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A wonderful open debate – a sad tale of the illusion of unity

John McAnulty

28 June 2006 

A wonderful open debate – a real exchange of views – a real step forward – these were the laudatory comments of those who attended the ATGWU open conference in Dublin on the 17th June as the conference drew to a close.

All of the above was pure tosh. The conference was an absolute failure, revealing an atomised and splintered left, fleeing headlong from any genuine programme of working-class struggle. The positions the various tendencies supporting the conference put forward should be noted by working class activists as warning signs of the path not to take if they want to promote the self-organisation of workers. The only question remaining is whether there is anywhere in this milieu any genuine activists willing to raise the banner of the Workers Republic. 

The central theme of the conference was ‘No to coalition with the right!” As Socialist Democracy has warned in the past, this is the thinnest of covers for a retreat to an opportunist electoralism. The tragedy for those leading that retreat is that they cannot agree what kind of opportunist electoralism to endorse. 

New Labour?

For the organisers in the ATGWU and a sizable number of the attendees there was a clear objective. The left began inside the ranks of the Irish Labour Party and a Labour party opposing coalition with right-wing parties would be an excellent outcome. Mick O’Reilly made it clear that the ATGWU would support a Labour – Fine Gael government if Fine Gael were the minority and would even support a partnership deal with such a government. A ‘left’ coalition was not defined, but earlier discussions had included Sinn Fein and the Greens, and there was constant reference to the ‘double negative’ factor – that is if 40% of the electorate voted Fianna Fail or Fine Gael then there was a 60% left wing vote out there for the taking! 

From that perspective the conference was a bust before it began. The platform included none of the forces that it hoped to attract. The main figure was Mick O’Reilly himself, with Joan Collins of the CIL and Kieran Allen of the Socialist Workers Party, representing the front group People before Profit. Séamus Healy TD (Tipperary South) was expected to attend, as was Joe Higgins of the Socialist party. Neither turned up. The Greens were invisible and the Provos sent an observer. Even Labour Youth, who have the advantage of youth and activism and a policy of opposing coalition, preferred to organise their own forces at a weekend Connolly school. Declan Bree of the Labour party appeared but after a brief period of observation took himself off to the apparently more fertile grounds of Labour youth.

No only did the anti-coalition social-democratic movement not get born, there really is no set of circumstances in which it will be born. The Labour party is embracing coalition for the same reasons that the trade unions endorse partnership. There is no prospect of winning reform from capitalism in this epoch, so they best protect their own interests by selling out the workers and joining in the right-wing offensive. This is a rather long-winded form of suicide and will inevitably lead to the collapse of their base, but in the absence of any new working class mobilisation they will respond by moving further right and playing the race card. In any case neither the Greens nor Sinn Fein have anything that remotely resembles a socialist programme. They can forsee the collapse of Labour and hope that by playing the left populist card and keeping vague about details they can sweep up the vote. Sinn Fein, using the dishonest spin that they call politics, have already written approvingly about the anti-coalition left that they hope will erode the Labour base. The eyes of their leadership are firmly fixed on a place inside a right wing coalition government – after all, a policy of coalition with Fianna Fail is an advance on their Northern policy of a coalition with Paisley! 

The left alternative

The SWP/People before Profit contribution was a classic of its kind. We had a potted history of the anti-globalisation movement, of a new anti-capitalist movement (a new anti-capitalism only in the sense that it was not socialist). All the negatives that have accumulated around these movements were simply ignored. The latest movements (in this case a German unity movement and the English Respect coalition) became the model to emulate and earlier movements that had run into difficulty (the Scottish Socialist party) were ignored. A new unity was springing up everywhere and it was time Ireland had its own movement. 

This opportunity was so urgent that to meet it we were no longer required to be socialists. In fact we were no longer required to have any sort of programme or even an organisation. All that was required was a network around an electoral slate (anti-coalition of course) to mobilise all the local dissidents and single-issue groupings and get them to put forward candidates – preferably members of the SWP. The watchword of this grotesque parody of SWP populism and opportunism was diversity! Unity Now! Unity without an object! Unite around – nothing at all! 

