Mary Lou McDonald: leads a capitalist party

Power, not office

With the main parties still jockeying for position, James Harvey looks at the ongoing calls for a ‘left government’ with Sinn Féin

As the political lockdown in Dublin starts to ease, all parties are beginning to navigate their way through what will become the ‘new normal’ following the February general election and the stasis imposed by the coronavirus crisis. For both the main bourgeois parties - the ‘civil war parties’, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - and the various outsiders jockeying for position, such as Sinn Féin, the Greens and a myriad of ‘independents’, the post-election period has thrown up a number of serious challenges.

It is not just the Covid-19 crisis that has prevented political business as usual: the general election confirmed that the long-term decline in the political dominance of the civil war parties, which began in the 1980s and accelerated following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in 2007-08, is continuing apace.1 The new electoral arithmetic limited the options open to the previously dominant parties: neither Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil could form a government without some kind of ‘arrangement’ involving the other. The only other possibility was building an unstable coalition from a rag-tag assortment of smaller parties, representing contradictory positions and interests.2

What gave the usual post-election political horse-trading an added twist for all the players in the game was the electoral success of Sinn Féin. The party had gained the largest share of the vote and tied with Fianna Fáil as one of the two largest parties in the Dáil with 37 TDs, making it potentially a serious actor in any political bargaining.3 However, despite some early hints by Fianna Fáil that Sinn Féin might - just - be an acceptable coalition partner, this was never really likely for a variety of historical and electoral reasons.4 Recently the possible outlines of a form of coalition involving Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens, with some type of support from Labour and the Social Democrats, has started to emerge.5

Left reaction

The political disruption caused by the electoral rise of Sinn Féin and the corresponding crisis for the civil war parties has excited much attention amongst the range of groups which comprise the Irish left.6 Although their parliamentary representation and share of the vote is small, a combination of the single transferable vote-proportional representation voting system and concentrated local support bases in cities such as Dublin and Cork give these groups a political voice and impact relatively greater than in other comparable European states.7 The successes and failures of their political campaigning and electoral interventions also provide Marxists with a case study of the politics of the various currents claiming to form the revolutionary left internationally.

These wider issues are perhaps best encapsulated by the demand for a ‘left government’ that was advanced during the election campaign and, given the parliamentary arithmetic, assumed a particular importance in the days after the results were announced. Although the exact configuration of the parties in the Dáil made a government without at least one of the civil war parties unlikely, and a ‘left government’ impossible, sections of the Irish left are still continuing to raise this demand. For example, on May 5, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd-Barrett, in an open letter to Sinn Fein, suggests:

… Sinn Féin, Solidarity-People Before Profit, Left Independents, the Social Democrats and others who see themselves on the left in Irish politics should renew our previously commenced efforts to develop an alternative programme for real change and press forward a campaign for a left government.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland, we had reached quite an advanced stage in our efforts with you and other left independents to develop such a programme and, while a pause in those discussions was inevitable in the context of the health emergency, we believe we should now resume those efforts with a view to finalising that programme and presenting it to the public.

I feel that, more than ever, we owe it to those who voted for change on February 8 to offer a real alternative to the policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and challenge the narrative that their return to power is inevitable.8

A key element in this analysis is the characterisation of Sinn Féin as a left party. Sinn Féin leaders have certainly benefitted electorally by presenting themselves as radical outsiders who challenge a corrupt system.9 The civil war parties reinforce this rebel image by emphasising the party’s historical connections with the IRA’s armed struggle in the six counties. For Fine Gael especially, this ‘shadow of the gunman’ makes Sinn Féin completely unacceptable as a party of government in Dublin, whilst for Sinn Féin this historical whiff of cordite does them no harm at all amongst their potential supporters in the urban working class.10

Marxists, however, should take neither of these assessments at face value. Despite the party’s origins in an insurrectionary mass movement for national liberation during the 1970s and 1980s, in terms of its programme and its politics Sinn Féin is now clearly a bourgeois party - albeit one committed to a modified form of national capitalism.11 As an all-Ireland party it presents two faces: north of the border, it works the system and sits in the power-sharing executive implementing austerity, along with the Democratic Unionists (DUP). In these communalised politics of sectarian carve-ups, Sinn Féin’s role is to act as the voice of the nationalist middle class at the top table in Stormont. South of the border the party’s appeal appears to be much more radical and, in consequence, it has been successful from the late 1990s in gaining electoral support in working class constituencies far removed in social composition and political tone from the traditional rural republican heartlands along the border.

