The Way Forward: A Strategy For Left Co-operation and Unity

The Citizen: Issue 4
September 2011

Author: Tom Redmond

reland, North and South, in common with most of the developing countries is going through the worst economic crisis since the ‘Hungry Thirties.’ Although greed of the wealthy is endemic to the culture of present public life, the crisis itself is an inherent structural fault of the system we live under, namely, capitalism. By its very nature, it is a system that, while unleashing vast resources of productive capacity, is unable to plan for meeting social needs. Its rationale remains the quest for maximum profits, and its means the extraction of profits from the labour of the majority. The clear analysis of the nature of capitalism is constantly concealed by an apparatus of media, academics, and establishment politicians, but it was the conclusion that James Connolly came to based on his reading of Karl Marx and his own life’s toil. Every system is subject to constant change, and today’s globalisation, advanced technology, and communications do not alter the nature of the beast. There are, indeed, particular characteristics of the present crisis: the absence of regulation of the financial institutions; the financialisation of commodities; the de-industrialisation in the developed economies; and the dismantling of aspects of the welfare state. But, the answer has always been the same when slumps and contradictions hit the market economies – make the working people pay by lowering wages and social entitlements. Thus, in Ireland, this has become monstrous as this generation and future ones are being asked to pay for the debts of bankers, speculators, and a parasitical stratum of gombeen men – perhaps not being asked to pay, but being forced to pay by the European Union superstate and the International Monetary Fund acting on behalf of international banks. It is widely conceded, even by government representatives, that our sovereignty and independent decision-making are gone or, as we would say, sold.

But, if all this is self-evident to this author and the Left generally, why has there not been a universal swing in social and political terms away from the advocates of a broken capitalist model towards the bright new world of socialism? Did the downfall of the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries, indeed, herald the ‘End of History,’ wherein ideology was dead with the triumph of the Western market economies? That disaster was a body blow to many on the left, but it also negatively affected the general labour movement around the world: even if they did not admire it as a model, they viewed it as a counterweight to the power of capital. It grievously impacted on liberation movements in the Third World too and harmed the efforts of some of the new countries as they embarked on independent paths of development away from the snares of neo-colonialism. There is no doubt that the defeat of existing socialism was a blow for all the defenders of the rights and gains of labour. While there are lessons here for all of us, it is primarily by analysing the Irish experience that we can attempt to rethink a credible alternative to current problems and how to achieve an attractive and better future.

In the last election, the power elite were able to convince a majority of the Irish electorate to vote for Fine Gael and Labour on the basis that there was no alternative. On the positive side, there was the virtual wiping out of Fianna Fáil as a punishment for the bank debts; but, this was balanced by a continuation of the austerity programme in the coalition’s Programme for Government. A significant minority voted for radical change by opting for Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance, and progressive individuals. These gains were welcome and raised the hopes of a wider future coalition, which would break the mould of civil war politics and lead to the Right-Left alignment common in the European model.

Before we can even talk of unity of the Left and what it could unite around, there is the thornier question of what can be categorised as left in Ireland today. In most countries, the Left evolved as a counter to the power and influence of uncontrolled capital. Trade unions, as a self-defence mechanism, were the earliest expression of this; and later, with the fight for the popular franchise eventually winning the day, working people’s representatives were elected to local and national assemblies. This expansion in the participation of working class interests gave rise to social democratic parties, which gained mass support. Within this milieu, however, were those influenced by Marxism and anarchism who were not content with reforms and improvement in conditions only but wanted a restructuring of the complete system of ‘wage slavery’ as well and its replacement by some form of ownership by working people of the means of production, exchange, and distribution. Thus, the debate between reformism and revolution waged within the labour movement – Connolly and Larkin were for revolution.

Just as all matter is in motion and subject to change, so are the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that mould society and people’s consciousness. The best achievement of social democracy was the creation of welfare system reforms within the capitalist structures of post-World War Two western European countries. The defeat of Fascism had been due to the heroic struggle of not only the Soviet Union and the Allies but also the working class militants in the various resistance movements. They pushed these reforms because they felt there was no going back to unbridled wealth at the expense of workers’ rights to education, housing, health, and capital resources. However, the bourgeois military industrial complex rallied under the leadership of the US, initiated the cold war, and began to turn back these social achievements. Anti-communism was the device used not only to alienate people from the achievements of socialism and radicalism but also to split and divide the labour movement. After the Marshall Plan came the European Economic Community and the Common Market as the mechanism not to restore peace but to reassert the dominance of capital. Social democracy slowly bought into the agenda of social partnership, better management of national economies, and a ‘social Europe.’ Gradually, many of the powerful mass parties of labourism shed any illusions of socialism and embraced the ‘third way,’ exemplified in Tony Blair’s New Labour.

