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A Reply to a letter on left unity

Joe Craig

16 March 2006

‘Left Unity’ makes a number of observations on Andrew Johnson’s article on the public meeting in Dublin of the Campaign for an Independent left (CIL).  These are:

1.‘We should be more enthusiastic’ about left unity.  Our report was ‘overwhelmingly negative’ and we listed the positions of other left groups ‘simply to rubbish them.’

2. Our position on the creation of a new left party ‘seems a bit like the Socialist Party one’ and we ‘don’t say what the conditions are that would make the time (for creation of a new party) right.’

3. We ‘don’t say what the political basis of unity should be’ and our proposals for united activity would happen anyway.  We don’t give enough discussion to the political basis for unity claimed by the CIL.

I will respond to these points in turn.


1. Although we are always conscious that when criticisms are made they are almost always characterised as ‘sectarian’ we recognise that there is not much we can really do to avoid such lazy and tired charges.  We hope that at least some readers will see that their purpose is to advance our common cause and that silence or dishonest diplomacy will not help. 

We do not report other organisations’ positions simply to ‘rubbish them’ but to present our readers and the organisations concerned with alternatives.  This is much less offensive than declarations that we ‘don’t trust’ them.  Without political arguments in support such remarks can only be personally insulting.

The foundation of our approach is that left unity needs justification.  It needs an object and it needs a political programme that says what this is and how it can be achieved.  The fact that the left is badly divided in almost every county including Ireland would lead any objective observer to conclude that there are reasons for this situation and that we need to have an understanding of what they are.  One obvious reason is that political events cause political divisions but without political unity future events will cause future splits and we will be no further forward.  This view requires taking a more long term view than we see in evidence so far.

Similarly this is why we have said attempts at left unity should acknowledge the attempts at unity in the past and understand why they failed and what lessons can be learnt.  If we fail to learn from the past we will make the same mistakes again.  Experienced activists will know all the historical quotes to this effect.

Mass Party

2. I will not go into our view of the position of the Socialist Party on left unity which has been criticised here before.  Our own view is that a number of factors mean that a mass workers party (and only such an organisation justifies the label ‘party’) cannot be created at the moment by left unity or indeed by any other means.

This is a result of a number of very fundamental causes, none of which are open to a quick solution.  These factors include the historic political weakness of the Irish working class of which the reluctance of the Marxist left to debate politics is one symptom.  Also the existing workers movement – the trade unions and the political parties – are so bureaucratised that they no longer organise the interests of the working class. In fact they present themselves to most workers as machines out of their control.  For example trade union branches are attended by tiny fractions of their members and union elections often record such low turn-outs that they would embarrass bourgeois elections. The leaderships of these organisations are in fact conspiracies against the membership, proclaimed openly in a policy of social partnership with their enemies.

Lastly we can mention the effects of a catalogue of defeats occurring within the framework of social partnership and evidenced in the massive decline in strike statistics plus the historic defeat of the struggle in the North against imperialist rule.

To this must be added a second range of factors.  There is quite clearly not (yet) a crisis of capitalist rule which could objectively pose the question of alternatives to capitalism in reality or in the minds of most workers.  The forces that lie behind the Celtic Tiger phenomenon have no serious challenges in the consciousness of Irish workers.  Equally the illusions generated by the fraudulent ‘peace process’ have not yet been exposed even if the project has failed.  In such circumstances it would be extremely difficult to build a mass socialist party although no one I think would be stupid enough to claim we couldn’t be doing better.

A mass workers party will thus be on the cards only when large numbers of workers move into active class struggle.  But this is not enough.  We have seen very large demonstrations against the Iraq war and in defence of workers rights in the case of Irish Ferries.  However in the first case action took place on the basis of very low political agreement which the left did little or nothing to challenge and in the second case the left marched without criticism behind the bureaucratic leadership that sold the workers out.

To create a mass workers party will require not just mass struggles but a qualitative rise in the level of political consciousness among those involved.  For this to happen requires that an open and conscious struggle take place to this effect.  Virtually all sections of the left operate on the unstated assumption that involvement in active political struggle will, more or less of itself, create the requisite level of political consciousness.  What matters then are single-issue campaigns where the purpose is the widest (non-class or rather cross-class) unity. This sort of unity inevitably excludes as its foundation a working class programme that can raise consciousness.  Once again the mantra of unity obscures just what sort of unity is being created.

