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A Reply to the Socialist Party's views on 'Left Unity'
national | anti-capitalism | feature Tuesday August 25, 2009 11:48 by James - Socialist Workers Party
Do we still have to wait? are the SP right in saying it's 'premature'?
The SWP hasn't really engaged in Public debate on the subject of Left Unity but have decided to state our position in relation to recent statements by the Socialist Party.
A failure to build on these developments would be to miss an historic opportunity. In the rest of Europe, the economic crisis has led to a rise in support for the fascist right. Ireland has so far avoided this trend but there are undercurrents of racist and anti migrant sentiment under the surface. A failure to construct a radical alternative to Labour and Sinn Fein could have tragic consequences for the future.
* To create a broad alliance that brings different elements of the radical left together under one banner.There is much in the most recent Socialist Party response that comes close to many of the above points. Specifically:
* There is agreement that there should be no deals at national or local level with the parties of the Right.
We also note a distinct change in tone as the SP now states that it ‘warmly welcomes’ the successes of other left groups including the People Before Profit Alliance. We equally have welcomed Joe Higgins success and, in fact, all the Dublin candidates of People Before Profit alliance openly called for a vote for Joe Higgins in their election literature – as proof of real commitment to left unity.
What then of the differences that persists between us on the question of left unity? We can analyse them under three headings
* The past record
Lessons from the past record:
The SP claim that they put forward ‘positive proposals’ for left unity before the last local election but that ‘they were disappointed that others on the left didn’t fully agree or respond favourably’. This, however, only begs the question: why did other left organisations not respond favourably if the SP’s were so positive?
The SP issued an invitation to discuss a left slate for the local elections in September 2008 and formal negotiations began shortly afterwards between a number of left organisations. The SP proposal for left unity was very limited: it was to be confined to the local elections in the South and did not extend to the Euro elections. If an SWP member Eamonn McCann ran for the Euro elections in the North, the SP indicated that they would not call for a vote for him. (Eamonn subsequently decided, for other reasons, not to run).
The main stumbling block, however, was a peculiar mechanism that was proposed for dealing with the issue of ‘credibility’ of candidates.
In general terms, the SWP had no difficulty on this score. As a part of the People Before Profit Alliance, we were already bound by a set of criteria to establish credibility. Any candidate selected to represent the alliance had to have a campaigning record, an ability to raise finance and a certain number of campaign activists willing to do electoral work.
However, we and the other main left organisations had a difficulty with the SP’s proposed method to establish credibility. The SP argued that the issue of credibility be decided by a joint committee where there had to be ‘unanimous agreement’ by all concerned on who was credible. Failing such agreement, left wing candidates could run under their own banner but would not be part of a left slate. A member of the SP leadership used the example of one of their ‘young candidates’ in Limerick, who it was implied, ran primarily as a party building strategy and was thus not deemed a credible candidate. Such an individual, it was argued, would run ‘off-slate’ as an individual SP candidate.
We found this proposal unworkable on two grounds:
1. The requirement for unanimity between left organisations represented on a joint committee was another way for each individual party to have a veto over the others' candidates. . The SWP was not interested in having a veto on SP candidates. We started from the fact that they could make their own electoral decisions and, we assumed, that broadly, they would present ‘credible’ candidates. But given the past record, we were also not interested in the SP having a veto on us – or anybody else.
The mechanism was clearly unworkable because none of the other left groups agreed to it.
It is perfectly obvious that in a new left alliance formation, one component cannot simply have a veto over the others' candidates. The issue of credibility, therefore, needs to be solved through different methods, - probably though a little more trust and some left wing common sense.
This is a more serious issue because there is an ambiguity at the heart of the SP’s position.
In September 2008, the SP stated quite explicitly that they were ‘not in favour of a permanently structured left alliance or a new formation of the character that has been established in other countries because we don’t believe that it will at this stage attract significant numbers of new activists’
In line with this ‘premature’ thesis, the SP favoured a more limited approach where each organisation would campaign under their own name – but call for a vote for each other, share some platforms and explicitly describe themselves as part of a left alliance.
The SP argument that conditions are still ‘premature’ seems barely credible to most left activists. Not only is the current capitalist crisis very deep with little hope of recovery in the short term but it is already clear that the long term decline of FF has accelerated in dramatic ways as a result of the crisis. While Fine Gael has gained electorally, it does not have the same relationship with workers as Fianna Fail. Workers vote FG because they perceive it as a quick and short way to get rid of FF – and FG, have in turn, been forced at times to hide their real right wing agenda to garner votes. Fianna Fail, by contrast, sowed deep roots in Irish working class life by gaining the votes of nearly half of manual workers for considerable periods of time. Its decline (and the decline of the other great pillar of conservatism, the Catholic Church) therefore creates a new space for left politics.
