The ULA Forum – a reply to the SWP

The ULA held its first National Forum of June 25th in Liberty Hall, Dublin. For the Socialist Party’s assessment of the Forum and the tasks facing the ULA see the article on this site entitled “ULA Forum – Building the alternative”.

This article is a response to the review of the Forum posted on the Socialist Workers Party website on the June 27th entitled “After the United Left Alliance forum”.

Unfortunately that article by the SWP mis-informs and distorts a number of political issues that are under debate. There are three main issues, dealt with in the SWP article, that we need to comment on: 1) The ULA and a socialist programme; 2) How to build campaigns, including relations with Labour politicians and 3) The ULA and the North.

The ULA and a socialist programme

Reviewing the discussion on “The left alternative to the crisis”, the Socialist Worker article quotes Kieran Allen’s speech at the event: “It is not about how many times you mention the word socialism. It is whether you are capable of spelling out in concrete ways, what it means and how you will get there.”

We agree with this as a general statement but in the actual debate that is going on in the ULA on how to deal with the economic crisis, this statement sheds little light and seems designed to dodge the key questions and cloak a political retreat by the SWP.

These comments were a response to the points made by Kevin McLoughlin from the Socialist Party that the PBPA did not want to mention socialist policies or socialism as the goal when the ULA programme was being formulated. He also disagreed with those on the left who focused on increasing taxation but didn’t advocate the need for the nationalisation or democratic public ownership of the economy generally.

At the first plenary session some members of the SWP justified their conscious omission of socialist policies and the mentioning of socialism on the grounds that it is not enough to just keep repeating the need for socialism and that to do so can put off working class people. That what is needed is to concentrate on the concrete issues affecting the working class.

The point had also been made that “people before profit” is the same as socialism but should be preferred as it is more understandable. Later, in other sessions in a slight amendment, some SWP speakers said that socialist policies and socialism should be advocated but stressed that this should be done in a skilful way.

The Socialist Worker article also attempted to distort the arguments of the Socialist Party when it said the debate was about whether its correct put forward a detailed outline of how a revolution should be organised or instead, as they argued for, put forward “a more general set of socialist demands”.

What is this debate really about?

This is not a debate about the need to be concrete with the working class; nor is it about a genuine attempt to find better language so the working class can understand better the real meaning of socialist policies.

This is a debate over whether socialist policies are actually necessary to overcome this capitalist crisis or whether they should be dropped by the left in the hope of finding some “easier solutions” or because the working class supposedly isn’t ready to hear such an alternative.

This is a debate about whether the ULA and socialists should advocate the essential policies necessary to defeat the capitalist market and overcome the crisis. In particular whether socialists stand for the expropriation of the assets of big business and capitalists by calling for the democratic public ownership of the overall economy, and if they do this where it matters most, in its mass material and in the mass media.

Does the SWP spell out in concrete terms what socialism means?

The ULA programme agreed last autumn says: “End the reliance on the private sector, use democratic public ownership of wealth and natural resources and the banks to provide jobs by the launching a state programme of industrial development and innovation to build the productive capacity of the economy.”

This text was inserted by the Socialist Party not because we have a dogmatic attachment to nationalisation, but because the nationalisation of the economy under democratic public control and management, is the only way that the working class can plan the development of the economy and resolve problems like the housing crisis and unemployment.

We had to insert it because in the initial text for the ULA programme written by the People Before Profit Alliance of which the SWP is the biggest part, incredibly there was no such mention of general nationalisation or no socialist clause despite the profound nature of the capitalist crisis that exists in Ireland.

So the SWP not only opposed the mention of socialist or socialism in the programme of the ULA, they also avoid advocating the democratic public ownership of the economy in its mass material and mass communications.

General Election material

The general election material of Richard Boyd Barrett illustrates this problem further. It demanded a public bank, public ownership of the banks and the need for public ownership of natural resources, but left it at that.

