Revolutionary Marxism & Ireland’s 2020 election
Marxists recognise that capitalist parliaments represent organs of class rule that are designed to protect and advance the interests of those on top, rather than to function as vehicles for fundamental social change. Yet the capitalist election process can be a useful gauge of support for revolutionary ideas when candidates stand who advocate an explicitly anti-capitalist programme. When this is not possible, revolutionaries can intervene by critically analysing the platforms of those running and, depending on what they propose, offering critical electoral support to working-class candidates. The essential precondition for any support is that candidates draw a clear class line and are advocates for the separate interests of the working class.
The continuing domination of the capitalist system of production for profit threatens the entire planet with endless wars and ecological collapse. Marxists assess electoral candidates on their advocacy of policies pointing towards the socialisation of the processes of production, distribution and exchange which, given the commitment to the ecologically damaging attitude of “business as usual” by international capitalism, is a necessary component of any realistic plan to avert a catastrophic ecological and social collapse.
As usual, most options before the Irish electorate fail these rudimentary tests with candidates who either explicitly, or implicitly, commit to the continuation of capitalism and a multi-class “we the people” approach. Likewise even the most radical sounding among the pro-capitalist parties, i.e., the Greens, do not go beyond suggesting adjustments to capitalism.
The exceptions to the mainstream are the “far-left” candidates in the Solidarity–People before Profit parliamentary bloc (Solidarity – initiated by the Socialist Party; People before Profit [PbP] – initiated by the Socialist Worker Party & RISE – recent split from the Socialist Party). All these organisations claim to be socialist and to represent the interests of the working class.
However the PbP election manifesto argues:
“Our Election Manifesto 2020 is inspired by hope for a fairer economy and a better society. The proposals laid out below have been fully costed and rely on wealth and income distribution that targets the top 7% of the population. This group will still have a considerably more than the average worker after our proposals and the benefit of living in a more cohesive and healthy society.
“People Before Profit want a 32-county socialist republic, which puts needs of people and the planet before the profits of the few. This manifesto is designed to move the country in this direction.”
– People Before Profit 2020 Manifesto
So to paraphrase: PbP are for a socialist republic of some form sometime in the distant future – but in the here and now they keep their demands modest enough to not unduly rock the boat. Supporters of PbP who consider themselves socialists of some kind presumably hope that a reformist manifesto reflecting the existing consciousness of the working class by raising minimum demands might embolden the class to fight for more and perhaps eventually lead to the development of revolutionary anti-capitalist consciousness.
Certainly it is true that workers, both as individuals and as a class, come to revolutionary consciousness through their experience in the class struggle, which tends to involve a fight for immediate reforms. In all such campaigns there is also an opportunity for political struggle between the politics of reform and revolution. One of the primary roles of Marxists is changing the political consciousness of the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself. This requires involvement in struggles for immediate reforms within capitalism.
The PbP approach of presenting a programme of reforms, with socialism relegated to just an aspiration for an unknown future, cannot begin to change working-class consciousness. Even the most militant sections of the Irish working class are currently dominated by reformist consciousness. The PbP Manifesto only reinforces that reformism.
The history of class struggle has very few examples of the spontaneous development of revolutionary consciousness simply through participation in the class struggle. The pull of reformism, a bourgeois ideology within the workers’ movement, is much more pernicious than was thought in the latter part of the 19th Century when the Marxist movement was young. The political betrayals by most of the socialist parties, who backed their own capitalists at the outbreak of WWI, demonstrated that having a single party within which reformist, centrist and revolutionary workers co-existed, acts as a brake on the development of revolutionary consciousness. To make progress it was necessary for the revolutionary wings of these parties to split from the reformist wings, as in the Russian Revolution of 1917, led by the Bolshevik Party, which was a “party of a new sort”—a party of the revolutionary vanguard. Since that time the understanding of the need for political struggle against reformism has been at the very heart of revolutionary Marxism.
Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Programme was designed to provide a framework for connecting immediate campaigns for specific reforms which workers with confused reformist consciousness support, to the necessity to go beyond capitalist private property and to fight for a workers’ government based on the socialisation of the means of transport, production and communication.
Despite occasional nods towards Trotskyism, PbP’s detailed programme on climate change – Planet Before Profit: A Manifesto for Radical Climate Action (https://eco.pbp.ie/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/People-Befire-Profit-Ecosocialist-Manifesto.pdf) omits any mention of the necessity of a working class struggle for power. While making many sensible technical suggestions for social change it still leaves most of the essential elements of a modern economy in private hands (apart from the proposal for the nationalisation of big agri-business).
Solidarity is not as cravenly timid as PbP. While completely ignoring the central question of state power – as the ruling class will under no circumstances voluntarily give up their privileges peacefully – Solidarity proposes nationalisations rather than expropriations of capitalist property. Trotsky explicitly distinguished between expropriation and “the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalization’” in the Transitional Programme, as demarcating those who want to find an accommodation with big capital, and those who seek its overthrow. Solidarity does propose much more sweeping social changes than PbP and attempts to link these to a socialist transformation of society. (https://www.solidarity.ie/principles)
RISE, as a right-wing split from the Socialist Party, sits somewhere politically between Solidarity and People before Profit.
