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Observations on the Left and the Northern Assembly election

Eddie McLaughlin

June 2016

In an article on their potential success before the election the PBP evoked the name of James Connolly and his prediction that partition would bring about a 'carnival of reaction'. They went on to assert that a vote for them would begin to “unblock the sectarian log-jam that has paralysed Northern politics for so long”. But their understanding of sectarianism is viewed as being simply a battle for hearts and minds. Their analysis of the causes of sectarianism while paying lip service to the objective role of imperialism comes down to a personal choice; 

“Sectarianism, of course, was always much more than a difference of opinion over theological questions. Or support for football teams for that matter. Hundreds of years of capitalist exploitation and imperialist divide and rule might be a better starting point. Just a thought. But then there is no doubting, that whatever its origins, the pressure to place yourself into one ‘camp’ or the other in the North is intense and very real. And it reaches into every aspect of life, particularly the sphere of politics.”

Subjective idealism

Sectarianism according to this view is simply an independently existing ideology that engenders political division rather than as a deliberate imperialist strategy of domination reinforcing the most reactionary sectarian forces and constantly maintaining them. The state's role in sectarianism begins to fade from view almost immediately in their analysis and is presented as merely a personal choice. As a result the history of division is presented as incidental, as 'just a thought', and not as a history of continual imperialist intervention represented today by the institutions of a state which is predicated on sectarian principles and exists to consolidate imperialist rule by distributing the spoils on a sectarian basis, reinforcing sectarian privileges, existing independently of the individual but on an objective material, not a subjective, basis. 

This analysis of sectarianism as a personal choice is idealistic. Sectarianism is seen as existing objectively, not as concrete material causes and structures but as an idea. The objective material  causes are dismissed as 'whatever' and the focus is diverted towards personal decisions to 'place yourself' in one sectarian camp or another and this conception of an ethereal outdated ideology is then perceived as something that; 'reaches into every aspect of life, particularly the sphere of politics'! 

Crude Economism

By focussing on individual choices the SWP avoids the necessity to confront imperialism as the key struggle in confronting sectarianism and they replace it with a strategy that seeks to reform the imperialist imposed state by confronting 'the peoples' subjective choices. These choices are opportunistically shorn of any political content and they see their intervention as having the potential to release a pent up subjective apolitical 'logjam'. 

Supporting their theory of sectarianism is a crude version of materialism which sees economic hardship as driving the process forward, not in the 'final analysis' as Marx wrote but almost as an automatic process. While the subject is downgraded and deprived of any political content their objectivism compliments it with a crude economism that downplays and dismisses the  subjective factor, dismissing Loyalist ideology and seeing not just the Protestant working class but also Loyalism as being driven to the left by economic conditions. 

Because of this objectivism and their downplaying of the role of the subjective factor it is important then that they can present evidence that their strategy is working, that politics is driven along simply and mechanically by economics and that political positions will alter in spite of themselves. This flawed version of Marxism then explains their determined attachment to the unsupportable claim that they have been elected by a substantial Protestant vote. This claim has been convincingly challenged by bourgeois pundits, but it is so central to their theoretical approach that they resolutely stand by it taking it as evidence that their Marxist approach is correct and is bearing fruit.

In reality they rely almost entirely on nationalist votes, though this does not exclude the possibility of a move to the left by some from the Protestant working class, though it is unclear whether those votes are a pro socialist choice or are not simply an anti SF vote as has happened before for the SDLP and for Gerry Fitt. It is probably a mixture.

They have attempted to defend their position and have recently produced an article by their North/South co ordinator,which in itself sounds a little partitionist, which decries Jim Gibney for calling for a nationalist bloc between the SDLP and SF and designating them as essentially Unionist and from the other side one by Brian Feeney for designating them as essentially Nationalist. 

Their answer to this is that they can be neither because Connolly was against the 'Orange fanatic and the capitalist minded home ruler alike'. But it seems to have escaped their notice that Connolly was unambiguous in his anti imperialism and the 'neither Orange nor Green' mantra limits them to just the kind of gas and water socialism that Connolly criticised William Walker for.  They try to ignore the political divisions and treat them as abstract categories which they are against as if they were imagined purely subjective choices. Instead of attacking imperialism they remain muted on the issue and follow the road of reform at Stormont.

Fresh Start

Their opposition has been directed at particular cuts, Health centres and Care homes, or around fracking, or at a generic 'austerity'. They intersperse this with vague propaganda such as 'we should get the money back from the banks',but they have produced little on the Fresh Start agreement's assault on the working class apart from criticism of SF and the DUP on the cuts to the public services and their plans to drop corporation tax at the expense of the block grant. This has worked for them and their election success represents a swing against SF. Their anti austerity propaganda has mobilised support but their focus is on parliament and playing the parliamentary game. Although they attack the main parties for their austerity deal they neglect to point out that the entire Stormont institution exists because of their acquiescence on plans for austerity and this acquiescence extends to the trade union movement. Following their election they criticised the programme for government but in fairly abstract terms announcing boldly that the workers can “take it apart”, but they didn't say how.

There is no appreciation that the Fresh Start agreement was put in place to save the political institutions, and the trade union bureaucracy which had promised a fightback immediately caved in, following a token stoppage, in order to save those institutions. Of course they said they did so for the best of reasons; because Stormont played a role in 'defending the poor', the 'marginalised', the workers and the 'trade unions', of course they were careful to ensure that they established a place on the gravy train for their top officials. 