However, whilst ‘left’ Sinn Féin TDs such as Eoin Ó Broin have an established public profile as radical critics of ‘the system’ in areas such as housing and health policy, the party’s approach is actually one of cautious intervention and limited European social democracy. The openly expressed eagerness of Sinn Féin to go into government with the Dublin political establishment in the post-election period and the timidity of its programme for change shows the real nature of its politics.12 For example, in combining a ‘forensic’ analysis of the shortcomings of banks and financial institutions with stale platitudes of national consensus and calls for “real and meaningful solidarity from our banks and financial institutions”, Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, shows that, far from being a revolutionary tribune, the party actually functions as a licensed critic which accepts the underlying framework of contemporary capitalism.13 Despite its ‘revolutionary’ past and current radical rhetoric, Sinn Féin is a capitalist party.

The comrades from People Before Profit must surely be fully aware of its recent history, given that a critique of Sinn Féin as a pro-austerity, sectarian party of government at Stormont has been central in People Before Profit’s electoral campaigns in the Northern Ireland assembly elections in recent years.14 Furthermore, it has previously, and correctly, attacked Sinn Féin south of the border for shifting its position on taxation and cosying up to capitalism. Yet it persists in claiming that Sinn Féin could join a “left government”.15 The rationale of Richard Boyd-Barrett’s continuing calls for such a government seems to largely rest on the ‘revolutionary’ situation that the formation of such a government could open up. In the aftermath of the election he argued:

Even a short-lived minority left government could, with public support and mobilisation, quickly take some radical measures on housing, health, wages, the cost of living and climate action, and defy Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to vote against them. The tide for change in the election can be translated into a movement of people power that would force through some genuinely effective and radical measures that it would be difficult for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to stop.16


In a broadly similar vein Cian Prendiville, writing on the website of Rise (part of the Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance), argues that after the election “there’s no going back”, but is less clear on “what’s ahead”.17 He too calls for a “left government”, but for him this slogan is linked to “socialist policies”. Significantly, unlike People Before Profit, not only does he not include Sinn Féin, the Greens et al in his definition of “the left”, but he correctly points out the capitalist character of their politics and their record in government at Stormont. Presumably then, Prendiville’s left is confined to the five TDs of Solidarity-People Before Profit? He does, after all, see great potential and a real possibility for radical change in campaigning around the left government slogan:

With a bold approach, the socialist left can make a real impact. We can’t shy away from the desire for a left government: we must embrace it. We must explain why a left government will need socialist policies if the promises of change are to be kept … While the surge in support for Sinn Féin reflects a desire for such radical change, we also cannot shy away from the reality that the Sinn Féin leadership, as it stands, do not …

The political and business elite will resist every policy which challenges their rule and their profiteering. The EU will try to impose its Thatcherite fiscal rules to block real change, as they did to Syriza in Greece. A left government will need to reject these anti-democratic, anti-worker diktats not just in words, but in deeds. That means going beyond mere parliamentary manoeuvres, and actually building a mass movement in the communities and workplaces.18

Whilst other currents of the Irish left seem to accept the underlying premises of this approach, there is some difference of emphasis, particularly on how far they explicitly call for a left government. The Socialist Party - a product of a split in the Committee for a Workers’ International and an affiliate of the International Socialist Alternative - supports negotiating with “any party that desires real change and is serious about fighting for the interests of ordinary working people and the young, and we are willing to do so”. It lays down a series of preconditions, but stresses that for real change, it’s necessary to break with the rigged capitalist economy through the democratic public control and ownership of the key wealth and economic resources. This is essential if the key problems society faces are to be tackled.

Unlike People Before Profit it draws back from clearly including Sinn Féin as part of the left or in calling for left participation in government, but, although the SP seems to keep its options open, it does share many of the same underlying assumptions as its fellow-members of the Solidarity-People Before Profit Alliance, when it suggests:

… Left and socialist TDs should not endorse an approach they do not think will deliver for ordinary working people, but should continue to organise and build for a genuine left, socialist government.

