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A bird's eye view of the vineyard
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Cathal Goulding - Mon Dec 26, 2016 17:11
This introduction and interview is from “On Our Knees: Ireland 1972” by Rosita Sweetman Introduction The Irish Republican Army officially came into being when Padraic Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence from the steps of the General Post Office … Continue reading →
This introduction and interview is from “On Our Knees: Ireland 1972” by Rosita Sweetman
The Irish Republican Army officially came into being when Padraic Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter morning, 1916. The IRA traces its roots right back through all the physical force resistance groups that at various times throughout 700 years of British domination of Ireland had risen up to try and get them out. Its recognised father figure is Theobald Wolfe Tone, of the United Irishmen, and his grave is the scene of an annual re-affirmation of Republicanism.
The IRA was the army of the people during the War of Independence (1919-1921). They secured military victory for the Irish people in that they forced the British to the conference table, but were sold down the Swanee by political leaders who divided on the Treaty offered by Britain. The compromise reached was that Republicans would have a 26 Country “Free State” to run as they wished in theory (in practice of course it was to be run as the British wished as they still held the purse strings), and the 6 remaining counties were to be jointly controlled by the Unionists in Stormont, and Westminster. In the absence of the British enemy the Irish turned on each other and the resulting Civil War saw the IRA defeated, the Free Staters in control and building bourgeois Ireland under President Cosgrave. Thousands of IRA men were imprisoned and interned and Ireland settled down temporarily to trying to become a nation of grocers and big farmers.
In 1927, Eamonn De Valera, a veteran of the 1916 rebellion and leader of the anti-Free Staters, decided that the cold of remaining outside the Free State parliament hitherto unrecognised and boycotted by Republicans (or anti-Treaties), was too cold. By 1932 Dev’s new party, Fianna Fail, was able to secure 72 seats in the General Election, and completing a political Houdini on the Oath of Supremacy to the British Crown, Dev led his new Party into the Dail. The Republican Movement was split down the middle. Some felt Dev was right to enter the political arena and beat the Free Staters at their own game, others believed that compromise would eventually result in a watered down Free State, and more importantly a continued recognition of the Border which separated the Six Counties from the rest of Ireland.
Dev did release Republicans imprisoned by the Free State government, started the Economic War with Britain by refusing to continue paying land annuities to that country, but hopes that Fianna Fail would be the political expression of the ideals of the IRA were soon shattered. The following four years saw Dev consolidating his parliamentary position; the dropping of Sean MacBride as the radical Chief of Staff of the IRA; the appointment of a far more conservative Chief of Staff, Tom Barry; boredom amongst IRA volunteers in the absence of any military action, and 80 of them leaving for Spain to fight alongside Republicans there.
By 1939 the full betrayal on Fianna Fail’s part of Republican principles became startlingly clear to all when the IRA launched a bombing campaign in Britain, designed to show the British and Irish governments that not all Irishmen were happy with the puppet “Republic”. Dev’s answer to his old comrades in arms was the opening of internment camps in Curragh, and military courts which gave widespread powers of arrest and detention of Republican “suspects”.
The IRA staggered on through the forties. A planned campaign against the Northern Ireland state was dropped. Cathal Goulding, a young IRA volunteer, was elected to a provisional Army Council, a few months later all members of the new Council were arrested. In the middle of the forties Sean MacBride, formed “Clann na Poblachta” – designed to be the expression – again – of republican principles inside the regime.
By the late forties the battered remnants of the IRA called a convention at which military campaigns against Britain and Northern Ireland were planned, as well as aggressive military action in the South. IRA volunteers were forbidden to join the Communist Party, and were told summary dismissal faced them if they appeared in court on even the smallest charge. The IRA was to be untarnished by either “the red peril” or shades Chicago gangsterism. The same year Sean MacBride’s new party won ten seats in a General Election, and formed a coalition with the old Free State party, now called Fine Gael. Costello, as Taoiseach, proclaimed the Republic of Ireland. Britain’s answer being the Government of Ireland Act which formally handed over control of the North to the Stormont regime.
The middle fifties saw the IRA’s Border Campaign against Northern Ireland beginning. It was called off in 1962. Militarily and every other way the campaign was a complete flop. The Catholics in the North were on the whole disinterested in the IRA plan. Internment was introduced North and South and thousands of IRA men picked up.
In 1962, Cathal Goulding, just out from internment, and prior to that having served an eight year sentence in Britain, was elected Chief of Staff of the depleted and woe-begone Army. He ordered a complete moratorium (sic) of Republicanism since 1798, on the whole physical force tradition in Ireland, and on why, if so many Irishmen were prepared to die for Ireland, they never succeeded in freeing her.
The sixties was a period of re-assessment for the Republican Movement. Those anxious to get back on the border with guns and bombs were told to wait. Marxist intellectuals like Roy Johnston were co-opted on to a kind of “Think Tanks” to draft policies for discussion. By 1964 a nine point document was presented to an extraordinary Army Convention. Suspicions that the Army had “gone soft” were confirmed in the eyes of the old style IRA men, those who felt that the problem in Ireland consisted of the Border and nothing else, and that problem could only be solved by physical force. The new policy of the IRA was based on Marxist ideology. That if political power comes out of the barrel of a gun it’s necessary to gather the political ammunition of the people before firing the gun. Recommendations to the convention included the dropping of the “abstention ban” on Sinn Fein representatives (Sinn Fein being the political wing of the IRA) taking up their seats in the Dail or Stormont; the formation of a popular or national front with other left-wing movements; the engagement of members of the movement in all types of agitationary movements, whether through members of existing pressure groups, or the formation of new ones. If the IRA was really to be “the army of the people” as it claimed, then, it was argued, it must first identify with the people and their everyday struggle for existence.
Advising men whose expression of Republicanism had hitherto been midnight raids on the Northern border to take their place in the picket line alongside Socialists and Communists was not going to be an easy task. Ireland is a deeply conservative country and the Republican Movement as a whole reflected that conservatism. The Republican Movement had been following the holy grail of a “United Ireland” for too long, and at any cost, with the gun, to easily switch to political education and working with the people. De Valera’s accession to power had confused many Republicans, who still thought along Civil War lines, and thought all problems lay North of the border. Awakening them to the fact that bourgeois capitalism, or “green capitalism” existed in the South, that Fianna Fail were just as efficient lackeys of British business interests as the Unionists in the North, just as efficient expressions of the “cois muintir” (working class) was going to prove a long haul.
Some evidence of the threat the new Marxism of the Republican Movement posed to the Irish state, though, can be seen in the events which led up to the split in the Movement in January 1970. Through 1969 paid agents of the Fianna Fail government were told to infiltrate the IRA to reactivate the old physical force elements still living in romantic nationalistic dreams. A renewal of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland in August 1969 ensured that at least some of the old IRA men accepted the money and the arms offered by these agents of the Fianna Fail government in return for breaking away from Dublin Headquarters and its Marxist doctrines and pledging to concentrate activities in the North through the physical force method.
The crisis of August ’69 produced the denouement needed by the establishments North and South. In the North it ensured that the inching progress being made towards smashing sectarian barriers between Catholic and Protestant and the gradual democratisation of the State was halted. In the South it produced the necessary catalyst to call out all the latent nationalism in the people there which blinded them as to their oppression by Fianna Fail and ensured Fianna Fail’s continuance in power as long as the Provisional IRA maintained a physical force campaign.
The intensification of the Provisionals’ military campaign throughout ’71/’72 was, in the words of one Republican, “with the dust of the fucking bombs flying nobody could see where we were going.” Internment succeeded in halting the burgeoning political education programme of the Official IRA, further polarised the two communities as Catholics resisted it with vehemence and violence increased.
With the temporary suspension of Stormont the Provisional IRA went into decline. What they’d been demanding all along was suddenly granted overnight and their lack of political education, even of their own members, let alone the people on whose behalf they professed to be fighting, produced a crisis within the Movement. The Officials see the suspension of Stormont as another “mystification” of the essential problem – British imperialism.
In the short term the Officials believed that one of the basic problems in Northern Ireland was the division of the working class; that this division was no longer useful to Westminster, that therefore some sort of compromise government, or commission, must be established to govern Northern Ireland in Britain’s interest but with less blatant sectarian overtones than the Unionist Party.
While the Provisional IRA sees a United Ireland as one of its most important aims, the Officials feel that a United Ireland could be worked out within the next couple of years, initially through a federal solution linking Dublin, Westminster and Belfast. A United Ireland the Officials believe would confuse many “nationally minded” people who would see the problem as at last being solved.
