In this two-part series, Kieran Allen looks at how revolutionaries and socialists should approach the prospect of a Left Government. In this first part, he lays out the role of socialists in Parliament as well as what constitutes a genuine left government.
Socialism has not come from parliamentary legislation and never will. Those who claimed it could, have become defenders of capitalism.
Until the adoption of the Godesberg programme in 1959, the German SPD said they wanted to replace capitalism with socialism. By 1998, it was reducing taxes on big businesses and cutting welfare benefits.
The Italian Communist Party was once the biggest left-wing party in Europe. By 2014, the renamed Democratic Party was tearing up laws which prevented the sacking of workers without due cause.
The transformation of Western social democracy into parties which attack workers has created a space for far-right parties. It enables them to use a fake left rhetoric to win support.
Today some social democrats still say they want to reform capitalism by winning votes and becoming a government. They assume that holding office equals having power over capital. But an elected government does not even control a state apparatus.
Modern states claim to stand above competing interests to represent the common good. But in his classic book, State and Revolution, Lenin argued that the existence of any state shows that society has been split by class antagonisms. The ‘common good’ is framed as a social order which preserves the dominant class. The key characteristic of the current state is that it demands a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence to enforce exploitation.
The ‘democratic ‘state is best suited to enforcing capitalist interests. It separates economic decision making from politics, thus leaving corporations free to blackmail elected representatives. Through doctrines such as the ‘separation of powers’, it allows the privileged to dominate legal systems and offer a safety mechanism against any intrusion on the rights of private property. It combines a public face of accountability with rules of ‘commercial secrecy’ that allow for a ‘frictionless’ relationship with business leaders.
The hierarchy in the army and the police force allows the wealthy to call on their services in moments of crisis. We have a limited nature of democracy in a society dominated by corporations. We want a radical extension of democracy, not just in the political realm but also in the economic.
Even if a left government took office it would not have control over this wider state. It could not use it to remove capitalism. This state machinery must be broken up.
But millions still look on parliamentary elections as opportunities for change.
The turnout of registered voters is above 60 percent in OECD countries. Where elections pose a real choice, voter participation increases. More people voted in the recent US Presidential election, for example, than at any time in 120 years. When Jeremey Corbyn took over leadership of the British Labour Party, membership surged from 190,000 in May 2015 to 515,000 in July 2016 – an influx of 325,000 new members.
One reason is that politics are a concentrated expression of economics. Class divisions over a living wage or a right to housing, for example, find an outlet in an electoral contest. Elections and parliament give working people an opportunity to raise grievances on a general level that transcends individuals battles with employers. In doing so, they can sometimes provide a mechanism – albeit a pale shadow of one born in struggle- through which class consciousness develops.
This contradiction between the nature of the bourgeois state and actual working-class consciousness, means that revolutionaries regard participation in elections as a necessary tactic. Not always – because during revolutionary uprisings a boycott may be legitimate. And it is not always possible when socialists have only small propaganda groups.
In general, there are three main reasons for taking electoral work seriously.
First, even one revolutionary in parliament can articulate working class demands. By addressing the rich in their own chamber, demands becomes more concrete. The entry of the radical left in Dáil Éireann and Stormont meant that the demands of striking workers or a wider social movement like Repeal were heard. By using the parliament as a platform, the demands of workers are amplified, receive publicity and this can become a factor helping to sustain a struggle. The wider reach of parliament means it can reach workers who do not receive left wing social media or leaflets.
Moreover, the expression of left-wing ideas through the forum of parliament helps to normalise arguments that are otherwise deemed ‘extreme’. A TD or MLA who calls for the nationalisation of the banks or private hospitals has a wider impact than someone selling a left newspaper with such a headline. The parliamentary platform in turn disciplines the revolutionaries to frame arguments in ways that reaches many workers. A negative feature is that this can also lead to opportunist pressures where there is a reluctance to challenge dominant ideas. On a positive side, it forces revolutionaries to hone their arguments to persuade. This is part of the process which Gramsci referred to as making socialist ideas seem like good sense.
