Return to Left Unity menu
Perspectives for Irish socialists
1 January 2010
If 2008 was the year the bubble economy burst, and 2009 the year it became clear who is going to pay for it, 2010 may well be the year that it becomes clear just how large the bill is and many come to despair that anything can be done to prevent workers paying it.
This article sets out to present an analysis of the current situation facing socialists in Ireland and what our tasks are in response.
Global and Local
While there is no doubt that we have just gone through a global crisis it is equally clear that large parts of what is termed the developing world have not suffered the shock that has hit the most developed capitalist countries: the US, UK, Europe and Japan. Even these have, or are currently, pulling out of recession. The Irish State, however, faces a much more prolonged period of downturn and an even longer one of reducing wealth and living standards.
The most obvious source of this difference is the spectacular role played in Ireland by property speculation, by reckless bankers and corrupt and myopic politicians. Not appreciated however is that the exaggerated position of property is counterpart to the shrivelled role of manufacturing and services and their domination by multinational companies. The latter have left the Irish State bereft of a strong native capitalist sector and a reliance on a tax regime that spares profits, and thus of necessity attacks wages, when pure speculation no longer provides a temporary substitute.
There is nothing however that is more sacrosanct in economic and social policy than the tax subsidies to the world’s largest and richest corporations. No one ever stops to think why it might be thought particularly reprehensible that the local rich consistently evade tax, revealed in scandal after scandal, widely and roundly condemned, when the State’s whole raison d’etre is the avoidance of tax by the world’s richest companies. Those who question and excoriate the former are almost invariably silent on the latter, yet the latter is of far greater size and significance. Thus we have trade unions calling for increased taxes on the rich but who minimise and usually ignore the scandalously low taxation of US corporate profits. This latter evasion of tax is a wholly venerated policy of every official body of the State and civil society, including, less honestly, the trade unions.
At its root the added dimensions of the economic crisis in the Irish State are a product of its continued domination by imperialism; that is domination of all economic, social and political policy by US corporations, European finance and Britain. The crisis is therefore not primarily the work of a local ‘golden circle’, which has been unusually dependent on making its ill-gotten millions from the operations of the State, whose economic role it professes to despise.
It is not therefore possible to sustain an alternative to the attacks of the Government and bosses by seeking only higher taxation of the Irish rich without also targeting the US and other multinationals that use the State as one giant tax dodge. Already the Government, US capital and local business has spoken out against the potential effects of rumoured higher taxes on attracting and keeping multinational investment. EU rules do not allow differential taxation of local and foreign profits and without taxation of profits, and capital generally, significant taxation of the seriously rich is a fantasy.
The epicentre of the crisis has been the financial system that has acted as the transmission mechanism for European finance and local unproductive investment in more and more insanely priced property deals. The political class has done everything to allow this mechanism to function, through frantic support for repeated EU treaties to as much tax encouragement as it could afford and, as we have now seen, then some.
At various times during 2009 Socialist Democracy has pointed to the apparently insane lengths to which the Government has gone to protect bond holders in bankrupt Irish banks, through providing a guarantee for example of over €400 billion, over twice GDP, which the State could not possibly afford. We, and many other mainstream economists, have marvelled at the lunatic pretence that Anglo-Irish Bank is somehow saveable, and the waste of billions poured down the drain in keeping it on life-support. Again and again mainstream commentators have wondered at the steps taken to protect the international bond holders, the providers of debt finance to the Irish banks, when their money has been invested stupidly and they have long since deserved to suffer from the (apparent) rules of the capitalist game and lose their skins.
The only explanation that is convincing is that the Irish State understands its utter dependence on international capitalism and will pay whatever price needs to be offered to maintain its loyal policy of dependence, an alternative to which does not exist within capitalism. The lengths it has gone to are extreme, and its vehement commitment not to nationalise any bank had to be broken only to maintain the pretence of solvency in the case of Anglo-Irish. It could easily be shattered again. The ideological opposition to State ownership has even managed to outdo the IMF, which in its report on the Irish State during 2009 was much more sanguine in its view of the possible necessity for such (temporary) measures.