The problem can only be solved, they say, when the grip Britain has over Ireland, by extension the grip the lackeys of British Imperialism have over Ireland – Fianna Fail and their cohorts – and the Unionists in the North – are all broken, and a socialist republic set up. They have no doubt in their minds that this is a long hard struggle.
STATEMENT TAKEN DOWN, EARLY 1972, VINDICATING SOCIALIST-REPUBLICAN POLICIES OF OFFICIAL IRA IN THE SOUTH AND NORTHERN PARTS OF IRELAND:
“I think from the time I first really started to think about revolution I felt the Republican Movement was the right one for Ireland. It was the people’s instinctive reaction to British Imperialism and through it I felt they would accept Socialist ideas that they mightnât say accept from something like the Communist Party.
“In 1962, I was elected Chief of Staff of the IRA. The Northern Border Campaign had just been called off. At that stage I felt what we needed to do in the Republican Movement was to sit down and have a good look at the whole revolutionary movement in Ireland – from 1798 up to today, I and others, felt that the Movement as a whole had never given a thought to winning a war. They only thought of starting one. What we lacked was the support of the people. The reason we didn’t have their support was that the people didn’t understand what we meant by freedom. They thought it was a sort of Brian O’Higgins type glorious vindication of the Irish race. This wasn’t our idea at all.
“Our struggle must be a socio/political one. Something to do with the ordinary people. The middle class Irish felt as emancipated as they ever would be, the people who needed the freedom were the people who had nothing. This is what we were fighting for, and we had to make it plain to the people. To do this we had to involve ourselves in their everyday struggles for existence. In housing, land, trade unions, unemployment – maybe it would take ten years of working like this before we could even say we had the basis of a revolutionary movement.
“A meeting of the IRA Army Council was called, and the Army Executive. We set up a committee to study the Movement. Most people felt we should re-organised the fighting units, get more arms and money and start the war all over again. It was pointed out that this had been done before and always ended up as it did in 1962 – the Movement practically smashed.
“In 1964 a nine point document was presented to an extraordinary Army Convention. It was for internal use only and dealt with what we should do as a revolutionary force. The main recommendations were dropping of the abstention ban on participation in parliament and the formation of a national liberation front to unite all the forces fighting against the Establishment. The job of the guerrilla fighter is to fight, or not to fight, according to the tactics that suit him best. There should be no hard and fast rules.
“As far as success goes I think its too early to think of success. We did help in initiating a very good housing action group in Dublin. We’ve been very active with the people in land agitations, in the protection of Irish fisherman, in the fight for the ownership of Irish rivers. The reciprocal support has been small. I don’t think this is the fault of the people, it’s partly that our movement wasn’t geared to this type of action at the time. Most of the people in the Movement were geared to a physical force campaign. First of all political agitation wasn’t as exciting I suppose.
“When we set about initiation our agitation movement in the North we came up against a blank wall. We were amateurs in a sense, and the Republican Movement was completely outlawed in the Six Counties. Before we could get any kind of proper agitation moving we wanted to clear the ground for political action. In other words to gain freedom for political manoeuvrability. The first thing we needed was civil rights. There was a kind of Mickey Mouse movement which wrote letters to the Government about prisoners in South Africa or something, so we decided to revive that. We told Republicans to join the Civil Rights Movement and to develop it, with the idea of gaining civil rights in the North.
“As long as the Civil Rights Movement didn’t look for revolution, or total freedom or unification with the 26 Counties, then we felt this would help get the Protestants involved, and get away from the old divisions. Our objectives were civil rights reform, for Catholic and Protestant working class, and the splitting of the Unionist Party.
“The Civil Rights Movement went from strength to strength. There were a lot of Protestants high up in the Six Counties at the time who were hankering after respectability. They wanted a democratic state like Britain. The people in power, the Unionists, knowing if the Movement did succeed it was the end of Unionism manufactured artificial pogroms on the Catholics to bring up the old enmity between Catholic and Protestant. This is now an established fact. The RUC and the B Specials led the Protestants into the Bogside in ’69 burning the houses and shooting people; the so called pogroms in Belfast were also led by the RUC and the B Specials.
“The pogroms of 1969 against the Catholic population produced the Provisional IRA. They in turn are now creating the necessary Protestant backlash, while the Establishment is still trying to ensure that there is no spread of civil rights demands into the Protestant working class.
“In 1969 certain agents and members of the Fianna Fail party were sent to infiltrate the IRA. When they found they couldn’t get any change from us they started working on the men in the North. The members there were told if they broke away from what they (the Fianna Fail agents) called the Marxist/Communist group in Dublin they’d be given arms and money. We were told in the South by these same men to stop attacking the establishment in the 26 Counties, drop all socialist policies and have an all-out attack on the Unionists in the North. What they wanted in fact was a development of Fianna Fail power into the Six Counties through a sectarian war. I told these agents we would decide how the arms and money would be used if we did decide to take them – and then all discussion stopped. We did in fact get money from Fianna Fail people collecting in London – I’ll take money from President Nixon if he offers it, but I’ll spend it the way I want.
“In January 1970 the Republican Movement split. I think it was inevitable. In Ireland you’ve always had this left/right struggle. The provisionals didn’t like our socialist policies. They saw the abolition of Stormont as a primary aim. We see Direct Rule as a retrograde step. You simply have a number of Commissioners regulating the Civil Service and the police. They’ll be the same Civil Service and the same RUC.
“What we want is democratisation of the system in Northern Ireland – more democracy, not less. We want the representatives of the people, to be the civil rights workers and people like Paisley and Boal. This means that the old political power blocs will be broken down. They are breaking down already. With civil rights guaranteed by some Bill of Rights the present regime couldn’t continue – you can’t have a dictatorship administering a democracy. Our aim is to develop the political and passive resistance of the people to the point where the administration just can’t administrate any more.
“I’m a physical force revolutionary. I’m not naive enough to think that we don’t have to use guns. An armed proletariat is the only assurance that they can have the rule of the proletariat.
“But we believe that the most important thing in the Six Counties at the moment is the civil resistance campaign. We have used every effort to try and get the people back on the streets, the demonstrations, non-payment of rent and rates, passive resistance. This is the most important phase of the struggle because it involves the people. You might have 500 armed IRA men in the North but it wouldn’t be as good as 10,000 people resisting in a passive way. The two together would be even better of course! but the most important part of any revolution is the involvement of the people, this ensures that when a settlement comes the people will have to be represented at the talks.
“In 1969-70 you had the Citizens Defence Committees in the different areas – Protestant and Catholic. This was a revolutionary development. Irrespective of the people’s reasons for it. Once they begin thinking along independent lines you slowly break down the power the political parties have over them. There was joint action on a number of occasions between Protestant and Catholic working class. The Protestants wouldn’t be in favour of the IRA, but it was a contact, for a certain limited social objectives – bettering housing, better jobs.
“Due to the sectarian bombing and shooting campaign of the Provisionals this has now broken down. The non-payment of rents could have drawn in the Protestants if it hadn’t been for the Provo’s campaign. If a Protestant worker, working alongside a Catholic, knew that the Catholic was drinking his ten bob rent instead of paying it to the Local Authority, he’d very soon say to the Authority, ‘Well if them Fenian bastards aren’t going to pay their rent, I’m not going to pay me fuckin’ rent either’.
“The main function of the Official IRA in the North at the moment is to see that there is a mass involvement. That the street committees and all kinds of civil resistance committees become kind of People’s Soviets, actually administrating the areas. We would like to see the local IRA units putting themselves at the disposal then of these committees for the defence of the areas, to be the armed cadre of the people. In the case of the IRA administering law and order I don’t think this should be done. I think the people should administer their own law and order and if they want the IRA’s help they could call on them. In the end we won’t have to go out and attack the British Army, but the British Army will have to come in and attack the people in these areas who are opposing the Establishment. They’d have to come in and put a soldier on every doorstep.
“If the people are in control of their own areas they can have a say in any settlement that comes. Even if they’re from the Shankill Defence Association and are bigoted initially, in the final analysis theyll be forced by their own people to represent local interests. It the Catholics then are demanding better houses and better jobs, the Protestants won’t sit around simply demanding a defence of the Constitution – they’ll want the same social demands as the Catholics. Any advance the Catholics make towards civil rights, as workers, the Protestants will want the same. This will bring them both into confrontation with the Establishment, the more this happens the more you will break down the traditional loyalties and power blocs.
