In part two, as support for Sinn Féin from the Irish working-class rises, Kieran Allen examines different historical opportunities of socialists forming, or not forming, left governments and the lessons for socialists in Ireland today.
Part one of this series can be read here.
One of the main tasks of the radical left is to raise slogans which both have mass appeal among workers and take the struggle forward. In the current conjuncture, the call for a genuine left government can heighten class struggle in Ireland and, by posing it as a concrete goal, it can help generate greater class consciousness.
Just as we raise many simple slogans – increase the minimum wage for example – nobody should be under any illusion of how slogans can be incorporated and rendered harmless to the system as long as we live under capitalist rule.
A brief look at the actual record of left governments should be enough to warn against any passive use of the slogan – or worse, any re-interpretation of it that brings the radical left back into the camp of social democracy.
Between 1918 and 1923 Germany was in the throes of a revolutionary situation. In November 2018, workers and sailors rose up, formed workers councils, and ended the First World War. However, the dominant party in the German working class remained the pro-war Social Democratic Party (SPD) and they won a majority in the workers councils.
In January 1919, a failed revolutionary attempt at seizing power led to the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A year later, the far right overreached themselves in the Kapp putsch and a leading SPD trade unionist, Carl Legien, called for a general strike and a government of left parties.
After some hesitation, the KPD (the German Communist Party) supported the call but declared that it would function as a loyal opposition. Even this, however, was too much for an ultra-left wing who split off to form the KAPD.
The events in Germany coincided with a realisation in the Comintern that the revolutionary wave that had begun in October 1917 in Russia was ebbing. As a result, the Comintern decided to change tack and raise the slogan of a united front. The aim was to enable revolutionaries to ‘lead the immediate struggles of the working masses for their most vital interests’.
To that end, revolutionaries should be willing to negotiate even with the most traitorous leaders of Social Democracy. The only condition was that they would retain their complete freedom of action with respect to both the rich and to the social democrats. It noted that ‘the slogan of the workers government flows unavoidably from the entire united front tactic.1
This was the context in which the slogan of a workers’ government or a left government was raised by revolutionaries.
Soon it became clear that two confusions developed about the slogan.
The first was that the call for a workers’ government was the equivalent to creating a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. In other words, that it was simply a different route to socialism more appropriate to Western democracies or as Karl Radek put it, ‘an innocent looking soft pillow’.2
Against this concept, Radek argued that left government should be seen as a possible transition to a government based on workers councils. A resolution at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern explained why:
The mere attempt by the proletariat to form a worker government will from the beginning encounter the most violent resistance from the bourgeoise. The slogan of a workers’ government can concentrate and unleash revolutionary struggles.3
Secondly, raising the slogan of a left government should not mean adopting social democratic notions of government. Social democrats want to respect the constitutional framework of a capitalist society and do not want any such government to rest on extra-parliamentary movements.
They certainly do not want it to rest on – and be replaced by – workers councils or popular assemblies. Instead, they believe that once it has achieved a parliamentary majority, the government will legislate reforms on behalf of the people.
Against this, revolutionaries see the slogan of a left government as a transitionary demand that will raise workers confidence and heighten class struggle against the resistance of the rich.
Many of these debates were held inside the mass Communist Party that emerged in Germany in these years. Tragically, it was unable to overcome its own divisions and develop a clear coherent position.
In 1923, Germany faced an enormous crisis which many expected to lead to revolution. One aspect of this was a threat by the right-wing army to crush a left government in Saxony and Thuringia. In response, revolutionaries entered both governments to disarm bourgeois formations and to arm workers. However wider plans for an insurrection were missed and both governments were then quickly driven from office.
The origins of the French Popular Front government go back to 6 February 1934 when fascist leagues and right-wing political groups launched a physical attack on the Palais Bourbon, the symbol of French parliamentary institutions. This failed attack led to a call for unity between the Socialist Party and the Communist Party and the trade unions which were allied to both.