Next year promises to see the economy shrink further, even if not at the same rapid pace, and a continuation of the austerity measures began in 2008 and repeated recently in the December 2009 budget. The correspondent for the ‘Financial Times’ on 3rd December noted that ‘demonstrating to the debt markets that Ireland has a credible way out of this mess will be the primary focus of the budget.’ This means that demonstrating that the international banks can continue to make money from the Irish State is the over-riding priority, compared to which social welfare, child benefits or cervical screening for young women count as nothing.
This has meant a series of attacks on the living standards of the Irish working class – in work, retired, unemployed or in education. These have provoked some of the biggest demonstrations seen for many years and a number of strikes, which contrast to recent history all the more vividly because official statistics had recorded the virtual disappearance of such action.
A notable feature of such action is their dependence on the trade union leaderships of ICTU and individual unions, both for their occurrence and the policies which they support. This has meant that they were easily called off, and the street protests stopped in March, when these leaders sought to use the mechanisms and political capital of social partnership to cut a deal with the Government. The Government, understanding the scale of the austerity demanded, were not convinced such union agreement was either possible or necessary and ‘humiliated’ the union leaders, as these men later complained, when the talks delivered no concessions whatsoever. This one trick wonder has now just been repeated again, before the December budget.
Despite the widespread anger, generated by the scale and suddenness of the cuts and the sheer unfairness of it when contrasted to the bank bail outs, plus the repeated scandals emanating from every part of the economic and political establishment, almost all the resistance has been under this leadership. The only significant ‘spontaneous’ eruption of anger, organisation and action has come from the elderly after the removal of automatic medical card entitlement. It is instructive that this has been the only action to have won its demands. All the actions of the union movement, despite much superior size and organisation, have failed.
So successful has the Government been that Brian Lenihan toured Europe in April, after his imposition of the ‘pension’ levy, boasting that EU finance minister’s were ‘amazed at our capacity to take pain. . . In France you would have seen riots if you tried to do this.’
The secret of his success? ICTU and the trade union bureaucracy, which called a halt to all workers’ action after 130,000 demonstrated in February and threatened strike action. This was the green light for the Government and bosses to intensify the offensive and to blame the crisis on public sector workers, exploiting an existing lack of unity within the working class.
This is illustrated by ICTU’s policy of ‘a better, fairer way’, which accepts the cuts if only some, necessarily secondary, contribution is made by the rich, and they are imposed over a longer time period. This signalled to the Government acceptance of the deep cuts already made and acceptance of future ones of even greater severity. It also signalled acceptance of the gigantic gamble of the NAMA bank bail out. The most the union leaders could demand in these circumstances was a ‘social dividend.’ As Socialist Democracy made clear in the thousands of leaflets given out to workers’ protests, this was asking workers to support paying €54 billion plus interest to the banks as long as they gave us €1 billion of our own money back.
This programme of acceptance of (some) responsibility for the crisis has been so pervasive it has infected even many of those who have opposed, and opposed militantly, the austerity offensive underway. It reflects a deeper and widespread belief that there is a national interest that embraces everyone in the State, within which we can all be reconciled to pay our own particular contribution. It relies on the idea that it is possible to measure fairness in an objective, impartial or principled way that stands above or outside the various interests that exist in society (always called ‘vested interests’ when referring to the working majority). This measure that stands above and outside society is the ‘national interest’, but since no social policy exists outside society this only shows that the ‘national interest’ does not exist.
