Left co-operation & the building of a new mass party of the working class
This is a response to the SWP's reply which appeared on thier website in late August. Their material was in reply to previous Socialist Party material on the issues of left co-operation, new mass workers party and left election slates. The Socialist Party believes our reply is an accuarte assesment of the discussions that took place among groups on the left in the run in to the recent local elections and outlines our views on many of the issues facing the left. We believe there should be a left slate for the next Southern general election and we hope our reply can assist that process
The Socialist Party (SP) welcomes the contribution of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to the debate on left co-operation and the building of a new mass party of the working class.
Socialist Party proposals for local election slate rejected
The Socialist Party has attempted to push this discussion on over the last year particularly in the run in to the recent local elections. We were disappointed that our very positive and workable proposals for a left slate were rejected by the SWP, People before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group (TWUAG), particularly as none of these groups put forward alternative proposals for discussion nor engaged in a serious discussion on our proposals.
The Socialist Party proposed a local election left slate that could have numbered up to 30 serious candidates from a number of different groups. We argued that if there were to be a left slate it must be made up of credible candidates with a campaigning record in their community but also that political criteria apply to ensure that the slate be made up of genuine left forces that are committed to building a left alternative.
Opposition to right wing coalitions, double taxation service charges including water, bin or recycling charges were also critical parts of the programme. These points were made to ensure the left integrity of any slate and to cut across people seeking to opportunistically manipulate an electoral alliance which could damage the reputation and standing of forces on the left who have worked hard to gain political authority and respect among the working class.
General Election Left Slate
The Socialist Party is in favour of a genuine left slate for the forthcoming general election. However, the problems that thwarted the attempts to pull together a local election slate on key issues such as the political character and record of those who would make up a slate have not gone away. The reality is that the discussions around a left slate were brought to a shuddering halt by a coalition of the SWP, PBPA and TWUAG without any real discussion on the key issues. It would have been far better that open and honest discussions were held on these issues including the issue of a structure to oversee the slate – however it never reached that stage. The comments by members of the SWP in the aftermath of the local elections referring to Labour and Sinn Fein as being on the left are wrong when clearly both parties are fully committed to implementing capitalist market policies. Clearly the fact that many working class people vote for these parties means that they should be taken up skilfully, but they must be taken up in an honest fashion. Socialists have a responsibility to tell working class people the truth about these parties, their policies and the role they have and will play.
Recent media reports about a new left/environmental alliance made up of the PBPA and a variety of former Labour and Green councillors including Chris O’Leary in Cork, Catherine Connolly in Galway or Declan Bree in Sligo to name a few illustrates that the concerns raised by the Socialist Party in relation to the orientation of the SWP and their loose approach to political programme are being borne out.
Unfortunately the statement written by the SWP not only fails to deal in any real way with the points we raised, rather it unfortunately twists arguments and ignores key points raised by us.
According to the SWP statement “the main stumbling block [to a slate], however was a peculiar mechanism that was proposed for dealing with the issue of credibility of candidates”...”The SP argued that the issues of credibility be decided by a joint committee where there had to be ‘unanimous agreement’ by all concerned on who was credible”
According to their statement they found this proposal unworkable on two grounds:
The statement goes on to state that the mechanism proposed by the Socialist Party was “unworkable because none of the other left groups agreed to it” and they proposed that “the issue of credibility, therefore needs to be solved through different methods – probably through a little more trust and some left wing common sense”
These quotes give the false impression that there were exhaustive discussions over the Socialist Party proposals and then the groups involved including the SWP came to the conclusion that our proposals were unworkable. The truth is that our proposals were rejected without any real discussion in an ill tempered meeting which lasted approximately half an hour. We can only conclude that the SWP walked away without any real engagement or discussion in relation to our approach to a slate as further confirmation that the SWP are not interested in a genuinely democratic alliance and once again are not prepared to work alongside others in a structure that they do not control. This behaviour either indicates that the SWP had a predetermined view of what the SP position was and therefore there was no need for discussion or that they didn’t want the Socialist Party involved in any slate hence they brought the process to a premature end.