“We could produce a crisis situation in the morning in the North, either with the Provos on our own. But what would happen? Would the British say ‘okay, here’s the Six Counties, have your little workers republic’, or would they say, ‘we’re getting out altogether’? I don’t believe they’d say either. What they might do is have some kind of federal solution, or a united Ireland, with the 26 Counties re-enforced to protect the interests of Capitalism, British Capitalism. A United Ireland would confuse a lot of ‘nationally minded’ people in Ireland. They would support it, and this would mean a lessening of support for revolutionary forces. I don’t see any difference between Jack Lynch and Brian Faulkner. I’m sure they could hammer out some solution – but what would that bring? Simply a re-enforcement of the grip that vested interests have in Ireland.
“Political power vested in the people through the street committees, will slowly but surely develop the take over of industrial resources, and the means of production, distribution and exchange in the Six Counties, which will have an effect on the 26 Counties as well, democratising it, and this would allow us to develop towards a 32 County Workers’ Republic.
“At the moment though we consider the anti-EEC campaign to be the most important issue in the country, North and South. If the EEC becomes a fact then the establishment of a socialist Republic in Ireland is going to be put back for maybe hundreds of years. The EEC bloc is one that has been developed by the big cartles of Europe and America, it’s anti-social. Ireland would become a hunting, hooring, and fishing group for the big business elements in Europe.
“In the North we believe we must continue to critise the actions of the Provos because basically they are anti-people. In the sense that onece they alienate any one section of the Irish working class community they are wrong. A Workers’ Republic isn’t possible without the co-ooperation of a fairly large section of the Protestant working class community. Our aims on this line would be to bring in or neutralise, in some shape or form the working class Protestants into the struggle.
“I believe in the long run we’re in a better position organisationally than the Provos. They’ve lost a lot of their Northern leadership through people like Joe Cahill, Martin Meehan and those having to come to the South. The Provos are now coming back to the situation where they can’t mount a decent military operation with the Six Counties, but have to attack over the border from the 26 Counties. As their military leadership begins to decline so will their military activities. What helps the Provos most in the North is that every Catholic youth is a Provo at heart. They can be used individually by the Provisionals for one operation, say planting gelignite in a shop. In this way the campaign can go on for a long time. Anyone who kills a British soldier is “a good fuckin’ man’ in the Catholics’ eyes. They may be more popular too in a military sense, people say – “well they’ve shot more of the bastards than you lot have”, or, “you people are not half as good in an aggressive sort of way as the Provos”. But when it comes down to the cold logic, to a committee of people deciding what they want done, and how they can get it, I think they will trust us far more. We want all our units answerable to these local committees – in the end I think the majority of people will see the difference between the pay-off of violence, and the pay-off of the civil resistance campaign.
“The basic difference between us and the Provos is that they believe that by uniting the Catholics North and South they can have a United Ireland, we say you canât. The middle class Catholics in the North are just as worried about retaining their stranglehold over the people as the middle class Protestants are. Theyâd all love some kind of settlement so they can get back to the business of making money.
âI think the role of the IRA in the North now is to get back to a situation where we can organise in a revolutionary way. I think while the âno goâ areas in Derry provide an opportunity for developing revolutionary consciousness among the Catholic working class, they [the barricades] are creating a greater barrier than the old barriers of State sectarianism to our getting across to the Protestant working class.
âI think some form of peace should be established. I donât mean the peace that will allow the establishment to continue its exploitation of the people, or the peace that will allow them to hunt down men on the run, but peace on our terms.
âThese are: (1) an end to all repressive laws (such as the Special Powers Act.) (2) The unconditional release of all internees, an amnesty for men on the run and release of political prisoners. (3) The withdrawal of the British Army to their barracks, pending their complete withdrawal from Northern Ireland. (4) A declaration of intent from the British Government that we in the Republican Movement will have the freedom to operate openly like any other political organisation.â
Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Sat Dec 10, 2016 18:23
In 2012, there was substantial outrage about Russia placing restriction on foreign financing of NGOs and unions which was spurred by the fact that there was significant funding by the United States. The Western media were almost uniformly appalled that … Continue reading →
In 2012, there was substantial outrage about Russia placing restriction on foreign financing of NGOs and unions which was spurred by the fact that there was significant funding by the United States. The Western media were almost uniformly appalled that such restrictions would be placed. I remember reflecting at the time on what the media angle might be were the roles reversed. What if Russia had tried to interfere in US politics by funding opposition forces? I surmised there would be immediate calls of treason and the response would be at least as intense as the one for which Russia was being condemned.
Well, it turns out I wasn’t wrong in this prediction. The current scenario demonstrates the asymmetry nicely. Russia is currently being accused of hacking the US to subvert the election. This claim is being made by both the power centre of the Democratic Party and by the CIA and is now being featured as a media headline in the Washington Post, the Guardian and other major media outlets.
It’s certainly likely that Russia’s security state is involved in hacking exercises in the US. The US is involved in vast numbers of cybersecurity attacks in Russia, including promulgating some of the most sophisticated worms and viruses ever caught in the wild, so it would only stand to reason that the Russians would be concerned to be competent at cyber-warfare themselves. However, for this specific claim of hacking the DNC or Hillary’s e-mails, we’ve been given virtually no evidence, and the evidence that was supplied is unconvincing to anyone with even passing familiarity of computer security.
But even if we accept that the Russians did directly hack the DNC and/or Hillary, the claim of Russian hacking to subvert the election appears to resolve to Russia having introduced too much transparency into the election. The claim is that Hillary and the DNC were disadvantaged by the leaking of information which demonstrates conclusively what they actually think. That we were swayed by knowledge of the internal Machiavellian machinations that Hillary and co. engaged in to ensure that the Democrats remain firmly in the hands of the billionaire elites and her involvement in creating chaos in the Middle East.
How can any progressive believe that we would all be better off if the real internal nature of the Democrats was opaque to the voting public? The only apparent argument is that this is unfair as there were no leaks about Trump. But what is there to be leaked? The guy was apparently raping people, involved in numerous criminal lawsuits, a xenophobe and an unabashed oligarch. All of this was in the public domain and widely advertised by the media. For my own part, I’m quite confident that there isn’t much that could have harmed Trump which was not already mobilised by the media.
If all of this weren’t bad enough, the CIA are one of the major contributors to the story of Russia as hostile foreign force. They backed Hillary all the way because she represents the interests of empire. She, in her position in the State department, proved a competent administrator of the world system of American military hegemony. Trump is widely hated by this group precisely because he is not considered to be an effective imperialist. The CIA and the rest of the security state have an interest in the centrist elite that Hillary represents and so it is not even slightly surprising that they support her in opposition to Trump.
Aside from the CIA having a stake in the outcomes, their function is precisely to distort truth. One of their core missions is disinformation in the interest of continuing American power. They have lied and lied repeatedly.They are responsible for decades of interference in democratic elections all over the world, often in support of brutal right-wing dictatorships. Being credulous of their claims speaks of either deep ignorance or calculated malfeasance.
We appear to be entering a stage in which the CIA’s operations are, once again, turning inwards to influence politics in the US. This direction could accelerate especially if Trump is bold enough to try to actually dismantle NATO relationships or move the US towards a truly isolationist policy. The well-studied techniques of subversion of democracy abroad can easily become subversion of democracy internally.
The exhortations to patriotism and demonisation of Russia are extremely dangerous. It amounts to siding with the American security state in their aim of keeping a tight grip on world power. This narrative of Russian interference helps to create an “other” that the elites can use to justify the status quo and continuing on the path of growing inequality. It is a narrative which says: âThe real threat is abroad, and those who donât side with us are foreign agents.â If this story goes unchecked, it will be mobilised even more effectively against Socialists than it is currently being mobilised against the Right. It may seem convenient to go along with Hillary and her CIA friends at the present moment as a ballast against Trump, but it will not serve us well in the end.
Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Mon Oct 31, 2016 18:51
After a quick perusal of Daft.ie, itâs clear that the rental situation in Dublin is an absolute catastrophe. Rental prices have gone through the roof. Literally, garden sheds and one-car garages are now going for 900 Euro per month and … Continue reading →
After a quick perusal of Daft.ie, itâs clear that the rental situation in Dublin is an absolute catastrophe. Rental prices have gone through the roof. Literally, garden sheds and one-car garages are now going for 900 Euro per month and more. Prices are up more than 30% from their lowest point, and they are now higher than they have ever been, even during the Celtic Tiger. To add insult to injury, you would be hard pressed to find a place to rent even if you could afford one, perhaps by packing in like sardines. The recent saville report says that vacancies are now below 1.5%.
Economists are fond of telling us that itâs all about supply and demand. And of course they are right, but if one is to believe the story of the invisible hand, efficient markets and all the rest, increases in price are supposed to create supply to meet the demand. So why is it that the rental market is so tight, new housing units are not being built, and weâre not only finding things unaffordable, but unavailable in the first place?
