An old, old debate or discussion has broken out of late. It has been inspired or regenerated by the inability of the main political parties of the ruling class to achieve a ruling majority in the Dáil, even in coalition. Another factor has been the growth of Sinn Féin seats to a number sufficient to attract another party into getting them into a coalition government. And another General Election cannot be far off.
The debate or discussion is sparked by questions something like this:
Should a coalition of revolutionary socialists and radical social-democrats put together a joint slate to present themselves and agreed policies to the electorate?
And a different question (but not completely different in the minds of some of that potential slate above, I suspect):
Should a party that presents itself to some supporters as revolutionary, to some others as radical, participate in a coalition with one of the traditional ruling class parties to form a government?
Against either of those possibilities, groups of anarchists and non-Sinn Féin Republicans, in rare agreement, declare that no such initiatives should be supported; the anarchists, because they do not believe in bourgeois elections or parliaments and the republicans, because this is not a Republic which they can legitimise by taking part in their state elections. Some revolutionary socialists and others of varying hues argue that the system will corrupt those who take part in their institutions and provide a long list of those to whom that has happened historically (and both anarchists and republicans can nod their heads in agreement at the list).
Social democrats and some others argue that an election provides an opportunity to put in to power a different administration, one which has the actual power to change things. They argue that it is their duty to take advantage of that opportunity and accept its challenges; they charge their critics with being dreamers who prefer to hold on to their ideological purity for some distant day rather than to address the real situation in the here and now.
TAKE PART IN GOVERNMENT?
There is room for some fruitful debate and discussion around some of these positions but one thing seems clear to me: it can never be permissible for revolutionaries, under any excuse whatsoever, to be part of a government to run the country for the capitalist ruling class. The capitalist ruling class is our enemy and we are irreconcilably hostile to it and must remain so. We work for the day when we can overthrow that class and put the workers in charge and no honeyed words of exception or self-deception can change that fact.
Undermine it from within? Use their institutions against them from the inside? Throughout history, all those who have attempted that (or who pretended to for their own careerism) have shown that far from subverting the system, it was they who were or became subverted.
Yes, it is a philosophical truth that just because something happened before is no guarantee that it will happen again. Even if it happened every time in the past. Although jumping from the tenth floor of a building on to hard ground has killed hundreds over time, it is philosophically possible that someone could survive it now – even unharmed. But it is not a scientific nor a historical probability. One is entitled to try it with one’s own life but not with the lives of others.
Those who formed Fianna Fáil crossed over that line not long after they split from Sinn Féin: not only that but the party soon became, despite its Republican and nationalist roots and rhetoric of being for a 32-County Republic, the preferred political party of the Irish foreign-dependent capitalist class in the 26 Counties and virtually unknown in the Six.
The Sinn Féin we know today (Provisional Sinn Féin, as they no longer like to be called), the largest survivor of a number of large and smaller organisational splits since the days of the creation of Fianna Fáil, also crossed over that line. In a sense, they did so in an even worse (or more obvious) way than had Fianna Fáil – Sinn Féin participated in a colonial government, the administration of an armed foreign aggressor.
That party is heading for entry into a capitalist coalition government in the 26 Counties, if only it can find a partner willing to accept it for the dance. Based on its history in government in the Six Counties and some other measures, the SF party leadership strives to prove to the Irish capitalist class that it can be trusted to manage the system, alone or in partnership with one of the main capitalist parties.
The President of the party has said that “Sinn Féin doesn’t have a problem with capitalism”. The party’s leadership refused to support the “Don’t register, don’t pay” slogan of the early campaigns against the Household Tax and later against the Water Charge (the first was defeated by popular resistance following those slogans and the second is on hold, due to a number of factors ultimately arising out of popular resistance). Dublin local authority councillors of the party voted to hand over public land on a prime Dublin site to private property speculators. The party’s leadership has shown itself publicly welcoming to every imperialist or zionist representative to visit them, including the mass-murdering political leadership of the USA and the British monarch and Commander of the Armed Forces which is enforcing the occupation of one fifth of the country.
But it is not only necessary for SF’s leadership to convince the Irish ruling class (and its foreign partners) – in order to get elected, it has to also convince its own following and thousands outside of that. So some anti-imperialist and left posturing is necessary. Of course it is opposed to the Water Charge and was also opposed to the Household Tax, it tells people – it was just that it couldn’t ask people to risk going to jail and losing their homes by taking part in civil disobedience. And it does put some of its followers out on the street in demonstrations against the Water Charge.
