A few weeks ago I came across your e-book on the bin charge campaign in Dublin. I agree with many on the points you make, but I felt you held back from making the condemnation of the left they so richly deserve and therefore failed to put forward an alternative strategy for building a revolutionary working-class movement that I myself and, I believe, many other militants are looking for.
I enclose a critical review of your booklet. I hope you will publish it and respond.
IT’S THE BIN TAX STUPID!
Even after many years of effort no Socialist grouping has managed to establish for itself a credible base of support within the Irish working class. Not ready to accept minor party status the Socialist groups are notable only for being the persistent organisers of protests against ‘the rotten capitalist system.’ Yet, now and again a class situation develops that affords the isolated Socialists the opportunity to convey the revolutionary understanding to a broader working class constituency. It is a contention of this political digest from two members of the Socialist Democracy that the Dublin anti-bin tax struggle presented the left such an opportunity. The Socialist Democracy verdict on the overall performance of the combined Socialist movement during the course of the anti-bin tax struggle however is hardly a ringing or even a cautious endorsement, in fact it concludes that the left: failed the task miserably.
For the most part the writers succeed in stitching together their criticisms of the anti-bin charge campaign. That they try to bring this off whilst maintaining a unity of purpose with the campaign is perhaps the least convincing part of their presentation.
There can be no disputing the fact that the Irish tax system is stacked in favour of the economic interest of the capital holding class. The political establishment proves this by asserting one cause of the Irish economic boom (Celtic Tiger) to be the special tax breaks preferred by the Irish State on international and domestic business investors. As for the regular press and media, the unifying assumption is that economic prosperity rests on continuing as before. The economic boom would implode if the State hesitated even for one political term to flatter privately owned businesses with tax and investment inducements. A corollary of this is that the Irish owning and managerial class is well famed for its own personal tax avoidance skills: their guiding ethos being only the little people pay tax. And just to round things off your average Irish government cabinet is populated by scheming tax accountants. All this leaves many ordinary workers feeling resentful at having to pay for the nation’s tax bill.
Given the above state of affairs, is it any wonder that there has developed a mood within a section of the working class in favour of tax flight. At some point during the anti-bin tax campaign, leaflets were distributed claiming that at least one in six were not prepared to pay the new bin tax. This of course still meant that the majority had decided to pay and needed better convincing that the bin tax was so outrageous that it merited the launching of a mass civil disobedience campaign. This too is not that surprising, for the case put together by the anti-bin tax campaigners was barely convincing. Was the anti-bin tax campaign intended to redress one little injustice or the beginning of a more generalised working class revolt against a wholly regressive tax regime?
The Socialist Democracy digest is not as informative as it might have been in relating the bin tax to the overall political question of taxation. It is much too flippant in its treatment of double taxation, it only briefly mentions the heat generated in the media and ignores the recent history of similar controversies. In the spin of the left the bin tax was a self-evident example of double taxation. Was it wrong for the reader to have expected a through examination of the double taxation claim? What is it about double taxation that the socialist finds so utterly objectionable? When the British fuel protestors summoned up their own civil disobedience action against New Labour in September 2000, they too said they were fighting against an objectionable double taxation; did they too deserve the support of socialists?
The authors do hint at a difference of opinion with the rest of the socialist over whether the bin tax was a genuine instance of a double taxation when they drop in the line that the government ‘had a reasonable argument that the charge was not a double taxation.’ One cannot help thinking that if it is conceded that the government had a reasonable case against the double taxation charge then the honest standing of the actual campaign was questionable. However the contention of the Socialist Democracy writers is that the bin dispute is not essentially about double taxation, the double taxation claim is, excuse the pun, a political red herring.
Evidently the writers do not wish to entirely banish the double taxation claim, what they do say is that the ‘campaign failed absolutely to develop the argument beyond double taxation’ and this was a major deficit. The matter is moved onwards in agreeing that the tax was regressive and therefore had to be opposed by the Dublin working class. But if only one in six contemplated not paying what arguments could have been wielded to convince the majority that the bin tax had to be fought? The entire Irish tax system is in fact regressive. If there is to be a political offensive by the working class in regard to taxation, why target the less significant bin tax, especially in the current political circumstances where there is no alternative government and the State is in a position to shift the tax load around. Some after thoughts referring to the long-term legacy of the great tax revolt of 1979 when 200,000 workers attended a mass protest rally may have been of some relevance. Might the comparison have illustrated some of the pitfalls not to say follies for socialism of making tax policy the basis of an assault on the capitalist State?