But what about the workers movement? The SP argues that ‘until there is the emergence of new activists generally, building a new left is not really possible’. They claim that there hasn’t as yet been a dramatic shift and there is a ‘low level of political activity among working class people’. Given these conditions, the timing for a broader left alliance is not ripe.
The premature thesis may be answered in a number of ways.
First, the crisis at the top of society will have dramatic and unforeseen effects on the wider society. There are, for example, tens of thousands of working class people who now despise bankers, whereas previously demands for nationalisation of banks was deemed ‘unrealistic’. Consciousness does not change only because of movements from below – but also because of crises at the top of society. These crises create new conditions where people begin to see the world differently and enter struggle in new and unexpected ways. Who, for example, would have thought that a movement of the over 70s would be so militant that it was able to inflict a significant defeat on the government?
Second, there have been significant mobilisations of working class people. To date there have been three broad responses to the crisis. First, From October 2008 to March 2009, there has been a high level of street mobilisations starting with pensioners groups and culminating in a large union demonstration in February, where the slogan of a one day national strike was hugely popular. The union leaders, however, called off the March 30th stoppage and inflicted a massive blow on the movement. Second, this shifted the focus of anger from the streets to using the ballot box, in the local and Euro elections. Third, after June the political advances fed back into the industrial struggles, with small but significant strikes breaking out, including, most significantly a confident electricians struggle. Combined, these different forms of mobilisation represent a significant outpouring of working class anger that is crying out for some political expression. We expect more street mobilisations to develop in the coming months.
Third, it is the worst form of mechanical Marxism to argue that until the objective conditions are ripe, socialists must do little to advance strategic goals. It ignores how political intervention can itself become an important factor in shaping elements of the wider movement.
One of key ideological weapons of modern capitalist society is encouraging a sense of fatalism in working class people. The belief ‘that there is nothing that can be done’ or that ‘people will never stick together’ becomes a factor in weakening struggle itself. The union bureaucracy encourages this organised defeatism and then bolsters their own base by convincing militants that nothing can be done.
In this situation, the intervention of a united left alliance in political and economic struggles can become a major factor helping new activists to emerge and develop. The history of working class struggle is that a new generation of activists is often shaped though the medium of politics. In the past, Labour or Communist Parties throughout Europe provided a home where militants learnt both tactics and politics. The radical left have now a political responsibility to replace these forces and help create a new space where a new generation of activists can emerge.
While the combined forces of the radical left are still relatively small, they are no longer irrelevant. If they were to unite in an alliance type formation they would have a far bigger impact than the sum of their parts.
The question of how to relate to reformist sentiments of workers in order to convince them to engage in a frontal challenge to capitalism is the big question. We can only touch on it briefly here as it requires further genuine debate on tactics.
But in order to disentangle some myths, let us clarify a number of issues.
First, it is nonsense to suggest that SWP is moving rightwards because it advocates different tactics to that of the SP. The SWP promotes the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and is opposed to any participation in a government led by, not just the right, but by the centre left. We openly state that the leadership of the Labour Party and Sinn Fein are tied to the management of capitalism – and that there is no prospect of ever changing these parties so that they can become instruments of workers' struggles. Our record on anti-imperialism stands in sharp contrast to the opposition of the SP to a boycott of Israeli goods and to the campaign mounted by some of its members against the appearance of a Hezbollah speaker on anti-war platforms. We only make these points to suggest that the discussion should not be conducted on the facile basis of who uses more left rhetoric than who.
Second, the mere fact that one acknowledges that a shift by workers from voting Fianna Fail to voting Labour is a left ward move does not imply that one has illusions in Labour. To repeat: the Labour leadership is wedded to the management of capitalism and will enter coalition with the right to manage it. But while the leadership is wedded to capitalism, reformist parties can at various time use left rhetoric to shore up their support base among workers. Or to put it differently, workers can at certain points try to express their class aspirations through Labour – even if that party will inevitably betray them. A failure to acknowledge how shifts in voting patterns indicate deeper shifts in political consciousness leads only to an ‘all cows in the night are black’ approach to politics.
The denunciation of the SWP for characterising the emergence of Labour in Dublin as a shift left in workers’ conscious stands in sharp contrast to the actual practice of the SP’s own elected representatives. Here, for example, is a report from the Fingal Independent on what transpired in the local council after the most recent elections:
The (Socialist) party voted with Labour to elect the new Mayor and Deputy Mayor but said it was not interested in holding the chains of office itself.
Cllr Higgins said: 'I want to stress that this is a vote for chair and vice chair - there will be no horse trading for mayoral chains and we will take a principled position on all issues as they arise.
'We are not interested in chains, it is the interests of the people of Fingal that concern us.' Explaining why the party had aligned itself with the Labour Party, he told the council chamber: 'We have many disagreements with the Labour Party on economic and political issues but what persuaded us to support the Labour Party on this occasion is that Fingal County Council is embarking on its development plan - a crucial exercise for our communities and for the future and for proper planning of communities.
