At Marxism 2018, Fiona Ferguson joined a panel of international speakers to discuss the return of socialism. We have published her speech in full where she outlines the kind of socialism we need today, here in Ireland and beyond.
I think that it should be obvious to anyone who has attended this weekend’s conference that we live in both extremely turbulent and exciting times, but also deeply worrying times.
As was illuminated so well by our speakers at yesterday’s panel on resisting the far right, from the ‘Tommy Robinson’ protests across the UK to the emboldened neo-nazis in the US and those elements of the far right, such as Generation Identity, who are trying to gain a foothold in Dublin at the moment, there has been a destructive growth of the right and far right; and most concerning of all, even fascist forces. There is an urgent necessity upon the left, particularly from the revolutionary left, to acknowledge this incredibly precarious situation. And as the panel yesterday so clearly illustrated: we need to build a left that is willing to energetically meet this new threat, to organise against the emerging far right and to do what the left did in Cable Street in 1936; in Lewisham in 1977 and on so many other occasions – when we used our strength in numbers; our solidarity, and the power of our class, to beat back the fascist threat.
That itself is a tall task. But we must combine it with an understanding that the growth of the right will be immeasurably strengthened if there is a vacuum and a lack of a genuine alternative built on the left. And I want to stress that it is not just the right who can grow in this period. Because for every Trump, there is a Sanders; for every Tommy Robinson, there is a Corbyn; and for every Marine Le Pen there is a Jon-Luc Mélenchon. And emerging right across the world there are forces on the radical left, that want to break out of the usual mould of socialist politics and to create a new, genuinely mass anti-capitalist alternative to both the far right, and a crumbling political establishment.
I want to highlight three points in particular that are crucial if we are to really harness this burgeoning socialist politics that is growing across the world.
The first – is that we cannot create a new socialism in the abstract or by purely theoretical debate. That is not to say that these things are unimportant. Theory and debate are vital and must go hand in hand with any activism. But it seems to me that there is an urgency to reconnect the radical left with the day to day issues and lived experience of the working class today. Of course, I don’t just mean this in economic terms. Relating to the working class today means siding with those seeking to overcome an endemic culture of sexism in our system and those resisting the efforts to divide our class by racism and other forms of oppression. Without taking a clear stand on these issues, we will have no socialism to speak of.
But it also means that we must have a left that speaks the language of the working class today – that is willing to root itself in communities and in the workplace, puts its focus on people power agitation and is willing to build an electoral and political alternative to the establishment.
To fight for socialism today means taking a stand on the big issues but also not being afraid to get our hands dirty; to lead a fight on more unglamorous issues, whether it’s a fight for a community centre or a campaign for a local park. We need a left that is able to lead on these questions too.
As well as building a left that is built in working class communities and on working class issues, the second point that I think is important is that we live in the era of capitalist decay. The crisis of the last ten years has ripped to shreds what Tariq Ali called ‘the extreme centre’.
That is to say that the old establishment style of politics is crumbling. We see that in the collapse of Blairism, in the crisis of the Clintonite wing of the democrats, and in Ireland, in the long term decline of the civil war parties.
And this capitalist decay means that many of the institutions and states that these forces built are also crumbling. We can see that in how the EU is tearing itself apart over Brexit, in the way that the Spanish state was teetering on the edge after the Catalan referendum and again, we see it here in Ireland as people once again question the viability of the UK, the future of partition and whether the two rotten states on this island should remain.
Even if it appears to afford us some short term comfort, the left must avoid hitching its wagon to these sinking ships, if you will excuse the mixed metaphor. That means that it is not the job of the left to scaremonger about the collapse of the British state – that is a positive thing – but it also means that when seeking to abandon a decrepit British empire, that we don’t jump into bed with a burgeoning EU empire that is intent on the creation of an imperialist European army.
Here in Ireland, particularly here in the South, this means that we must break with the partitionist mentality that renders onto the North, the North’s and renders onto the South, the South’s, and instead seeks to seize the moment to create a 32 county organisation and a 32 county consciousness on this island. That also means creating socialists in Dublin or Cork or Galway who can articulate why we are against partition and our vision for a socialist Ireland just as well as those in Belfast or Derry or elsewhere in the North can. And importantly, this is an extraordinarily opportune time to do this. The Repeal campaign has shown that the new generation of activists emerging don’t have the same hangups about all-Ireland politics as those who were active during the darker period of the troubles.
Of course, the creation of this 32 county movement won’t be automatic. That’s why we should be so clear in our insistence that the time has arrived to link up the struggles North and South. So we need a left that is rooted in working class communities and one which is internationalist, yes, but one which understands the urgency of fighting here in Ireland for a 32 county socialism.
The final point that I want to raise is about the type of socialism that we are fighting for. Because this remains an open question. Socialism is back – that much is certain – but what kind of socialism are we fighting for?
Socialism to me is about ensuring that the cutthroat competition and greed of capitalism is overcome. That we can create a world where the allocation of basic things like food and housing is not decided on the whim of a market or the decision of some corporate board. Where the great resources of this planet are shared equitably and are not kept in the hands of a tiny minority. A world based on cooperation, not based on hate and division.
And of course, the impending disaster that is climate change gives new verve to this cause. The only way to tackle it is to transform the way our economy works and I think the only way to do that is on a socialist basis.
But if we’re going to create this 21st century socialism, then we have to rediscover what Hal Draper called the tradition of ‘socialism from below’. We cannot limit ourselves to the idea that one person or indeed one government will deliver us socialism. If someone gives you your freedom, then it means they can take it away. The disappointing experience of Syriza should remind us of that much.
But we should also be very clear that we want nothing to do with the horrors of Stalinism – the rotten tradition that has done so much damage to the fight for real socialism. We should defend public ownership of course, but as the great socialist James Connolly said, ‘state ownership of the economy is not socialism but state capitalism.’
Real socialism means a massive redistribution of wealth, but also the most revolutionary expansion of democracy possible. More than just a vote every four years: real participation in deciding how the world around us is run and how resources are distributed.
That’s what we’re fighting for.