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A reply to “Organise” on water charges

21st February 2005

Editor’s note: A meeting was held in Belfast on 4 November 2004 under the auspices of the Campaign Against Water Privatisation, on the initiative of Socialist Democracy. Our report on the meeting can be read here. The anarchist group Organise have published another report of the meeting with a widely differing analysis. In the interest of open debate we reproduce the Organise article below, followed by a reply from Socialist Democracy.

Socialist Democracy claim Working Class “not equipped” to fight water Reform

On Thursday 4th November 2004, Socialist Democracy, adopting the name Campaign Against Water Privatisation hosted a meeting in the Unemployed Resource Centre. The speakers included John McAnulty (SD), Tommy McKearney (Fourthwrite magazine), Cllr Mark Langhammer (Labour) and Jason Brannigan from Organise! While it was stated at the start of the meeting that this was not intended to cut across other established campaigns against Water Charges, most members of the panel saw non-payment as a tactic of secondary importance to having a campaign with the ‘correct’ political leadership. In particular Socialist Democracy, while claiming not to be laying out any blueprints, clearly considered their own theories to be the only correct basis for workers to do anything, and since those trying to build a mass non-payment campaign haven’t studied these theories, we’re obviously stumbling blindly forward in search of their guidance.

While Messrs McKearney and Langhammer were somewhat overcautious in relation to building a mass non-payment campaign they did contribute the sensible points to the discussion that any such campaign should ensure individuals did not become isolated and that a fund must be established in order to ensure that legal expenses could be met. Then John McAnulty of SD warned that to opt for non-payment as the basis of a campaign of opposition would be to ‘end the debate’.

The ‘spectre’ of the Rent & Rates Strike was raised as an example of such a campaign leaving people isolated, ignoring the fact that this was not a mass campaign. Based on a tiny minority of nationalists it could never have hoped to become a mass campaign, water charges on the other hand is a working class and cross community project if ever there was one.

Another important thread of the meeting was the role of the Trade Unions. Advocates of non payment have long realised that the bureaucracy of the unions are more likely to negotiate a ‘better’ defeat for their members rather than defeat this attack on the living standards of the people who pay their inflated wages. While Jason Brannigan gave a realistic assessment of the role of ‘our’ union leaders other panellists and SD members from the floor called, as a major focus of the campaign, for the lobbying for a Trade Union Day of Action on this issue. The need for industrial action such as that taken last Wednesday by water service workers cannot be doubted but the trades unions will not stop this tax. Cllr Langhammer advocated the lobbying of our MEPs. The less said about that suggestion the better, and as much was said from the floor by more than one person.

The attitude of SD’s John McAnulty in particular was little short of offensive. When one non payment activist rose to describe the work he had been doing in his local area, and stated that he had obtained non payment pledges from nearly everyone in his street, he was patronisingly dismissed, and told that people were only saying that now; when the time comes they’ll just pay up (subtext: ordinary people don’t even know their own minds). The working class in N. Ireland, according to McAnulty is not equipped to fight this battle (then why call this meeting, if we’re already stuffed??).

The most bizarre comment of the night came from a SD member from the floor who suggested that to build the campaign on a community basis might result in a ‘sectarian dogfight’. Unless activists from Ballynafeigh and the lower Ormeau are training pitbulls while I write this, I don't really understand this utterance.

While Jason Brannigan did not, as the SD later claimed, deny that water reform and charges were part of a wider political agenda of privatisation we certainly take exception to the statement that non-payment activists reflect a “declining political consciousness of the left which has retreated from class to community”. Not because this is an insult to those activists but more because this is one of the most mechanical definitions of class we have ever had the displeasure to come across. Working class people are working class in their communities as well as in their workplaces, to suggest that community based campaigning is a retreat is nonsense.

So, what can be taken from this meeting? In short, if some people think that the Water Tax can be beaten by debating political theories or lobbying the chocolate fireguards we have for politicians and Trade Union leaders, let them get on with it. They clearly have no faith in the working class to understand and fight this attack. We think differently. We think ordinary people can and will fight. We don’t care, in contrast, if people fight this Tax from a puritan socialist standpoint, and we don't think they need to read Kapital while wearing hammer & sickle underpants to understand what’s going on. As workers we experience everyday what its like to be at the wrong end of class attacks and we know when someone’s trying to shaft us. This is the type of class consciousness that can’t be learned from books, but is in reality its purest form.

Advocates for non payment will continue to try to build this campaign. We are sure that mass non payment is the only way to beat this tax, and since this meeting was against water privatisation, it’s quite likely that the only way to stop eventual privatisation is to defeat the initial tax, which might put off private investors. After all, where’s the profit if we won’t pay?

The above article was published in Working Class Resistance No. 8.

