Socialists, Protests and Strategy.
The last few years has seen a lot of frenetic political activity, there have been countless protests and mobilisations without much success in many of them. There were of course some obvious exceptions, the early CAHWT demos and more recently the Coillte protests The unions had organised some very big demos but they’re now in the distant past, and the recent ones are more a case of being seen to do something, rather than actually doing something. It seems like there has been an endless round of activism and it appears people are simply moving from one protest to the next. Every new cut in services is met with a protest, every attack on the working class is met with a demo. There are a lot of very good people putting a lot of effort into these activities. Unfortunately it seems as if we’re simply chasing our tails and one of the results of this is that the numbers attending have, in general, been declining. The lower numbers and the lack of substance to back up the demos ultimately leads to demoralisation and a downward spiral.
If you ask someone outside of the left what the left does, the answer is usually ‘protest’. Is that all we stand for? Of course not. We do however need to move beyond the cycle of tactical actions. Rather than objecting to every single manifestation of ‘austerity’ we need to develop an overall strategy for tackling capitalism. This means we need to break the current cycle of protests. We need to take a step back from the current level of activity and analyse what has worked over the last few years and what hasn’t. It is important we don’t get bogged down in the usual protest-recruit cycle that other groups thrive on, but ultimately leads to a dead end as there’s little substance to back it up. We need now to develop that substance. This is naturally going to be a long process involving as wide a range of voices on the left as possible. It certainly won’t be glamorous and will most likely be boring, but it’s vital for our long-term interests that we break this cycle and get back to some serious thinking.
This is not to say there should be no protests, but that we should pick and choose our battlegrounds more carefully. There are a myriad of cuts and attacks on the working class happening now under the guise of austerity, and we shouldn’t be looking to protest every last one of them. Simply put we don’t have the numbers to tackle each one of them individually. We have been trying to do this, and the result of it is diminished numbers at these demos. In my opinion this has the net effect of making the left appear weaker than it actually is. I know this won’t be a popular idea, but the left is thin on the ground and further dividing our strength by the sheer volume of (and sometimes competing) demos doesn’t serve us well. We simply don’t have the strength of numbers required to attend every protest, and in truth everyone knows the low turnouts make us look weak. We need to strategise our demonstrations, we need to decide what our priorities are and then take each invite to a protest and decide whether it fits into our strategic plan.
This will necessarily involve making some tough decisions. Nobody wants to turn away from any members of the working class that are under attack. But it must be done. We have to find other ways of supporting those groups, because truth be told having 300 people turn up to protest a cut in, for instance, the education budget does that group no favours at all. Ultimately it shows that those protesting aren’t strong enough to defeat the cuts, and makes them ripe for further cuts in future. I know some people will say that having 300 there is better than having no one, but really it isn’t, it amounts to the same thing: There is not enough force there to prevent the cuts.
There is a sort of cult of activism among some on the left that sees protests as something to be exalted above other forms of politics. In truth this isn’t just confined to the left as we also see groups like Independent Resistance (and their many different guises) protesting frantically (with even poorer numbers). The simplified message of constant protest followed by some vague idea of revolution is seductive to some, but it won’t work unless we know what is going to happen afterwards. And that requires some serious discussion. Unfortunately all this activism means there’s less time for that discussion: what are we hoping to achieve with all this activism? While an awful lot of good effort from some very dedicated people goes into these events, that effort would be better served if it was backed by an equally good strategy.
In many ways these protests are not just a case of showing our anger but are a method of communication. It is our way of saying to our class that we are here and are prepared to resist these capitalist attacks. In many ways this has become the left’s dominant form of communication with the wider populace. One of the problems with this is that protests are mainly what we’re known for. Socialists have a lot more to offer society rather than just being seen as those who will ‘kick up a stink’ every time there’s a cut we don’t like. Do we want to be seen as a socialist movement, or as a protest movement? Because there is the danger (or the reality) that that is all our movement will be regarded as, unless we come up with a serious alternative to the endless cycle of protests.
Protests can be a great medium of communication if they’re done properly. For now I think that means using them sparingly. We need large numbers of people at them in order for them to have any impact, and unfortunately that is just not happening at the moment. We can continue to have protests six days a week and get nowhere or else we can rethink what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Protests need be deployed tactically in order to maximise their impact. That can’t happen if we are in a situation where there are multiple protests in one week. The numbers are down, fatigue has set in, and we need to find a way out of this cul-de-sac before it’s too late.
