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Tag Archives: social democracy

If the UK Conservative Party and others like them are successful in destroying the real democratic and welfare gains of the past century, it is likely because opponents – both liberal and socialist – seem to lack the wit or the nerve to challenge. It’s as blunt as this: no one is pro-establishment.

The genius of what is happening lies in occupying the term “anti-establishment”. The stupidity lies with opponents who can’t see what is happening or are either so in thrall to their traditions or fear the contumely of their comrades that they fall back on safe familiarity.

When Dominic Cummings announced that he was recruiting outsiders, wreckers, to smash the traditions and expertise of the UK civil service, “pro-business” liberals lined up to offer mindless support. They had to; to do otherwise might seem like changing sides. After everything they had said about inefficiency and lack of enterprise, they couldn’t manage now to say anything remotely supportive of the established civil service. Many of them know that the Cummings wrecker, devoted exclusively to science and maths, is a parody of real science graduates, and yet they felt acquiescence to nonsense was the best course. Being seen as anti-establishment was more attractive than revealing the truth.

Because both Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime advisor, have explicitly said that they are plundering socialist tradition, the tacit support of socialists is more sad and culpable. Instead of hurrying to the defence of parliament and the whole range of hard-won institutions on which future reforms depend, the majority of socialists want to do the opposite. They want to remain true to their revolutionary tradition and they want to avoid the criticism of fellow socialists. They want to do as they’ve done before: to mobilise the people against parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, i.e. the establishment. They therefore argue for getting among the people, agitating, setting up counter structures: being anti-establishment.

The progressive position now and certainly the socialist position should be to defend the establishment so as to resist the right wing project to roll back the state and destroy so many gains on which decent living depends.

It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.

An aspect of the rise and break-up of the Syriza administration remains largely unexamined: Syriza was an experiment in left unity. The proposition was that if all leftists united behind an agreed programme, a left government could be elected. Leaving aside the need to enter into coalition with a right wing, anti-austerity party, the unity approach seemed to deliver. However, Greece is now in worse shape than when Syriza and its right wing partners came to power and Syriza has split. This outcome was predictable, if not downright inevitable. There were two related flaws from the outset. Firstly, there was the untruth (a clumsy term but it covers belief, lie and fantasy) that a government could end austerity without negative consequences and secondly, there was the belief among leftists that unity could encompass those who were essentially uncompromising. It was clear from the outset that an end to “austerity” could not be achieved and because compromise would be out of the question for components of the alliance, it was to be expected that Syriza would split.

Syriza sought election by offering to confront Greece’s lenders and secure deliverance from onerous bail-out conditions. So far, so populist and citizens voted for it in numbers sufficient to make Syriza the largest party in parliament. The rest of the Syriza election programme seems to have been virtually ignored.

Shortly after the government was formed a different tune was heard and there were reasons to be optimistic. Confrontation was out; deals and compromise were in. The time seemed to be right for Greece to assume leadership of the growing support for a more Keynesian Europe.

It has never been fully explained how the optimism too quickly drained away in acrimony. Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was insistent that Greece wanted to pay her debts and yet the descent into nationalism and simple anti-austerity “principle” happened.* These months reversed a modest economic recovery and pushed reform of European fiscal policy off the agenda. Then after the farcical referendum and the subsequent bailout deal the chasm between left reform and left revolt became impossible to ignore.

That chasm is a problem on the left and it cannot be papered over; it makes left unity impossible. In recent decades most leftists have abandoned revolution in any meaningful sense of the word but they’ve also worked to keep their distance from what they deride as mere social democracy. In refusing to join with the century-old tradition of those socialists who work on reforms through the parliamentary structures of the liberal state, they create the paradox of wanting revolutionary change without a revolution.

The tendency to underestimate that refusal to cross to the other side of the Marxist tradition is at the root of left unity wishful thinking.

In Greece the ironically named Popular Unity has walked off to oppose Syriza. Their aim remains to end austerity by taking Greece out of the deal with creditors. They exhibit, however, what might be termed revolutionary honesty because they now talk of leaving the Euro if necessary and of rebuilding the country.

The Greek experiment with Left Unity may have done lasting damage to the very idea of Left government in that the economy was damaged without producing any real change and without pushing through left reforms.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/its-not-plausible-that-the-publicly-expressed-argument-of-yanis-varoufakis-caused-this-crisis/

The labour Party – my party – is in turmoil. Questions are being asked about leadership, management, a revised programme for government and more. However, now more than ever the most useful question that the Labour Party can ask of itself is what is its purpose? Many see its purpose as defending welfare payments, sometimes jokingly referred to as being the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul. In recent years it has become conventional to say that its purpose – like every other party in the state – is to create a fairer society. Since entering government its purpose has become the restoration the economy.

Defending welfare payments and restoring the economy are worthy objectives. “Fairness”, however, has become a weasel word. It has been emptied of meaning. Anyone at all can be comfortably in favour of fairness but essentially it is a conservative position because all significant change – particularly in wealth or income – can be described as unfair. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

It might have been expected that socialism would feature. It certainly is mentioned regularly and is a focus of rows usually of a very technical nature. Open, iconoclastic discussion is rare because of the dominance – across decades – of conflict over socialism versus social democracy. While many seem to enjoy this jousting, it hardly qualifies as a debate. Indeed the Labour Party’s on-line forum, a model of openness and freedom, had to impose a rule that forbade questioning a person’s socialism. The reason was simple and born out of long experience: it was realised that as soon as a person is subjected to the “you’re-not-a-real-socialist” routine he/she would become defensive and discussion would rush down the old, boggy cul de sac of socialism/social democracy.