David Ricardo, a disciple of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, decided to take up a similar question in 1817 when he was studying the question of prices of agricultural products. Adam Smithâs theory had said that the price of a good was given by the amount of labour that went to produce it. However, land, a critical component of agricultural production, cannot simply be produced in a factory and according to Ricardo, the price of food will be impacted by with how much it costs to bring suitable land into production. This is known as the theory of marginal production.
The idea is as follows. To make wheat, youâll need some inputs: seeds, fertiliser, human labour and land. Each of these you are going to have to purchase, as a commodity. If you total these costs up, you need to sell your total output at more than the costs, or you lose money. When there is relatively more land available, you can sell at a relatively lower price, as land will be cheap. As land starts becoming scarce, the cost of wheat will increase by the amount to bring into cultivation the next plot of land, that is, the land at the margins. This might require terracing a mountain, or dredging a swamp, and in the end will probably have a lower productivity per hectare. Bringing this new land into production is expensive, and it requires that the price of wheat is higher than our total costs.
The situation with rent follows the same basic principle because of the non-reproducibility of land. There are landlords who purchased decades ago, who have tiny mortgages are akin to the farmers producing wheat on the high productivity land. The fact that itâs cheap for them, does not set the price. They can be making money hand over fist, but the new producer is the one who has to be assured of profits before supply increases.
Ok, so this story might make sense logically, but is it empirically true? What do rental prices look like, compared to the cost of building new housing when financed at market rates?
Letâs look at a breakdown of how much a unit of housing costs to build. According to the
If we imagine that we have an institutional investor, who is building houses in order to rent them, we might expect they could avail of âcheapâ finance at something like 3% over 30 years, so weâre talking about re-payments that are around âŹ1390 per month. And that is in fact about what the rental price is out on the margins of the city in Finglas, Lusk or Clondalkin.
The reward for a new investor is only going to be relatively small profits, not the enormous amounts which accrue to the long term landholder. And because of this, there is no huge rush to increase the housing stock from investors. Even worse, once building does become profitable, it can take a long time before the new supply becomes available, since building takes time. This means there can be a serious lag where rental prices increase, even after it is financially viable for investors.
When we look at houses closer to the city centre, the rents can exceed the above numbers by quite a lot. The price of the next unit is almost meaningless as there simply arenât many more places to put new units and investors can not easily find any land suitable for a substantial development.
So if weâve established why the rents are so high, what are we going to do about it? If itâs not a market failure, but rather a market fact, maybe itâs the market which is the problem. The vast differences between the rents derived from landlords who already hold property and those who are building new property gives some indication that the problem is one which needs to have a collective management solution.
The Housing Authority suggests we will need another 80k units of housing nation-wide by 2018. This is going to require a large-scale building programme. This would have to make use of elements only the state has at its disposal. Namely: the ability to use already existing state land, the ability to obtain financing at much lower interest rates than can be obtained by individual investors or builders, the capacity to zone and plan for proper amenities, and the ability to make use of extraordinary legal powers such as compulsory purchase orders or to institute new legal regulations about the use of derelict land or housing which include seizure for failure to develop. In addition the state can utilise the fact that some housing will be cheaper than others to bring into use making a big building plan more financially viable.
Our problem is the market itself and the way to deal with it is to stop trying to solve the problem through the market. The solution is to take land and housing into public ownership and view house building as a public enterprise. When, in the 1920s, Vienna had an extreme housing crisis, the municipality took matters into its own hands and begun a very ambitious building programme which ultimately build some 60,000 houses in Vienna which were entirely public, but which were mixed income and focused at the broad population. They funded this project out of a combination of a newly instituted builder-tax combined with a wealth tax.
This Red Vienna period laid the foundation for cheap publically managed housing that has lasted to the present day. In fact, fully 30% of the stock in Vienna is managed by the municipality and over 60% is social. It is no accident that Vienna is the European city which has the highest quality of life virtually every year. Why not make Dublin one of the cities with the highest quality of life in Europe, by following a similar plan?
Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Sun Oct 30, 2016 16:21
For a long time, neo-classical economics has been the economic orthodoxy. Neo-classical economics is a patchwork of theories all with a general aim of demonstrating how production and distribution takes place under mediation of supply and demand. The theory came … Continue reading →
For a long time, neo-classical economics has been the economic orthodoxy. Neo-classical economics is a patchwork of theories all with a general aim of demonstrating how production and distribution takes place under mediation of supply and demand.
The theory came to prominence in the late 1800s, displacing the previous classical economics, a research programme which was initiated by Adam Smith most famously in his great work, âThe Wealth of Nationsâ. This programme was continued by David Ricardo in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation among other works, and later by none other than Karl Marx in his seminal work Das Kapital.
Marx made deeply important contributions to classical economic research. In fact his contributions were so important that they poisoned the well of classical economic theory completely, leaving no room for more conservative theorists to wiggle out of the implications which are brought forward in Das Kapital. To put the central problematic in a nutshell, there was an unresolvable antagonism between wage labourers and capital over value. Yet despite the importance of his additions, Marxâs theories are firmly rooted in the tradition of classical political economy.
The growth of the neo-classical programme can be seen as a direct response to this conundrum. Continuing with the classical programme looked futile for those interested in claiming that capital was due a share of the proceeds of sale, and that labour was already being given what was its right. And so the classical programme has been in decreasing importance for over 100 years.
In his latest book, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises, Anwar Shaikh has taken on the absolutely mammoth task of reanimating classical political economy. The book is the result of 15 years worth of work both writing, researching and evaluating empirical evidence. Though the task might sound futile in its enormity, Anwar Shaikhâs book is a real contender.
The book is gigantic at 761 pages, or 900 if you include the appendices, which give more detailed mathematics and data on some of the arguments. I confess, that though I spent a week in the Alps without internet access, I was only able to closely read some 465 pages, skimming the rest and reading the conclusion. However, what I found was well worth the slog. Iâll try to put down what I thought were the highlights, only developing a handful of the many elements of the book. Maybe, if youâre more adventurous than me, youâll forge through the entire tome, and if not, at least youâll know you can look up the chapter that is of interest to you.
The book serves several purposes, and as such Anwar develops each topic approximately in the following way (though not necessarily in the following order). The first is a critique of the current neo-classical approach to economics and why it is found wanting in the study of some topic. The second is a survey of the literature and approaches taken to these questions usually by neo-classicals, Keynesians, Post-Keynesians, those in the Sraffian tradition, and anyone else who happens to be relevant (for instance Von Neumannâs independent work is mentioned). The third is the demonstration of the classical approach to the question. The fourth is empirical data which demonstrates the strength of the classical approach. This methodology satisfies the reasoning for eschewing the neo-classical approach, and provides evidence that the classical approach is enlightening.
The General Structure of Capitalism
The broad thesis of the book revolves around the idea of âreal competitionâ. This concept essentially originates in Adam Smith but gets a much more detailed description by Marx.
We should understand the production process as composed by a number of firms. Each firm tries to maximise the sale price relative to the costs of its production. The costs are comprised of input commodities and wage labour. Several firms will compete to produce commodities in the same sphere. If a firm is selling at a very high price, other firms will set their prices lower and attempt to eat up market share and sell in larger volumes, driving the price downward. When the price is too low, the profit rate is depressed and fewer investors attempt to increase productive capacity or firms go out of business and the price recovers.
The eventual price is the result of each firm guessing what the highest price they can get on the market subject to their competition. Anwarâs work hopes to demonstrate that the structure of this price is based on these factors, leading, not to equilibrium, but what he terms turbulent gravitation. This is again, in the spirit of Marx, where prices gravitate around values, but are in constant motion and that price structure does not converge to anything, but instead dances around some gravitational centre according to the constraints.
This agent-based evolutionary approach to modeling capitalism sounds very intuitive. In fact itâs largely what Adam Smith had already described in The Wealth of Nations. Further, itâs close to the way that business studies has approached the question, since businesses are quite interested in how they should set their prices in the absence of the market converging to the correct price of its own accord. As Shaikh shows in his book, surveys of industry leaders find that this story is essentially how they understand their own behaviour as they conduct price setting in actual practice.
It might then come as some surprise to those who are not steeped in the stew of neo-classical economics that this is far from the way that modern economics understands the process. The orthodox neo-classicals, the Keynesians, the Kaleckians and the post-Keyensians all start from a totally different standpoint known as âperfect competitionâ, or a close relative, âimperfect competitionâ. In none of these are prices determined by the cost-cutting warfare of competing producers.
Milton Friedmanâs most famous response to the criticism that the structure of neo-classical theories was demonstrably totally at odds with the real practice of the firm stated that: âassumptions donât matterâ, his point being that only predictions do. From this argument, we see that Friedman is clearly aware of how unrealistic the models of neo-classical economics really are.
