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Socialists, reformists and budgets

Feathers or lead?

12 October 2015

In Greek myth the lonely traveller risked meeting with the Minotaur, who would pose the riddle: "feathers or lead? 

Whatever answer the traveller gave, it would prove wrong, with dire consequences.

This riddle is posed for Socialists any time that they are involved in budget discussions in Parliaments or councils. More jobs or higher pay? More hospitals or smaller pensions? 

Long ago, in Marxism 101, revolutionaries came up with a simple answer to the riddle - No! The workers are not the rulers of capital society and should not take responsibility for its austerity. Socialists should never vote for a capitalist budget. If they do they are choosing which aspect of oppression the workers should accept and, by implication, the whole structure of capitalist oppression.

One case study was presented recently in Dublin City Council. Most financial decisions are outside the pay grade of the councillors and are decided by the city manager, but they were given a vote phrased as: Maintain a 15% household tax reduction or more money for housing?

The councillors voted for the tax cut and immediately came under savage attack from  Labour minister Alan Kelly for abandoning the homeless.

A similar situation arose in Belfast when the sole socialist councillor fronted a resolution on behalf of the Unite union.  The council was to agree a moratorium on the privatisation of local services to give the unions time to prepare an "in house" bid meeting the same budgetary constraints as private contractors. Sinn Fein were able to oppose the resolution because the unions proposing speed up, redundancy and wage restraint did not qualify as opposition to privatisation.

The Socialist Workers' Party, fond of theorising their many shifts in position, called in a recent symposium for a programme of reform with a background of revolution – a meaningless gloss on their decision to fight the elections as a reformist party. The Socialist Party had no need for such weasel words, as their own programme is already reformist.

The problem is that any examination of the record of Dublin City Council shows many working class battles: Greyhound, Dublin Bus, Clerys, Dunnes and the moves to repress water protesters. In all these struggles the council is a circus sideshow. The councillors threatened to review the Greyhound contract if they continued their cuts in wages and were told that there could be no political interference in council contracts. They ignored the bus workers as they were forced through vote after vote until they came up with a yes to austerity. In Clerys they echoed the daft union call for the speculators to meet the workers they had sacked without compensation. They threatened to review planning for Clerys only to be told yet again that that political intervention was prohibited.  Councils are great places for play-acting – they can only be arenas for challenging capitalism if you are willing to sabotage their operation.

The sideshow tends to block off alternatives. Councillors recently expressed support for housing activists, but to be effective they needed to move from the council onto the streets, from strained electoral alliances to a broad unity of the oppressed appealing directly to workers over the heads of the union bureaucracy.

Revisiting Marxist theory has a real importance. At the moment the drive to win seats in the Dail is overtaking everything else.  The left sects have created a left “party” that is in reality a confession that they are unable to overcome their mutual hatred and organisational sectarianism and build a party.  The best they are able to come up with is a parliamentary alliance and a vote swap pact. The politics are the mild reformism that the Irish Labour party would gladly sign up to if it were not for the requirements of collation in a real-life capitalist society.  

The groups have signed up to the reactionary “Right2Change” document of the left union bureaucracy and the Communist party.  They include the possibility of a left government with Sinn Fein despite the fact that Sinn Fein is not a socialist organisation and is applying austerity in the North. Despite the Greek defeat, the argument is that a left government can be constructed and that this will transform life for the workers.

Yet, in the unlikely event of a Left government being constructed, it will immediately be faced by the representatives of the Troika, who will ask a simple question.  

"Feathers or lead?"

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