The SWP quote from our proposals in relation to a democratic structure without quoting the reasons advocated such a structure. The issue of trust is critical here but unfortunately it is a fact that there isn’t trust among groups on the left and in particular there is significant distrust of the role of the SWP over many years. No matter how one might wish to wipe the slate clean and pretend that the incidents that caused this distrust didn’t happen, it would be an act of political folly on behalf of the Socialist Party to do so. We enter into arrangements with our eyes wide open not wearing a blindfold which the SWP may wish us to do.
We raised important political points to assist with an open and honest discussion so that we could discuss past mistakes not for academic purpose, or point scoring, but to ensure we try to prevent them happening again. It is unfortunate that the SWP both in the discussions and in their reply have not been open to dealing with any of the fundamental issues raised by the Socialist Party.
Democratic Structure Necessary
The SP proposed that there should be a democratic structure to oversee any local election slate. All groups would have been entitled to put forward representatives to this structure. The number of representatives would be subject to discussion. This structure should take decisions on such matters as the political programme of the slate, and the makeup of the slate, as well as the number of candidates.
The SWP has in our opinion a history of playing a destructive role in campaigns and initiatives in which they have been involved. They have often packed meetings and manoeuvred to try push through their proposals in an undemocratic way which has alienated many genuine people. Our sister organisation in Britain was left with no option but to leave the Socialist Alliance in Britain, an alliance we initiated. The SWP used their greater force of numbers to vote down proposals from us for a democratic and federal structure for the alliance. Our proposals were deliberately designed to prevent the domination of the alliance of any one political group. Under the stewardship of the SWP, the Socialist Alliance then disintegrated.
In 2004 there was an attempt to stand candidates as part of an anti bin tax slate for the local elections in Dublin proposed by the Socialist Party. The SWP insisted on putting a number of people on the slate who had not built a campaign in their area and had no place on a slate alongside people who had been to prison on the issue and had slogged over years building a campaign and in particular played a crucial role in extending the campaign during its high point in September/October 2003. The Socialist Party proposal would have resulted in a slate of people who had played an important role in that struggle and it would have amounted to a slate of about 20 candidates. The Socialist Party would not give in to the demands of the SWP. We proposed an alternative slate which was then voted down in part by the SWP and the opportunity was lost.
We also saw this approach earlier this year where the SWP attempted to set up a campaign against the social partnership deal. They organised a conference in Dublin supposedly to discuss the establishment of a trade union rank and file network and didn’t invite the Socialist Party, individual members of the Socialist Party or many other prominent activists who have important positions in the trade union movement. Then at the event, which was inevitably dominated by the SWP, they initiated a campaign against the social partnership deal, which was undemocratic and served to consciously exclude genuine activists. A genuine approach to discuss the agenda, speakers or even building a campaign against the partnership deal would seek to include as many activists in the trade union movement irrespective of party affiliation.
We argued for a consensus not a veto. We felt it important that the groups involved in any slate should have serious discussion to agree the makeup of a slate and try come to such a consensus. It is not the method of the Socialist Party to summarily rule people out. We wanted to have a discussion about who would participate on the slate and what candidates were being proposed by each group. Unfortunately the groups involved refused to even discuss candidates and while we believe certain criteria keeps a slate politically credible, we also understand that in discussions and negotiations there will be some give and take. Our approach was not to veto but for serious discussion.
Far from our approach being undemocratic, we were arguing for a democratic approach. The SWP’s position was yes we can be part of an alliance but you have no right to raise points about candidates and each group should be free to do whatever it sees fit in standing candidates. This is hardly a serious or democratic approach to negotiations.
The actions of the SWP in rejecting our proposals were a bad mistake and set back genuine attempts to bring about a slate. The whole process of building a left alliance could be much further progressed at this stage. It’s an incredible somersault that the SWP have spent the months since they rejected our proposals casting the Socialist Party as sectarian and not interested in building a left alliance or a genuine election slate. Their reply has again contained these falsehoods. Their reply is an attempt to hide the fact that last December they refused to even seriously discuss the establishment of a strong slate of candidates.
It is for these reasons among others that the issue of trust is so important for the Socialist Party. To that end, we believe a democratic structure such as this is not only desirable but necessary. We believe all major decisions taken must be on the basis of serious and thorough discussion and consensus reached at a structure particularly by the groups representing the majority of candidates on the slate.