We agree with these but on their own they wouldn’t in any fundamental way infringe let alone break the ownership, power and influence of the capitalist class. The working class or a government representing the working class would not have enough economic power to overcome the capitalist market and therefore it would be impossible to fulfil the goal of putting people before profit.

So instead of “spelling out in concrete ways what it (socialism) means and how you will get there”, the approach advocated by the SWP would leave capitalism in control of society. This approach is similar to the failed “mixed economy” or “social market” policies previously advocated by social democracy.

Capitalism can’t be part abolished and the disaster of such a reformist proposal was graphically shown by its collapse into counter reforms and sell-out by the French Socialist Party in 1981 and PSOE in Spain in 1982.

In the same vein, RBB’s leaflets identified models that should be followed. “There are alternative economic models in Europe based on progressive taxation policies.” And again, “We support the Norwegian model and will take our natural resources…into public ownership.”

Using examples to illustrate points is necessary, but advocating that some of the capitalist countries in Europe are models for the working class here to get out of this crisis, including models for the type of nationalisation that is necessary, is wrong.

Clearly this isn’t just a case of language but is a programmatic retreat by the SWP which they in turn are advocating that the ULA should adopt as well – ironically just when the need and basis for democratic nationalisation and socialist policies is growing.

Talking radical or espousing revolutionary socialism at party meetings or conferences does not excuse or in any way compensate for not advocating the need to break the capitalist ownership of the economy in front of the working class.

The General Election – a basic socialist programme

In the general election, the Socialist Party put forward a whole series of very concrete demands on a whole range of issues, but that didn’t in any way stop us from also advocating in straight forward language socialist change and the key measures necessary to bring that about.

Amongst other text and demands on cuts, jobs, pay, the banks, the deficit, the bail-out, and taxation, the Socialist Party manifesto said: “That will only happen if the major economic resources, including the gas and oil resources off the west coast are taken into democratic public ownership and management and used in a planned way for people’s needs not short term profits.”

“End the abuse of wealth by the capitalist establishment. Take the economy and natural resources into democratic public ownership and plan the development of a real manufacturing base, sustainable jobs and a secure future for all.”

“Establish a new party for working class people.” “None of the Dail parties represent working class people, (workers, the unemployed, pensioners and the young). Labour accepts the market. Sinn Fein is implementing huge cutbacks in the North. Vote United Left Alliance and help found a powerful new party to represent working class people.”

“For a government based on working class people that implements socialist policies and puts people before profit.”

In our four page manifesto the Socialist Party was very concrete but was also able link the immediate crisis with the need to break with capitalism and outline a basic socialist alternative and the tasks facing the working class movement.

We are not saying that the bulk of people voted for the Socialist Party because of the socialist clauses in our programme. However, we are saying that the votes for the party in the general election and the Euro elections of 2009 are proof that socialist policies have not been a barrier, and increasingly will not be a barrier, to the development of the ULA or a new workers party.

Working class people will join the ULA and a new party if it fights on the key issues, offers an opportunity to get organised and a democratic forum to discuss and debate issues and politics.

The idea that by being socialist the ULA would be cut off from key sections of the population or a majority in the years ahead, understates the huge change in consciousness that this crisis is causing and illustrates that some on the left have a conservative and fixed view regarding people’s consciousness, and the depth of support for reformism that exists amongst working class people.

The more the ULA and its representatives are explicit about why the capitalist market has no solutions and why socialist policies are necessary, the better. The more the ULA helps popularise the socialist alternative, which is an essential task if society is to be changed, the sooner such change may become a possibility.

To try to build the ULA on the basis that it doesn’t outline the socialist clauses and measures necessary to break capitalist control and really change society will inevitably result in a failure that the working class can’t afford.

Organising the working class or propping up Labour politicians!

The Socialist Worker article says: “insisting that only pure left wing forces are involved (in campaigns) is a recipe for a retreat into propagandism.”

Again as a general statement it is hard to disagree with and it would be correct to make this point if there was anyone in the ULA who was actually advocating such an approach.

But as this isn’t the case, it seems again the SWP is unfortunately only throwing this in to confuse important issues, particularly their own orientation towards Labour politicians who are now putting the boot into working class communities.

