Cliffism to ministerialism

The SWP’s comrades in Ireland are dreaming of joining a ‘broad alliance’ capitalist government led by Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Féin. Why does Alex Callinicos so tamely acquiesce to what is a betrayal of elementary principle, asks Anne McShane

Richard Boyd Barrett, the leading member of the People before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and one of its parliamentary representatives (TD), made a statesman-like appearance at Marxism 2022. Clearly he has a sense of himself as a politician who is going places.

Not without reason, he hopes that the next election in the Twenty-six counties will bring about a “left government”. Though without a majority, Sinn Féin will be the biggest bloc, so goes the calculation and therefore have to seek out coalition partners on the left, including the PBPA. So Boyd Barrett is looking forward to his ministerial portfolio, his ministerial salary and his ministerial chauffeur.

We have documented the apparently inexorable rise of SF on a number of occasions in this paper - it now stands at 36% in the polls, as compared to a combined total of 33% for the two main governing parties of Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG).1 For Boyd Barrett, SF’s rise signifies an upswing of progressive and leftwing politics in Ireland, which the PBPA will also benefit from - it currently stands at 4% in the polls.

He presented his arguments for a ‘broad alliance’ government at a meeting entitled ‘Can there be a united Ireland?’ Firstly he asserted that all socialists had a duty to support Irish reunification and then went on to outline the manner in which James Connolly’s prediction of a carnival of reaction that came with partition. For more than 100 years a sectarian statelet has existed in the Six Counties, along with a repressive, priest-ridden southern state. But that is now being swept away by the development of a mass radical movement around campaigns for social rights.

This movement has won a number of demands from the southern state in recent years, including abortion rights, same-sex marriage and transgender recognition. And it has impacted on life north of the border, where young people have been inspired to make similar demands (some of which have been won, despite intransigent opposition from unionist parties). These are the transformed circumstances which Boyd Barrett believes provide an unprecedented opportunity for a united Ireland ... and more.

For the first time “in history we have a chance to achieve this left government” he says. He and his comrades would drive SF to implement radical policies. He pointed to their success in exerting pressure during the anti-water charges campaigns of 2015-16 and the abortion rights campaign of 2018. Despite the fact that the PBPA has just four TDs, along with Mick Barry of the PBPA/Solidarity alliance, he reckoned that they wield influence well out of proportion to their number - “there are more Trotskyists in the Dáil now than Fianna Fáil TDs”. Not that there is a grain of truth in that assertion - FF actually has 34 TDs and, while he and his comrades may consider themselves disciples of Leon Trotsky, the road they are taking owes a great deal more to Joseph Stalin and the post-1935 popular front of ‘official communism’. Of course, they have not studied Stalin, Georgi Dimitrov and the proceedings of Comintern’s 7th and final congress. PBPA’s popular frontism is spontaneous … as was the SWP’s popular frontism in Respect. Perhaps that explains why the Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather triumvirate are so tamely acquiescing to the betrayal of an elementary socialist principle: working class political independence and shunning all and any participation in coalition governments with capitalist parties.

Boyd Barrett certainly excused himself in the usual ‘official communist’ manner. PBPA is part of “a broad alliance around the cost of living crisis” and it combines this with a demand that “Sinn Féin become a part of that alliance, along with the Irish Trade Union Congress”.

This ‘broad alliance’, having captured the Dáil, will campaign for a referendum for a united Ireland. The ‘border poll’ will be carried out, however, under the terms and conditions of the Good Friday agreement - something that the Northern Ireland Secretary of the UK government can call if it appears to them that a majority in the north want unity. There are numerous other conditions, but the most important problem is that it is an imperialist solution to the ‘Irish problem’ - and therefore a reactionary one. Paradoxically, while Boyd Barrett condemns imperialist partition, he advocates imperialist unity. It is, for him, the only way forward. Such is his journey from Cliffism to ministerial socialism.

When a contributor from the floor asked how the PBPA actually connected with building a socialist party, he argued, incredibly, there had been no dilution of PBPA principles, and said: “We are using this platform to agitate for action from the bottom up.” His comrades are “organising from below for a socialist Ireland”. And “when people join, we can recruit them to the Socialist Workers Network”. The SWN is the name of the group of comrades of the former SWP (Irish version), which dissolved itself into the PBPA in 2018. John Molyneux, a long-time British SWP member who relocated to Ireland, argued that “lots of comrades don’t understand that the PBPA is a radical party led by revolutionary socialists, and not an alliance between revolutionaries and reformists”.

But, of course, that is not the point the comrade from the floor was raising - which was to ask why the comrades are choosing to build a non-socialist party and want to form a coalition government with what is now unmistakably a capitalist party. Sinn Féin long ago ditched its revolutionary version of petty-bourgeois national socialism. Today it is closer in spirit and method to Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP.

If, and it is a big if, given the unknown of parliamentary arithmetic, Sinn Féin looks for coalition partners on the left, it will not be SF which is pushed and pulled to the left. No, it will be the left which is pushed and pulled to the right. Such has been the sorry history of broad alliance governments.

  1. https://www.businesspost.ie/politics/sinn-fein-widens-its-lead-in-latest-red-c-poll.↩︎