At Marxism 2020, Alexandra Day led a discussion on the politics of revolutionary socialism. We have published her talk in full, where she discusses the Irish revolutionary tradition, how revolutionary socialists engage in parliamentary projects, and the possibilities to grow from periods of crisis.
If you’ve been following along with the excellent talks of this weekend’s conference, it’s clear that we are living through some historic times: a global recession, a climate emergency, a pandemic which has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. As well as that, we’ve witnessed massive uprisings across the globe, from the Black Lives Matter revolts in the United States to The #EndSARS movement in Nigeria. The issues we’re facing have – and will continue to make – life harder for the majority of people. It can be difficult to avoid feeling isolated or disempowered, especially when the government seems intent on hammering down workers at every turn and the wealth of the billionaires grows unchecked. There is an urgent necessity upon the left to acknowledge these challenges, and to rise to them. This weekend’s conference has been inspiring in that sense, as it has shown how socialists across the globe are already leading and organising in dynamic, new ways.
Given the challenges, it’s worth establishing exactly what it is we’re fighting for. Too often do we go on about what we’re against without showing what we’re for. As far as I’m concerned, we are looking to finally end the merciless greed, competition and alienation of capitalism. That one day people will be able to have food, water and shelter as a given, without the whims of the market deciding whether or not they can. Where we can all share equally in the resources and wealth of the world, rather than hoarding them in the hands of a tiny minority. Ultimately, we’re fighting for a world where our entire existence isn’t filtered through the miserable lens of capital, that commodifies our most intimate and personal interactions and thoughts. Where we can fully reach the incredible, creative potential we all have as human beings. The impending disaster that is climate change gives new timeliness 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.
It is clear that to overcome the hydra of capitalist crises, we need to build a revolutionary organisation that is willing to energetically engage with the political moment, and to organise on the new terrain we find ourselves on. In searching for a language to articulate our hopes and grievances, we would do well to look to the revolutionary tradition that stretches back to the 1916 Rising.
That revolutionary period saw a risen people, radicalised by the horrors of the First World War and continued attempts to partition Ireland. There was a challenge not only to the British empire, but also to the economic and social conditions of Ireland at that time. The 1916 insurrection was an assertion of the right of the Irish to rule themselves, as well as a blow to the empire. It should be looked back on as an anti-colonial revolt, as a rejection of imperialist war, and as a demand for a 32-county Ireland. What is less often remembered is that during the Irish revolution of 1918–1922, there was a huge swell of popular mobilisation involving strikes, boycotts, workers’ occupations and land seizures, as well as an armed struggle involving thousands of fighters. However, the Irish revolution was ultimately defeated because there was no political force that could combine aspirations for both national and social freedom.
Despite the decades of reaction that followed, the revolutionary spirit has endured. The politics of James Connolly are instructive for us as revolutionary socialists who wish to not only end partition but to overturn the whole rotten capitalist system. Why is that? Why Connolly? Firstly, James Connolly was a committed Marxist who dedicated most of his life to the overthrow of the capitalist system. He viewed the working class as the driving force of change because the workers had, and continue to have, the power to halt the daily grinding for profit, and to run their own enterprises. He believed that workers themselves should take on partition and imperialist control. These are all relevant for us today, and more importantly, I believe they allow us to be relevant to the many working-class Irish people who find inspiration in this period of our history. Crucially, it gives a natural precedent for the 32-county politics which we strive towards. I don’t think all-island movements necessarily emerge by themselves, so it is upon us to make sure it is always our emphasis. Particularly in the South, this means that we have to break with the partitionist mentality that what’s happening in the north is the north’s business and what’s happening in the south is the south’s business. We need to actively create a 32-county consciousness on every issue we fight for. That also means that our activists in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Carlow, should all be as abreast of our arguments against partition as any comrade in Derry or Belfast.
A revolutionary attitude to parliamentary projects is fundamentally different to a left reformist position. I will use the examples of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders to illustrate this point. They both effectively articulated broad working-class discontent with austerity, but their major and decisive downfall was being trapped within parties that brought about that austerity. Bernie Sanders was a voice for ‘socialism’ during the US Presidential elections. In 2020, he immediately capitulated to Biden, and in 2016, he mounted a unity tour with Tom Perez, Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Labour. Lots of people asked why Sanders couldn’t mobilise his considerable, and active, support into a third party candidacy to challenge both the Republicans and Democrats. It’s clear this was never part of his strategy for winning change. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn, though a stronger advocate for left politics and coming from a party with deeper historic links to the working class, he has been demonised and even suspended from the Labour party by the right of the party, notably Keir Starmer and his supporters.
In Ireland, we’ve all seen what happens when parties with some progressive policy, such as Labour or the Greens, go into government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Even the veneer of social democratic reform gets wiped out in favour of hammering down more austerity, more cuts, more taxes on ordinary people. This year has been full of examples of how, even when faced with electoral projects that are in no way revolutionary, the state makes violent attempts to smash these challenges. The state has many tools in its arsenal for this purpose, whether it’s utilising the establishment press (like with Corbyn being wrongfully slated as an antisemite across almost all major British press outlets while Boris Johnson is allowed to be openly Islamophobic), cracking down on protest with police, internal party voting and blackmailing, or stacking cabinets with right-wing senators and ministers.
