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Report on the SWP’s “Marxism in Belfast” Conference

JM Thorn

14th March 2002

On the 8th and 9th of March the Socialist Workers’ Party held its annual “Marxism in Belfast” conference at Queen’s Students’ Union.  On the theme of the “Global Capitalism – Global Resistance” this event promised to be a “weekend of debate and discussion”.  However, the extent of any such debate and discussion was to be severely limited.  An early indication of this was an attempt by the SWP to prevent a member of Socialist Democracy from entering the conference venue.  Only after a public protest was the person allowed in.  Throughout the weekend there was an hostility towards people who made arguments that challenged those of the SWP.  As an event it was clearly designed as a showcase for the politics of the SWP rather than a forum for debate.  However on that narrow basis it did provide a useful insight into the political direction the SWP is moving.

North Belfast

The tenor of the conference was set on the first night with the forum on sectarianism in North Belfast.  This featured a platform of an SWP speaker and a mother of a Holy Cross pupil.  What was striking about this meeting was the contrast between what the SWP said and the actual experience of the parent.   The SWP speaker started off by attempting to dispute the findings of a recent survey by University of Ulster academic, Peter Shirlow, which found that sectarian attitudes had hardened in north Belfast since the commencement of the peace process.   Interestingly, Peter Shirlow was originally billed to be on the platform but on the revised timetable his name did not appear.  There was no explanation for his absence.  Although a public statement he made the previous week about not publishing further research he had been commissioned to carry out for the Office of the First Minister, for fear of damaging the peace process, does raise some suspicions.  While a relatively minor episode, it is a further illustration of the dishonesty that is at the heart of the peace process, and as such was worthy of mention.  That it wasn’t reflects the SWP’s own contradictory and ambiguous attitude towards the peace process.

This was clearly brought out by its platform speaker.  For while he dismissed Shirlow’s findings as being exceptional to north Belfast, he also claimed that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement had produced greater community polarisation and segregation.  The SWP answer to this contradiction is to point to the workplace where Catholics and Protestants work side by side, and where they are united through membership of trade unions.  This schema was summed by leading SWP cadre Kieran Allen as “an integrated workforce fighting an orange/green elite”.   Although it has been given a new anti-capitalist veneer, this is essentially the old labourite belief that workers unity can be forged primarily on the basis of economic struggles.

It is true that workers have come together, and continue to come together, on the basis of trade unionism.  The problem is that these struggles do not go beyond the bounds of trade unionism to challenge the political status quo.   While workers may be united on a trade union basis in the workplace they are still divided politically.  Workers don’t cease to be nationalists and unionists when they go to work. It is also mistaken to believe that there will be a political shift amongst the working class in response to the right wing policies being pursued by nationalist and unionist ministers at Stormont.  Support for these parties is not based on their economic programme but on promoting the interests of “their community”.  This is why support for Sinn Fein is growing, despite the fact that Barbarie DeBrun is closing hospitals and Martin McGuinness  privatising schools.

Neo-liberal policies certainly give sectarianism a sharper edge, but even under better economic conditions it would still persist.  For it is not the policies the politicians are pursuing that foster sectarian division, but the political structures in which they are operating.  Any working class unity that is going to endure must therefore be based on the rejection of these structures.  That means a rejection of the Good Friday Agreement.  While this may not be popular with sections of the working class, and will involve taking on divisive issues such as state repression, it is an illusion to believe that unity can be built any other way.  History has shown many times that workers unity on the basis of economic struggles alone, like those proposed by the SWP, are doomed to failure.

Another major flaw in this argument is its evaluation of the current leadership of the trade union movement.   For while the SWP lauds the postal workers’ response to the murder of a Catholic colleague by the UDA, it fails to acknowledge that this action was diverted by the trade union leadership into a demonstration in support of the peace process.  The SWP has the conception that the trade union leaders can be pushed into action by pressure from below.  But if that leadership is totally bound up with the peace process, what they do, even as a result of pressure from below, will not fundamentally challenge the status quo.  This is why we had the bizarre spectacle of demonstrations against sectarianism at which trade union leaders reaffirmed their organisations’ support for the peace process.  Yet it is the peace process that is actually exacerbating community polarisation and giving free reign to loyalist paramilitaries to carry out acts like the murder of Catholic postmen.   While the SWP described the action of ICTU as “magnificent” at the time, what it actually amounted to was the mobilisation of workers in support of something that is deeply hostile to their interests.

The example of Holy Cross is even starker.  Throughout the loyalist blockade of the school the teaching unions did nothing to highlight or take action about what was going on.  This was emphasised by the Holy Cross parent who spoke of her sense of isolation and despair at the indifference of trade unions.  Yet, as a Socialist Democracy speaker who is also a teacher pointed out, it was not the case that teachers did not want to take action over Holy Cross.  Indeed, at the last INTO conference, the union that represented most of the teachers in Holy Cross, there were a number of motions condemning the loyalist blockade and demanding that the union do something.  The problem was that these demands were smothered and mollified by the trade union leaders.   This is why socialists must present a political challenge to trade union leaders that aims at their replacement, and not merely act as left-wing cheerleaders for their half-hearted gestures.

