The banner rent from side to side
22 July 2007
In June this year the socialist unity magazine ‘Red Banner’ split, with the ‘Editorial board’ announcing that the magazine was ceasing publication and a new publication was planned, and an ‘Editorial collective’ announcing that publication will continue.
It was the worst of all splits, with allegations and name-calling but without the slightest hint of the political disagreement that all such divisions are inevitably based on. It appears that the participants are determined to learn nothing from their experience and that they have nothing to tell the socialist movement at large that would enable us to develop and learn from their experiment.
The ‘unity’ magazine has split. Now apparently there are to be two unity publications and two unity projects – without any explanation of the differences between the two groups,
A desultory discussion on indymedia faded out quickly, with one contributor arguing ‘So what?’ I believe that it is worth unpacking the Red Banner dispute. The magazine’s theorisation of unity and its practice reflected fairly closely the conceptions of a sizable section of the Irish left. Their conceptions were wrong, the split is strong evidence that this is the case and it’s worth driving that home.
The theorisation of unity by ‘Red Banner’ and practice of unity on the Irish left were held together by ideas common across the European socialist movement. Briefly the conception was that the left needed to regroup around a broad mass party. The unstated assumption was that this party would have a social-democratic character on the grounds that the masses were in retreat and that Marxism was too red-blooded to be offered. In some way it was assumed that workers have a sort of natural social-democratic consciousness that would later on extend in some spontaneous way towards a more revolutionary consciousness. This idea has parallels with the ‘popular front’ theories of the communist party in the 1930’s. The call for unity had no object – no policy around which the groups sponsoring unity would struggle to persuade the rest. It was necessary to proceed in this manner because policy would be based on the most right-wing forces that could be persuaded to join, and could not be outlined in advance. For militants who saw themselves as Marxists the process involved a major collapse in understanding. Marxism ceased to be a guide to action and became instead a lifestyle choice that the militants kept to themselves in the hope that someday it would become fashionable again.
The experiment began with members of the editorial board of Red Banner organising a unity conference in Dublin in November 2000. The conference had speakers from the leadership of the Fourth International, from the Socialist Alliance in England and from the Scottish Socialist Party. Policy was not an issue. The model put forward was that of the Scottish Socialist Party – of a ‘party of platforms’ where everyone could agree to disagree. The SSP has since been decimated, with the main ‘platforms’ organised around the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party the mechanism for tearing it apart.
In the event the Irish attempt fell at first base, with the Socialist Party refusing to have anything to do with the other left organisations. The project was sponsored for a while by the SWP, but within weeks they had turned protestations of a 32 county party into two partitionist parties and were managing the organisations as classic SWP fronts. Socialist Democracy tried to work in the fronts, but soon found that decisions made jointly were overthrown by the SWP at their own meetings. The unity cheerleaders uncritically supported the SWP until the front had served its purpose and then they were dumped. They went on to found their own party - the ‘Interim Committee for Socialist Unity’ as their unique contribution to unity.
The new party lasted for about a fortnight and the main source of unity operations moved to the Red Banner. The magazine proclaimed itself the voice of unity and of debate, but was critically handicapped by the fact that it had no object. Unity was a thing in itself and there was no political programme to be advanced, debated or modified by such debate.
Unity was a question of diplomacy, of being nice, of not offending anyone or posing sharp differences. From this conception came the unique practice of Red Banner. It became a sort of left version of the post-republican ‘Blanket’ website – a cacophony of voices all ignoring each other and almost never discussing or debating anything. When one sharp debate did break out – around a review of Socialist Democracy’s book on Social Partnership – a member of the editorial board attacked us from behind an alias (for being too harsh about the trade union bureaucracy) and then unilaterally closed the correspondence. Unbelievably the champions of unity and debate tried to obstruct our publishing of the correspondence.
A condition of publication was that other organisations could not be named or directly attacked. It was a practice that led to moralism, dishonesty and innuendo and made real debate impossible. Organisations indirectly accused of political sectarianism could not respond without identifying themselves as the sectarians that everyone had been talking about.
It also had the effect of making the magazine peripheral. Many of the worthies of the left wrote for it, but as there was little debate the main purpose was to advertise their own positions, to establish themselves as knowledgeable about international issues or to establish their own scholarship. A formative issue for most of the Dublin left, the bin charge campaign, was never the subject of deep discussion. No one noticed when a mass vote for partition and continued British rule in the North went through. The mass anti-war mobilisation came and went. The remaining movement split in two without provoking debate. Referenda on Women’s rights, on Europe, on race were reported but not discussed between the different tendencies. The Red Banner editorial board were foursquare behind the electoralist adventure that the Irish left embarked on in the last election. In fact, the editorial board were also the officer board of the Campaign for an Independent Left that tried and failed to set up a new reformist alliance around the elections. You would never have guessed this from the pages of Red Banner!
In fact, the pursuit of unity without an object led to the practice of the milieu around the magazine to become not only a mistaken approach to unity, but actually a cover for the disunity and opportunism of much of what passes for radical opinion and in practice providing a smokescreen to hide the opportunism and disunity of the left. The was very evident in the Campaign Against the Racist Referendum (CARR) in 2004. The campaign, based on a liberal moralism about every child being equal, had the support of all the left groups and Sinn Fein – yet the final demonstration attracted 200 people. The reason was self-evident. The constituent groups had abandoned the campaign in favour of electioneering in the elections running alongside the referendum and were able to cover their backs by brandishing their support for CARR.
