Report on a public meeting to discuss “How can we build a real alternative to FG/FF”
The following report of a public meeting in Cork, Ireland was first published on the Revolutionary Programme blog by a Bolshevik Tendency supporter
On Monday 2 March I attended this public meeting organised by the Socialist Party with speakers also from People Before Profit, Sinn Féin and the Green Party.
The main theme from all the speakers was whether unity around a “left government” could be achieved. “Left government” meaning a government without Fianna Fáil (FF)and Fine Gael (FG) as per this tweet by Mick Barry, the Solidarity TD who was speaking at this meeting on behalf of the Socialist Party (SP):
Mick Barry proudly proclaimed that not even talking to FF or FG about government formation, let alone being part of a government coalition with either, was a matter of principle. Interestingly no such principle had stood in the way of voting for Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald for Taoiseach in the first sitting of the post-election Dáil or committing in advance to voting for the creation of a Sinn Féin (SF) led minority government in which the Greens would be the second largest contingent.
So what could this “principle” be?
It can’t be opposition to the maintenance of the rule of capital and its particular Irish expression in the sweetheart tax deals for the multinationals which dominate the economy along with their smaller local cousins – as both SF and the Greens stand in solidarity with FF and FG in defence of the Irish variant of capitalist social relations (see their respective 2020 election manifestos).
That shared defence of capitalism also means Mick Barry’s illusive principle can’t be anything to do with a commitment to defend the separate and distinct interests of working people against our exploitation by capital. The response of SF and the Greens to the 2008 bank bailout which set the framework for the years of austerity to follow is instructive in this regard. The Greens were part of the government who came up with the proposal and Sinn Féin welcomed the idea from the opposition benches as per the beginning of a speech by its deputy, Arthur Morgan:
“My party understands that the Government needs to intervene to stabilise the financial system. The logic behind this move is to undermine the bear market and lead to investment in our banking system. This legislation is about more than the banks and I accept the point made in this regard by several speakers. It is about offering security to ordinary citizens, investors and Irish businesses, which in turn means jobs. It may well prove to be a move that other states will seek to emulate.”
—Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Bill 2008: Second Stage, 30 September 2008
It is of course true that FF and FG are the two main establishment parties of parliamentary rule in Ireland while SF has never been in a government and the Greens only once (2007 to 2011 as junior coalition partners to FF). So perhaps Mick Barry’s “principle” is just about not trusting FF and FG because of their well-established governmental record. While SF and the Greens haven’t yet been tested in government (leaving aside the wretched record of the Greens in 2007 to 2011), it is not hard to guess what they will do. When the capitalists remind them of their promise “not to raise corporate taxes” they will start back-pedalling on the positive reforms promised in their manifestos. Every class-conscious worker must already anticipate this.
When I spoke from the floor I pointed out that Irish business leaders have made it clear they do not believe they have anything to fear from Sinn Féin in government:
“Brian Hayes, the top lobbyist for Irish bankers, and a former Fine Gael junior finance minister, believes suggestions of increased political risk in fiscal matters is “exaggerated”.
“People need to be relaxed about this,” said Mr Hayes, chief executive of Banking and Payments Federation Ireland.
“With Sinn Féin, it’s all about what a programme for government says. Manifestos are one thing, but programmes for government are a different animal.”
In its manifesto, Sinn Féin made huge spending promises and effectively said it would narrow the tax base. However, it also pledged to retain the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate and protect funding for investment agency, IDA Ireland.
“It was a change election. If people were talking about radical change to investment policy and free movement of capital, that would be a worry. But I don’t think they are. I’m confident of a stable government.”
—The Irish Times, 10 February 2020
They understand the nature of the contenders for capitalist parliamentary rule far better than the Irish “far-left” it would seem.
One might also wonder what is so different from the election in 2016 when the Socialist Party made it a pre-condition for any support to Sinn Féin that it ruled out, in advance, a coalition with either of the two big capitalist parties. There is no substantive difference in the core elements of the SF programme in 2020 so it must be an opportunist adaptation to the size of the electoral vote that has led the SP to abandon even that phoney gesture in the direction of concern about working class political independence – something that is a real political principle for revolutionary Marxists.
