The Marxist view on tax
The upheaval in the ULA over the revelations of tax avoidance by former businessman and independent TD Mick Wallace highlights the degree to which the left in Ireland has become almost completely defined by the issue of taxation.
The current programme of ULA can be boiled down to two major blanks centred on taxation. Firstly, that the economic crisis (low growth, debt, unemployment etc.) can be overcome through increased taxation on the wealthy and higher public spending. And secondly, that opposition to austerity can be mobilised most effectively through the anti-household charge campaign. It is because taxation has been elevated to a strategic level by the ULA that even the most tenuous connection with evasion provokes a crisis.
However, the fundamental problem with a programme based almost exclusively on taxation is not that it exposes a political movement to charges of hypocrisy, but that it cannot produce a resolution to the economic crisis that is favourable to workers. In purely quantitative terms, proposals to bring resources hoarded by capitalists into use through government tax and spend policies (such as the ULA’s wealth tax and job creation programme) have a rational appeal. The problem is that they ignore the profit driven dynamic of economic activity within capitalism and the role of the state in defending class rule. Effectively what the left is doing is calling on the capitalist state to act against the interests of the capitalist class on behalf of the working class. While it is true that workers have won social advances within capitalism these have come through struggle rather than persuasion.
In general the state will engage in tax and spend only to the degree that it supports the continuation of capitalism. So it will fund public services in order to maintain a supply of healthy and skilled labour; and also the military and police forces that are the ultimate guarantors of capitalist rule. But because it seeks to do this in a way that minimises the cost to the capitalist class the burden of taxation inevitably falls on workers. This is why growing state intervention in the economy is always accompanied by higher taxes (often in the form on indirect charges) on labour.
Despite free market ideology, taxation and state spending is not an anathema to capitalism. Indeed, it has been a key element in capitalist development. Throughout history there have been many examples of state intervention in the economy. This has never more obvious than today when states around the world have intervened to shore up the financial sector. Some, such as Ireland, are so committed that they have taken themselves to the point of bankruptcy.
Over the past four years the Irish state, in terms of spending and ownership of assets, has expanded enormously. Yet this has been a nightmare for Irish workers who have borne the burden of that expansion. There is certainly nothing progressive about taxation and state spending which transfers wealth from labour to capital. But neither is there anything progressive about transferring income from one section of the working class to another. Indeed, one of its consequences has been to lay the basis for the type of right wing politics (which has been most effectively propagated by the Murdoch media) that directs the resentment of workers towards the poorest in society (welfare claimants, immigrants etc).
In the public mind socialism is often identified with high taxes and state spending. This is due in some part to the programmes now being put forward by left formations such as the ULA. But largely it is the legacy of a long history of social democracy and labourism (and later Stalinism), which held that the state could be used to introduce socialism or at least eliminate the worst excesses of capitalism. However, after one hundred years of state expansion such a proposition appears more threadbare than ever.
This reformist approach stands in sharp
contrast to the revolutionary position of Marx and Engels. For them no
amount of taxation or state spending could change the fundamental structure
of capitalism. This is why taxation did not assume great importance in
their work, and when it did appear was usually as a means to expose how
workers were being ripped off by the state. They also recognised the danger
that dependency on the state could sap the revolutionary potential of the
working class. This is why some of the positions taken by Marx and Engels,
such as their endorsement of the “those who don't work don't eat” principal,
can appear harsh. These stem from the conviction that socialism could only
be achieved through the self-reliance and self-organisation of the working
class, and that only through struggle could workers fit themselves to be
the rulers in a post capitalist society. This was firmly rooted in a perspective
for revolution. It is one that retains relevance for today.