Shaikh spends a good deal of time describing the deficiencies of each of the different schools in turn, with special attention given to the orthodoxy. However, more interestingly, he also shows that a realistic theory in the classical tradition can give us good, new and interesting predictions. He names this classical theory âthe theory of real competitionâ, since it is more consonant with empirical research of competition in firms. He describes the theory thusly:
We will look at regulating conditions in more detail later.
Neo-classical economics includes individual consumers and their preferences as a core part of its argument. Individuals are asserted to make choices about how much they favour one good as compared to another. All of these choices, pair-wise between every two goods can be assembled into a utility function. A single slice of this utility function on which any two goods can be exchanged with âindifferenceâ according to the consumer is called an indifference curve. The neo-classisist then tells us that these can be aggregated into a representative agent with a similar utility function.
There are a whole host of technical problems with this theory, and Anwar points out most of them so I will not bother to go through too much detail. Suffice it to say that itâs implausible that individuals have any such complex of goods of indifference in their heads, and behavioural economics supports the idea that they do not, but also that even if they did, one could not in a mathematically plausible way arrive at an aggregate utility function with the kinds of properties which would mimic a ârepresentative agentâ without some unmotivated mathematical side-conditions.
However, most importantly, classical economics has long suggested that price doesnât really care much about individual preferences anyhow. So not only is the theory implausible empirically and mathematically, but it wouldnât matter even if it were true if, in fact, the classical economists are right.
Anwar Shaikh proceeds to demonstrate how agents with constrained budgets already yield a situation which is robustly âindifferentâ to this âindifference curveâ scenario. The consumer, far from impacting the price structure in any deep way, can only increase what price they are willing to pay within the constraint of income, potentially leading to price increases by producers and subsequently changes in investment which increase supply and tend to move the price back towards costs of production again. It is a diversion of the price, rather than a change in structure. The cost structure of production is still driven by wages, input costs and normal profits.
Itâs perhaps worth noting that this is also in contrast to some Marxist theories such as those expressed by Michael Heinrich in An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. His reading appears to claim that the consumer impresses itself deeply on the price structure by varying the conditions of production.
If we accept the more classical interpretation however, this has important repercussions on how we should understand the economy. Take for instance the situation of rent in Dublin. Currently rents are very high indeed. There is clearly a supply problem (as of August 2016) as Daft.ie reports some 40 properties for the North Side in total. Rents are indeed very high, and have gone up a tremendous amount. However, they are not unbounded since they will only be rented if someone can afford to pay the bill. People will simply fail to pay for a good if it exceeds their income – all demands are truncated within the scope of what we can afford.
At the same time, the cost of building new properties must include the land, the build costs, assorted tax, levies, advertisement, infrastructure and the profit rate. The profit rate is critically important here. Capitalists will not loan money to a builder who will not pay them back. Similarly a builder will not take on building property out of the goodness of their heart but must find that they get a profit rate (usually between 10 and 20%). So even though demand might be tremendously high subjectively as we talk to lots of people with housing needs, the producer only cares about costs of production and expected profit, and could not give a wit about the utility to a consumer. As soon as builders are assured they can realise the profits and the financiers are assured their interest rates, relative to the perceived risk of the projects, supply will increase, but not before.
The Class Struggle
Arguably Marxâs most important contribution to political economy is in describing the relationship between the working class and the capitalist class in the relations of production. In this vision the amount of labour performed by the worker, and the remuneration they receive for that labour is seen as changeable and in accordance with relative institutional powers – the organisation of the workers relative the employers – as well as other external factors such as the supply of labour. It is seen as a central aspect which must be investigated if we hope to understand the economy.
That employers struggle to intensify and extend the working day is plainly clear to anyone who has worked at wage labour, but somehow economists have done an excellent job of removing it from the equation!
Anwar devotes a significant section of the book to looking at this relationship, empirical evidence of the relationship and presenting implications to marginalist approaches. Marginalism simply doesnât make much sense when presented with the real facts of production processes in actual industries. However, Ricardoâs original reason for introducing diminishing returns to marginal production, before it was seized on by neo-classicals leads us neatly into the next subject.
Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is on the theory of regulating conditions and regulating capitals. Shaikh intimates that this notion was introduced by Ricardo, and extended and remarked on later by Marx.
In an example due to Marx, we are given a scenario in which we produce a commodity (perhaps a woven linen cloth) which makes use of two different sources of power. The first utilises a water-wheel, the second uses coal. The cost of production making use by the water-wheel is lower than the cost of production utilising the coal, as the water flows by naturally and the only cost of power acquisition is in depreciation of the wheel.
However, this is a very geographically situated and limited power source that not all producers can avail of. The consequence of this is that when demand increases for finished linen products, after the water-wheel is at productive capacity additional producers must do so utilising coal. Each new unit will then require investment in coal production. Since coal production is more expensive, this will not occur until demand causes an increase in the price of linen up until investors see some return approaching the normal profit rate. The normal profit rate is required as no investor is going to sink money into something which obtains a smaller profit than some other industry.
Hence in determining the price structure of linen, the normal profit rate is added to the coal cost of production and not the water-wheel cost of production! This argument is similar to the one made by Ricardo regarding fertile land, and the consequences of increasing supply by utilising less fertile land âat the marginsâ which sets a similar price structure. In both cases, it is the highest cost of production which sets the price.
Such a regulating profit rate does not drive all producers to obtain the normal profit rate. Instead, some producers in this scenario will obtain persistently higher profit rates.
Shaikh shows that a range of different regulating capital scenarios occur in practice ranging from the regulating capital being the highest cost, to those in which it is the lowest cost and some in between.
To see a case in which it is the lowest cost of production, we can look at industries in which newer technologies undercut production costs. In this scenario the older methods of production are still technically viable, but each new added unit costs less than those produced by older capital. Therefore the price leaders will be those in the newer introduced capitals, leading to older firms having persistently lower profit rates, or indeed requiring them to liquidate if they should end up with negative profit rates.
The Labour Theory of Value
The Labour Theory of value has been much derided by neoclassical economists. Generally undergraduates in economics are not given a very faithful rendering of the arguments, but instead are given some story about mud-pies or precious artworks or some other rather unusual limiting case (this was certainly the case for me).
However, evidence has been available for a very long time that in fact the labour theory of value is very predictive of price. In fact some early explorations came from Anwar Shaikh. Anwar states that:
Anwar takes an argument from Ricardo, namely that:
In a nutshell, labour values will not be the exact gravitation centre of prices, yet they also will not be too far off of them. The difference between the two should be systematically different by a factor related to the (integrated) profit/wage ratio.
This gives us a number of possible tests. We can attempt to estimate labour values and look at their correlation to price, and we can look at the systematic deviation of labour values from costs of production. However, there is another ancillary prediction which can be evaluated empirically and that is:
In effect, the ancillary prediction is that movements in relative prices are dominated by movements in labour time.
Anwar pursues the empirical evidence for this predictions. He finds that:
In addition he continues to look at the evidence from time-series analysis to see if indeed labour times dominate changes in relative price and asserts that the data responds in the affirmative.
No serious economic theory can exist without having some model of money suitable for use in a modern economy, although this hasnât stopped monetarists from trying. In Smith, Ricardo, and Marxâs time all serious currencies were metal based – either being composed of, or requiring the exchange of, some precious metal. Consequently, fiat currencies were simply not dealt with by classical political economy.
Marx despite living in an era of metalism, did not accept the quantity theory of money, at least not in his later works. His argument for rejecting it was empirical. During the 1848-1855 Gold Rush the quantity of gold on the market increased rapidly, and consequently so did prices in gold terms. However, prices did not rise as fast as the supply as the total economic activity in the market grew even faster. Previously idle labour and other capital capacities were absorbed. This lead Marx to posit that the velocity of money must also be important and, indeed, variable. This made any quantity theory of money untenable.
Shaikh demonstrates just how important the change to fiat currency has been. While prices remained largely stable for over 100 years, the introduction of fiat currency lead to a massive increase in inflation.
He also points out just how important the supply of money can be:
Shaikh reviews monetarist, chartalist and neo-chartalist theories and comes to a somewhat unique theory which he describes as follows:
It appears that Anwar takes an endogenous money theory which is profit lead: new profit opportunities increase loans, and thereby the supply of money. However, the maximum rate of growth of this system is limited by real constraints on output growth and depends on the structure of production, something often missing in Keyensian and Modern Money Theory accounts.