There is no ‘national interest’ because nations, and societies, are composed of classes which have irreconcilable interests. That workers did nothing to create this crisis but are being forced to pay for it is concrete proof of this argument. The ICTU resistance and its policy of ‘fairness’ is not one based on the interests of the working class, is not a socialist alternative, but is a nationalist one. The ‘better, fairer way’ is a nationalist programme. As we pointed out earlier, within the confines of capitalism, there is no alternative to the Irish State’s dependence on imperialism, including European finance. That is why ICTU’s alternative inevitably accepts paying €54 billion to save the banks and their international bond holders and accepts the cuts which provide the money to pay these holders of State debt.
This policy thus inevitably betrays the workers that ICTU has called onto the street. While they oppose angrily the attacks on their lives, workers are ranged behind a leadership and programme that accepts this as inevitable. Workers actions and their interests have been, and are increasingly, betrayed by the organisations they rely on to protect and defend them when their security is threatened and they are under attack.
At this point of our analysis there is an obvious problem. In what way does it make sense to say that workers are betrayed when they also accept and agree to the programme that they have marched behind, and taken strike action in support of? There can be no doubt that even if they did not democratically develop it, and ICTU policy was simply foisted on them, they have not found any means to voice an alternative.
A ‘spontaneous’ alternative can itself of course involve all sorts of confusions, contradictions or missing pieces but the very depth of the crisis militates against such an alternative arising and developing. As we have now remarked upon a number of times, the only coherent alternative is a socialist one. Unless the Irish working class develops a class consciousness that embraces socialism there can be no real and genuine alternative to the Government’s attacks. The Irish working class does not have such a consciousness of its own separate class identity, of interests separate and opposed to that of a capitalist class, its State or that of an invented ‘national interest.’
The majority of workers, notwithstanding their often bitter anger, have not voiced an alternative to the nationalist ICTU ‘fairer way’ but believe that such a ‘fairer way’ can adequately represent their anger, their views and their interests. They do not realise that, while it may contain their anger and current views, it definitely cannot contain and faithfully reflect their interests.
Thus we have had large protests, but entirely within the control of ICTU. Protest being understood in the way the word is defined in a dictionary - strong objections to what is happening, nothing more. In themselves the protests have not so far represented determined attempts to stop or reverse what has been objected to. If they did we would have expected to see much stronger action and a militant mobilisation begin in opposition to ICTU.
If such a movement existed it would surely have noted that straight after the 130,000 demonstrated in February the Government signalled that it would not change direction. It would have noted the calling off of all action by ICTU in March. It would have noted the even quicker statement by the Government on the evening following the demonstrations in November that again it was not going to change its policies. It would have noted that at the latter Dublin demonstration nothing was said from union leaders about the upcoming public sector strike. It would have noted and decided to do something about the statements of people like Jack O’Connor of SIPTU, who said that wages had grown ‘disproportionately’ during the Celtic Tiger and had now to better reflect the needs of ‘competitiveness.’
A movement determined and confident it could actually stop and reverse the cuts would have held the misleaders of such statements out to dry on the railings of Government buildings for observation by the politicians inside who thought these leaders were their guarantee that, no matter what the size of demonstrations and strikes, they were dealing with a movement which would never go beyond Wizard of Oz bluster.
We have thus had a movement that has at no point been able to credibly threaten to stop Government cuts despite the size of the demonstrations, the mandates for strike action and the solid turnouts of the strikes themselves. It is not that there are no problems with the level of activity, apart from the February demonstration the unions have failed to win allies and mobilise outside their ranks, from other layers of the population. Actions have not been able to mobilise private sector union members never mind the much larger number of non-union private sector workers. The resistance has left itself wide open to the divisive tactics of the Government in its attempts to set private sector worker against public sector worker.
The immediate problem has been in the political demands raised, or often the lack of them, such as abjuring a position on NAMA because, according to O’Connor, this would be ‘political.’ All the failures to propose and build more serious action flow from this lack of a fighting perspective. A ‘better, fairer way’ is not only not an alternative to large cuts in workers’ living standards and life chances, it is wide open to exploitation through the divisive tactics of the Government. Union acceptance of job cuts in public services undercuts reasons for private sector workers to join them in defending public services, since ICTU have signalled their acceptance of cuts in the hope of limiting public sector pay cuts. Of course ICTU strategy has now been revealed to involve yet more significant wage cuts as well.