At an international level, the Communist movement, that was now dominated by Stalin in Moscow, did an about-turn on its previous ultra-left ‘third period’ where it had denounced the Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’, refusing any unity with them against the real Nazis.
After 1934, it embraced the Popular Front strategy which proclaimed the need for unity not just with working class parties, but ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties such as the Radical Party in France. At the time, Stalin’s aim was to generate alliances with Western governments and there was to be no question of encouraging workers to go beyond the limits of capitalism.
In 1935, a Popular Front was duly formed in France, composed of the Socialist Party, the Radical Party, and the Communist Party. The Radical Party was not a left party, but socially liberal and upheld principles of private property, appealing to sections of the middle class. This was one of the weakness of the Popular Front strategy – and the CP’s support of it – as the Popular Front became a cross-class alliance which was no match for the forces of the far right and fascism.
In its electoral programme, the following years, there was no call for nationalisation – bar of the arms industry – and the tone was comparatively moderate. After winning a majority in 1936, the Communist Party refused to join the socialist led Blum government on the grounds that ‘we might offer the class enemy a pretext for panicking and scaremongering’.4
However, the mere existence of what was seen to be a left government – even if it did not fit with the way the Comintern originally outlined – was enough to create an upsurge amongst workers. Even before it took office, a huge wave of strikes and workplace occupations developed.
The Communists (PCF) and the Socialists (SFIO) did their best to confine this movement to economic issues and were only partially successful. In the words of Maurice Thorez leader of the PCF, “If it’s important to lead well a protest movement, one must also know how to end it”.5 A refrain so beloved by union bureaucrats today.
As a result of this escalating strike wave, the Popular Front government pressurised the employers to agree to the Matignon agreement which granted workers more paid holidays, the right to collective bargaining, and higher wages.
These were limited gains within the framework of capitalism and, therefore, the early predictions of the Comintern that the formation of a workers’ government – in this case, even if not fully genuine – would lead to an escalation of the class struggle, proved correct.
But not just from the workers. The limited gains they had made was enough to provoke the rich into an active policy of economic sabotage which led to the devaluation of the franc and a rise in inflation which ate into the gains workers had made.
And it is here that we can see the fatal weakness of the Popular Front strategy: sitting back passively while the rich, who had temporarily retreated, re-grouped and organised economic sabotage. When the Spanish Popular Front government requested arms and material support to beat back a fascist coup, the French Popular Front refused.
All the time, the CP and SP kept telling workers to respect ‘republican values’ and legality. Just after a year after its formation, the Popular Front government was driven from office while a second one shortly afterwards lasted barely a few months.
Failure led to disaster as the pro-Nazi Vichy regime took power after 1940. The root cause was that the Popular Front government adhered to the strict limits of bourgeois law and never viewed itself as promoting militant class struggle from below. Thus, faced with economic sabotage, it refused to implement capital controls or even nationalise the Bank of France. As one writer put it in 1941, ‘had Blum’s efforts … been accompanied by a sufficiently sweeping program to get France off an economic dead centre, French democracy need not have failed’.6
The election of Salvador Allende in 1970 was hailed as the first time a Marxist took power through an election. However, the eventual coup against his Popular Unity government should serve as a warning to the left everywhere. Chile was renowned in Latin America as having a stable constitutional order rather than a history of military coups such as occurred in Brazil in 1964.
Allende’s election brought about an upsurge in workers’ confidence and in towns like Conception, there were moves to form popular assemblies that would take control of production. Across the country, workers began to form cordones to take control of the running of their cities.
However, the perspective of Allende can be summed up in this statement:
It is a challenge to us to accomplish everything in legal terms … History has broken with past patterns; our revolutionary path is the pluralist path … It is neither an easy nor a short-term task to build socialism. It is a long and difficult task in which the working class must participate with discipline, organisation and political responsibility, avoiding, above all, anarchistic decisions and irresponsible, impulsive acts.7
Nevertheless, despite the very moderation of his programme the mere fact that workers were moving was enough to frighten the rich. After attempts to drive him from office by economic sabotage failed, the rich embarked on a different road. In 1973, the political parties supporting Allende increased their share of votes from 36% to 44% and it became clear that he would not be removed by democratic means.