In defence of the vote of Dublin City councillors, it declares that through the deal, it got funding for a percentage of public housing on the site – wasn’t that good? Perhaps, but better than a 100% public building program of its own on its own land, using the many construction workers currently idle? Hardly. And once public land is gone, it is gone for ever (well, forever short of the kind of revolution that SF declares to be unrealistic).
So Left words for its potential voting public, soothing words to its long-suffering membership and acts of collaboration and collusion (and signals of more of the same) to the ruling class. And for the collaborationist careerists jumping into the party.
A SLATE OF REVOLUTIONARY AND RADICAL LEFT CANDIDATES
A revolutionary coalition with SF, even if it were to agree to such a thing, would be for any movement of resistance to cut its own throat. But what of the other parties, groupings and independent political activists?
In my opinion, it might well be worth supporting an attempt to create such a coalition, presenting a list of revolutionary or even radically progressive demands.
“But isn’t that reformist and in contradiction to the revolutionary vision?” If it were reformist, i.e with only the intention of reforming, I would say yes, it is in clear contradiction to our vision. If it were to suspend popular organisation and mobilisation and to put its faith in the outcome of the elections, I would be against it.
But the intention here should be to form a revolutionary and/or radical Parliamentary Opposition, putting forward radical reforms which would, if achieved, make living conditions and resistance much easier for the working people and extortion and repression much more difficult for the ruling class. And meanwhile revolutionaries should never cease in their revolutionary propaganda that only the overthrow of the ruling class can bring about deep and permanent changes for the benefit of the working class.
Tom Stokes, a commentator on political affairs and media reporting for many years, in August 2015 published a list of policies or demands upon which such a slate could be based, upon which they could campaign (https://theirishrepublic.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/broad-left-policy-platform-essential-now/). Although the manifesto did not gather much publicly-expressed support at the time, it seemed to me then and seems still to be a worthwhile initiative and one to consider for any builders of a putative Left electoral slate.
A POSSIBLE LEFT SLATE MANIFESTO
This is the list which Stokes published, without any claim to it being definitive. However, a list of demands for a Slate of candidates to agree to cannot be exhaustive – there will have to give and take, as he acknowledged. The important thing from a revolutionary point of view should be that it points the way forward to resolving the economic problems facing the working class and the majority of the people in general and to the radical improvement of their rights. Further on, I give my own thoughts on this manifesto.
1 Adequate, affordable, secure housing as a right, where necessary through public provision.
2 A single-tier publicly funded, secular and excellent education system with no provision from the exchequer for private fee-paying schools with exclusive enrollment policies. Religious instruction outside school-hours. Ending the university-controlled points system for third-level entry. Free third-level or vocational education/training subject to contractual obligation to work within the state for any three of first five years post-graduation with debt-related penalties for non-compliance.
3 The right of all children to adequate housing, nourishment and provision of health and care according to need, guaranteed by the state.
4 The right of workers to employment, or to further education or training as required, including those who wish re-enter the labour ‘market’.
5 A living wage, the ending of oppressive zero-hour contracts, workers’ right-to-organise and right-to-negotiate guaranteed by the state.
6 Full equality for women including pay-rates, personal autonomy and dignity including reproductive rights. Repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Provision of supports for mothers and carers commensurate with their contribution to society for that work.
7 State ownership of essential services, natural resources & physical infrastructure. Constitutional provision for public ownership of water and protection of Mother Earth.
8 Empowerment of communities, starting with disadvantaged communities – rural and urban. State support for community initiatives to achieve personal and community empowerment.
9 Strong laws against public and private corruption with strict sanctions. Ending political appointments to judiciary. Curbing legal costs for citizens. Equal access to civil courts regardless of means. Refocusing criminal justice system and penal system. Taking politics out of policing in favour of civic obligations.
10 Realigning taxation system to shift burden towards wealthiest. Ending tax-exile status, tax loopholes and tax-havens. Enforcing Corporation Tax.
11 Properly codifying the state’s position on neutrality, opposition to war, concentration on international and intra-national conflict-resolution and peace-keeping. Adherence to international codes on prevention of torture, refugees, humanitarian obligations, etc.
