Socialism or barbarism: Can the world afford capitalism any longer?

Paul O’Connell contributed this article to Issue 25 of Red Banner in July 2006.

We in this country remember April 1916 as a time of no mean significance: indeed, the first few months of this year have been consumed with debates over the legacy of the 1916 Easter Rising and the proclamation of the Irish Republic. While it is understandable, given that this is the ninetieth anniversary of the Rising, that we should be consumed with our own parochial history, it is also worth remembering that April 1916 witnessed the publication of another significant document, indeed arguably one of far greater significance in the grand scheme of things. Published in the aftermath of the implosion of the Second International and in the midst of the bloody carnage of the first imperialist world war, Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet confronted its readers with the stark choice, for want of a better term, between socialism and the advancement of the human race, or barbarism and the steady slide into oblivion.1

In the ninety years since the publication of her pamphlet, the need to positively respond to the challenge Luxemburg presented has become even more urgent. In our own time we see many of the advances of human history crumbling before our very eyes: we see the revival of human slavery, both in the exploitation of migrant workers and in the annual trafficking of tens of thousands of women for exploitation in the so-called ‘sex industry’; we see it in the degeneration of popular culture into the inane worship of celebrity and the encouragement of obsessive consumerism; in the re-emergence of ‘creationism’ on the curricula of schools in the most ‘advanced’ countries of world; and in the degeneration of shared social life, which reduces the majority of humanity to little more than subjects of ‘the market’ as opposed to citizens of a democracy or any positive form of society.

Tackling each of these tendencies, among many others, will be central in the construction of a more humane, egalitarian and sustainable society. However, I want to focus here on another of the cancerous offspring of capitalist ‘development’, one which may, quite literally, pre-empt any efforts at overcoming the other problems mentioned above before we have the chance to address them. I am referring to the environmental degradation wrought by capitalism, which may very well bring down the theatre before we have had the opportunity to play out the great drama of our time.

The environmental costs of capitalism

The expansion of capital, i.e. persistently increasing the wealth of economic elites, is the raison d’être of the capitalist system of social relations. In the rapacious pursuit of this end, capitalism has, over the last hundred years, wrought immense environmental degrad­ation on the global commons. The environmental costs of capitalist expansion are evident in a wide variety of areas including “global warming, destruction of the ozone layer, removal of tropical forests, elimination of coral reefs, overfishing, extinction of species, loss of genetic diversity, the increasing toxicity of our environment and our food, desertification, shrinking water supplies, lack of clean water, and radioactive contamination”,2 to name but a few. For present purposes, I propose to focus on the first problem highlighted in this depressing litany, and use it as a microcosm for understanding the more general relationship of capitalism to nature.

Global warming refers to the observed increases in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans over recent decades. The most authoritative scientific opinion on the subject, the 2001 report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, found that the average global temperature had risen by 0.6 C over the last hundred years. Furthermore, the report noted that most of the warming observed was as a result of human activities: specifically, the increase in greenhouse gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane) released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing and other such activities. The report went on to predict that average global temperatures may increase by between 1.4 C and 5.6 C over the next hundred years. Such increases, should they be realised, would have significant adverse effects on the wider biosphere, resulting in rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, and increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes, among other things.3 If current trends in relation to the emission of greenhouse gases continue unabated, “global warming could potentially spiral out of control, threatening the survival of human beings”.4

The obvious and rational way of avoiding such future crises is to reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions so as to mitigate the adverse effects that such gases have on the global biosphere. The problem in this regard is that the modern capitalist economy is inextricably bound up with the consumption of fossil fuels (and hence the production of greenhouse gasses) and therefore cannot countenance placing constraints on the highly profitable global dependence on fossil fuels.5 Indeed, the very modest attempt at reducing global carbon emissions that is (or was) the Kyoto Protocol regime has been scuppered on the one hand by the world’s leading polluter and global hegemon, the United States, opting out of it, and on the other by the inclusion of a mechanism which allows for the trading of emission permits, thus facilitating the subversion of the goal of emission reduction.

No solution through capitalism

It may be thought that the mere fact that capitalist expansion up to the present has resulted in global warming, among other things, is no reason to assume that we must make a clean break with the system in order to address and overcome this problem. This view, however, fails to take account of the internal logic of the capitalist system and the structural constraints which it places on any social impulses for reform. I want to mention here a few of the reasons why capitalism is incapable of rebottling the genie of environmental degradation which it has conjured.

First and foremost in this regard is capital’s inherent drive towards self-expansion, or more tangibly, the incessant pursuit by global economic elites of ever greater and faster—that is returned in a shorter time-frame—profits. As Foster notes, “High demand for fossil fuels is… encouraged by the high profits to be obtained from [it], including capital to structure the energy economy around fossil fuels”. In this light, the biggest obstacles and opposition to more fuel-efficient automobiles come from the “whole automobile-petroleum complex, i.e. the most powerful corporations in the world”.6 Thus, given the ceaseless pursuit of profit by economic elites (the expansion of capital) and the fact that capital accum­ulation in modern capitalism is inextricably bound up with the exploitation of fossil fuels, to say nothing of its exploitation of the rest of the environment, the Fabian fallacy that capitalism can mend its ways if only directed towards the ‘right’ policies is unsustainable.

Another characteristic of capitalism which makes it highly un­likely that we can overcome the environmental problems engen­dered by it is that the capitalist social order is inherently author­itarian. To say this is not to discount the significant qualitative distinctions which exist between different forms of government (fascism, liberal democracy etc.), but notwithstanding this, it is still fair to characterise capitalism as authoritarian in the sense that it concentrates economic power, hence real power, in the hands of numerically insignificant segments of society, in turn rendering the vast bulk of humanity subject to the whims of minorities. The low-level democracy of the West, the illusion of majority rule concealing the uninterrupted service of ruling class interests, is an inadequate counter to this concentration of economic power. The consequence of this is that the real decisions of significance, about whether or not greenhouse emissions are to be reduced, for example, are taken by and in the interest of economic elites, regardless of the needs of the vast bulk of humanity.

Finally in this regard, and related to the authoritarian character of capitalism, the role of the state has to be considered. In the idealised form, the state is the neutral arbiter of conflicts within a given society, the manifestation of the popular will and servant of the national interest. In this light, the environmental policies necessary to combat global warming, for example, can be imposed on economic actors by the state, in which case the election of the ‘right’ government, or a series of such governments, can result in the taming of the beast and the beginning of a solution to the ecological crisis facing us. However, we on the left have long since shattered this establishment canard, and have insisted from the beginning that the “executive of the modern State”, where the real power in the state resides, “is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.7 Hence the belief that government will serve the common good by limiting the options open to a given state’s economic elites is a gross inversion of reality, and the complete opposite is quite often the case.8

A radical departure

The solution lies in removing the power for directing the economic life of the world from the hands of tyrannous minorities and placing it under the democratic control of the vast majority of humanity. In this sense, then, the solution to our pressing environmental problems lies in transcending the current social system. If the current ‘metabolic rift’ stems from the insatiable and rapacious character of constantly expanding capital, then the solution lies in the suppression of capital, and the suppression of capital can only be achieved, in comrade Charlie’s words, through the expropriation of the expropriators. As Marx himself was aware, only a society of “associated producers” can “govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way”,9 in a way that respects and sustains the natural biosphere, and in consequence makes possible the sustain­ability of human civilization.

Socialism stands, if nothing else, for the suppression of capital and the expansion and deepening of democracy. Socialism implies a break with the greedy, exploitative, dehumanising and destructive short-term logic of capitalism. It envisages a society in which the social, cultural, political and economic life of the community is conducted in the interest of all of its members. In this sense, it is the very antithesis of a social order geared towards the ceaseless pursuit of profit expansion and the logic of the bottom line. If, at the very least, we are to stave off the dire consequences of the ecological whirlwind generated by reckless capitalist expansion, let alone move towards ameliorating its effects on the biosphere, we need to begin organising our world around different logics: around the principles of equality, solidarity, democracy and sustainability.

This proposition may seem unobjectionable, nay even desirable, but at the same time it may also appear as so much untested utopian hot air. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our own time, we have seen the differing consequences of nature confronting a society run on the logic of capitalism and one run on the logic of socialism. Similar hurricanes to those which battered New Orleans last year (exposing the third world beneath the neon veneer of the most advanced society on earth, and leaving thousands of America’s poorest citizens dead, homeless and displaced) periodically touch down on the shore of a little island in the Caribbean called Cuba. When an especially powerful hurricane, Ivan, hit Cuba in 2004, the government managed to move 1.5 million people to safety and not a single person died. What is the difference? One country runs on the logic of the market,10 while the other is organised around a “humane, just [and] participatory” system of social relations.11


In our age TINA (There Is No Alternative) reigns supreme. We labour under what one commentator has referred to as the “dictatorship of no alternatives”,12 in which the world we inhabit is presented as the only possible one open to us. Given the environ­mental destruction wrought by capitalist expansion, the threat that this poses to the continued existence of human civilization and the inability of capitalism to address these problems, such a dispen­sation, taken at face value, is most troubling.

However, we are not here today to acquiesce in established orthodoxies: rather, we are here to remember the life and ideas of a man who was the antithesis of the TINA mentality. James Connolly’s life and struggles represented the ceaseless pursuit of an alternative to the tyranny of capitalism in his time, and it is in drawing on the legacy of his life that we must confront the anarchy and destructive­ness of capitalism in our own time, and further rise to the challenge posed to us by Luxemburg. This is the immense task we are faced with today: the need to affect a break with the destructive logic of capitalism and inaugurate a new local, national and global order founded on the principles of democratic control of every facet of life by the popular classes. In light of this, then, it is apt to sum up by paraphrasing Connolly himself and noting that our task, most modest indeed, is to reclaim the earth.


This is the revised text of a speech delivered at the Ripples of Freedom conference on 13 May, organised by the James Connolly Education Trust to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Connolly’s execution.

  1. See Mary-Alice Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (Pathfinder Press 1970), p 369.
  2. John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (Monthly Review Press 2002), p 12.
  3. For a useful and accessible summary on this topic see: <http://>.
  4. Brett Clark and Richard York, ‘Carbon metabolism: Global capitalism, climate change and the biospheric rift’, 34 Theory and Society 391 (2005), p 416.
  5. In this regard, it is worth noting that six of the world’s top ten industrial corporations are involved primarily in the production of oil, gasoline, and motor vehicles. See Michael Parenti, ‘Why the Corporate Rich Oppose Environmentalism’, available at <http://www.stateofnature. org/corporateRich.html>.
  6. Ecology Against Capitalism, p 19, 38.
  7. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin 1967), p 82.
  8. Support for this proposition, were it needed, can be found in the US government’s decision to fund research into a number of bizarre technologies with a view to sidestepping the issue of greenhouse emissions, rather than tackling it head on and adversely affecting the interests of that country’s economic elites: Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, p 20-1.
  9. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume Three (Penguin 1981), p 959.
  10. See Michael Parenti, ‘How the Free Market Killed New Orleans’, 3 September 2005, available at < content/2005-09/03parenti.cfm>.
  11. Richard Levins, ‘Cuba’s Example’, 16(4) Capitalism Nature Socialism 5 (2005) , p 6.
  12. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, What Should the Left Propose? (Verso 2005).

Venezuela at a turning point

This review by Daniel Finn was published in Issue 24 in March 2006.

Michael McCaughan, The Battle of Venezuela (Seven Stories Press)

For the most part, the European left only started paying attention to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela after the unsuccessful coup attempt by right-wing opponents of Hugo Chavez in 2002. Since then, it has become more and more obvious that we need to understand what’s going on in Latin America. The Chavez government has inspired a resurgence of the left across the continent, as shown by recent election results in Bolivia and Chile. It’s clear that the left in Latin America is far more advanced than in any other region of the world. With this in mind, socialists everywhere should be looking carefully to see what we can learn.

Many people will have learned about the ongoing process in Venezuela from the excellent documentary about the coup, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Now Irish journalist Michael McCaughan has produced a much more detailed account of the Bolivarian revolution. It should go a long way towards spreading awareness and understanding of events since Chavez came to power in 1998.

The rise and fall of the Punto Fijo system

McCaughan starts off with a lengthy account of the historical background. One thing that strikes the reader almost immediately is the parallel that can be drawn between Venezuela and many European societies. Post-war Venezuelan politics was based on a two-party system, with a social-democratic party (AD) and a Christian-democratic one (COPEI) alternating power. Venezuelan democracy was consolidated in 1958 when the military regime of Marcos Perez Jimenez was overthrown. AD and COPEI negotiated the so-called Punto Fijo pact, carving up political power and patronage between themselves and excluding the Communist Party (PCV) from the system. AD had no radical ambitions and favoured reform over revolution, aiming to use Venezuela’s oil wealth to pay for social programmes. In the 1960s a radical faction in the PCV led by Douglas Bravo initiated a guerrilla movement, the FALN, but their efforts made little headway. The political consensus remained strongly in place, underpinned by economic prosperity: “Despite the corruption and mismanagement associated with the traditional parties, great strides were made in literacy and welfare programmes …Venezuelan workers enjoyed the highest wages in Latin America and received subsidies in food, health, education and transport sectors.”

But this consensus began to fall apart in the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1995 the percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty soared from 36 per cent to 66 per cent. As usual, the IMF prescribed neo-liberal ‘reforms’ that made things much worse. During the 1989 presidential election, AD candidate Carlos Andres Perez condemned the IMF programmes, but did an about-turn once in office and adopted the same policies. In February 1989 a hike in public transport fares provoked intense rioting in the capital Caracas. After three days of unrest, the army stepped in to restore order. Soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in working-class areas: the final death toll is estimated to have been over a thousand. The Caracazo, as the bloody clashes were known, should be remembered when we hear claims that Hugo Chavez has turned the classes against each other and disrupted the harmonious social order that preceded his election.

Radical challenges: civilian and military

As the Punto Fijo system began to collapse, challenges began to emerge from two different quarters. The civilian left had begun to mount a serious challenge in the 1980s. Two leftist parties had been formed in the early seventies by PCV dissidents who were fed up with the conservatism of the Communist leadership: the MAS (Socialist Movement) and LCR (La Causa Radical). Their experience should be of particular interest to the radical left in Europe.

Although the MAS had criticised the top-down, bureaucratic structures of the PCV, it organised itself in a very similar way. LCR, however, believed that a very different approach was needed. Its chief ideologue Alfredo Maneiro insisted that traditional forms of party organisation had to be abandoned by the left: “The vanguard is not decreed, not conceived from above… but constructed from below with the people, from the people… without the pre­supposition of a specific party programme.”

LCR had its first successes in the industrial field, organising a grassroots union movement that clashed with the national union leadership and won support from radical workers. In 1989 both parties made electoral breakthroughs. The MAS won 20 per cent of the municipal vote, while LCR’s candidate Andres Velasquez became governor of Bolivar state. It also won three seats in parliament, and used the position of governor to raise its national profile. It drew up local budgets in consultation with communities and adopted social programmes that helped the poor. LCR won support as the only party in Congress to oppose the 1989 IMF agreement. It expected to make big gains in the 1993 elections, but its sudden growth created problems of its own: “One drawback to the sudden rise of LCR was that in their anxiety to offer candidates across a broad range of constituencies, the party accepted politicians linked to AD and COPEI, with some opportunists using the second wind to wipe their political slate clean.”

In the meantime, a very different challenge to the status quo came from a group of radical army officers led by Hugo Chavez. After the failure of the guerrilla struggle in the 1960s, its main ideologue Douglas Bravo had adopted a different strategy, seeking to infiltrate the armed forces. He found his ideal partner in 1980 when he recruited Chavez, who founded a secret cell and began plotting within the army. After the Caracazo, he decided it was time to act, and began preparing in earnest. In November 1991 the plotters informed their allies in LCR that a rebellion was imminent. This provoked division in LCR: the leadership believed that partic­ipation in the uprising would damage its electoral hopes, but another faction continued to work with Chavez.

When the attempted coup came in February 1992, it was quickly defeated with few casualties. Chavez blamed the civilian left for its failure to support him, but interestingly, Douglas Bravo put a different spin on things:

We said that first of all there should be a civil action… this was so that civil society should have an active participation in the revolutionary movement. But this was exactly what Chavez did not want. Absolutely not! Chavez did not want civilians to participate as a concrete force. He wanted civil society to applaud but not to participate, which is something quite different.

Regardless of who was to blame, this squabble soured relations between Chavez and the traditional left, with lasting consequences. But the failed rebellion also made the unknown army officer into a national figure. The government gave him sixty seconds on state television in order to instruct his comrades to surrender. This proved to be a huge mistake, as he used the opportunity to outline his political vision and won many admirers.

The following year’s presidential election saw the final collapse of the Punto Fijo system. Rafael Caldera, one of the founders of COPEI, ran against the COPEI and AD candidates on a platform opposing neoliberalism, and was supported by the MAS. LCR put forward Andres Velasquez. Caldera won with 30 per cent of the vote. Velasquez got 22 per cent, putting him on a par with the two establishment candidates. It was widely believed that his real vote was much higher: in fact, he might have won outright if not for electoral fraud. The abstention rate in the election was 40 per cent (in the 1960s, turnouts in excess of 90 per cent had been common) while the combined vote of AD and COPEI fell from 93 per cent to 47 per cent. Once in power, Caldera quickly bowed to pressure from the IMF and adopted the same policies as his predecessors, telling supporters: “I had to take these measures because there is nothing else that can be done”. Having joined his government, the MAS helped implement these policies, with its leading spokesman Tedoro Petkoff serving as economy minister.

This should have provided LCR with the chance to make a decisive breakthrough. But as McCaughan notes, “sudden access to power at the highest level resulted in a softening of the party’s radical edge as the prospect of becoming serious players inside the political system led to the hope of even greater electoral gains ahead”. LCR had one quarter of the seats in parliament; it began to work with MAS and COPEI and became bogged down in parlia­mentary horse-trading: “Core voters began to see the party as simply another aspect of the rotten Punto Fijo system.” This drift towards the centre brought tensions within the party to a head. Two camps had already formed after the 1992 coup. Before long there was an ugly split and the radical and moderate factions went their separate ways. As the 1998 presidential election approached, it seemed as if the left had squandered all the good work of the previous two decades. The ‘moderate’ LCR had lost its bearings to the extent that it supported the candidacy of Irene Saez, an avowed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, who was leading the polls by twenty points.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez and his supporters had decided to enter the political arena, forming the Movement for a Fifth Republic and putting Chavez forward for the presidency. The radical LCR faction (now known as the PPT) decided to endorse him in January 1998, but it seemed like a lost cause as Chavez trailed far behind in the polls. Six months later, Chavez had soared ahead of Saez and the other candidates. He promised the reconstruction of Venezuelan society and a new deal for the poor. In December 1998, he was elected president at the head of a loose coalition that contained both radicals and opportunists. Many expected that Chavez would follow the same trajectory as Perez and Caldera, scrapping his campaign pledges and changing course once in power. These expectations were to be confounded, as Venezuela entered a remarkable period of upheaval.