Finance is one of the great missing pieces of classical accounts of economics. The stock market and finance in general were important by the time Marx wrote capital, even if they were a vastly smaller fraction of the economy than they are today. Unfortunately Marx died prior to completing his planned work on finance and as such he left a hole which has not yet been adequately filled.
Anwar Shaikh attempts to address this problem by creating a classical theory of interest rates based on the cost of production of finance itself. This analysis leads to an entire hierarchy of debt instruments with interest rates related to the normal profit rate. The reasoning is as follows:
In order to show that this is indeed the case, Shaikh provides a graph (10.1) of the incremental rates of profit relative to the profit rate for all industries. However, it seems that the graph is only vaguely suggestive, and indeed looks as if the direction of motion is anti-correlated if anything.
More persuasive is the argument that interest rates do not reflect fixed markups on the base rate as is often assumed in standard post-Keynesian literature, a fact that is clearly reflected in graph 10.4
This classical approach is also able to explain a well known empirical conundrum in which bond rate of returns will tend to be below the equity rate of return which is sometimes known as the âequity premium puzzleâ.
The Transformation Problem
Perhaps the greatest conundrum in classical political economy is generally known as the transformation problem. This is widely accepted as a serious problem for the labour theory of value, especially as it is presented by Marx. The basic idea is that Marx wants to, using prices of production, relate the total profit rate to the total aggregate surplus value. Unfortunately attempting to form a direct equivalence between these two leads to an inconsistency.
Shaikh lays the blame of this apparent inconsistency on transfers. The concept of transfers originates with Sir James Steuart who identifies âpositive profitâ and ârelative profitâ.
Marx re-terms these âprofit on alienationâ and âprofit on production of surplus valueâ. Shaikh demonstrates how changes in relative prices can shift apparent profits by moving things around between the circuit of capital and the circuit of revenue. He gives a number of numerical examples and then claims that it is a general feature of all theories of price.
Odds and Ends
In addition to the highlights provided above, there are a large number of interesting observations, many of them about different schools of thought in economics. One thing that struck me in particular was in reference to the âCambridge capital controversyâ. This controversy between those defending neo-classical approaches and those who believed that there was a fundamental inconsistency in the way in which capital was treated was resolved but in a way perhaps unsatisfactorily for both schools.
Those attacking the neo-classical approach demonstrated that âreswitchingâ can occur. âReswitchingâ refers to the fact that there is no simple monotonic relationship between production method and the profit rate. Essentially the idea is that, for instance, reducing the interest rate could make a production technique move from feasible to infeasible and then again to feasible. This makes reference to capital in concrete physical terms difficult because its value itself depends on the profit rates, a complicated circularity that is hard for neo-classical theories to accommodate. The anti-neo-classicals won the battle, but lost the war. They conceded the fact (as it is a mathematical truth) but claimed that it didnât really matter in practice.
Shaik looks at both the history of this problem and the more the modern literature. Perhaps surprisingly to those of us who would have been very happy at the disruption to the neo-classical programme caused by reswitching, Shaikh contends that more recent investigations show that it is not a serious problem. Instead, the conditions which lead to reswitching appear to be rare, and difficult to construct, though they are of course technically possible.
There are few who would take on a project as enormous as rejuvenating classical political economy with a work ranging from mathematical developments through empirical verification. However, Shaikh has not only taken up the task but made a remarkable and convincing stab at it. This book should serve as an excellent starting point for further elaborations and investigations in classical political economy; a launching point for a programme to put labour and workers back at the centre of investigations of economics.
Slyvia Smith - Fri Aug 26, 2016 17:07
This article is a response to an article posted on The North Star by Sophia Burns, a comrade and fellow member of the Communist Labor Party titledÂ Don’t Run for Office.Â It can be found here:Â http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12742 The tradition of movements commonly grouped … Continue reading →
This article is a response to an article posted on The North Star by Sophia Burns, a comrade and fellow member of the Communist Labor Party titledÂ Don’t Run for Office.Â It can be found here:Â http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12742
The tradition of movements commonly grouped under the umbrella âthe leftâ is diverse. It includes movements rooted in ecology, labor struggles, women’sâ struggles, fights against racism and many other currents. Likewise, the tactics employed by these groups have varied across time and space.
One of these tactics, standing candidates for government offices is perhaps the most divisive. In the early years of the socialist movement, the Marxists, and others, argued decisively in favor of using the popular assemblies conceded by the ruling coalition of classes to further the cause of the workersâ movement against the anarchists. The electoral socialists would create the movement known historically as âsocial democracyâ which is distinct from the modern ideology using that name. Many communists, including those in the Marxist tradition, have argued since these days that the failure of social democracy in the early 20th century to achieve revolution is proof that the tactic of standing candidates for democratic assemblies in capitalist society is either outdated or was never correct to begin with.
The theory that electoralism is a dead end is primarily rooted in three arguments: 1) that the terrain of civil society is stacked against the workersâ movement and so its candidates are unlikely to be elected. 2) that participation in state organs produced by capitalist society necessarily leads to compromise of the values of the representatives or party in order to âmanage capitalismâ and 3) that even if you are elected and maintain your revolutionary principles through connection to the concrete movement, the ruling class will simply abandon the constitutional system to oust you (like in Allendeâs Chile or when Yeltsin took power in the later years of the Soviet Union).
However, those not in favor of using electoral politics as a political strategy propose several alternatives: councilist faith in working class spontaneity, anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-autonomism (which is a modern variant of classical platformism) and insurrectionism.
We will look at some of the anti-electoral arguments in turn.
1. âIf Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Illegalâ
A common mythology spread in Marxist and anarchist circles is that âbourgeois democracyâ is a uniquely capitalist form of government. They theorize it was created in society by the capitalist class, rather than being forced by the workers, when they assumed power and began recreating society in their own image, and therefore it can only be used to capitalist ends.
However, this is manifestly not historically accurate. The progressive sections of the French Revolution, the Jacobins, were largely comprised of independent producers and the early working class rather than the manufacturing or merchanting capitalists. Even the reforms implemented by Napoleon were enacted because the freedoms of working people simply couldnât be rolled back. Â As Vivek Chibber argues in Post Colonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, the capitalist class’ drive was towards centralization, while what democratic structures were won outside the realm of ideology were the product of the sublatern working class.Â Napoleon understood he needed to include many former supporters of the Jacobins and remake the hegemonic order to secure French imperial ambitions.
Also never to be forgotten were the Chartists, workers who bled in Newport to secure such radical demands as the end of property requirements for franchise and proportional parliamentary constituencies. Similarly, the democratic reforms won in Germany in the 1848 revolutions, were pressed for by the working class in their alliance with the âDemocratsâ who were more than happy to leave the revolution at the point of establishing the end of feudalism. The same is true of the establishment of the Weimar Republic, which in spite of falling short of socialism gave considerable concessions to workers politically. And, in the United States, fights for universal suffrage, direct election of senators, freedom of speech, and the emancipation of the slaves were actively spearheaded by the working class (and their farmer allies), especially among immigrant communities in the West.
When we look at purely bourgeois revolutions like the overthrow of the Articles of Confederation in favor of the Constitution in the US, we see a strong anti-democratic streak. Despite all the grandiose phrases about the equality of men, the constitution created the separation of powers and the institution of electoral college, the effects of which we see playing out in every election since the republic was founded.
Concessions like the Bill of Rights were not given out of idealism, but realpolitik out of fear of insurrections like Shayâs Rebellion, led by free farmers and laborers of whom Madison and Jefferson were the self-appointed political representatives.
Likewise, the white supremacist establishment in the United States south, after the âRedemptionâ overcame the Reconstructionist Republicans, did all in their power to limit the access of Black Americans to vote by introducing poll taxes, âliteracy testsâ, and blatant intimidation through violence and murder. It was defeated by the Voting Rights Act, won through mass mobilization of communities of color, the progressive faith establishment, radicals and the bulk of organized labor.
Beyond the USA, the English Revolution, under Cromwell and his monarchist successors, as well as the liberal reforms of Alexander II of Russia, demonstrate the capitalist classâ preference for exclusion of the working class from the political life if at all possible. The democratic republic, as opposed to a pyramidal council republic, or decentralized confederation of communes, is one possible form that the socialist state can take and is the one most likely to take hold in the United States for cultural and economic reasons. Such a republic would need to be radically more democratic than any which has existed before and there is no reason that some of this democratization canât be done by socialists along our road to power. That isnât to say that we can simply âvote inâ socialism in any conceivable revolution, at least without enough strength behind us that the capitalist class knows it is beaten, but many social organs that are currently a part of the state can serve as scaffolding on which to build a new state that serves the whole people.
