ULA: ‘There is nothing revolutionary about our policies’

Capitalist Austerity & Ireland’s Election

The following statement by the International Bolshevik Tendency was distributed in Ireland in February.

Many bourgeois commentators are predicting a radically transformed political landscape after this year’s election. The truth is, beyond the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote, little is likely to change. A Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, despite minor tactical differences with its predecessor, would adhere to the conditions of the EU/IMF bailout package and carry out major attacks on working people. Both parties are committed to the service cuts and tax increases contained in Budget 2011 as well as the other targeted assaults in the four-year plan, which is why they helped pass—rather than block—the Finance Bill.

Sinn Féin has tried to project itself as a friend of working people with talk of a wealth tax and spreading the pain over six, rather than four, years. North of the border, where it shares power with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Féin is busy implementing the cuts demanded by Westminster, and it makes no secret of the fact that it would jump at the chance to join a coalition government here. RTE [Ireland’s public broadcaster] interviewed Gerry Adams on 4 January and reported: “When asked about the possibility of working in a coalition with [Labour leader Eamon] Gilmore, Mr Adams said that if Sinn Féin could do business with Ian Paisley, it could do business with anyone” (RTE [online], 5 January).

In November 2010 the United Left Alliance (ULA) was launched as an electoral bloc between the Socialist Party (SP), the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (South Tipperary) (WUAG) and the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA), which is run by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP):

“The newly formed United Left Alliance (ULA) is opposed to the governments’ bailouts and the slash and burn policies which are only making the crisis worse. In the general election we aim to provide a real alternative to the establishment parties as well as Labour and Sinn Fein, who also accept the capitalist market and refuse to rule out coalition with right wing parties.”
—“Our Programme”, www.unitedleftalliance.org

The electoral platform of the ULA is a list of various unobjectionable demands, but it does not contain a plan to mobilise effective mass resistance to the attacks, nor does it point towards what is truly necessary—the socialist transformation of the economy. It therefore falls far short of the type of fighting programme needed to address the desperate situation facing Irish workers. The ULA does claim that it:

“Rejects so-called solutions to the economic crises based on slashing public expenditure, welfare payments and workers’ pay. There can be no just or sustainable solution to the crisis based on the capitalist market. Instead we favour democratic and public control over resources so that social need is prioritised over profit.”

Any meaningful “democratic and public control” of the economy can only be achieved through the expropriation of the capitalist class. But the ULA merely advocates a progressive taxation system and a wealth tax, promising that if in power, “corporation tax on the massive profits made in Ireland would be increased”. Rather than calling for the expropriation of the expropriators, the ULA presumes the indefinite continuation of capitalism—a social system which celebrates and reinforces obscene social inequality and produces crises like the one we are living through.

The ULA platform does at least reject “Social Partner-ship” and the Croke Park deal [in which Ireland’s trade- union bureaucracy agreed to enforce class peace until 2014]. It recognises:

“the urgent need to reclaim and rebuild the trade unions and to mobilise the power of workers though [sic] mass action. The approach of Social Partnership has left workers defenceless and has led to a massive transfer of wealth from workers to employers and must be scrapped.
“Our elected TDs will give full support to those unions and workers who oppose the Croke Park deal and will use the Dail to raise the real issues that affect ordinary working people.”

But anyone serious about mobilising the power of workers through “mass action” to take “the banks, finance houses, major construction companies and development land into democratic public ownership and use them for the benefit of people” (Ibid.) must reckon with furious resistance from the capitalist class and its state apparatus. The bourgeois state (the bureaucracy, judiciary, military and the Gardai) exists to defend privilege and wealth—just ask the Shell to Sea activists, or the student demonstrators in Dublin last November, or the Thomas Cook workers whose workplace occupation was attacked in 2009. But the ULA is silent on what “public ownership” means in relation to the bourgeois state—does the ULA advance the utopian fantasy that the capitalist state can be utilised to collectivise the economy? If it is necessary to break up the existing state apparatus and create a new state to serve and protect the interests of working people and the oppressed, why not say so?

For Marxists, standing for parliament presents an opportunity to put forward ideas (such as forming workers’ defence guards, expropriating the bosses and initiating rational economic planning) to a much broader audience than is normally available. The value of participating in capitalist electoral contests can be measured by the extent to which they provide a chance to popularise the programme of revolutionary socialism—the only alternative to the chaos of the capitalist market.