While outside many of the experiences of continental social democracy, the Irish Labour Party exhibited throughout its history most of its worse attributes. Lacking a large industrial manufacturing base, Ireland had a weak reservoir of trade union voters from which to forge a national majority Labour government. With the demise of the ideology of Connolly and Larkin – that is, class-based politics – the trade union movement was vulnerable to Fianna Fáil, Catholic Action, and localised populist influences. Today, just as in France, Greece, and Spain, the Irish Labour Party’s partners are not distinguished from the capitalist parties by their radical alternatives but, in fact, mirror them. All are committed to compliance to TINA ’ there is no alternative (to the system that has given us the present crisis).

So, in the immediate future, despite various calls for a government of the Left composed of Labour, Sinn Féin, and Left and independent progressives, it is a non-starter. This is not to say that there are no members of the Labour Party or potential recruits who would disown the present policies, but they are isolated and marginalised. If you remove the Labour Party from the present equation, you may well ask ‘what’s Left?’ In electoral terms, it’s Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance, and a few progressive independents.

Let us digress for a minute to ask not what is Left but who is on the left and, in Irish political terms, how is it characterised. That which dares not speak its name, the National Question (the unfinished business), intrudes to complicate the capitalist-worker contradiction.

Ireland is still partitioned, and, despite the Good Friday Agreement and the devolved Assembly, Northern Ireland is still governed by the British parliament. Notwithstanding the subsidies it receives, Northern Ireland is part of the British economy and is an integral part of its stake in the imperialist world order. There is no doubt that its relationship with the South is viewed as an integral part of maintaining Britain’s interests within the global economy. As the Southern bourgeoisie seek accommodation with it and with the EU superstate, Britain will try to ensure that any arrangements harmonise with their own plans. While there is uncertainty about what the ruling elites of the two islands hope to achieve constitutionally in the long term, the concept of an independent, sovereign Ireland is not in their calculations. As it has done for centuries, the struggle for national independence has again unleashed a dynamic of social forces that threaten accommodation and compromise. The upper and middle classes who sought supremacy over the national movement were told by Pearse: ‘Make no mistake who will be Lord and master – the People will be lord and master,’ and Connolly, of course, was more specific: ‘We cannot conceive of a Free Ireland with a subject working class.’

The objective of a united Ireland is justified, therefore, not on romantic sentiment but as an essential part of a democratic agenda that would help rescue decision-making and participation processes from the servants of the bankers and the multinationals. As the unelected elite in the EU shackle us on a daily basis, the concept of democracy takes on economic and political dimensions. The avenues of democratic advance are a means of involving masses of people in deciding what they want and allowing them become masters of their futures and priorities. The economic aspects of a democratic agenda include the protection of our natural resources – already our gas and oil have been given away, limiting our energy potential just like our fisheries. All of this has to be considered in an all-Ireland framework and is essential part of the reconquest of Ireland. A strategy that envisages a socialist society must have at its roots the strengthening of the resolve of working people to select the means of eventually overthrowing the power of capital. This must consist of the demands for the democratic control of capital; social control of our natural resources; democratic economic- and social-planning for a humane culture; equality in society; democratic accountability; and national sovereignty. For all those serious about politics, this must be fought for and won not only North and South but also across the divided communities in the North.

If this strategy sounds familiar, it is because it is the backbone of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. Today, as then, it has the capacity to mobilise working people, small-business people, the self-employed, family farmers and fishers, the growing mass of unemployed, and the politically conscious women and youth – at its heart must be the working class and the trade union movement. Like An Chéad Dáil, however, it will remain unfulfilled and abandoned unless socialists and republicans popularise it and lead the way, both in the day to day struggles that give it meaning and in challenging the prevailing culture of ‘there is no alternative.’ Under the guise of ‘a new republic,’ ‘building bridges,’ and ‘modernity,’ the idiosyncrasies of the likes of Eoghan Harris, Kevin Myers, and John Waters are becoming the mainstream media consensus. Those who questioned the motives of the visit of the British monarch and the imperial Obama were castigated as headbangers, ragtag, and even scumbags. The ideological offensive of the ruling elite is intended not only to hide the economic disaster they have foisted on working people but also to dismantle and marginalise dissent. God forbid that the youth take to the streets as they did in the Middle East and are doing across Iceland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain. As Gramsci observed from his Italian fascist jail, all classes that rule attempt to get the consent of the ruled through their hegemony over the political, social, philosophical, and cultural spheres of society. The struggle of the majority to take power must take place as a counteroffensive in all these domains. In undertaking this task, socialists enrich themselves and advance by not only creating instruments of struggle but also winning intellectual superiority in the battle of ideas among the working class and its allies.