Maybe it is the illusions of a section of the working class in the “left” posturing of SF that concerns the SP. So is it an issue of how to engage with these workers? In an informal discussion after the meeting Mick Barry scolded me over the lack of immediate resonance that my highlighting the reality of the class line had with an audience made up of working people with illusions in the idea of a “left government” and a strong striving for unity among all those to the left of FF & FG. He did not dispute the reality of the class nature of SF and the Greens – he just seems to think it is smart tactics not to talk about it.
Any party that claims to stand in the political tradition of Leon Trotsky (such as the SP and PBP, to a lesser extent) might do well to take his advice about how to politically engage the working class a bit more seriously:
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International.”
—The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International – The Transitional Program
There may be those who think that is all very well in the abstract but it will get you nowhere in the real world of the class struggle in the 21st Century.
Against that excuse for not telling the truth to our fellow working class activists I would merely refer to my personal involvement in the highest expressions of militant working class struggle seen in Ireland over the past couple of decades – the campaigns against Household and Water charges/meter installations where I was one of the central leaders in Cork. During this activity I continued with my political critiques of opposing political tendencies – including Sinn Féin for its pro-capitalist politics and the Socialist Party & People Before Profit (PBP) for their reformist parliamentarian versions of the road to socialism. And yet the rank and file working class activists in those campaigns didn’t seem to find this an issue. Neither did activists in the Together For Yes campaign for abortion rights a few years later where I was also part of the Cork regional leadership.
The reality is that in real examples of militant class struggle the working class will accept the presentation of honestly held opinions, even if they are not (yet) convinced of those views, if you show through your words and deeds that you are a committed fighter for our interests as a class against the attacks of capital.
In his presentation Mick Barry raised the spectre of the next international recession in the capitalist cycle of boom and bust and yet this seemed to have little relationship to his arguments in favour of a “left government” without FF and FG.
I learnt a long time ago (actually before I was a self-describing socialist) that whether positive reforms can be won for working people has very little to do with the so-called “left” or “right” nature of the capitalist government and much more to do with the militancy, or lack thereof, of working class struggle and where the economy is in the cycle of capitalist boom and bust.
So despite the “left” electoral rhetoric of SF in terms of “giving” positive reforms to working people I think this is completely outweighed by their commitment to capitalist rule. There is indeed a very good chance that the next government, if one can be created, will be in power as international capitalism enters the next global recession – something that may already have begun as the effects of the COVID-19 start to spread and effect the supply chains of international capitalism. That capitalist government will make the working class pay to protect the profits of the multinationals and their smaller local cousins – irrespective of what combination of FF, FG, SF and the Greens it involves.
Even if the next international capitalist recession takes longer to occur, why would any class conscious worker think that the policies of a Sinn Féin led government would necessarily be in the interests of working people? It is no doubt true that SF made the most progressive set of election promises of any of the big three pro-capitalist parties but does that in and of itself mean that the SP now views them as a progressive alternative to FF and FG?
It must be remembered that these are just promises – they aren’t actual concrete policies yet. As well as the advice of the business leaders referred to earlier about election promises versus actual programmes for government, people should remember Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte letting the cat out of the bag about promises made in capitalist elections.
Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, speaking for People Before Profit, argued in his summary that FF and FG have always run the country in the interests of capital and are leopards that won’t change their spots. He therefore urged SF and the Greens not to enter a coalition with either FF or FG and claimed “they are not the same as FF & FG”. At the level of superficial analysis that is of course a true statement but in terms of the things about society that should be important to Marxists, like social class, the fact is that SF and the Greens are on record as being committed to the preservation of capitalist rule.
The PBP speaker’s political confusion on recognising the importance of the class line comes as no surprise given the political perspective presented in their first major article on the post-election government formation – “Challenges for a Left Government” by John Molyneux. This piece ends by drawing an analogy between their call for a “left government” and a couple of historical examples of Popular Front governments:
“In this context it is important to understand that the very establishment of a Left government may raise the hopes, expectations and confidence of the working class and that this can lead to a surge in struggle from below which both supports the government and moves beyond the limits which the government is comfortable with. This is what happened with the election of the French Popular Front government in May 1936 which led directly to the great general strike of French workers in May-June of that year. It is what happened with the establishment of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1970 which led to mass popular and industrial action including the establishment of industrial cordones (embryonic workers’ councils ) in 1972. Of course this episode ended in catastrophic self-induced defeat at the hands of General Pinochet’s military coup in September 1973, which only reinforces the argument for socialists maintaining their political independence in a way that was not the case in Chile.”