Second, the parliament can be used to expose how the ruling class operates and the limits of parliament itself. When Brid Smith TD attacked a judge’s ruling against minimal wage regulation in the electrical contracting industry, she pointed out the class nature of Ireland’s judicial system. But the subsequent attack on her for breaching parliamentary norms, exposed the limited nature of democracy.
The radical left has also been able to expose how the ‘money message’ is used to prevent opposition TDs introducing bills. Parliaments are supposed to be deliberative bodies where elected members are given full access to information. In reality, there is a facility to ask parliamentary questions, but this is still obstructed by civil service obfuscations and rules of commercial secrecy. Despite these limitations, the sheer level of basic information necessary to allow a state to function enables revolutionaries to gain insights and a concrete understanding of how the system operates.
Again, there are pressures to get sucked into these procedures, but in general they can then use this to expose the reality of corruption and favouritism that operates within the state bureaucracy.
Third, and this is often underestimated, parliament can be used as an organising tool. TDs and MLAs can use their positions to bring workers together to discuss strategy. This might start with tactics to gain within parliament. But this is also jump off point for more extensive strategies that promotes workers own activity. People Before Profit TDs and its MLA have met workers from Ryanair, Bombardier, Debenhams, student nurses, taxi drivers, education workers to discuss how they can help promote a workers’ cause and how to assist in escalating their own activity. By using their positions, revolutionary parliamentarians can advocate for a class struggle trade unionism that runs counter to the collaborationist strategy of the union bureaucracy.
There is one pre-condition for all of this – TDs and MLAs must not sink into ‘parliamentary cretinism’. Engels gave the best definition of this concept when he described it as:
a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honour to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their house – wars, revolutions … is nothing compared with the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honourable house.1
Or to put it more simply – the belief that votes in parliament determine the outcome of fundamental struggles in society. The left must challenge laws which favour the bourgeoise, but it needs to avoid being sucked into any belief that motions and amendments become the crucial element in forwarding working-class struggle. Once this starts to occur, the TD or MLA becomes elevated as the expert on the intricacies of the legal system and begins to separate off from the experience of the mass of members of a radical left party.
Parliamentary cretinism is avoided by understanding that parliamentary duels are only the echoes of real battles outside. The best way to ensure this is to keep members of the Dáil, Stormont and local councils in close contact with workers and their struggles.
The Irish radical left first entered parliament in 1997 with the election of Joe Higgins. More than twenty years later, it has consolidated its foothold with the presence of three People Before Profit TDs and one MLA; one Solidarity TD, one Independent for Change TD, and one RISE TD.
The question is now posed: what is its attitude to a left government?
When this issue was first discussed among revolutionaries in the Comintern in 1922 a distinction was made between the ‘illusionary workers government’ and ‘a genuine workers government’.
By the former was meant a government that sought to co-opt a section of the labour movement into running capitalism and it was composed primarily of social democratic parties. Since that was written, the history of the workers movement has been littered with such governments. The only thing that has changed has been the scale of the sell outs.
But what is a ‘genuine workers government’?
It is one which is really prepared to fight the rich. Such a government would shift the main burden of taxation onto the rich, be willing to break the resistance of a counter-revolutionary bourgeoise, introduce workers control of production and arm workers, if necessary.
In other words, a government that arose – or whose very existence ushered in a major period of crisis – and was willing to really fight for the class interests of workers.
While there was some confusion during the Comintern debates, it should be stressed that such a government would not represent the overthrow of capitalism. It was rather presented a strategic goal put forward during a heightened period of class struggle that could allow workers to move from the defensive to the offensive. It most likely occupies only a historic moment which opened the road to new possibilities.
Left Government in Ireland?
The call for a left government is particularly relevant in the Irish context for three reasons.
First, there has never been a government that was not dominated by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. There has never been a British Labour Party style government or Swedish Social Democratic style government or a French Socialist Party- Communist party government. Irish politics have been shaped by the carnival of reaction created by partition that produced two governments that were mirror images of each other in their conservatism.