The majority of union members have gone along with this, not because they are stupid but for a number of related reasons. As we have said, they generally share the nationalist politics of ICTU and do not see themselves as belonging to a separate class with separate political interests. The most important reason is therefore a lack of class-consciousness, a sharing of the political worldview of the trade union bureaucracy which leaves them with no coherent, or even incoherent, alternative when the capitalist class attacks their fundamental interests. This does not lead to simple acceptance of these attacks because no matter what their ideas are on how society works, and acceptance of the inevitability or even superiority of the ‘free market’, their awareness of the real effects of the attacks on their living standards compels them to fight back. On this fundamental truth is based the whole future of socialism. This is why Marx said:
‘It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its life situation, as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today.’
Just as wokers are compelled to fight because of their interests, even against those parties and politicians who it has voted for and supported, so there is at least the possibility that the need to defend these interests will compel them in future to fight against a system that they have all their lives accepted as not only the best one possible, but the only one possible.
That workers have gone along so far with ICTU in its flagrant misleadership is also due to the organisational hold which the bureaucracy has over the trade union movement. To break from ICTU politics would not only be to break from the politics of the Irish State and its dominant classes, including the ideas spewed out by RTE, the ‘Irish Independent’ etc.etc., but also to set oneself the task of developing a competing set of ideas and new organisational forms to realise them. This of necessity must go through existing organisations if only to clear them out of the way. Most workers have not been involved in the daily life of the existing trade union movement, and while they may be members they are by no means therefore organised. Given their view of the world why should they have been active in their unions? Now that they need to be, they will find all sorts of obstacles to their being so and to their achieving their aims. Creating an alternative leadership or organisation can, at least initially, seem forbidding.
This impasse between workers bitter opposition to Government policy and their loyalty to, and control by, a union leadership determined not to break from the government is not a stable situation. Likewise workers anger at Fianna Fail has often translated into support for Fine Gael and Labour, both of which promise to continue the essentials of Fianna Fail policy. Again an election would puncture this. At the ideological level acceptance of capitalism as the only possibility runs up against increasing and massive evidence that this system is not only unfair but irrational – witness the banking crisis. Such contradictions will not remain unresolved.
These contradictions are reflected within the consciousness of the many workers who have been on strike and on demonstrations. A short comment from one striker in November quoted by an ‘Irish Times’ journalist is but one illustration of the situation. Having said that they ‘won’t just take this lying down’ the worker says: ‘if we roll over now, where is this going to stop?’ Supporting the policy of taking their ‘fair share’ of the pain, the worker says ‘but we don’t see why we should be scapegoated. There is plenty of money to sort out the banks, but then they take the easy option, targeting low-paid workers to pay for it. Everyone is in this boat, but there has to be a fairer way.’
This quote encapsulates the lack of confidence in winning, acceptance of cuts but realisation that it is not inevitable, and that a better way should be found. The contradictions involved in this will also be resolved. They can only be resolved positively however through organisation and action combined with adequate politics. The burden to develop the former lies with workers themselves while that of the latter devolves much more to the small socialist movement. What might we therefore expect?
Unfortunately the current more or less absolute control of ICTU over the trade union movement both organisationally and ideologically is unlikely to be broken either quickly or easily. The more and more open betrayal of the hopes and illusions of workers can only lead to an immediate demoralisation and despair that anything can be done to stop the cuts. As we have said, this is as much a result of the illusions and weakness of workers own ideas as the duplicity of trade union leaders.
