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No SEAchange: “Socialist” Campaign A Step Backwards
The creation of Socialist and Environmental Alliances (SEA) in Derry and Belfast, mainly as a result of a “unity” policy by the Socialist Workers Party, has confirmed the worst fears of Socialist Democracy that moves towards organisational unity on the left have only served to hide a marked shift rightwards among many of the people involved.
At the first meeting we attended of the Belfast Alliance a draft manifesto was presented for approval. (See text of final version) It was immediately clear that all the political questions facing workers were to be avoided. While everyone interested in politics was speculating on the future of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) the SEA was choosing not even to mention it.
Presenting itself as a ‘new’ force opposing sectarianism, it failed to record socialist’s opposition to the GFA, which signals that however politics develop in the North it will be within a sectarian straightjacket. The purpose of this straightjacket is precisely to ensure that sectarian division continues, making it an absolute imperative that it be opposed. Despite describing itself as representing something new the SEA continued the shameful history of most of the left in pretending that you could fight sectarianism without fighting the state that keeps it going.
The most fundamental argument for socialists is that the working class must replace the capitalist class as the new rulers of society. The character of the state is therefore always fundamental. The majority of the meeting rejected this argument saying that we had to be where workers were actually at and that the current manifesto was only a start.
The first argument is wrong and the second, dare I say it, dishonest. ‘Where workers are at’ was precisely the GFA, which was the issue that dominated the election. The comrades claimed that this was not the only issue raised on the doorstep and this was undoubtedly true. But it is the outcome of the struggle over this issue that will determine what is possible over the rest. Workers were therefore not wrong to see the GFA as the most important issue, the SEA was wrong not to see it so. Far from being only a start the SEA shows no sign of taking up opposition to the new sectarian agreement. When Bill Clinton came to Ireland the SEA protested about very issue connected with him, including the Middle East peace process, everything except his role in their own country and the purpose of his visit – his role in the Irish peace process.
Unfortunately the situation is actually worse than this. Failure to oppose the GFA really amounts to its acceptance. Proof of this came in the SEA’s attitude to the other central issue facing everyone in the North – the future of the RUC. For the SEA this future seemed secure since their only demand was an end to RUC ‘bullying and belligerence.’ Is this really all that is wrong with the RUC? What about collusion with loyalist death squads? Is this less important? What about the demand for its disbandment? Why wasn’t this demanded? The only implication that could be drawn is that the SEA is opposed to this.
In fact the SEA stated that its role was not to demand disbandment but to agree with the Patten report that local councilors ‘should police the police.’ Abuses by a massively armed state are put equal to those from unnamed ‘community’ forces. In sum the SEA position on the question of policing was to the right of the SDLP!
Having lost the vote over the GFA we pointed out that the same unpolitical method, which Marxists call economism, was evident in other parts of the draft manifesto. It called for ‘genuine local democracy’ and then put forward as a policy to implement this ‘Publish the minutes of all meetings involving elected representatives.’ It was pointed out that Belfast City Council already publishes the minutes of its meetings. It was also pointed out that most decisions that determine the lives of ordinary people are taken by unelected bodies. In this situation it was argued that to state that democracy could be taken forward in any meaningful way by publishing minutes of meetings was to seriously miseducate workers about the nature of present society and what was required to change it.
This was so obvious to everyone that it was agreed that the policy needed changing. But instead of putting forward the policies which would be needed to make significant democratic gains the majority of the SEA decided to drop the call for democracy altogether and instead call for ‘transparency in all decision making.’ What this made absolutely clear was that the SEA was not serious as any sort of political alternative. While remaining as observers and trying to develop it politically, such as pushing it over the question of women’s abortion rights, Socialist Democracy could not and did not call for a vote for the SEA nor join its campaign.
The whole episode confirmed our argument that unless you get it right why you want unity the result will set the real development of socialism backwards. The SEA has positively evaluated its election results but only by counting the votes. The more important political evaluation is decisively negative. Once again we have seen yet another example of ‘bread and butter’ municipal politics that informs workers that socialists are not really interested in the question of how the state is run and how it is controlled. For those many who still oppose the RUC it signals that this battle is either unimportant or lost. For the very small, but ultimately significant, minority who oppose the GFA and are looking for a progressive political opposition the message is – don’t look at the socialists.
The quest for unity has not been preceded by a debate on what central questions face workers and socialists and what challenges and tasks have to be confronted. The method has been to cobble together as many as possible under some vaguely progressive banner through adopting as minimum a programme as possible and avoiding the big issues. This policy has failed even on its own terms as the only other organisations who might be interested in such a programme have put narrow political sectarianism first and refused to join.
At the back of many minds is an awareness that what we have said is correct but an unwillingness to face up to the consequences of what this means. Thus we are informed that it is OK to have a ‘perfect position on paper’ but you have to be out there doing the work on the ground. This is no defense of a wrong position on paper but an argument to adopt the right position and get out there and implement it. It is no use holding a meeting after the election to tell a select few that really you are in favour of revolution.
There are many young comrades involved in the SEA so their belief that something new is being attempted is understandable. For the more experienced there is really no excuse. Comrades should reflect that when they end up talking about pursuing the voters who voted Workers Party, Women’s Coalition and Progressive Unionist Party they really are on the wrong road.