12 Proper commitment to reunify the people of the island through concerted, direct, rational dialogue with the objective of creating a fully representative all-Ireland parliament based on equality, respect and civil and religious freedoms.
13 Greater local and regional democratic control as appropriate. Making government fully accountable to parliament and the people. Creation of a democratically elected upper house to speed legislation and as a counter to excessive power of parliament. Installing a publicly accessible online register of lobbyists and a publicly accessible tendering system for state acquisitions, both updated daily.
14 Regulation of media in terms of ownership and the public’s right to essential information, fairly and accurately delivered. Active fostering of ideological diversity in media in the public interest. Insistence on journalistic ethics in the public interest. Higher values of Public Service Broadcasting a requirement for state media.
15 A commitment to expedite a widespread public consultation process towards creating a new constitution for a genuine republic.
Let us examine these demands now.
1. Decent, affordable housing is an obvious necessity so as not to have people sleeping on the streets, families in unsuitable accommodation, people at the mercy of landlords and others slaving to pay the monthly rent or mortgage. And public provision is the obvious way to provide this.
2. The right to secular education as a norm is a basic democratic right and should have been a Republican demand from the outset. No church should be permitted to exercise any control over admission to — or content of — education; any religious group that wishes its children to be instructed in its religion should pay for that themselves and provide it outside of school hours. And unless we have free third-level education only those already more privileged will be able to avail of it or will plunge themselves into debt in order to do so.
(I am unsure about the inflicting penalties for not working within the State after graduation – if we provide a decent economic and social environment it seems to me that most people would want to stay or to return after they had left and we should avoid coercion where possible).
3. Children are our future and must be accorded full legal and social protection – the contrary to what our State has done for decades. How can we disagree with that?
4 &5. It seems to me that we can combine these under the right of workers to employment and training and organisation. Further, workers must be permitted to exercise their latent power in order to ensure those things are provided. We need the acknowledgement and legalisation not only of the right to strike in defence of the demands of one’s own workplace but in support of others. This would remove a gag and chain on the working class at present which prevents trade unionists, at threat of the sequestration of all or part of their funds, from supporting action by workers who are in weaker positions. If the Left Slate were to achieve this alone, even though it could all be nullified later, it would be a great step forward. Were they not to succeed in achieving it, their raising it as an objective on their platform would be a strong indication of the direction for workers to take.
6. Full equality for women under the law must be a central demand of any democratic platform. The right to abortion is a recognised right in all liberal and socialist societies with the exception of Muslim states, the USA and the 26 Counties. I myself am in support of that right but it remains a divisive issue among the largest alternative movement in this state, the Republican movement and is opposed by many others. This issue should be discussed in any Left electoral slate. Nevertheless, Amendment 8 to the Constitution has no right there and should be removed.
7. One would think that demanding State ownership of all Ireland’s natural resources would be unopposed within a Left Coalition slate. I am not convinced that would be so. And since I do not expect socialism to arrive through a parliamentary majority, I would settle for some specified areas: oil, gas, water infrastructure, sea, rivers and lakes. And public transport, water infrastructure, roads and telecommunications infrastructure.
The abolition of the Water Charge would be popular and is obviously a necessity on a number of levels, not least the democratic one that maintenance of a drinkable water supply has already been paid for in two different taxes. A change in the Constitution that would put our water services beyond privatisation would also be a great relief and a step forward.
8. No-one considering a Left Electoral Slate organisation is going to argue with “empowerment ….. of disadvantaged communities” — the difficulties will arise over how to interpret that demand, what will be the specific targets and timeframes, the amount of financial investment.
9. This is an extremely wide-ranging point. Clearly the judiciary should be separate from other forms of administration or political interests. Clearly too, those who hold posts of public responsibility should suffer strong sanctions should they behave corruptly while in office. And obviously, given a democratic society’s reliance on law to manage their affairs, taking cases should not be the prerogative of the rich, which means reducing the cost of such procedures drastically, including appeals. And it seems to me that most people would support such changes, though they would be frantically opposed by special interest groups.