From then preparations were made to overthrow him in a coup. In June 1973, the first attempted coup took place and Allende’s response was to invite the military into his cabinet. One of the generals who joined was none other than Pinochet. All the time, Allende tried to play by the rules of constitutional legality, ignoring warnings from his own supporters and refusing to arm workers.
The rest is history – a horrible decimation of working-class militants by Pinochet’s coup.
Syriza was once seen as the radical left of Greece. Outside Greece it was viewed as the model for a new broad left. It was composed of a core group of Eurocommunists, who supported the norms of Western democracy and many anti-capitalist activists who were involved in the European Social Forum. In Ireland, Syriza was praised by Sinn Féin and the wider left, with the Socialist Workers Network virtually alone in raising critical points on their strategy.
Syriza thought there was a viable Keynesian alternative to austerity and that they could convince the EU leaders of this. They soon learnt that the EU was more interested in smashing the left to create an example for anyone else that wanted to challenge austerity.
Here is how Yanis Varoufakis, the Syriza Finance Minister, described his reception at the EU. He said that when he ‘tried “to engage in economic arguments” with his eurozone colleagues, all he got was “blank stares”. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem — you’d have got the same reply. There was no engagement at all. It was not even annoyance, it was as if one had not spoken.’8
When the EU changed the rules to effectively bankrupt Greek banks, Syriza held a referendum to see if the population was willing to defy the EU. Secretly, they hoped that population would accept EU ultimatums but, to their horror, the Greek people were up for resistance. Rather than leading that resistance and moving into a wider confrontation with capitalism, Syriza capitulated. Instead of fighting austerity, they became its champions. The result today is that they have been driven from office by a resurgent right wing.
From this brief historical overview, we can predict a number of patterns.
First, a left government can raise the confidence of working people and can lead to significant mobilisation. Workers self-activity is not automatic – it takes a degree of organisation and belief that gains can be won. In general, workers confidence will grow, and this is likely to lead to action, particularly in response to any attempt to roll back gains for workers.
Secondly, even if they retreat temporarily, the rich will resist any left government that they see as threatening. They will embark on economic sabotage; they will call on their international allies; they will use extra parliamentary institutions such as the legal system and, in the final analysis, the army.
Third, a left government that plays by the conventional rules of capitalist society will be undermined and overthrown. No government in a capitalist economy controls the bond markets or capital flows. It does not even control investment decisions in its own country. The scope, therefore, for economic sabotage is enormous. The only way a left government can survive is to break conventional rules and urge workers to take action to defend it.
Fourth, if it fails to do this or is overthrown, this will create major demoralisation among workers, creating a space for the far right. If a left government heightens the class struggle and then becomes a factor in workers losing, this can lead to tremendous demoralisation and working-class passivity. It is not just a matter of regressing to the situation prior to its formation. The danger of a movement from the far right, grows enormously.
Fifth, only a government that bases itself on popular assemblies and is willing to encourage working class self-activity can survive and open new possibilities. In practice this will require the existence of a strong radical left presence to promote this perspective. This does not necessarily mean that it must be part of such a government. It depends on the scale of struggle and its assessment of what measures such a government is willing take.
Sinn Féin’s growth
In the last general election, there are three important takeaways about Sinn Féin’s performance.
- It was an overwhelmingly working-class vote. Polling companies do not use very accurate perceptions of social class, but we can nevertheless gain a rough understanding from them. An Irish Times/IPSOS poll shows that 35% of Sinn Féin voters came from the category of C2, by which is meant skilled workers and 33% came from the DE category, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers.
- It was a youth vote. In the age group, 18-24 years old, Sinn Féin topped the poll with 27% of the votes. Solidarity-People Before Profit received 6%, double its national average in this cohort.
- A disproportionate share of the second preference votes of Sinn Féin went to the left.
How do we explain these patterns?
