Irelandís alternative left government
A journey to never-never land
What is the socialist strategy for intervening in a period of intense class tension?
For the reformist left in Ireland, it is to build a left government, with Sinn Fein as the major component.
What? Sinn Fein? Aren't they in a colonial administration in the North of Ireland? In coalition with the far right Democratic Unionist Party?
TD Paul Murphy, in a bizarre interview in the magazine International Viewpoint, says this is a "contradiction," by which he seems to mean an awkward issue that can be ignored while seeking a governmental coalition in the 26 county State.
Unfortunately, being in government in the North involves constant activity by Sinn Fein which is hard to ignore. Their most recent activities involved opposing elements of the abortion rights bill passed at Westminster and allowing the passage of a new law that permitted police the power to penalise Black Lives Matter demonstrators by extending coronavirus regulations, which the police duly proceeded to vigourously apply to BLM but not to Loyalist counter-demonstrators.
The method of ignoring this kind of ďcontradictionĒ with 'eyes wide shut' extends to Sinn Fein's role in the South also. Their policy on health, titled Healthcare for All, is short on detail, saying that better planning and increased funding would "eventually" lead to a free health service. Their housing policy, with a promise to build 100,000 homes, sounds more dramatic, but on closer examination is found to be focused on "affordable" homes rather than public housing. Houses would be built by the private sector on public land, but money would be saved by excluding developers. The funds would come from Europe. That 'well', dry for over a decade and the foundation of every proposed reform, would suddenly spring to life.
It should not be forgotten that no one was more surprised than Sinn Fein by the large working class vote they attracted. In the run up to the last election they were looking Right, towards reconciliation with the British and a law and order agenda. A significant shift was the weakening of their traditional opposition to the draconian Offences Against the State Act, the Southern equivalent of the old Northern Special Powers Act, which allows for non-jury courts and the imprisonment of subversives on the word of a Garda superintendent. A recent Dail vote saw the Party abstain while the other potential claimant of the title 'Left Party', the Greens, being less 'shackled' by any history of radicalism, voted for the legislation.
As if all this was not enough a Sinn Fein councillor associated with homophobobic, misogynistic and racist comments was nominated by the local Party as Mayor of South Dublin Council. In what Left Party would a five month suspension have been considered sufficient?
In the period since the election Sinn Fein's focus has not been on a "Left government" but on being included in the new capitalist government. In fact they counterpose a "Left led" government, in other words a coalition with Fianna Fail, to the notional Left government.
So the splintered remnants of the reformist Lefts' strategy resembles that of the cartoon character Wile E Coyote, legs spinning in mid air over the canyon as he defies gravity. In their case it is reality that is denied.
It has taken decades of degeneration to get here and increasingly, under the blows of repeated defeats, socialists across the globe have opportunistically taken the route through the reformist swamp and proposed broad parties and electoral fronts. Each new front became an excuse for moving politics further to the right. Each project failed abysmally, but the ossified leaderships of the Left groups never looked back or re-examined their strategy.
There is a theoretical explanation. For example the leadership of the Fourth International (Usec), in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw the balance of forces as so unfavorable that the task of the day was to rebuild an elementary class consciousness. It was sufficient to regroup all those who paid even the slightest lip service to resistance in an attempt at political agreement, reformists and revolutionaries alike. Then the strategy required us to 'wait'; to slowly accumulate experience and strength, and to wait for better days. In order to accomplish that goal, the 'Broad Party' was deemed the best vehicle and revolutionary activity was ultimately decried as a pipe dream.
Another process that occurs as the working class retreats is that the Left becomes isolated in radical ghettos. For some groups this ghetto is situated in academia, where privatisation has casualised teaching and research, degrees are simply commodities and the fetish of post-modernism and identity politics rules the day. In this environment debating or applying Marxist theory is superfluous.
Another 'natural habitat' is in the myriad committees and branch structures at the base of the trade union movement, where junior officer's jobs have also been casualised and where the trade union movement has become locked in partnership arrangements with government and employers, exchanging concessions in the workplace for an advisory role in the State apparatus. Bluster has replaced struggle and the Left 'infiltrators' continuously adapts to this toxic environment by accepting that they should once again 'wait' for better days and revolutionary politics are put on hold as they accept a support role and offer no criticism.
As the capitalist crisis increased in intensity and working class discontent began to mount the escape route was seen as the electoral road. In Ireland's clientelist system, where local Independents loom large, it was possible for relatively small organisations to win seats in local elections and in the Dail. This electoral success allowed an enhanced public presence and access to State payments and resources. Slowly the diluted politics that won electoral office, pivoting around the personality of the candidate, ate away at the programmes of the Parties. The Socialist Workers Party eventually dissolved itself into People Before Profit, which has now itself splintered into local groups and the Socialist Party split into three groups, with the majority moving away from a dogmatic loyalty to trade union leaders.
When workers looked around for a way to confront the government they looked to Sinn Fein rather than a fractious left. This is hardly surprising given the opportunist efforts of both major tendencies to promote them as being potential left wing partners in government and these groups now, thanks to their own strategy, are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, with the majority elected on Sinn Fein transfers and facing potential oblivion at the next election.
In the period of uncertainty around the establishment of a government Sinn Fein continued to press for coalition with the parties of the Right. They will now tactically swing Left as they accept a period in opposition and the Left reformist groups will continue to advance the Left government schema. Mary Lou and company will be mild in their critique of the new administration as their main aim is government with some of the current coalition parties. The socialist groups in turn will be mild in their critique of Sinn Fein 'leftism' as they will need the support of that party's voters to be re-elected.
So how can a revolutionary current be re-established?
In the main part this depends on working class resistance. We are locked in a downward spiral. People fear for their jobs and are cautious about action. The union leaders look for accommodation with the government and this makes workers even more cautious. As was seen in recent transport and health strikes, only legal strike action signed off by the leadership is safe and when the deal is done the great majority of workers feel compelled to accept whatever fraction of a loaf that is being offered.
However circumstances are now changing. After a decade of immiseration a new austerity is emerging and is projected to extend for decades into the future. Emergency measures arising from Covid 19 are being withdrawn and mass layoffs are being implemented. It will not take long for the new programme for government to be exposed as a sham and a new era of conflict will arise.
We should not write off the youth, inspired by revolutionary ideas, around the existing socialist groups. As the ideology of the current groups decay there will be opportunities for new struggles and new political discussions.
Above all we should not ignore the context of world events, especially in the USA. A long period of electoral broad party politics has ended up with the challenge to Donald Trump being Joe Biden. The Democratic Socialists of America and the current around the Jacobin magazine, supporters of the Bernie Sanders campaign, are left largely dismasted. At the same time we see a new movement on the streets around Black Lives Matter which does more to unseat Trump in a few days than the Left at the edge of the democratic party has done in four years.
We are entering a.new era where street politics and a flavour of insurrection will supplant the broad party. That's where socialists must place themselves.
As the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky said:
"Here we must ask ourselves if the program should be adapted to the mentality of the workers or to the present objective economic and social conditions of the country. This is the most important question....Our tasks donít depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. That is what the program should formulate and present before the advanced workers.
We must tell the workers the truth, then we will win the best elements.... That is why all the arguments that we cannot present such a program because the program doesnít correspond to the mentality of the workers are false. They express only fear before the situation".