The United Left Alliance (ULA) has five members in the southern Irish Parliament. The Alliance brings together the Irish Socialist Workers Party. Socialist Party and a range of smaller groups and individuals. At a time when the Irish working class has been on the receiving end of the European ruling class’ austerity offensive how has the Irish left risen to the challenge. John McAnulty attended a recent national meeting at which the alliance chose not to become a party and remain a coalition of spheres of influence.
This report comes from the Socialist Democracy site.
A new political season is beginning in Ireland and the socialist movement is gearing up for a new round of activity. Plans include a mass rally, a non-payment campaign on the household and proposed water charges and a rank and file movement in the trade unions.
The individual elements of these plans are to be welcomed but, put together and compared with the position following the election and the June ULA convention, the movement has retreated significantly, both organisationally and politically, from the rather modest gains made then.
The organisational retreat should be self-evident. Following the election and the June convention the question of the United Left Alliance developing into a political party was still open. That no longer seems to be the case. It now seems to be defined as a loose alliance, with a great deal of friction between the core groups of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party. In addition, the ULA is not seen as the central organizing structure for resistance but rather as a facilitator for broader alliances.
So the ULA facilitates an open meeting with other political groups to plan a broad demonstration. The component parts organize a "don’t pay" campaign but the structure is an anti-water charges committee rather than the ULA. The planned rank and file trade union movement is also composed of the component parts of the ULA rather than the ULA itself.
The organisational retreat is accompanied by a political retreat. In the aftermath of the election the central issues were repudiation of the debt and a working class party. Now the central and on-going campaign is to be a non-payment campaign based on "people power" and constituency organisations. The movement is in a bind. Only a minority support debt repudiation, but a broader movement would lack the political tools to fight.
The contradictions were most evident at the water and household charges meeting.
Almost everyone present at the non-payment rally is a socialist, but no-one proposes the self-organisation of the working class around their own programme. It is accepted that those who refuse to pay will face legal action, but this is to be countered by demonstrations, civil disobedience and hiring lawyers. The trade unions, the power of organized labour, are not mentioned. Explanations of the non-payment strategy are confused. A number of past non-payment campaigns, under very different political circumstances, are lumped together to show that a new campaign will succeed. It is accepted that the most recent non-payment campaign, on bin charges, was defeated. One speaker went so far as to claim that acting in a campaign raises morale even in defeat and that the bin charge campaign offered a firm foundation for a new water and household charge campaign.
Questions about policy and strategy led to a hostile response from the Socialist Party. The tactic was non-payment and the strategy was civil disobedience. Mass non-payment would drive back the state, the European Central Bank and the IMF.
Organisational and political weaknesses are linked to dependency and to a strategy of drawing in broader forces, so the plans for a mass demonstration depend on an alliance with groups like Sinn Fein and the trade union leaderships, ignoring Sinn Fein’s policy and the role of the trade union leadership inside government /ECB/IMF offensive. Activists are able, at the non-payment rally, to announce the "support" of Jimmy Kelly of UNITE with any questioning of his role to date.
A major plank of Joe Higgins’ argument was that we now have a choice – to pay or not to pay. This had not been the case with earlier pay cuts and levies. Given the choice, people would choose not to pay.
Things aren’t so simple. Public sector workers were balloted on the Croke Park agreement, it was endorsed, and no on-going opposition emerged in the unions. There has been a general election. A large number of voters supported Fine Gael and many working class voters voted Labour. Both parties stood in support of the austerity.
The point of the "choice" argument seems to be that workers instinctively oppose the austerity and that the task of socialists is to make the call for mobilization.
The evidence seems to be that the workers, although very angry, have been convinced that there is no alternative to the austerity. The task of socialists then is to make that case. It may be that the workers, or a section of the working class, are driven to desperation and spontaneously erupt. Socialists then would not be needed to make a call, but rather to propose the elements of an alternative programme.
That programme would need to counter the capitalist offensive as a whole, rather than one element of it. Again Joe Higgins suggested that the main issue was the extraction of revenue. This is true – the many charges, levies, pay cuts, pay freezes, pension cuts and so on are part of a drive to save money that can then be given to the European Central Bank as interest payment.
However, as government and banks say over and over again, there is a long term need for restructuring to increase Irish competitiveness. That means that wages have to go down and stay down. Pensions and public services can be regarded as a "social wage" on top of the cash wage packet and have to be cut as well.
Central to this strategy is the privatisation of public services. Not only does this very rapidly transfer wealth from public to private hands and reduce services to rock bottom provision, it effectively wipes out longstanding rights and speeds up the "race to the bottom" in wages and conditions. The imposition of charges is a way of converting services to commodities in order that they can be more effectively privatized.
We can’t select an element of the offensive and decide that we will take a stand there and there only. This is equivalent to an army deciding to hold one point in a battlefront. It would be an invitation to be outflanked and defeated. A struggle around household charges would rapidly need to address issues such as electricity and gas privatization.
A global fight requires an alternative to the capitalist programme of austerity. It requires a workers’ programme. The starting point is the absolute repudiation of the debt. This needs to be transformed from a slogan into specific actions that the workers can take. That will include non-payment and civil disobedience, alongside industrial action, guerrilla strikes in specific industries, general strikes, seizures and occupations. The overall aim should be to cripple the government and the institutions carrying out the austerity programme while at the same time building independent workers organisations that can break from the collaboration of the union bosses and the influence of the capitalist parties.
The central independent structure of the working class, able to put into practice the many elements of the struggle, is a working class party. The ULA is moving back from this task. Many supporters may believe that they are simply putting off the issue until the time is right. In this they are mistaken. The time to begin building the workers’ party is now, not down the road when fragmentation and betrayal by traditional leaderships have weakened us further.