to withdraw their labour.  One of the workers’ pickets was shot, surviving only because the bullet deflected off her suspender buckle.

Collins had fought in the Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp at the GPO alongside Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.  Despite Pearse being commander-in-chief it was Connolly who was made Commandant-General of the Dublin Division, in effect leading the forces in the GPO, which was the headquarters of the Rising.  One Volunteer remembered that “his physical energy and strength were amazing.  He was always on the move”.  His principal weakness as a leader according to Oscar Traynor was his indifference to his own safety, which was characterised by other Volunteers as “remarkable coolness.”

William Whelan noted that when some of his number were shaken by crowds looting shops and began firing wildly “Connolly came out of the Post Office and marched up and down in front of it.  He said “Steady, we are going to have a good fight”.  He quelled the panic”.

Connolly was wounded twice, the second more seriously, ending his effective leadership of the Rising.  This also resulted in one of the most poignant episodes in the Rising – Connolly being carried on a stretcher to his execution as two members of the firing squad were ordered to aim at his head.  He died without any movement, the bullets shattering the back of his chair.

In his last meeting with his daughter Nora she recalled her Mother’s lament “But your beautiful life, James’.  “Hasn’t it been a full life?  Isn’t this a good end?” he said.  ‘Then they took us away.’

This full and beautiful life included founding the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; membership and organisation of socialist parties and the militant ‘Wobblies’ union in the United States; numerous Marxist writings on socialism, politics and Irish history and leadership of the Irish Citizens Army, which fought in the Rising.

In the centenary anniversary of the Rising we are called upon to remember those who fought.  Let us remember them all.

Forward to part 2

The gap in the strategy of a Left Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Workers’ Cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism – 1

420389_494371703955556_1654331871_nIn October I was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Glasgow South branch of Left Unity on the subject of workers’ cooperatives.  The post below is the first part of the text on which the speech delivered was based.  I would like to thank the comrades for the invitation and for the couple of pints in the pub afterwards.

 

The first thing I want to do is look at two problems to which I think workers’ cooperatives can play an important role in providing an answer.

In 2008 the Irish banking system was on the verge of complete collapse.  It had lent exorbitant amounts of money to commercial property development and for the construction of houses.  Not only finance but employment and state revenue became overly dependent on construction.  When the price of houses rose beyond a certain point, and when the commercial property market became saturated, the over-extension of property developers became evident in bad loans that bankrupted the banks.

This was an international problem because much of the financing of Irish banks came from Britain, the US and Germany for example.  The bankruptcy of the Irish banks would thus have had severe repercussions for investors in these and other countries, including the financial institutions in these countries.

To save the Irish banking system, to bail out the native bankers and foreign investors, the Irish Government launched a bailout of the banks through a state guarantee of all their liabilities, worth around €440 billion in an economy nominally producing €154 billion a year.  It was declared ‘the cheapest (bailout) in the world’ by the Irish Finance Minister.  This could not possibly be afforded and has so far cost an estimated €64 billion, although the exact figure is still a matter for development.

This bill and the huge budget deficit caused by the collapse of construction resulted in a series of attacks on working class living standards involving seven austerity budgets consisting of a variety of tax increases, cuts in public services and investment, the robbery of workers’ pension funds, massive unemployment, emigration and lots of praise from around the world at how well the Irish swallowed the austerity medicine.  From poster boy for the boom the Irish have become poster child for austerity.

In the following election the ruling Fianna Fail party was badly mauled and a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour Party was elected on the promise of a ‘democratic revolution’ and by Labour the promise it would reign in Fine Gael.  The vote was a choice between ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way.’

In truth however no one could really be surprised that this coalition continued and intensified the policies of austerity began by Fianna Fail.  That anyone thought differently demonstrated only a very low political awareness.

On the ‘left’ 5 United Left Alliance candidates were also elected and 14 Sinn Fein TDs out of a total of 166, although Sinn Fein had also voted for the bail-out.

In 2012 the Irish State was compelled to hold a referendum on the new EU Fiscal Compact that limited state deficits and debt.  It basically required signing up to continued austerity which is why it was called the ‘austerity treaty’.  Despite the unpopularity of austerity it was approved by 60% to 40%.  In my view a crucial reason for this was the complete lack of a convincing alternative.

What was the alternative proposed?

This consisted of a number of elements – repudiating the debt, opposing austerity, taxing the rich, and increasing public expenditure in order to improve public services, boost employment and further economic growth.