'I went through the nightmare that was Dublin County Council in the early 90s when real greed and real corruption unfortunately dictated planning and misplanning and we are suffering the consequences ever since.
'The Labour Party is closest to us in trying to secure planning for people and not for property developers and it is on that basis they we have voted for their nominees today.'
If Labour were exactly the same as Fine Gael, then presumably the SP would not have voted for them to assume the position of Mayor, as both the SWP and SP agree that there should be no deals with right wing parties. But clearly the practice and aspirations of working class people indicated a different tactical approach to Labour in Fingal than to Fine Gael.
For the record, we think that the position articulated by Joe Higgins was 100 percent correct: namely that on occasions one should vote for Labour against the right wing parties; that this should not involve entering any alliance with them, and that taking a principled position in opposition to Labour will also inevitably be necessary.
At the heart of this discussion is a real difference between the SP and SWP on analysis of reformism. We do not consider this difference an obstacle to working together in an alliance formation and indeed believe that these differences can lead to a healthy debate on tactics. But let us try to it least locate what the essential parameters of the debate are.
The SP, argues that
‘Labour ceased to be a workers party in any meaningful way in the 1990s and it has moved even further to the right under successive new leaders, capitulating completely to the capitalist market’.
This is a puzzling statement because it implies that before the 1990s, that Labour was a ‘workers party’ in some sense. The problem, however, is that far from Labour ever having a golden age where it stood for workers interests, it has always been as pro-capitalist as it is today. Consider only how the first Labour leader, Tom Johnson denounced James Connolly’s legacy and to ‘preach the gospel of faithful service to the nation’. Or how Labour joined in many ‘anti-communist witchunts, denouncing and expelling Jim Larkin? Or how Labour voted against the Mother and Child scheme and helped scupper attempts to build an elementary welfare state in Ireland? And if there was such a golden age, did this also run through the National Labour Party in the early fifties when it openly proclaimed itself as a catholic sectarian party? This list of rhetorical questions is probably enough to suggest some problems with the argument of a qualitative change post 1990s.
Any serious examination of the history of Labour cannot sustain the proposition that it was more left wing before the 1990s or even that it had significantly deeper working class roots in the past. The plain fact is that Labour has always been a weak, reformist party that has ever been ready to join Fine Gael or Fianna Fail in Coalition. The SP’s characterisation of the shift in Labour reflects more its own experience where, as Militant, it originally engaged in a ‘deep entry’ tactic to win over the apparatus of the Labour Party to the left – and then, after their expulsion in the eighties, found left wing life could thrive outside the Labour Party. Up to their expulsion, it tended to denounce the rest of us as being ‘on the fringes of the labour movement’ because we rejected ‘entry work’ inside the Labour Party.
The SWP has traditionally had - and still has - a different approach. Broadly, speaking we think that Lenin’s original characterisation of the British Labour Party as a ‘bourgeois workers party’ is an important starting point for the analysis of formations like the Irish Labour Party. The formulation is deliberately contradictory – but so too is life.
Reformism will always seep out of the pores of capitalism society until the moment of revolution because it reflects the immediate aspiration of workers for a better life within the system. The focus of this reformist impetus is often the union bureaucracy and its political expression, the Labour Party – although, it should be noted, there are important differences between them. The leadership of Labour and the unions are totally wedded to capitalism and this gives rise to a contradictory phenomenon where the aspiration of workers inevitably clash with these leaders. As capitalism enters a long period of decline, the scope for significant reforms within the system diminish and the greater the conflict between the ‘reformist’ aspirations of workers and Labour leaderships who seek a voting base among workers.
These contradictions lead to a need for united front tactics as advocated by Trotsky in the early 1920s. The use of such tactics is not automatic but must flow from a desire to mobilise the largest numbers. The core of our politics is working class mobilisation, on the streets and in industrial struggles. Where united front tactics help develop these mobilisation, we adopt them. Our starting point, however, is that the mobilisation of large numbers of workers in struggle create far better conditions for people to examine the respective tactics and strategies offered by revolutionaries or reformists. The pre-condition for any united front tactic is therefore the maintenance of an independent revolutionary stance.
Our experience has been that such tactics have worked in developing a mass anti-war movement in the past. They have often worked at local level in developing the type of mobilisation that have popularised genuine left politics. Far from sowing illusions in Labour or Sinn Fein by pushing them on occasion to engage with us on limited struggle, our experience has been the opposite. A mobilised and politicised people is often more likely to move to the left of these parties. We think that, in no small measure, these tactics help to explain the rise in our voting base – and, more importantly, our membership.
There is clearly far more to discuss about the application of united front tactics – principally about when and where it is appropriate. However, it should be already evident that there is a long tradition in the revolutionary movement of discussions on this tactic. Engaging with that tradition and entering real discussions on tactics and strategy, therefore, offers a far more productive focus for discussion than denunciations whose main purpose is to erect the boundary lines between those who consider themselves of the one true faith and the rest of the radical left.