There has been an increasing clamour for an electoral position of “anyone except FF [Fianna Fáil] or FG [Fine Gael]”—a position supported and actively encouraged by the would-be socialist electoral parties. This approach mistakes seeing FF & FG parliamentary dominance as “the problem” when the real obstacle is the capitalist system itself. Changing the dynamics of which capitalist parties are playing leading roles in government coalitions – to go from the big two to include SF in a new big three who take turns – will not fundamentally improve the lives of working people. Any coalition of capitalist parties in power will act in the interests of the ruling class of this country (the multi-nationals, mainly US & British, which dominate the economy and their smaller Irish cousins).
This proposition of “anyone except FF or FG” perpetuates the illusion that bourgeois parliamentarianism can be progressive. This approach stops working people from drawing the necessary conclusion that gains for the working class, even parliamentary reforms, come only as a result of militant class struggle. It is a travesty that the so-called “far-left” are actively selling this lie to the working class.
The only option for real pro-worker social change (and averting catastrophic ecological collapse) is building new organisations which stand on the principle of working-class political independence from all capitalist parties (no matter how “left” or “progressive” they claim to be during the election shell game of half-truths and outright lies). There is no secret parliamentary bullet to end the inequality of capitalist society – only the organised working class engaging in militant class struggle, up to and including the overthrow of capitalism, can do that.
The Irish ruling class was shocked by the strength of the campaigns against Household and Water charges, especially the beginnings of self-organisation of working–class communities in the struggle against water metre installations in the mid-2010s. Giving Sinn Féin a greater role at the political top table is a small price to pay for diverting that dangerous development back into the political safety of parliamentarianism.
A significant indicator of the shape of the upcoming election is that the two main capitalist parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are polling so low that they may end up sharing less than 50% of the vote. This has led to a great deal of speculation about a progressive/left coalition government. Most advocates of such a development conceive of such a government as including every party and independent candidate to the left of the two main parties, including the bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Féin. Michael Taft, a political analyst for SIPTU (the second biggest trade union in Ireland), has described its make-up as follows:
“Sinn Féin represented the nationalist Left; Labour and the Social Democrats were (unsurprisingly) the social democrats; People Before Profit, Solidarity and the Independents4Change represented the radical Left; and then the Greens, who represented the ecologists.”
People before Profit is explicitly promoting the idea of this kind of “grand coalition” of the left (https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/richard-boyd-barrett-calls-for-united-front-of-the-left-to-end-fffg-dominance-978701.html) RISE leader, Paul Murphy, supported this approach at a recent press conference held with PbP (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=153641269418916).
Solidarity TD Mick Barry backed the idea of such a “left” government during a televised debate between the parties on Thursday, 30 January. He responded to a question on possible post-election coalitions by calling on Sinn Féin to come out in opposition to a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and opined that if the two big capitalist parties do not get a majority then Solidarity–People before Profit would talk to all other parties about forming a government. Apart from this statement, he struck a posture as an advocate of working-class interests, in contrast to the other participants, especially with his call for a national strike to defend the pension retirement age.
So what will happen if after the election the numbers make this “grand coalition of the left” a real possibility and Sinn Féin reject a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael as Paul and Mick demand? It is pretty clear that Solidarity & RISE would then incline to join PbP in a coalition with capitalist Sinn Féin and the other smaller “leftist” capitalist parties. That would mean participation in what Marxists call a Popular Front government – in this case one led by a capitalist party. It is a very dubious sort of “socialist” political leadership that doesn’t even recognise the class line and promotes the reformist dead-end of unity with the “progressive” capitalists.
The strategy of cross-class coalitionism explicitly repudiates the central axis of socialist politics—the necessity for the workers’ movement to remain independent from the bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Revolution, declared in 1936 that “the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch” and as such provides “the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism” (“The POUM and the Popular Front”).
Reformist parties involved in popular fronts are not necessarily more likely to govern in the interests of the capitalist class than they would if they held power on their own. But when they act as a component of a Popular Front, their working-class character is effectively suspended and the contradiction between their ostensible socialism and their openly pro-capitalist actions is therefore suppressed. Voting for candidates committed to cross-class coalitionism can only hold back the class struggle. Trotsky’s observation that “All the Popular Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian Popular Front of 1917” is just as true today as it was in the 1930s. Given the existential crisis of ecological collapse facing humanity in the next few decades, this betrayal of basic socialist principle is particularly odious. The tactic of critical support is only applicable to those who claim to stand in defence of the interests of the working class. Revolutionaries advocate a vote to such candidates while criticising the deficiencies and contradictions in the programme they advance which mean that they will fail to deliver on their promises. By giving them electoral support whilst warning that they will disappoint their base should they be elected, it is possible to shatter illusions and demonstrate the qualitative superiority of revolutionary politics over reformism.
In this election there is no basis for Marxists to give critical support to the left-reformist workers’ parties in the Solidarity-People before Profit electoral bloc which openly advertise their willingness to participate in a popular-frontist government, a policy which violates the core Marxist political principle of working-class political independence and is directly counterposed to the necessary policies required to launch a serious struggle to avert catastrophic ecological collapse. Marxists can only advise workers in this election to spoil their ballots, because working class political independence is the only basis for serious struggle against capitalist rule and the climate catastrophe it is creating.