What we mean by this in very concrete terms has been explained in our analyses of the recent anti-war movement and the Irish Ferries struggle and anti-partnership struggle generally.  I don’t propose to go further into all this here except to say that our approach is that Marxist politics are a question not just for an ‘elite’ or ‘vanguard’ who might be persuaded to join any particular organisation but must form the political basis for the whole campaign aimed at the most militant and conscious members of the wider working class. 

This means that our approach to building the left and advancing working class organisation and consciousness is very different from the other left organisations whose sectarianism is at least partly a result of their view of the relationship between the mass of workers and their own organisation.  For them there is essentially nothing in between so that those workers who radicalise must be recruited, as the only way to validate their radicalisation, while the mass of workers are to be fed the lowest political programme that can involve them in activity.  This inevitably leads to a rather manipulative view of the relationship between the left and the mass of workers

Our approach also reflects our view that such is the crisis of working class organisation and consciousness that this must be a relatively long term project, while being alive to short term opportunities, and that therefore there are no short cuts to rebuilding the working class movement.

The CIL Programme

3. The platform of the CIL reads like a manifesto rather than a programme.  There is nothing in it that would exclude any on the left yet much of the left is not included.  The only explanation for this is that it is not the real basis of unity – it appears designed to justify unity already achieved rather than achieve that unity in the first place.  This means unity may rest on some other basis – for example ‘trust’ – which can only be subjectively defined by those on the inside.

Trust however is not an adequate reason.  Unity requires everyone to accept that their view may not be a majority one (Socialist Democracy is pretty certain that ours own won’t be).  The only reason to accept this situation is agreement that democratic functioning means that minority views have the opportunity to become a majority, in other words the new organisation is democratic.

If there is no confidence that in a new organisation others will fulfil promises to act democratically the only reassurance that can be sought is that others act in such a way now, in existing campaigns, and that they demonstrably exhibit democratic functioning in their own existing organisations.

But this too is not uncontroversial because there is no agreement as to what constitutes democracy.  The word is used as if everyone is agreed on what it means but this isn’t the case.  Many associate pluralism with democracy but it is not at all clear that pluralism is not just an avoidance of democracy.  What might not conflict with democracy in an alliance e.g. every separate tendency having its own programme and activity is not at all democratic in a united party or organisation. Yet this important question doesn’t appear to be offered any answers capable of scrutiny by others.

Unfortunately the declared points of unity also appear to rest on an electoral perspective put in terms of a ‘crisis of working class representation,’ a revealing phrase in itself.  Thus programme is reduced to a manifesto commitment – hence our criticism of the importance given to the promise of no coalition, which makes sense only in terms of electoralism

We believe that Marxist unity should take place on a Marxist basis and that the joint organisation should therefore unite on a revolutionary basis.

Numerous books could be written about how the cause of socialism has been betrayed in the twentieth century by reformist politics but all the unity initiatives, even when it includes a majority claiming to be Marxist, are arranged under a reformist programme.  This is our fundamental disagreement with the unity initiative of the CIL. So I will attempt to anticipate possible defences of this approach and elaborate on our criticism of it.

First it is often stated that the working class is not ready for revolutionary politics.  This conception assumes that reformist politics are some fraction of socialism and that the remainder can be spoon fed to workers when they are ready

The problem is that reformism is not a fraction of socialism upon which one can build.  State ownership for example is not socialism.  Reformism teaches workers that the capitalist state can solve its problems given the right policies. This is not socialism and the most important lesson that workers have to learn is not to rely on the capitalist state.

This is not appreciated by the authors of the CIL points of agreement.  For example it asserts that an independent working class party is independent by virtue of its non-reliance on possible coalition with right wing parties.  But this is not so.  It is independent by virtue of its independence of the capitalist state.  After all coalition with the right is only entered into in order to get into governing the capitalist state.