The Forum on North Belfast brought out clearly the major contradiction in the SWP’s arguments on the North.  On the one hand it acknowledges that the structures created by the Good  Friday Agreement  have increased community polarisation, yet at the same time claim that it has opened the way for class politics.  The premise of this argument is that the workplace is exceptional to the rest of society, so while Protestants and Catholics may be divided where they live and socialise, they are united where they work.  While this is true on one level, it fails to recognise that political divisions are still present in the workplace.  The current situation in the Mater Hospital in north Belfast, where Protestant and Catholic workers re refusing to talk to each other, is an example of this.  In reality, workplaces, rather than creating spaces for integration, are just as divided as the rest of society.

Any enduring working class unity must be based on political unity, and be unequivocally opposed to those parties and intuitions which are the source of political division amongst workers.  At present that demands opposition to the Good Friday agreement.  It is an illusion to believe that the instuitions of the Good Friday Agreement can be challenged on the basis of trade unionism alone.  By focusing on the neo-liberal policies pursued by unionist and nationalist politicians in the Stormont Executive rather than the institutions themselves, the SWP is effectively positioning itself amongst the left-wing supporters of the peace process.

Irish Republicanism

The SWP’s ambiguous approach to the peace process was also brought out at the meeting on Irish Republicanism.   The basic argument of the SWP speaker was that the problem with the Irish Republican movement was that it was not socialist, and that it elevated the question of national independence over that of socialism.  However, as Irish Republicans never claimed to be fighting for socialism, their failure to achieve it is hardly a basis on which to denounce them.  They could counter with some justification that most of the left never took up the issue of political repression.

The SWP’s explanation for Sinn Fein’s participation in the current peace process is the bourgeois nature of it’s politics.  Sinn Fein’s support for the pan-nationalist alliance, the role of US imperialism, and its own record in pursuing neo-liberal policies are all cited as evidence of this.  However, while this may be true in a general sense, it doesn’t offer any insight into the nature of the peace process.  It is merely seen as the inevitable and therefore unavoidable consequence of the political trajectory of Irish Republicanism.  The other side of this equation, the peace process as a victory for British  imperialism, is completely ignored.  This is because to view it from this perspective would mean opposing the peace process rather than adapting to it as the SWP have done.

Although when challenged on this the SWP would claim that it is opposed to the peace process, in practice it is no more than a critical supporter, content to denounce the neo-liberal policies of the Stormont Executive but failing to challenge the political structure that underpins it.  This was made clear from its participation in the short-lived Socialist Environmental Alliance, when it argued against the demand for disbanding the RUC.  Yet if this really was the position of the SWP why did it not argue for it to be adopted.   This is not a revolutionary demand, but one that is held widely amongst the nationalist working class.

When pressed on the question of policing the SWP speaker responded that the police were the same the world over.  Yet this ignores the differences between different states in the world including the differences in their repressive apparatus.  The police in liberal democracies cannot behave in the same way as the police in dictatorships.  This schema ignores the specifically sectarian nature of the northern state, especially its police force, and the role than Britain plays in propping it up.  For the SWP the north and the south are just “two capitalist states”, and the role of British imperialism is completely ignored.  While its generalisations and theoretical truisms may sound revolutionary, they are merely rhetorical devices to avoid engaging the difficult political questions.


By far the biggest meeting of the conference was the one on Palestine, which was attended by around 50 people.  It was addressed by an SWP speaker and someone from the recently formed Belfast branch of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  While the Campaign representative put forward a clearly identifiable nationalist argument which called for the end of occupation, the implementation of UN resolutions, and the creation of a Palestinian sate, the SWP position was not so clear.  Although the SWP speaker supported the current intifada, he did not indicate what solution socialists should be advocating for Palestine.  What he did say seemed to point  towards the belief that a revolt in the wider Arab world would provide the solution.  Both speakers side stepped questions on whether there should be a two-state or one-state solution for Palestine and on the Oslo accords.


Although there were only two meetings explicitly on anti-capitalism, it was the common thread that connected all the meetings.  Whether it was Afghanistan, Argentina, Ireland, Palestine or Colombia, the explanation for every struggle in the world and also its solution was anti-capitalism.  Yet even if it that was true, and some of the claims being made were extremely tenuous, it would still not advance the cause of socialism.  A movement that is not lead by the working class and not guided by Marxist politics is not truly anti-capitalist, and certainly is not a vehicle for the socialist transformation of society.   While the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement should not be dismissed it is equally wrong to suggest that the anti-capitalist movement at its present stage of development, being very diverse in class terms and dominated by populist politics, offers a serious challenge to capitalism

While the conference may have been titled Marxism in Belfast, one of the most glaring things was the absence of Marxist politics.  There was no reference to longstanding Marxist positions on many of the issues dealt with at the conference, and little reference to Marxist figures such as Lenin and Trotsky.  All the emphasis was on social movements, direct action and spontaneity.  Yet these libertarian and anarchist concepts of struggle are the antithesis of Marxism.  It is as if the battles between Marx and Bakunin in the First International, and Lenin’s polemics against the ultra-lefts in the 1920’s had never happened.   Rather than bringing Marxist politics into the anti-capitalist movement, the SWP’s uncritical approach to this movement has led it to discarding Marxism and importing anarchist ideas into the revolutionary left.

While the political content of Marxism in Belfast may have been disappointing, and will not have convinced anyone who thinks seriously about the issues, the numbers of people attending the conference (upwards to fifty on both days) was encouraging.  It does show that there is a growing audience, particularly amongst young people, for socialist ideas.  However, if they are to be won to the socialist movement they need to convinced that Marxism can seriously engage with struggles that are going on in the world, and can provide politics which take them forward.  This task will not be achieved through vague generalisations and truisms, no matter how many times they are repeated.



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