Many on the left would say that socialism/social democracy is the only debate, that it is fundamental, and that it must be addressed before any progress can be made. Ok then, perhaps it is worth risking a short discussion but it is a risk; it risks losing the attention of many leftists and it risks attracting comments about betrayal, principles, heroes rolling in their graves and the other traditional trappings of socialism reduced to a “faith”.

Socialists who favour a revolution generally treat with disdain those who accept parliamentary democracy and would want to describe them all as Social Democrats. However, the majority of socialists are opposed to revolution and regard the term “social democrat” as an insult. In truth insult is often intended.

One tradition sees a parliamentary route to a socialist society. The idea is that reform would be piled upon reform until capitalism is effectively replaced. This is now seldom discussed among socialists. Indeed, the question of transition to socialism is avoided. Non-revolutionary socialists anxious to avoid being labelled “social democrat” are often unwilling to let go of the term “revolution”. In seeking to redefine revolution to suit their peaceful intent, the term is drained of its meaning. This becomes downright silly when talk turns to a “spiritual revolution”.

There are socialists who are serious about a parliamentary road to socialism. They argue the need for a party or union of parties to win a left majority. This party/alliance then would not need to compromise with a right wing party and could legislate capitalism out of existence. A less ambitious objective is more common: a list of broadly leftist reforms. Again this would be delivered by a left majority. The problem of course is that the left programme itself would be a compromise and that there would be no plan B in the case of failing to achieve a majority. Indeed a plan B could never be developed because avoiding coalition with conservatives and/or liberals is their raison d’être.

So, leaving aside revolution there seems to be two leftist options: a majority left government or a coalition with liberals or conservatives.

It is accepted by many on the left in Ireland that it is coalition with right wing parties that prevents the emergence of a left majority vote. It is said that if the Labour Party eschewed coalition or if the Labour Party disappeared altogether, sufficient numbers of Irish people would in a relatively short period change their political views and elect a socialist government. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence to support it. It is a hope in spite of the evidence that a large majority of Irish voters prefer the right.

Another problem is that the left majority project is usually linked to left unity, i.e. bringing all or most of the left parties together on an agreed programme. That is to say, there is acceptance that it will be necessary to maximise support. Now, apart from the fact that these parties tend to despise one another, there is the question of excluding Labour, Labour’s members and crucially the sizeable Labour vote. Until recently it was assumed that Labour’s reliable 10% or so vote would transfer unproblematically to a new force on the left. More recently this vote has been dismissed as right wing and irrelevant to the project of building a left majority. The truth is that this large (by Irish left standards) and curiously reliable vote is unresearched, and no one knows much about it. However, it is reasonable to suggest that dumping or antagonising what is possibly the largest concentration of left votes is not a sensible way to start building towards a left majority.

Consider this scenario: The Labour Party has been destroyed and no longer exists. A left programme for government has been agreed by a group of left parties. All of these parties honour agreements not to oppose one another in an election. Labour’s traditional 10% support base moves to support the left grouping. Huge numbers of traditionally right wing voters are convinced to vote left. With all of these unlikely events coinciding, what could possibly go wrong? The obvious answer is that the outcome could still fall short – probably considerably short – of a majority.

If no one right wing party had achieved a majority, then the vexed question of coalition arises. Unless this is quickly dismissed the left grouping will very likely disintegrate. However, should it remain united or should a significant portion of it remain united, the whole or part will be confronted by coalition. Because it made no serious plans for this predictable eventuality, it will be in the situation that Labour frequently inhabits: confronted by coalition and with no clear notion what to do. In other words, a left grouping is likely to have worked to eliminate the Labour Party only to find that it has replaced the Labour Party.

It’s long past time the thoughtful elements within the Irish left stopped messing about and started making life difficult for political opponents and for those who do well out of the Irish structure of economic inequality. In other words, if it is not possible to achieve some structural change by way of coalition, it is time to abandon the parliamentary route. That means socialists becoming activists who would join pressure groups in that burgeoning area which accepts rule by a “political class” and progress as achieving favour at the expense of a rival group. Truth be told, many socialists and progressives have already gone there.

That’s a depressing prospect: socialists reduced to a role in managing the system while retaining the trappings of protest and anti-establishment. It’s time to stare coalition with a right wing party straight in the face. State the basic price of coalition as well as the areas of compromise and negotiation. The basic price would have to be modest in socialist terms but exorbitant in right wing terms.

It is highly unlikely that large numbers of anti-coalition socialists will look afresh at coalition. The anti-stance has been held for too long and has been concreted into a principle. That leaves the battered Labour Party. It is not averse to coalition but is very unsure of its purpose. The Labour Party needs to open up a clear space between it and the conservatives who believe that fairness and social justice are meaningful. It needs to state that the Party’s objective is a measurable reduction of inequality of income over each year of the lifetime of a government. For that gain the Labour Party should coalesce with the devil but should not coalesce with a saint for anything less.