A similar process occurred around the trade union campaign against social partnership, chaired by a member of the Red Banner editorial board, in 2006. Meetings attracted about 40 people, far fewer than the membership of the constituent organisations. SWP suggestions that the basis of the campaign should not stress social partnership went unopposed. When the vote got under way the campaign quickly morphed into an SWP campaign for a better alliance with the bosses!
Real unity movements, based on a political programme and using the method of the united front, would have fared better. They would have looked to rank and file participation from the members of the supporting organisations and had the structures for constant debate about how to advance the struggle. That isn’t to say that an alternative movement would have been successful – there is no magic bullet for winning campaigns and the balance of forces was against us – what real unity would have done is leave some level of understanding and organisation behind after each campaign on which the next struggle could have built.
If the left were unwilling to build genuine united campaigns on race or social partnership then it would have been better to recognise that than to construct a make-believe world. Again it would have been possible to make some limited progress in advancing the ideas of Marxism.
But even the most chaotic and diffuse political movements come to an end. The end in this case was brought about by desperate attempts to build electoral unity. By this stage the majority of left activists had come to define unity as what they saw around them – diplomatic agreements between the leaderships of small organisations, all scrabbling for a base and protecting their own ‘territory’. A series of secret meetings, hosted by the Irish Socialist Network, led to a federation of small groups declaring unity around a modest social-democratic program and forming the campaign for an independent left (CIL). Most of the demands were unexceptional, and did not involve any unity at all. The separate organisations were to endorse the common points and stand in separate constituencies on a localist and electoralist programme with the key point being that of anti-coalitionism, seen as a test of socialist purity.
The whole process was essentially non-political. When the SWP expressed enthusiasm for unity the ISN speaker said that they would have to stay outside until trust was built up. This obscured the political difference between the SWP’s ‘People Before Profit’ initiative and a socialist initiative and left the whole issue at the mercy of different peoples moods and feelings.
In essence what happened very quickly was that the CIL initiative divided into a series of different versions of unity. One, spelt out by Mick O’Reilly of ATGWU, included a Labour Party that renounced coalitions of the right and also held out the possibility of including Sinn Fein and the Greens. A second followed the logic of the CIL programme and included the SWP and their new-found fondness for unity. A third group, around the ISN, saw unity as being built as an alternative to the double crosses of the SWP and were hostile to any alliance (strangely enough there seemed to be a continuing fondness for the Socialist party, despite their resolute opposition to any strategy other than the growth of the Socialist party).
The strains of following left unity to its logical conclusion were reflected in the pages of Red Banner. One article, by Aindrias O Cathasaigh of the new editorial collective, appeared to be an attack on sectarianism. However, in context, it amounted to the announcement of a new, non-sectarian socialist milieu, denouncing the existing groups as sectarian and able to defeat reformism by endorsing ‘socialism from below’ and engaging in community action – coincidently identical to the alliance around the ISN.
The response, by Des Derwin of the ‘Editorial board’ is quite hard to interpret because so much time is taken up in agreeing with Aindrias. In essence however he is defending the inclusive ‘mass party’ project that the magazine began with, putting his faith (yet again) in the new ‘non-sectarian’ turn of the SWP and pointing out, as diplomatically as he can, that small groups of the self-proclaimed pure who put opposition to other left organisations above even opposition to reformism are, by definition, themselves sectarian. Des argues that it is the duty of revolutionaries to work with anyone and to intervene in any forum. In this he is totally correct. However, because both he and Aindrias ignore the political critiques offered by Socialist Democracy, he is unable to deal with the central point – that unity requires an object. If you go to broader forums without a political object other than unity you end up being dragged along as cannon fodder for reformism. If you put forward a political project based on aiding the self-organisation of the workers then you can build and you can progress.
A group of five people has split into 3 and 2. So What? But the group did attempt to theorise a unity project. They failed and have now been fragmented by the practical failure of the left. Both groups are trying to proclaim business as usual and in doing so they are reflecting the attitude of the left generally – business as usual around 3 or 4 unity projects that involve quite intense hatred of those on the wrong unity bandwagon.
Unity requires a political object. We unite to do specific tasks. If the left were to do this it would be 1000% more effective than it is presently. What tasks should we unite around? The workers will tell us. We should not be inventing our own projects – we should be watching the working class.
The elections were a perfect example. Years of diplomacy and backroom deals among the left went up in smoke, yet coincident with the election campaign was the struggle of the nurses, given only the most routine nod by the left.
The nurses struggle went down to defeat. I don’t believe for a moment that the socialist movement could have made the difference. What we could have done it laid the groundwork for the massive struggle following behind the nurses – the mass privatisation of health we are now facing.
At the moment the socialist movement in
Ireland seems set for business as usual. The split in Red Banner,
the collapse of the SSP, the experiences in Italy and Brazil should be
telling them that non-political unity is not a sustainable option.