An attempt was made at the Forum to say that the SWP’s approach is to invite Labour politicians to certain public meetings to force them to account for the policies they have implemented, and using such meetings to put them under pressure on an issue.

The Socialist Party doesn’t have a problem with such an approach and has done similar on many occasions on many issues. Once the reps from the establishment parties are held in check, aren’t allowed to dominate the meeting, then they can be successfully undermined.

But again that contribution at the Forum doesn’t reflect the real nature or content of the orientation that the SWP is advocating towards the Labour Party and Labour politicians.

The recent SWP leaflet “United Left Alliance – What kind of party?” stated: “Where sections of Labour start to break with their party leaders, for example, they should be welcomed onto platform if it will widen the base of support for campaign or struggle. But they should also be told to break with the Labour Party leadership and embrace radical tactics such as non-payment on water charges.”

It’s important we are clear what this approach actually means. It means that a Labour politician, who may have indicated their discomfort at the impact that government policies is having on his or her base, could or should be invited into campaigns and platforms. He or she would be given that privilege even though he or she may not have voted against any of the government cuts but be invited on the basis that they may do so sometime in the future.

For the ULA to orientate to current Labour politicians and members would be a significant mistake and would inevitably undermine its potential.

Ordinary members of Labour breaking away and genuinely coming over to the ULA is fair enough, but the SWP is open to Labour TDs speaking on ULA platforms while they could still be part of a government that is imposing the worst austerity in the history of the state.

This is similar to the approach the SWP adopted in Britain where they invited Labour councillors onto anti cuts platforms who have then justified their voting and support for major cuts in council services.

Will many Labour politicians genuinely fight the cuts?

The SWP justify this approach saying that inviting potential Labour dissidents is a way to broaden out campaigns against the cuts. They say that “Labour won a mass base because it promised reforms” implying that Labour has deep authority in the working class communities.

The SWP are again significantly overstating the depth of support that exists in the working class for Labour. It is true that layers moved towards Labour during the election hoping that they would cut across the excesses of Fine Gael. But this wasn’t a deep sentiment or illusion in Labour, more a hoping against hope.

Those on the left that took Labour up in a sharp and principled way were best able to successfully resist the trend towards Labour. If the credibility of Labour and Labour politicians had its limits before an election, it is now being decisively undermined by the policies that they are imposing, hammering any justification for an orientation to Labour politicians.

The position of the SWP re Labour seems to ignore the fact that they are a key force in a rotten capitalist government.

The orientation to potential dissident Labour politicians is unnecessary and inappropriate and far from helping to fight austerity or help in building a new left. It would, in fact, do the opposite.

The idea that the ULA would organise public meetings and campaigns against the austerity cuts and invite Labour TDs to participate would disgust the best workers and young people, whose lives are being destroyed by the cuts that Labour is imposing.

Associating with Labour politicians damages the ULA

Such an approach would weaken, not strengthen, a campaign and would also undermine the support for the ULA by its potential association with opportunist politicians who would be seen to have sold-out.

An orientation and political softness towards Labour politicians could lead to the incorporation of the same old and failed reformists and reformist policies into the ULA, the very thing the ULA is trying to overcome.

On the other hand the ULA should orientate to the combative and politically conscious workers and young activists who will inevitably emerge from this crisis. That is the best way to ensure that a new party is really built on solid foundations and the two contradict each other.

Fighting on issues – building genuine and democratic campaigns

The Socialist Worker article states: “hundreds have come to protest meetings in Dublin precisely because they have not been “branded” as belonging to one political formation.

This is overly negative assessment of the motives of working class people and understates the openings for genuine left groups. Hundreds of people came to meetings first and foremost because they were concerned about the issues that were being dealt with, whether that be on bus services, SNAs, Pyrite or housing.

Of course when meetings are called under a specific banner or by a specific campaign designed to deal with a particular issue, all things being equal, it will get a bigger attendance than if it is convened by a political group alone. Where campaigns are being established that clearly is the best way of approaching it.

