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Socialism  - Necessary and possible

by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

A speech made at the launch of "100 Years of Liberty Hall"

4 April 2014

In making this address, it is first my pleasant duty to welcome you all to this launch and, secondly, my, if anything, even more pleasant duty to thank everyone involved in producing the work that is being launched, the printers, those who supplied the illustrations, notably the staff of the SIPTU College and, above all, those who contributed the articles. The work of an editor is not always easy, the less so when there is a wide spread of those being edited and all are alive. There were times, indeed, when I feared that the book would appear only when more suitably entitled '150 Years of Liberty Hall' but, happily we have it published only five years after the centenary of the founding of the ITGWU.

This does not claim to be an overall history of SIPTU and its composites but, rather a collection of papers on different aspects of that history. In this respect, it is particularly valuable in the contributions of various activists describing their firsthand experiences, particularly in the struggles against the class enemy. If readers get a deeper idea of the nature of that enemy, they will not have wasted their money in buying this work.

I cannot concentrate here on these contributions. Quite apart from the fact that my own papers deal with the overall picture, it is better that the editor sees it and transmits it, too. That picture combines two elements. One is that of triumphant growth, in the expansion of Larkin’s original breakaway, into its reunification with its own schismatics and unity with other unions to become the present SIPTU. The other is a modification of the militant spirit of the original into the realism that inspires SIPTU and its fellow unions today. How the two have synthesised can be seen in the general decline in union membership numbers, even in those of SIPTU since 2007, itself merely the result of the counter-revolution maintained by the bosses beginning in the last quarter of the last century.

In his own presentation, Diarmid Ferriter has remarked on what he calls the 'messianism' of the founders of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. Certainly, this existed and has proved a problem of the socialist left internationally as well as in Ireland. It is not that the objective conditions for successful socialist revolution do not exist; it is that this happy event only needs a small push to be achieved, and that such a push will be made by adopting a strategy the execution of which justifies immediate action however prejudicial to loyalty and discipline.

Nonetheless, for the mass of those who call themselves socialists, including perhaps most of those who would claim to be Marxists, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and for many, it seems stuck in that position.  The realism of recognising the facts, that successful revolutions did not take place outside Russia, China, and some smaller countries, that even these revolutions had their influence weakened by world capitalist pressure and inadequate theoretical resistance to it, that imperialist pressure led to the implosion of the Russian workers' state, while capitalism survived world war and slump, has demoralised and defeated a generation of working class activists into becoming collaborators with the enemies of their class, justifying thieir betrayals by impressionistic analyses that they dignify with the name of realism.

Yet these realists ignore other evidence that shows conclusively that their more millenialist predecessors were all too accurate in their criticism of what their heirs are accepting. Capitalist development does lead to slump (The Austrian school of economists accept this but regard it as a price worth paying), even if slump does not mean the automatic fall of the system. The gap between rich and poor is growing both internationally and within specific communities. The new world order of the elder Bush has shown itself for long to be a very old world disorder. Many of the weaker minded among the dissatisfied can see no possibility of changing the vertical social order and are ready to accept the leadership of those who offer betterment by changing it horizontally at the expense of ethnic and other cultural minorities. The aims of the movements formed thus fit very comfortably into the obvious desire of the ruling classes to restrict the powers of liberal democracy so as to enhance their own. Over all this mess, looms the real possibility that capitalism's wastage of resources will cause the destruction of humanity.

These problems cover a larger area than Ireland, of course. They seem the less tractable here because of the general illusions of so-called realism.  We are told that to try to control this country's economic life in the interests of all will cause capital to leave and boycott this country, whereas playing the world capitalist game will bring in the foreign capital that will 'give employment' (A wondrous phrase, this! The correct term for the transaction is 'purchase labour power'. However, 'give employment' conjures up a vision of a benevolent capitalist Santa Claus rewarding the good little Irish by, well, 'giving employment' perhaps at his own expense.) It is put around, too, that the actions necessary to reorganise the economy would mean breaking with the European Union and, perhaps, even weakening the European Central Bank. The basic fear of the first is that the European subsidies such as those that nurtured the Celtic tiger in the beginning will no longer be available. Yet it is doubtful, to say the least, whether such money will be forthcoming again, particularly since the EU is developing a programme of social engineering to maintain permanent austerity, and, in any case, its oligarchic and anti-democratic nature is expanding steadily. As for the ECB, it is showing itself increasingly to be as anti-social as any Mafia family, and its demise would be likely to be a blessing.