But as we have also said, workers anger is real; they see the double standards in evidence as bankers are bailed out and they are made to pay. They cannot forget the promises to fight made by their leaders. Their hopes of an alternative Government will be dashed as soon as it comes to power. The contradictions in their ideas about the current situation are unlikely simply to be resolved in universal demoralisation. Many will become angry at ICTU and will seek to fight back against the Government without, and if needs be against, ICTU. It is probable that this will only be a minority initially but the duration and depth of the continued attacks, itself a product of uncertain future economic circumstances, can form the material dynamic for this minority to grow. How big it will be and how quickly it will develop is also uncertain, but socialists’ perspectives must be based on the possibility that it will be significant.
An attendant development of such a movement of workers will be their radicalisation. In order to effectively fight back to defend their interests they will have to encounter and fight back against ICTU. It would be naive to believe ICTU has finished with its treachery. They will be challenged by union leaders, and by every other political force, to state an alternative and they will, one way or another, be pushed into developing one.
Against this there is every possibility of reactionary solutions finding increasing toleration and favour, as establishment forces and the labour bureaucracy seeks to divert attention from their own failure. The raw material is there. Notwithstanding the bias of the poll, the results reported in ‘The Irish Times’ on 24th November are not comfortable reading. Forty three per cent of respondents said they would like to see some, but not all, non-Irish born immigrants leave Ireland while 29 per cent said they would like to see most leave. The strength of this, partially racist, sentiment should come as no surprise following the four to one majority in the 2004 racist referendum.
Racist arguments however do not answer any questions concerning adequate provision of public services when contrasted with bailouts for the banks. We can expect resistance to the cuts to come not only from unionised workers but from communities and users of public services who might have their own bureaucracies to deal with and who may also have problems in dealing with fragmentation. Opposition to health cuts, for example, is often opposition to the closure of the nearest hospital but not organisation across the State against all hospital closures.
Reactionary sentiments will depend for their potential currency and traction to a great extent on any failure to advance socialist solutions, and this depends to a great extent on socialists themselves.
It should be clear that the main task of socialists is to develop resistance to the Government’s policies inside and outside the trade union movement and encourage two things. Firstly, organised opposition to ICTU and the building of a cross-union rank and file movement to fight the bureaucracy and contest leadership of the union movement. The second is to further the class consciousness of workers through advancing a socialist programme, that is an answer to all the issues and problems thrown up by the economic crisis. The two are linked through criticism of, and opposition to, social partnership.
This however has not been the approach of most of those claiming to be socialist. They have failed to analyse social partnership and to identify it as an inevitable consequence of the interests of the ICTU and union leadership bureaucracies. At most they have said that workers should not be partners with the bosses or Government but have failed to notice that the union leaderships are partners with them and that this logically makes them the enemy of workers. No serious attempt has been made to build a campaign against partnership, and the left has contented itself with last minute scrambles when voting for the next deal is in the offing, as if partnership was only up for debate when the trade union allowed a vote.
When the left has bothered to criticise the bureaucracy, which it often simply ignores, it puts their policies down to accidental or inessential characteristics such as the cowardice or the illusions of union leaders, leading to a policy of substituting opposition and removal with simply pressure to do the right thing. Many socialists know that the ICTU bureaucrats play a treacherous role because of their material interests, their fat salaries, their entrance into the corridors of power, the status so achieved, and their place on State sponsored bodies and quangos. Such knowledge however is combined with a policy of refusing open and complete opposition and has generated a cynical approach to politics in which people claiming to be socialist put forward non-socialist politics.
The current purest example is the Socialist Workers Party and its People before Profit electoral front. For this to change some members of this organisation must organise to resist the transformation of their organisation into a modern version of nineteenth century social democracy, which preached the purest socialism to some but related to the mass of workers in the most populist and opportunist way.
The approach of many socialists starts not from the objective tasks facing working people in order to defend themselves but from the immediate perceived needs of an often very undefined ‘left.’ It is thus immediately politically sectarian; that is it prioritises the needs of a particular organisation or group of organisations over the requirements of the working class as a whole, even while it fiercely expresses the opposite.