The Bolivarian revolution: first phase

Chavez was elected with a clear majority, 56 per cent of the vote. But opinion polls showed that there was a hard core of 26 per cent who said they’d vote for anybody but Chavez. As McCaughan remarks: “The polarisation that the opposition blamed on policies adopted when Chavez assumed office was already in place before election day.” At first the country’s traditional elites tried to woo Chavez, hoping that he could be won over to their side. But it soon became clear that such efforts would be in vain.

The first task that the new government set itself was the reform of Venezuela’s political institutions. Elections were held for a constituent assembly. Although the Chavez list won 90 per cent of the vote, more than half the electorate abstained, a far from satisfactory outcome. The assembly drew up a new ‘Bolivarian’ constitution. One of the most notable clauses made all elected posts, from local officials up to the president, subject to recall. Once they had reached the midway point in their term, incumbents could be forced to stand for re-election if 20 per cent of the electorate signed a petition (the number of those voting to remove them from office had to exceed the original vote in their favour). The constitution also established that citizens could introduce legislation to parliament with the support of 0.1 per cent of the electorate. Citizens were granted social and economic rights, for example a 44-hour working week (although many of these rights have yet to be fulfilled on the ground). NGOs were allowed to contribute their own proposals, of which more than half were accepted. 71 per cent of voters approved the constitution (although turnout fell below 50 per cent again). The day of the referendum saw the beginning of disastrous flooding that claimed 20,000 lives and caused billions of dollars of damage. Some Chavez opponents claimed that the floods were divine punishment for the ‘crimes’ of his administration.

In 2000, new elections were held for every position in the state, including the presidency. Chavez won again, with 59 per cent of the vote. Opinion polls showed that Venezuela was the only country in Latin America where public support for the political system had actually risen, from 35 per cent in 1998 to 55 per cent in 2000. Already it was clear that Chavez had done much to energise the Venezuelan people. This did not mean that they were active participants in the process: “The Bolivarian revolution was still largely a one-man phenomenon observed by a large, cheering crowd in the back­ground.” But this was soon to change.

In November 2001, the government introduced a package of 49 laws to give practical effect to the social and economic clauses of the constitution. Although moderate, these social reforms were too much for the dominant classes: “The ‘forty-nine laws’ quickly came to represent the plus ultra non of the Venezuelan system, the point at which business, media, oil, church and other influential sectors threw down the gauntlet and demanded the government relent or face total resistance to its continued rule.” At the same time, Chavez and his supporters launched the Bolivarian Circles, in an attempt to organise popular support for the president into something coherent. One and a half million people joined the committees that began to organise in neighbourhoods all over the country. They were soon to face the challenge of an authoritarian coup launched by the opposition.


The circumstances of the 11 April 2002 coup are well documented. A brief attempt by the traditional elites to seize power, suspend democracy and impose a Pinochet-style regime was frustrated by mass mobilisation. The regard in which Chavez was held by his former army comrades was also crucial. McCaughan supplies some important background information. That the US government had a hand in the coup is beyond doubt. The coup plotters met with two leading US officials, Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams (veterans of the bloody war against the left in Central America during the 1980s), shortly before the putsch. They discussed the prospects of success and were given Washington’s seal of approval.

The CTV, Venezuela’s main trade union federation, played a disgraceful role in the attempt to subvert democracy. The CTV leadership was dominated by AD and had moved further and further to the right over the previous decade, accepting neoliberal policies without opposition. It joined forces with the business federation Fedecamaras to oppose Chavez. When this effort failed, pro-government trade unionists had to organise a new federation to replace the discredited scabs of the CTV.

The private media also played a key role. The corporate media barons unleashed a poisonous torrent of anti-Chavez propaganda, helped by the absence of effective libel laws. This incessant clamour reached a peak in the days leading up to the coup: “The Venezuelan media didn’t just support the coup, they played a key role in the planning and execution of events as round-the-clock propaganda slots urged citizens to take to the streets and ‘liberate’ their country.” Since 2002, the Chavez government has adopted some limited measures to restrain the media. These half-hearted steps have been cited as ‘proof’ that Chavez is a brutal despot who wants to eliminate free speech. The behaviour of the media during the coup should be recalled when judging these claims. We need only ask how a typical western government would have responded in the same situation. When the BBC carried a story that was accurate but embarrassing to the Blair government, Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell forced its two most senior officials to resign. It’s easy to imagine how they would respond if the BBC (or any other media outlet) urged people to take to the streets and overthrow the elected government of Britain. By comparison, Chavez has proved to be exceptionally tolerant.

Chavez had also been attacked for attempting to reform the Venezuelan judiciary after taking power. Despite polls showing that 90 per cent of the population distrusted the existing judiciary, critics accused the president of interfering with one of the cornerstones of Venezuela’s democratic system. How committed many judges were to that system was shown clearly when the Supreme Court halted prosecutions against senior officers involved in the coup. According to the judges, the events of 11 April had been a “power vacuum”, not a coup d’état.

In the long run, the failed coup helped to radicalise the Bolivarian revolution. In order to keep the government they had voted for in power, the people of Venezuela had to mobilise and take matters into their own hands. The revolution was no longer a one-man show.

Chavez faced another challenge from the opposition later that year, when he attempted to reform the state oil company PVDSA. The PVDSA management was corrupt, with a grossly inflated workforce, and considered itself to be independent of the govern­ment. When Chavez appointed new managers, his opponents called for a general strike in December 2002 and demanded his resignation. The president proved to be more resilient than they expected, and refused to back down. The strike dragged on until February 2003 when small and medium-sized businesses re-opened their doors rather than face bankruptcy. Although Chavez had survived, the opposition had managed to reverse much of the progress made in the first two years of his government. The economy suffered under the impact of constant disruption, and living standards fell for most of the population.

This was probably the lowest point for the Chavez government. According to polls, support for him slumped to 30 per cent in July 2003 (although McCaughan notes that “approval ratings for neighbouring leaders in Peru and Ecuador have been consistently lower than Chavez’s despite an absence of coup attempts, crippling work stoppages, and US hostility”). But Venezuela’s oil wealth allowed the government to repair the damage. With the price of oil continuing to rise, the economy turned the corner in 2004, with 17 per cent growth (the highest in the region) and a drastic fall in unemployment. Oil revenues allowed the government to spend an extra $3.5 billion on social programmes.

It has often been remarked that the Chavez government depends on Venezuela’s reserves of oil to make the Bolivarian project viable. This is largely true, but it is hardly a damning indictment of Chavez. At present, the global economic order is carefully designed to punish any society that rejects the neoliberal model. The high price of oil has gone some way towards levelling the playing field, giving Vene­zuela the chance to put forward an alternative model of develop­ment. McCaughan notes, however, that dependence on oil leaves the government in a vulnerable position:

The Chavista movement is hampered by its struggle to reconcile its populist short-term appeal with the need to institutionalise the Bolivarian project. Chavez unveils a new financial assistance package almost every weekend… unless Chavez can lay down deeper roots in the population, however, his populist appeal will last only as long as competitive oil revenues flow into state coffers.

The opposition made another attempt to depose Chavez in 2004, this time utilising his own constitution for the task and collecting signatures for a recall vote. But the referendum that was held in August 2004 was comfortably defeated, with 58 per cent voting for Chavez. Given the low turnout for previous referendums that we noted earlier, it was also very encouraging that 75 per cent of those eligible came out to vote. McCaughan argues that this decisive victory happened because undecided sectors of the population came over to the Chavez camp in large numbers. The anti-democratic behaviour of the opposition antagonised many who had been unsure about Chavez, and prompted them to support his presidency. The opposition is now in disarray, and Chavez is expected to win re-election later this year.

The balance sheet

In the midst of all the political turmoil that has taken place since 1998, it is easy to lose sight of the constructive achievements of the Chavez government. Writing last year, Rolf Bergkvist (‘Venezuela: is socialism possible?’, gave a brief summary of what it has accomplished since coming to power:

  • Started a land reform with redistribution of uncultivated land to poor peasants and agricultural workers.
  • Completed a literacy campaign which has taught 1.5 million people how to read and write.
  • Introduced free education for poor children from primary to tertiary level.
  • Built 300 primary health care centres in the poorest commun­ities, providing free health care.
  • Introduced price control on 160 basic food stuffs and 60 household necessities.
  • Created a supermarket chain where the food prices are highly subsidised.
  • Introduced soup kitchens in the poorest communities.
  • Stopped all plans to privatise the country’s oil industry.
  • Created new banks to give cheap credit to small companies, workers’ and women’s cooperatives.
  • Started a comprehensive skills development programme designed to minimise unemployment.
  • Introduced a Latin American alternative to the free trade area the large companies of the USA want to establish.

These are significant reforms, especially considering the intense pressure to which the government has been subjected.

The Bolivarian revolution has also done a great deal to dispel cynicism about politics. Polls estimate that trust in democracy has increased dramatically since Chavez came to power: by 2004, it had reached 74 per cent. This has also been reflected in higher turnout at elections (although it must be noted that parliamentary elections last year, boycotted by the opposition, saw a very poor turnout: the coming presidential election will show whether or not this was an aberration). The trend elsewhere in Latin America has been the exact opposite.

McCaughan rightly notes that freedom has not been sacrificed in the pursuit of change:

Venezuela’s experiment in radical democracy has survived two major challenges without recourse to state violence. It is difficult to imagine another leader in the region with sufficient con­fidence to face down a coup d’etat and an insurrection­ary strike without dispatching troops to subdue the crowds.

After the experience of authoritarian post-revolutionary regimes in the twentieth century, this break with tradition is very welcome. Chavez may enjoy a good relationship with Fidel Castro, but he has made no attempt to replicate the Cuban political system.

The Bolivarian revolution is now entering its most critical phase. During his May Day address last year, Chavez introduced rhetoric that has not been heard from an elected leader in many years:

It is impossible for us to reach our goals within the confines of capital­ism, and it is not possible to find a middle road… I invite the whole of Venezuela to walk on the road of socialism in the new century. We must build a new socialism for the 21st century.

This speech demonstrated that Chavez himself has come a long way since 1998 when he spoke of finding a “third way” between capital­ism and socialism. Translating this rhetoric into a functioning model of democratic socialism will require a massive effort. It is certainly not within the power of one man to achieve.

One of the most promising developments has been the growth of the Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), a new trade union federation that was created in 2003. It has already surpassed the old, corrupt union federation and become the main representative of Venezuelan workers. Its programme calls for “workers’ co-determination and control over companies”. There have also been moves to form a new party of the radical left: the Party of Revolution and Socialism was founded last year by activists who believed that the existing Chavista parties were incapable of taking the revolution forward.

 Venezuela has now reached a turning point. Chavez himself recognises that the reform process has reached the outer limits of what can be achieved without abolishing capitalism. As McCaughan concludes: “The next phase of this process will not rely on the charisma of a single individual but on the collective engagement of a people alive to the certainty that it is possible to reclaim their nation from its arrogant elite.” We can only hope that the next phase of the Bolivarian revolution will be as exciting and instructive as its progress to date.

From New Orleans to Dublin: Neo-liberal chickens come home to roost

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Joe García explored the political roots of the devastation it wrought, in Issue 23 (November 2005).

The road to the brutal hell of post-hurricane New Orleans 2005 was paved a long time ago with bad intentions. Let us see how!

Our search for the roots of the disaster brings us back to the Dark Ages of 1975. In that year, a report concerning the “governability of democracy” was commissioned by a highly influential US establish­ment ‘think tank’, the Trilateral Commission. It concluded that democracy was bad for capitalism. Among the draftees of this report was the Samuel P Huntingdon—he of The Shock of Civilizations notoriety—whose thinking continues to justify aggressive US foreign policy, particularly in the Islamic world. This Trilateral Commission was formed on the initiative of David Rockefeller, then director of the Chase Manhattan Bank; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter when the latter was elected US president in 1976; ex-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance; Paul Volcker, then president of the US Federal Reserve, together with key personnel from more than forty US-based multinational companies.

The report warned that the quest for the democratic ideals of quality and individual rights was leading to a “delegitimisation of authority”. And that, in order to counteract such a “crisis”, govern­ments were forced to “dangerously expand” re-distributive policies. “Democratic expansion of political participation has generated an un­balanced expansion of government activities which have exacerbated inflationary tendencies in the economy”, it warned ominously. Huntingdon and his colleagues counterposed the respect for ruling hierarchies, seen as being essential for the preservation of the existing social order, to the “egalitarian, individualist, populist and impatient” demands of those infected by the radical democratic bug. “Any social organization requires… inequalities in regard to authority and distinc­tions according to function…” this influential report trumpeted.

The democratic notion that government is somehow responsible to the people it, allegedly, represents generates the expectation that it can and must meet the needs of all social groups. Faced with the demands of business, trade unions and the beneficiaries of governmental prodigality [social welfare recipients, I suppose], it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for democratic governments to cut costs…

In other words, the root cause of all our socio-economic ills was nothing other than too much democracy. What the social body needed was a strong purgative. And luckily, bright new economic, geo­political and military doctrines were available to administer it. And those with a little help, in some refractory parts of the planet, from reigns of terror instituted by military/paramilitary forces trained directly by US advisers, and often in the military installations of the US itself.

And so, away back in 1975, was forged the ideological basis for the neo-liberal onslaught which, within a short space of time, dis­lodged and buried the moderate Keynesian policies which had more or less hegemonized the industrialized world since the second world war. The stagflation of the 1970s seemed to vindicate the central contentions of the Trilateral Commission report, so paving the way for implementation of ‘realistic’ neo-liberal economic recipes. Recession at the beginning of the 1980s provided the occasion for a generalized swing towards now-familiar monetarist policies which set socio-economic priorities that had been in force since the nineteenth century on their heads: reduction of inflation by generating unemployment and low-paid labor (the capitalist need for a permanently margin­alized underclass, as noted by Marx), market deregulation, balanced budgets, redistribution in favor of the rich, withdrawal of the state from provision of essential services, outward expansion of the economy through globalization (‘imperialism’ in Lenin’s terminology; ‘global extension of democracy’ in Bush-speak)…

But what has all of this got to do with New Orleans, García? Hold on! We are getting there!

In short, what we have here is the genesis of the ‘good govern­ment is less government’ philosophy that continues to this very day to inform the thinking of business and administrative elites. Both in the US itself and in areas of the globe—such as Ireland, the Asia-Pacific region, Italy, and Britain—that are solidly locked into the US sphere of influence. It is a philosophy continuously hammered home by the capitalist-owned or dominated mass media of all of these regions. Apart from debasing and dumbing down the masses with a non-stop diet of distracting trivial entertainment, these media actively promote, liminally and subliminally, the core values of neo-liberalism—self-interest, selfishness, acquisitive greed—that erode social solidarity, and hence interest in democratic participation. Values that serve solely to sustain and reproduce the current consumerist order.

(Galloping social disintegration in the US has been minutely documented by Robert D Putnam, Harvard sociologist and guru, it seems, of Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. As a denizen of foreign parts, I am loath, of course, to comment on your prime minister’s bizarre choice of intellectual stimulation. Suffice it for me to say that, with stereotypical neo-liberal reluctance to explain social decay in terms of the glaringly obvious—the socially disruptive effects of the economic policies of recent US administrations—Putnam blows from his magic pipe conceptual bubbles, such as “social capital”, which, being totally empty, don’t even offer the ghost of a solution to the social de­generation he describes).

This alienation of the broad masses from any form of political involvement plays, of course, right into the hands of the corporate and political elites who were warned initially against the ‘dangers’ of too much democracy by the Trilateral gentry. In this way, the economic and associated political machinations of neo-liberalism remain hidden from the public at large. For what most favors the interests of the US economically super-privileged is a massive concentration of power in Washington in the hands of an administration whose policies are framed by, and in the interests of, major US multinational corp­orations. To put the matter bluntly, the neo-liberal slogan ‘Good government is less government‘ effectively hides the real one-liner: ‘More government—as long as it is our government’.

So what has all this got to do with the New Orleans tragedy?

Everything! The disaster cannot be understood outside the broad political context in which it is located. Let us be clear about this! The egregious failure of the Bush administration to act responsibly, and in time, to protect the lives, homes and services of thousands of US citizens is firmly rooted in the neo-liberal ideology of the said administration and the type of society such an ideology cultivates. An ideology whose basic tenets were first enunciated in that 1975 Trilateral Commission report I referred to earlier.

First of all, it must be understood that the New Orleans disaster was perfectly avoidable. By contrast, when neighboring Cuba was hit last year by a comparably powerful hurricane, the Cuban government —aided by citizen committees and local Communist Party activists—evacuated 1.3 million people (more than 10 per cent of the island’s population) without a single loss of life, in spite of heavy material damage. Needless to say, this achievement went almost unmentioned in the US media.

So why that deadly hesitancy that stayed the hand of the administration in those critical few days before and after the arrival of Hurricane Katrina? Racism? As New Orleans is (or was) 67 per cent black, angry voices in the black community have not been slow to see in this stasis clear expression of a covert white supremacist position. Maybe there is a grain of truth in this! However, although Bush himself belongs to that tight core of exclusively white ultra­conservative decision-makers that rules America, he himself does not appear to be a visceral racist. He seems to be, above all, a pragmatist in these matters. It was he who made Condoleeza Rice Secretary of State, for example. And Colin Powell before her. ‘Figureheads’, it can be alleged, but still he did it. The sin of the New Orleans victims seems to be less that they were black than that they were poor and, thence, second-class citizens. And since those of them who bother to vote at all vote overwhelmingly Democrat, probably even third-class citizens. Ultraconservatives don’t normally rush to help poor black Democrats in their hours of need.