10. Realigning the tax burden to fall upon the rich and closing tax loopholes (more like tax flood gates!) for the rich, ending exile tax status etc all seem commendable and fair to the people, the majority of the population, who bear the actual burden of a number of taxes. And the Left Slate could push those objectives on to whatever government gets elected, as popular demands which the bourgeois parties (and their compromisers) could not concede. But careful! The revolutionaries inside the Left Slate should make it clear that they are not for fairer taxes on the rich and working people, but instead for the expropriation of the rich, whose stolen wealth is to returned to the working class. We do not intend to become part of any government inside a capitalist society, for reasons I shall go into a little further on.
11. There is no question but that the position of the Left Slate should be for a real neutrality on the part of the State, making it increasingly difficult for the ruling class to indulge any dreams of returning to a British Commonwealth or to joining NATO. Such alliances have dire consequences not only for millions of people abroad but also ultimately at home – one consequence alone would be to facilitate foreign military intervention in the 26-County state in the event of an insurrection or even the election of a Left-leaning government. Alliances of that sort always include a “mutual assistance” clause and we can be sure that the “mutual assistance” envisaged is one between the capitalist ruling classes of the various states.
Prevention of torture should be a human rights requirement of every nation and state but, on the contrary, it is ensured in practice by none. Those who complain of their followers being tortured have been shown time and time again to be willing to inflict it themselves – always for the “highest” of reasons. There is no reason to believe therefore that no participants among the Left Slate will at some point, finding conditions favouring such a practice, indulge in it themselves. But the Slate should in any case incorporate it into its program. And thereby also, it might be said, strive to build some protection for its own members and supporters from such practices by the Gardaí and prison guards.
In the field of human rights and under the principles of internationalist solidarity, it is clear too that a Left Slate should advocate and push for a humane regime for the processing of refugees and migrant workers and their integration into the population.
12. This seems like a progressive demand but actually I do not support it. This is something perhaps for a revolutionary government and such can only come about after the overthrow of capitalism.
But I do think that the Left Slate should advocate the reunification of the island and religious freedom. Understanding the composition of the Irish Left, inclusion of reunification in the Manifesto is bound to run into difficulties from some quarters – revolutionaries, not just Republicans, will have to consider whether to compromise to some extent on this demand for an agreed Left Slate manifesto (while retaining their own political demands outside of that) and, if so, how to do so.
13. The creation of a register of political lobbyists is not actually a revolutionary demand but I think revolutionaries should support it. Such a register will help to expose the lines of communication and mutual assistance of capitalist political parties and the capitalists themselves. The same goes for tendering for State and local authority projects. But I do not support the rest of those demands. They seem to me to envisage a Left Government, trying to make the system better and, at the same time, stabilising it. This is not what revolutionaries are about. Besides which it seems to me that the creation of another parliamentary tier is counter-democratic and would tend to increased bureaucracy.
14. I understand the motivation for this but find it difficult to envisage how it might be achieves. Anti-monopoly legislation might for a while hamper media monopolisation but the experience of other countries shows that ultimately, it will not be successful. Enforcing a system of right of reply (as distinct from a voluntary one adopted by the media) for those who feel they have been misrepresented in the media is one possibility. Another might be enforcing the right of publication of a counter-report when substantiation can be provided on, for example, the numbers reported as attending a demonstration or the events during a confrontation between police and demonstrators.
But definitely, the Left Slate should push for the lifting of State restrictions on community radio and television, with the aim of facilitating a diversity of such broadcasting, including news reporting, political commentary, cultural performance and discussion, etc.
15. I do not oppose this point nor do I endorse it. A new Constitution worth having, in my view, is a revolutionary one and as such, can only be properly conceived of by a population that has passed through a revolutionary process and been, in the course of that, revolutionised and empowered.
SHOULD REVOLUTIONARIES SUPPORT THE FORMATION OF A LEFT SLATE?
“OK, so let us imagine that a credible Left Slate is agreed and presents itself for election. Should revolutionaries ask people to vote for it?”
I think so. But it should also be clear that organisation and mobilisation in struggle and resistance should not diminish one iota but, on the contrary, intensify. And revolutionaries should clearly tell the public that only the complete overthrow of the ruling class can usher in lasting change – and that the working class should prepare themselves for that struggle. But also that, whatever members of that coalition slate may say or do, the revolutionaries will never participate in any administration of the old system, i.e no national government prior to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the expropriation of the capitalist class.