However, we wish to state very clearly, if there was a choice for the next government between such an alternative new government, that doesn’t have the involvement of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and a government dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, we would advocate that left and socialist TDs vote to allow the new government to come to power, while not participating in it. In that way, ordinary people will see in practice what approach and policies the new government implements, and our job will be to hold them to account on their promise of real change and proceed to organise workers, women and young people to continue the struggle for such real change. The potential to fight for change from below was illustrated in the campaign itself by the massive protest of childcare workers, the teachers’ strike and the ongoing anger on the pensions issue (my emphasis).19

One of the few groups not to join in these various calls for a left government is the CWI-Ireland. Whilst much of its positions and criticisms are essentially shaped by its own factional history with the Socialist Party-Ireland and the recent split that produced the International Socialist Alternative, it correctly shies away from the calls for any left participation in government. It correctly criticises Sinn Féin’s economic policies and its willingness to cooperate with the civil war and other “establishment parties”. Likewise, in its analysis of the election results it accurately explains that the Sinn Féin vote had an anti-establishment character and that the party’s electoral surge shows widespread discontent and a “transformed landscape”.20

The CWI argues that “no party in the Dáil currently offers a bold and consistent socialist programme or perspectives” and so rejects the political horse-trading with Sinn Féin and Labour that would be inevitable for the formation of a left government. Instead it correctly calls for the building of a “strong Marxist current” - but the history of the CWI and its perspectives on the nature of the ‘mass party of the working class’ do not inspire confidence that it is capable of understanding either the type of programme or the strategy needed to create such a revolutionary current in Ireland.21


Prendiville’s analysis will be familiar to comrades who have been active in the British revolutionary left. His approach has much in common with Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency, as well as other groups that emerged from the Trotskyist tradition with their clarion calls of “Labour to power on a socialist programme!” over the past 70 years.

Whilst this demand - in a British context at least - was a response by Trotskyists to the electoral and political dominance of the Labour Party in the working class and the weakness of the revolutionary left, the problems of confronting reformist illusions and building a mass revolutionary movement capable of leading the working class to power go back to the very origins of Marxism as an organised political party in the 19th century.22

Consequently, beginning with Marx’s analysis of the significance of the Paris Commune in 1870-71, and Engels’ contribution to the Erfurt programme of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1891, there is a considerable historical experience and corpus of literature on the relationship between participating in bourgeois governments, no matter how ‘left’, and the building of support for socialism amongst the working class.23 Recent articles in this paper on the nature of Second International Marxism, the significance of the SPD as an influence on Bolshevism and the disputed political legacy of Karl Kautsky have explored and illuminated these themes.24 Similar problems of confronting reformism and revisionism, and developing the revolutionary consciousness of the working class dominated the debates of the new Third International about the strategy of ‘going to the masses’ and ‘the united workers’ front’.25 When it comes to those discussions on the united front, the comrades from Rise should certainly be aware of them: during their factional struggle within the CWI, Paul Murphy cited ‘the united front’ as a justification for his strategy of ‘engaging’ with Sinn Féin’s electorate and with social forces outside the working class.26

However, the conclusions that Murphy (and the rest of the Irish left which continues to call for a “left government”, with or without “socialist policies”) needs to draw about the correct revolutionary strategy in Ireland and elsewhere can be found succinctly in the two resolutions published below.27 The 1900 resolution was adopted by the Paris Congress of the Second International and arose from a controversy about the participation of a French socialist, Alexandre Millerand, in a liberal bourgeois government headed by Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, and which also included the Marquis de Galliffet, who commanded troops during the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune. Whilst much of this criticism of Millerand had a moralistic character about sitting in the cabinet room with such a clear enemy of the working class, wider questions also emerged - both during the debates at the Congress and in the French and German socialist parties.

The defenders of Millerand argued that participation in a reformist cabinet was essential to defend the French Republic, when its very existence was seriously threatened from the right, as well as being a way of achieving tangible reforms and gains for the working class in the future.28 Drawing on similar arguments, revisionists in the German SPD also linked these French justifications to their own views on the political strategy of evolutionary socialism and gradual reform.29

The 1900 resolution, which Karl Kautsky drafted, was a clearly elastic compromise that, whilst condemning participation in bourgeois governments, conceded that there could be situations in which socialists could enter coalitions temporarily. In defending his resolution, Kautsky made the type of distinction between questions of principle and questions of tactics which was increasingly central to debates in the SPD: “The question as to whether and to what extent the socialist proletariat can participate in a bourgeois government is a question of tactics, which has to be answered differently at different times and in different places.”30

The resolution adopted by the Socialist International in 1904 at its Amsterdam Congress followed the position agreed by the SPD at its 1903 Dresden conference. This confirmed the ‘orthodox’ Marxist position of the leadership against Eduard Bernstein and the revisionists, and specifically ruled out the compromises and tactical shifts which had been conceded in 1900. Although the Dresden resolution emerges from a ‘German’ debate, its rejection of “any responsibility whatever for the political and economic conditions based on capitalist production” was, and remains, a sine qua non for Marxists - as does the resulting opposition to “any methods tending to maintain the ruling class in power”. Furthermore, although based on the explicit repudiation of both Millerand’s and Bernstein’s tactical reformism, it is clear that the declaration that “the Social Democracy could accept no share in the government within capitalist society” is not simply an ‘historical position’ without contemporary relevance.