Emma Goldman once said that if voting changed anything it would be illegal. If the bloody history of workers, women and oppressed people fighting for the right to access the vote demonstrates anything, itâs that voting is indeed an effective vehicle for change. Itâs through the power of working class institutions like unions and independent media that the right to the vote and participation in formal politics are safeguarded for working people. This is why the assault on democracy has taken place in the US after the back of organized labor was finally broken in conditions of rising worker militancy where in Europe, the assault of capital is still focused on labor and economic concessions.
2. âRunning in Rigged Elections is a Waste of Timeâ
This then inexorably leads us to today. In the United States, there are numerous examples of anti-democratic efforts carried out by the capitalist state: programmers have gone on the record admitting to rigging electronic votes, restricting access to polls, purging voters from rolls, and overturning the campaign finance reform.
In Europe we also see similar [anti-democratic] trends, such as the raising of vote requirements for parties to gain seats in the legislature, criminalization of democratic protest, as well as the formal criminalization of left wing political parties deemed âextremistâ. To the abstentionist, these forces aligned against the working class movementâs electoral prospects seem clear proof of their views but in reality the reverse is true.
Democratic reforms are make sense to the vast majority of people existing in capitalism and are themselves a vital demand for any revolutionary minimum program. They also serve as a strong basis for propaganda. An example of such reform is implementing proportional representation on the state and local level, as well as in a patchwork manner on the federal or preferential voting. The fight to win such democratic reforms bolstered the Industrial Workers of the World in its early 20th century heyday, via the Free Speech Fights, and helped to build communist led institutions like the ACLU, that only under the repression of McCarthyism fell from the grasp of the working class. Running candidates on the basis of concrete democratizing demands, even if they fail to get elected, is a means of winning people over to socialism, which is in its essence the democratization of the whole of society.
It is certainly true that the electoral terrain is stacked against political movements that do not already have institutional backing. However, electoral socialism does not necessarily take place in the context of a revolutionary sect, without a real connection to a mass base of workers, fielding candidates to attract people to its program.The characterization of all electoral work by communists and socialists as such by abstentionists is disingenuous. In The Road to Power, Karl Kautsky outlines the aim of the working class movement under capitalism as to build independent institutions, or take and transform existing institutions, from capital, unions, cultural organizations, mutual aid societies, cooperatives and so on, which can then be used as a mass base upon which to contest parliamentary struggles and enact reforms which will enable this mass base to grow. A workersâ party needs to contest all areas of struggle, political, economic and social, both to demonstrate that it is a party of mass action and to use victories in each to reinforce the others.
Claims that under the present political regime working class candidates are at a structural disadvantage arenât wrong, they simply ignore our ability to level the playing field. Similarly, the idea that because electoral work as a practice creates unhealthy dynamics for building concrete class power in a situation where there is a vacuum of working class institutions means that electoralism in and of itself is invalid does not logically follow. Contesting elections should be done when there is a clear political advantage to capturing specific state organs, like city councils or state legislatures, in order to make the ground more fertile for proletarian organs. Socialists who root their politics in a firm analysis of the history of the working class movement as a whole applaud abstentionists for denouncing attempts to run presidential candidates by left wing parties under present conditions, but remind them in a comradely way that present conditions are not immutable.
3. âParticipation in ‘Bourgeois Government’ is Inherently Corruptingâ
In their polemics against electoral efforts by socialists, abstentionists often argue that participation in bodies whose primary function is to regulate capitalist society end up necessarily moving rightward in order to effectively participate in government. They cite SYRIZA and Mitterandâs Socialist Party among others to bolster their claim that since some parties that claimed to be leftist capitulated to capitalism it follows all will. However, there is a qualitative difference between how say SYRIZA, or Podemos approach electoral participation and how the pre 1914 Social Democratic Party in Germany (and its Scandinavian contemporaries with the Norwegian Labour Party even joining the Comintern at one point) or Communist Party of Italy under Gramsci and later Togliatti did so.
In 1976, after 25 years of labor oriented social democratic reforms which gave unions an increasingly strong role in the economy, Swedenâs trade union confederation, LO, adopted a proposal for the socialization of firms by taxing profits and using them to buy stock at a rate which would make most firms 51% employee owned within 25 to 30 years, and eventually wholly owned, as a means to deal with the distorting effects of capital concentration on the social market economy. The Social Democrats, although less enthusiastic on the whole, having a vocal liberal current, also adopted the proposal. Following their electoral defeat, due to a variety of factors, the Social Democrats moved closer to the Third Way consensus and watered down the proposal when it was finally enacted beyond recognition. However, had the election been won, the original unmodified, or only slightly adjusted, socialization proposal would have been introduced as a part of the democratic mandate. This example shows that it is possible, though difficult, to make genuine socialist economic reforms provided the working class has strong enough institutions of its own to pressure the political establishment as hard as the capitalist class does.
The notion that it is structurally impossible to replace capitalism with socialism through parliamentary means reifies the state and fails to recognize what it is: a battleground, among others, for various class forces as well as the technical apparatus for the administration of a specific form of society. Of course weâre not going to win socialism through the democratic assembly as a movement when the global workersâ movement is at such a low point but the conditions of this moment are not transhistorical. And of course we canât just take the ready made technical apparatus of social management of the existing state and apply it to socialism; we have to metabolize it.
Even if these parties themselves would be co-opted by right wing social forces due to specific international historical conditions, the first world war on the one hand and the degeneration of Soviet socialism on the other, their policies were militantly democratic, socialist and progressive. It was the groundwork they laid, changing people’sâ lived practice and expanding class consciousness that gave birth to the movements that would carry on their legacy and propel the workersâ movement forward, the Spartacus League and KPD and the Autonomists in Italy. Some abstentionists argue that the periodization of elections to democratic assemblies under capitalism make them inherently corrupting because they normalize the practices associated with getting elected, gathering votes and so on which requires a revolutionary party to adjust its internal structure in a way that somehow undermines their revolutionary work in other areas.
Itâs true that a small party which, having few resources and members, orientates itself almost wholly to electoral organizing would do so to the exclusion of other forms of struggle; but this doesnât hold for a party which has established a mass base in a given region and therefore has more resources to commit to different areas of struggle. This could be said to be a dialectical transformation of quantity into quality; when we are a small party and disorganized, the communists should not field candidates but focus on building a social base, and when we are a developed party with functional ties to independent social organs, we must engage with electoral work or be crushed.
Similarly, criticisms of Chavismo on the basis of its failure to transform Venezuelan society into a socialist one through electoral means fails to engage with that revolution in good faith. Chavistas never promised that the state would seize production on the soviet model like the People’sâ Democracies did after the second world war, but instead promised they would use the state to facilitate worker self-emancipation, the creation of collectives, improving literacy, supporting factory occupations and so on. Itâs precisely the self-emancipation of the class that abstentionists and left wing communists want so deeply that Chavismo is ideologically structured on. Regardless of the failures of policy under the Chavez and Maduro governments, such as the dual currency system and overreliance on oil exports, as we speak workers are running factories themselves, people are organizing into communes and the fight against the economic war of capital is being taken up by the workers themselves. The abstentionists simultaneously demand that we wait for a far off revolution after years of employing their prefered strategy be it syndicalist, platformist, or autonomist, while also demanding that the electoral strategies prove their success immediately after representatives take office and fail to recognize that electoralism can be a small part of a much larger strategy.
4. âNone of it Matters Because the Capitalists Will Just Suppress Us Anywayâ
The third line of attack abstentionists level against advocates of electoral participation is that past experiences have demonstrated that revolutionary groups who do capture the legislative or executive bodies of a state within a democratic constitutional framework are inevitably overthrown by the capitalists who are more than happy to violate the very democratic principles they supposedly operate on. There is some merit to this criticism, insofar as it is an issue that many communists who seek to take the democratic road fail to consider; however, it fails to account for the fact that this very same reality applies to their own proposed policies. One only has to look at the criminal syndicalism laws of the United States, the use of fascist thugs to attack leftists and their organizations, or the suppression of cooperatives in Spain during its period of liberalization to see that the capitalist state has no compunction with using legal and extralegal means to suppress dual power organizations. Thereâs no objective or material reason that once dual power institutions, be they red unions, cooperatives or serve the people projects became a threat to the establishment that they wouldnât be crushed or dispersed with arms just like a red parliamentary majority, and with an honest evaluation of history we can see they have been.
The notion that we can build self-sustaining and growing social bodies which produce socialist ways of living to supplant capitalist systems of social reproduction, without participation in electoral bodies, ignores the fact that not only can the state intervene but so can private capitalism. Without a stake in local governance, the most we can do when capitalist gun-thugs come to evict our squats or banks call in the debts of our cooperatives is to beg for help from saviors from on high. When the Communist Party and Socialist Workersâ Party members were arrested they were only saved by pronouncement by the Supreme Court, and even then, their mass organizations like the International Workersâ Order and many cooperatives were smashed up with no possible recourse.