“Perhaps revolutionaries should then just ignore the Left slate and concentrate exclusively on revolutionary work – organising and supporting campaigns of resistance, ideological and historical education?”
I strongly disagree. Campaigning for such a slate would bring revolutionary ideology to thousands of working people who are currently unreachable by the revolutionaries. And many people will want to know what revolutionaries think of the Left Slate and of its policies.
And anyway, just because we are revolutionaries, does that mean we are against reforms? Not at all – in our history as revolutionaries, we have been some of the most resolute campaigners for reforms and defenders of them when they have been won! However we are not reformists – the kind of people who believe in a radical or steady improvement in life by reforms but leaving the capitalist system in place.
But we are for reforms that strengthen the working class, the movement of resistance. For examples: the right of workers to combine and strike; the shorter working week and safety legislation; the abolition of child labour; universal education; the right to vote for all adults regardless of gender or property; equal rights regardless of sexuality; abolition of slavery; abolition of racist laws and regulations; the right to oppose invasion; separation of Church and State; the right to protest and campaign politically; the right to freedom of speech and of the press; universal free health care; free or cheap childcare; low-rental housing. These were all rights that we fought for and many were hard-won.
“OK, so revolutionaries could organise electoral support work for the Left Slate – but surely not participate in the actual Slate? Revolutionaries should not present any candidates, of course.”
But why not? We are not against elections in all cases. We elect people to responsible positions in our organisations, decide policies by vote at congresses, decide tactical and strategic aims by voting too. What we are against is not voting but bourgeois elections, where no real change is offered, where we are encouraged to put our faith in some representatives of the existing system and to leave things in their hands for a number of years with little control over what they say or do. Revolutionaries can make it clear that is not what we are about as well as making it clear what we are about, what we intend to do if elected – and if elected, stick to that.
Revolutionary representatives within the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), elected as part of a Left Slate, can work among the other successful candidates of the Slate to strengthen adherence to the list of demands and to combat drift away from them or towards other concessions to the ruling class.
And if we are part of the discussion on the Manifesto and the Slate, we can also participate in the fight to agree that Manifesto in the first place because it is certain that will not be an easy struggle. But let us never forget that the role of the Left in any Parliament should be to support the struggles of the working people outside – not the other way around.
NO TO A LEFT GOVERNMENT
As revolutionaries, we are for the overthrow of the system, the expropriation of the rich, the empowerment of the working people. There will be arguments and discussions about how best to achieve those aims and that’s fine. Let the people, participating in those discussions, decide, experiment, make mistakes, revise. But that can only really take place in practice when the people hold revolutionary power, i.e after the overthrow of the capitalist system.
Should a situation exist where a Left Government be elected, or looks likely to be elected, the social democracts and liberals will quickly call for slowing down, for less struggle, to let them get under way. At this point the capitalist class must be weak, perhaps divided among themselves on how to respond, perhaps unsure of the reliability of their repressive forces, the police and army. Or perhaps, though weakened, the ruling class is merely biding its time, organising a coup or some other event. Or, very likely, instead or in addition to the above, they are working with elements inside the Left Government or Party to seduce them, to arrange compromises, etc.
This is the point at which revolutionaries, far from resting and wait-and-see, far from facilitating a Government that is trying to stabilise the system in its hour of difficulty, should instead intensify their mobilisations, their actions, and organise the people more militantly and more daringly, pushing for more rapid enactments of popular demands. Should the ruling class be paralysed or indecisive, they should be shocked further and further, exactly as their disaster capitalists have done to national systems, as described by Naomi Klein in Shock Doctrine (2007).
We can hardly be free do all that from inside a Left Government.
Of course those in the Left Government will plead with us and with the people to give them more time; they will tell the people their great plans, perhaps plead their difficulties. They will accuse the revolutionaries of being disrupters, wreckers, saboteurs …. They may send their police to arrest us.
It will not be the first time in our history to be accused of such things. And in a sense, they will be right — we do intend to wreck the system and we do intend to wreck their project of stabilising it. We intend to overthrow it all and to bring in socialism, the organisation of society and its productive forces and resources by and for the benefit of the people. And that’s the wheel we’ll keep pushing and rolling.
Old election posters: https://irishelectionliterature.com/tag/old-fianna-fail-election-poster/