For independent socialists in the run-up to the local elections there are a couple of different options available to us to tie in with other groups. There are the remnants of the ULA still looking for a home, there was some movement towards developing a party under the banner United Left, with Clare Daly & Joan Collins and a couple of Councillors. There was some discussion around the rudiments of a programme some months ago. Unfortunately this seems to be still born, as there doesn’t seem to have been much progress over the last couple of months. Considering the lack of apparent movement (there may be something happening behind the scenes I’m not aware of but it’s doubtful), there doesn’t seem to be much drive behind the organisation.
The other development seems to be more interesting and probably has the most potential at this stage. There are a number of caveats attached to this potential however. For instance because it was started by academics there is naturally an academic-heavy make up to the people who’ve been attending the Left Forum meetings. That being said, as it attracts more towards it, we should see the base broadening out to include a wider variety of people. We are already beginning to see this happening, and should these difficulties be overcome, then the Left Forum could be a successful endeavour.
The first thing that should be noted is that LF is not a party, and it’s not likely to become a party before the local elections. In fact it’s not even certain what LF will be, if anything. There needs to be a serious ongoing debate about the nature of the Forum, and it’s vitally important that this isn’t rushed into just to have a slate of candidates for the local elections next year. This would in the long term be counter-productive to the best interests of developing the left in Ireland. There will of course be people associated with LF contesting the locals (there will also be other slates of non-LF candidates), but not under a Left Forum banner.
It’s clear there are going to be a lot of left-wing candidates standing in the local elections. Some of those will be standing under the SP’s newly formed Anti-Austerity Alliance (this is largely made up of SP members and those members of CAHWT who stuck with the SP line), others will stand as PBPA which launched a recruitment drive some months ago. Others however will be standing as independents. It is these independents that need to be brought together under a banner after the elections. There is neither the time nor the funding needed to unite them before the locals and to field them as candidates.
I know this is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, but unfortunately its unavoidable considering the timescale we have to work with. We can’t simply thrash out a unity programme ahead of the elections as this will naturally be a ‘lowest common denominator’ programme that everybody is somewhat happy with, and a lot unhappy with. If the programme is rushed it will have no proper grounding, people won’t feel properly connected to it and will be more willing to walk away as they’ll feel no real ownership of it. The left in Ireland is already in a sorry state without us adding to and compounding that.
It is increasingly obvious that the left is not going to come out of this crisis with any substantial gains. Despite the frantic level of activity over the last couple of years we still failed to prevent Haddington Road, the Property Tax or any of the other austerity measures being foisted on us as the wealthy close ranks and protect their class interests. The best we can hope for now is to slow down the rate of attrition on our social services and the attacks on the working class.
Despite the impact of one of the most serious crises of capitalism in decades, the left have not been able to convince people that capitalism is the crisis. We are nowhere near having the mass understanding of capitalism and the infrastructure necessary to bring about a revolutionary situation. Such is the right-wing nature of our society at this time that modern social democracy seems radical! We are currently in some sort of pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-revolutionary stage. Unfortunately it seems the populist right, in the form of Direct Democracy Ireland and their fellow travellers, have become increasingly visible during this crisis, presenting a new challenge to those of us on the socialist left. Their confidence is up after Ben Gilroy’s relatively strong showing in the Meath East by-election. However none of the other members of DDI have Gilroy’s high profile, they’re relatively unknown in their communities, so it’s difficult to see them doing as well in the locals.
But it’s not been entirely negative for us either. There are still pools of activists that came from CAHWT (and other campaigns) looking to start something progressive, many of those weren’t active before the Household Tax. Most of those ex-CAHWT standing as independents are bringing with them a body of people who are supporting them in their election campaigns. These local groups are in essence nascent branches, and if the more progressive of them could be brought together (again) under a socialist banner they would make a potent force.
Of course if this is to develop into a potent working class movement it needs to develop in its own time, and without outside influences. Some have called for a broad slate of left candidates including the SP & SWP. I think this is a mistake. I think that any electoral compact with two well established parties by an emerging group of independents will automatically see the established groups dominate. I know this is only a slate and not an alliance like the ULA, but in my opinion the same principle applies. We would be seen as being similar to the established parties when we should be trying to make our own way and show we are different to them. We need to be separate from the others in order to not be swamped by them. It should also be noted that those ex-CAHWT groups that are fielding independent candidates have already rejected the SPs approach. Besides the SP & SWP have their broad slates with AAA & PBPA respectively, why would they bother adding independents they’re not particularly fond of?
Of course what all of this means is that we should be following two somewhat contradictory courses. We need concentrated short term activity to get those independent left wing candidates elected in the locals. And we need to engage seriously with the longer term process of developing the Left Forum, or whatever comes from it, into a potent force that can offer a serious alternative.
Now we just have to come up with a programme……….