Notions of self-defense of the class are well and good, and even necessary, but can a plucky band of cooperative grocers, picketers, free store operators and teachers, in conditions long before we have the majority of workers on our side, really be expected to put up armed resistance against the militarized police? The conditions where autonomist theories of self-organizing workers who could replace the capitalist economy without needing to rely on electoral institutions, emerged were precisely conditions where mass electoral participation and an already existing formal ecology of socialist institutions had already won significant legal and social space for these forms to exist in. The material conditions of that movement do not exist in the United States today. This isnât to say those theories are not worth engaging with, but that their strategies have to be critically examined instead of being pasted onto a very different period of the class struggle.
Further, when advocates of electoral participation say that running candidates and holding office is a legitimate tactic for the struggle they do not necessarily advocate a pacifistic approach to revolutionary transformation where the capitalists could suspend democracy without consequences. Instead, the vast majority argue for building the capacity of the class for self-defense when it comes to that. It should never be forgotten, as it often is by leftists that the Paris Commune began as a cross-class city council and became revolutionary on the basis of a proletarian majority, elected by democratic vote.
As Engels said in his preface to The Class Struggles in France:
And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardinessâif this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail to the government and the bourgeoisie was their Anti-Socialist Law when election agitation and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?
With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.
And after discussing the forces that insurrectionary attempts at seizing power will face and how the tactics contemporary revolutionaries supported were outdated, Engels continues that the elected forces of the workersâ movement are nothing less than the shock troops of revolution. Engels does not call for timidity like the reformists, instead he says
But do not forget that the German Empire… and generally, all modern states, is a product of contract; of the contract, firstly, of the princes with one another and, secondly, of the princes with the people. If one side breaks the contract, the whole contract falls to the ground; the other side is then also no longer bound [as Bismarck showed us so beautifully in 1866. If, therefore, you break the constitution of the Reich, then the Social-Democracy is free, can do and refrain from doing what it will as against you. But what it will do then it will hardly give away to you today!].
While quoting dead revolutionaries as an authority to justify a position rather than directly gathered material facts is not scientific I cite Engels here because he puts the strategy, that he proposed as a result of scientific analysis of the class struggle he himself took part, in in much more eloquent terms than I ever could. As the late wobbly troubadour Utah Phillips said, âYes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.” While we should engage with dead revolutionaries critically, their writings are a part of our collective memory and we shouldnât be so temeritous as to think that with their lives spent critically examining scientific principles of revolution they have nothing to tell us today.
By occupying elected bodies, during periods of class peace, revolutionaries can âgum up the works,â so to speak, and reduce the capitalist stateâs ability to suppress the independent organizing workers towards dual power. During conditions of open class war, when the norms of democratic society are suspended, we are likewise free to abandon democratic convention. Refusal to occupy these seats only allows a legitimate constitutional means for our suppression instead of forcing the capitalist class to show their true colors. Citing the overthrow of Salvador Allende as proof that there is no electoral road to socialism only shows that faith in the electoral system alone, without the credible threat of force that can be used in self-defense, is insufficient for socialism.
5. The âSuccessesâ of Abstentionism
The manifest failure of many past socialist movements that participated in elected governments to secure power for the working class is ironically a much better record than the complete failure of revolutionary groups that advocated strict abstentionism to do so. Nearly every communist movement which successfully secured power for any amount of time from the socialists of the Paris Commune, to the Bolshevik Party, and the Communists in Cuba had participated in electoral work in order to build their movement. Whatever their failures after securing power, these parties and groups did in fact establish proletarian dictatorships, that is to say economically democratic regimes, for at least part of their existence. Conversely, the only revolutionary situation where self-professed anarchists successfully established a socialist system, they did so with elected representatives in the Spanish popular front. Where are the successful platformist, anarcho-syndicalist, or council communist revolutions? What lasting changes have they won for the working class that didnât involve the aid of electoral socialists? Looking at the history scientifically, all available experimental data shows that the hypothesis of abstentionism as a workable strategy for interfacing with political organs to be a failure in building class power.
A recent case-study is the class struggle in Ireland. By looking at the recent history we can see how in an advanced capitalist country two strategies , abstentionism and revolutionary electoral work play out. On the one hand, the Workersâ Solidarity Movement, a platformist organization formed in 1984, adopted a program of dual power building without contesting elections. This organization did have many successes, actively participating in the labor movement, abortion rights access and antiracist work. Their mass work led them to a growth from 12 members in 2001 to 60 in 2008. However, by today their membership has collapsed down to numbers close to 2001 and while their zeal for mass work has not faded, the resources they can commit to any given struggle has suffered accordingly. Contrast this with the Socialist Party, an ostensibly Trotskyist outfit, which has engaged in the same struggles while also committing resources to electoral campaigns under the banner of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and has secured three representatives in the national parliament for itself and six for the broader coalition. The Socialist Party emerged out of a split from the Labour Party in 1996 out of its small left wing and today the Anti-Austerity Alliance has only one less TD (member of parliament) than the Labour Party. This electoral participation has, rather than turning the SP from its social base, enabled it to commit more to dual power organizations like ROSA, which is dedicated to womenâs liberation and providing abortion access, even illegally, to Irish women. The growth of the Socialist Party is directly tied to the issue of water charges which they have campaigned against and have helped get a large majority of citizens to refuse to pay. Electing members to government have only helped them gain a platform for further struggle without any need to compromise their positions and moving to the right. By having TDâs the Socialist Party is able to draw the attention of the capitalist press to issues they would otherwise ignore and they are able to make meaningful changes in local councils where they have seats. Like many Trotskyist parties, the Socialist Party overemphasizes the role of the electoral party against the ecology of workersâ institutions that it relies to and so the content of their electoral proposals suffer accordingly, for instance, rather than advocating for mutualization of firms theyâre pushing for a better welfare state. Their line is based on the outdated âtransitional programâ model. But the flaws of their particular strategy only serve to demonstrate that electoralism works, even when done by unscientific revolutionaries.
The vision of building socialist dual power without any sort of electoral participation is at best teleological, that is to say puts blind faith in inevitable progress, and at worst dangerously naive. The abstentionist nostrum to co-optation, âdirect democracyâ is no solution to the real problems of building the socialist movement. History is contingent, not formulaic; It does not follow neat patterns where certain tactics lead to inevitable results. Practice must be dynamic rather than fixed according to idealistic conceptions of what socialist modes of life are. We canât simply prefigure the world we want to live in in our organizational forms, while existing in a society that is by its very nature hostile to those forms. Direct democracy is proposed as a panacea, or cure-all, for the potential difficulties faced by revolutionary social organs but it doesnât really solve anything as shown by historical example and merely repeats the errors of the council communists.
In 1919, the German revolution produced directly democratic workersâ councils all across the country that were heralded, by those to the left of the Communist Party, as in and of themselves constitutive of revolutionary transformation. After-all, didnât having bodies where workers would directly make decisions make them inherently revolutionary? Unfortunately, these same organs elected by large margins the Social Democrats, who had turned against the revolution early on, and Independent Social Democrats, who were willing to sacrifice the revolution to maintain an alliance with the former since thatâs where the majority of workers were. The SPD would go on to dissolve the workersâ councils in favor of a capitalist republic that they created in alliance with the liberals. Time and again we see the same types of failure that abstentionists point to with electoral participation appear in directly democratic institutions. This is not to say that direct democracy is bad or not necessary for a socialist society, but it is clearly insufficient and does not actually solve the issues that plague many historical elected parties.
6. Reform and Revolution?
The role of electoral work is a divisive one on the left and an issue over which much ink will be electronically spilled for decades to come. However, it is clear that from the perspective of scientific socialism electoral work is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of the work that a workersâ party will need to undertake. When, in conditions of a fractured and disorganized left with no revolutionary base, the situation all professed workersâ parties in the United States find themselves in, electoral work is a distraction from the more important social work that must be done. But once such a base is secured, operating in and through legislative bodies is a necessary precondition for facilitating that very same baseâs continued growth by hindering reactionary legal suppression and enacting reforms that improve the structural position of workers and oppressed people beyond modest increases in living standards which social democrats fight for. Rather than abandon an entire field of struggle in the war of position against capital, the revolutionary party should adopt a position of revolutionary defensism. Revolutionary defensism is the idea of using legal means as they are available, and struggle to increase their availability, while not refusing to use methods outside legality, and preparing for the inevitable violent reaction of the capitalist class.