The Dublin Bin charge campaign, the Socialist Party and the Socialist movement in Ireland
22nd August 2005
The recent decision of the Socialist Party, the Irish section of a socialist formation called the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), to issue an analysis of the Dublin bin charge campaign, replying to sharp criticisms of their role in that campaign, is a step forward in the sense that the Irish left has little tradition of reasoned debate and is instead known for its sectarianism, factionalism, ignoring or misrepresenting criticism or responding with insult.
Unfortunately it’s only a very limited step forward. The document is a long way from being a Marxist analysis. It is instead a series of dogmatic positions with a few Marxist generalities thrown in. These positions remain unchanged despite their malfunction in application to the bin charge campaign, the failure of the SP to make a substantial breakthrough in the elections that followed and what was effectively a split in their organisation and the loss of two leading comrades. The writer constantly breaks from the methods of organisation and analysis of Marxism without appearing to realise that he has done so. The statements of position become the grounds of attack on their former comrades and on the Socialist Workers Party and finally the grounds for dismissal of attempts to unite the left and build a new party.
The fundamental framework of the SP document is the assumption that the bin charge campaign was similar to the poll tax campaign in Britain and to the water charge battle of two decades earlier. As with the water charges campaign, the main aim of the government was to cut central funding of local government through the imposition of double taxation, with a new secondary aim of preparing local services for privatisation.
The SP view was that a tactic of mass non-payment was a precondition for a mass campaign. They recognised that workers has suffered a series of defeats, were facing further attacks from government and employers and had been sold out by the union bureaucracy, but the workers were angry and this anger would support a mass movement as long as enough organisational work was put in and exemplary action taken. There was no need for any pre-existing consciousness or organisation of workers for political goals. Even without a single socialist in an area, the campaign could successfully organise there. What was crucial was confidence. If the workers had enough self-confidence, then they could organise in communities and carry out direct action.
From this perspective the Socialist Party attacked their former leading members, Dermot Connolly and Joan Collins. They included in their criticism the Socialist Workers Party. The ‘conservatism’ of these comrades had damaged the campaign. The document then revisits aspects of the campaign, attacking their opponents and defending their own record.
One major element was the tactic of mass blockade to prevent the bin lorries moving and the campaign’s relation to the bin workers themselves. The SP argued that non-collection would gradually break down the campaign and that the response had to be a ‘nuclear option’ where the lorries were blockaded in all Dublin areas, including those where the bins of those who refused to pay were still being collected. The bin workers, confronted by the campaign, would be encouraged to stand up to the bosses and to union directives to obey the instructions on non-collection.
Another element of the dispute was lobbying the councils and putting pressure on Labour and Sinn Fein councillors, and the related issue of standing candidates in the council elections. The SP argued that the close votes in the council were mere window-dressing to disguise the fact that the parties actually supported the bin charge. They agreed that there should be a slate of candidates but that this should be restricted to militants who had, in their judgement, worked hard in the campaign. In the end no slate was agreed.
Finally the Socialist Party link the issue of the elections, where they accuse their opponents of electoral opportunism, with proposals for left unity and the formation of a new working-class party. They believe that these proposals are linked to models like the Scottish Socialist Party and the Respect coalition in Britain, and that these are opportunist and reformist organisations. They believe that a future party will be revolutionary, but that the time is not yet ripe to build one.
Dermot Connolly asserts that there were no political differences in the campaign and that, over a number of years and three major conferences, no major differences of a political or even tactical nature emerged. In his view the Socialist Party acted in a sectarian way towards other forces in the campaign and towards himself and Joan Collins when they privately opposed the direction the party was taking.
The SP dissidents supported the general strategy proposed by the Socialist Party but argued that, in areas where all bins were being collected, it would alienate the mass of the workers and damage relations with the bin workers to stop these collections. They argued that a slate of bin tax candidates would have decisively changed the fortunes of the campaign and that, in practice, the SP prevented such a slate being adopted by the campaign. The major lesson of the campaign was the need for a new working class party.
