Return to Left Unity menu
Irish Socialist Network school -  A model for workers unity?

Kevin Keating 

15 November 2009

A long-standing British socialist, Phil Hearse, recently spelt out what he considered to be the nature of socialism in the 21st century. The socialists would be united because they would dispense with the need for a program.

The centrepiece of the ISN school on 7th November was a talk by Murray Smith of the French New Anti-Capitalist Party advancing precisely this theory. The NPA foundation was based on the dissolution of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR).  Without a program the new party would unite around a common dedication to a revolutionary solution.  It would not be an electoral alliance, but a party of street protest.  The weakness of this approach was most clearly expressed by Smith’s report, which was based around the possibility of electoral unity with the French CP.  So within months the vague aspirations to revolution and protest had been replaced by the concerns of electoralism – and the electoral unity was to be with the French Communist Party, one of the most consistent gravediggers of revolution even in the annals of European Stalinism! In case anyone missed the absurdity of this, a number of other speakers drew out the idea to the point of caricature, while a member of the Irish CP quickly demonstrated how the denial of politics could become reaction.

Chilean activist Jose Antonio Gutierrez who spoke at an earlier session on Latin America tended to rebut the political direction that the French organization was taking. He spoke on the pink tide that had swept Latin America and argued that an apolitical left giving uncritical support to charismatic leaders had held back popular mobilizations. A more informed discussion was possible if some more attention was given to the Argentine struggle where an insurrectional working class had overcome a legacy of massive state terror and brought down several governments, but lacking programme or party were pushed back and business as usual was restored. 

The most vociferous opponent of a socialist program was local councillor Kieran Perry, who argued that the only way to build a base was by doing constituency work on the ground. In an argument that seemed no different from that of many small-scale political fixers from mainstream parties, he rubbished the idea that standing on policy could out-trump parish-pump activism.  It was left to a member of the audience to defend the idea of a political program and to point out that the recent election of Joe Higgins utterly contradicted all of Perry's assertions.

In the absence of politics it becomes impossible to separate left from right,
and the position put forward by former union boss Mick O'Reilly demonstrated this very clearly. O'Reilly misused his position as chair to lobby for his own version of unity, where anyone outside Fianna Fail or Fine Gael would qualify for membership and an electoral bloc including labour and Sinn Fein would become the new left. 

This view, endorsed by the Communist Party, would mean that the small layer of socialist activists attempting to organize opposition to the truly terrifying massacre of working class rights and living conditions we are facing would find themselves swamped inside an organization that would be led by those who supported the attack on the working class and had voted with Irish capitalism in organizing it. It would enable former bureaucrats like Mick to hold hands with the current trade union leadership who in turn have indicated very clearly that they are willing to support Irish capitalism, asking only for more time for the working class to foot the bill.

Just how dangerous a policy this is was illustrated by the intervention of a Communist Party member in the audience, who condemned the workers who had taken part in the mass demonstration of the previous day for acting out of selfish motives! In doing so he was simply echoing the private comments of many trade union bureaucrats who have already accepted the need for savage cuts and are searching for an ideology to justify their stance.

The logic of the situation is quite simple. Unite around leftism and it becomes impossible to agree where the left ends.  If you unite without a program you will quickly find that organizations such as Sinn Fein, the Labour party and the union bureaucracy are not so foolish that they dispense with their own. The left becomes tied to the policies they pledged to oppose. 

The section on economics was particularly disappointing. This was really inevitable given the platform. All of the speakers could claim, under various definitions, to be of the left. None could convincingly claim to represent classical Marxism or to bring the full power of Marxist analysis or Marxist program to bear. In fact Chekov Feeney went out of his way to rubbish a distorted view of the Marxist alternative, in favour of a redistributionist model, essentially a more democratic capitalism.

Each of the speakers drew on some Marxist ideas, but their reports were largely descriptive and any solutions proposed were based on nationalism or the reformist Keynesian tradition within capitalism.

The significance of this weakness is that any talk of a new party only has significance in the context of the current crisis of capital and the need for a working class program of opposition. Such programmes are being advanced by Marxist organisations and it would have been possible to find a number of speakers who have a detailed knowledge of Marxist economics and could outline standard positions that come from the history of working class struggle and have not lost their importance today.

The central confusion of the school was best demonstrated by the absence of a speaker from the People Before Profit/SWP current. If the ISN believe that left unity is a central task with a program a secondary issue then the SWP should have spoken and the outcome should have been the ISN and their supporters joining PB4P. There can be no political justification for two 'unity' movements and it is a telling fact that the left unity movement has in fact being constantly marked by mindless organisational sectarianism by groups who were advancing identical politics. If PB4P does not suit the bill as a unity movement an amalgam of Stalinists, reformists and anarchists is an unconvincing alternative. If on the other hand a political program for the working class was important the wrong people were being asked to lead the debate.

The attendance at the ISN school is an indication that many people want to discuss the possibly of a working-class alternative. Dodging the questions of working class demands and working class program means that we constantly frustrate ourselves and tread water at a time when the need for an independent workers movement has never been greater.


Return to top of page