A serious socialist organisation can only be built on the basis of firm opposition to all wings of the capitalist class. This is why Marxists uphold the principle of complete working-class political independence from all bourgeois (and petty-bourgeois) parties. Given the strong tendency towards coalition government that exists under the proportional representation system (the Labour Party has only ever governed as a partner of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael), this is a very important question. Yet the ULA pledges only that:

“Alliance Oireachtas members will not give any support by voting or abstaining to any government or proposed government, including a ‘national government’, containing conservative parties including Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.”
—“Candidate Pledge”, www.unitedleftalliance.org

The bourgeois nationalist Sinn Féin is not included in this list because the ULA would jump at the chance to join a “popular front” coalition with Sinn Féin, Labour and a few “left” independents—an outcome that is being seriously discussed as an outside possibility by some bourgeois commentators (Independent [London], 5 December 2010). The ULA effectively rejects the fundamental principle of working-class political independence by selecting only “conservative” bourgeois parties for its critique—which is reason enough for class-conscious workers not to vote for it.

The Socialist Party criticises its ULA partners (SWP/PBPA) for refusing to even mention the word “socialism”:

“In the initial discussions which only involved the Socialist Party and the PBPA, there was debate and disagreement between us, particularly with the SWP, on the issue of whether an alliance should explicitly advocate socialist policies and socialism as the solution to the crisis. The Socialist Party did not agree with the SWP’s view that socialist policies would put people off from voting for candidates or from getting involved in a left alliance.
“We felt it was very unfortunate that this argument was being put forward at precisely the time when there is emerging, a new interest and need for socialist policies because this is a crisis of the capitalist system itself.”
.     .     .
“If the left believes that policies like taking over the wealth of society and using it in a planned and productive way are necessary to create jobs, then it makes sense to advocate them and try to win people to these ideas rather than obscure the solution.”
—“United Left Alliance to challenge at general election”, 11 November 2010

A laudable sentiment in the abstract, but one not taken seriously enough by the SP to prevent it from participating in the ULA and describing its programme as “a fundamental alternative to the attacks on the living standards of ordinary people and public services” (“General Election Challenge of United Left Alliance Strengthens”, 14 January).

This is doubtless seen by some SP supporters as a clever tactic to engage with wider layers of the working class at little or no political expense. But the real content of the ULA’s programme was evident when Anne Foley, PBPA candidate for Cork North West, was interviewed by a local newspaper:

“I feel the ULA has very common sense policies. When people think of socialists, they think of communism, which is not the case. There is nothing dramatic or revolutionary about our policies. A lot of countries have functioning social democracies, especially in Scandinavia. They have great health, transport and childcare systems. This is the direction we want to take, a direction this Government failed to follow.”
Cork Independent, 6 January

What the SP describes as a “fundamental alternative” to crisis-ridden capitalism is nothing more than recycled social democracy. The ULA not only fails to provide answers to the immediate tasks that confront workers faced with vicious attacks by the bosses—it actively encourages illusions that parliamentary gradualism, rather than hard class struggle, can provide a way out of the present impasse.

There has been talk of the ULA moving beyond an electoral lash-up, perhaps to initiate a process leading to the creation of a new working-class party. This could indeed present an important opportunity to discuss the revolutionary socialist programme that the working class so desperately needs. But in this election the ULA must be judged on its current programme and activity, and on that basis can only be described as a reformist roadblock.

The capitalist class wants to offload all the costs of its crisis onto the backs of working people. The present economic mess is not simply a product of bad decisions by stupid or corrupt politicians and the short-sightedness of greedy bankers (though Ireland has plenty of both) but rather of the systemic failure of the entire capitalist world order, rooted in the profound irrationality of production for profit.

Instead of reformist fairy tales about the wonders of Scandinavian social democracy, working people need an action programme that is based on the sort of class-struggle tactics that can beat back the immediate attacks. They require a perspective that connects militant resistance today to the necessity to forge a revolutionary workers’ party, the only instrument capable of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with an egalitarian, socialist society geared towards meeting human need rather than maximizing private profit.