Nowhere in the debate is the analysis by Socialist Democracy ‘After the Bintifada’ mentioned. This is significant. There was very little analysis written of the bin charge – before the release of the Socialist Party document only Socialist Democracy and the Irish Socialist Network had written full accounts. Our document was a serious attempt to apply the tools of Marxism to the campaign. The intention was to strengthen militants’ understanding of the issues. If we can all apply the Marxist method then we can have an honest debate. Without that method we have a series of unsubstantiated assertions that go nowhere and teach us nothing.
In our view the Socialist Party analysis departs significantly from such a method of analysis:
The Socialist Party analysis argues that the water charge campaign was a victory for the working class and that the bin charge was an essentially identical situation. The correctness of these arguments depends on their context. The water charges battle was essentially about local taxation and followed a populist promise by Fianna Fail to abolish rates, followed by a change of mind and a back-door attempt to reimpose local taxes. The government eventually gave way and the working class won the battle, but the overall context since then has been one of unremitting attacks on the working class. The Socialist Party document itself makes clear that the working class remained burdened with the mass of the tax bill through PAYE. The defeat of the government was tactical rather than strategic. The SP itself made a substantial advance with the election of Joe Higgins as TD. This should also have been a substantial advance for workers in general, but one of the major problems since then has been the inability or unwillingness of the Socialist Party to use their TD as a magnet for socialist unity or as a pole for the recomposition of the working class.
Today’s context was privatisation. The SP list this as an issue but then ignore it when it comes to strategy and tactics – the slogan is double taxation and the tactic non-payment. Yet major privatisations had already occurred, notably the telecoms free-for-all. In other areas of the country bin charges had been followed by privatisation. The union bureaucracy had already colluded in privatisation projects – indeed one union took strike action to win share options in the telecom privatisation. In Dublin the private firm Oxygen was already involved in a partial privatisation of council services and the bin charge confrontation was followed by the privatisation assault on airport staff.
Instead the Socialist Party employ the tactics of Dr Pangloss – only victories are listed in their analysis. The defeat of the rent and rate strike in the North and the lessons about the use of the state to crush resistance are ignored, as also is the defeat of resistance to water charges in Britain. The also mistook their victory, in winning a TD, for a generalised strategic victory of the working class and made the classic mistake of fighting the new war with the tactics and strategy of the old. Can’t pay – won’t pay would defeat the bin charges and see Clare Daly join Joe Higgins in the Dail and a slew of additional SP councillors elected.
A democratic campaign?
An oft-repeated formula of the Socialist party is their belief in democratic campaigns. Yet the process outlined in the SP document on the setting up of the Bin Charge campaign is anything but democratic. Pre-selected organisations and individuals are invited to a conference to unite around a predetermined analysis and tactic. Having agreed nothing politically, the campaign then splits up to organise and recruit individually in local areas where political discussion was largely absent and the main topic was encouraging everyone to work harder and harder to recruit more and more.
All this flies in the face of the Marxist method, where the broadest possible range of forces are called together in open conferences to arrive at a political agreement. The aim is to build a unitary campaign structure with a single structure to which are affiliated communities, trades unions and their branches, political parties and their branches and so on. It is this broad structure that democratically debates strategy and tactics.
Above all the aim of Marxists within the movement is to direct it at the organised working class in work and in the trade unions. In the vast majority of cases campaigns begin in communities and many victories are possible simply within this structure, but for Marxists the workers’ greatest power lies in their ability to withdraw their labour and their freedom to do so in their ability to control union structures. This never seems to have been an issue in the bin charge campaign.
Yet, when the campaign found itself divided and in crisis it was precisely over the issue of workers in the workplace, workers organised as workers and as trade unionists, that the division occurred. The SP argued that the protests could encourage the workers to resist directions from the bosses and union chiefs, but eventually this left the campaign facing charges of intimidation. The opposition argued that good relations with the workers were paramount, but were unable to suggest a strategy that would have led all the workers to oppose a non-collection policy. What both tendencies had in common was that they were arguing from outside the workforce and outside the trade unions. This was the policy of the campaign. It called for years of patient work, but all of this work was aimed at the community and none at the central area where the workers were organised as workers.
Even when a trade union mobilisation did take place, its focus was to unite the bin charge protestors with the union bureaucrats who were instructing workers to enforce the non-collection policy – workers booed and tore up their union cards when Jack O’Connor of SIPTU spoke and the left looked on, silent.
