Illusions of the left
There should be no talk of participation in a bourgeois government, argues James Harvey.
In the endless round of talks and negotiations following Ireland’s recent general election, calls for a ‘left government’ have been heard from sections of the Irish left. The surge in electoral support for Sinn Féin and the serious electoral setback for the two establishment parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, has seemingly strengthened arguments that there has been a seismic shift in Irish politics.
Thus, the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) has called for a government made up of Sinn Féin, the Greens, Social Democrats and other ‘left’ independents to follow through on “the electoral mandate they have been given”. They go on to argue that such a minority government “would meet with tremendous opposition from the rich and privileged”, but that this putative left administration could act as rallying point for the working class, which could be brought onto the streets to defend ‘their’ government against the attacks of Irish and international capitalism.1
As the informal talks and soundings between the various parties have continued, the possibility of such a ‘left government’ has receded. Whilst Sinn Féin and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, have continued to bask in the limelight and keep the electoral momentum going with a series of rallies to promote its claim to lead the new administration, the real action seems to be going elsewhere. Although the exact shape of the new coalition remains uncertain, an increasingly likely outcome now seems to be a minority Fianna Fáil government, kept in office thanks to a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with Fine Gael - the mirror of the arrangement that kept Leo Varadkar in office before the election.2
Despite milking its electoral success for all its worth and loudly proclaiming that it constitutes the actual radical left alternative to the ‘civil war parties’, Sinn Féin has not adopted the more ‘revolutionary’ stance of some its prospective coalition partners on the Irish left. Answering a question from a member of PBPA at a public rally, McDonald said that Sinn Féin would not be taking part in a protest organised by left groups on March 7 against a government of the “civil war parties” - although she wished those taking part in it well. Mary Lou thinks that, now she is playing in the big league, such street politics are a distraction to the real struggle - to get into government. Thus, whilst continuing to burnish her anti-establishment credentials, her real focus is “now on negotiations with other parties. The reality is, the numbers will either stand or fall within the Dáil.”3
In truth, the electoral arithmetic and the composition of such a ‘left government’ always made such an outcome extremely unlikely. The numbers were never really there, even for a minority Sinn Féin government with issue-by-issue support from an unstable and contradictory ‘coalition’ of supporters. These range from formally Trotskyist groups through to conventional Social Democrats and Greens, leavened with a smattering of idiosyncratic, maverick, left independent TDs. However, before we turn away from these electoral alarums and excursions to await the arrival of some variant of the governments that have dominated the Irish state since partition, let us consider some wider aspects of the Irish left’s strategy and its attitude towards participation in a bourgeois government.
The mistaken strategy of the PBPA/Solidarity was not simply based on its illusions in Sinn Féin’s radical rhetoric or even belief that a motley coalition of non-“civil war parties” could be cobbled together as a ‘left government’. The issue is a deeper one, which touches on fundamental questions of revolutionary strategy extending far beyond the electoral politics of the Irish left. At its core, the demand for a left government, which PBPA/Solidarity, Rise and others raised during the election was essentially a call that ignored the international nature of capitalism and confined the struggles of the Irish working class to the 26-county state. The experience of the Irish state during the bail-out, and the nature of Irish capitalism’s relationships with the European Union and British bourgeoisie shows that, especially for a small state like Ireland, a programme of ‘socialism in one country’ is beyond utopian.
Likewise the PBPA’s perspective of mobilising the working class to defend a left government from attacks by the bourgeoisie, and its flirtation with a Syriza-style heroic last stand against capitalism, seems to be building castles in the air. The expectation (or is it merely wishful thinking?) that from such a crisis the revolutionary consciousness and militant combativity of the Irish working class can be forged and strengthened has not been borne out by historical experience. That of Syriza and its disastrous defeat - far from teaching our movement about the nature of the capitalist state and the need for a revolutionary transformation that enables the working class to take power - only sowed the seeds of disillusion and further set back the cause of the working class in Greece and internationally. A Sinn Féin-led left government in Ireland, if such a thing was even numerically possible, would not only be subject to the same sort of pressure as Syriza’s, but it would not even have the modicum of socialist principle that Tsipras and co used to cover their retreat and ‘explain’ their eventual defeat.
The politics of the Irish left do not arise from ignorance about Syriza or indeed the long, painful historical experience of ‘socialist’ governments taking office with anti-establishment rhetoric and promises of ‘real change’. The comrades of PBPA/Solidarity, Rise and the Socialist Party apparently do not need to be told about how reformist parties begin in government by attempting to manage capitalism in the interests of ‘the many’ - before going on to become abject servants of the bourgeois state, who attack the working class. These comrades constantly rail against such reformist betrayals and argue that their own politics provide the only revolutionary alternative to such reformism and capitulation to the bourgeoisie. So if, as they tell us, they ‘understand’ the treachery of reformism and the failures of social democracy, why do they rush to join in the bourgeois game of parliamentary politics - not only in Ireland, but internationally - when the chance presents itself?
Beneath the Irish left’s calls for a left government - or the similar demand of groups like Socialist Appeal in Britain for ‘Labour to power on a socialist programme’ - lies a limited conception of the potential revolutionary consciousness of the working class. The strategies of many on the ‘revolutionary left’ are based upon the idea of the rapid transformation of consciousness during political and economic crises, which will apparently not only expose the true nature of reformism and capitalism itself, but also open the minds of the masses to a revolutionary alternative offered by the hitherto marginal forces of revolutionary socialism. In this totally inadequate form of politics, transitional demands - as advocated by Trotsky in the late 1930s and advanced in various forms by the contemporary variants of the Trotskyist left - act as a bridge to lead the working from a reformist understanding towards a revolutionary consciousness.
As in the contemporary Irish case, this ‘shock therapy’, to put it mildly, underplays the revolutionary potential of the working class. The process of transforming society seems beyond the working class: it must be led gradually by the revolutionary left through the crisis and educated through the politics of transitional stages for its historical role in overthrowing capitalism. These politics not only negate the basic Marxist idea of the self-emancipation and independent self-organisation of the working class: they also act as a brake on the revolutionary consciousness that groups like PBPA/Solidarity ostensibly aim to develop. Like the focus amongst the Labour left in Britain that the absolute alpha and omega of socialist politics lie in the election of a Labour government, the current emphasis by the Irish left on a left government will similarly result in disorientation and disillusion amongst the advanced and militant layers of the Irish working class.
Revolutionaries in Ireland need to debate how they can create a real force for socialist transformation: one that does not begin with illusions in Sinn Féin and participation in bourgeois governments, but acts instead as a revolutionary tribune of the working class and a thorough-going party of extreme opposition to Irish and international capitalism.
. See ‘Sinn Féin’s success, left’s collapse’ Weekly Worker February 13.↩︎