These points in relation to the SWP’s role were in our proposals yet there is an absence of any comment on these points which was also a feature of the discussions held in the last year.
Political Vacuum on the Left
The discussion around left co-operation and representation for working class people is a particularly important and relevant discussion because of the gaping political vacuum in Irish society. The economic crisis is radicalising many people. The spate of industrial disputes and in particular the rash of militant occupations at Waterford Glass, Thomas Cooke and others illustrates a very angry mood among many workers. The massive defeat of Fianna Fail and the Greens at the polls in June is a further indication of the seething anger that exists in society.
The Local and European election successes of the SP coupled with the gains made by the PBPA, TWUAG as well as gains for independent lefts and the Workers Party is a positive step forward for working class representation in Ireland. They indicate that despite the shift to Labour and Fine Gael, in many areas socialists could buck that trend and make some good gains. These gains by the left also give an indication of the more general potential that will emerge particularly when Labour enters into a government which will be a right wing government, which could occur in the next number of months.
The shift to the right of Labour and Sinn Fein has helped open up the space for the emergence of a genuine left alternative to the establishment parties. The Socialist Party has advocated for a number of years the need for a new party to represent working class people. We have argued for such a party in Ireland and internationally and our sister parties have participated in many initiatives such as Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany and Psol in Brazil to name a few.
We don’t believe however that we can wish such a party into existence or that it will drop from the sky. This has been a central point of difference between us and others on the left, particularly the SWP. Many individuals and groups on the left will play an important role in the development of such a party but we believe the involvement of a substantial number of fresh and new activists in the communities, workplaces and the trade unions is critical to the establishment of such a party. These activists will and are emerging from the struggles of the working class against this vicious government. However it is the opinion of the Socialist Party that these activists haven’t yet emerged in sufficient numbers to justify the launch of a permanently structured left alliance nor the launching of a new party for working people at this time, so bringing the existing left together to form an alliance at this stage would not, in our view, be of major significance. The Socialist Party is optimistic about the emergence of such fresh forces but we are also realistic enough to know they haven’t yet emerged and have no wish to overstate the situation. We believe that the launching of an alliance of candidates for the general election is the most appropriate thing that could be done right now.
In contrast the SWP in an attempt to justify their complete turnabout on the issue of standing in elections overstate the positives and understate the difficulties in rebuilding the workers' movement. For years now they have tended to declare every few months a new historic turning point that poses the potential for fundamental change in society. This serves to mis-educate people and potentially demoralise activists. Richard Boyd Barrett and Kieran Allen both leading SWP members speaking at recent demonstrations have used the mass movements of the so called Orange Revolution in Georgia a number of years ago and the revolution that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall as an example of what can be achieved here! The PBPA also organised a “ring around the Dail” which was to take place every Wednesday until Nama was defeated, which simply wasn’t going to happen. This lasted one week when only 30 people turned up and that was the end of the “ring around the Dail”!
Reformist direction of the SWP
It is important that those who claim to be revolutionary socialists play a role raising the consciousness of the working class on political issues.
The SWP, in their reply to the Socialist Party, advocates a “radical left alliance” with a number of proposals including the following:
“The basis of such an alliance should be the minimum that revolutionary socialists can accept and the maximum that activists coming from a left reformist background can accept. Specifically, it should be built on a left programme which includes such demands as that the rich must be made to pay for the economic crisis; that Ireland’s natural resources must be nationalised; that there can be no coalition or alliance with right wing parties."
Of course it is necessary to take account of workers' consciousness in formulating a programme and demands. However as socialists we skilfully raise our programme. If a conference or meeting were organised to initiate a new party or alliance the Socialist Party would argue strongly for the new alliance to adopt a socialist program as the best programme against cuts, new taxes etc but crucially linking these day to day issues with the need to fight capitalism. If we were not successful we would not walk away as long as we could stand over the programme that was adopted. We would however, continue to fight and argue for our ideas inside the new party or alliance and hopefully win people to our ideas.
The attitude of the SWP is to not even raise the issue of socialism but to argue for the building of an alliance on a reformist programme. This is an important point which is not about words but about raising and fighting for socialist ideas – the reality is the SWP have lowered their banner dramatically in recent years. In Britain and to some extent in Ireland they have engaged in a form of political liquidationism where they throw themselves into broader political formations such as the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect Coalition, or even the People before Profit Alliance at the expense of building a revolutionary socialist organisation.
The SWP are in favour from the outset of forming an unprincipled non socialist bloc because they feel that people will not support socialist ideas. The victory of Joe Higgins in the euro elections and the support for SP councillors who stood on a socialist platform illustrates what can be achieved. What is the logic in trying to fill the vacuum that has emerged from the capitulation of Labour to the capitalist market by launching from the start a new reformist party?They also propose a mock democracy, where groups can hold their own views but when with operating as part of the alliance must remain within the confines of a reformist programme. How is that a contribution to the redevelopment a socialist outlook or consciousness? It is vital that socialist policies, which are the only solution to the crisis, are advocated as broadly as possible as soon as possible.
Would it mean that election material relating to candidates for the alliance for example, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly would have to be modified or censored by the alliance? This approach would be much more restrictive for the Socialist Party than when our members worked inside the Labour Party.
Then, particularly through our influence in Labour Youth, we were able to challenge in principle and in public the reformist coalitionism of the Labour leadership. We were able to forward a transitional programme for socialist change and helped popularise socialist ideas.
The SWP talk of united fronts. We favour a united front approach – this means uniting with others on the left on an issue and fight but remain free to raise and outline one's differences publicly. Strike together but march separately. What the SWP proposes is an unprincipled alliance with the liquidation of a genuine socialist programme for the false idea that capitalism can be reformed for the benefit of working class people.
Labour, Sinn Fein and the Left
Richard Boyd Barrett, PBPA councillor and leading member of the SWP speaking on The Sunday Supplement programme on Today FM on 6 September this year in a discussion on the left stated that “the left needs to grow up”. He then went on to state in a somewhat ambiguous fashion that if one took the sentiment behind the votes [in the local and European elections] for the Independent left, the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and people who previously voted for the Green Party that this combined vote was almost a majority sentiment for different type of politics with a different set of priorities and was the sort of Left alternative he would like to see emerge! He didn’t qualify the remarks or make any reference to how people will be disillusioned with Labour or Sinn Fein if they get into power.
Speaking on Morning Ireland, Monday 8 June, Richard Boyd Barrett, when asked who he will work with on councils, he said: "Certainly with independent left candidates but also I think with the Labour Party, if the Labour Party is willing to break from its coalition deals with Fine Gael. To my mind, there is no doubt the people who vote for Labour are looking for an alternative to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and I think the natural alliance is one between parties like Labour and the independent left candidates who done very well in the elections. (Brief pause) So I just hope that Labour will look in that direction rather than doing deals with Fine Gael, as they have done in the past because it’s very clear Fine Gael intend to implement policies that are going to be as adverse for working people, they're talking about more severe spending cuts than even Fianna Fail have been implementing, and so I think it’s time for a new alliance of the left."
There is nothing in the latter quote in particular which undermines illusions in Labour. In fact the quote sows illusions in the Labour Party. He gives the wrong illusion that somehow Labour could break with their policy of coalition with Fine Gael and that somehow Labour can become a real reflection of working class opinion.
The Labour Party and Sinn Fein have no role to play in rebuilding the left that does not mean there are not good people in both organisations and would break with their parties at some time in the future and play a role in the building of a new left party.
In the absence of a very strong left force in society, much of ordinary people’s anger at government policies was reflected in growth for Sinn Fein and now in particular Labour – it is critical that socialists are clear on the political positions of these parties, understanding why people vote for them but not give any hostages to fortune by including them on the left or sowing further illusions in them.
As a justification for a “soft” position of the SWP on Labour, they use the example of the Socialist Party councillors on Fingal County Council who voted on a tactical basis for the Labour Party for Mayor and deputy Mayor in June of this year.
Fingal County council has 24 councillors broken down as follows, LP 9 – FG 6 – FF 4 – SP 3 – IND 2 – one of the “independents” is simply independent Fianna Fail. The Socialist Party and the other independent councillor on the council supported Labour and by doing so it meant that the traditional right wing parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were kept out of the chair in a year that will see the beginning of the development plan process. Given the havoc that has been heaped on the Fingal region by developer led planning in the last 20 years it is significant that the traditional right wing parties who support the property developers are kept in a minority on the council.
The decision by the Socialist Party to vote for Labour for Mayor is not a political endorsement of Labour nor did we engage in auction politics for a share of the spoils. This was a purely tactical decision. The Socialist Party will still vote against the estimates in December because of the ongoing presence of bin charges and the likelihood of cuts in the council budgets and we will continue to be in opposition to Labour on many issues. This decision is clearly motivated to keep the right wing out but it can also help expose Labour on many issues in the eyes of many people.
The decision to pursue an alliance with people like Chris O’Leary or Catherine Connolly raises very important points about the character of any election slate. Chris O’Leary was a member of the Green Party until he left earlier this year. He is now an independent councillor on Cork City Council. He supported the Green Party leadership negotiating a programme for government with Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats and remained in support while the education cuts and cuts to old age pensioner medial cards were being carried out! He is quoted in the Sunday Times article which covered the potential for a new “left/environment” alliance that he would see it as a “movement to fill the political vacuum left by the Greens” after the Greens abandoned what used to be their “core policies” – this quotes wouldn’t indicate that he is moving in a left or socialist direction. It raises serious questions over the type of alliance that is being sought.
Catherine Connolly was a member of the Labour Party until 2007 when she left because she couldn’t get a nomination for the general election. Catherine Connolly served as Mayor of Galway City Council in 2004 as a Labour member and won this with the help of Fine Gael votes. She voted for the council budget in 2008 which contained cuts and after the local elections this year which saw her re-elected she entered into negotiations about who would control Galway City Council which included former Progressive Democrat councillors. Clearly she was prepared to do a deal with these people.
While it would be a mistake to take a rigid and fixed view of people based on past political positions as people can change and political positions can evolve, unless there has been a public renouncement of past positions or mistakes recognised, then judging someone on their past political record is entirely valid.
These points are made to illustrate the difference between the Socialist Party and the SWP on key questions. The SWP clearly have no difficulty with someone like Catherine Connolly or Chris O’Leary participating in a Left slate but the SP would be opposed to the participation of these people on a left slate unless there was genuine and public renouncement of previously held positions such as support for coalition.
The disaster of the Respect coalition in Britain is an example of what can happen when a very loose political arrangement is agreed. Respect was launched after the peak of the anti-war movement in England, and was seen by its leadership primarily as an electoral vehicle rather than a genuine attempt to build a new broad, class-struggle based party. It attempted to take short-cuts to win electoral support and suffered the consequences.
In fact the leadership of Respect including the SWP continually narrowed its appeal. A new mass left formation cannot be built on one issue, or by appealing to just one section of the working class. Respect increasingly concentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community, which it is important to win, but Respect has largely failed to reach out to other sections of the working class. The defection of a number of its councillors to New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the Conservative Party illustrated the very weak position of Respect and these councillors.
The SWP, Labour Party, Entryism and Political sectarianism
A further illustration of the vast overstatement of the conditions for a new workers' party made by the SWP is their statement that: “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”
Any attempt to suggest that at this point the left in Ireland are in any way comparable to the mass parties of the working class that existed throughout Europe in and that somehow the current left could “replace” them is a wild exaggeration but also reveals and reflects the historical sectarianism inherent in the political method of the SWP. This sectarianism is further revealed in the comments about the Socialist Party’s previous orientations to the Labour Party.
The SWP never intervened in the Labour Party; their position was ultra left where they stood on the sidelines of the movement and called on the working class to come to them! The Socialist Party (Militant) practiced a tactic of entryism. That attitude stood in real contrast to that of groups such as the SWP.
The Labour Party in Ireland never developed the type of mass base of its sister parties in Britain or Germany. This was for a variety of factors including the failure of the Labour leaders to develop an independent class position on the national question particularly in the period after the 1916. The late development of capitalism in Ireland which meant that there wasn’t the development of an industrial working class as in the more advanced capitalist countries and also the existence of Fianna Fail were also factors in the stunting the growth of Labour. However their failure to adopt a class position on the national question allowed Fianna Fail to eventually emerge and use its seemingly radical position on the national question to build a base among the working class. We have only seen the erosion of this in recent years. If Brendan Corish had maintained the shift to the left that took place in the 60’s and not gone into coalition Labour could have become a mass party and the issue of a majority Labour government could have become more than propaganda.
However, over decades many of the most militant and class conscious workers orientated, joined or supported the Labour Party and it was absolutely correct for any Marxist force serious about building a base among the working class to essentially go where the working class was. This was not to sow illusions in reformism; in fact, it was the opposite, to argue the best ideas and to be the best fighters of the working class. When we operated in the Labour party and had serious influence in Labour Youth we were able to challenge in principle and in public the reformist coalitionism of the Labour leadership. We were able to forward a transitional programme for socialist change and helped to popularise socialist ideas. It was never the case that the Militant engaged in a "deep entry” tactic to win over the apparatus of the Labour Party to the left. Yet again this is a dishonest appraisal to suit a false argument.
The Labour Party ceased to be a workers' party in any meaningful way in the 1990’s, particularly after the decision to put Fianna Fail back into power after the historic gains made by Labour in the 1992 general election. Labour have never recovered its base in the working class since and though they potentially will achieve greater electoral success at the next general election, workers don’t have the same illusions and are unlikely to join the Labour Party in significant numbers as they did in the past.
The many examples given in the SWP's reply about Labour’s shameful past are correct, however, the point that the SWP leadership have historically missed is it is not what the leadership of the party did; it was the attitude and consciousness of the working class that was important.
The statement that there has been no qualitative change in the Labour Party in the last twenty years is astounding. In the past there were serious forces in Labour and many of those were socialists who actively fought against the leadership over their approach to coalition. Many Marxists including those in the Militant operated inside the Labour Party until they were expelled under the Spring leadership. Labour Youth today is a tame shadow of what it was in the past yet they are hindered from playing any real role in the party and Gilmore has moved to try to shut it down. This illustrates how repressive the Labour leadership have become and how it would be impossible for any genuine left force to operate inside the Labour Party.
In their post local election analysis the SWP states that “The most serious long term shift in Irish politics is the swing to the Labour Party”. It is important to be clear on perspectives – in our view the main swing to Labour has been electoral and this is likely to continue. However we don’t believe that serious forces will move to transform Labour. During the 60s, 70s and part of the 80s we put forward the perspective that the pressure of the working class in struggle would reflect itself in and through - although not exclusively in and through - the Labour Party. We raised the possibility of the party itself being shifted to the left or, at the very least, of a mass left wing current developing within it.
This perspective justified our orientation, our tactics and our propaganda which placed demands on the Labour leadership. The events of the late 1980s in Ireland and internationally negated our perspective and changed things completely. We could no longer put forward the idea that the working class would move to transform the Labour Party as the most likely perspective. As time has passed and the Labour leadership has shifted even more decisively to the right this perspective has become even less likely.
The current turn to Labour on the electoral plane is because of the absence of an alternative. In most cases workers will vote labour with no more than a faint hope rather than any expectation that they will be any different. Labour will likely be in power after the next general election implementing cuts and attacks on workers which will completely expose the illusions any workers have in them.
The Socialist Party has been honest and open throughout this whole process of discussion which was initiated the Irish Socialist Network (ISN) in July 2008. We pushed the discussion forward more than any other group. We posed positive proposals but did raise sharp points of difference, not for point scoring, but for political clarity.
We are open to discuss any of the points raised in this statement or previous statements with members of the SWP if they wish. We would encourage members of the SWP to debate and discuss the points we raised inside their organisation. We are open to also discussing how the left can best work together in this changed political environment and in particular we are in favour of a genuine left electoral alliance for the general election which could take place very soon. We hope to discuss the possibility of a slate for the general election in the coming weeks and we hope they will be more honest, open and successful discussions than those that took place in the run up to the local elections.
Socialist Party National Executive Committee
November 4th 2009