This whole ethos of non-reliance on the state and self reliance on workers own power is what differentiates a revolutionary from a reformist programme.  Its ultimate expression is reliance on workers own organisations of struggle to smash and replace the capitalist state, in the past soviets or workers councils.

This inability to see the importance of the capitalist state is reflected in the frankly disgraceful avoidance of the North where once again opposition to the imperialist state is ignored while a contentless unity between catholic and protestant is called for.  Unity for what?  In support or opposition to the Good Friday Agreement?  In opposition or support for the PSNI, to Orangeism, to Stormont, to partition?


Does this mean we think the majority of workers are ready for a revolutionary programme?  Well if this question means are they ready for a revolutionary approach based on transitional politics and mobilisation of workers then we would say it’s the only one that offers a way forward for their struggles.  In terms of being ‘practical,’ i.e. of working successfully, it is infinitely more practical than reformism which has utterly failed around the world even when it did have the support of the working class and did in some countries achieve governmental power.  Reformism is now completely discredited.  It is entirely tied to nationalist solutions and the utter dependence of the Irish economy north and south on international imperialism makes nationalist solutions incredible.

This was briefly seen when the CIL was launched on the indymedia web site.  Some right wing blogger said that a socialist programme would cause economic disaster because multinationals would exit the Irish State, so would native capital and the country would go back to being an economic basket case.  He/she didn’t get a reply but the only possible reply is an internationalist and revolutionary one which the CIL appears to believe workers aren’t ready for.  The right however are more than ready and the left will remain in a ghetto if it is not able to rise to this level of debate.

Starting off with a reformist programme and thinking you can lift the level of programme as you get bigger is a huge mistake.  The pressure to accommodate to capitalism increases as you get bigger and if you don’t have the confidence to argue for Marxism when you are small then you will have plenty of reasons to excuse your reformism when you get bigger (not least that this reformism has been successful – in getting bigger if not in advancing socialism).

But let us come back to the question of workers being ready for a revolutionary programme.  In one obvious sense they are not.  The majority of workers simply do not see any alternative to capitalism and think socialism is any number of things – the old Soviet Union, higher taxes and spending by the capitalist state, greater interference by the capitalist state, ownership of productive resources by the capitalist state, a bit more redistribution of wealth by the capitalist state.  None of these are socialism but that is why we must say to them exactly what socialism is – their taking political power and controlling society.

The real question is not whether workers are ready but what programme equips them in their struggles to make them ready and this can only be a revolutionary programme.  In Ireland today this can be put in terms of two immediate tasks – opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and imperialism and opposition to social partnership and a declaration of war on the trade union and labour bureaucracy.

Marx thought a revolution was necessary for socialism not mainly because the capitalists and their state would not cede power peacefully but because he believed that only buy engaging in mass political activity would workers make themselves fit to run society.  Indeed a necessary part of the definition of socialism is mass working class political activity, without which all talk of socialism is high-minded moralism.

Most of this will not be news to those taking part in the unity initiatives on the left.  Unfortunately they see no connection between these bedrock principles and their immediate perspectives.  All sorts of reasons will be adduced to explain this separation but the separation will always be made.

One excuse is that elaboration of a detailed party is the job of a serious party.  This is simply not the case.  Elaboration of as comprehensive a programme as possible is the task of any serious organisation.  If it turns out to be wrong in certain respects  it can be changed.  Having something to revise however makes it easier to identify mistakes and correct them.

This does not mean we expect the CIL to have a comprehensive programme.  We do not. This takes time and lots of debate.  The problem as we see is that it is not stated as something they intend to do.  In fact the lack of reference to the programme during its launch suggests quite the opposite – a terrible underestimation of its importance.

Without as comprehensive a programme as possible it is left to custom, assumptions or instinct to determine what activities one engages in, how they are engaged in, and what one says.  In other words just about everything that the organisation does.  Programme is not about ‘theory’ but about what the organisation does.  The less thought out the programme the less thought out and shallower the activity or the unity created.


This then is our view of how left unity should proceed – with agreement on its purpose, on how it must function democratically and on the basis of a Marxist programme and in opposition to perspectives based on electoralism.

Our proposal might not work.  There is no guarantee that there will be agreement on the purpose of left unity, what constitutes democracy, on whether we need a programme, whether it should be revolutionary or what a revolutionary programme would look like.