Political groups or individuals should have the right to participate in such campaigns but it is vital that campaigns are based primarily on the participation of ordinary working class people.

This approach has long been established and the Socialist Party, along with others, has often argued for such an approach, often in the face of opposition from the SWP. The issue of broad campaigns was raised in the Socialist Worker article as a way of justifying the SWP orientation to Labour, but in our view the arguments advanced don’t add up.

If it is generally best, from the point of view of involving greater numbers of ordinary people and in building pressure on an issue, to establish a campaign and protests on that specific issue, why has it been the approach of the SWP to tell people affected by SNA cuts or facing repossession that the key thing for them is to get involved in “Enough” and fight for a referendum on the bail-out?

Obviously anyone on the left should encourage people to get politically involved and fight the IMF, but we must also help people fight on the issue that concerns them in the best way possible. To do otherwise would indeed be abstract.

The ULA and the North

The Socialist Worker article states that the Socialist Party says that the timing is not right for the ULA to be established on a 32 county basis.

It is clearly implied in the SWP article that the Socialist Party is again slow to move on the issues that affect working class people, even that we are negligent in our responsibilities given the huge attacks and cuts that the parties in the north are preparing to impose.

Actually we are opposed to the approach of the SWP and some others in the ULA regarding the ULA and the North precisely because we are very focused on the needs of the working class in the North, both Protestant and Catholic.

The SWP may reduce the building of new workers parties everywhere to the need for a lead, a spark, an initiative and then it will all come together. But that approach dismisses important objective factors and political considerations.

This same approach led to the SWP’s disastrous failure with RESPECT in Britain which has set back the struggle to build a new workers party there. The danger of not having a principled approach to political issues and programme in RESPECT was illustrated by the fact that elected RESPECT councillors relatively quickly defected to Labour, but incredibly also to the LibDems and the Tories.

That mess is nothing like what would be created if the unprincipled approach of the SWP on the issue of sectarianism became a significant part of the campaign to build a new workers party in the North.

The opposition of the Socialist Party to the extension of the ULA into North has nothing to do with being slow to move on the issues that affect the working class, but is based on having a principled and sensitive approach to the conflict of national aspirations that exists in the North.

We are opposed to the extension or imposition of a broad left organisation based in the South into the North or for that matter, a British based broad left organisation into the North. Either option would be treated with suspicion by one side of the community and would not be a basis to move forward.

The poison of sectarianism

We believe that a new workers party in the North, even more so than elsewhere, must be based on the emergence of a layer of working class activists from struggles. It is vital that a new formation is rooted in the understanding of the need to oppose both loyalist and republican sectarianism, and for workers unity against sectarianism and capitalism.

While sometimes over the last years, the SWP have argued for workers unity, that does not mean that they have overcome their one sided view of the national question which has been a hallmark of their position.

The SWP approach has been infected with the view that republicanism as it emerged during the Troubles is progressive, and that includes an approach that tends to excuse Catholic sectarianism while highlighting and condemning loyalist sectarianism.

They also demonstrate a dismissive attitude to Protestant working class people. For instance in our view, the SWP has a sectarian and dangerous position on the issue of parades that would lead to a deepening of sectarian division, the opposite of workers unity.

The reality is that if the ULA was extended to the North, it would only take one serious sectarian incident and there would most likely be a fundamental division in the ULA on issues related to the national question and the conflict that exists.

If a new formation in the North took a left republican position, that would make it impossible for it to win a significant section of Protestant working class people to its banner.

Without the ability to seriously organise in both communities, a new left party would be doomed to failure and the potential to build workers unity and develop a socialist solution to sectarianism and the national question would be lost, potentially at a huge cost.

More debate and discussion in the ULA essential

It was necessary to write this article because of the amount of mis-information in the Socialist Worker review of the ULA Forum regarding both its own position and those of the Socialist Party.

We will soon post separate and more developed articles on the left alternative to the crisis and on the Socialist Party’s approach to building a new workers party in the North.