The left, elections and the logic of reformism
It has long been known that steam, confined in a cylinder, can be made to do work.
Today among the Irish left there is a new magic. It is believed that the political equivalent of steam can work on its own - that widespread political discontent will spontaneously bring about change.
The first task is to bring out the vote. Hence the frantic 24/7 electioneering by the socialist groups. The key issue is to highlight protest against water meters, not to rebuild the campaign, but to remind people of a past protest to garner their vote. In this world of pretence, the campaign can be enriched by speakers from UNITE and SIPTU, even though UNITE's policy is to demand that union fitters install water meters and SIPTU's that the trade rate be paid.
The next task is to count the vote, first asserting that everyone who does not vote for the government parties or for the former government party, Fianna Fail, is on the left.
Viola! Sinn Fein are standing as a left party (a responsible one, ready for government) and are expected to get at least 22% of votes cast. Independent candidates, of whom the left are a small section, are also expected to get 22%.
So one big push might turn these dolly mixtures into a left government! At the very least the "left" vote will be so large that it will strike fear into Irish capital, the Troika, the ECB and IMF.
This fantastical tosh is actually the electoral version of the popular front strategy of the Communist Party, popularised by former UNITE leader Mick O'Reilley.
One sign of its weakness as a strategy is the fact that the actors in the drama keep changing. The original line-up for a left front and government included the Green party, Labour, Sinn Fein and the socialist groups. This vision collapsed when the Greens went into government with Fianna Fail and were subsequently wiped off the political map. The vision collapsed again when Labour entered coalition with Fine Gael to mount an unprecedented austerity offensive against the working class.
The proponents of the electoral popular front have a defence mechanism: All the elements of the front will agree to no coalition with right wing parties! A tissue paper guarantee - everyone is against coalition until they are in one!
The opposition to right coalition has become more muted as the lynchpin of the imaginary alliance is now Sinn Fein, a party already in a right-wing austerity coalition in the northern colony and a party whose entire strategy pivots around becoming a junior partner in government in Dublin. In fact proponents of the electoral popular front include the 'left' of the labour party - a loyal opposition that have remained in the party as it hammered the workers.
The constant failure of the popular front strategy is not caused by a series of unfortunate events. A basic flaw of the system is that, if you constantly extend your alliance to the right, the most conservative elements will abandon you at the first opportunity. At the same time, in order to attract the right in the first place, you will have to suppress specifically working class demands and forms of self-organization.
All of the above requires some explanation. Why is it that the entire Irish socialist movement supports a strategy that is so implausible and one that constantly fails in practice?
The answer is that the small component of the socialist movement that looks towards a revolutionary socialist solution to the crisis no longer does so.
The electoral strategy then makes perfect sense. If your hope is to persuade capitalism to act more justly then the best way to do so is by building the broadest coalition possible.
The intellectual argument for reform has a material base. There is one genuine alliance that does exist, between the socialists and the trade union bureaucracy. Despite the union leadership's constant sellouts and open partnership with Irish capital and with the Troika and IMF, the socialists hold on with a death grip, fearing the isolation that a break with the bureaucrats would bring about.
Such fears are self-fulfilling. In the absence of opposition, forced to vote and vote again until they give the correct vote for austerity, the workers also see no alternative other than that the present system be make fairer and less oppressive.
However There are fatal flaws in the popular front election strategy.
It is a conservative strategy. If there is no prospect of real change then things will stay as they are, and it is no surprise that Fine Gael is holding on to its core vote while Fianna Fail has seen a limited revival.
It is a strategy that benefits the big battalions. Sinn Fein have spoken out of both sides of their mouth with a great deal of effect. The left have a limited claim on workers votes if they do not mount a political challenge to the Shinners.
But the overwhelming problem with embracing reformism is that its fundamental assumption is of capitalist stability. This is the claim of the capitalists who trumpet the exit from Troika rule and claim the end of recession and the return of growth across the globe.
A serious analysis of the economy would refute this claim. It is the duty of revolutionaries to look into the future, to foresee the day when the workers will rise and to prepare for that day.
Electoral activity should be in that context and not limit itself to scrabbling for a council seat.