Most workers show contempt for the Irish Labour Party that was just a prop for one or the other of the right-wing parties. But there is a yearning for a real left government that finally stands up for workers’ rights.
In the last general election in the South, People Before Profit candidates gained more than 40,000 first preference votes, but they also got close to 200,000 transfers from left leaning voters looking primarily to Sinn Féin, who themselves topped the poll on a rhetoric of left nationalism, workers’ rights and anti-austerity.
This sentiment is strengthened by the fact that Irish workers have never experienced sell outs by a government not dominated by either FF or FG. It is doubly strengthened by the fact that working class confidence is at a low ebb because of the union leaders embrace of social partnership. When you feel you cannot fight for yourself, you want a government that fights for you.
Secondly, the importance of a left government relates to the partition of this country. For a century or more, the conservative nature of the southern state has been a repellent for protestant workers from the prospect of a United Ireland. Today, its role as a tax haven for global capital means that it is a society based on poor public services.
A Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil government, predicated on some variant of nationalist centrism (or worse) will do nothing to undermine this—in fact, it will reinforce it. A left government–that made transformative moves on social and economic questions—could have an electrifying effect.
Finally, Irish workers have experienced one hundred years of parliamentary democracy. There is a high level of cynicism about politicians, but still a belief that change comes though ‘the democratic process’. This can break down in periods of crisis and revolutions can emerge through the formation of workers councils or mass assemblies that create conditions of dual power. But there is nothing evitable about this. It is also possible that the formation of a left government becomes a dynamic factor in spurring workers onto a revolutionary road.
This dual possibility was already evident during the Comintern in 1922. Its thesis on tactics stated that a worker’s government might emerge either from an upsurge of militant workers or ‘from a purely parliamentary combination, that is one that is purely parliamentary in origin.’ Even in the latter case, they suggested that it ‘can provide the occasion for a revival of the revolutionary workers movement’.2
In the current context, revolutionaries should be the foremost advocate of a genuine left government. This call for a genuine left government backed up by people power should start now – it is not a matter of waiting for an election and pulling it out suddenly.
Even if this is a minority left government, a genuine left government should move quickly to enact some of the following measures:
*Legislate fora living wage of €15 per hour and mandatory union recognition. Restore the pension age to 65.
*Establish a state construction company to create jobs and build public and affordable homes. Introduce real rent controls and ban evictions.
*Take private hospitals into public ownership and establish a national health service.
*Nationalise the banks and create a state-owned insurance company.
*Separate Church and State – take all state funded schools and health services into public ownership and under public control.
*Abolish the property tax and the carbon tax. Close tax loopholes and make the corporations pay enough taxes to fund decent public services.
* Take serious action to stop climate change. Introduce free public transport and increase the bus fleet; stop fossil fuel exploration; take the meat industry into public ownership to re-orientate Irish agriculture.
*Abolish student and apprenticeship fees.
*Create a public system of childcare and slash costs.
* US troops out of Shannon.
These are policies – declarations on paper for what you want to do. The crucial issue is how you carry them through, against the resistance of the rich. We also already know that the EU will seek to sabotage a left government by demanding obedience to its economic directives. It was often said that when Syriza came to power in Greece, the EU destabilised their programme, not with tanks but by imposing rules on bank reserves.
In order to deal with both forms of resistance, the mobilisation of people power, and workers power more specifically, is absolutely essential. A left government would need to impose capital controls to stop sabotage from the rich – but this would be more effective if bank and clerical workers took action to stop the wealthy moving their money abroad.
A left government might legislate to restore the pensions wage to 65, but it would need to call massive street mobilisations to force businesspeople to respect its laws. On no account should the streets be left free for the far right to mobilise opposition.
When it comes to the EU, the attitude of a genuine left government must be crystal clear: Irish democracy trumps any directives that come from Brussels. If the Irish people have voted for parties that want to nationalise the banks or the private hospitals, the EU has no role in preventing this.
Over the next period, the debate about a left government for Ireland will grow. We should be at the centre of this promoting its slogan: For a genuine left government backed up by people power.