This objective met with enthusiastic support from a number of individuals who identified themselves as members of the Campaign for an Independent left (CIL). However it clearly failed to win support at the conference, if only for the simple reason that more or less everyone in the room had been down the garden path with the SWP before and no-one outside the most credulous and enthusiastic dupes were willing to take the trip again. To speak frankly, the SWP have run out of victims and are now in serious trouble as the political basis on which they recruit shrinks towards zero. 

The reason why the SWP project won’t succeed is easy to understand. Why it can’t succeed takes a little more explaining. The anti-globalisation movement that they draw on for inspiration has many quite complex facets that differ from country to country and in some countries have achieved quite significant mobilisations around specific immediate issues. However any positive aspects that can be pointed to have to be balanced by the fact that they often involve very significant political retreats by the socialist currents within them. These retreats have largely been linked to a general demobilisation of the working class as a whole and of linked social layers in the trade union bureaucracy and other social movements such as charities and non-governmental organisations. 

Whether the left have made correct decisions or not in the various battles within the anti-globilisation movements is besides that point. The point here is that Ireland has no significant working class political organisation to which the left can link itself and the political retreats and demobilisation have already occurred, with both the trade union bureaucracy and the main republican grouping firmly linked to the Irish capitalist class and to support for a strategy of collaboration with imperialism. The only possible strategy for remobilisation therefore involves a battle with the union bureaucracy and opposition to the threadbare ‘left’ pretensions of Sinn Fein rather than a united front with them, and a strategy of broad unity simply leads to the left surrendering the political grounds on which a fightback could be launched and leads to the further marginalisation of the socialist movement. 

One organisation that that talked a good talk at the conference was the Socialist party. They argued that they had successfully applied an electoralist tactic that was subordinate to class struggle. This strategy had won them a TD and a number of local councillors and they felt they were poised to make more gains in the next election. They did not oppose an electoralist front in the form of a common slate of candidates, but the political basis of such a front could not be the clappy-happy ‘People power’ proposals of the SWP. It had to be a programme built on class demands. They demanded specific proposals and the right to vet both the common programme and the slate of candidates. 

Unfortunately what was said did not quite match Socialist party practice. Although they draw the line at ‘People power’ and ‘diversity’, their actual programme is for ‘gas and water’ socialism and unity with the union bureaucracy – a pattern reflected in their ‘mass working class party’ project in England, which firmly restricts itself to low-level reformism and seeks to unite with a ‘left’ bureaucracy (see For a New Workers Party or Old Labour ). The Socialist Party have no history of united work, making appearances at broader forums but normally working only through fronts tightly controlled by themselves. 

The SP practice of avoiding big ideas in favour of constituency and trade union work looks dull but do-able in another 20 years. Sadly it takes no account of the need to build a working-class consciousness that supports revolutionary change or of the sudden shifts and convulsions of class struggle that could see 20 years of patient work undone in a moment – one has only to look at the fate of the Workers party and the sudden arrival of Sinn Fein for an example.

Socialist Unity 

The organisations set up to promote new socialist unity movements came under the greatest stress during the conference. Were they able to offer a credible alternative strategy for building a movement to the left of social democracy or would all their claims dissolve in the face of the chance to sink themselves in an electoral swamp? The answer was not long in coming. We have pointed out before the contradiction of competing ‘unity’ movements such as the People Before Profit alliance (PBP) and the Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL). Now we have the bizarre appearance of two left unity movements nested, like Russian dolls, inside a third Labourite unity initiative! By offering no alternative proposals the two groups effectively cut away the justification for their own existence. Just how much organisation is needed to cheer on a new Irish Labour party?

The People Before Profit alliance is so clearly an SWP front that Kieran Allan of the SWP was able to offer to the conference a change of name and platform of a forthcoming PBP meeting without consulting anyone. PBP history has been marked by a very significant shift by the SWP to the right and very determined attempts from before the Irish Ferries struggle to ally itself with the trade union bureaucracy. What then of the alternative movement the CIL? 

