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The Northern Elections and the Socialist Movement: Part 2
Socialist Democracy Statement
21st November 2003
The initial statements of the left parties in this election indicate that none of the tasks that socialists must face up to will be confronted. By their intervention they make it abundantly clear that they offer no political alternative. None offer any perspective for socialism and in fact only further the confusion and misapprehension of what socialism is. Genuine socialism can only advance by breaking from the long established practices that these organisations continue. Workers who think of themselves as socialists should therefore reject them.
We can only call on the sincere supporters of these organisations to compare their political practice with the historical heritage of Marxism to which they claim adherence. Compare your manifestos to the most basic texts of Marxism. Compare them with the political alternatives being presented and see whether the issues are even addressed.
This harsh judgement is a product of harsh circumstances facing socialists in this part of the world. The division of the working class cannot but effect many socialists who seek its unification. The historic weakness of the socialist movement can only weigh heavily on those who seek to build it. The long period of defeat has produced a political retreat on the left that has faithfully followed that of workers own struggles. To stand against this requires not only courage but a real confidence in the future of socialism, which the manifestos of these organisations reveal that deep down they cannot have.
The Workers Party is the largest of the left parties but it accepts imperial rule and partition. It supports the sectarian Good Friday Agreement and looks to the British State to eradicate the sectarian division which that State created in the first place. Its Stalinism sees in the bureaucratic and sclerotic existing workers movement the embodiment of a ‘socialism’ that has failed right across the world.
To their left stand two organisations which are important not for their size but for the cost to the socialist cause their failures give rise to. The manifesto of the Socialist Party does not even mention the political issue of the day – the future of the Good Friday Agreement! Instead it presents the perspective of building a progressive peace process when this process is irredeemably reactionary. It is incapable of standing against this process, defining its political character and then opposing it. It seeks only to avoid this difficult task by claiming that a left wing one can be put in place of the real and reactionary one that exists.
Failure to oppose the peace process means that so much of it that is reactionary not only goes unopposed but is accepted. The real author of the process, British imperialism, gets not a mention. Its responsibility for sectarian division is evaded. The collaboration of the Irish State is also ignored. The instruments of imperialism in the shape of local parties are made the enemy while the decisive role of the State is covered up. Bad tools become the scapegoat for the bad architect.
So the Socialist Party manifesto calls for ‘a complete end to all activity by all paramilitaries, loyalist and republican’ with not a mention of the armed forces of the State which have played such a large role in arming and directing loyalist organisations. The contentious issue of policing is also evaded by calling for community policing and democratic control in terms that few could object to. There is nothing to indicate whether this means disbanding the current force or even significant reform. Such absence can only be interpreted as an answer in the negative.
The failure to indict those truly responsible for sectarianism and to pretend a deeply reactionary process can be made progressive means that the results of sectarian division are unwittingly accepted. So sectarian orange marches are not opposed for the bigoted and triumphalist demonstrations that they are, but defended on the basis that they should enjoy rights equal to working class residents opposed to their intimidation. Instead of proclaiming the objective of destroying the differences that create two communities and replacing them with a community united by class identification the manifesto says it ‘upholds the rights of both communities and guarantees no coercion of either.’
Behind this apparently innocuous phrase lies complete capitulation to the sectarian logic of the peace process, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. It is precisely to uphold the ‘rights’ and provide ‘guarantees’ to the two communities that the Assembly has its procedure demanding elected representatives designate themselves in a sectarian manner, requiring a majority of each bloc in major decision making. Acceptance of rights definable only in sectarian terms can only be sectarian rights i.e. the right to sectarianism.
Apologists for the real existing peace process claim that such admittedly sectarian features are necessary temporary measures to reassure those who define their rights in sectarian terms. Such rights are therefore legitimate. The Socialist Party by refusing to present a political alternative to the peace process or Good Friday Agreement have ended up espousing the only logic that can defend them.
Worse, they now defend their weak reform politics in terms of the same objectives as imperialism and the right wing parties they say they oppose. Thus at their manifesto launch they state that the political purpose of their reformism is to stabilise imperialist rule: ‘If we are going to achieve peace and political stability we have to tackle the underlying problems of poverty, low wages and declining services.’
The Socialist Workers Party in the shape of the Socialist Environmental Alliance provides two Derry candidates to promote the same type of politics canvassed by the Socialist Party in Belfast. No mention of the peace process or of the Good Friday Agreement, whether it should be supported or opposed and no alternative presented. Once again politics becomes the preserve of imperialism and socialist politics is reduced to a moralistic plea for a fairer world with no actual mention of socialism except for the name of the sponsoring organisation.