Republicanism has historically been a vehicle through which a section of Irish workers has expressed their aspirations. Republicanism originated with the most advanced section of the Irish bourgeoise at the time of the French revolution. But thereafter, it continued mainly as a movement of the lower orders.
The Fenian movement, for example, drew its support from skilled and unskilled workers, in Ireland and abroad. Groups like the Republican Congress won working class support in the 1930s and in its own – very distorted way- the Workers Party in the 1980s developed out of the republican tradition. The armed struggle in the North represented a major bloc on the growth of that tradition in the South, but with its cessation republican ideas will grow among working class people.
Second, loyalty to the republican tradition in the Southern Irish working class is not deep. The growth of Sinn Féin has all the characteristics of ‘filling the vacuum’. It is not often that an Irish Times columnist gets it right, but Úna Mullaly was spot on in her characterisation:
The political vacuum that had already opened up is one Sinn Féin found themselves filling, rather than sought to fill…. It’s about a generation that emerged from and into the great recession, who lost a decade, who reacted to the crisis by instigating seismic social change, who left, who came home, who stayed in touch, who are politicised, educated, who believe and can see that Ireland can be shaped through ambitious vision and grassroots action, who are culturally engaged, who can’t afford their rent never mind owning a home, and who have essentially moved beyond the political establishment.9
It is a good explanation of why young people in particular look to Sinn Féin. There are tensions as many of the most political of youth are angry over church control and the racism of Irish society. Though Sinn Féin is not strong on these issues, they look to SF because they have the biggest platform to articulate opposition to the old Ireland of FF and FG. The nature of partition also means most of these young people are not familiar with the conservatism of SF in the Assembly either.
In brief, Sinn Féin has become the main vehicle through which the reformist aspirations of Irish workers are being expressed. Reformism usually comes from a social democratic tradition, but this is not always the case. Reformist ideas are widespread in a capitalist society and in the absence of a strong social democratic tradition will find their political expression elsewhere.
However, if the external class dynamics lead to support from a significant section of workers and youth for Sinn Féin, the internal dynamics of Sinn Féin lead in a different direction.
Modern Sinn Féin has gradually thrown off its old political principles, discarding its dogma that the armed struggle was ‘the cutting edge’ of fight for Irish unity. It has embraced Stormont, the PSNI and today sees Irish unity emerging through a shared understanding of ‘two cultures’. By defining Orangeism as ‘cultural expression’ rather than as supremacist ideology, it assumes the continued existence of sectarian identities in a united Ireland.
Sinn Féin’s primary model for Irish unity is one from above which preserves its tax haven status and increasingly sees unity in confederal terms with the Southern and Norther states remaining intact for a period. Gone is any attempt to link a united Ireland to a radical anti-imperialist position. Instead, Sinn Féin now states that:
The experience of German reunification serves as a useful example of how planned economic integration and investment, including from the EU, can substantially improve economic conditions in the smaller jurisdiction involved in transition.10
In Towards a United Ireland Sinn Féin states that it is open to ‘transitional arrangements’ which could include a confederal Ireland.11 This could entail ‘continued devolution to Stormont and a power-sharing executive within the North within an all-Ireland structure’.12 Even within this all-Ireland structure, the party suggests there could be ‘weighted majorities in relation to legislation on fundamental issues’.13
In line with the emphasis on respecting ‘Britishness’, the party suggests that ‘expression be given to the relationship between Unionists and the British monarchy’,14 and they also propose ‘recognition of the loyal orders (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation’.15
This represents a considerable shift within the republican tradition and shows that its change in economic thinking is being mirrored in how it views the political arrangements in a future united Ireland. Essentially, it is an Ireland where there are no fundamental changes on an economic level and where existing sectarian arrangements remain in place.
These shifts arise from the material reality that Sinn Féin is fully embedded in running the Northern state and developing neoliberal policies to ‘re-balance’ it away from an over reliance on state investment. The trajectory of the party is to the right, seeking to join the centre ground of Irish politics in order to be in government in both partition states.