It should also be noted that even the more overtly socialist left has been steamrolled by the constraints of parliamentary projects, and even become agents of austerity themselves. The total failure of Syriza is a warning to the left everywhere. Once upon a time, people welcomed it as a ‘broad party’ that brought together activists from different left traditions. When it came to power, it was seen as the first radical left government in Europe since the French Popular Front in 1936. But its fatal weakness was that it believed (or at least its leading component believed) that the European Union elite could be open to rational persuasion. Syriza did not have an alternative when its challenges to EU austerity failed. This was because of its illusions in the liberal and ‘progressive’ nature of the EU. The result is that today Syriza has become an enforcer for austerity!
On another political level, it’s important to acknowledge the mass uprisings which have emerged across the globe in the past couple years. To name a few, the Sudanese revolution at the beginning of 2019, mass uprisings in Algeria, Hong Kong, Iraq, Catalonia, and all across South America, from Puerto Rico to Chile to Ecuador. This year, the massive wave of Black Lives Matter protests have rocked the United States and the question of police abolition has become a much more normalised talking point. The #EndSARS movement has highlighted the realities of police brutality outside the states and mobilised thousands in Nigeria and abroad, even demanding the fall of the government. I don’t want to just catalogue these movements, but to demonstrate how the cracks in the system have deepened and people are fighting back more and more. There is every potential for such a moment to arise here.
Whilst these mass mobilisations are significant, our perspective as revolutionary socialists on what they mean and where they should go next is different to others on the left. A lot of what we might call the ‘social movement’ left, which can mobilise big numbers on individual issues is seemingly allergic to political organising. Though these things can develop an anti-capitalist consciousness, alone they are not inherently revolutionary. As we’ve seen with so many movements, dynamic and significant as they may have been, they generally dissipate and fail to reach the majority of people. Internal power dynamics have often even led them to cannibalise themselves. Often, the argument goes that these groups cannot be tainted by politics for fear of losing ‘autonomy’. This doesn’t hold up to practical scrutiny: there is rarely a coherent vision of how to react to attacks from the police, slander from the mainstream media or even just the question of what next? Most importantly, these movements are faced with the question of how they can go beyond their existing resources to mobilise larger numbers in effective actions to challenge the status quo. Naturally, the question of how to deal with the state comes onto the table. An ‘anti-politics’ standpoint prevents movements from actually answering these questions.
That said, the organised left can and should engage in a constructive and positive way with these movements, as there’s every possibility to win people towards political engagement. Most importantly, revolutionary politics has to be centred on how we can reach working-class people, relate to them and make ourselves relevant. Of course, part of relating to the working-class today means siding with those seeking to overcome the endemic culture of sexism that exists and those resisting the efforts to divide us through racism and other forms of oppression. 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 our focus on people power agitation and be willing to build an electoral and political alternative to the establishment.
This is where revolutionary socialist politics can rise to the obstacles I’ve mentioned, particularly in the electoral projects we devote so much time to. In 1899, James Connolly took up the question of how to bring about change against a state that is totally, totally devoted to crushing it, in ‘Physical Force in Irish Politics’. There he argues that the party of progress is the chief vehicle through which we can engage in all out struggle against the “the stubborn greed of a possessing class entrenched behind the barriers of law and order”. What Connolly was arguing here was not necessarily that socialists should immediately take up arms against the state, but that the question really hinged around whether or not the “party of progress” had successfully won the majority of people to a revolutionary conception of society. This can be done, but it will require a vast array of different methods. One of these, on top of those already mentioned, requires strategically using the parliament to advance the goals of social movements. Not only do these arenas allow us to normalise left wing politics, but it behoves us to use our presence there to amplify our voice on a wider scale and on a whole host of issues, from the local to the national. Without such a presence it will be permanently marginalised by the mainstream media. It will not emerge as a national party that can become a focal point for masses of workers unless its voice is heard. To quote Connolly again, as I really can’t rephrase this any better, “the ballot-box was given us by our masters for their purpose; let us use it for our own”.
What’s more is that our project is seeking to break out of the old sectarian moulds of the Irish and indeed international revolutionary left. We don’t want to be an insular block. Our experiences in electoral projects allow us to expand our reach, and to root ourselves in communities and workplaces. What we’re trying to do alongside these projects is to build a layer of Marxists who understand the need for systemic change, and can cooperate in their workplaces, in their trade unions, in campaigns like Repeal, marriage equality, housing, the fight against partition, the whole spectrum. Our analysis of the opportunities and limits of parliamentary projects can relate to a large number of disenfranchised Greens, Sinn Féin voters, and workers.
Though the crises which have uprooted society present challenges and difficulties for us, they are fundamentally crises of the capitalist system. It’s day has come, and it’s up to us to decide whether what comes next is better or worse. There is an incredible amount of potential to grow right now. It’s a tall order but the possibility of what could be is so immense that we have to fight for it. Our vision of socialism demands total redistribution of wealth and resources, in the most democratic way possible. Where political engagement is more than a vote every four odd years but instead, real participation in deciding how the world around us is run.