On this basis any number of objections can be made to the calls for a left or socialist government, ranging from the impossibility of socialism in one country - which is partially acknowledged by the references of the comrades in Rise to the experience of Syriza - or that the nature of the capitalist state does not make it a possible instrument of conscious working class self-emancipation.

However, something even more fundamental to Marxism is at the root of this criticism of the demands for a left government. Underpinning both resolutions is an explicit assertion of the revolutionary potential of the working class and the objective conditions which are developing to make the revolutionary transformation of society not only possible, but essential for the future of humanity. The real focus of the resolutions is on how that revolutionary potential can be realised by developing and strengthening the consciousness of the working class through the subjective factor of a revolutionary party.

As my summary of the debate on the Irish left about a “left government” has shown, these essential elements are missing from the discussion. Thus, it is not just the dangers of reformist capitulation by socialist ministers to the parliamentary embrace or sabotage by a reactionary state bureaucracy that the two resolutions draw to our attention. Rather it is the impact that participation in a bourgeois government, no matter how ‘left’, will have on the development of that revolutionary subjectivity.

If we understand socialism as a revolutionary transformation of capitalist property relations, resulting from conscious political action by the working class - as do those comrades in Ireland who lay claim to the banner of Marxism - then it is through the building of a party with a revolutionary programme, not the partial measures implied by the calls for a “left government”, that such a revolutionary movement will be forged.

  1. For electoral data and background to these developments from a conventional academic point of view, see J Coakley and M Gallagher Politics in the Republic of Ireland Abingdon 2018.↩︎

  2. irishtimes.com/election2020/results-hub.↩︎

  3. Ibid.↩︎

  4. extra.ie/2020/02/09/news/politics/micheal-martin-soften-stance-sinn-fein-coalition.↩︎

  5. irishtimes.com/news/politics/varadkar-and-martin-promise-to-honour-pay-deal-in-bid-to-get-labour-on-board-1.4250784.↩︎

  6. For the background to the election see these recent articles in the Weekly Worker: ‘In the balance’ (January 31); Sinn Féin’s success, left’s collapse’ (February 13); ‘Illusions of the left’ (February 29); and ‘Rise to the challenge’ (March 26).↩︎

  7. In the February general election five Solidarity-People Before Profit candidates were elected, gaining 57,420 votes. This was a loose electoral alliance made up of People Before Profit (essentially the Socialist Workers Party), Solidarity (the Socialist Party) and Rise, a split from the Committee for a Workers’ International (for splits in the CWI see ‘Taaffe expels his majority’ Weekly Worker May 2 2019).↩︎

  8. pbp.ie/open-letter-to-sinn-fein.↩︎

  9. See, for example, Sinn Féin’s Manifesto for change issued during the 2020 election campaign: sinnfein.ie/contents/55864.↩︎

  10. theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/16/sinn-fein-election-success-tainted-past.↩︎

  11. There is an extensive literature on the development of Sinn Féin and the Provisional republican movement. For two contrasting accounts - one focusing on the north, the other on politics south of the border - see L Ó Ruairc Peace or pacification? Northern Ireland after the defeat of the IRA Winchester 2019; and D de Breádún Power play: the rise of modern Sinn Féin Dublin 2015.↩︎

  12. sinnfein.ie/contents/55864; irishtimes.com/opinion/mary-lou-mcdonald-this-crisis-shows-that-sinn-féin-was-right-1.4220037.↩︎

  13. irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/banks-accused-of-profiting-on-back-of-pandemic-990318.html.↩︎

  14. irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/12/06/news/people-before-profit-accuse-sinn-fe-in-of-dirty-tricks-over-election-posters-1783517;


  15. irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/sinn-fein-agree-to-people-before-profit-proposal-to-resume-government-talks-998815.html.↩︎

  16. pbp.ie/parties-of-the-left-should-not-facilitate-a-return-of-fg-or-ff-to-government-but-press-on-for-a-left-government.↩︎

  17. letusrise.ie/featured-articles/no-going-back-but-whats-ahead.↩︎

  18. Ibid.↩︎

  19. socialistparty.ie/2020/02/socialist-party-statement-general-election-2020-now.↩︎

  20. cwiireland.net/coronavirus-hits-ireland-following-transformed-post-election-landscape.↩︎