However, its public trajectory is not linear, it will zig zag between moderate and left rhetoric. Thus, in the last election, it produced a manifesto that appealed directly to workers and resembled some of the rhetoric of Jeremy Corbyn, minus significantly any reference to nationalisation.
Despite all this, its fundamental aim now is to lead a government with a shrunken Fianna Fáil to fast forward its project of Irish unity from above. Yet it will seek to cover its tracks by claiming that its ‘first preference’ is a government of the left, but its second-best option is a Sinn Féin led government with conservative parties.
Given this background, the call for a left government, which would obviously include Sinn Féin, should on no account be taken as uncritical of SF’s trajectory.
Nevertheless, even if Sinn Féin is moving to the right its very presence in government will cause considerable consternation among the Southern ruling class. The elites have built up tight networks over the past hundred years that brings certain ‘understandings’ between how the wealthy and the two and a half party system operates.
In the future, they can incorporate Sinn Féin into these networks, but first they want SF to be fully housetrained and to show full loyalty to the Southern state.
By contrast, if Sinn Féin were in a left government it could help raise the aspirations of Southern workers because they look to the radical rhetoric of that party. Moreover, as the scope for reforms in tax haven Irish capitalism is very limited, a clash between these aspirations and the management of Irish capitalism will emerge very quickly.
Over the next period socialists should put united front style demands on Sinn Féin. This should come by way of an appeal to their support base by addressing their leaders.
Sinn Féin has used the constant attacks on it from mainstream media to build a protective cover around it that prevents a critical assessment of its policies and directions. However, by starting from the fact that we are on the same side of its working-class supporters, the left can explicitly push Sinn Féin to, for example,
- Give active support to the Debenhams workers
- Stand with us in calling for an independent public inquiry into shooting of George Nkencho
- Break from support government policy on Covid and call for a Zero Covid strategy.
- Nationalise the Private Hospitals
The logical outcome of such a strategy is to call on Sinn Féin to rule out coalitions with the right and to set about forming a genuine left government. Its supporters want this – even if its leadership would prefer the involvement of Fianna Fáil.
In the course of making a call for a genuine left government, socialists will not ‘sow any illusions’ in Sinn Féin if it is spelled out clearly what such a government would look like. It should be stressed that it should be a left government backed up with people power and willing to immediately implement some key issues workers want addressed.
To summarise: socialists call for a genuine left government, spell out what it entails, and state that, yes, of course we shall enter into discussions with Sinn Féin after an election, about participation in such a government – should the party be willing to rule out coalition with Fianna Fáil, embrace the lesson of past left failures, and be willing to mobilise people power to push back the resistance of the rich.
Should such a situation arise, socialists should ensure that such negotiations are made as public as possible and so that calls for specific policies or red lines be heard by the entire Irish working class.
- ‘On the Tactics of the Comintern’ in J. Riddell Eds. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922, Chicago: Haymarket 2012, pp. 1158-1159
- P. Broue, The German Revolution 1917-1923, Haymarket: Chicago p.669
- Ibid p.671
- J. Danos and M. Gibelin, June ’36: Class Struggle and the Popular Front In France. London: Bookmarks 1986 p. 47
- M. Thorez, ‘The Popular Front’ https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/thorez/1960/popular-front.htm
- Quoted in H. Chapman, The Ambiguous Legacy of the Popular Front, French Politics and Society No 15, 1986 pp.19-25
- Quoted in M. Gonzalez, The Left and the coup in Chile, International Socialism Vol. 2 No.22 1984 pp 45-86
- ‘Might as well have sung Swedish anthem’: Varoufakis on euro talks’ EU Business 13 July 2015
- ‘Rise of Sinn Féin is about a generation moving beyond political establishment’ Irish Times, 28 December 2020.
- Sinn Fein, The Economic Benefits of Irish Unity, p 21
- Sinn Féin, Towards a United Ireland, Dublin: Sinn Féin, 2016, p. 9.
- Ibid. pg. 8