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The fog of 'leftism'

Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the Left -  Chasing each other's tails!

23 February 2020

As the dust settles over the general election there is much talk of the potential for a left-wing government and the left and right divisions between the parties. The Left support Sinn Fein in the Dail, some with caveats, some without, on the expectation that Mary-Lou will form a government with them and that they, in association with Sinn Fein, will be able to turn the Dail through 180 degrees and force it to meet the needs of the working class. So what is meant by 'left'?

Most who consider themselves 'leftist' are happy with the answer that those on the right are interested in 'hierarchy and order', those on the left with 'equality and fairness'. However the entire concept is considered purely subjectively and as a result there is a lot of ambiguity. In such subjective terms 'right' and 'left' are entirely relative. Was Mussolini to the left of Hitler? What difference did it make, both meant disaster for the working class.

Even if we stick to the 'equality and fairness' argument in this case to consider what is 'left' there can be problems. In light of the upsurge in anger both major parties have vaguely hinted at making 'costed' concessions. Fine Gael want tax cuts. Fianna Fail want more social spend. That would put Fianna Fail to the 'left' of Fine Gael, but People Before Profit, quite correctly, rule Fianna Fail out of a left government because they are undeniably on the right, a party of the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand however they do not rule out the Labour Party even though they profess to be fiscally 'responsible' and are not long out of an austerity government in partnership with Fine Gael. This confusion is compounded by deliberate obfuscation when we hear socialist TDs call on Sinn Fein to look left and give their vote for Mary-Lou as Taoiseach on the grounds that she supports a 'left' government, while at the same time Mary-Lou herself demands that Fianna Fail join talks with her Party on forming a government.

Does Sinn Fein's 'leftist' status depend on which face it turns? Is the nature of the Party dependent on the groups it allies with? If Sinn Fein looks right and allies with Fianna Fail does it lose its 'left' status? Or should that status be based on the Party's programme of action for working class mobilisation?

We could clear away a lot of confusion if we could replace 'right' and 'left' with Capitalist and Socialist. Unfortunately that's not possible in relation to the current election. No party, no matter how they label themselves, proposed that housing, health, pensions, or education be sorted through the socialist transformation of society. All of the political programmes were based on the assumption that these problems could be resolved by the Dail within the constraints of the capitalist economy. We could argue that a mass party based on the working class and mobilising to secure their rights would objectively be thrown into irreconcilable conflict with those constraints, but no such party exists.

So we are back to 'left' and 'right'. The 'right' argue for rectitude. The more prudent the economic plan, the more secure the recovery and the greater the long-term ability to meet people's needs. The 'left' argue that there is enough flexibility in the system so that measures such as wealth taxes can generate enough revenue to bring reform. Both assume that capitalism can be persuaded to (or that it will automatically) meet people's needs. Without a clear understanding and open opposition to this continuum, which includes Sinn Fein and which sits within the fiscal parameters set by capitalism, the Socialist groups flail around chasing Sinn Fein's tail looking for some opportunist alliance that can raise their profile in the Dail.


Within this mindset is the problem that the reformists all have their eyes wide shut to the reality of Irish economic dependence. The Irish state has been widely reviled as a tax haven, much of its income is corporation tax set at a low rate that draws in funds that are not part of a productive economy and that deform the local economic structures, legal system and society to the detriment of Irish workers. It staggers under a huge sovereign debt and the repayments associated with that and is closely tied to the strictures of the European Central Bank. In addition, the native economy is still linked to the British market and is desperate to find an accommodation following Brexit.

So, an opposition in Ireland trying to achieve fundamental socialist change would have to embrace anti-imperialism and given that in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement the vast majority of political parties assert that imperialism now plays a progressive role in Ireland, this is a tall order.

