The Northern Elections and the Socialist Movement: Part 1
Socialist Democracy Statement
13th November 2003
Elections are the paramount claim of capitalist society that it is democratic. They are theoretically the occasion when the general population can decide the future of the country. Despite socialists’ assertion that real power lies outside parliament, in the economic corridors of power and the unelected higher echelons of the state, elections are presented as the time when the question of who will rule is decided.
Socialists and Elections
Because illusions of this sort are held by almost all working class people socialists take elections very seriously. They use them to explain that workers have basic interests defined by their class position, which are separate and irreconcilable with those of the ruling class and its state. They use them to explain what the realities of power actually are and that their own interests can be advanced only through exercising their own power outside of the electoral façade.
Elections are an opportunity to explain that workers’ interests demand unity and opposition to capitalism and its state. In the North of Ireland this means opposition to the British imperial State and unity of all Irish workers – North and South, Catholic and Protestant. The political rule of the existing State is particularly pernicious because it furthers deep divisions in the working class. The progress that workers seek for themselves, their families and communities can only be achieved by challenging these divisions; through attacking the State that promotes and maintains them. In this task socialists compete with all those parties that further or accommodate these divisions.
The objective, as in all the activity of the socialist movement, is to organise the working class to achieve its own liberation and to raise itself to the political power in the land. What faces workers are not trade union issues which can appear open to compromise and which can make vague the irreconcilable interests of workers and capitalists through, for example, concessions over percentage pay rises or numbers of redundancies. What faces them are political questions.
Elections press socialists to fearlessly explain what their interests are and how they must be advanced. Since as Marxists we believe that the working class has, as Marx himself put it, ‘radical chains’ that can only be broken through breaking the chains of all oppression, the socialist movement is compelled to present a view on all the important political questions of the day.
From Division to Unity
It is not enough to adopt this approach in a general way but necessary to explain this in as concrete and practical a manner as possible. This statement isn’t an attempt to do this but to explain the principles behind the approach and the issues that have to be addressed.
In the North of Ireland this means it must be recognised that to defend the interests of the whole working class and to assert its unity, to oppose the capitalist State and all its political projects, is to fight against the stream. There are no other forces within the broad working class movement that remotely seek to do this. The workers’ movement is very weak and severely bureaucratised to the extent that its bureaucrat leaders present as solutions to working class division the forces that created and perpetuate it.
Elections in the North are always about the border, about the State framework that has so successfully divided the working class. The success of this division is apparent in its nature. It does not divide workers over how to fight imperial rule but whether this rule is to be supported and celebrated. Division is not over how to combat the mechanisms of division – partition and sectarianism – but whether these are to be opposed or defended. To stand for the whole working class, to fight for its unity is thus to confront the deepest prejudices of a whole section of the working class.
Socialists can never fight for the interests of the whole working class by trying to reconcile its most advanced members to its most backward. It cannot advance unity by making compromises with division. It cannot raise the consciousness of the working class as a whole by attempting only to lessen the bigotry of its most backward sections. This presents no way forward for the most advanced who must become owners and carriers of the socialist message and levers of the rest of the class.
There can therefore be no compromise with imperialism, with its political plans, with sectarianism or with Loyalism. There cannot be any confusion of socialism with Irish nationalism, which pretends to be non-sectarian but offers a programme of unity with Irish capital and thereby cannot hope to move forward the unity of workers. Nationalist and Republican calls for equality cannot be seen as anything other than a call for equality of oppression. Their calls for inclusivity are, for the working class, calls for equality of exclusion.
Good Friday Agreement
The current form in which division is enshrined is the Good Friday Agreement and the election is ostensibly about its future. This Agreement is a colonial political settlement written by the British and presented to the local parties for their acceptance or their consignment to political exclusion. These parties are therefore no more than the means by which colonial rule is disguised and implemented. These parties will never form the government of the State that really rules the North of Ireland since they are organic parts of Irish society. These parties, with irrelevant exceptions, do not even attempt to organise in Britain. This is the reality even for those who declare themselves ‘simply British.’
The seat of real power has been made clear repeatedly through four suspensions of the Assembly that was supposed to provide stability and the structure within which these parties could compete for the crumbs off the imperial table. The reality of British control has been revealed in unilateral action that exposes as completely hollow all claims by Irish nationalism that its state in the south is an equal partner with British imperialism.
