As pressure mounts to break the cycle of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, John Molyneux assesses the challenges facing any incoming Left Government, and the importance of taking on those challenges at the source.
The question of a Left Government has played an important role in Irish politics in recent weeks. Pioneered by People Before Profit with the election slogan ‘Break the FF/FG cycle’, it was given a major boost by Richard Boyd Barrett during a televised Party Leaders Debate and, along with the general mood and demand for change, it clearly chimed with large numbers of working class people on the doors. Indeed it was very important in giving a concrete focus to that powerful but vague notion of ‘change’.
It has also frightened the privileged elite who have run Ireland as a tax haven for decades. As discussion on the prospect of a left minority government grew, €1 billion was wiped off the Irish stock exchanges. Shares in banks, which currently enjoy a tax free status on their profits, dropped and so did those in companies which own rental properties.
The fact that the call for a left government was echoed by Sinn Féin as their ‘most preferred option’ gave the idea further resonance and all of this was clearly reflected in massive transfers to the left, and especially to People Before Profit, by Sinn Féin voters. They voted Sinn Féin as the most viable challenge to Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael but also clearly wanted People Before Profit, and the left generally, in alongside them. This was the biggest left vote since the establishment of the Irish state.
After the election the concept of a minority Left Government, again pioneered by People Before Profit, was also vital. It challenged, very successfully, the dismissal of the Left because ‘the numbers aren’t there’, and kept the Left centre stage. It enabled us to go on the front foot in demanding that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael listen to the electorate and step aside, and increased the pressure on Sinn Féin not to do a deal with the former. It held up the exciting prospect of a Left government which could enact emergency legislation to reduce the retirement age to 65, to stop evictions and the sell off of public land, to enact the Climate Emergency Measures Bill, to raise the minimum wage etc., while defying Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael to vote such measures down or face an angry electorate. It also facilitates the possibility of mass mobilisation on the streets against Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the next few weeks.
The vote for Mary Lou for Taoiseach was a concrete expression of this strategy and the fact that People Before Profit were supported in this by Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly and Thomas Pringle was further testimony to its success. It also had the effect of exposing the Social Democrats—who had been attempting to speak Left—for what they are: Labour in new clothes.
Despite this immediate success, it is clear that the immediate formation of a left government in Ireland would lead to a campaign of economic terrorism from the rich. Simply forming a government in the Dáil does not give that government real power. Real economic and political power would remain concentrated in the boardrooms of the big banks and corporations and the unelected officials of the capitalist state—the judges, police chiefs, generals and senior civil servants. Moreover, the ruling class will not hesitate to use that power to thwart and wreck any attempts by a radical parliamentary government to challenge the system.
Faced with any serious threat to capitalism the ruling class can and will engineer financial crises, take their money out the country, go on investment strike, provoke business closures and create unemployment, secure court rulings against radical policies, and use the state apparatus to suppress working class mobilisation on the streets and in the work places—and at the same time organise a concerted media campaign to blame the economic and political difficulties, caused by right wing sabotage, on the Left government itself.
The recent media attacks on Sinn Féin, assisted by the intervention of ‘non-political’ Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, foreshadowed what this could look like. So does the British media campaign against Jeremy Corbyn which was eventually successful. Look out for those ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ slurs to start gaining momentum here.
Faced with such orchestrated assault, a Left government would have a stark choice: retreat on its radical policies and go back to running the capitalist system as ‘normal’, or go onto the attack against the collective bankers, landlords, bosses, police chiefs, media barons etc. through the mobilisation of the working class in monster street demonstrations, mass strikes, and workplace occupations. In short, either resort to revolutionary methods and push in the direction of a revolutionary conclusion—the dismantling of the existing order and the conquest of power by the working class—or the surrender of all serious radical ambition.
Ghosts of Reformism’s Past
Unfortunately the experience of numerous left governments over the last century, from the social democrats in the Weimar Republic to the ANC in South Africa and Syriza in Greece, shows that many reformists retreat under such pressure.
The experience of Sinn Féin in the North and their reluctance to engage in mobilisation from below suggests that a Sinn Féin led government might not be willing to take the necessary measures to deal with economic terrorism from the rich. It might try to enact some reforms but it is not about to challenge capitalism.
It follows from this that while calling for a left government, the revolutionary left cannot write a blank cheque. The relationship of the radical Left to any government, Left or otherwise, will be dependent on our red lines and the need to pose a challenge to capital.
It was the logic of this approach which saw People Before Profit voting for Mary Lou as Taoiseach. The next step would be to say to Sinn Féin, and anyone else involved, that we would need to see serious policies that really challenge capitalist power. A crucial element here would be the willingness of the Left government to shore up its position by the mobilisation of people power. In the event of these radical socialist policies being rejected, we should continue to defend the government from the outside against attacks from the right, supporting any progressive measures it might take on a case by case basis. Should such a government bow to pressure from the rich and begin attacking its own working class supporters, then clearly we would oppose these measures.
In this context it is important to understand that the very establishment of a Left government may raise the hopes, expectations and confidence of the working class and that this can lead to a surge in struggle from below which both supports the government and moves beyond the limits which the government is comfortable with. This is what happened with the election of the French Popular Front government in May 1936 which led directly to the great general strike of French workers in May-June of that year. It is what happened with the establishment of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1970 which led to mass popular and industrial action including the establishment of industrial cordones (embryonic workers’ councils ) in 1972. Of course this episode ended in catastrophic self-induced defeat at the hands of General Pinochet’s military coup in September 1973, which only reinforces the argument for socialists maintaining their political independence in a way that was not the case in Chile.