Their approach is expressed in electoralist terms - the task being to give workers political representation that the collapse of social democratic reformism has supposedly deprived them of. This often comes with the erroneous notion that there is a vacuum on the left, which absolves this ‘left’ of actually having to convince anyone to change their minds. The task is simply to put oneself forward to gain the votes of those who have no longer someone to represent their reformist illusions. Socialist organisations thus become electoralist and reformist; when a crisis shows that such solutions are simply not credible or even progressive.
We are therefore faced with a crisis at many levels – an international economic one with particular acuteness in the Irish State; a political one with a discredited Government coalition; a crisis of working class leadership embodied in ICTU; a crisis of political consciousness in the working class itself which has deep illusions in the current economic and political system and in its own leadership; and finally a crisis in the socialist organisations which to varying degrees have moved to the right and/or continue a sectarian existence utterly incapable of embracing a mass workers’ movement even if one erupted. Obviously how any one is resolved is dependent on all the others. The main task for socialists is to prepare a political programme theoretically and practically which can intervene in these crises to point the way to a working class and socialist resolution to each.
Too often on the left the theoretical struggle for a socialist programme has been ignored, but it is particularly when a real crisis develops that it becomes apparent that unless one has worked out some overall socialist alternative one is really in no position to offer a credible political alternative at any level. A concentration on activism without being informed of the goal of that activism, or how one may proceed towards it, inevitably involves an accommodation to reformist practices. These are not solutions because, within the framework of capitalism, the working class is always called upon to pay the price to ensure continuing profitability of the system.
Socialist Democracy has put forward what it considers to be a revolutionary socialist opposition to the Government, one which is revolutionary because it asserts that the solution comes from the activity of the working class itself, not the capitalist state, and which proposes breaking decisively with the logic of private property in the means of production and allocation by the market. Developing it theoretically and practically – fighting for others to accept, support and fight for it is therefore our main task. Other socialists and workers are asked to support us or, if they are unwilling, to develop a critique of it and advance their own programmatic alternative while seeking the maximum unity where the possibility of agreement on united action exists.
On no question is the weakness of the socialist alternative more grave than on the need for an international alternative to the crisis. The crisis has been international in origin and scope and the Irish Government has sought and received the support of the EU and IMF in its attacks on the working class and bail out of the banks. The whole strategy of the Government is, as we have seen, based on appeasing the international capital markets i.e. international capitalism. Its longer term policy has been for many years utter dependence on providing a society ready and willing to do the bidding of US multinationals, funded by European money – through EU structural funds and then private sector funding for the speculative boom. The ready willingness of Government ministers and supporters to threaten to bring in the IMF, which would be regarded as an admission of failure and political suicide in Britain, is an admission of the dependence of Irish capitalism on international imperialism. Socialists cannot abolish this dependence with a national socialism, hence the need for an international alternative.
The source of the left and the socialist movement’s weakness is the same reliance on the State to do the job that workers must carry out. Thus in the banking crisis we have heard calls for the State to nationalise the banks as if this on its own was both progressive and a solution. In fact the real solution is for workers to take ownership and control. This dependence on the State, reflected on the repeated demands for the State to do this and that in every situation, reflects an unacknowledged acceptance of the lies of the defenders of capitalism that socialism is synonymous with State ownership. The demand that a State that exists to defend and protect the existing capitalist economic and political system act to do precisely the opposite is often misguided. It confuses propaganda that exposes the claims to impartiality of the State with creation of illusions that it can actually behave in a way that balances class forces instead of systematically favouring one in particular.
Once a national solution is favoured, inevitably national since the state is national, there exists no fundamental role for an international perspective except in so far as it involves even more misguided and utopian calls for the Irish State to carry out progressive tasks.
Thus the creation of an international programme for the working class both theoretically and practically is neglected. This can be seen most clearly and at a most practical level in repeated campaigns around changes to the EU which have required referenda. The classic socialist policy of demanding international workers solidarity and a United Socialist States of Europe has been replaced by calls for unity among ‘left’ forces within Ireland, within which there is no specifically socialist programme.