What should be faced is the fact that, while breaking with current European economic policies is necessary for any egalitarian society to rise in Ireland, measures to ensure such a society will be necessary for such economic independence to succeed as far as it can. The argument that the move will mean the starving of capital supplies is ridiculous when it is remembered that along with its emigration drain, Ireland has been exporting its profits as well as natural resources necessary to develop its own economy. This problem was faced by successive republican parties, some of which enjoyed governmental power. They were prevented from dealing with it in any adequate manner was caused by the fact that they were republicans committed to a capitalist republic and encouraged in this by pressures from within and without the state machine. Only a workers' republic can  provide secure economic development and such a republic is only likely to be established separately from the consciously capitalist European Union, though eventually its gains can be ensured only as part of a greater union with workers' republics elsewhere, of which some will have been inspired by the Irish example.

How such a state will be established requires not so much new thinking as a revival of thinking that has been abandoned for years.  The vast majority of socialists have come to accept the capitalist state form of bourgeois liberal democracy. For them, if Socialism is possible at all, it must be introduced through a parliament elected every two to five years by every one over a certain age who bothers to vote. Where a constitution has to be changed, it can be through referenda, but this right is limited and can be and has been fixed if the ruling castes think it necessary. In any case, questions of war and peace are not to be decided by direct vote. If a socialist society is to be achieved, not only will it have to be done on a broader scale than within the boundaries of modern states, but the class essence of these states will have to be changed. This is likely to be done best, first by destroying liberal democracy (it goes without saying that more repressive class forms must be smashed), or subordinating its institutions to those of the workers and intermediate orders: James Connolly's workers' republic or industrial state, or Jim Larkin's industrial republic.

The last term brings us back to the subject of the book being launched today. The major component of SIPTU, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, contained in its earliest extant constitution the aim to build the Industrial Republic. The idea, and, certainly, the phrase was taken from the revolutionary industrial workers' movements of Syndicalism, particularly the American Industrial Workers of the World, connected to Irish workers through their emigrant relatives and, most particularly through James Connolly. Unlike the IWW or the European Anarcho-Syndicalists, the leaders of the ITGWU did not abstain completely from parliamentary or local council electoral action but, as Connolly stated, they saw it as 'the shadow' of the real struggle. It would be the trade and industrial unions, most particularly the ITGWU, that constituted the embryo industrial state that would smash the capitalists’ political state and run society in the interests of the workers. It was this perspective and not just the danger that his tramway workers might organise themselves that caused William Martin Murphy to found the Dublin Employers’ Federation and lead it into its city's lockout.

The Dublin workers withstood the Employers' Federation's overwhelming superiority in resources and inspired the general workers elsewhere to begin to organise. The effect on a large sector of the union leadership was rather different. This group saw how near working class organisation had come to being annihilated. Its militancy was weakened further after the Easter Rising had left Liberty Hall in ruins and Connolly executed.

This was always a possibility, but it was made the more certain by a gap in Connolly's formulation. In Socialism Made Easy he had described the workers' republic as establishing its sole power by breaking the shell of the political state. He did not emphasise the fact that such a shell had to be broken deliberately, just as in any fertilised egg the chick has to force itself to smash the shell or die. The embryo workers' state was not provided with a beak to smash the shell of its opponent, and that shell is very thick. From his American period onward, Connolly discounted the need to have a trained cadre of conscious revolutionary socialists to guide the organisation he envisaged. Interestingly, as a result of the lockout, Larkin did see such a need, but he saw it in the military rather than the political form of the Citizen Army. For both Connolly and Larkin, the role of the party was divided into a propagandist body and an electoral appendage to the Trade Union Congress.