  21. Ibid.↩︎

  22. For an overview, see M Macnair Revolutionary strategy: Marxism and the challenge of left unity London 2008.↩︎

  23. ‘Dispelling the Kautsky myths’ Weekly Worker March 6 2020.↩︎

  24. ‘Kautsky: from Erfurt to Charlottenburg’ Weekly Worker November 10 2011.↩︎

  25. J Riddell (editor) Toward the united front: proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 Leiden 2012.↩︎

  26. irishtimes.com/news/politics/paul-murphy-uses-trotsky-to-explain-how-socialists-can-compete-with-sectarian-sf-1.3816304.↩︎

  27. For the historical context and wider political debate surrounding these resolutions, see ‘Dispelling the Kautsky myths’ Weekly Worker March 6 2020; and ‘Origins of democratic centralism’, November 5 2011.↩︎

  28. J Joll The Second International 1889-1914 London 2013.↩︎

  29. D Geary Karl Kautsky Manchester 1987.↩︎

  30. Ibid p20.↩︎

Second International resolutions

Paris, 1900

In a modern democratic state the conquest of political power by the proletariat cannot be effected by a coup de main, but must be the result of a long and toilsome work of proletarian organisation, political and economic, of the physical and moral regeneration of the working class, and of the gradual conquest of municipal and legislative assemblies.

But in a country where governmental power is centralised, it cannot be conquered in a fragmentary manner.

The entry of an isolated socialist into a bourgeois government cannot be regarded as the normal commencement of the conquest of political power, but only as a compulsory expedient, transitory and exceptional.

If in some special instance the political situation necessitates this dangerous expedient, that is a question of tactics and not of principle; the International Congress is not called upon to pronounce on that point. But in any case, the entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government affords no hope of good results for the militant proletariat unless the great majority of the Socialist Party approves of this step and the socialist minister remains the delegate of his party.

In the contrary case, in which such a minister becomes independent of the party or represents only a section of it, his intervention in a bourgeois ministry threatens disorganisation and confusion to the militant proletariat, threatens to weaken rather than to strengthen it, and hinders rather than advances the proletarian conquest of public powers.

In any case, the Congress is of the opinion that, even in the most exceptional circumstances, a socialist ought to quit the ministry whenever the latter gives any proof of partiality in the struggle between capital and labour. No minister delegated by the Socialist Party can continue to participate in the government if the party concludes that this government has not observed absolute impartiality in the relations between capital and labour.

The Congress reasserts that the class struggle forbids all alliances with any fraction whatever of the capitalist class.

Even admitting that exceptional circumstances may sometimes render coalitions necessary (without confusion of party or tactics), these coalitions, which the party should seek to reduce to the smallest possible number until they entirely disappear, must not be permitted except insofar as their necessity is recognised by the district or national organisation to which the groups concerned belong.

Amsterdam, 1904

The Congress condemns most energetically the revisionist attempts, in the direction of changing our tried and victorious tactics based on the class struggle, and of replacing the conquest of the public powers through the supreme struggle with the bourgeoisie by a policy of concession to the established order.

The consequence of such revisionist tactics would be to change us from a party seeking the swiftest possible transformation of bourgeois society into socialist society - from a party consequently revolutionary in the best sense of the word - into a party contenting itself with the reform of bourgeois society.

Therefore the Congress, convinced - contrary to the present revisionist tendencies - that class antagonisms, far from diminishing, are intensifying, declares:

1. That the party disclaims any responsibility whatever for the political and economic conditions based on capitalist production, and consequently could not approve any methods tending to maintain the ruling class in power.

2. That the Social Democracy could accept no share in the government within capitalist society, as was definitely declared by the Kautsky resolution adopted by the international congress of Paris in 1900.

The Congress moreover condemns any attempt made to veil the ever-growing class antagonism, for the purpose of facilitating an understanding with bourgeois parties.

The Congress looks to the socialist parliamentary group to avail itself of its increased power - increased both by the greater number of its members and by the substantial growth of the body of electors behind it - to persevere in its propaganda toward the final goal of socialism, and, in conformity with our programme, to defend most resolutely the interests of the working class, the extension and consolidation of its political liberties, to demand equality of rights for all; to continue with more energy than ever the struggle against militarism, against the colonial and imperialistic policy, against all manner of injustice, slavery and exploitation; and, finally, to set itself energetically to improve social legislation to make it possible for the working class to accomplish its political and civilising mission.

These resolutions are taken from a book scheduled to be published by Haymarket Books in 2021 and edited by Mike Taber: Under the socialist banner: resolutions of the Second International, 1889-1912.