Doubting Thomases who may find it difficult to accept a possible class basis for the delayed relief effort might ponder the fact that the police order of September 10 that bars New Orleans homeowners from owning guns does not, according to my local radio station, apply to the—quote—“M16-toting private security guards hired to protect businesses and wealthy property owners”—unquote. Crucial time wasted in discussions between Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana Kathleen Blanco and the federal administration is probably more to the point. This undoubtedly contributed signif­icantly to the extent of the tragedy. As pointed out above, part and parcel of Bush’s neo-liberal show is that excessive decision-making power is concentrated in Washington. The initial un­willingness of his administration to cede responsibility and power to local authorities on the ground clearly reflected the limpet-like determination of the former to hold onto every iota of that power.

However, the main factor behind the devastation of New Orleans appears to have been a mixture of dogmatic adherence to the neo-liberal social and economic model currently being imposed by the Bush administration on US citizens together with a type of naked and cynical cronyism that can only flourish in a largely de-politicized society. An obvious fall-out effect of this state of affairs is the corrosive cynicism and extraordinary lack of solidarity that has gripped the country, a state of affairs completely at odds with the traditional American ‘give me your huddled masses’ ethos.

This disaster gives two instances of such a seismic value shift. One: that the order to evacuate New Orleans issued from the office of the governor was given without taking into account those under­privileged citizens—amounting to no less than 30 per cent of the total population—who had neither the means nor the money to flee the city. And the other was the general lack of motivation—almost indifference—of the rest of US society. Up to now, the general population here has always been more or less unsparing in its solidarity with residents of zones hit by natural disasters. That the times they are a‑changin’, as Bob Dylan put it in the much more optimistic context of the Vietnam war protests, is evidenced by the time it took for the civil sector to get up off its butt and mobilize to put together a support network for the New Orleans victims.

But it is in the economic sector that the criminal (the word is not excessive, as we shall see) depredations caused by administration neo-liberal policies have caused maximum damage. The financial drain caused by the Iraq war and the supposed ‘war against terrorism’ (with consequent enrichment of arms industry moguls), deep tax cuts and the seemingly limitless promotion of the construction sector are three initiatives designed to enrich the friends, collaborators and hangers-on of the president. Let us have a brief look at some aspects of this story which have a direct bearing on the New Orleans tragedy!

In 1979, president Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an entity possessing ministerial rank and dedicated to coordinating federal, state and municipal efforts in the event of natural/human disasters. After 9‑11, bowing before an avalanche of criticism regarding the chaotic response of the US to the attack, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, which incorporated 22 pre-existing agencies and has the role of protecting the country against terrorist attacks. Since then, the role of FEMA has been a steadily diminishing priority. Why? Because the efforts and resources of the federal government are almost single-mindedly focused on the ‘war against terrorism’, leaving scarcely any provision for natural disasters!

The criminal aspect of this is that Bush received in 2001 a firm clear warning that one of the three most serious disasters that could occur to the US was the flooding of New Orleans. Officials of FEMA knew that hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico have been growing in frequency and violence in recent years. The Bush administration refusal to abide by the terms of the Kyoto convention on carbon dioxide emissions—and consequent climate change in the region—has probably, according to reputable scientific opinion, a lot to do with this unsought and undesirable phenomenon. The flooding of New Orleans was inevitable given the ramshackle defenses of that city against storms of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina.

So, with all of this information, what did our President do? Why, he incorporated FEMA into his new security structure, thus neutralizing it! And, following a tax cut to benefit his cronies, he effectively paralyzed the only remaining entity that could take steps to prevent such a natural disaster, i.e. the publicly accountable SELA (Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project), founded in 1995 by president Bill Clinton. SELA had a ten year project underway, carrying a $430 million price tag, to protect the city from the sea by a system of dykes and sluice gates involving low-lying swamplands on the seaward side of the city. The project was stymied when federal support was cut back to €250 million. And in 2003 the Bush admin­istration, in keeping with its pristine neo-liberal principles, privatized these swamplands—the only natural barrier against the flooding of the city—selling them to speculators, who proceeded—would you ever believe it?—to build houses (now under water) on them…

So the inevitable happened: the worst—and perfectly avoidable—natural disaster in US history. And the current major world power—and self-proclaimed global policeman—is so deteriorated socially, economically and politically that it is reduced to asking for foreign help (unlike Cuba) to help confront a disaster in its own backyard. Another black chapter in this blackest of stories is that neighboring Cuba offered to send 1,100 trained and equipped medical personnel—without conditions—to New Orleans during the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when such help was sorely needed in the stricken city. This generous offer fell on ears stuffed with neo-liberal earplugs. Which is logical when you consider that Bush and his cronies operate a form of politics where opportunism and right-wing ideology is everything, and the safety and well-being of ordinary citizens their least and last consideration!

The lesson of the New Orleans disaster should not be lost on socialists everywhere. Its case history demonstrates, in a clear, graphic and spectacular way, a direct cause-effect relationship between the implementation of socially irresponsible neo-liberal economic policies and their devastating effects on human populations. Unfortunately—and heart-rending though it be—this tragedy merely represents the tip of a vast iceberg of human suffering, caused by the imposition globally by international US-dominated financial agencies of brutal restrictive economic regimes that impoverish and kill. New Orleans happens quietly every day, with much less media exposure, right across our globe. Socialists need to be aware of this, and to publicize the mechanisms whereby the rich make themselves richer, and the poor become poorer and poorer and die. And not only in the third world!

But this could not happen in Ireland!

Could it not? Not on the same spectacular scale as New Orleans or Rwanda, maybe! But note that Ireland—which has taken the neo-liberal bait hook, line and sinker, and has become, after Norway, the wealthiest country on the globe—now boasts (if that is the word) the third highest poverty rate (15.2 per cent) among the eighteen most industrialized countries of the world. And in terms of lack of social solidarity and unequal wealth distribution, among the thirty most industrialized countries it rows in fifth behind the US, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Portugal. Any wonder that cheek by jowl with the Celtic Tiger bonanza, Ireland—conforming to its chosen US model—is paying the social cost inherent to the said bonanza? Irish media report that the country is experiencing latterly an unprecedented surge in social problems, violent crime, suicide rates among the young, psychiatric disorders, etc.

As I write this article, for example, I note on my online Irish Times (10 September) that one quarter of patients in the Irish Republic waiting for surgery have to wait for more than one year for their operations. And that two homeless people—one a young woman sleeping rough—were found dead close to Dublin city center. Prompting Alice Leahy, director of the Homeless Charity Trust of that city, to comment that such deaths happen “almost weekly”. “We are not hearing about these deaths”, she said. “It is a very serious issue and we cannot deny it.” Such deaths, we would add, whether in New Orleans or Dublin, should wake society up to the fact that they occur to victims of the same social marginalization intrinsic to all neo-liberal programs.

The New Orleans disaster should wake us all up with its starkest of warnings that neo-liberalism is toxic—is people poison! And kills wherever it finds a foothold—whether in the first or third worlds. Socialists know this. Socialists know there is another way. Most others don’t know. It is up to us to spread the news: no-one else will!

Ireland and the miners’ strike

Twenty years after Britain’s miners were defeated, in Issue 22 (July 2005) Des Bonass told the story of Irish solidarity with them.

When the British miners’ strike began in 1984, the dimension of the 1913 lockout and how the miners in Britain had supported the Irish trade union movement then was very important. The Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) set up a sub-committee to try and get support, financial and otherwise, for the strike. I was working in the ATGWU and I was given freedom of time by the higher echelons in the union to try and do my best for the National Union of Mineworkers. The Cork Council of Trade Unions and the Waterford Council of Trade Unions were doing their own thing as well.

What the NUM was doing was allocating special areas to countries: a support group for a particular colliery or a particular section of miners. We were allocated the South Wales miners, and we started to bring miners over here, around factories, areas, public meetings. Everyone of them was tremendously attended, and collections took place.

We had a different miner every week. It got so good over here, they always went back with a cheque for the South Wales miners, that in South Wales there was a queue of people wanting to come to Dublin. Not alone would they have a good time—because we’d bring them out for a drink and that—but they knew the support was massive.

We obviously didn’t just appear. You contacted the shop stewards’ committee and they would set up the meeting. The strange thing about it, in a weird sort of a way, was that in some places we went to, management and the employers were shaking Arthur Scargill’s hand. This was the anti-Maggie Thatcher, anti-British thing, I suppose.

It would be very difficult to put your finger on the exact amount of money, but we raised hundreds of thousands of pounds: there’s no doubt about that. Scargill has said, and I think he’s right, that Ireland’s contribution per capita, per trade unionist, would have been bigger than any other donations they got throughout the world. They say there was £60 million collected all over Europe for the miners. I’d put it much higher than that. It was anything from £60-100 million, and I think the figures from Ireland would be £2-5 million.

Not alone were there collections, but there was linkage towards the trade union movement. You were doing something that ident­ified the workers here in Dublin with the NUM dispute that was taking place. It was all about raising money, but it was all about raising political awareness as well.

The whole thing with the British Tory Party was to smash the NUM, because they never forgave them for the 1974 strike, where the Tories called an election and lost it. The funds of the NUM were sequestered by the High Court in London. This problem was put to us, and Scargill had done his homework. We set up accounts here in Ireland. I know there was an account here that I had responsibility for, and we put a lot of money into it. You couldn’t say too much about it. It was secret. But I suppose I can talk about it now.

The money literally came to Dublin, in holdall bags, sometimes in amounts of £200,000. On one occasion there was £500,000. I know they did similar things in other unions throughout the world, but we had a big role here in Dublin. It was all done above board: I want to make that quite clear. The reason I’m saying that now is that, at later stages, there was a smear campaign against Scargill. I’m quite happy that the money we collected here and the money we looked after here was all above board.

The system wasn’t revolutionary. We had a bit of a code: Arthur Scargill would ring me and tell me he was sending over a certain number of leaflets, and I would add a certain number of noughts to those leaflets. It wasn’t that brilliant a system, but it worked.

I got a phone call to say he wanted a new account opened. And we walked into the bank, which was a small branch of one of the main banks here, and Arthur Scargill was carrying the big holdall. Of course all the customers were delighted to shake his hand, and some of them were giving him money into his top pocket, saying: “This is towards the miners.”

We met the young bank manager, and he said: “Fair enough. How much are you depositing?”

And Arthur Scargill said: “£500,000 sterling.”

Of course the young bank manager nearly died, he thought we were joking. He said: “Are you serious? Where is the £500,000?”

He said: “It’s all in this holdall.”

He freaked out. He said he couldn’t handle that, and we’d have to get in touch with the senior bank, which we did. But it meant we had to get out, and get into a taxi and drive across town with this £500,000. The money was safely deposited in the bank.

There was another occasion when I was to meet a courier bringing in money, and you didn’t say too much. Not that it was secret, it’s just you didn’t want anyone taking the money, because miners’ families had to be fed, and the strike had to be won, and also there was no money or funds to pay the people who worked in the NUM. She came into my office in the ATGWU, a bit distressed. And she said she was after being mugged outside the union, two young lads had mugged her just on the pathway outside, and her handbag had been stolen. But the point about it was she had £18 sterling in her handbag, but she had £250,000 in a holdall, strapped around her, that she was bringing in to this account. So those young fellas, wherever they are today, took the wrong amount of money!

There was an attempt to try and freeze the NUM money here. But because my own union was a British-based union, but in a different jurisdiction here in the Republic of Ireland, it fell down on that matter. They weren’t able to touch any of the funds that were in Ireland. That’s not to say that people weren’t worried, but they weren’t able to touch it. That was one of the big successes of the strike.

I had a great respect for Arthur Scargill. There are trade union leaders who always do what they’re told: unfortunately they do what they’re told on the wrong basis. Arthur Scargill did what he was told by the members, and that’s the difference. Some trade union leaders here in Ireland—there are exceptions, obviously—they do what they’re told because they’re hunting promotion, or pushing their career up the ladder, or they’re in partnerships and they have to do what they’re told because that’s the way trade union activity works with them. But with Scargill, you had a great respect. If he asked you to do something, you knew he was doing it for the members. He wasn’t doing it for himself.

There was this tension around. My own union, the ATGWU, were very supportive, but the British TUC were saying: ‘You’re not going to win this strike. You’re taking on the Tory government.’ Scargill was right. In retrospect and in hindsight, he was proved right. He didn’t know then he was going to be proved right. But he had his commitment to the members of the union, and political commitment as well. He knew this was trying to break the British trade union movement, which would have had an overflow to the Irish trade union movement, but the people who could have given him support, the British TUC, didn’t give him support. There’s a thing in the Irish trade union movement as well as the British movement: you get support, but people do nothing about it. On paper, they’re always on your side, but you know that they don’t come out and fight the fight. So Scargill was fighting within his own movement for support, and yet, didn’t get that support that he should have got.

I was asked to go over to London to meet Scargill. It was around the Christmas period, just coming up to New Year’s Eve, and I arrived over at the Barbican Centre. I only got a flat number, and I was to go into this particular flat and Scargill would be there to meet me. A security man was sitting at the entrance, with a little Christmas tree, and a bottle of whisky. I just looked at him, thinking: ‘Jesus, I wouldn’t mind having a drop of that myself.’ And he asked me where I was going.

I said: “I’m going to flat number 122.”

And he says: “There’s no one in flat 122.”

There were no mobile phones in those days, so I walked around again and had to find a phone box. I rang Scargill. “Oh,” he said, “he should have let you through. I left word down there.”

I went back around again, and at this stage the security man must have had another two glasses, because he was quite jolly at this stage. And I said: “122.”

And he said: “I know. Why didn’t you say Scargill?”

So I went up and saw Arthur Scargill, and the place was a hive of activity, with people working voluntarily, doing postering, doing leaflets, getting media statements out. It was unbelievable, it was another world. And here was I, feeling a bit out of it because I was stuck in the Barbican Centre on New Year’s Eve.

We had a discussion, anyway, about bringing more money to Dublin, and Scargill said he had to go out. He pointed out to me that the Venetian blinds in all the windows were down very tightly, because there was a vacant building across the road and it could have been hired out by MI5, and they had these zoom-lens cameras. There were people typing statements, and trying to get into contact with their members, who had to actually hold their hands over their statements while they were typing. I believe this now: I mightn’t have believed it then. People would say: ‘Ah, that was Arthur Scargill.’ But history has proven that he was right.

I remember saying I’d had nothing to eat, and Arthur said: “There’s no food here, the miners are on strike.”

I accepted all that, but then I said: “Jesus, I’ll have to have something to eat.”

He said: “I’ll get you a sandwich or something. There’s only tomato and a bit of white bread. Have a bit of that.” And then he produced a bottle of whisky, a half bottle of whisky.

Arthur was away so long, I had to ring back to Dublin to say I wouldn’t be back for New Year’s Eve. I was there on my own for so long. People were leaving the building and coming back in, but I wasn’t asking them what they were doing because I felt the thing was private and confidential, and I didn’t want to get involved anyway. I had the one mission, which was over the money. And I drank a couple of glasses of whisky: five or six shots, I suppose. There was only a little drop left in the bottle, and I put it back into the press.

When Arthur came back he was delighted, and he said: “We’ll go and get chips.” He said he was sorry about keeping me overnight, but the struggle was the struggle. So I had a bag of chips, and then we went to the press. He nearly died, as I’d drank the whisky. He shouted: “The whisky’s all gone!”

And I said: “Yeah, I drank it. What’s wrong with that?”

He said: “That’s been there for over a year. We only hand it to people. We don’t mean for them to drink it!”

The late Mick McCarthy was a great friend of mine—that’s not the footballer, now, that’s Mick McCarthy the music promoter, a socialist, a great man. He contacted me, and he was complementing us on the great work we were doing. He was at a concert we organised in Liberty Hall that Christy Moore and Dónal Lunny had been playing at, and he put a proposal to me that he would put a group together and bring them over to the collieries, to show the British working class the great support they had here.

We had a few meetings about it, and I met with Dónal Lunny, Christy Moore, Davy Spillane, Anne Conroy, Shay and Anne McGowan. Moving Hearts hadn’t been playing, but they said they’d put a group together. They put a semblance of Moving Hearts together, and we all went over for a week fundraising, which was unbelievable. They didn’t have to do it, but they did it, and I know that they gave up gigs to go over there. Christy Moore couldn’t make it, but he did concerts.

We had some hilarious moments in it as well. On one occasion, I don’t know who was doing the booking, but they booked us into a temperance hotel. Davy Spillane and Shay McGowan asked the person where was the bar, and when they pointed out there was no bar, there was hell for leather. But we brought back cans, and the lads took out their instruments and we had a great session. Needless to say, we only stayed one night. We only wanted to stay one night, but they wanted us to move out anyway.

But they worked hard. They sometimes did three gigs a day in working men’s clubs, which the local NUM set up, who were always delighted to see them. It was at that stage of the strike when support might have been going down and they needed a bit of a boost. The procedure was that the miners took all the money on the door, and we just got our expenses, which were only to pay the B&B and maybe get a few bob for a meal that night. But there was no money taken by the trades council or anyone personally from any events, even in Ireland either, not one ha’penny.

Through my own union in Liverpool, I got a van with ‘Liverpool Community Centre’ on the side of it. We were doing this gig in Barnsley, and we didn’t realise Barnsley were playing Liverpool in the FA Cup. Liverpool beat Barnsley that day 3-0, and of course, I parked the van a hundred yards from the Barnsley football ground. Some Barnsley supporters going by wrecked the van on us. They broke windows in it, and they pushed in doors. But there was no hassle over it. We got the windows fixed through a friend of Mick McCarthy’s. The people in Liverpool were laughing at the way we had parked the van in the worst possible place you could actually park it.

On another occasion we were in a working men’s club, and there must have been three hundred people in the hall. The person from the NUM who was organising the gig got up and introduced the band. He said: “And we’ll have the céilí band from Dublin playing later on.”

Now I know Davy Spillane got annoyed about that: “I don’t play in a céilí band!”, this kind of stuff.

But the NUM representative then said: “Now, before we ask the céilí band to play, as you know, we always have a half an hour’s bingo.”

The band were ready to go on stage, but the people proceeded to play bingo for a half an hour. And I’ve a photograph of Dónal Lunny —I’m trying to get my hands on it, I know I have it somewhere—of Dónal Lunny playing bingo in a working men’s club in Barnsley before he went on stage. I wouldn’t say he’s ever done that again!