What is the potential for doing this today, with the many contending strategies of the diverse Left? The debates abound around reformism and revolution; transitional programmes versus full-blooded assaults on capitalism; the emphasis on electoral and/or grass roots mobilisations; the relevance of the national question; and even Stalin versus Trotsky. The far left, particularly in the Trotskyist tradition, have a reputation for loquacity in many of these fields. In Ireland, following examples from some west European countries, though not England, they have formed an electoral bloc in the United Left Alliance. The success of the venture, five TDs returned at the general election, has encouraged them to explore the possibility of forming a single new working-class party in the Republic. To a degree, they have been mobilising people around the immediate issues arising from the austerity measures, and their efforts in this should be supported. Seeking clarity on theory and strategies will prove difficult, however, given their previous history, but one can only wish them well.

It is obvious that all on the left should support joint activities where they are directed at immediate defensive issues against the cutbacks, if only to present a credible public appearance. But, trying to work out strategies that lead beyond the limitations of the different groups is problematic. Most of the Marxist Left have different interpretations of, for example, the nature of imperialism in Ireland, and some even claim that the ‘overshadowing national question has militated against a strong left and is therefore a distraction.’ This has practical implications: for example, in assessing the role of Sinn Féin, some argue that it is not even part of the Left. Another debate focuses on whether there exists or is potential for a Left in the Labour Party; and some question the potential for renewal in the trade unions.

The Left can be a crowded space, and many do not understand that it will be judged on how its ideas and practices are received and acted upon by the thinking youth, the committed community activists, and the involved trade unionists. Here, sloganising is no substitute for the slow, hard slog of classic organising, educating, and agitating. Unfortunately, the trade union movement is now very much depoliticised and weakened, with a supine and cowed leadership (there are a few notable exceptions). It remains, however, the crucible for potential fightback, and, if left unity is to mean anything, it is here that initiatives must be credible and sustainable. However, the theoretical and ideological arguments do not disappear: they are dialectically inbuilt as part of the class struggle, and we have to recognise that choosing different options does not make other activists enemies just rivals. That and recognition that there are no easy options or quick-fix solutions for socialism in the twenty-first century should create a friendlier atmosphere in which to grow and make progress for social advance.

or the curious onlooker and even the potential recruit, the divisions among the Left must be off-putting and reminiscent of the satire in the Life of Brian about the Judean People’s Front and its infinite splits and factions. In every science, it is necessary to advance theories and to evaluate, reject, and revise. In ideology, there is the added need to put the ideas into practice and, again, to evaluate and revise. Marxism is the tool to apply this scientific method, and Connolly’s life experience was testament to his constant battle for credible theories and workable ideas that could be put into every day practice by working people. He devoted time, energy, and resources to polemics with Walker and his ‘Orange Socialism;’ Labour reformers of the ‘gas and water’ variety of socialism; and, of course, the sectarianism of the likes of O’Casey who regarded the national question as a distraction from the pure path to socialism. For today’s generation, socialism in the twenty-first century must put democracy at the heart of the renewal of society and the future course and nature of socialism. While it might be an academic exercise for those on the extremes, the concept of redrafting An Chéad Dáil’s Democratic Programme in modern terms, emphasising independence, sovereignty, social objectives, and anti-imperialism, would be a noble objective.

The Communist Party of Ireland’s pamphlet An Economy for the Common Good quotes John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff in the US Monthly Review. In discussing attempts to rerun Roosevelt’s New Deal in response to today’s problems, they wrote:

Nevertheless, if such a movement for radical reforms were actually tried and yet failed (we think inevitably) to remove the injustices and irrationally of the system, there would be no need to go back to square one. Rather the population would be fully justified in such a case in pushing forward and concluding that the entire political-economic structure should be replaced, brick by brick, with another that that would meet their genuine needs and be under their democratic control: a system of social use rather than private gain. Already peoples throughout the world have reached the conclusion that the only rational answer is to replace the current rotten system with a more humane order geared to collective needs. For centuries the friends and enemies of social progress have called this alternative of a people-directed economy and society ‘socialism.’ We can think of no better name.

Tom Redmond is a member of the Communist Party of Ireland

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2011