The most socialist aspect of these campaigns has been arguments about privatisation which is encouraged and favoured by the EU, but it is no coincidence that this too involves simple defence of capitalist state ownership. Certainly there has been no focus on the role of the Irish State in leading the race to reduce taxation on corporations. Neither has there been a focus on alternative demands aimed at democratising the EU as a means of raising the question of international workers unity. Instead in the last Lisbon referendum some on the left were at pains to say that they were not at all questioning the current existence of the EU. There was a focus on a decayed anti-imperialism which is now known as neutrality, which doesn’t exist, and which socialists seek to transform just as much as those on the right. While we fight attempts to move to outright imperialist alliances we are not in favour of a neutral stance in the worlds’ political and military struggles.
Many socialists were inert and silent when it became clear that the main plank of the re-run Lisbon referendum was that the economic crisis necessitated the closest adherence by the Irish State to the EU. The weakness of the Irish State, which some socialist organisations appear unaware of, is nonetheless accepted by the working class and by the population more generally. This is why so many gave the economic crisis as the reason to vote yes the second time round. The EU is facilitating the State borrowing money in order to bail out the banks which workers have to pay back. That a bail out of the banks facilitated by the EU was so easily dressed up and widely understood as a bail out of the country shows the low level of political consciousness and the uselessness of a nationalist view of the world.
Creating organisational and political unity of socialists never mind workers at an international level is further away now than it has been for a very long time. Instead we have the principle-free, programme-lite, national alliances of lefts in a number of countries that are often mentioned in the same breath, as if this allows us to speak of even a semi-coherent international socialist unity. Once again such initiatives have a history of failure and from such failures we can confidently expect that more and more socialist militants will recognise that short cut opportunist paths do not lead to socialism.
The final area in which socialists are required to develop a programme is on the North. For most of the population the peace process has been a welcome move away from a situation of violence that had long since appeared to have no purpose. Most socialist groups not only accepted the peace process but either claimed that the working class had really caused it or that the working class could benefit from it. The former apparently because of mass rallies that almost always targeted republican violence even when it was a lower level than state inspired loyalist violence; the latter because calmer conditions and absence of the constitutional question apparently allowed greater scope and possibility of working class unity around ‘class’ issues. Once again an unspoken faith in the capitalist state is signalled, not in this case through anything it might do but because its form, never mind existence, is completely uncontested.
Socialist Democracy has been more or less alone in condemning the peace process and the political deals that have been entailed by it. This is not because we wish to ‘return to violence’ as some on the left have put it, but because the project is a reactionary one. It is reactionary in one sense because it has been based on the claim that the problem is one of sectarian division which the British State has been manfully struggling to overcome. Within such a framework no real and lasting solution to anything, including sectarianism, is possible because it is British imperialism which has created, nurtured and sustained sectarianism over its long and ignoble history.
Neither is this a purely historical question. The current political settlement is one based on sectarian designation and consequent arrangement of political appointment, and the reactionary character of the peace process has been revealed again and again through episodes like Drumcree and Holy Cross. The existence of more peace walls now than before the peace process is inexplicable if the process has been a progressive one. The current low level sectarian violence, which has never disappeared, reveals again and again the sectarian reality of the society and state.
Our analysis that what has been happening is reactionary has been masked by the end of the futile militaristic campaign of the Provisionals and also by the continued activity of the remaining republicans whose progressive character is revealed in its attacks on British soldiers and simultaneous targeting of immigrant pizza delivery workers. Any progressive content to their proclaimed struggle against imperialism is negated by the strategy and tactics employed and their purely nationalist politics. While proclaiming dire warnings about this threat the British have not had to think once more about sponsoring organised sectarian killing by loyalism. This absence has also played a major role in winning support for the peace process but involves nothing more than blackmail and intimidation on a grand scale.