Another time, we went to a meeting in Chesterfield. It was one of the best meetings I was ever at in my life. Scargill had asked us to be there. A number of us went over, we brought the DCTU banner and we got pride of place to lead the parade into the stadium. Unfortunately, I can’t find any photographs of it, but they might come up through the NUM or something. We walked in, and it was like an Olympic Games or something. There was someone announc­ing who was coming through, led by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, and we got tremendous applause. It was overwhelming, an unbelievable feeling. You wanted to be part of it, and yet you didn’t want to be too egotistical. But it’s something that the trade union movement should have been doing, and was doing. They wouldn’t have done it, only for the DCTU.

I remember Scargill made one of the finest speeches that I ever heard from a trade union leader, and you felt that this man can’t lose this. You also felt maybe, listening to trade union people that you’d listened to through the years, is this for real? But it was for real, that’s the difference: he was meaning what he was saying, not saying something and doing something else. So I’ve great admiration for Arthur Scargill,.

He’s writing his own book on the history of the miners’ strike, and he’s told me that there’ll be a chapter, at least, on the support of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions. It’ll be very interesting.

“Organise or die”

This interview with Mick O’Reilly, Irish Secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite) appeared in Issue 21 in March 2005, shortly after he was reinstated following an attempt to remove him from his post.

After a three and a half year saga since your suspension in June 2001, you have been reinstated as Regional Secretary of the ATGWU. You have been described as a thorn in the side of the ICTU and of the former TGWU leadership. You are the best-known opponent of social partnership, you opposed the Nice Treaty, and at the time of your removal, you had taken ILDA into the ATGWU. You were accused of several relatively minor internal offences, and several other reasons have been claimed as the real reason for your removal. What do you think was the reason?

I’ve obviously thought about this question a lot. There were a number of factors. First of all I was probably the only Regional Secretary who Bill Morris [then General Secretary of the TGWU] didn’t want in his period of office, and he was there for a long time. I had a very substantial vote on the executive council. Secondly, I think that there were people in the wider trade union movement who attempted to contact Bill Morris. I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know, what took place in those contacts. I know, for example, that the then President of SIPTU spoke to John Freeman, a former ATGWU Regional Secretary, and asked him how he could go about getting to Bill Morris about me. I know, for example, that Peter Cassells tried to create an impression at the biennial conference that there was no involvement of anybody in the ICTU in relation to any of this, but I know that he had a meeting about ILDA and me with Ray Collins in the Gresham Hotel, because Ray Collins said this. He may have defended me for all I know. I don’t know what happened at the meeting. But I was always very disappointed that he denied, or appeared to try and cover up that situation.

So, I think the reasons were partly political. I think they were also personal. I think, frankly, that when you look at the actual charges they were trivial and not serious. I think that the people who made representations here probably didn’t want me dismissed. That’s the benign view. But I think they were wrong. I think they should have come and had the argument with me. Many of them who were involved in this I know for many years in the trade union movement. And there was nothing that we were doing that couldn’t have been discussed, unless you want to make a big issue of the ILDA thing. But quite frankly I have no apologies to make for the ILDA thing. The reality of the situation was that the Supreme Court and the High Court said that they [the train drivers] were not members of SIPTU. Mary O’Rourke, who was the minister at the time, actually made a plea for them to join the official trade union movement and come back. They certainly would have not gone back to either of the existing unions.

I don’t think Congress rules were correctly applied. The case was heard in my absence. I did request that it be done when I was here, but that fell on deaf ears, so I was quite annoyed about that. When I came back from holidays I was suspended. I was told I couldn’t have any contact with any third party who the union had anything to do with. I was barred from entering any union office. It was almost like a form of house arrest, actually. The reality is that most of the officers in the union stayed loyal to me. They knew that this was rotten fish. They got behind me.

Probably for the first time in the history of any union anywhere, officers, who I don’t know, officers right throughout England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, all over the place, voted to take industrial action, which I think is unprecedented, in support of me and Eugene McGlone [ATGWU Northern Organiser, also removed at the same time]. I think that shook our union to its foundations. Not just that they were going to pull the plug and walk out, because I don’t think they were going to do it that way. I remember talking to Mick O’Riordan at the time, and he said it’s the equivalent of the cardinals voting against the pope, and if the cardinals vote against the pope, of course, the pope has to go.

I suppose we were lucky in the sense that Morris was coming up to retirement age. But I think it had a profound effect on the outcome of his replacement. Tony Woodley [successor to Bill Morris] has always been very clear that, no matter what happened, he was determined to see that justice was done. He had a lot of genuine excuses that he could have used to move away from the firm commitments and promises that he gave, and he chose not to use them but to do what he promised to do, and he has delivered it, and in such a way that nobody else has suffered as a result of it. Because it was never our aim to get justice for ourselves and then to implement some injustice to others. That was never part of our aim. I never made a personal attack on anybody in this campaign, and I never called for anybody’s dismissal. I’m not in favour of that. There’s better ways of doing things. So that’s the background to it.

What was the position of Ray Collins at the time?

He was Deputy General Secretary of the TGWU with responsibility for administration. If my memory is right, he was requested by Bill Morris to come over and investigate the matter because there had been a rail strike at the time, and an intervention by the National Implementation Body which said that the question of what union they [the train drivers] were in should be dealt with by the ICTU, and the grievances of the members should be dealt with by the Labour Court. That’s what happened.

Another politician’s name was mentioned. Is that just speculation?

Well, Bertie Ahern’s name was mentioned as being involved in that. The speculation was that the Taoiseach’s Department had spoken to Blair, or that the ICTU had spoken to the TUC and they had spoken to Blair. To be quite honest about it, I don’t know whether any of that’s true or not. I’m not making the allegation that anybody was involved, because I just don’t know. But journalists speculated on that, they have their sources, and I suppose people will have to make up their own minds.

The then General President of SIPTU, Des Geraghty, has vehemently denied allegations that he was involved in your suspension. He says he offered to mediate on your behalf and to provide material assistance. The General Officers of SIPTU supported in writing the Dublin Trades Council motion of May 2002 protesting at your sacking and supporting your appeal.

Well, the reality of the situation is that when it became such a cause, I suppose, in the trade union movement, I don’t think anybody wanted to be seen in public to be opposing me. To be quite honest, it was dealt with in a very authoritarian way by our leadership, in a very ham-fisted way. Actually what Dessie Geraghty said in public is in Magill magazine. He said: I did not make an official complaint to Bill Morris on record about Mick O’Reilly. I think that’s true. But why was he asking and enquiring as to how he would go about talking to Morris in respect of my situation? And I don’t say that he did that with a view to getting me dismissed. I’ve never said that, because I don’t know why he did that. I have to say, whatever position they took, I was never approached by the leadership of SIPTU in relation to their support for me. But there was widespread support throughout the ICTU in opposition to Morris, and I’m very thankful for it. But at that stage the die was cast and Morris was not going to step back for any outside body. I don’t know how serious they were, but a lot of people were genuinely sincere at that time, and wanted to try and be helpful towards myself and Eugene, and I would never deny that.

Was there a letter written by a senior officer of the ICTU to Bill Morris, a normal business letter that should normally have been addressed to you, shortly before your removal?

At that time I had had a very big argument, after the rail strike, on the executive council of Congress, and it was fairly traumatic, to say the least. My memory of it is that I gave as good as I got in the exchanges that took place. Afterwards when the Congress confer­ence came up, one person, I think he was president at the time, or running to be president, actually wrote to Morris looking for support from our union. Now the protocol would be that that would be done through me. Whether that’s all part of the pattern of events, I’m not sure. I was a bit isolated on the executive council of Congress, because I don’t think they were happy about the role that I played in relation to inflation and forcing the renegotiation of the agreement [the PPF national partnership agreement]. A number of people on the executive council did support me, both about the train drivers and that issue, and at the end everybody was supporting the re­negotiation of the agreement and that we had to do something about inflation.

But I can tell you that, whilst that might have been the position in the end, it wasn’t the position in the beginning, and it was very difficult to force the renegotiation of the agreement. I’m not certain of this, but I think it’s possibly the only time an agreement was renegotiated, and the employers were none too happy, nor were the government. I think it had to be done because we made a mistake in the negotiations, and I think it was a genuine error. All the indications from the government and the Central Bank and all the experts were that inflation would remain low, and the increase would be sufficient to stay ahead of inflation. My view was that that was more reason to have an indexation clause, not less, because if the government believed that, they should have put their money where their mouth was, rather than us having to make them. But we did make them. We got the support of people and we opened up the agreement. I happen to think that was a good thing for the trade union movement. It restored a bit of credibility. I think there would have been tensions, and people would possibly have had to break the agreement and take action. So I think it was as well that the leadership eventually got behind the argument that we were making in respect to inflation.

Was your removal found to be out of order? Was it against the rules and procedures of the union?

John Hendy, a very prominent barrister, was brought in to examine and report on the whole case. He’s a very eminent labour lawyer. He worked for nothing for the National Union of Mineworkers right through their strike. My view is he tore the procedures used against me, and indeed a lot of the charges, asunder. That report was accepted by the executive council. It’s a very formidable and very large report, and I think it will be used—already has been used—by our own union to change our structures in relation to situations like that. Indeed people used to believe that the Irish Regional Secretary in the Amalgamated Transport was untouchable. And of course that wasn’t so. But I think it will be so from here on in. I think anybody who gets the job after me will be relatively safe. I think it will be a long, long time before anyone dares to make that kind of intervention here, or I hope anywhere else.

I don’t believe that you can solve political differences by admin­istrative methods and by dismissal. You have to solve them by democratic discussion, using the procedures of the union to argue different points of view out. I think this case demonstrates that, because the union lost credibility. It spent a lot of resources. At the end of the day I’d have to say I’m very proud that the union had the capacity to turn this around, to look at its mistakes and rectify them, to renew itself because of all of this. I think that’s a strength; I don’t think it’s a weakness.

I’m not certain that I’m right in this, but my feeling is that this is the only time in the history of the trade union movement that anybody like myself and Eugene has got back when they have been attacked by the establishment to such an extent. It’s a real credit to Tony Woodley and to all those that supported him, to our executive council and, I have to say, to the Irish membership who in the darkest days stood up for me, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the rank and file, the officers and all the people who campaigned. I’m very, very grateful. And also, it has to be said, for the wider trade union movement, the trades councils, etc. I suppose it’s like throwing stones. Maybe at first you don’t think you are making much of an impact, but when a lot of people start doing it, it really does, and it burst the damn open on the case. So I’m very grateful. I’m quite humbled about the support that I have got. I have to work to restore things, because we lost a lot of members in the process, and we lost our reputation to some degree. I think we have begun to restore that and to turn it around, and I’m delighted to be back.

When you were summarily suspended, there was a story in the media suggesting financial irregularities. Then the stuff about the sexist mug appeared. Were these attempted smears? Where did they come from?

On the question of the financial irregularities, I have to say the person I’m eternally grateful for in relation to that whole area was Gene Kerrigan. I don’t know Gene Kerrigan, except that I read his column from time to time, when I can find somebody else who has bought the Sunday Independent. He certainly blew that out of the water. You see, all they said from the office in London was that they were doing an administrative audit and examining the finances of the union. It was a statement of fact. It was the context and the way that it was said that was meant to have a certain impact. Of course, in a society awash with tribunals you only have to say ‘finance’ and ‘audit’ for people to say—and this is the dreadful, dreadful statement, I hope I never make it—‘there’s no smoke without fire’. And it’s very easy to damn somebody in that way. Gene Kerrigan certainly blew that one out of the water. There was no substance, there was nothing in the finances. I may say that at one stage I was scratching my own head, though I always knew I didn’t take anybody else’s money. But I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t put something in a wrong column. I’m responsible as Regional Secretary for every penny that’s spent in Ireland. That’s a fairly big budget. So I worried about that. But there was absolutely no substance in that at all. In fact no question that I was asked in the very, very long procedures, the years I spent arguing all these issues, was asked in respect of finance.

In respect of the mug, well, I never saw the mug and I didn’t know anything about it until it was raised in the papers. The story is quite simple. One of our women delegates, over at some conference, bought the mug as a joke. Apparently it was in the canteen in Belfast. Eugene took the mug away, never used it and it was never seen. So I don’t know why it was raised. It was a contrived thing. My view is that it was contrived to give a certain image to us, that we weren’t active on behalf of women, and we were somehow chauvinistic. I found that very insulting. My record is there, and people know what it is. I’ve never been involved in anything like that, and I’ve taken a lot of cases for our women members down through the years. I’ve always fought for a progressive position, and that is true of Eugene McGlone as well. There was a lot of discussion in the press about it: it was a bit salacious. Actually no questions arose [in the hearings] about it at all.

Do you think that your instant removal showed a weakness of the left in the ATGWU? If so, is there now better organisation of the left and stronger roots among ATGWU activists?

Well, everybody was surprised, and there was nobody more surprised than me. And to say that we hadn’t got a plan to deal with this would be true, because we never thought that anything like this would ever happen. Yes, the left were taken off guard, and yes, you could argue that there should have been some instant action. Whatever you say about it now, everything we did was right. It had to be, because it brought about the right results. The fact is that there was a lot of argument amongst ourselves about how we should go about things, and what we should do. We hadn’t at any stage a master plan. In fact, we had only a simple plan: whatever you do, keep fighting. Keep throwing punches, keep coming up with ideas, keep in the ring. Stay on your feet, and never yield to them. Apart from that, there was no theory behind it, no plan. And obviously: keep the issue in the media, keep people focused on it, keep telling the truth, and it will get through. That was the plan. And I think it worked, in the end.

If the officers had all walked out immediately, yes, that probably would have worked. If the membership had all gone on strike. I don’t know whether they could have done that. A lot of them had agreements with their employers, so that wouldn’t have been a right thing to do. It was very, very difficult to know what to do. And remember, the officers and the shop stewards had to keep servicing the members. I never made a case that our members shouldn’t be looked after in all of this. Because that’s important, and of course that’s the great contradiction of trade unions. It’s not really like any other organisation. You spend your life building it up. You are not likely to walk out and leave it to chance, even if there is an injustice. And the union starts off with a huge amount of capital in respect of the way that it treats people. Because we believe in it: I believe in it.

I have to imagine what I would have done if I had heard of some officer going on like that. I would have been like any other officer. I would have said: ‘There must be something in this! Our leadership are not prejudiced. They’re not just nasty for the sake of it. There must be some substance in it.’ So it took a long time to get that argument across. But when it got across, when people examined it, when the case started to be heard, then I think the tide started to turn.

Were you surprised by the level of abandonment of you among ATGWU officials?

Well, first of all, I wasn’t abandoned by them, because they voted by 70 per cent to go on strike. So if that’s a level of abandonment, then I’ll live with it. I was surprised by some of the people who I thought were close personal friends of mine who, in a period when I was silenced, actually attacked me. I think that was wrong, and I was disappointed by the behaviour of one or two people. But in all the circumstances the majority of the officers here supported me, and the majority of Regional Committees supported me, and the confer­ences supported me.

They [the full-time officials] were under very intense pressure. They were in a very awkward position. It wasn’t easy. I’ve thought about this and I’ve said to myself: ‘Now what would have happened if this had have happened to Matt Merrigan?’ I was a very close friend of Mattie. I think I would have continued to service the members. And I hope I would have done what a lot of the officers did, come up to the person and say: ‘What do you want me to do?’ and do my best to do it. I don’t think there’s any magic to it. That’s what you do in any dispute. You ask the people who are affected, and you try to do it for them. Most of the officers did that, and it should be said that, after I was sacked, the officers sustained me for months in terms of my wages. They didn’t give me the Regional Secretary’s rate, they only gave me an ordinary officers’ rate, but I’m taking that up with my shop stewards! But seriously, the majority of the officers sustained me right through this. A small minority of people didn’t, but these things happen.

Were you happy with the level of support at activist and shop steward level?

Oh, I was delighted with it. From the shop stewards, from right throughout the union, the amount of letters and phone calls was amazing. I was worn out. I was happy to go back to work for a rest, frankly, with the amount of people that contacted me! It was absolutely marvellous. Not only in my own union, but right throughout the trade union movement. People may not agree with a lot of my ideas, and argue about this, that and the other, but I have come across hardly anybody who agreed with the way this was done. I think it was badly handled. I think that it was seen as a very authoritarian, unjust, politically motivated attack on two individ­uals. I think most people reckon that it was rotten fish, and most people said that. And that’s the truth of it.

There was a tremendous groundswell of support for you throughout the unions and a big campaign within the ATGWU, the British TGWU and the wider Irish trade union movement. The campaign, in Ireland at least, appeared to have bouts rather than consistent activity. Did you choose, at the beginning and at other intervals, to hold off campaigning to allow the case to be fought through procedures and the law? Would you conduct the battle differently in hindsight?

No, I wouldn’t, because I won. That’s not to say that I got everything right, because I didn’t. It is true that during the periods that you were in an internal process in the union, you couldn’t spend that much time campaigning. I could not speak in public during a lot of this. A lot of people took the view that I should have defied Morris and spoke.

I was actually banned from speaking at the Desmond Greaves School. A lot of people thought I should speak there. I believe that if I had done that, he would have sacked me instantly, there and then. I had letters more or less saying that. I chose to duck and bob and weave. I wasn’t certain that that was the right thing. I was agonising over whether it was the right or wrong thing. I had different impulses at different times. But in the end, a lot of people took the view that I shouldn’t make it easy for them, I should make it difficult. That view prevailed, and that’s what I did. I didn’t defy it, I didn’t speak out. I think that that made it very difficult for him, because he was painting a picture of me as a sort of malcontent who wouldn’t accept the legitimate authority of the union, and all of that. And I think our reasonable behaviour during the thing made life more difficult for him, actually.

Now I have to say there were a lot of people who criticised me for not speaking out, and thought I should speak out. Genuine people who genuinely thought that, if I was dismissed on that issue, I could win in the courts. Anyway, I decided not to do that, and I didn’t speak until I could speak. But when I could speak, I did: I was on the radio over issues. It’s hard to know what would have happened if I had spoken out. We don’t know. You don’t get a chance to revisit history and find out. I did what I did. I wasn’t always certain that I was doing the right thing. In some cases I was agonising over it. To say I was furious about not speaking at the Desmond Greaves School is the understatement of the century. It tested my patience to the limit, because I thought it was a gross interference with my personal liberty as an Irish citizen. I thought it was disgraceful that Morris had done that. But anyway, I tactically decided to deal with it another way. Whether I was right or wrong, that’s what I did.

Your removal appeared to be followed up by a purge of, for want of another term, the left, or those close to you, in the ATGWU. Are you and your supporters now fully re-established?

In the period I was outside the union, it was a very cold house, and it was extremely difficult for them. Some of them lost elections. But in the big public elections, in terms of the executive and all of that, the people that stood with me were elected repeatedly in any popular contest where people made it clear where they stood. And it’s very interesting that nobody in that period [who stood in these type of elections] didn’t support me. Because you couldn’t run in an election and say: ‘I was in favour of what Bill Morris did’. There were people who were in favour of it, but they wouldn’t say it. They could read a situation the same as I can. So there was no support in the body of the union for what happened. Yes, some of my supporters lost positions. The chairman of the Regional Committee, Jack McKay, lost his position. But he didn’t lose his position on the Regional Committee, and he fought for me right through this, and he’s still a good friend. These kind of things happen. The reality of the situation is that I know of nobody who would get elected anywhere in the T & G who would say that what Bill Morris did was right. And if people want to do that, as far as I’m concerned the T & G is a big democracy. If people want to say: ‘I think Bill Morris was right, I think Mick and Eugene should have been sacked’, they can put that in their manifesto and see how many votes they get.

Is ILDA now safely established as a branch of the ATGWU, and are you recognised by Iarnród Éireann?

No, we’re not recognised by Iarnród Éireann, but ILDA is a branch of the ATGWU. In fact ILDA is no more, it’s gone into the annals of history. But we’re still seeking to get proper representation for the train drivers and they still continue to suffer. However, there have been extraordinary developments in respect to the train drivers’ dispute. When ILDA had the first dispute, before they were in the ATGWU, there was, I think, a ten or twelve week dispute. And of course, the drivers took a claim to the appeals panel of the Depart­ment of Social Welfare, that they should be paid social welfare. Now this panel consists of an independent chairman, employers’ reps and ICTU reps. You have to be able to prove that an employer behaved unreasonably and locked you out before you get paid. They established that as a matter of fact. The panel met twice, because it was appealed by the company. So the train drivers received, whatever it was, over €300,000, as a result of this. My view is that that’s an extremely serious situation, because that means that those who worked in the dispute collaborated with the employer in a lockout. And I imagine that, retrospectively, they are probably a bit shameful about that. I’m sure, as they were doing it, that vista wasn’t in front of them, but it’s a fact, it happened.

Of course, then there’s the costs of the dispute. Depending on who you talk to, the figures vary: some journalists said the cost was about €30 million because it lasted ten weeks or so. And what that means is quite interesting, because I’ll go back to Thatcherism. Whilst the left in general and trade unionists are in favour of the public sector, it is a fact that sometimes the public sector can be used to enforce things on unions and workers that the private sector could never do. I don’t believe the Ford company in Britain would have ever done to our shop stewards what Thatcher was able to get Edwards to do to our shop stewards in British Leyland when it was nationalised, because they were able to pour in public money. And I think that this question of what happened in the dispute in Irish Rail should be investigated by a Dáil committee, and those responsible in management should be held to account. And I think if you go over the facts it would be very difficult to say why they shouldn’t be dismissed for what they did, because they behaved disgracefully.

The truth of that is out now. But the difficulty, of course, is that it’s four years later that’s it’s coming out. It’s a pity we didn’t have the hearing back then. I think retrospectively it justifies the train drivers, because you don’t easily convince ICTU representatives, employers and an independent chairman that it was the employer who behaved wrongly and who locked them out. I think that’s quite a significant development. People should go back and examine that, and I think indeed the workers who mistakenly worked during that period should examine that with a view to not repeating it in the future. Not with a view to scoring points over them, but with a view to not repeating it in the future, because I don’t believe they wilfully did that. But I do believe that retrospectively it can now be seen objectively that that’s what happened and they were wrong. And the trade union movement, when it does something like that and makes a mistake, should not be afraid to say we got that wrong, at that time, in those circumstances.

And Congress’s position on ILDA at the moment?

Well at the moment I’m in discussions with SIPTU, and Jack O’Connor made a statement in 2001 that we couldn’t resolve the problems of representation for the train drivers in the narrow context of just the Disputes Committee and the ICTU rules, and that what he wanted to do was explore the possibility of a co-operation agreement with the Amalgamated Transport. So I’m in discussions with SIPTU over that, and my view is that I certainly want a co-operation agreement with SIPTU. I think it would be a wholly good thing. I think we should look at possibly a number of joint ventures where we should attempt to organise workers who are not in unions, and put our energies into that.

I think if we learn to trust one another and work together for the good of the movement, then the problems, whatever they are, are easier addressed, and I want a good positive working relation­ship with SIPTU. Now that’s not going to be at the expense of policies. We are still going to argue over policies. I am profoundly convinced that the SIPTU attitude, and indeed the wider Irish trade union movement’s attitude, to partnership is a disaster. It has led to a decline. You can’t have the contradictory position of saying govern­ments and employers are your partners and you are working with them on national level, and to be launching campaigns to fight back for unionisation on local level in the unorganised area.

What would you say to the accusation that you poached the train drivers from SIPTU, and that the train drivers are an elitist section?

Well, let’s take first things first. I didn’t try to poach anybody. They were having this argument with SIPTU, as far as I understand, from 1994. Indeed this is on record: it is their view that the voting procedures left a lot to be desired in relation to some of the deals that they had. I don’t know the whole ins and out of that, but they went to court and it was established that they were not members of SIPTU. But they tried also to make a complaint to the ICTU. And they received a letter from Tom Wall [of the ICTU] and he said he couldn’t investigate the complaint because they weren’t members of SIPTU. So I don’t know how SIPTU made a complaint to the ICTU that I took their members. I didn’t. They were already three years out. There’d been a Supreme Court and High Court decision. They were outside of the whole trade union movement. The other thing that’s complex about the case is that a number of them were in the NBRU, and therefore not subject to the rules of Congress at all.

So I think there should have been a bit of lateral thinking in the trade union movement. And I think, if we had stood back from it, it would have been better. Because the key is not the number of unions that represent workers. The key is the voting mechanism. I said to the train drivers, on the first day that I met them, that I insisted on one thing: that all decisions made by the train drivers would be made on the basis of 51 per cent of those people who were drivers. If we had a hundred unions, it would make no difference once that principle was enshrined. And I’ve also gone on record, and I said this at the time: the answer to the problem of the train drivers is to take the bureaucrats away from them, lock them in a room, and they’ll find a common cause in themselves because they are all train drivers. The problem is the unions are really fighting over income. That’s the problem, and they should raise their eyes from that.

By the way, I think the leadership [of SIPTU and Congress] want to find a solution to the problem. It’s not going to be easy, but I think it can be found. There are a lot of ingredients that make it different from a normal situation. No, I never poached the train drivers. I didn’t create any of that. It had run for ages.

Are the train drivers elitist? Well, the reality of life is that the trade union movement from its inception has always had to deal with crafts and different skills, and people combine together to get as much as they can for their particular craft or skill. I don’t think the train drivers are any more elitist than engineers or sparks or crane drivers or anybody else. I think they try to get as much as they can from their boss. And I’ve never found them to be elitist in their attitude. They fight their corner, but there’s nothing necessarily elitist about that. Quite frankly, I think when people can’t win the debate on issues they turn to clichés like ‘elitist’. I don’t think they are elitist, and if they are, the trade union movement is full of people who are elitist and look after themselves. I think it’s overstated with the train drivers. I think they are no more elitist than anyone else.

Is it not, generally speaking, better to stay in your union and change it from within? Have you any views on the Independent Workers Union?

I think it’s wrong to make a principle of being outside Congress. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being outside Congress. You can find yourself outside Congress on issues, on rules and procedure and tactics and all the rest of it. Some unions do reasonably well outside Congress. The NBRU are outside Congress. I don’t work with unions on the basis of whether they are in or outside Congress. I think all of us should work with the Independent Workers Union. But I think they are mistaken to make a principle of not being in Congress.

You can be in, but not necessarily of. There’s a case for an opposition in Congress. It seems to me that’s the one mistake the Independent Workers Union have made. It’s still kind of an important organisation, and it still remains to be seen whether it will succeed or not. I think it has partially succeeded. It’s recruiting mainly, as I understand it, in areas of unorganised workers. It’s not setting out to be a poaching organisation. I don’t think that’s the motivation of it.

But I think it would be better if it could find a way to be in Congress. Time will tell. But I wouldn’t make a principle or a fetish of not being in Congress. Sometimes you have to be outside an organisation to change it, and then go back into it. The movement is littered with unions that were outside Congress for a period of time. After all, Larkin himself was outside Congress from the 1920s right through. In fact, he only ever went to Congress as a delegate from the Dublin Council of Trade Unions: the Workers Union of Ireland was outside. The Irish Transport split from Congress in 1945. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. So I’m not going to criticise the Independent Workers Union. As far as I’m concerned, they’re there. But I think tactically they’ve have made an error in erecting that into a principle. I don’t think it’s a principle myself.

What is the future for the ATGWU now? Is it, in straightforward trade union terms, doing well as regards membership and strength? Will it take a leading role in posing an alternative to social partnership and for a fighting and democratic trade unionism? What are your plans now? Do you see yourself in a stronger position to develop the role you had, or were seen to have had, before June 2001? Can the ATGWU reach out to oppositions in other trade unions to work for change?

Well, first of all the union lost a large number of members as a result of what happened to myself and Eugene, and that has to be faced. We have a lot of restructuring to do in the organisation. But the truth is that I think the wider trade union movement need the Amalgam­ated Transport, and the debate that we have represented, because we don’t just speak for our own members. I think we speak for a lot of people who have reservations about the relationship we have with government and with the employers, about the impact of these agreements and the way they erode the independence of the trade union movement. As far as the ATG and its position is concerned, it hasn’t changed. As far as I’m concerned, we will be arguing for a different strategy.

One of the things we are looking at is that we have restructured the organisation. We have taken away a lot of the administrative tasks. There has been some voluntary redundancy in the union as a result of all this. What we’re saving is going into organising, because you can’t organise unless you put resources into it. It is our intention to employ 110 organisers [throughout the whole TGWU] on short-term contracts for a period of three years. We intend, for the first time in the history of the union, to go outside of our own membership for some of the organisers. Obviously, our own members will be core to it as well, but we will go outside too. We are going to launch a big education programme on organisation. We are talking to the American unions about this, and they are helping us to do this. I think this is extremely important. I would venture to say it’s prob­ably the biggest thing we have done in the Transport Union since our foundation. We’re putting very, very big resources into it, between £7 million and £10 million. I hope to have ten or more organisers in Ireland.

I hope that the debate at the ICTU conference this year centres around the question of organisation. I hope to play a part in that debate with others. And that’s part of the co-operation agreement I want with SIPTU. Because I want to turn the movement outwards, and I think if we start organising it will have a huge impact on social partnership. Even if people don’t think it will, it will, because of the way we have to bring people in. You don’t build organisation unless you’re prepared to fight back. People won’t join you unless you stand up for them, or show them how to stand up for themselves. If you do that they’ll join you, if you don’t they won’t. It’s not complicated, it’s dead simple, but we’ve forgotten it. We’ve made the world too complex for ourselves. We worry too much about government, and we’re declining. If we start worrying about the members we’ll grow. The members are not foolish, they can smell this a mile off. They know whether you are serious or whether you are not serious. They know when you’re in bed with the boss, and they know when you are trying to do your best.

I’m not talking about miracles, and I’m not talking about getting the members everything they want. I’m simply talking about doing the best you bloody can in the circumstances you find yourself. Doing the fifteen rounds for them, and getting them trained in how to do the fifteen rounds for themselves. Because that’s the big task, to get the members into servicing themselves and stop relying on the officials, to turn the officials into organisers, to bring new blood into the trade union movement. We have to trust the members to do that, and if we trust the members they will trust us and give us the resources that we need to do that. And if we don’t do that—and this is critical—if we don’t do that and do that quick, we won’t be here in five years. It’s as stark as that. It’s organise or die. And as far as I’m concerned, I’ve no intention of dying, and I want to organise.

Do you think that some of the unions are backing down from an inevitable showdown on privatisation and outsourcing?

Well, as far as privatisation is concerned, I think that the ethos of the Fianna Fáil government can be exploited much more by the trade union movement. It has to be understood that the public sector in this country was created by Fianna Fáil. It was created by what I would call developmental nationalism. And of course, that’s in decline as an ideology because of globalisation and all the rest of it.

But the trade union movement would need to make up its mind about how serious it is about fighting on this. I have to say that some of the performance of the trade union movement, in respect to some of the employee share option dealsthat have been done, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s quite clear now that the overall economy is suffering because of the lack of investment in broadband [following the privatisation of Eircom]. It’s quite clear now that we shouldn’t have gone up that road of privatisation, though there was very little resistance put up from the trade union movement. And I think, quite frankly, we have got away very lightly, given our performance in that whole area. I think we should learn lessons from that, and I don’t think there should be any attempt to repeat it.

I have to say that, in the ESB, we’re absolutely opposed to the selling of any power stations for more shares, which some of the unions seem to think is a good idea. We are not just opposed to it in the leadership. We have taken the trouble to go around all our membership, and they’re behind us in this, and I believe the rest of the trade unions in the ESB will follow us. I do not believe there is any support for the privat­isation of the ESB, and I intend to take an interest in that area, and to do all I can to encourage our members not to be afraid of that. And not to think that privatisation is inevitable: it isn’t inevitable, it’s a political decision. And if we don’t want to accept privatisation, we won’t: whatever the difficulties are can be overcome.

The people who built these industries were great people. They had a vision of this country, they were patriotic. They may not have been socialists, but they were progressive people. And if we were waiting for the private sector to do it, we’d still be waiting. We would never have had rural electrification, we would never have developed Bord na Móna, we would never have created the jobs, we would never have created industrialisation. We’d never have had an independent state worthy of the name. And the real question for us is: are we prepared to stand up for those publicly owned industries?

I think we can find lots of allies in different places. Not just among our membership, but even among sections of the manage­ment of these companies who still maintain some of the ethos of the public sector. I think we should be creative. The one thing we have to do is see that these companies are managed well. We have to see that we co-operate in sensible ways about growing these businesses, but not do anything to dismantle them just to make a few people who are rich already even more rich. I don’t think that’s in the national interest.

I think we should use this concept of ‘the national interest’. It seems to me it’s always exploited by employers or right wing politicians. As John Wesley said, why should the devil have all the best tunes? Why shouldn’t we strike a popular touch with people out there? Because I think people out there are very sceptical about privatisation, about big multinationals getting their hands on the ESB, or our trains or buses or whatever.

The Irish people are lucky, in particular in relation to public transport, because most of them are able to see the BBC, and if you want to find out why you should have nothing to do with privatis­ation, just look at the safety record of the newly privatised companies over there, and all the other things. They are pumping public money into what are now virtually private monopolies. Now we do not need that model, we don’t need to go up that road, and we should start fighting that and stop dodging it. We should put it plainly to government that all partner­ship and all relationship with them is over if they go up that road. And I don’t believe they have a popular mandate for it. The only people who have are actually the PDs. It’s a tragedy the way the Fianna Fáil party are now being led by Michael McDowell. I think we should be appealing to the Fianna Fáil grassroots on this, and I think we’ll find an echo if we do that.

Left unity is still, or again, in the air. Do you see yourself as having a prominent function here? Do you see the Labour Party being engaged with the left?

I’ll play whatever role I can in relation to bringing people together. I believe in left unity. I just think it’s what we have to do. No matter what divisions there are between us, I think it’s the only way we can grow the left. And of course, left unity doesn’t mean no competition. We can have unity and competition. We can even have unity and argument. We can find a few core things that we want to support. It seems to me that argument on the left is a good thing. I don’t think we should want a sort of a Soviet parliament model, where we don’t argue about anything and it will all collapse on us. I think we can have sensible arguments, and we can also put our arguments in our back pockets and still work together. I think actually that that’s what happens in practice a lot of the time.

It will be difficult to win these arguments about unity. I think the trade union movement have a big role to play if they have the courage to create a left-of-centre co-operation first. It couldn’t be immediately implemented, but they could negotiate a kind of a plan. That would have a big impact on the public out there. It could deal with the questions of privatisation, the environment, industrial relations reform, etc.

The whole of the movement needs to move away from a situation where we are seen to be propping up quite frankly, not in the words of anybody in the trade union movement, but what Fianna Fáil backbenchers regard as, the most right wing government since the war. I don’t know why we are in partnership with it. I don’t want to be in partnership with it. We have a responsibility to build a political alternative. I think that a political alternative is already there in embryo. If you look at the Labour representation in the Dáil, the independent socialists, Sinn Féin and the Greens, they’re bigger than Fine Gael. They should form a bloc. And I think they should negotiate with the trade union movement on a minimum of the kind of things they could deliver for the trade union movement. They should fight an election on that basis, and be demanding that their programme is taken on board by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, whoever happens to be there, because I don’t believe they’ll be able to do that in one election.

I have to say I’m very disappointed with Pat Rabbitte, who seems to have as his hero now Michael O’Leary [former Labour leader who later joined Fine Gael], and seems to be intent on reviving the Fine Gael party rather than growing the Labour Party. I want to talk to SIPTU about this as well, because I believe that the trade union movement should fight for a Labour Party that’s independent. For the trade union movement to be able to do that, it has to become itself independent and move away from its own propping-up exercise, or coalition exercise, or partnership exercise that it has with the government.

I think what the trade union movement should do is actually go for a partnership with its members. If it goes for a partnership with its members, it will revitalise itself, and it will grow. But if it chooses the government over its members, it’s not going to work.

There’s a lot that we can do, and it’s really up to us to do it. If we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it for us. Nobody else only the left can resolve its own problems. I’m still a member of the Labour Party, actually, and I’m looking forward to the conference, and I’m going to argue about some of these things. Sinn Féin is a growing force, and I think we should be working with Sinn Féin, with the Labour Party, with the independent socialists. We should find ways and means of working together. We do it in the trade union movement: there’s no reason why we can’t do it in all these broad forces in politics. And if I can play a role in that, I will play a role. I want to do that.

The left and the racist referendum

After a constitutional referendum introduced a racist restriction on the right to Irish citizenship, which until then was automatically conferred on all children born in Ireland, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the campaign against it, in Issue 20 (November 2004).

In March, the man styling himself Minister for Justice and Equality announced a referendum to remove citizenship from a group of Irish children. If passed, children born in Ireland would be denied the right to Irish citizenship if a parent wasn’t already a citizen. He promised legislation to confer citizenship on children one of whose parents had lived in the country legally for three years before the birth.

It needs to be reiterated just how fundamentally racist this referendum was. The existing situation meant that all children were born legally equal in Ireland. Despite all the inequalities they would face from there on in, at the moment of their birth they were officially all in the same boat. The government proposal would mean that, as soon as the umbilical cord was cut, some babies would be put into a lower category—not even second-class citizens, but no class of citizens at all.

The basis of this discrimination was clearly a racial one. The govern­ment terms were framed, as far as the decorous language of parliamentary draftsmen can be, to take in children who were not white. Whites from the US or South Africa who think Kilkenny is a Tarantino film would still be able to get an Irish passport if a grandparent happened to have been born here back in the mists of time. But children born and reared here, who had never set foot anywhere else, would be excluded because their parents hailed from Africa, eastern Europe or somewhere else where skin tends to be darker. Racial discrimination was being put into the constitution.

New horizons of racist scapegoating opened with the referendum. Figures were concocted to prove that hospitals were being overrun by women giving birth to the wrong sort of baby. The health service being in bits was nothing to do with being denied money, facilities and staff: no, it was all these black babies who insisted on coming into the world. The least densely populated country in Europe, which managed to support eight or nine million when it had nothing but spuds, was suddenly unable to sustain a couple of hundred kids on the economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger. The statistics were withdrawn after being exposed as lies, but no matter: they had done their job.

The vocabulary of racism was developed and refined. The politicians had no need to be so vulgar as to attack black people explicitly. Code language like “people who have no real connection with our country” would serve just as well. A nod was as good as a wink when the third person plural came into play: there were too many of “them” here abusing the system. “Protecting the integrity of our citizenship” just meant keeping it nice and white.

Not that traditional forms of racism went by the board. Good old-fashioned racist abuse made a real comeback during the referendum campaign. It never went away, of course, but when the racists saw that their point of view was now government policy, no less, they felt confident enough to abuse immigrants and anti-racist campaigners at the top of their voice and the bottom of their intellect. Even tame, government-funded multicultural quangos reported a marked increase in racist attacks following the referendum announcement.

The whole notion of putting human rights to the vote was undemocratic from top to bottom. Everyone has the right to equal treatment, whether the majority agrees with it or not. A referendum to take the right to vote away from people born on a Monday would be undemocratic even if everyone born on Tuesday to Sunday voted for it. A child born in one bed should have the same rights as the child in the next bed. It is nice if the majority agrees with that proposition, but ultimately not necessary.

The reaction of many people to the referendum was one of deep anger and a determination to do something about it. These people fought a fine campaign—open, democratic and activist. While the government parties blithely wrote cheques for €280,000 to finance their campaign, the No campaign had to beg, borrow and steal €7,000 to try and compete. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were distributed, and thousands of posters put up, arguing a strong and unapologetic case against the government’s racist proposal.

Fighting a severely uphill battle from the word go, the defeat was no big surprise, sickening and all as its extent was. Attacked by powerful enemies and abandoned by most of their presumed allies, the opponents of the referendum can be proud of the stand they made. People will one day look back at those who fought the racist referendum of 2004 and acclaim their achievement.

The response of the left

A significant number of those most active in the campaign were socialists. This is only to be expected, of course: most socialists don’t need telling twice that fighting racism is a basic duty. It seems, however, that quite a few of them do. When the government threw down its racist challenge, much of the left decided that they had better things to be doing.

The earliest objection was that the campaign took every opportunity, even in its title, to brand the referendum as racist and to oppose it on that basis. One organisation was so incensed at this that it declared it would be taking no part at all. But seeing as it had taken no part up until then, they would have invented another excuse if that one hadn’t been handy. Another organisation that objected made one unsuccessful attempt to change things by packing a meeting, and then limited its involvement to occasionally sending a token full-timer along, and trying to establish a rival campaign elsewhere.

The referendum was racist; we were campaigning against a racist referendum; it would have been dishonest to say otherwise. Saying so in the campaign’s name made the point as soon as the subject came up, and the other side was forced to defend itself against the charge. Allowing them to sneak the debate into inoffensive, respectable arguments about legal loop­holes would have handed victory to the government on a plate. There is no evidence that avoiding the racism of the referendum would have won us a single vote, and every likelihood that letting it be characterised as an in­offensive measure would have lost us more.

Some socialists (we won’t argue with their self-description here) didn’t want to suggest that those considering voting Yes were racist. Have these people ever stood on a picket line? A picket suggests, in no uncertain terms, that those considering crossing it will be scabs, and if it’s strong enough it enforces this suggestion physically. Voting to disenfranchise children who have done nothing but be born with a darker skin is scabbing. Supporting a racist referendum is a racist act. Socialists had a duty to tell that truth. Those who were afraid to do so have no confidence that racism can be confronted —or no appetite for confronting it themselves.

Others said that the ‘R’ word should be less explicit so as to involve more people in the campaign. Of course, in the confines of a campaign meeting, they were well aware that it was racist, but saying so in public might put people off. Again, this was a case of attributing their own cowardice to others. Fianna Fáil councillors compared the referendum to Hitler’s Germany; tabloid editorials called it fascist; but self-proclaimed revolutionaries couldn’t bring themselves to openly name and shame the racist referendum. All manner of civil liberties campaigners, trade unionists, anti-racists, reformist politicians and others had no problem working with the campaign. It was only our beloved revolutionaries who had to wrestle with their conscience. Their conscience lost, but then it was very weak, not to mention out of practice.

But the real problem they had was their prior engagement. June 11 was not just referendum day but election day, and a few socialists had their names on the ballot paper. This created a dilemma for them: should they fight the referendum or fight their electoral campaigns? And if they were going to do the latter, there wasn’t an awful lot of votes to be gained in opposing racism.

The responses varied from the good to the bad to the ugly. What anti-referendum campaigning they did was usually tacked on to the end of their electoral campaign, and definitely subordinate to it. Some gave their opinion on the subject if they were asked—but only if they were asked. Some leaflets mentioned opposition to the referendum—along with a dozen other issues that weren’t going to be explicitly put to the voters on a separate ballot paper. Other leaflets avoided the issue entirely—because of an oversight or being printed too early, or some such excuse that would satisfy those who wanted to be satisfied.

What was the most important thing for the Irish working class on June 11? To defeat the racist referendum. This may not have been the most important thing from the point of view of getting your candidate elected, recruiting people to your party, selling your paper. But if that’s your point of view, you’re no good to the cause of socialism. The fight against racism has to take precedence over the interests of any organisation.

Let it be said that some socialists, to their eternal credit, did their best to combine campaigns, actively canvassing against the referendum while canvassing for their candidates. They obviously lost votes as a result, but losing these votes was the best performance made by any socialists in the elections—there are some votes we’re better off without. The experience underlines the drawbacks of electoral campaigns for socialists: the pressure to water down your politics is greater, and elections put a hell of a lot of eggs in just one basket.

Some on the left claimed to be campaigning in their own fashion. They would put a class argument against the referendum, rather than an appeal to humanitarian sentiment. They would point out that the government is to blame for unemployment or the housing crisis, not refugees. They would call for a No vote as a protest against a government that was attacking working-class living standards, to send a message to Fianna Fáil and the PDs.

Chance would be a fine thing: most of these promises failed to translate into practical campaigning. This was not a class argument, however, but an evasion: instead of fighting racism itself, you try to change the subject to an easier one. As the election results show, it is perfectly possible to oppose the government on any number of issues while still supporting its attack on refugees. Racist prejudices don’t just melt away because a person disagrees with government health policy.

Racism has to be tackled head on, not met halfway. It will only be beaten when people have the guts to oppose it in its own terms. Racism is an evil poison, and every human being is entitled to the same rights and opportunities whatever their ethnic background. This is a basic human­itarian belief, but also a basic socialist one, going back to Marx and beyond. More and more, the defence and extension of human rights involves a challenge to capitalism itself. The baton of fighting for universal human dignity has passed to socialists, and it is one we should be glad to accept. Building up a culture of zero tolerance for racism is a job for us and our class.

When a socialist hears someone say: ‘The refugees are taking all our houses’, their response is likely to be: ‘No, the government is responsible for the housing crisis.’ But this misses something out. The first thing to say is: ‘No, they’re not: refugees have as much right to a house as anyone else.’ True, we also need to put the blame on the economic system we live under (which is far wider than just ‘the government’, of course), but when the rights of refugees come under attack like this, defending them takes priority. Saying that in a socialist society everyone would have a house is also dodging the ball. Until then—and even for a while after a socialist revolution—refugees with a greater need should of course get housed before Irish people with a lesser need.

To take another example, campaigning against the work permit system, which makes the jobs and residency of immigrants dependent on a single employer, must be on an openly anti-racist basis. Telling Irish workers to oppose the permit system because it will lower their wages isn’t good enough. We need to be brave enough to argue that the permit system should be opposed in the first place because it is unjust, racist, an affront to immigrants’ human rights. Their secondary effect on workers as a whole only comes into the argument after their primary effect on immigrant workers. The problems and struggles of those who face racism directly should be steering the fight against racism.

But ever since Connolly was shot, the Irish left has had a fatal tendency to scurry back into the bunker of economism when things get tough, to retreat to the familiar territory of ‘bread and butter’ issues. Some socialists have the strange idea that immigration should be supported because of immigrants’ contribution to the state exchequer. What precisely is left-wing about valuing immigrants for their tax euros, seeing their presence as some kind of pension plan? Whether the capitalist economy happens to need immigrant labour or not is irrelevant. Trying to smuggle pro-immigrant sentiment into the existing state of trade-union consciousness won’t work; arguing for a deeper consciousness that despises racism on principle is a harder road but a more solid one.

The May Day protests in Dublin drew significant numbers, and the protests against Bush’s visit in late June even more. But there were many activists who skipped from one to the other, missing out the racist referendum in the middle. Protesting against the Fortress Europe built by the EU leaders, they neglected to notice the ramparts being erected in this part of the continent. Some anti-capitalists have their eyes always on the ends of the earth, opposing injustice when it is global and glamorous, but paying no heed when it takes a more mundane form on their own doorstep.

Worse were those who spent the referendum campaign sitting on their hands. Full of criticisms of the campaign, which they were more than entitled to, they couldn’t bring themselves to do any campaigning of their own. When it didn’t come up to their own exacting standards, they told each other how wrong it was, and then looked to see if there was anything good on the telly. They weren’t missed.

The reality of racism

The result of the referendum exposed just how bad racism is in Ireland. Towards the end of the campaign, it was more in hope than expectation that we called for a No vote, but none of us expected a defeat as overwhelming as it was. The severe kick in the teeth that the 79 per cent Yes vote represented was depressing in the extreme. At Easter 1916, Pádraig Pearse was spat on in the street for wanting to cherish all the children of the nation equally, and history just repeated itself.

The Yes vote was clearly a racist vote. The RTÉ exit poll asked 3,310 people why they had voted for the referendum. 36 per cent said the country was being exploited by immigrants—not by multinational profit-exporters or bribed politicians, but by immigrants. 27 per cent said there were too many immigrants in the country—which probably means, given how small the numbers actually are, that any immigrants are too many for them. 20 per cent wanted to bring Ireland into line with other EU countries—not to harmonise our corporation tax or holiday entitlements, just to treat immi­grants in as racist a manner as the rest of Europe. And 14 per cent said that children born here shouldn’t be automatically Irish citizens—though they obviously didn’t have any problem with the majority of children, the white ones, continuing to have that right.

These answers differ only in the degree of racism that motivated them—or maybe the degree to which the voters put a legalistic veneer on their prejudices in front of the pollsters. None of them can be accurately described as ‘soft’ racism, however. Soft racism is when someone says they don’t like Africans because one of them lives down the road and isn’t very nice, when someone expresses a passive sense of unfocused discomfort at the presence of immigrants, not wanting their daughter to marry one. There’s nothing soft at all about deliberately casting your vote to deprive newborn babies of rights because of the colour of their skin.

Some have tried to derive comfort from the generally dismal perform­ance of openly racist candidates in the same day’s local elections. To read this as a rejection of racism is completely unreal. Why would a racist voter choose ineffective, incompetent racists when they could advance their prejudice far more effectively by voting Yes in the referendum? Michael McDowell’s deportation policy has done far more to achieve the kind of society racists want than the sad array of would-be Führers propping up the bottom of the election results. The racism of the state poses a far greater problem than the isolated efforts of avowed racist groups, and this is where anti-racists should concentrate their attention.

Ireland is without doubt a racist society. For generations, the travelling community have been subjected to vicious forms of segregation and discrimination with hardly a peep from the settled community. The general response to the arrival of relatively tiny numbers of immigrants in recent years has been anything but welcoming. Most people in Ireland, at the very least, go along with racist ideas to some extent. After June 11, the smug, reassuring belief that ‘Irish people aren’t racist’ is no longer tenable.

One bizarre reading tries to sugar the pill by saying people aren’t racist but xenophobic. You would need more dictionaries than de Valera to tell the difference between the two words. If anything, xenophobia is worse, suggesting a medical condition, a phobia, rather than an attitude. But xenophobia is an unusual-sounding Greek word with five syllables, whereas racism is a harsh word whose meaning is crystal-clear and spares no feelings. When doctors don’t want patients to know how bad their condition is, they use the Latin name for it. Taking of xenophobia instead of racism is the same type of obfuscation.

Whether people are consciously and deliberately racist is another matter. Racism is so engrained in capitalist society that it can appear natural and acceptable in all but its most extreme forms. Not for nothing did Fianna Fáil sell their racist proposal as “Common Sense Citizenship”. Just because someone claims not to be a racist, that doesn’t mean they’re not. The refrain ‘I’m not a racist… but I think they should all be deported’ (or variations on the theme) is an everyday one. Racism rarely comes dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume with swastikas. Unmasking the acceptable face of racism and making it unacceptable is half the battle.

Socialists and the fight against racism

The Irish capitalist class are well aware of racism’s corrosive effect and are exploiting it to the full. Under the work permit system that ties workers to an employer like medieval bonded labourers, a reserve army of workers with worse pay, conditions and rights is being recruited to undermine the position of the working class as a whole. Workers harbouring resentment towards immigrants are never going to pose a serious challenge to those who rule them economically and politically. Making these points is clearly a part of combating racism in the working class.

Working-class people are no less receptive to racist ideas than any other section of the population. Only people whose knowledge of the working class comes from books could deny this. Socialists should be honest enough to tell workers who support racism that they are cutting their own throats. Downplaying racism in the working class only makes it harder to overcome it. Ignoring it, or hoping it will conveniently go away of its own accord, is only one step away from opportunistically accommodating to and accepting it. Only those who think workers are too stupid to follow anti-racist arguments will be afraid to make those arguments.

But there is no way those on the receiving end of racism should be expected to wait until the workers have seen the error of their ways. No more than women should hang around until male workers outgrow their sexism, or Catholics in the north should hang around until Protestant workers outgrow their sectarianism, immigrants are right to fight here and now without waiting for the slowest to catch up. And concrete victories against racism will do more to dislodge racist ideas than any number of explanatory leaflets.

After June 11, the struggle against racism needs to leap rapidly up the list of priorities for socialists. On a short-term basis this may be neither popular nor profitable, but such considerations shouldn’t exist. The victory for racism in the referendum was a body blow for the whole concept of solidarity that socialism is built upon. Unless we begin to turn back that tide, socialism has no future.

Socialists need to wear their anti-racism on their sleeves. Instead of waiting for racism to jump out at us, we need to go on the offensive, pro-actively going out of our way to oppose it. Socialists who aren’t involved in solidarity work with asylum seekers facing deportation, immigrant workers tied to an employer, or travellers dealing with systematic discrimination are doing something wrong.

The campaign against the referendum was trying to do the impossible: defeat racism in eleven weeks. Whatever could be done in such a limited time and with such limited resources, it did as best it could. Before the referendum, the fight against racism was left to a small number of dedicated activists. This has to change: a strong, continuous opposition to racism needs to be on the ground week in and week out. While the referendum brought out the worst in much of the left, real socialists are realising that they need to be an active part of that opposition. From now on in Ireland, socialists are genuine fighters against racism or they are nothing.

Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘On the Russian Revolution’

Socialist Classics were a feature of every issue of Red Banner from Issue 19 (July 2004) on. The series kicked off with this article by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh.

Six months into the first world war, the German empire decided in its wisdom that Rosa Luxemburg would be better off under lock and key. Two decades of revolutionary activity, directed for the most part against themselves, led the authorities in Berlin to ensure that this socialist would be behind bars for the duration. It was in prison that she learnt of the events of 1917 in Russia, and her reaction is best described in her own words: “enthusiasm coupled with the spirit of revolutionary criticism”. In the autumn of 1918 she wrote a work reflecting upon the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian revolution.

The work was addressed initially to leading members of the Spartacus League, a group set up by Luxemburg’s comrades in 1916. From her prison cell she had expressed criticisms of the Bolsheviks in power, and met with disagreement from leaders of the group. She wrote this more extensive criticism in an attempt to win them round. The work remained unpublished after her release from prison, and only saw the light of day in 1922, when it was published by Paul Levi following his expulsion from the Communist Party of Germany for criticising its disastrous policies. Senior figures in the Communist International tried to persuade him to burn the manuscript, and when they failed, did their best to downplay and discredit Luxemburg’s criticism.

Given the circumstances Luxemburg found herself in, there was a limit to the information available to her on events in Russia. But this limit shouldn’t be exaggerated: people on the outside weren’t that much better informed, and the Spartacus League did have a well-developed system of communication with her. The fact she didn’t publish the work subsequently isn’t all that significant, either. After getting out, she had only two extremely busy months left before she was assassinated in January 1919. It is sometimes claimed that she changed her mind after writing the critique, but—while this is true in regard to one of the issues she discusses—the evidence for a fundamental change of heart is very thin. The work is unfinished, with some of it in the form of rough notes, but the argument is clear.

Luxemburg opens with high praise for the Bolsheviks. Rather than being satisfied with the end of the Tsarist regime, they understood better than anyone that the working people would have to go further and take power themselves if the revolution was to solve the real problems of Russian society. Here, they recognised an essential reality of revolution:

Either it must storm ahead very quickly and resolutely, knock down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever further ahead, or it is quite soon thrown back behind its feeble starting point and suppressed by the counter-revolution. There is no such thing in revolution as standing still, sticking to one point, making do with the first goal reached.… Either the locomotive drives forward full steam ahead to the most extreme point of the historical ascent, or it rolls back again of its own weight to the starting point at the bottom, and drags irredeemably down into the abyss with it those who, with their feeble powers, would hold it halfway.

If the workers hadn’t seized power in October, the result would not have been a moderate liberal democracy, but a military reign of terror, a counter-revolutionary dictatorship. The Bolsheviks therefore “won for themselves the everlasting historic merit of having, for the first time, proclaimed the final goal of socialism as the immediate programme of practical politics”. Their successful push for revolution was “the salvation of the honour of international socialism” and a huge step forward for the world’s working class. “And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.”

But not in every sense: Luxemburg wasn’t writing a blank cheque for the Bolsheviks. Comrades of hers had argued that criticising the Bolsheviks was disloyal, and would weaken the support German workers had shown for the Russian revolution. “Nothing is more absurd than this”, she replied. Only by thinking for themselves could workers learn from the revolution:

not uncritical apologetics but only exhaustive and thoughtful criticism is capable of bringing out the wealth of experiences and lessons.… The awakening of the revolutionary energy of the working class in Germany can never again be conjured forth… by blind faith in any spotless authority, be it that of our own ‘higher-ups’ or that of ‘the Russian example’. Not by the creation of an atmosphere of revolutionary cheerleading, but on the contrary, only by an insight into all the fearful seriousness, all the complexity of the tasks, by political maturity and independence of spirit, by the masses’ capacity for judgement—which was systematically killed by German social democracy under various pretexts—can the German proletariat’s capacity for historical action be born.

Luxemburg found fault with the Bolsheviks’ policy of encouraging small farmers to seize land for themselves from the landlords. Breaking up large estates like this rather than farming them collectively, she argued, led away from socialist agriculture rather than towards it. It created a class of small landowners who would bitterly oppose socialisation of the land.

Her big mistake here was to imagine that what happened took place at the behest of the Bolsheviks. In reality it was happening anyway, and all the Bolsheviks did was endorse the spontaneous movement in the countryside, making it into a support for the urban working class. She would seem to be proposing that they oppose themselves to this movement—a policy that could only drive the small farmers, not to mention their relations in the cities, into the hands of the counter-revolution. Instead of winning them over voluntarily to the benefits of socialist agriculture, she seems to see them as natural antagonists to be socialised from the outside.

Luxemburg’s sharpest criticism comes on what she calls “the so-called right of nations to self-determination”. For years, she had argued that supporting nations’ right to independence contradicted the work of social­ists in uniting workers across national boundaries. “It belongs to the ABC of socialist politics that, like every other form of oppression, it fights against that of one nation by another”, she writes here, but “the famous ‘right of nations to self-determination’ is nothing but hollow, petty-bourgeois phras­eology and humbug”. It had allowed the capitalists of the Ukraine, Finland and elsewhere to break their countries away from revolutionary Russia, and “the Bolsheviks have provided the ideology which has masked this campaign of counter-revolution”.

The old familiar hallmarks of left-wing slagging—implying irony with the use of quotation marks and “so-called”, hurling accusations of petty-bourgeois counter-revolution about the place—betray a weak argument here, as they usually do. Opposing the oppression of one nation by another is not possible without opposing it being part of an empire against its will. That means supporting its right to loosen that connection or break it altogether if it so chooses. Of course, it also has the right to maintain that connection, but international unity can only be based on voluntary federation. The only way to overcome the national oppression at the heart of the Tsarist empire was to bring the different nationalities together of their own free will. A more pertinent criticism of the Bolsheviks would take them to task for not always following their proclaimed policy in practice.

All through 1917 the Bolsheviks condemned the delay in establishing a constituent assembly to draw up a democratic constitution for Russia. The assembly only met after the October revolution, but was then shut down when it refused to support the revolutionary government. Luxemburg agrees with the Bolsheviks that the assembly, elected before the new revolution had sunk in, was no longer representative—but then, she argues, they should have organised fresh elections rather than abolish the assembly altogether.

The difference, though, was that in the meantime the workers’ councils had taken power. These councils—composed of workers on a workers’ wage, subject to immediate replacement by the workers who elected them—were ten times more democratic than any parliamentary assembly. The constituent assembly would have been an irrelevance at best, if not a pole of attraction for the revolution’s opponents. This is the one point on which it can safely be said that Luxemburg changed her mind. When the idea of combining workers’ councils with a parliamentary system was put forward a few months later in the German revolution, she was bitterly opposed to it.

The Bolsheviks openly repudiated the old notions of democracy, making no bones about establishing a socialist dictatorship. But, says Luxemburg, they mirrored their opponents by setting up the two in opposition to each other: “Dictatorship or democracy”. In reality, she writes, socialist revo­lution needs both:

Yes, indeed: dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its abolition, in energetic, resolute encroachments upon the well-established rights and economic relation­ships of bourgeois society, without which the socialist transformation cannot be realised. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class, i.e., it must emerge at every step out of the active participation of the masses, under their direct influence, subject to full public control, emerging out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

The object of socialist revolution is “to create a socialist democracy in place of bourgeois democracy, not to abolish all kinds of democracy”.

“The tacit assumption” behind the idea of workers’ dictatorship minus the democracy is

that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be energetically translated into practice. This is unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—not the case.… The socialist system of society should and can only be a historical product, born out of the school of its own experience, in the hour of its accomplishment, out of the development of living history… socialism by its very nature cannot be proclaimed, introduced by decree.

Democracy is indispensable to solving the thousand and one problems to be encountered in building a socialist society, the only force capable of tackling them. So “socialist democracy is not something which begins in the promised land… It begins at the moment of seizing power”.

A vibrant workers’ democracy can never function without the freedom to meet, publish, organise, and the right to dissent from the ruling view:

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for those who think differently. Not because of the fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is enlivening, beneficial and purifying in political freedom depends on this characteristic, and its action breaks down when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.

In the absence of full, broad democracy, the rule of the working class inevitably withers away:

Without general elections, unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere shadow of life, in which only the bureau­cracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless idealism direct and rule, among them a dozen prominent heads lead in reality, and an elite of the workforce is invited from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders, to approve proposed resolutions unanimously—basically, then, a clique system—a dictatorship, to be sure, only not the dictatorship of the proletariat but the dictatorship of a handful of politicians…

It is important to note here that Luxemburg is not being democratic and fluffy for the sake of it, strapping on the armour of moral righteousness. Free discussion and vibrant democracy is needed for a very practical, functional reason: socialism can’t take a single step without it. Democracy is no added extra in the socialist project, icing to decorate the cake, but the compulsory foundation of a new world. Whenever Luxemburg talked of socialism as the working class taking control of society and rebuilding it with their own hands, she meant every word of it literally. Those who mean it only in a metaphorical, figurative sense are headed in a very different direction.

It is clear that much of Luxemburg’s critique is somewhat previous. The weight of evidence concerning Russian society in 1918 points to a surpris­ingly strong workers’ democracy. The workers’ councils still counted for something, opposing points of view contended openly, all kinds of experi­ments in politics, the arts and life were carried out. But the germ of reaction was there. Luxemburg is looking at the writing on the wall, anticipating the course of events, drawing things to their logical conclusion—in the hope that a change of direction could be brought about. She is also looking to point up lessons for workers’ revolutions in general, so that future revo­lutions could avoid mistakes made in Russia.

She is far from ignoring the objective situation the Bolsheviks were working in. A country ravaged by war, famine and invasion imposed severe limits on what they could realistically do:

under such fatal conditions even the most gigantic idealism and the most storm-proof revolutionary energy are capable of realising neither democracy or socialism but only weak, distorted attempts at either.… It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and comrades if we expected of them that under such circumstances they should conjure up the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary energy and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly tough conditions.… They shouldn’t be expected to perform miracles.

But this was not how the Bolsheviks presented the case. Instead of admitting that they were forced to do certain things against their will by desperate circumstances, they tended to justify these measures as being intrinsically correct in themselves. Rather than saying: ‘We are closing down this newspaper because it is supporting the counter-revolutionary invasion; as soon as the danger has passed, we will lift the ban’, they were more likely to say: ‘Freedom of the press is a bourgeois illusion; those who oppose their petty-bourgeois ideals to the proletarian dictatorship will be ruthlessly crushed.’ Tactics became principles; temporary necessities became permanent policy; the exception became the rule.

The dangerous part begins only when they make a virtue out of a necessity, then lay down theoretically for all occasions tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and seek to recommend them to the international [proletariat] as the model of socialist tactics to be copied. When they completely needlessly get in their own light in this way, and hide their genuine, indisputable historic merit under the bushel of false steps forced upon them by necessity, they render to international socialism, for the sake of which they have fought and suffered, a poor service, for they want to place in its vault as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion…

Luxemburg wanted to separate “the core from the incidental”. The bold revolutionary struggle of the Bolsheviks for working-class power was a lesson to socialists the world over; the mistakes and excuses were some­thing to be avoided.

But her first concern is to get her own house in order. The biggest factor in the objective weakness of the Russian revolution is “the failure of the German proletariat”. By not successfully intervening to prevent imperialist invasion of Russia, by not overthrowing their own capitalists, by not building a socialist Germany that could bring all its industrial resources to help the Russian workers, the German working class bore the heaviest responsibility for the situation. German socialists should look at the beam in their own eye, and criticise the imperfections of the Bolsheviks only to learn from their mistakes and come to their aid.

Socialist revolution isolated in one country had no chance, least of all in a country as devastated as Russia was. The responsibility that placed on the working class outside Russia was the biggest point Luxemburg wanted to make. As long as the revolution remained a purely Russian one it was doomed. The weaknesses and distortions could only be overcome if Russia became one weak link in a socialist chain: “In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia, it can only be solved internationally.” The Bolsheviks had put the question: what answer would socialists elsewhere give?

Luxemburg’s critique is relevant as long as the Russian revolution is relevant, and the Russian revolution is relevant as long as socialists want to know how and why revolutions succeed and fail. Rather than taking the easy way out and leaping forward twenty years to blame everything on the big bad Stalin, we would do well to look long and hard at the criticisms of an uncompromising revolutionary socialist before the revolution was a year old. Already, isolation was sowing the seeds of a society without demo­cracy, and a society without democracy cannot expect to be socialist.

Much of today’s left has yet to learn that democracy is the air that socialism breathes. Instead they have got their counter-revolution in before the revolution, doing their best to produce a generation of socialists who can only yelp what their leaders tell them to yelp and snarl at anyone who says different. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Luxemburg’s work is the anticipation of how well-intentioned socialists can help pave the way, in spite of themselves, for the destruction of their own ideals.

Not that Luxemburg’s criticisms are flawless. When it comes to national self-determination, and to a lesser extent land ownership, her position is closer to the counter-revolutionary policies of the 1920s than to a truly socialist approach. But her stubborn, immovable insistence that socialism means a society based on free, democratic control by a diverse working class is something all of us need to acquire. The idea that socialism is predicated on the freedom to think differently might still be too revolution­ary for us to grasp.

Refusing to yield: The fight against the bin tax

This article on the campaign against the introduction of refuse charges in Dublin was written for Issue 18 (March 2004) by Colm Breathnach, one of the activists imprisoned for their part in the campaign.

To replace the income lost to local authorities by the abolition of house rates in 1977, the newly elected Fianna Fáil government increased central subvention to local councils, and to fund this major increase in spending the tax take from PAYE grew substantially. However, within a few years the Irish economy, in line with international trends, faltered badly. Unemploy­ment soared, thousands emigrated and the national debt spiralled out of control. A succession of right-wing governments tried to stabilise Irish capitalism in the face of the crisis and a growing radicalisation of the working class. This, combined with the H-Block crisis in the North, demanded some extraordinary measures to ensure the continued ability of the Irish capitalist class to survive and continue the process of capital accumulation. A twin strategy emerged of ferocious cutbacks in public services and the corporatist social partnership process, which co-opted the leadership of the trade union movement to control and divert working class militancy.

It was in the midst of this crisis, as the central state continued to reduce the grants to local authorities, and funding of the fairly minimal range of services provided dried up, that a sleight of hand was pulled by a Labour/Fine Gael government. In 1985, the Minister for the Environment, Labour Party leader Dick Spring, introduced water charges. These had no real relationship to the provision or consumption of water, but were simply a local tax to replace the reduced central funding. There was an immediate backlash as working class taxpayers saw this for what it was: double taxation. A campaign of opposition and non-payment quickly took off. The immediate effect was a disastrous local election result for the Labour Party. The struggle took a militant turn in some areas such as Cork and Waterford, with skilled activist teams reconnecting those disconnected for non-payment, but there were problems with the campaign. While non-payment was an official slogan, in practise the campaign increasingly focused on electoral solutions.

The defeat of water charges

During the early 1990s the campaign took on a new lease of life with fresh political elements playing a leading role, especially in Dublin. This led to a revival of the earlier militant tactics despite, or perhaps because of, the increasing use of the courts by local councils to force defaulters to pay arrears. The mass non-payment campaign gained strength in urban working class areas. The final nail in the coffin was the inclusion of the Democratic Left in a coalition government with Labour and Fine Gael in 1994. While they retained no principled objection to the charges, the pressure on this parliamentary rump to take action on the issue on which they had built their careers was immense, and after a decent interval the water charges were abolished.

The water charges victory showed that, while an unusual political conjuncture had dealt the final blow, a mass campaign of civil disobedience could bring about real change in people’s lives. A battle had been won, but the war was by no means over. The water charges were abolished, but the local authorities were still entitled to levy service charges. Gradually, local authorities outside Dublin began to introduce charges for various services. However, the dominant right-wing political forces were reluctant to re-engage in battle with working class forces in Dublin, so there was a lull before the next flare-up.

The introduction of the bin tax

Beginning in areas such as Sligo, where ironically they were the child of an opportunistic Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil alliance, refuse charges were gradually introduced throughout the country. Though cleverly linked to the growing waste crisis by the right, with the assistance of the Green Party, the bin tax was a means by which working people could be made to pay for a problem which was caused by the massive growth of waste, a by-product of the capitalist boom of the 1990s. The rapid accumulation of capital and the relentless drive for profit had a disastrous environmental impact on a national as well as a planetary scale. The truth was, only 15% of waste in Ireland originated from domestic sources, the vast bulk arising from agriculture and industry. The failure of the retail sector to reduce packaging or produce more recyclable packaging also accounted for a large percentage of domestic waste. Yet, in a barrage of propaganda characterising working class people as ignorant environmental reactionaries, amply backed by the liberal media, the government tried to shift the responsibility for the waste crisis firmly on to the backs of ordinary people.

This was a classic example of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. What we saw was an across-the-board assault on the working class. Coercion, as harsh as necessary, was applied to the most advanced forces, but the primary weapon in the ruling class’s armoury was dominance of the popular discourse. Through a thousand fields of struggle, from the rightist populism of Joe Duffy’s Liveline to the obvious ambush of The Late Late Show, the message was drummed into people’s minds: these people are spongers who don’t care about the environment. This dominance failed to impact on the poorer sections of the working class, but it did play a huge role in ensuring that the battle for the hearts and minds of the ‘middle class’ (largely composed of the white collar section of the working class) was soundly won by the elite.

Reformist responses

Some commentators normally sympathetic to the left, and others allied to the Labour Party, have questioned the involvement of radicals in the anti-bin tax campaign. ‘Shouldn’t socialists address more important issues, such as the drastic state of the public health service?’ they asked. Behind the question, of course, lies a deep ignorance of the reality of life in working class communities. What they failed to see was that behind the popularity of the campaign lay a deep well of alienation and anger amongst communities that had gained little from the Celtic Tiger years. This was not a question of environmental responsibility, but a question of who should pay for waste management and disposal. It was in effect a question of class and, while it might not have been the ideal battleground, it was a very real one. Whether the council’s bin truck would collect the rubbish from outside the door of a working class family who had refused to pay their bill was the front line of the class struggle. This was the most intense bout of class struggle experienced in the Republic in years. It would have been incredibly stupid, not to mention unprincipled, of the radical left to fail to engage in this struggle.

In this context, it is worth reflecting on the complete lack of involve­ment of Labour Party members in the anti-bin tax campaign. Anxious to win middle class votes, the party has consciously abandoned working class communities to Sinn Féin, a stance aptly summarised in the comment made to this writer by a leading Labour strategist: “Fuck Fatima Mansions!”

Our environmental social democrats, the Green Party, have played a shameful role during the campaign. They berated the anti-bin tax activists as enemies of the environment, lauding the tax as an example of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The utter failure of the Greens to understand the real nature of the bin tax was a reflection of the party’s class base. The Greens are a thoroughly middle class party, having little or no working class support. Another factor has been the dominance of the ‘pragmatic’ wing of the party whose ambition is to join a coalition government and implement environ­mentally friendly policies from above. The more radical environmental activists, largely alienated from the now ‘respectable’ Greens, were broadly sympathetic to the bin tax protesters, instinctively sympathetic to the anti-establishment nature of the campaign

Sinn Féin has also failed to play any significant role, outside of a handful of areas. What is remarkable about the republican movement is the conservatism of its leading cadres. For a party steeped in a history of armed struggle, they are none too keen on radical activism. Outside a small number of areas, they have confined their role in the bin tax campaign to issuing supportive statements through their elected representatives. Mass direct action left them decidedly uneasy!

The battle of the bins

Fearful of a severe backlash, the mainstream politicians resisted the imposition of the tax in Dublin for a while, though eventually they approved it. The Dublin campaign was weakened by geographic unevenness. The Fingal campaign managed to maintain a very high level of non-payment, and scored a significant victory in the courts when it was deemed that councils were obliged to collect all bins, even those of non-payers. The campaigns in Dublin’s other three local authorities were more politically diverse and somewhat weaker in terms of organisation. Despite this, non-payment of the tax was high in working class areas throughout the city.

The struggle entered a decisive stage last autumn. To counter the court victory won by the Fingal campaign, Martin Cullen rushed legislation through the Dáil to allow councils to stop collecting the bins of non-payers. This precipitated a battle royal in Dublin. After securing a deal with SIPTU by promising not to privatise the service, the management of Fingal County Council stopped collecting untagged bins. This ensured compliance in most middle class districts, but provoked determined resistance in working class suburbs such as Blanchardstown. Groups of residents blockaded almost the entire refuse truck fleet in their estates, and a stand-off ensued. The Council then got an injunction in the High Court allowing them to prosecute the blockaders defying the court order. This led to the imprisonment of Joe Higgins and Clare Daly. Facing all the power of the police and legal system, the blockades gradually ended and the Fingal campaign levelled out into a phase of political propaganda.

Meanwhile, the battle shifted ground to the Dublin City Council area. Expecting a short, sharp conflict, the City Manager declared in September that he would emulate the Fingal management and begin a policy of non-collection. Predictably this precipitated an immediate response, with activ­ists in working class areas carrying out temporary blockades of bin trucks. This led once again to the courts, and an injunction was granted banning the temporary blockades. Once more people were dragged through the courts and jailed. In Finglas 22 people were brought to court and nine jailed. The same pattern was repeated in South Dublin County. It proved impossible to implement non-collection in much of the City area, and the year ended in a stalemate. Because of the widespread popular resistance the collection of all bins continued in most working class areas outside of Fingal County. The result was a city divided between almost totally compliant middle class areas and great swathes of working class suburbs where the majority continued to refuse to pay.

Tactical differences

It is often said that the real nature of political groups is revealed in the heat of struggle. The bin tax struggle has highlighted the organisational and ideological strengths and weaknesses of the various far left groupings. At the height of autumn’s struggle, most far left organisations and individuals were engaged to some extent in the campaign, and a clear difference of perspective emerged.

Some argued for a campaign based on mass meetings and demon­strations, with blockading and other forms of direct action being seen as measures of last resort. The basis for this view was that the decisive battle would be the local elections of summer 2004, where anti-bin tax candidates could make a breakthrough based on the work done over the years in the different localities. This view was somewhat undermined by the fact that some of those advocating this position represented shadow cam­paigns lacking a popular base. The perception was that they had adopted this position because they were unable to deliver the goods when it came to mass direct action.

Others advocated mass direct action, especially after the jailing of the activists. In areas dominated by these forces, frequent blockades of trucks and depots occurred. There was little patience from this wing of the campaign for the more cautious, election-orientated strategy. This differ­ence over tactics dissipated somewhat as the threat of non-collection receded in most working class areas of the City Council district.

The union response

Union bosses were posed with a huge dilemma by this battle. On the one hand there was strong pressure from the rank and file to back the bin tax campaign, especially after the jailing of Higgins, Daly and the other activists. It was hard to oppose this pressure, given that it was the official policy of most unions to oppose all service charges. This was compounded by a strong desire by the bin men themselves to show solidarity with their friends and neighbours. On the other hand the bureaucrats were wedded to social partnership and wanted to avoid conflict with the authorities at all costs.

While mouthing platitudes favourable to the campaign, the leaders of the main unions organising bin workers, SIPTU and IMPACT, worked hard behind the scenes with management to ensure the success of non-collection. At some stages tensions bubbled to the surface, with truck drivers refusing to drive out of depots blockaded by activists despite shop stewards and union officials pressurising them to do so. By far the worst intervention was that of David Begg, the leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. While Joe Higgins and Clare Daly languished in jail, he attacked the campaign and its leaders. Of course, this received maximum publicity in the media, with every attempt made to portray the anti-bin tax campaign as a crafty loony-left ploy to dupe the gullible working class.

The only leading trade unionist backing the bin tax campaign was Mick O’Reilly of the ATGWU. The other source of support was the traditionally radical Dublin Council of Trade Unions, which organised a mass demon­stration to oppose the imprisonment of the activists. The paucity of union support is a reflection of the weakness of the left in the unions. There is no use appealing to a union bureaucracy which has a real material interest in opposing working class militancy both in the workplace and in the community.

What next?

Both sides are now holding their fire, preparing for the next round. The establishment politicians want to avoid a re-run of the bitter conflict of last autumn, at least until after the summer elections. They know that another round of blockades and arrests would galvanise working class communities, and boost support for Sinn Féin and far left candidates. Undoubtedly, they are leaning on local authority managers to hold back until the elections are over. This may not be enough to rein in the bureaucrats. The Dublin City Manager secured a 23% increase in the bin tax in December with the support of the right-wing parties and the Greens on the City Council. In January, South Dublin Council introduced the tag system. The possibility exists that the campaign may enter a decisive phase before the elections.

The tagging system has proved very difficult to defeat, making a non-payment strategy extremely difficult, but in a strange way tagging and the proposed pay-by-weight system are a sign of the success of the campaign. We have forced the right-wing parties and the local bureaucracy to acknowledge the inequity of the service charges. Of course, these cosmetic changes do not change the inherent injustice of the bin tax, but do indicate a desire by the authorities to disguise this inequity.

With most political forces involved in the campaign concentrating to a greater or lesser degree on electoral work, there is a danger that the campaign may degenerate. Activists may put all their energy into canvass­ing and leafleting, neglecting to continue the grassroots organising needed to sustain the struggle against the bin tax. The more cautious elements in the alliance may use the run-up to the elections to argue against direct action, on the basis that any sort of illegal action will damage the electoral prospects of candidates. The predominant tendency at the moment seems to have swung towards an over-concentration on the importance of the local elections. This over-reliance on electoral activity is a constant danger to campaigning organisations. It’s not necessarily a question of opportunism, but of the logic of bourgeois democracy drawing left organisations further and further into a morass of petty electoral and clientalist activity, to the detriment of day-to-day grass roots activism. This is not to argue against participation in the local elections, but to argue for caution in doing so. The only solution to this is for local campaigns to continue to engage in the ground work that will allow us to confront the authorities in the next big battle. This can only happen if the various left organisations continue to devote some of their energies to the anti-bin tax campaign.

Another factor that will influence the direction of the campaign is the inevitable re-introduction of water charges. This is not a matter of conjecture but of fact: all new houses are now being fitted with water metres, and the Dublin local authorities are preparing the necessary databases. The bin tax is the thin edge of the wedge, as more and more public services are commercialised and privatised. No service will be safe, with even talk of the maintenance of social housing in Dublin City being contracted to multinationals. However, by adding water charges to the bin tax, the bureaucracy may bite off more than they can chew. Disconnected water mains can be reconnected, and indeed were during the last campaign. The stage may well be set for a massive struggle over a host of service charges.

Which side are you on? The commodification of sport

Emmett Farrell wrote this article for Issue 17 (November 2003).

The most serious threat so far to the voluntary and amateur ethos of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the most significant community based amateur sports organisation in the country emerged at a press conference on 26 May when six prominent county players—all of them All-Ireland medal winners—declared that they had agreed to wear Puma football boots during the championship season in return for money. Various rumours put the sums the players would receive between €2,500 and €5,000, but the figures are not as significant as the clear breach with what had gone before since the foundation of the GAA in 1884. This is the first time that individual players have openly received money for playing a team game. One week after the press conference, the only comment from Seán Kelly, the newly elected President of the GAA, was to tell the Sunday Business Post that he had some concerns that such individual player deals would conflict with other sponsorship deals between county teams and sportswear manufacturers.

The unprecedented boom in the economy of the southern state has produced a climate of capitalist commodification and individualism which has eroded the active volunteer base of community-based organisations such as the GAA. Capitalism is changing Ireland and the GAA will inevit­ably have to reflect these changes. Kevin Cashman, writing on the crisis in Cork hurling:

The industrial proletariat into which most of them were born has all but vanished in the maelstrom of capitalism’s globalisation. Eleven of the players who won Cork’s three-in-a-row [All Ireland Finals] in the early 50s worked on the long industrial half mile of the Marina… supplemented by electricians and bakers and whatnot from villages on the city’s periphery, the team had just two professionals… Nowadays the privilege of being sweated by Ford and Dunlop belongs to the peoples of Asia. Cork teams, like most others, are manned by students, company reps, professionals, practitioners in the alleged ‘service industries’, computer boffins and suchlike persons of nomadic disposition [Cork Evening Echo, 18 July 2002].

The self-styled Gaelic Players Association conference in early 2002 was advised by Brendan Batson of the (English) Professional Footballers Association that the PFA demands were only met when they used the threat of strike action. The Cork hurling panel, under GPA guidance, subsequently went on ‘strike’ and made a series of demands for gym fees, increased travelling expenses, holidays and the like. The Cork County Board of the GAA capitulated and conceded most of the demands. Most sports commentators in the capitalist media are actively campaigning to end the amateur status of GAA players and, following the capitulation of the Cork County Board and the refusal to act to prevent individual players accepting money from Puma, it appears that the GAA leadership has given up on any struggle against creeping professionalism.

The growing popularity of the hurling and football All-Ireland series, with huge attendances, inevitably invite comparisons with professional soccer and rugby, where players whose training efforts would not be much greater, and whose skills might not match those of D J Carey in full flight, have been receiving hugely inflated financial rewards from the money injected into soccer by commercial television. In this climate, the self-styled Gaelic Players Association emerged, and is supported in its campaigns by most journalists in the capitalist media. The GPA emerged in late 1999 as the brainchild of Dónal O’Neill who had worked with the International [Sports] Marketing Group in Asia and, having a GAA background, ‘spotted a niche in the market’ in Ireland. The GPA has argued that a typical GAA county player has lost €175,000 in wages foregone during a ten-year county career and have issued a demand for €127 per week per player during the championship season. The GPA has appointed former Dublin Gaelic football player Dessie Farrell as full-time secretary and is targeting county players for membership.

Some comrades argue that the GPA is a union like the professional soccer players’ union in Britain, and should be supported as such. But what kind of union is the GPA? In its propaganda to date the GPA has argued solely for the interest of the elite county player. At their 2002 conference the GPA stated that they wished to be recognised by the GAA as the players’ representative body, but did not wish to be represented at Central Council level. In reality, they want the right to ‘represent’ the elite county players where issues of sponsorship money and perks are to be discussed, but they do not want to be under democratic control or to make any contribution outside of playing the game, arguably the most rewarding aspect of being a GAA member. More than three years after its emergence, the GPA has made no comment on the crisis in hurling, how the game might be developed outside of the now strong counties, how women’s football could be further developed and how handball might be supported. The GPA leadership show no interest whatever in the club player, nor in the camogie player, the women footballers, the handball player, the referee, the linesman/woman, the underage coach, or any other of the voluntary workers whose contribution makes the GAA the most successful amateur sports organisation anywhere.

Everything about the GPA is oriented to the elite county players and what rewards can be secured for them. Initially, the GPA claimed that they were not seeking payment for playing football and hurling, and that their only intention was to win significant sponsorship money for the county player, but this has been the method by which athletics, rugby and other previously amateur sports have been undermined, and it is clear that the demand for payment will inevitably follow. The print media sports writers argue that it is only a matter of time until GAA players are paid.

The GPA argument continues to be that the county player is making huge sacrifices and since the crowds are flocking to the new Croke Park—six attendances of around 80,000 during July-September 2002 and 63,000 at the Leinster Football quarter-finals this May—then the money should be provided to county players. This line of argument completely ignores all the voluntary workers without whom the county player could not perform, and also ignores the fact that the surplus realised from attendances at Croke Park is reinvested in grounds and clubs around the country, and that the GAA accounts for this money in annual audited accounts

A former Derry footballer has opposed the GPA, arguing that:

The GPA is spearheading a corrosive attack on the ethos of the games. Their approach illustrates a total misunderstanding of what the GAA was and is all about.… an unrepresentative group of talented footballers and hurlers could well be setting in motion the ultimate demise of our greatest national treasure [Joe Brolly, Breaking Ball, June 2002].

No doubt, the existing nominated GAA players’ representative body should be replaced by an elected body which hopefully would represent all players rather than just the elite, but the GPA, however well-intentioned—and naïve—some of the members may be, should be opposed by anyone with the interests of sport and the GAA at heart.

The assault on the GAA is part of the commodification of sport, which has already advanced to ruin many previously amateur participatory sports. The defence of amateur participatory sport against commodification is another task for socialists. Professional sport is rotten through and through, corrupted by money so that the majority of elite athletes in all professional sports are abusing performance-enhancing drugs to sustain performances which will deliver records and sponsorship money. The so-called Olympic spirit is a sick joke.

An analysis of the role of sport in capitalist society written by French Trotskyists in the 1970s criticises the failure of revolutionary socialists to analyse the ideology of elite level competitive sport, its use to promote class collaboration, to rally the working class behind the ‘nation’, and to divert the working class from the struggle to change society:

radicals and Marxists maintain an almost sheepish and, it should be admitted, opportunist silence on sport, dictated, it would seem, by the working class’s evident enjoyment of it… mass spectator sport operates as a sort of catharsis machine, an apparatus for transforming aggressive drives. Instead of expressing themselves in the class struggle, these drives are absorbed, diverted and neutralised in the sporting spectacle [Jean-Marie Brohm, Sport: A Prison of Measured Time (Ink Links, 1978) p 180].

When the essays were written in the early 1970s, international athletics and other Olympic sports were in transition from ‘shamateurism’ to the fully professional sports of the present. During the thirty years since, the professionalisation of most sports has seen the acceleration of all the worst trends. In 1972, Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee, stated that “competitors who allow their names or photographs to be used for the purpose of advertising sports equipment, clothing etc, have become representatives of the manufacturer or retailer… and will be banned from competition”. GAA fans should note that this commitment did not last long, and should learn the lesson of the damage done to sport by professionalism over the past thirty years. Previously amateur sport has become a capitalist commodity and been taken over by profit-hungry multinational media corporations and sports and leisure wear manufacturers.

Competition by states and cities to secure the Olympics, the soccer World Cup, or other such prestigious competition has involved multi-million dollar bribery because of opportunities for profit involved—any losses being carried by the working-class taxpayer. The dominant view in competitive sport has become the idea that ‘winning is all that matters’, that ‘losers come second’. Performance-enhancing drugs are in widespread use by individual professional athletes, swimmers, cyclists and increasingly in team sports, in attempts to push the limits of human endurance further, to drive for new world records, to secure the sponsorship of Nike or whoever. Sports coverage is at saturation level, moving seamlessly from European Champions League coverage through ‘winter’ sports to European Championship athletics to the GAA championships, with a major golf tournament every other weekend, televised soccer every night of the week from Britain, Italy and Spain, and the so-called sports of horse, greyhound and motor racing.

The transformation of soccer in England since the 1960s is an example of the inevitable tendency of capitalism to commodify all aspects of life and, in the process, to destroy much of what is best in life. Whereas, prior to the 1960s, English soccer, though professional and with a maximum wage, was a sport with community-based clubs, it is now entertainment with highly-paid entertainers, many of whom have little or no connection or loyalty to the community in which the club is based. In the 1960s, players set out to win the division of the Football League that they were then playing in, and they set out to win the FA Cup—for a community of supporters. The FA Cup has been devalued by more monied competitions, and it is unlikely that the players of, say, Chelsea or Middlesborough when collecting their salaries of £30,000-£40,000 a week think very much of the rich football history of these clubs or the communities that produced the clubs.

Soccer has received enormous sums of money from television and sponsorship over the past 25 years. In England the 92 league clubs generate between £1.5 billion and £2 billion annually (according to financial analysts Deloitte and Touche). In parallel with the deepening inequality under Thatcher and Blair, the gap between the top premiership clubs and the rest has continued to widen. In 1981, the top clubs threatened to break away and were allowed to retain home gates—more of an advantage to Liverpool than Wimbledon. In 1985, to prevent a breakaway, the First Division clubs were allowed retain 50% of all TV and sponsorship money—now twenty Premiership clubs share £1.5 billion while 72 others share £500 million. Club wage bills having increased rapidly—£620 million in 1998-9, £747 million in 1999-2000—but appear to have peaked since the huge inflation in soccer players’ wages and transfer fees, together with the failure of soccer-saturated television to deliver the expected advertising revenues, is pushing even the wealthiest clubs towards bankruptcy: 74 of the 92 clubs are in debt.

Football fans on low to average wages have been squeezed by the rocketing prices in the new seated stadia. In 1991, there were 20,000 standing places available at Old Trafford at £4 per head and 90p for children. The cheapest ticket now is over £20. Tickets are up to £50 for Premiership games. Wealthy capitalists can buy soccer clubs and spend tens of millions to buy success so as to bask in the reflected glory, though success by this route is by no means guaranteed.

Football today is dominated by chairmen who often boast larger personalities than those of their players and by the constant need to see a return on investment. So when delving into the origins of many of today’s biggest clubs, it is frequently intriguing to find their formations dominated not by financial concerns but by the principles of Socialism, Christianity and togetherness.

Pictorial History of English Football

The sale of naming rights to stadiums is another step on the road to the direct sale of clubs between cities, as has happened with professional baseball and American football clubs in the US. Century-old community-based soccer clubs which generations of working people and their families have supported are threatened with collapse.

Football in the thirties up to the eighties served as a strong social glue. Many supporters left the pit shaft, shipyard, pottery or factory floor from a Saturday morning half-shift and headed straight to see their favourite team for a sense of escape, as well as entertainment. … Too many clubs, having worked hard to rid their stadiums of racism and hooliganism, are now simply practising economic bigotry … The wag on the terraces and the low earner with two children, for whom football is an escape from a harsh working life, have to all intents and purposes been forced out of the game, especially at many Premiership clubs.

—Stanley Matthews, The Way it Was

Basic socialist principles suggest we should oppose the increasing commodification of all aspects of life and society, and the rapid commod­ification of sport and leisure should be resisted. In debate before the 2002 general election, it was argued by Bertie Ahern and other supporters of the so-called Bertie Bowl that ‘our elite athletes need world-class facilities’, but there was no mention in the debate of the dearth of public facilities for sport and leisure. If you cannot pay to join a private gym or other sports club—€50 per week and upwards—if you are no longer active in a sports club, have a disability, are a senior citizen or live in a small town or a ‘dis­advantaged area’ there is no access for you to sport and leisure facilities. There is surely a case for campaigning for adequate public sports and leisure facilities.

Socialists should oppose professionalism in sport. Despite the evidence that the increasing commodification of sport has led to doping scandals in swimming, cycling and athletics, to professional boxing becoming a farcical playground for Don King and friends, to the breakdown of club loyalty in soccer and to professional sport becoming a huge capitalist enterprise, some comrades will argue that socialists should not oppose professionalism in sport since it enables some working-class youth to get out of the ghetto. It would be much better, however, to concentrate on replacing the ghetto, than see such an opportunity—a chance in a million—as worth defending.

Irish sports journalists advocate extra taxpayers’ funds to provide grants to elite athletes so that more Olympic medals might be won—like Michelle Smith’s three gold medals? Why should any taxpayers’ funds go to professional athletes, soccer players and the like? They provide exciting entertainment, and it is as entertainment and not as sport that such activities should be treated. Like the spectacularly skilled acrobats, tightrope walkers and contortionists in the circus, professional athletes are entertainers, but this is not sport. