Pandering to illusions in Sinn Féin
Election 2016 and working-class independence
The fightback against capitalist attacks in the name of “austerity” (or “recovery”) has been at the forefront of the class struggle in Ireland over the past few years. The Campaign Against the Household & Water Taxes formed in late 2011, followed by the anti-water charges movement, involved rudimentary self-organisation in many working-class communities around resistance to the installation of water meters and payment of these hated taxes. The struggle brought many people into political activism who had never been involved before. This level of grassroots organisation was an important component of the immediate successes of these campaigns and begins to point the way towards the kind of organisations we will need to take power away from the capitalist parasites.
The upcoming election brings these political issues onto the national stage and creates a greater audience for a revolutionary perspective and the idea of developing working-class political consciousness to confront the capitalists directly. Yet the disorientation of the far left and anti-austerity movement is profound, and there are many illusions in the possibilities for real change via capitalist elections.
Communists & capitalist elections
Communists have long understood that bourgeois parliaments are not a motor force for fundamental social change in the interests of the working class. The second congress of the Communist International in 1920 outlined the general approach of revolutionary socialists to these institutions of capitalist rule:
“communism denies parliamentarism as a form of the society of the future. It denies it as a form of the class dictatorship of the proletariat. It denies the possibility of taking over parliament in the long run; it sets itself the aim of destroying parliamentarism. Therefore there can only be a question of utilising the bourgeois state institutions for the purpose of their destruction. The question can be posed in this, and only in this, way.”
. . .
“…. Election campaigns should not be carried out in the spirit of the hunt for the maximum number of parliamentary seats, but in the spirit of the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses for the slogans of the proletarian revolution. Election campaigns should be carried out by the whole mass of the Party members and not only by an elite of the Party. It is necessary to utilise all mass actions (strikes, demonstrations, ferment among the soldiers and sailors, etc.) that are taking place at the time, and to come into close touch with them. It is necessary to draw all the proletarian mass organisations into active work.”
(“Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International”)
The assumption for the mass organisations of the Communist International was that they would be standing their own candidates in bourgeois elections in order to provide a platform for communist ideas and build support within the working class. Given the absence of mass communist parties today, revolutionaries are usually not able to stand their own candidates. Instead, it is necessary to develop an effective approach to the existing range of non-revolutionary labour-based candidates and consider whether to use the “critical support” electoral tactic as a vehicle for communicating the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. This tactic can be used where reformist or centrist workers’ parties promise specific measures claiming to stand for workers’ interests against the bosses, and a section of the working class has illusions that they will carry out their promises. In giving critical support, revolutionaries stand with the working-class voters in advocating the interests of the class, but clearly warn in advance that these parties will ultimately fail to deliver due to their underlying reformist perspective and commitment to the capitalist state.
Bourgeois populism in Ireland
Since the point of critical support is to win more adherents to the perspective of resolute class struggle, this tactic is not applicable to parties that deny the basic independent interests of the working class by forming a bloc with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois parties or by signalling a willingness to join with them in pursuit of governmental power. This is a real danger in Ireland, where political life is currently dominated by various forms of bourgeois populism. It was, for instance, a powerful force within the campaigns against the household and water charges.
The strongest organisational expression of this is the mainstream anti-water charges group Right2Water (R2W), whose political domination by the capitalist Sinn Féin is manifested in R2W’s refusal to call for either non-payment of the charges or for mobilisations to physically obstruct meter installations.
Sinn Féin’s political platform begins from the perspective of Irish nationalism, which is by definition cross-class. Anyone doubting that Sinn Féin are a capitalist party just has to read their most recent pre-budget statement, especially Part 3 “To pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation,” which starts with a long section titled, “Supporting and encouraging business”.
The spread of the idea that Sinn Féin are a valid part of “the left” or workers’ movement threatens to subvert all the positive developments in working-class consciousness of the anti-household and water charges movements. A central test for any candidates in this election claiming to stand for the interests of the working class is therefore their attitude towards Sinn Féin.
Right2Change: political cover for Sinn Féin
The politics of R2W have now found electoral expression in Right2Change (R2C) which, while not standing for election itself, is asking candidates to sign up to a set of reformist “Policy Principles” that include “agreeing to form a progressive government based on this platform if the numbers allow”. Given the configuration of the forces involved, this amounts to supporting, in advance, participation in a government with Sinn Féin. Anyone signing up to, or politically supporting, the R2C policy principles document has explicitly rejected any conception of the political independence of the working class.
Organisations that have signed this document include the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) and People Before Profit (PBP, the electoral bloc initiated, and politically dominated by, the Socialist Workers Party/SWP). The Workers Party have given their political support to the document, although they have not formally signed up (see “WP Support Right 2 Change Principles as Basis for Progressive Change”).
PBP/SWP dodge the problems with providing this political cover for Sinn Féin by echoing claims that R2C is a coming together of the “left” (though its bureaucratic trade-union leaders prefer to talk about the potential for a “progressive” government):
“We will talk to Sinn Fein and to left independents after the election if the numbers permit a major change. The outcome of these talks and, therefore, our willingness to enter or, alternatively, support a left government from outside depends on agreement that our red line issues will be carried through.”
(“People Before Profit and a Left Government”)
AAA: a real alternative?
Not signing up to the R2C principles does not necessarily indicate a willingness to fight for the independent interests of the working class.
The Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), initiated and politically dominated by the Socialist Party (SP), Irish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), is the most significant organisation on the left that has not signed up to R2C. In a list of four basic principles, the AAA/SP declare that they stand on the basis of “No coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour” (“Potential for New Left Movement”). Rather than including Sinn Féin in this list, the SP criticise them for refusing to make the same pledge. The principles are followed by the declaration that: “The AAA will discuss with parties and individuals after the next election to see if a genuine Left government can be formed based on this platform.” The clear implication is that Sinn Féin could be a part of this “Left” government if it would rule out co-operation with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour. Although many SP members will readily concede in private that Sinn Féin is a capitalist party, in their publications it is treated as a kind of social-democratic workers’ party. When pressed by the IBT at recent public meetings, prominent SP spokespeople have declared that after the election, if the AAA was faced with a decision on whether to form a coalition with Sinn Féin, then they would include “breaking the rules of capitalism” in their negotiations.
Of course if these reformists are already too afraid of public opinion within the wider working class to tell the truth about Sinn Féin’s capitalist nature before the elections, why should anyone believe they would be able to withstand the thousand-fold greater pressure on them after a successful electoral bid, when the potential for a so-called “progressive government” would be immediate?
Such crossing of the class line would not be surprising given that the SP’s sister organisation in the United States (Socialist Alternative) is supporting the capitalist politician Bernie Sanders in his attempt to become the Democratic presidential candidate, again falsely painting him as a social democrat.
“Socialist Alternative welcomes Sanders’ decision to run for President to help create, as he says, &lsquol;an independent voice, fighting for working families’ to &lsquol;bring the fight to the Koch brothers, Wall Street, and corporate America.’ His campaign will give Hillary Clinton a much-deserved challenge and will widen the spectrum of political discussion, injecting some working-class reality into the increasingly surreal and narrow parameters of official debate.”
(“Bernie Sanders calls for Political Revolution Against Billionaires”)
There can be no “working-class reality” injected by a politician who has caucused for decades with the Democrats in Congress and who now is running to lead one of the twin parties of the American ruling class. Similarly, entertaining the idea of forming a “Left” government with Sinn Féin represents a promise to betray the working class in advance of the election.
For working-class independence!
It is obvious that, like all left reformists before them, the so-called “revolutionary socialists” of both the AAA/SP and PBP/SWP would capitulate and participate in a “progressive” Sinn Féin-led government – haggling only over minor details in the programme for government and ministerial positions.
We know of no parties or independent candidates that are prepared to reject in advance any electoral blocs or participation in a future government with capitalist parties. The conclusion for revolutionaries must therefore be to call for a spoiled ballot. This tactic should not be seen as a policy of abstention from the electoral process. It is rather motivated by the perspective of using capitalist elections to argue for the fundamental principles of revolutionary Marxism – above all working-class independence, without which there can be no possibility of fundamental social change in the interests of the oppressed.
The tactic of calling for a spoiled ballot can help spark discussions about this key issue in the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the election. It has resonance with working-class militants in the anti-water charges movement who took action on their own behalf without waiting for instructions from established opposition parties, and several of whom are now facing criminal charges due to the necessity of taking the anti-meter protests beyond the restrictions of capitalist law and order (see below). The organisation of the working class by streets, estates and towns that we saw at the height of the protests was an important first step in how we will need to organise, but ultimately we need to take the fight into the workplace. To lead the struggle against austerity and for the interests of the oppressed to its successful conclusion, the working class needs – on both a national and international level – to build a party with a revolutionary Marxist programme.
Defend water charges protesters!
Activists from working class communities around the country are being taken to court for their protests against the water charges and particularly against the installation of water meters.
In Cork, two activists, Bairbre and Brian, have already been prosecuted for protesting too effectively against meter installations – they are appealing against their fines. They along with two others, Megan and Dan, have another trial for the same “crime” on Wednesday 24 February (10:30am, Washington St, Cork).
The “Cobh Three” (Alan, Karen and Vincent) are due in court in Fermoy outside Cork on Friday 1 April, for a similarly successful protest against meter installations in October 2014.
At the time of writing there is not yet a date for the trial of AAA TD Paul Murphy and others who are facing the threat of significant jail sentences for the bogus charge of “false imprisonment” for their participation in the protest against Tánaiste Joan Burton in Jobstown, Dublin, in November 2014.
These criminal proceedings are an attack on all anti-water charges activists and indeed on the wider workers’ movement. It is very important that there are sizable demonstrations of support on all these trial dates and against any future legal victimisation of anti-water charges activists anywhere in the country.
An injury to one is an injury to all!