The CIL points to the fact that it is a real alliance of a number of left groups, to a long period of negotiation and to an 11-point political programme to establish more serious credentials. However in the conference only CIL members attached to the Irish Socialist network even hinted at the original programme. The CIL speaker, Joan Collins, effectively threw the programme away when she indicated her support for a new ‘left’ labour party. Other speakers speaking as CIL members not only did not correct Collins, they indicated support for the PBP positions! One CIL speaker spelt out the difference between fighting social partnership and an electoral slate – the electoral slate was more central because it was broader! In other words class demands that only concerned workers were too narrow a basis for the new populist crusade! It should also be remembered that an April meeting of the CIL rehearsed all of the tosh brought forward at the ATGWU meeting, managing to have Sinn Fein and the Greens on their ‘left alternative’ platform. It appears very strongly that Socialist Democracy’s original warnings that the 11 points would collapse into ‘anti-coalition’ electoralism and opportunism have been justified by events (see: The movement for a new party ). 

A modest proposal

During the discussion the writer, speaking on behalf of Socialist Democracy, made a modest proposal. I suggested that those present discuss a united public opposition to the ‘Partnership 2016’ proposals made by the union bureaucracy. After all, it seemed commonsense that a working class handcuffed for ten years to partnership with the bosses would find it much more difficult to form a new working class party than a class that had been offered the possibility of a fightback. 

The outcome at the end of the conference was that Mick O’Reilly will work in the unions, the People Before Profit group will hold a public meeting and Des Derwin of the CIL and Dublin trades council will organise a meeting of trade unionists. It seemed tactless to point out that these were the tired old activities of the past and could not for a moment be considered a united campaign. The main function of the various left activities is to disguise the fact that they are already united around a policy that they are unwilling to spell out openly. That policy is the main reason for the failure of the conference and the inability of the left to build an alternative – that is that they all remain a loyal opposition to the trade union bureaucracy and, even in the face of the biggest sellout yet, are unwilling to break with them. 

A new working class party 

The ATGWU conference was an abject failure – so why devote time and energy to analysing it? The main reason is that it was a classic of its kind, with all the nostrums, cure-alls and quick fixes spelt out in the clearest way possible. If the various groups remain true to form we can expect them to learn as little from this failure as they have in the past, so we can expect a ‘groundhog day’ scenario, where the same issues will have to be dealt with again and again. 

The weakness of discussions on the left about ‘left unity’ is that the debate is filled with misconceptions. A working class party is a task for the working class as a whole. Self-appointed leaders can’t build it. The reason that the various left organisations exist is because they represent different, and perfectly legitimate, perspectives about what path the working class will take. ‘Unity’ that tries to rub out these differences is a waste of time and simply means that the socialist groups no longer have confidence in their own policies and are in headlong retreat to the right. A serious movement for political unity would have no difficult about agreeing the very fundamentals – unity in action around specific issues such as opposition to social partnership. The fact that socialist organisations are unable to do this calls into question their ability to serve the working class in any capacity or any role that they might play in the regroupment of working-class forces.

Socialist Democracy believe that the key issues for building a new working class party lie in the opposition to social partnership and rejection of the imperialist occupation of part of the country.

We stand ready to engage anyone in open and honest debate around these issues – and equally ready to unite in action around immediate struggles that all the left should be fighting together.

Many reject that position and believe that to accept our analysis is to accept isolation and turn their backs on the shortcuts that are at hand that would overnight create a socialist party that would be a real force in society. Those who believe this either lack even a short-term memory or are incapable of learning from experience. All the forces, many of the people, who were present at the June ATGWU conference were present at a similar conference in 2001. It was attended by over 200 militants. It had the support of the Scottish Socialist party, of the then English Socialist alliance and of the Fourth International. Despite disagreements it ended with a Socialist Alliance led by the SWP. 

As an initiative it was much better. It had broader support, the new alliance had a much better programme and it was active in a number of campaigns. However a lack of democracy and the disinterest of the organisers in any political programme allowed it to be gradually transformed into yet another SWP front. The ATGWU initiative was a pale shadow of the first initiative. The militants who came to the 2001 initiative have learnt their lesson and did not return to this conference. How can anyone convincingly argue that a strategy that can’t even attract the existing layer of working class militants can go on to organise the entire working class?


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