The institutions the SWP have entered exist today only to attack the working class and deliver the austerity required by the British state and the trade union leadership have unashamedly withdrew from even a token resistance when they recognised what the alternative was, the collapse of Stormont. They need to expose this, and the role of the NIC-ICTU in ensuring the continuation of the cuts agenda but it is their inability to confront the union bureaucracy over their acquiescence that renders them politically impotent. If they leave that leadership untouched the betrayals continue unabated.

Their orientation studiously avoids the organised working class as an entity separate from 'people power'. They accept the bona fides of the bureaucracy and assume that with trade unionism willing to fight they must set about broadening the struggle. In doing so they fall in behind the smoke screen of petty protest campaigns the trade union leadership have put in place to distract from the fact that they should as trade unions be organising a centralised systematic fightback against what is a systematic attack on the working class. This amounts to providing a left cover for the bureaucracy who want to put on a sham fight but to at all costs avoid a confrontation with Stormont which provides their focus as lobbyists. 

Their propaganda refers to the importance of building the movement on the streets and outside of parliament but they have no orientation towards the trade union rank and file, rather mistaking a good relationship with the bureaucracy as an orientation towards the unions and they eagerly partake in the routine lobbying activities of ICTU, being pictured following their election  protesting outside Stormont with Jimmy Kelly and a smirking Peter Bunting. 

The SWP comrades stated opposition to these cuts is undoubtedly sincere but the underlying tragedy of their position is that their inability to see the treacherous role of the union bureaucracy, or to confront it, limits them to the kind of reformist campaigning that distinguishes them as a movement.

Electoralism has worked for the SWP but the positions won are with the intent, not of taking the struggle outside parliament by launching a campaign to mobilise the organised working class over the heads of the bureaucrats but with the intention of building 'people power'. Protests against cuts conducted alongside the bureaucracy will help mobilise, not the workers those leaders have consistently let down, but 'people power' and the vehicle for this is more electoralism. But where does the process end except in reformism! “The end depends upon the means and in the final analysis is conditioned by it” so an electoralist political struggle has produced Parliamentarians, not revolutionaries and with the funds flowing for researchers and parliamentary assistants they show every sign of fitting in and will begin to build a small bureaucracy focussed on parliamentary idiocy and the wheels continue to turn on the expansion of their electoralist plans.

The Socialist Party

Electoralism has not worked for the Socialist Party, running as the Cross Community Labour Alternative who faced opposition from the NI Labour representation committee. They do have an orientation to the trade union movement, though in an even more shameless way than the SWP  they orientate not to its membership but to the petty bureaucracy. They gave a guarded and jealous response to the SWP's victories but like the SWP their analysis was subjective, seeing 'anti-austerity ideas' as challenging the bourgeois institution of Stormont; as if the concept or 'idea' of socialism or the very notion of anti austerity was something the working class was waiting to hear from a Stormont MLA or was something that the petit bourgeoisie was unaware of and they could possibly change a few minds. Again, leftward leaning Loyalists are in their sights.  

They coupled their congratulations to a critique of the SWP success from the right, launching a truly disgraceful attack on them for their opposition to Orange triumphalism warning of the pitfalls of taking such an unbalanced position; 

“PBP – initiated by the Socialist Workers Party – is largely based in and orientated towards Catholic working class communities, which is often reflected in its language and the positions it takes on contentious issues such as parades. If the opportunity to build a new, socialist force which can break the stranglehold of sectarianism is to be seized, it is an essential pre-requisite that we unite Protestant and Catholic working class people and genuinely advocate independent working class and anti-sectarian positions on the difficult questions which divide our communities.”

So it seems from the SP's perspective that a “genuine” working class position is to give up on resistance to Orange triumphalism. Resistance to right wing politics is out of bounds if the right wingers happen to be Orange. 

Their previous enthusiasm for the peace process, which according to them had been established by the power of public sentiment, has been replaced with a belief that it has now “institutionalised sectarianism” and that a political alternative is needed. The northern state like all others, according to the SP's dogma, is reformable and sectarianism can be overcome by building the political alternative which is “a new political party which is anti-sectarian and anti-austerity, and which genuinely seeks to build its strength in both communities.”; in other words the Socialist Party.  But this strategy has taken a blow with their poor results. Having always adapted their position to imperialism in the north of Ireland they likewise adapt to,Unionism, and in the south they limit themselves determinedly to reforming the 26 county state.

It is difficult to even categorise them as centrist. Their Trotskyist legacy is for them a maximum programme which is separated completely from their reformist campaigns, they don't oppose imperialism and they have adapted to Unionism in the north and nationalism both in Scotland, and in England and Wales where they support Brexit and the British jobs for British workers slogans from the Lindsey oil refinery dispute some years ago. Their antipathy towards the EU, as opposed to British imperialism, is at least partially due to the fact that; “The Parliament we elect cannot initiate its own legislation, it can only tinker with the laws put forward by the right-wing, unelected European Commission.”; meaning that the parliamentary road to socialism is cut off to them.  With their reactionary politics they stand little chance of crossing the sectarian divide towards the nationalist working class where an anti imperialist tradition resides so given their concessions to the Orange Order their trajectory appears to be further towards the right. 

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