St Patrick's Day and Cowan's savage cuts

SWP (Ireland) is arguing the politics of reformism, reports Anne Mc Shane

Despite the rapid downward spiralling of the Irish economy, St Patrick’s Day this year has been no different to others as far as government ministers are concerned.

Notwithstanding the massive crackdown on public spending, cash was found to finance the usual Paddy’s Day international junkets. Opposition objections to the level of spending were dismissed as jealousy and hypocrisy - after all if Fine Gael and Labour were in government they would be taking advantage too. The trips are supposedly to ‘promote Irishness’ abroad and attract inward investment. But in reality it is a massive perk for politicians who jet off for a few days and live it up on public money. Irish embassies throughout the world throw lavish parties and the Guinness flows, as Brian Cowan and his ministers forget their unpopularity at home and bask in the annual celebrations.

Desperate as always to impress the White House, Cowan, after presenting shamrock to Barack Obama, will no doubt have promised to create a low-wage economy attractive to US investors. Whether Obama believes him - or even cares - is hardly relevant. The project of the Irish bourgeoisie reflects the general global perspective of capitalism. It is turning viciously on the working class.

In January public sector wages and social welfare benefits were cut drastically in Ireland. Half a million people are now unemployed in a population of just over four million. This has placed a massive strain on the whole population, particularly as many of the newly unemployed have huge mortgages and other debts. The Celtic Tiger encouraged people to live lifestyles way beyond their means and now they are expected to survive on benefit payment of between  €88.10 and €196 a week.

And for those in jobs the situation is also extremely difficult. Successive wage cuts in the public sector means that many are now living on two-thirds of their former incomes. In the private sector too, wage cuts have been widely imposed and it is hard to find anybody who has not had one. That is now a fact of life and you are privileged indeed (probably a banker, judge or union bureaucrat) if you have not had to take a cut. The attacks and changing social expectations are also reflected in the treatment of women, who are facing increasing discrimination - finding themselves sacked or denied maternity leave when pregnant. Legal rights mean nothing unless the working class can assert itself.

The huge demonstrations of 2008 and the all-out public sector strike in November 2009 have not been repeated. Union leaders called off a follow-up strike set for December 3 so that they could re-enter ‘social partnership’ talks. They wanted to achieve ‘less painful cuts’ over a longer period and pledged their commitment to restoring Irish competitiveness. However, the government was not long putting them straight - it was Cowan’s way or no way; and pay cuts of up to 14% were imposed.

After recovering their composure union leaders then decided to use the stick again and balloted for more action. A work to rule has been in operation across the public sector since January. This has recently been making itself felt with the temporary closure of government offices, and the spectre of working class resistance has returned to the media agenda. The action was set to escalate with tactical strikes. But once again the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) has announced a return to talks and the escalation is off - although the existing work to rule will continue.

David Begg, secretary of Ictu, has said that public sector workers will need to accept major reforms in return for a payback of the wage cut “over time”. He has reassured the government that this will not affect the public purse and he is open-ended about the rate at which lost wages are repaid. In other words, he is looking for a pittance in exchange for the cooperation of his members in accepting major strategic cuts. ‘Social partnership’ means the full involvement of the unions in running, not resisting capitalism. There are currently plans to reduce the minimum wage of €8.65 an hour, shrink pension rights and introduce water charges. House repossessions look certain to multiply in the months ahead. Meanwhile the government has indicated that further bailouts will be necessary for the banks. The future is extremely bleak for the working class if social partnership is not challenged.

Banners at recent demonstrations in Greece have declared, “We are not Ireland” - meaning that the Greek working class, unlike the Irish, is prepared to fight. It is not true, however, that the working class has been simply compliant in Ireland. Workers have shown a willingness to fight at times. The problem is partly the lack of an alternative leadership within the unions. But more essentially it is the lack of an organised working class party. The role of the trade union bureaucracy is cowardly and backstabbing, but that is hardly surprising. There is no point in the left continuing to declare its disappointment at sell-outs and calling for strikes. We need to look to what should be our strengths - the politics of revolution and how we fight for extreme democracy - and link that to the struggle for party. We need a vision and a programme that tackles capitalism head on and emboldens and strengthens our class.

Unfortunately the two main leftwing groups remain in essence wedded to a strategy of promoting a new reformist organisation. The Socialist Party in Ireland says it is for an alternative working class party that is committed to socialism, but refuses even to countenance any unity project to assist in bringing that about, let alone a unity project based on Marxism. Only the most low-level non-aggression pacts appear to be on the cards for future elections. As far as the SP is concerned, it is the only show in town. But this is not true. The Socialist Workers Party-dominated People Before Profit Alliance won five council seats in the Dublin area in 2009. They and the hundreds of other unorganised subjective revolutionaries are not simply going to sign up to membership of the Socialist Party.

And, in terms of the PBPA, it appears that its success could in fact be the death knell for the SWP itself. All but one of the PBPA councillors is a leading SWP member. Richard Boyd Barrett is the main spokesperson and enjoys considerable media attention on news and current affairs programmes. The campaign says it wants to reverse neoliberal policies and argues for an ‘alternative economic strategy’ to nationalise the banks, reorganise the credit system and invest in jobs, education, etc. (www.peoplebeforeprofit.ie). The money is there to make these changes, according to Boyd-Barrett. The natural resources of oil and gas should be taken from the transnationals and put under public control. Nowhere is there a mention of the need to link reforms with a strategy for revolutionary change or socialism.

In keeping with the policies of the PBPA, Boyd-Barrett consistently calls for reforms to the present system, but does not mention his revolutionary socialist beliefs. They are a secondary question for the PBPA. More important is to build a viable and popular broad alternative in the here and now and worry about socialism tomorrow. According to Brid Smith, another SWP member and councillor, speaking at a meeting in Cork on March 15, “We need to talk to people where they are at, not where we want them to be.”

She reacted angrily to criticisms of the PBPA by saying that it was a matter of strategy for the SWP and had been successful. The people who supported her locally were not on the far left and she had “not come along to speak to revolutionary socialists”. She wanted to talk to ordinary people about their ordinary problems and the politics of Marxism did not figure in that. The SWP, of course, is a revolutionary organisation, she said, which works within the PDPA and recruits people to its own politics. But PBPA policies had to be “broad”. Anybody who did not like what they were doing “could go away and set up their own campaign”.

Smith displayed a deeply patronising attitude towards the working class and a cynicism in terms of using the PBPA to recruit to the SWP. But there is something more serious at play which she and other leaders in the SWP seem to be blithely unaware of at present. By arguing the politics of reformism, as opposed to their own avowedly revolutionary views, they are actually changing themselves. Socialism is for the future and not a practical solution in the here and now. Radical reforms cannot be linked to a programme for socialism. That is too impractical for the working class.

I understand that a number of SWP members are unhappy at the PBPA turn and believe that it is a recipe for disaster, not success. Indeed there was a significant absence of older members at the meeting and I was informed by one new member, who described himself as “definitely a reformist, not a revolutionary”, that he had seen few older members in the branch since he joined. Perhaps they have dropped out or been expelled for their opposition.

The SWP is also organising a national Right to Work conference in Dublin on May 22, mirroring the recent event in Manchester. This is, of course, welcome and all activists should attend. We are told that suggestions for campaigning slogans will be discussed and agreed on, and it will be a very democratic event. Current proposals from the organisers include a call for a national public works programme, no repossessions of the homes of the unemployed and opposition to cuts in social welfare. Fair enough as far as it goes, but what the conference needs to focus on is a far more radical programme. We need to empower the class, not just ameliorate its misery.