Exposed also, though not so clearly, is the myth that the Good Friday Agreement is the result of negotiation and compromise by the local parties. The demands for abject surrender by the IRA and the creation of an outside body to legitimise the expulsion of any party that offends British plans (it is the British who have the final say) are all proofs of the real authorship and ownership of the Agreement. This continues to be altered by the British when they deem it in their interest to support the demands of unionism
Undisguised British interventions testify that the Agreement has failed. It is in terminal crisis. Elections are held for no ostensible purpose since everyone knows the Assembly cannot meet nor an Executive formed after the votes have been counted. Elections are therefore a mandate for a new deal whose necessary emergence is not admitted by most of the parties. They all present any future agreement in terms that cannot possibly be reconciled. Such confusion breeds apathy and apathy retreat to the most reactionary sectarian positions.
Thus while David Trimble is pilloried for entering and then retreating from a deal without knowledge of the precise commitments entered into by Republicans, Gerry Adams escapes censure for entering into a deal with no possibility of retreat and without certain knowledge of unionist commitments. Weapons are disposed of but Unionists renege, and the only thing to show for it is elections that will bring republicans back to a table facing the same demands for abject surrender.
The whole settlement remains in crisis because Unionist victory is demanded from Republican surrender, demonstrating that politics is war carried out by other means. The Republican leadership cannot, at least for the moment, sell this to their base. So for example while the British must certainly have more than an idea of what weaponry has been decommissioned, and so therefore could the unionists, it must be kept secret because it must be hidden from the Republican membership.
Republicans have shown that there is no political principle that cannot be ditched, most recently accepting the Good Friday Agreement as the end of the conflict, while they cannot openly account for disposal of weapons that proved no barrier to political collapse. The Republican leadership must also fear that open surrender will have its own political consequences. Republicans cannot be sure that unionists will tolerate them having any role in administering British rule no matter how limited the choices such rule gives them.
The political options facing the Protestant working class can only confirm their imprisonment within political reaction. They detest a Republican movement that claims non-sectarianism but which fought a war that took for granted the killing of Protestant workers. Many long for a Protestant State that upholds the formalities of majority rule and returns them to relatively secure and privileged economic circumstances which existed in a previous era of capitalist growth and ended as the ‘troubles’ began.
They are invited to identify themselves with sectarian politics dressed up as culture which when so disguised is hailed as truly representative and legitimate by nationalists and republicans. A settlement based on identification and competition between sectarian blocs can only assist the most consistently sectarian. So sectarian in fact that the front men for Loyalist killing squads are routinely presented as moderate representatives of the real Protestant working class.
Among Catholic workers the demand for civil rights has been turned into a demand for sectarian group rights that can only be translated into an equality of poverty. The most determined and energetic representative of this demand is Sinn Fein who are expected to make further gains. The democratic content to the Republican programme has been hollowed out and abandoned to the extent that the British are held as those with the responsibility to curb unionist demands. Unity with the British replaces unity against them and this collapse of programme is made tolerable by the futility of their previous strategy and determination of some to continue it.
The collapse of Republican politics, as opposed to the movement that has collapsed it, has been so total that no coherent political opposition has emerged. Betrayal of programme has happened before. It occurred on a vastly greater scale in the Marxist movement with the development of Stalinism, but this required the murder of hundreds of thousands of real communists and the elimination of every single member but one of the 1917 Bolshevik central committee by Stalin. Today’s defenders of the Republican tradition offer bitter struggle but an absence of programme or strategy so obvious that it is used by Provisional Republicans to hide the capitulation of their own.
This apathetic election is a true reflection of the exhaustion of political forces. Republicans may definitively overtake the SDLP but they can no longer mobilise their supporters beyond marking a ballot paper. The Paisleyites may overtake the Unionist Party but they have never attempted to bring down the Executive or Assembly no matter how contaminated by Republicanism.
Confusion, decay and exhaustion characterise the whole political process. It also infects the left which has suffered its own collapse of political consciousness, mirroring that which has occurred more generally and which is both a cause and effect of the wider malaise. The question arises whether its electoral intervention offers the beginnings of a way out of the decay.