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Voting and class action

Can we learn from the past?

14 April 2019

If there is one thing that is certain about the forthcoming local government elections on both sides of the Irish border, it is that no section of the working class, facing the elections with a mixture of confusion and indifference, is looking towards socialist theory for advice on how to vote.

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned, if only because that theory is a systemised history of the working classes’ historical experience.

It's useful to contrast the theory of alliances in action with electoral alliances.

In the case of campaigns workers organisations can, at least for a time, ally with “the devil himself” - as long as the devil does not have control of the programme of the movement.

Elections are a different matter, if only because they are all about programme. The candidate is not simply raising one issue or another, but proposing how their tendency would govern.

The story here is one of learning from experience. Marx observed the Paris Commune and said that the workers, as the majority, could simply take power. Then he saw their brutal suppression and said that the existing capitalist state could not be taken over and must be smashed and replaced with a workers state. Mass social democratic parties, with large parliamentary factions, were built across Europe, only to fall into line with their "own” capitalists on the outbreak of the 1st world war. Electoralism decoupled from class action led to reformism and subordination of social democratic parties to “their own” capitalist class.

We saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks prove that it was possible for workers to take power but also, with the defeat of revolution internationally, that the workers government would decay, fall under the control of a bureaucracy and eventually collapse.

Lenin argued that workers groups could support mass social-democratic parties such as the British Labour Party, but only as ”the rope supports the hanged man“ with the aim of breaking workers from the reformists.

Whenever possible, socialists should stand in elections and seek electoral alliances with other working-class groups, but the watchword must always be working class action. Electoralism - the argument that maneuvers in the Dail or councils could by themselves lead to substantial improvements for the working class - should be opposed. The workers must build their own organisations, struggle for independence from the capitalists.

So let us ascend from the abstract to the concrete. What is the big issue for socialists in the coming elections? Above all it's the absence of a working class party.

Although it is not often directly discussed, this is an issue for all the currents. For SIPTU and ICTU, the workers party is a rehabilitated Labour party, able to act as a bridge in a Fine Gael led coalition. In the North Sinn Fein fulfill the same role of a bridge to the administration, anonymously so as not to upset unionism. The left unions and the left parties looked to Sinn Fein as the nucleus of a broad left party, and when that failed, looked to a left populism where everything is a human right. This turn froze out the Socialist Party, barred by their partitionist loyalism from alliance with Sinn Fein. Now both PbP and SP are trying to reinvent themselves as broad parties and coming under intense internal strain as they turn from longstanding positions.

The truth is that there is no call for a party of the working class in coming elections because the two roads imagined by the reformist left, a left turn by unions or by Sinn Fein, are not on the agenda.

Short of a party, who is tackling the major questions that face the workers? It's not hard to see what these questions are; the pincer of public sector pay control on the one hand and the entry of vulture capital into the property market on the other leaves large sections of the working class struggling for survival.

We can say definitively that there is no significant movement pushing back against the trade union bureaucracy and their enforcement of the Public Sector Stability Agreement - the silence around the nurses’ sell-out tells us that.

The situation is more complex on housing. The major force around the housing question is ICTU. Their call for a “housing emergency” hides acceptance of government plans for “affordable housing” and a giveaway of public sector land. Their big push was around the budget and they have pulled back as activists move towards calls for mass public housing.

There is a campaign for mass public housing and the left republican group eirigi has carried out major research into the penetration of vulture capital into the property market. The Communist Party, Workers Party and left unions have endorsed public housing. The weakness at the moment is a focus on electoral change and an unwillingness to confront the bosses of the larger unions.

The real political weakness comes with Brexit. The official position is unconditional support for Europe, despite the role of the ECB in enforcing the continuing savage austerity facing Irish workers. The counterpoint presented by the left is “Irexit,” an appeal to right-wing nationalism allied to the idea that demographics will shortly deliver a united Ireland. Is it out of place to point out that “demographics” have pointed towards Irish unity since the 1920s? That over the past three years Britain has quietly imposed direct rule in the North and torn up the Good Friday Agreement? That the convulsions tearing Britain apart are at root based on British defence of partition?

On the positive side the forces of resistance extend well beyond electoral campaigns into property occupations and direct conflicts with bailiffs. Workers on strike show enormous solidarity and discipline, although they will not step beyond the direction of the union executives. However the resistance is fragmented, lacks a common programme and is unable to use the elections as a platform.

Political developments across the globe show there is a price to be paid for complacency on the left in the shape of right wing populist movements. Fine Gael and their programme of austerity face no significant challenge. Easily the most stupid claim made by the left was that left populism had held at bay the growth of the right. Yet the presidential elections saw a surge in racism and the coming elections see a resurgence of the catholic right around Aontu.

The scramble for council places and the substantial state funds that come with victory hide utter confusion about working class defence and self-organisation. These are not issues that can be left unresolved.

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