Deeply ingrained sectarianism

John McAnulty

21st February 2005

The “Organise” article accuses Socialist Democracy of sectarianism and dogmatism. We would be dogmatic if we were to insist that our programme is the only basis for unity in a fight against water privatisation. We would be sectarian if we were to put our interests as an organisation before those of a united campaign.

The reality is that it is “Organise” that is guilty of the crimes it accuses us of.

The writer gives the game away in descriptions of the meeting. According to “Organise” we in Socialist Democracy “clearly consider their theories to be the only correct basis for workers to do anything” and that we think workers “need to read Kapital while wearing hammer and sickle underpants”.

But that’s not what occurred at the meeting and it’s not remotely like what Socialist Democracy had to say. What we said was that there should be a united mass campaign against water privatisation and that it would be for the campaign, rather than the tiny forces of the left, to then debate and decide a range of tactics.

That’s clearly more democratic than the left deciding things in advance and is the opposite of dogmatism – leaving it up to workers themselves to decide tactics.

Why then didn’t we leave the meeting with a united campaign? After all, everyone in the room opposed privatisation. If we agree politically why not unite and argue the toss about tactics afterwards?

The answer is the dogmatism of “Organise” and of the Socialist Workers Party member who claimed at the meeting that the mass sign-up to a non-payment pledge was proof that all that was need was for us all to hit the streets and knock doors.

The argument wasn’t that our position was too dogmatic, that it was our programme in disguise, or that it was in contradiction with some more commonsense policy. The argument was that there was no need for any political agreement or any political unity on the left because the workers were already on the march and only needed to be signed up to the task.

The rest of the article is essentially a moralistic diatribe about how the workers know how to struggle already and don’t need no snobby lefties to tell them what to do.

One problem with the “workers on the march” argument is that this march is invisible. Our meeting on 4th of December was one of the better attended ones, with over 30 people in attendance but, despite a leafleting and postering campaign, these were all members of political organisations. A meeting in Andersonstown attracted just over 20 and one in Lower Falls 3. The workers day of action attracted no outside support and the demonstrations across the North were minute.

Another problem is that the “workers on the march” argument is dishonest. It draws on the water tax offensive in the South and the poll tax revolt in Britain but doesn’t give the context of these struggles and totally ignores the bin tax campaign in Dublin which followed an apolitical non-payment tactic without success. It avoids the hard battles. The writer of the “Organise” article predicts, I think correctly, that the trade union leadership will sell out. Why isn’t a resurgent working class able to prevent the sell-out? Why, if combativity and class consciousness are at a high, are the workers voting for parties who have already sold the pass on privatisation? Why, if we want to win the leadership of the class, don’t we confront the existing leaderships of the trade unions and pro-capitalist parties? Why is it dogmatic of Socialist Democracy, in a statelet wracked by sectarianism and without any independent working-class organisation, to see the self organisation of the class as an objective rather than an already accomplished fact?

Finally the argument is ignorant. I was appalled by the ignorance of the intervention referred to in the “Organise” article that argued that, if you asked a worker if they would be willing to pay an extra £600 and they said ‘no’ that this was evidence of the levels of organisation and political consciousness needed to win a full-scale battle with the capitalist state. The writer of the article displays ignorance when they quite clearly know nothing of the depth, intensity and bitterness of the rent and rates strike and confesses ignorance about a reference to the vulnerability of cross-community campaigns to sectarianism. The simple-minded belief on the left that cross-community apolitical ‘bread and butter’ campaigns are in some way immune to the sectarian state is simple ignorance about the history of the state, where almost every expression of working-class solidarity has been defeated by sectarian incitement by the state.

Even the role of the working class itself is misunderstood. The stress on community ignores the central role of workers in revolutionary theory as workers – that is with a specific, organised relation to production such as that the water workers have to the control and distribution of water. The trade union leadership on the one hand and the ‘community’ left on the other, by refusing to take up the issue of privatisation, effectively separate organised workers form the community they serve and let the government off the hook.

The outcome of these arguments is not that the left go on to unite around a tactic while Socialist Democracy are left to ponder politics on their own. Each group fragments to do their own thing – an alphabet soup of campaigns that means in practice that there is no united campaign. For instance, “Organise” and the SWP, who are supposedly in the same campaign and agree on their fetish of non-payment, are currently involved in a blazing row on the Indymedia website which seems to have no political basis whatsoever but is purely based on organisational rivalry. In the meantime we have come to a political agreement with others around the issue of privatisation and are organising area meetings to ask workers how they think the campaign can progress.

On a number of occasions we have asked “Organise” onto our platforms. We did so not because we thought that we were in agreement, but because we honestly value open honest debate and we thought that you could supply this. It appears from your article that we were mistaken.


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