Eamonn McCann, the candidate in Foyle constituency says in a statement ‘why I am standing’ that ‘you cannot solve the communal problems if you set out in the first instance to solve the communal problems only.’ By ‘communal politics’ it must be assumed what is meant are all the political questions bound up with capitalist rule in Ireland. The Alliance does indeed not set out to present solutions to this in the first instance, in fact not in any instance.
On policing they promise only that they will not call on anyone to join the force but fail to say that they oppose anyone joining it. They do not indicate whether the new force is an improvement on the old one or whether it should be further reformed or simply disbanded. By their one positive statement that they will ‘police the police’ they present a position weaker than that offered by either the SDLP or Sinn Fein. By what mechanism can such a policy be carried out? What exactly is this policy? What does this phrase mean? Is it possible? Can it be taken that this sectarian force can be made acceptable or supportable through measures aimed at ‘policing’ it?
McCann rejects that we ‘are a petty people’ but the real questions of politics and the necessity to explain to Irish workers that they must destroy the existing state and create a new one is beyond his horizon. The nearest one comes in the manifesto presented on the Socialist Workers Party web site is the declaration that ‘if elected our candidates will declare themselves neither Nationalist nor Unionist but ‘Others.’’ This is not however a private affair. It is necessary for socialists to oppose a set up that requires anyone to make such a choice. This however would bring one close to dealing with the politics that will dominate the election.
What is to be Done?
The depressing state of politics in the North is a negative testament to the power of leadership.
Protestant workers remain behind reactionary and sectarian parties that give them no greater perspective than that they may make meagre gains through putting down fellow workers.
Republican workers have followed a leadership that called on them to make enormous sacrifices and then betrayed these sacrifices by asking them to support elevation of Sinn Fein politicians to functionaries in the British State. This elevation they are meant to welcome as their own, just as the SDLP present their own bums on seats as gains for those that voted them there. A struggle originating in an explicitly anti-sectarian message of civil rights has degenerated into one of sectarian competition.
The banner of socialism is upheld by a left that is incapable of stating opposition to imperialism or of presenting a platform of socialist politics.
An alternative begins by frank acknowledgement that none of these forces can be endorsed. It begins by acceptance that there is no short cut to working class consciousness, particularly short cuts that tell workers that such consciousness excludes politics. Better that the small vote that any left will get is an endorsement of a real socialist programme than a moral appeal for a fairer North that continues to exist as a colony of imperialism.
In any case the socialist programme is based on irreconcilable conflict between capitalists and workers which exists in the real world, and it forces itself even on the deformed political landscape of the North. This ultimately explains the continuing political instability despite support for a new Stormont among all the parties. It explains the unwillingness of workers, despite the worst illusions, to accept what is on offer. Particularly it is expressed in nationalist workers unwillingness to go back to the gross and blatant discrimination that gave rise to the current conflict. The bitter divisions between the parties are a symptom of more profound instability which they have proved incapable of solving.
The key to a genuinely socialist perspective lies in lifting our eyes beyond the divisions created by imperialism. It lies in a perspective of unity of the whole working class, which can shatter both partition and sectarianism. Only if the struggle of Irish workers in the south is ignored can the strength of sectarianism and reaction seem indestructible in the North. Only by forgetting that capitalist rule in the South is based also on partition is it possible to ignore the reality that continuing instability in the North threatens the reactionary set up in the South.
Elections bring to the fore the fact that workers need their own party. One that uses elections to demonstrate its power but realises that its power lies not in the elections but in its economic, social and political power outside of them. The road to creation of such a party will be shortened if socialists put aside petty sectarianism and opportunism and look to the key lessons taught by the founders of our movement. The historic programme of Marxism on imperialism and the state is not like an old school textbook necessary to learn for a while but of no practical application in the real world. It is a guide to action, that’s the only reason it’s important, and if socialists don’t attempt to implement it in their real struggles they become unimportant.
These elections will only prove in a negative fashion what road socialists must take but even to learn this would be a step forward. To register this much progress will require those who reject the opportunism of the major sections of the left to discuss what is happening in the North and extend their understanding of political sectarianism and opportunism to its Northern manifestations. It requires appreciation of the importance of opposing imperialism to any Irish socialist project and determination that the unity of all Irish workers will not be sacrificed in any project for left unity. With assimilation of these lessons into an appreciation of the politics needed to lead the whole Irish working class forward socialists will be in a much stronger position to understand the necessity for, and possibilities of, the sort of unity that can go on to inspire broader workers unity.