Molyneux’s political incoherence is best exposed by the last sentence in that paragraph. If the socialists were to really “maintain their political independence” it would mean not politically supporting or participating in a political government coalition involving any pro-capitalist parties. This is of course the exact opposite of PBP’s role in Ireland today as the most vocal cheerleaders for a “left government” led by the pro-capitalist parties of Sinn Féin and the Green Party.
Instead of the reality of Popular Fronts arising in the context of already existing working class militancy as a way to cut across and defuse that militancy with the false hopes of fundamental change coming through a cross-class parliamentary bloc, we are here presented with an inversion where the Popular Front is the positive catalyst for working class militancy.
On the French example – here is what Trotsky had to say about the 1936 May-June events:
“The rhythm of events in France has become sharply accelerated. Hitherto the pre-revolutionary character of the situation had to be evaluated on the basis of a theoretical analysis and isolated political symptoms. Now facts speak for themselves. We may say without fear of exaggeration that in the whole of France there are only two parties whose leaders are unable to see and understand, or who refuse to see the full depth of the revolutionary crisis. They are the “Socialists” and “Communists”. We ought, of course, to add the “independent” trade-union leaders. The working masses are now creating a revolutionary situation by resorting to direct action. The bourgeoisie is in mortal fear of the development of events and, behind the scenes, under the nose of the new government, it takes all the steps necessary to defend and save itself, to dupe, to crush and to exact a bloody vengeance. The “Socialist” and “Communist” leaders alone continue to babble about the People’s Front, as if their contemptible house of cards had not already been toppled by the class struggle.
“Blum says: “The country has given its mandate to the People’s Front and we cannot go beyond the limits of this mandate.” Blum is duping his own party and he aims to dupe the proletariat. The Stalinists (they still continue to call themselves “Communists”) assist him in this. As a matter of fact, the Socialists and Communists have utilized the dodges, snares and meshes of the electoral machinery to do violence to the toiling masses in the interests of an alliance with bourgeois radicalism.”
—The Decisive Stage (Whither France?)
And more directly against Molyneux’s view:
“The sweep of the strike springs, we are told, from the “hopes” in the People’s Front government. This is only one-quarter of the truth and even less than that. If matters were really limited to hopes alone, the workers would not have run the risk of struggle. The strike expresses above all the distrust or the half-trust of the workers, if not in the good intentions of the government, then in its ability to overcome obstacles and to come to grips with its problems. The proletarians want to “assist” the government, but in their own way, in the proletarian way. They still of course lack complete consciousness of their own strength. But it would be a gross distortion to portray matters as if the masses were guided only by pious “hopes” in Blum.”
—The French Revolution Has Begun! (Whither France?)
Promotion of non-class based bourgeois parliamentary concepts of “left” and “right” and the strategy of Popular Front type cross-class coalitions has not helped in encouraging the only thing that will really defend working people from attacks on wages and living standards and potentially lead to any substantive “real change” worthy of the name – militant struggle by the working class acting as a class against the interests of capital.
Publicly advocating such a perspective is of course well outside the political framework of hardened reformist parliamentarian socialists who find that kind of approach “sectarian” or “ultra-left” or “dogmatic” or whatever. However, it is the only position consistent with a political perspective that prioritises working class power and recognises that our class has interests separate from, and in conflict with, the interests of capital along with parties, like FF, FG, SF and the Greens, who politically represent the interests of capital.
Class consciousness, in the socialist sense of the term, is unfortunately at a very low level in Ireland. The primary context for this is the twenty years of institutionalised opposition to class struggle by the trade union leaders in the form of “Social Partnership” that provided the framework for the unfortunate acceptance of the capitulation to austerity in the Croke Park, Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements between the government and trade unions. The militant semi-mass campaigns against household and water charges represented a small movement in a positive direction. However, this current opportunist capitulation to bourgeois discourse by the “far-left” organisations points back to the dead-end of parliamentarianism.
This bourgeois parliamentary manoeuvring and playing with the meaning of words does nothing to address the issue of a lack of working class self-organisation and militant class struggle – which for socialists is the real historic problem facing us. It can be argued that a change from a bourgeois parliamentary duopoly to a triopoly indicates the existence of social tensions which may open up opportunities for building working class conscious militancy but in and of itself this parliamentary change means very little in terms of “real change” – to pretend that it does is the very worst kind of political leadership.