Even in these circumstances we would not conclude that our proposals are wrong, because even clarity among the left on all these questions, which could only come as a result of debate, would be a step forward to their resolution.  We must note here that some of the earlier proposals for facilitating such debates that emanated from the forces around the CIL have disappeared – a further cause for our ‘lack of enthusiasm.’

Debate about political agreement is only one way to advance left unity.  The other is to test our ideas in practice through agreed united activity.  We have taken one small initiative in this through the anti-water privatisation campaign in the North with the Irish Socialist Network.  What this example shows is that unity in activity is not separate from political unity since this campaign only exists after political agreement was reached on the programme of the campaign and how it would be built and function.  This did however lead to a lot of the activity much of the left seems to prize above all else.  There is no ‘lack of enthusiasm’ in this type of unity initiative on our part.

Agreed common campaigning is one way to develop unity.  It is simpler and more effective than the current approach which starts from the most difficult – agreeing a common programme for standing in elections.  The difficulties involved in this approach can only be overcome by this unity failing to tackle the difficulties that created the disunity in the first place.  Because none of the underlying political problems are resolved we have a number of competing such initiatives each recreating at a different level the perspectives for recruitment and growth which was supposed to characterise the sectarianism that was to be overcome.


So while we have said how we think left unity should proceed, and stated how we can move forward given lack of agreement on our preferred method, we are also conscious that there will equally be no agreement over how we move forward in the absence of agreement.  In reality there is no agreement not only on why we want unity or what it should look like but also no agreement on how this might be overcome.

So what do we do about this?  Well we begin by accepting that this is the situation and discuss not only why we are divided but also why we differ on our preferred means of overcoming the division.  Only a commitment to open and honest debate can begin to clarify these matters.  But this can only involve the sort of political debate which many on the left characterise as the height of sectarianism, as exercises in ‘rubbishing’ others, as ‘Left Unity’ puts it.

It would also demand that one-off attempts at unity be made to test the waters.  We have had every left tendency agree that they are in favour of unity and I would be confident that at least one reason they agree on this is because disunity alienates militant workers.  Why then did no one suggest the left groups come together to discuss a joint leaflet at the recent 100,000 strong workers march in protest against the actions of Irish Ferries?

Did they just not think about the idea?  If so does this not suggest a less than enthusiastic approach to unity on their part if it does not even enter their heads?

Would they have thought it was not a good idea?  Why not?  Because they wanted to promote their own organisation?  So much then for their declarations for unity.  However if the call for a joint leaflet was rejected at least we would all be clearer on their hypocrisy.

Did they not think it would work , that we would not agree, in which case does this not suggest we should begin discussions on what differences we have over social partnership etc?  And wouldn’t it be better to find this out by trying?

Perhaps disagreement on what the left should be saying would come to the fore in an open debate among the tendencies over what a joint leaflet should say?  So what?  Would this not be better than the differences remaining hidden?  Might we even agree that given the differences over what we want to say the existence of different leaflets is justified?  Then it would be clearer which viewpoint is confirmed by future events.

And what if the initiative had succeeded?  Would this not have drawn in others who are not members of any organisation?  Indeed should they too not have been able to make their own suggestions at an open meeting to discuss the proposed leaflet?  If it succeeded would this not have advanced left unity in a positive way?

But wait a minute.  Does there not already exist a united anti-partnership campaign that supposedly involves many in the various left organisations?  Why did this body not take the initiative, or is this example of unity prey to the same problems raised by our series of questions above?

The opportunity afforded by the workers’ response to the sacking of the Irish Ferries workers has gone but new opportunities will present themselves.  It is not difficult to think of many different ways to advance left unity even with many disagreements unresolved.  That these opportunities will be wasted should also cause others to reflect on our arguments as to the cause of division and how it might be overcome.  That these opportunities have not and will not be grasped means that it is not the ‘enthusiasm’ of Socialist Democracy that should be called into question.  Nor should the ‘enthusiasm’ of others be so questioned.  What should be questioned is their approach to left unity which has failed in the past, is failing now, and will fail in the future.


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