The authors refer to journalist Stephen Collins’s mischievous Sunday Tribune piece that what the anti-bin tax campaign showed was that the left was now the right because they were demanding a tax cut and this could only lead to cuts in already under funded public services. They also point out that the campaign had no answer to Collins or to the ICTU leader David Beggs who raised the same concern. However they dismiss Collins’ elbow dig a little too quickly, brushing it aside as a ‘postmodernist’ ruse. No doubt Collins has no brief for defending the class interest of workers, but the point is not a trivial one. Should not the ‘leftwing’ be consistently pressing against the low tax-and spend political culture of neo-liberalism and pressing for of a high tax, high spend political culture? Is it not the case that the New Right built a working class base in the 1980s and 1990s for neo-liberalism by promoting tax cuts for workers? In all fairness the authors do say that the role of income tax cuts should have been explained by the campaign as preventing the funding of social provision in opposition to the shifting of costs to the working class as consumers. However it is clear that the authors never intended to assess bin tax controversy in terms of a wider debate over the politics of taxation.
The authors are at their best in ridiculing the socialist dominated committees that from the outset took charge of the campaign. In theory the campaign was a spontaneous initiative of the working class, in fact it was launched by the Socialist Groups with some help from the Anarchists and Sinn Fein activists. It remained a loose alliance of differentiated campaigns tied together by diplomatic agreements between the Groups. The ramshackle organisation of the campaign made it difficult to debate and decide things democratically. For example, when the government changed the Waste Management Act in the summer of 2003, to legally sanction the tactic of non-collection, a proposal to hold a general campaign conference to work out a common tactical response was dismissed on the most spurious grounds, primarily by the Socialist Party. Dermot Connolly a senior figure belonging to the SP later confirmed that ‘the SP used its position in Fingal, not to establish a genuine link up of the four campaigns, but to try and control things through behind the scenes meetings’ and that ‘it was this that created the shambles of last October of events being called, or called off or changed by a small group without consultation with the people involved.’ The rivalries on the Socialist ensured that the campaign hurtled from one crash to the next. As the Socialist Democracy writers point out, the Far Left’s sectarian method of organisation meant that working class participants had no forum in which to discuss and decide strategy and no way of co-ordinating and reviewing activities
The most serious charge the Socialist Democracy writers make is that after the 11th October DCTU rally to protest the jailing, the Socialist effectively handed political control over the campaign to its enemies within the trades union bureaucracy. The writers liken the decision to political suicide .The decision to suspend the blockade was taken by a secret committee without rank and file consultation, supposedly in the expectation of some vague declaration of support from the ICTU. The decision merely highlighted another of the campaign’s failings, its arrogant dishonesty.
The Socialist Democracy argument is that the organised workers, especially those in SIPTU and IMPACT ought to have been singled out by the campaign as the most important players. The government’s own plan of action showed that it recognised the central importance of the bin workers, its penalisation tactic of non-payers was hopeless unless it secured the cooperation of the majority of these workers and especially so in relation to non-collection. Incredibly it was that the government that successfully mobilised the bin workers as the chief instrument of its enforcement policy. This was not because bin workers were unsympathetic to the aim of the campaign rather they were under strict instruction from the union leadership to follow the government line. The thrust of the campaign should have been a demand backed up with pressure on the union leaders to instruct workers to collect all bins as normal and certainly not to become bailiffs for the Corporation. The campaign leadership tactfully decided to avoid a political confrontation with the scab leadership of the unions: ‘All along it had stressed individual action at the price of collective action.’
A problem with the Socialist Democracy assessment is, that as it accumulates the criticisms of the anti-bin tax campaign the ground for any agreement slides away. The criticism is dressed up in ‘tactical suggestion’ but on closer inspection the criticism is more fundamental. One part of the Socialist Democracy argument is that the bin tax campaign started out with a focus on double taxation, became a struggle about individual payment, was organised into a campaign of civil disobedience, chose direct action over mass action and finished in a defeat for the working class. Also the campaign was implicated in routine parish-pump electoral rivalries from the very beginning. The other part of the Socialist Democracy argument is that the campaign ought to have started out from a different focus, it should have been a campaign against privatisation, it should have put the public sector workers centre stage, it should have put the union bureaucracy to shame, finally it should have aimed at building a rank and file trade workers organisation as opposed to electing a few red councillors.
We need to finish by asking how do the two sides of the one assessment fit together? It seems only with great difficulty. The political campaign the Socialist Democracy says should have been fought; in comparison with the campaign that actually was fought is an ideological world apart, but in the end it doesn’t conclusively acknowledge that is. If the writers really did infer the lesson of the campaign it would surely come down to be something more than just a tactical line of opposition to the anti-bin tax leadership. It would declare an honest opposition to the method that Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto called bourgeois socialism. At one point the Socialist Democracy writers venture to call the Socialist leadership of the anti-bin tax campaign substitutionist. This implied a differentiation between the leadership and the base, but no opposition to the substitutionist leadership is mentioned.
It is likely that the Socialist Democracy
writers opposed the anti-bin tax campaign in its entirely for good Marxist
reasons but were enthralled to those campaign meetings that they mention,
that attracted hundreds of ‘workers.’ Maybe they decided that despite all
its faults the campaign was the only game in town and decided to climb
on board anyway. Will simple expediency decide the matter when the double
taxation water charge campaign gets up and running in the North?