With Connolly dead, Larkin in America and Liberty Hall in ruins, there was nobody among the Transport Union's surviving leaders able to oppose the reformist perspective presented by Thomas Johnson of simply building trade union numbers until the shell could not contain them. All through the Anglo-Irish War and the succeeding Civil War, Labour's leaders concentrated on routine industrial tasks, exercising state power only when it was unavoidable, usually because of pressure from their militant rank and file. Francis Devine has pointed out the amount of strike benefit paid out by the Transport Union during 1923 as refuting Larkin's claims that they were not fighting for their members. Strictly speaking, this is accurate, but it ignores the fact that the strategy followed by these leaders in refusing to state power for their class had left them fighting a struggle in which they were handicapped by accepting the authority of the new capitalist state which was supporting enthusiastically the prerogative of the bosses.  With such a perspective, the union leaders came to accept the perspective that their class aims would be achieved through parliament or not at all.  As Labour's inability to do this became increasingly apparent, its leaders sought to gain half a loaf, or less as appendages of one or other of the capitalist parties.  

Every now and then, there were flickers of the vision of Connolly and Larkin. During the wars after 1916, particularly in the Transport Union, the rank and file brought pressure on their leaders to mount general strikes in which their movement could claim to rival the republicans and the colonial regime as claimant to state power. Brendan Byrne tells us how, later after the impetus had receded, William O'Brien declared how his organisation was 'more than merely a union' and that it 'would do great things'. In 1935, he seems to have hoped, at first, to outflank the Amalgamated Union to its left in the struggle to organise the Dublin Transport Company, before settling for the easy course of legal restraints and sweetheart deals. Even his subsequent disastrous activities could be justified as part of a revolutionary strategy; British-based unions posed a problem in establishing an Irish Workers' Republic, as did a Labour Party controlled from Leinster House rather than Liberty Hall. The trouble was that without such a perspective, indeed with the Transport Union's specific anti-communist perspective, splitting the movement weakened it unequivocally. Even after O'Brien, in the union leaders of the next generation, there were signs that the spirit of the early Transport Union survived - just.

It does not seem to have survived into the era of partnership. Certainly, given the situation in 1987, some form of such agreement was inevitable. What was not inevitable was that union leaders should accept  the assumptions within which partnership was to operate, even less that they should continue to operate within these limits when the situation had improved. The people of the Republic gained , at least by 2008. Yet their bosses have gained even more. Financially, the gap between  profits (including rents) and wages is greater than ever, since only the last are restricted, since to limit the first will prevent their possessors from (that phrase again: bring out the violins) 'giving employment'. Foreign firms are under no obligation to recognise their employees' right to organise. No move was made to stop the recognition of employers' unions as genuine negotiating partners. Indeed, the 1990 Industrial Relations Act places new restrictions on workers' organising rights.  Not surprisingly, the numbers in Congress affiliates have fallen since 1987 and though SIPTU membership itself grew until that date, partly through new mergers, it is now lower than it was when established. The last generation of workers has been conditioned to look to the capitalist state, and though that state's policy of social engineering, known as austerity, has disillusioned many of them, and will continue to do so, they are not looking to the organised labour movement, even SIPTU for relief. As yet, of course, they have still farther to go before they start to organise for the surest solution, the workers' republic.

Whether SIPTU will help or hinder this discovery remains in the balance. All that can be said is that if it does hinder it, it will either survive at the expense of its members, or it will be rendered irrelevant as its former members build an organisation more serious in prosecuting their cause.

There are two last points. First a general one; a fellow graduate of Trinity, although one some years before my time called Edmund Burke ('the great Berk') operated on the principle that 'Politics is the Art of the Possible'. This has been used ever since by his disciples as an argument against anything but the most minimal reforms. I have made it clear that coming to follow this practice has proved the ruin of the Irish Labour movement including SIPTU. In the end, such is the negation of the negation, keeping to the possible becomes an excuse for continuing with the impossible. We see this today in the Labour Party's eighth attempt to benefit from junior partnership in a bourgeois coalition. We have been seeing it in the trade union movement's determination to maintain partnership. In fact, we see it in all too many labour leaders praising Connolly and Larkin while practising in the manner of Nat-Lab leaders, such as McCarron and Nannetti, the arch opponents of Larkin, Connolly and, yes the young William O'Brien. It is time to remember that it is never possible to be sure what is impossible until it has been tried. Instead of Burke's aphorism a leader of the workers should counter with: 'Don't knock it until you've tried it'.

I would like to add, on my own behalf, a notice of a piece of Irish Labour History. In four weeks today on 2nd May at 7.15 p.m., in the refurbished Merrigan Hall in the offices of that British Union, UNITE, there will be another launch, this time of the memoirs of the said Mattie Merrigan, called (his own title) Eggs and Rashers. You are all welcome.


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