So 'left' and 'right' are pretty relative terms in the context of this election. There has been an angry shout from the workers around housing, health, pensions, commemorating the Black and Tans and a host of other issues and whatever government is formed it will make some attempt to respond to these concerns. Taking housing as an example we can see how they will try to gain some wriggle room. In response to campaigns against homelessness Fine Gael committed a lot of money to housing, but the bulk of it flowed through the hands of private developers and what housing was built, where and for whom was within the structures of the market system. Money is now concentrated in huge dormitory style hubs and in block build-to-rent schemes that meets the needs of the market. Large sums are spent on rent subsidies that go to the landlord rather than the tenant and rent rises are pegged rather than the necessary reduction taking place. In any case there are many loopholes that allow rents to rise by up to 25%. The point of these policies is to guarantee a return on investment and provide a capital base for housing that rests on private investment.

Sinn Fein promises a mass housing programme, but stepping out of the current system will either involve stealing from Peter to pay Paul and hence major cuts in other areas, or breaking out of the "fiscal space" allowed by the ECB and the stringent requirements of sovereign debt repayments. Their coy ambiguities on this in a number of interviews speaks volumes. There is some latitude for flexibility through a wealth tax and also in the fact that that a reserve fund has now been built up to deal with the coming recession, but it's far from enough to meet all the pledges in the Sinn Fein manifesto.

So the essential test of those self identifying as 'Left' will come into play when any new 'left' government runs up against the objective limits of the fiscal space and must define itself as objectively Socialist by taking on the imperialists. This is a test Sinn Fein has already failed in the North.


The left groups proposing a bloc with Sinn Fein are left in one other way - that is by being in alliance
or association with the trade union leadership. This leadership already has skin in the game as it were, they have adapted themselves to the capitalist state and proved how reliable and indispensable they are, demobilising strike after strike. Their position was succinctly summed up by former SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor as remaining within the "narrow confines" of the 2011 budget dictated by the Troika. That attitude lives on in support for budgets within the fiscal space and is accepted by Sinn Fein and the reformist left groups.

An orientation to trade union members which would have the benefit of mobilising workers against the repeated sell outs of their interests has been substituted with an attempt to influence left leaning bureaucrats. Patient 'entrism' that saw some organisational gains was completely negated by the lack of any consistent criticism or any confrontation with the bureaucracy on its adherence to the fiscal parameters laid down by the ECB and IMF.

People now are angry and have voted their anger. However in the years before the vote many militants were willing to take to the streets behind the union leadership while PbP and SP provided a left veneer and loyal footsoldiers. On the occasion when O'Connor was pledging his fealty to the Troika's 'narrow confines' some socialist youth energetically chanted for the Bureaucrats on the platform to organise a general strike. The same bureaucrat took to the bourgeois press the next day to call them “Fascists”. What an insult! But the leadership of the SWP remained silent and carried on as usual. Almost ten years later we can see clearly that the demonstrations were simply being used by the bureaucracy as a mechanism for lobbying government for a deal. Once the deal was done the Trade Union machinery walked away and the campaign was allowed to wither on the vine.

Slap on the Face

The rejection of ongoing austerity and the dreadful state of housing and health expressed through the Sinn Fein vote is a big slap in the face for Irish capitalism and greatly increases the instability of the Southern state. It is also a step back from independent action and the mobilisation of the working class that has been repeatedly frustrated by the union bureaucracy and suffocated to the extent that the last homeless demonstration had to be organised spontaneously by a small homeless group in the absence of the national coalition.

The extent of the political retreat by the Socialists can be seen when we look across Europe. The broad parties in the past generally had to take power in order to betray the true nature of their 'leftism'. Sinn Fein are already in an austerity government in the North, something they put down to the restrictive nature of the Block grant from Britain, but when reminded of the restrictions of the 'fiscal space' allowed by Brussels they are unable to commit to breaking out of that 'space'. All it takes to get past the blow-hard rhetoric is to look North but apparently if we hold our breath and wish hard enough Sinn Fein will take a break from administering austerity in the British statelet they claim they want to bring down and will fight for workers in the South!

Whatever alphabet soup is put together to form a government, the likelihood that it will confront transnational capital and resolve the many crises facing the working class is non existant. And when all the magnificent 'leftist' parliamentary speechifying advising the 'leftist' Sinn Fein on what it 'should' do is finished the issue of workers mobilisation will then return. More sharply! At the moment for those committed to parliamentary cretinism the fog of "leftism" obscures that reality.

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