There are two points to note about this alternative – first it doesn’t change the nature of the economic system, it is what is called Keynesianism.  This does not mean that socialists should not support some of these measures, or point out the hypocrisy in their not being implemented.  But the question is, if the problem is capitalism and this alternative doesn’t threaten the system then quite obviously it cannot be a solution.

The second flows from this, because if it isn’t a solution would it actually work?  I’ll just take two examples from this programme – why on earth would the rich allow their wealth and income to be taken off them?  And how then could the state increase public sector investment when it was heading towards budget deficits of over 13%?

This illustrates a deeper problem with looking to the state as a solution.  This is because the burden placed on Irish workers was not simply, or even mainly, carried out by the banks and property developers.  It was the State that made their debts the debts of the Irish people and it has been the State that has increased taxes and cut services, making their own particular contribution to cutting wages and increasing unemployment.

Since the state is a capitalist state, funded and staffed at the highest levels by the propertied classes this can really be no surprise.  The actions of the capitalist state are not therefore the answer.  Not only does it not have any interest in providing a solution but it is incapable of being the solution.  State ownership, bureaucratic ownership, is not democratic and is totally unsuited to running productive activities the civil servants that staff it have no knowledge of.

There is no point calling for the state to nationalise the banks – they did and that was precisely the problem!

At bottom this is the root of the failure of resistance to austerity and is why it has not only failed in Ireland but in every other country affected by the financial crash.

The second point is connected to all this.  If the Keynesian alternative is not a road to socialism what is the road to it?

The alternative to the view that the capitalist state will reform society is that the state is actually the mechanism for enforcing oppression and exploitation and should therefore be smashed.  In this scenario of revolution the oppression of capitalist society breeds resistance which develops into a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class that then proceeds to build a new socialist society.  In this society the market is replaced by planning and capitalist economic crises become history.

But how are workers to become aware that their own ownership and control is the alternative?  How does it not only come to consciousness of this but is actually trained, ready and able to play this role?  How in the middle of crisis is a workers’ economy supposed to rise from the ashes more or less fully formed and present itself as a qualitative advance on what has went before?

Of course in some ways capitalism itself anticipates this planning through the growth of big business with advanced forms of planning within it, increased cooperation between companies that ostensibly are in competition and increased interdependency of different firms and different countries, encapsulated in the term globalisation.  This has all been demonstrated negatively through the simultaneous near collapse of the financial system, world trade and economic growth through the credit crunch plus the increased role of the state despite privatisation.

There is however one thing missing from this anticipation of the new society in the existing one and one thing missing from the scenario of revolutionary overthrow.

The missing factor is what the new society, the harbinger of socialism, actually is – the rule of the working class and its allies; the rule of the majority of society in place of the capitalist class and its managers, bureaucrats and politicians who all currently administer its rule.

Where in the anticipation of socialism within existing capitalist society is the growth of workers participation in running the economy, in preparation for taking over complete control?  Where are the grounds for workers to build a new society before, during and after revolution?  Where is the alternative that would avoid a new version of Stalinism where the State rules society rather than a society ruled by workers subordinating the state? Where even arises the motivation for workers to see that their own rule is the only valid unfolding of their resistance to the exploitation, oppression and iniquity of current society?

How are workers to come to see that it is they that not only can but must take control of society and its productive powers if they do not first take initial steps now through workers’ cooperatives?  Are we to believe they will suddenly come to realise through a revolution – an episode of at most a few years – that they must take over the economy?  How will they come to seek this as their solution unless many of them have already tried to do it and become committed to it?

 

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 6

istanbul-red1Again and again the socialism of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien rests not on the initiative of the workers but dependence on the state and the support of its bureaucracy – “Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.”

To their credit however, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are too intelligent and honest not to acknowledge the obvious and very painful lessons of working class history.

They acknowledge the reactionary role of the state bureaucracy – “as it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time.”

And they acknowledge the potential for violence from the capitalist class and the necessity for the working class to prepare for it:

“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. . . should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. . . then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

Unfortunately for them this acknowledgement renders much of their argument either mistaken or incoherent.

