Crisis makes itself felt

Irish working class moves into action. Anne McShane reports

The recent change in Irish society from ‘get rich quick’ to working class struggle has been unprecedented. The economy is sinking fast and the predictions are that things can only get worse. European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has made the point that Ireland would be in the same situation as Iceland if it were not in the euro zone. But maybe even this cannot save the country from plunging into bankruptcy, as banks and businesses collapse and unemployment soars.

There is a great deal of fear within the working class, but there is also a new defiance and militancy. Fresh cuts in education, health and benefit provision are announced daily and there are many thousands facing the repossession of their homes. It is obvious for all to see that capitalism has completely and utterly failed.

The demonstration on February 21 was the largest in 30 years. Over 120,000 union members and others marched together in a protest that sent out a clear message of opposition to the government. Other marches were held across the country and protests are continuing as I write - the Garda Representative Association came out in force against the pension levy along with other workers on February 25. Strike action among public sector workers was due to begin on February 26, although bus workers have suspended an indefinite strike called for this weekend. Significantly the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has announced a one-day national strike on March 30.

The presence of the working class on the streets in such numbers has made the government jittery. It is at pains to express its understanding and sympathy for those affected by the recession, but determined to push through cuts. Desperate to salvage what it can from the erstwhile Celtic tiger, it is turning on our class with a vengeance. Whether it does so with a smile or a snarl does not matter. We should not accept any agenda of sharing pain, of bailing out capitalism.

The recent pronouncements of David Begg, general secretary of ICTU, are particularly dangerous in the present circumstances. He is calling for a “fairer sharing of pain”. ICTU has put forward a 10-point plan which it calls on the government to adopt. In a recent radio interview Begg pointed to measures taken by the Swedish government in the 1990s to turn its economy around. These were apparently acceptable because, as well as cuts in welfare and wages, top executives and government ministers also had their salaries pegged back.

The March 30 strike is intended to mobilise support for the 10-point plan. Begg wants to be back in social partnership helping to manage capitalism. He does not mind about the impact of the crisis on the working class so long as everybody has their share of pain. He wants to channel workers’ militancy behind a programme of rightwing social democracy. This must obviously be challenged.

Looking at the left and its various action programmes on last week’s demonstrations, it is clear that we need a revolution in our own thinking and organisation. The Socialist Party call was for a “one-day public sector strike”. This “would be a major blow to the government” (The Socialist February 2009). Well, obviously not if it is to be on the basis of ITUC’s 10-point plan. The government has already indicated its willingness to discuss Begg’s proposals and called for the working class to be reasonable so we can all work together.

The Socialist Workers Party front, People Before Profit, has organised meetings to discuss the economic programme it is advocating - “strong, practical solutions based on an economic programme that can be popularised on a large scale” (www.people-before-profit.org). Other groups like Workers Power have called for all-out, indefinite strike action.

The problem with all of these action programmes is that they are extremely limited. People Before Profit, of course, advocates a reformist platform that the SWP thinks is a great basis for winning populist support. Yet another opportunist short cut that will result in a dead end. What is needed is not tailing this or that strike or debating the merits of indefinite as against limited action. Much more important are questions of programme and party - based on revolutionary, not reformist, principles.

There is a glaring need for a real political alternative. All the bourgeois parties, from Fianna Fáil to the Greens, from Labour to Sinn Féin, have shown that they are of absolutely no use to the working class. They want some kind of ‘fairer’ capitalism - and are prepared to do whatever is needed to retain the present system. The working class needs to look to itself and aim to take hold of the reins of society.

The February issue of The Socialist made a call for a mass working class party based on socialism. Obviously the SP’s concept of socialism is limited, to say the least, but the call, if it is a serious one, is to be welcomed. I contacted the national office to find out if there were any concrete plans for a unity initiative to launch a campaign for such a party, but was informed that there are none at present. It is, for the moment then, just a slogan.

This is obviously a great shame, to put it mildly. For all those who call themselves Marxists or socialists the question of unity and the formation of a working class party based on those politics must be paramount. The bourgeoisie is currently discussing the need for a national government of unity to save capitalism. It they can do it, why can’t the left?