The reactionary character of the peace process has also been masked by the relative economic boom, dependent on buoyant British State finances. The process has lasted so long that a new generation has grown up which accepts uncritically the view that what we witnessed from the 1960s was simply ‘troubles’ that involved no political struggle with any progressive content.
Socialist Democracy has always held the view that the peace process at its most fundamental level embodied the burial of a progressive struggle against an imperialism which had created and sustained division and sectarianism. The peace process did not represent either a direct or vicarious victory by workers and does not present greater opportunities for working class unity or greater receptiveness by it of socialist ideas. The current experience of socialist organisations in the North is eloquent evidence of the correctness of our argument. Today we see the more or less complete adherence of workers to the sectarian parties such that the advance of the DUP and election of Paisley is heralded as progressive. On the other side the most successful party is that which is seen to assert most vigorously the rights of Catholics as Catholics.
The reactionary outworking of the peace process has witnessed the right wing of unionism shifting the agenda to the point where the objective of ‘majority rule’ i.e. unionist sectarian domination is openly put forward as the way to remove the latest impasse. Elections to a new Assembly would quite likely result in Sinn Fein becoming the largest party and their being able to nominate the First Minister. This would not be tolerated by unionism and the British might then accept a change to the rules which would mean that only a unionist could occupy such a position. The claim that the political settlement was in any way democratic would be significantly damaged. Anything but complete opposition to this by Sinn Fein would mean acceptance of a self-denying law which would render all other claims by it simply incredible.
Of course it could be that in such a situation the British are able to engineer an alternative scenario, but at each previous crisis of this process they have procured a solution which only reveals the essentially reactionary direction and content of the process in other manifestations. The process is a reactionary one and the analysis that it is so will be confirmed. Those who oppose sectarianism and think the present set-up neutralises it will be forced to face the reality that it does not. They will be faced more and more openly with the stark reality that the current political set up is fundamentally based on sectarianism and has to work to this logic in order to survive in any form. Explaining this is the key task of socialists in the North. Starting to build a movement that acts on such an analysis must be the objective.
The task of socialists is to respond to the attacks on the working class by putting forward a revolutionary alternative, even while it is clear that a revolution is not at all on the agenda. Major elements of this alternative are contained in our article ‘A Capitalist Crisis but a Workers Solution!’ This is because only such a programme actually defends workers interests. Anything less compromises and betrays them. The struggle for such a solution is in itself the education process through which its future success can be achieved. Even partial victories under its banner would be more enduring and significant than the implementation of reformist panaceas that accept the logic of capitalism.
It is the duty of socialists to support the actions of the misleaders of the working class when for their own reasons they call actions, but to use these as opportunities to win workers away from their grip. So far ICTU protests have been described as allowing workers to blow off steam but this does not really describe their role. Workers anger will not be assuaged by a few demonstrations and strikes. The real role of these protests, which ICTU has no intention of allowing to grow into something capable of achieving its aims, is to create a feeling of powerlessness among workers who see that their actions have no effect on Government policy.
The primary duty of socialists is to encourage every manifestation of the independent self-activity of working people no matter at how low a political level, while not for a minute accepting that this level is the limit of their own propaganda, agitation and programme. What is required is the rebuilding, indeed recreation, of a genuine workers’ movement, and this is not the job of months but of years. It takes big events and time to create a new political consciousness among Irish workers but the current crisis presents the objective circumstances within which this can begin to be done.
At the moment it is clear
that only an opposition can be built not a workers’ government. but a workers’
socialist opposition will do more to halt and reverse the attacks on workers
than much larger movement’s calls for negotiations with Governments or
movements who’s primary objective is winning seats in the Dail and Stormont.
Such an opposition will itself provide the means to invigorate working
people by turning despair into hope, competition into cooperation, rivalry
into solidarity and apathy into a desire for creative political activity.
Return to top of page