Open debate at Irish “Marxism”

Submitted by Matthew on 23 November, 2011 - 10:53

By Ed Maltby and Liam McNulty

On the weekend of 19-20 November we attended the Irish Socialist Workers’ Party’s Marxism Festival.

There were roughly 200 participants at the event, and the general culture was very open. This, in contrast to the atmosphere at the UK Marxism event, where SWP activists will often meet members of other groups with shrill denunciations and critical interventions are unwelcome. Activists at the Dublin festival were keen to discuss ideas with Workers’ Liberty. Sales of our pamphlet on the Ennis labourers’ strike were brisk.

On Saturday afternoon, a debate took place on The Future of the Left involving Richard Boyd Barrett TD (SWP/People Before Profit), councillor Mick Barry (Socialist Party), academic and activist Helena Sheehan, and Michael Taft, a left-wing Labour Party member.

Sheehan stressed the need for existing left-wing parties to reach out to the “unaffiliated left” like herself and pointed to the hostility to the SWP at Occupy Dame Street in Dublin as a symptom of potential problems.

Taft argued that the austerity budget represents an explicit class project which necessitates a response involving the broadest possible alliance of people agreed on a set of principles to further working-class interests. He proposed as a programme of public investment through a nationalised banking system, an explicit and non-negotiable demand to stop all cuts to public spending, a tax on the wealth and capital of the rich, and a default on debt owed as a result of nationalising Anglo-Irish Bank.

The most interesting exchange of the afternoon was between Mick Barry and Richard Boyd Barrett. It demonstrated some stark differences of approach between the SP and the SWP in Ireland. Barry was strong on ruling out Sinn Féin as a left-wing force, pointing to their role administering cuts in Northern Ireland. He had some criticisms for his ULA colleagues in the SWP, saying that the “Enough Campaign” to call for a referendum on the IMF/EU deal was an exclusionary front group, and accusing the SWP of watering down their programme in the interests of unprincipled coalition-building.

Richard Boyd Barrett’s response was weak, beginning with platitudes about how great the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement have been and arguing that although the SWP is explicitly a revolutionary socialist organisation, most people on the left do not yet identify themselves as such. The imperative for Barrett was “being non-sectarian” and appealing to people using “different language”.

The debate from the floor consisted mainly of SP and SWP members defending these mutually polarised perspectives. The debate took place in terms that previous generations of Marxists would find unintelligible.

For the SWP, reaching out to a broader constituency is an issue of branding (language, the appeal of front campaigns) rather than providing a programme to the labour movement. The SP stressed the need to make an appeal on the basis of a socialist programme, but lacked tactical ideas about how to do this beyond building the ULA.

We suggested that both sides could learn a lot from the debates in the Communist movement of the 1920s, when Communist Parties found themselves as minorities in the labour movement. Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas of the United Front are crucial tools for revolutionary socialists seeking to reach out to non-revolutionary workers on the basis of day-to-day struggles, demonstrating the relevance of communists to fight for the class and thereby winning over people to the banner of revolutionary socialism. This does not necessitate sacrificing political or programmatic independence, a position summed up Trotsky's line: “March separately, but strike together!”

Mick Barry hoped that the ULA could become a mass workers’ party, and both SP and SWP members agreed that it needs to become a democratic, membership-led organisation. Organisationally this points to a fruitful way forward but also needed is a programme with a set of interlocking transitional demands which will bridge the gap between where we are now and where we wish to finish up: socialism!

On Sunday there was a debate on the eurozone crisis. From the platform, Alex Callinicos said that the left needed to articulate a clear plan for the crisis, including taking over the banks. Good! But the rest of the programme seemed hazy. Brian O’Boyle, speaking after Callinicos, said that the United Left Alliance needed to call for an exit from the euro — this would not be a nationalist exit or a rightwing exit, but a “workers’ exit”. We argued for uniting workers and levelling up conditions across Europe. That means pushing through the capitalist EU, not collapsing back into competing national capitalisms. Although a workers’ government might be forced to leave the euro, the immediate demand to quit the euro, as such, would not advance the struggle for a workers’ government, but would feed into nationalism. If successful, the call for a return to the Punt would hit workers’ living standards even harder!

Most people will not make the distinction between a “leftwing” and a “rightwing” call to leave the euro — especially given that the logic of leaving the euro points in a nationalist direction in practice.

Furthermore, if leaving the euro is only a consequence of the struggle against austerity, then why call for it?

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