Return to contents menu

  Economism and the politics of social partnership

Joe Craig

The debate between Maeve Connaughton and myself over my book Prisoners of Social Partnership has become subject to the law of diminishing returns. It is marred also by caricature and an apparent unwillingness to accept that context is important when quoting an argument What I want to do in this contribution is to allow readers to come to a view on what I think is the underlying nature of our differences of approach.

To appreciate the first remark let’s recall what the argument of the book is. I argued that social partnership was a political assault on the working class that demanded a political resistance. I pointed to the limited gains that some particularly well-placed workers had been able to make despite the restrictions of social partnership deals, and had pointed out that these were not significant for the wider working class or ultimately for the workers involved themselves. I pointed to the role of the trade union bureaucracy in ensuring that resistance to the partnership deals failed, and tried to explain that their role was not the result of personal qualities of the leaders themselves but of their material interest as a separate and relatively privileged social layer. They thus constituted a decisive obstacle to workers’ resistance and a central target of an alternative. I set out my understanding of what a political alternative could look like.

What does Maeve have to say about the specifically political character of the offensive, or my outline of the political programme that should guide resistance? Well, nothing much, it would appear. Instead she repeats again that piecemeal economic gains by workers are significant -without attempting in any way to answer all the ways in which I say they are not.  There is no need to repeat them here, except to say that what is decisive for evaluation is the political significance of struggle, not the size of any economic gain. She now admits that the fact that such gains must be limited under capitalism is obvious, but not so obvious that she pointed this out in her review, or drew any lessons from it. Previous literature on social partnership has avoided the question of the limits set to Irish workers’ living standards by an economy dominated by foreign multinationals, and for the vast majority of Irish workers the limits set by capitalism are certainly not obvious, if even relevant

It should be axiomatic to a Marxist that reforms are ultimately not significant; otherwise why is there a necessity for revolution? The relationship between the fight for reform and revolution is a theme running through the book, but on this relationship Maeve still has nothing to say beyond stating that one can lead to another.

Maeve’s unwillingness or inability to take the debate forward by engaging with the arguments can be seen in her insistent defence of free collective bargaining. Her continued approach of poking fun at my formulations is all very entertaining but beside the point, and the point is this: Free collective bargaining is not primarily about “re-establishing the formal independence of the trade union movement” (that really does require a political programme) but about each group of workers as organised by trade unions fighting or not fighting as the case may be, on its own behalf for its own sectional interests. This is the policy that proved so ineffective in the 1980s, allowing the imposition of social partnership. To the extent that workers unite in a collective and combined resistance, they depart from free collective bargaining and embark on a political strategy, such as the book advocates. “Now, there’s solidarity for you!”

It is, however, Maeve’s analysis of the trade union bureaucracy that is both the most indefensible and lamentable. First, it is necessary again to explain to Maeve what my argument is not. It is not that I reject the idea that union bureaucrats can be pressurised into “radical talk and even the very occasional deed” (to use my own words) and therefore that “If the argument for rank-and-file control was premised on Joe’s principle that the leaders can’t be pressurised, then the argument would fall with a thud” (as Maeve puts it). The argument is that socialists cannot base a strategy of resistance on pressurising a bureaucracy that has fundamental interests opposed to the working class, and that has, through a long history and in every single country, shown itself to be its bitter enemy. Pointing to individual trade union leaders as good socialists, without examining their actual politics, is not an argument against this view. Even if these people were revolutionaries, this would no more prove that the bureaucracy is not irredeemably reactionary than the figure of Frederick Engels shows that the bourgeoisie is not also irredeemably reactionary. Maeve responds to my argument that the bureaucracy opposes socialism because they would not exist under it with the observation that dole office workers would also not exist under socialism and presumably we do not rule out their support.  If Maeve cannot see the difference between a whole social layer which would lose its privileges and power under a workers’ state, in fact ceasing to exist, and workers of a particular occupation who would find more fulfilling employment as members of the new society’s ruling class with immeasurably more power and control over their lives, then one despairs of the power of rational argument

The specific tactics that flow from such an analysis do not mean that socialists denounce union bureaucrats as “running-dogs of the bourgeoisie” even when they place themselves at the head of opposition to a rotten deal. It does mean their strategy must be one of rank and file control, removal of the bureaucracy and not reliance on pressurising it or simply trying to get ‘socialists’ into bureaucratic positions. All sorts of intermediate steps will occur along this road, including pressure and attempts to split the bureaucracy, but it always helps a journey if you know where you have to go. We have had over fifteen years of militant noises from many trade union leaders, and fifteen years of social partnership to show for it.

This brings us finally to the notion of a vanguard. Maeve is of course right that socialists only constitute a vanguard to the extent that they have an army behind them. But this can only happen if workers find something useful in what socialists say, and this will only occur if they have something more to say than praise for what workers are already doing and tales of a great socialist society in the future, which in some unspecified way will come from their own economic struggles. Unfortunately Maeve continually denigrates the role that socialists have to play in educating workers —“socialists will also have a lot to learn from them”. Very true, but if social partnership is all about politics then, putting all false modesty aside, socialists have an awful lot more to explain to the average worker than that worker has to explain to the socialist. Otherwise, why waste our time reading and writing articles in Red Banner etc? As I pointed out, to denigrate the socialist programme in the name of learning from today’s workers is to fail to learn from the workers of yesterday who taught us a lot (but not by any means everything) of what is in the socialist programme.

Maeve finishes her response by saying that “we don’t make the journey any easier by starting from the wrong place”. I will hazard a guess and say that for Maeve the correct place to start is the workers’ own struggles, but this is insufficient. Without the Marxist programme it is impossible to assess and propose development of these struggles. This does not preclude learning from workers: indeed, only the existence of a programme gives a reason to learn from their struggles. After all, if we are not going to try to apply the lessons through a programme, why learn them?

Maeve’s failure to address the politics of social partnership, her inflation of the significance of day-to-day economic struggles, her uncritical endorsement of free collective bargaining and ambivalent approach to the workers’ current leaders are of a piece with what has been given the label Economism.  This is not a Marxist swear word or term of abuse, but a description of a form of politics that is prevalent on the Irish left. The most penetrating criticism of Economism has come from Lenin, but he is very much out of fashion. It should be appreciated that if we want to criticise Lenin we should go beyond him, not to the conceptions that preceded him. Somewhere along the line, we have thrown a baby out with the bathwater.


Return to top of page