Throughout their analysis the Socialist Party decry the betrayal of the trade union bureaucracy, but nowhere is there a line about the policies, strategy and tactics that workers need to adopt to counter this betrayal. This is hardly surprising. If anything defines the Socialist Party it is their policy of seeking unity with sections of the bureaucracy. It was headline news when Joe Higgins made a May Day appeal for the bureaucracy to adopt some trade union principles. It was necessary to do this when the GAMA crisis involved sections of the bureaucracy in criminal conspiracy with government and bosses. Yet May Day in Dublin was yet another bizarre event uniting the GAMA workers with the conspirators who had betrayed them! Since then it has been business as usual, with a major attack on education workers in the North and another unsuccessful attempt by the SP to build a united movement with the union bureaucracy. The inability of the SP to change its trade union policy means that even when their bin charge strategy fails and they split and lose leading members they are unable to learn much from the experience.
The case of the Dublin City campaign illustrates a major contradiction of the struggle. The explanation proffered by the SP for the disputes and difficulties was that the campaign was weak in the inner city, due to the conservatism of the SWP and SP dissidents. So what was the strategy, the alternative to the conservatism of the opposition? The strategy was to call for non-payment! But non-payment is absolutely dependent on mass support. If you know that you do not have that mass support and then urge small numbers to break the law and put themselves in debt you are leaving them defenceless in the face of the state. To provide a defence you must provide the necessary mass support, but that can only come from political struggle, not from constantly repeating a single tactic.
The issue of building mass working-class support always begins with a recognition that workers are already organised. They have existing formal and informal leaderships. They are in community groups, work groups, trade unions. They vote for political parties. In the circumstances of the bin charge campaign, where the majority of these groups either openly supported the bin charge or secretly opposed any fight against it, it was necessary to mount a political fight to weaken the grip of those supporting the charge and to expose the parties and groups who would sabotage a fight. When the state attacked with the police and courts, as they did, it would be necessary to immediately broaden the fight and draw in substantial sections of the working class. For that to be possible an enormous amount of preparatory work would have to be undertaken. As it was, the campaign tended to ignore the opposition of the trade union and political leaderships, and reacted to the attacks by intensifying the calls on existing supporters to do more or by hoping that the numbers of militants being jailed for exemplary actions would spontaneously generate mass opposition.
As it was the campaign was no match for the police and courts, was easily outmanoeuvred by the trade union bureaucracy and, because of the lack of political debate in the campaign beyond ‘Can’t pay – won’t pay’, found it hard to deal with the full-scale media offensive and the political challenges that arose from that offensive.
The debate in the campaign focused on charges of conservatism leading to over-emphasising the importance of electoral work as opposed to direct action and on direct charges of electoral opportunism – that the SWP were using the campaign to boost their electoral prospects.
The Marxist position on elections is linked to the argument about relating to existing organisation claiming leadership of the class. The fact that Sinn Fein and Labour involved themselves in elaborate charades to pretend that they were opposing the bin charge while in practice letting it through meant that they were vulnerable on the issue and should have been facing constant pressure, including electoral challenge, to try and detach their working class base.
It is important to oppose electoralism, the belief that enough votes or seats can lead to the reform of capital and that existing state structures can be made to do the bidding of the workers. Electoral success would not have been a way to ‘tip the balance’ in council votes, but to demonstrate to workers that the council democracy was a sham and that capitalism and the state would press ahead with privatisation – clearly so in this case, where the financial control had been taken from the councillors and given to council managers to prevent any democratic revolt that might have obstructed privatisation.
The charges of electoralism on all sides seem to have been equally true. On the one hand many of the candidates seem to have kept many of their political positions hidden and have seen the idea of a bin tax slate as involving standing on one issue. On the other hand constant SP complaints of only hard-working activists being fit for selection obscured the politics of the situation, and appear to have been motivated mainly by a refusal to endorse any SWP candidates except jailed militant Brid Smith, who they could not plausibly argue against.
It is hard to believe that the SP’s own approach to the campaign was not electoralist, given that right from the start the campaign was split into electoral areas on the rather thin basis that each council was running slightly different bin charge systems. Further evidence of this is the complaint by non-SP elements that the SP worked tirelessly to subordinate the campaigns in the other three areas to their electoral stronghold of Fingal, which involved no other significant forces. It seems self-evident that the intended outcome was to see Socialist Party councillors and eventually another Socialist Party TD elected. The outcome of the confused dispute was that Labour and Sinn Fein emerged unscathed from the campaign, both still posing as leaders of the working class.
A new party
The Socialist Party is at pains to point out that the time is not right to build a new working class party. No-one has been cruel enough to point out that it was not so long ago that the time was right to build a party in the North involving the PUP – representatives of the right wing deaths squads of the UVF at present up to their necks in drugs feuds, murders and sectarian attacks.
Leaving that to one side, it is clear that ‘the time is not right’ formula is simply avoiding the issue. It is always the time to build the revolutionary party, not in the sense that we are always tied up in some meeting or proclamation, but in the sense that every struggle involving workers contains the potential to take a step forward towards a workers party and each struggle contains concrete opportunities for socialists to unite around specific issues.
The Socialist Party are on firmer ground when they argue that the party we will require should be a revolutionary party, even if the programme they advance lacks conviction. Dermot Connolly is at his weakest when he suggests that a new party can be built now, but that it will in all likelihood be a reformist party. Why? It is one thing for reformists to agree a reformist programme and set up a party and for socialists to join such an organisation in the hope of pushing it to the left, quite another thing for socialists themselves to unilaterally throw out all the revolutionary aspects of their programme in advance because they don’t believe that workers will support revolutionary ideas. The fact is that we live in an era when the ideas of Social Democracy have collapsed and Social Democratic and Labour parties are often to the forefront in the attacks on workers. The implication that we should revive the corpse of Labourism seems foolish in the extreme.
The proposals for left unity and a new party appear to have faults on both sides. The Socialist Party retreats behind a formula whose consequences are politically sectarian – isolating them from effective united action. On the other hand, the idea that the left should build a party of reform, if adopted, would be politically opportunist and would effectively liquidate what limited understanding there is of the need for a revolutionary solution to the ongoing capitalist offensive. As it is, we appear to at the moment have a unity movement that has not managed to agree a programme yet, and, worryingly, is willing to exclude groups from the discussions without being able to offer any political basis for exclusion.
Learning from struggle
No-one can ever guarantee victory. There is no magic bullet that can ensure the defeat of our capitalist opponents. The one thing that a revolutionary socialist organisation can do is to ensure that their forces emerge from campaigns in good order, with a clearer understanding, more united and with a better understanding and stronger unity. Unity requires an object and it requires reflection. The first step is to identify a task that faces workers generally and to try to unite in order to meet that need. The actions that we take then need to be the subject of discussion so that we can register victories and learn from our mistakes.
Dermot Connolly’s statement that there was never any political disagreement in the campaign has the ring of truth. The campaign avoided political discussion and united around a tactic. As a result it was riven by crises around the political issues it had failed to discuss yet emerged from the disputes disunited and having learnt little.
Socialist Democracy believes that the socialist
movement did not correctly identify the task that faced in around the bin
charge – the task of fighting privatisation. It has only in a limited way
drawn a balance sheet of that struggle and that has hampered the process
of moving forward to build a new party. New tasks are arising. The privatisation
process is accelerating North and South. The government and bosses have
ruled out both pay increases and tax reduction in the coming talks with
ICTU, but does anyone doubt that they will sign up to a new national agreement?
The US is establishing a military base at Shannon. In the North a pro-imperialist
and sectarian settlement has collapsed in ruins, but its supporters remain
in place for sheer lack of any political opposition. One immediate test
for the movement is arising now in the North around the water charge proposals
– a very thinly disguised move towards privatisation. Yet again we have
‘Can’t Pay – Won’t Pay’ – a tactic elevated to unifying principle. Yet
again we have the left, united in elevating the non-payment tactic – nevertheless
split into factional campaigns. There is still time for reflection, for
political agreement and for united action.
'AFTER THE BINTIFADA' A Marxist analysis
of the Dublin anti-bin charge campaign
The battle against the bin tax and the Role of Socialists in the Working Class Movement http://www.socialistparty.net/pub/pages/bintaxdoc05.htm
The Socialist Party, Joan Collins and the
Bin Tax Battle
Ireland: The Battle of the Bins