They do not develop what their acknowledgement of the potential for state violence means for their reliance on this same state to usher in socialism (at the behest of the workers’ movement). But they are hardly ignorant of how the state was behind the most vicious fascist and reactionary movements which decimated the working class movement in defeats that over 80 years later have not been reversed.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Germany and Spain and Chile in 1973 the capitalist state, under pressure from mass workers’ movements such that we do not have today, and in some cases with parties in Government with a perspective not very different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, clamped down on workers independent activity precisely because initiative and control was to lie with the state.  The state then succumbed to fascism where it did not succumb to the workers and either directly or indirectly handed power over to fascist or military dictatorships.

Only workers independent organisation apart from and against the state could have prevented this.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct to repeat the dictum of Marx that we must win the battle of democracy but they are wrong to see this battle within the terms presented by bourgeois democracy.

They are actually right to say that “parliamentary democracy . . . remains the best gauge of public support for a political tendency”.  Right in the sense that right now it accurately tells us where what passes for the socialist movement actually is, which is a small minority.

This means we must reject the phantasies of much of the so-called Marxist Left that workers are champing at the bit to vote for the left social democracy if only Marxists would forget their previous criticisms of this political tendency and pretend to be, or rather more accurately reveal themselves to be, left social democrats.

Parliamentary democracy will not and cannot, as the working class develops its organisation, political consciousness and power, reflect the support for socialism because it is not capable of expressing or reflecting the expansion of all of the aspects of socialist development of the working class.

I have said it does so now only because all these are at such a low ebb.  As they develop parliamentary democracy at best expresses the lag in development and its weakest aspects at that and it would be a cruel education of worker-socialists to tell them that their powers and potential are reflected in what they see in parliament.

The truth of this is so fundamental that it is true even in the opposite case – where parliamentary support for socialism exceeds the real social and political development of the working class in society.  The parliamentary road sought by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, and by the small Left organisations, walks wide-eyed and innocent into the trap explained by Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.” 

Without large and powerful trade unions and other workers’ societies standing proudly independent of the capitalist class and its state; without a large cooperative sector owned, controlled and managed by workers; without a mass workers’ party with deep roots in the working class, with the confidence and respect of the masses outside its ranks, the votes of workers and wider society will not provide strong enough  foundations either to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries or begin the building of socialism.

But these hardly feature, have walk-on parts or have a purely supporting role in the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien production.  For them “Electoralism is the most important political activity in the European and North American societies and in practice it forms the centrepiece.”

They say that “It is only as a component part of the strategy of attrition that electoralism plays a critical part in moving beyond capitalism. Winning power is therefore not the only goal of electoralism; every bit as important is the role it plays in building a mass socialist party capable of winning it and of controlling the apparatus when it gets there.”

But even here they get the order wrong.  “But in order to benefit from electoral work there has to be an institutionalisation of the gains, whether through increased participation in the party or union, more subscriptions to sympathetic left-wing media, joining a co-op or simply voting for the party come election time. These and other possible methods of harvesting the labour expended in the springtime of campaigning all depend on having institutions capable of soaking up the goodwill.”

Here it is electoralism that is the engine to drive working class organisation, that builds the other wings and activities of the working class movement.  In fact, as an old Official republican said to me a few years ago, it is in elections that you reap what you sow, even in the narrow terms posed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

The commitment by them to bourgeois democracy is ironic given the decay of this form.  At the beginning of March ‘The Economist’ had a six page essay and a front page that asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy”.

It noted – “Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.”

“Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.

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All this reflects the supplicant position which reliance on the state places workers and the failure of the state to respond to popular opinion.  It reflects the legacy of the parties supported by workers who have embraced bourgeois democracy very much in the way proposed as much as it reflects the cynicism of other classes.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are aware of the dangers of integration into the existing political-economic system, of a tendency towards conservatism and dangers of bureaucracy but their strategy of attrition and its reliance on the state and representation as opposed to direct participation all feed these problems.

This approach teaches passivity, that someone else has responsibility for political activity and leadership.  That power lies in a machine (the state) that exists outside your own competence and capability.  That your own activity is primarily to engage in voting for someone else to press forward your interests and that your own productive activity is not directly something that you should seek to control.

All this can be said of the existing capitalist state and its bourgeois politicians. What Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien see as important – the state and electoralism – does not go beyond this.

Their confused perspective leads to incoherence and what is generally well considered in their argument succeeds only in accurately enumerating problems.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct when they say that we need to convince workers “that they have to do great things for the socialist organisation, that the future itself depends on us all playing our role in that great collective project, outside of which there is no salvation.”

My argument has been that their conception of this great collective project is mistaken and that within it there is no road to salvation.

Concluded