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The politics of unity

The first time its history.  The second time its farce.  The third time its Blaahhh

28 July 2008

John McAnulty


In 2001 a group describing themselves as independent socialists organised a meeting to discuss socialist unity.  The meeting drew on the example of the then Socialist Alliance in England and the Scottish Socialist Party. It was endorsed by the leadership of the Fourth International and drew a crowd of over 200 militants.  A proposal to set up a united left organisation was rejected by the Socialist Party.  Independents and Socialist Democracy signed up with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to attempt to build the party. We objected to the reformist platform being presented and the attempt to avoid issues such as Europe and Women’s rights.  Within weeks the SWP had unilaterally set up a second, partitionist, front organisation in the North based around gas and water socialism and with a pale unionist tinge.  It incorporated the independents into a 26 county front and later dumped them and gradually wound up the project.

That’s history.  There was an attempt to unite the left and it failed.  People can discuss the history and come to different conclusions. The majority of the socialist movement took the view that the failure was due to dishonesty and lack of democracy on the part of the SWP.  The SWP view themselves as the revolutionary party and unity drives as an opportunity to recruit. The independents, from their subsequent actions, seem to have felt that they were too harsh in their approach and should have done more to capitulate to the SWP.  Our view was that a collapse into reformism would simply weaken the socialist movement rather than strengthen it.


At the end of 2005 the cycle began again with the formation of the Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL).  The base for the new drive was the bin tax campaign, claimed to demonstrate new vitality and unity in the socialist movement.  In reality the campaign marked a major shift to the right.  The left refused to face up to the fact that the bin service was being privatised and that the union leadership supported this.  They turned away from a class orientation to an electoralist orientation around what they claimed was double taxation. The famed unity was diplomatic agreement that each group would jealously guard its own patch and attempt to transform it into an electoral base, carefully avoiding any political issues that might lead them to dispute. 

This campaign had 11 demands, but no-one ever referred to them.  Only one seemed really important, the demand that the participants oppose participation in a coalition government.  Where the first campaign was organised as an open conference, this one was agreed behind closed doors, by invitation only.  Where the first had had the SWP at its centre, this excluded the SWP, not on any political grounds, but on the basis that they would have to earn trust from the others. As a result the SWP went on to build its own unity organisation – People before profit.  The two unity organisations were almost identical, tho’ the SWP were more interested in ‘people power’ than in any class analysis.

The CIL had two new factors. The first was a split in the Socialist party that cost it its national secretary and inner city base.  This split was supported by an international group that put forward a closely argued basis for unity around a gas and water socialism more are less identical to the Socialist Party programme.  The second was a new group, the Irish Socialist Network (ISN), combining community politics with anarchist structures and a pretty ferocious sectarianism towards left organisations it saw as ‘Leninist’.

The Socialist Party held firm and refused the prospect of alliance.  The ISN withdrew shortly afterwards.  The withdrawal was never explained, but it did become clear fairly quickly that even anti-coalitionism was not a final barrier to membership of the CIL and that attempts had been made to recruit sections of the labour party with a long history of coalition government.  The new left appeared to include not only the Labour party and its history of betrayal, but Sinn Fein, now a populist party on the right pushing through the sectarian settlement in the North.  The twin pressures of absence of politics and unbridled opportunism pushed the ragbag coalition under.  The farce ended.


In July this year the SWP launched a series of meetings, hosting Francois Duval of the French LCR, to announce a new left in Europe and a consequent need for a new left in Ireland. Although no-one felt the need to discuss the nature of the new left beyond its role in kick-starting a new Irish movement, both the European and Irish proposals seemed equally devoid of a political programme. The basic dishonesty of the meeting was illustrated by the LCR, who in Britain are supporting a new party around socialists who have split from the SWP and in Ireland doing entirely the opposite.

Yet again the basic argument hinges around the need to capitalise on the victories of the left, but these victories seem thin when examined closely.  In France there was the victory of a No vote against a European constitution. Wouldn’t then the reversal of that vote by the French parliament ratifying the Lisbon treaty represent a defeat?  What about the election of Sarkosy, the defeat of a mass public sector strike? The abolition of the 35 hour week?

As the No forces in Ireland consolidate after the vote, it is becoming clearer that the right were the dominant voice politically.  That’s not to say that the No vote wasn’t in its majority a working class vote, simply that it had no political voice.  The national debate was dominated by the far right business and farming vote and by the Catholic right. 

The left contributed to the lack of a voice by disunity – the ‘united campaign’ was simply a committee of stooges ignored by the groups, who worked individually in constituency areas.  This electoralist approach effectively made the left invisible on the national scale.

Where the left had chances to advance they threw them away. The Greens, in Government, supported the Yes vote but the socialists promoted ‘left’ dissidents who remained loyal to the party. This helped the Greens to survive unscathed.  The socialists promoted Sinn Fein despite the party’s overall support for the EU and very limited grounds for its No stance, enabling that party to recover a left gloss that it had lost at the last election.  Sinn Fein, as the only Dail party, are now posed to make gains as they offer to help European capital resolve their difficulty.

All this is part of a wider shift to the right. At the time of the 2005 negotiations the CIL included a formal statement opposing social partnership between the union bureaucracy and the bosses.  People before profit were more ambiguous, but the SWP remained formally opposed.

The SWP and PBP now support social partnership and the SWP now have a member at the top of the bureaucracy negotiating a new agreement that will certainly involve a pay freeze.  Members of the CIL now propose that a campaign in defence of the health service should be under the control of the bureaucracy and provide a platform for the bureaucrats even though they support a Yes vote.

Break the cycle

The current unity drive is so thin that it will be lucky if it is not stillborn.  It has no formal name, but meetings are organised by People before Profit and it seems likely that the SWP will simply swallow the other participants. In any case this spiral of reaction cannot continue for much longer. What is quite clear is that sections of the socialist movement in Ireland are so wedded to populist opportunism and so wedded to the union bureaucracy that the possibility of them playing any progressive role is very low.  The opposition is in a poor state, still involved in secret meetings and in diplomacy without an agenda.

The question posed is very simple.  It there a section of the socialist movement willing to fight for unity of the working class? For a working-class response to Lisbon? Willing to lift the banner of socialism against the capitalist offensive?  Such a movement, even in embryo form, would represent a real step forward for the working class.


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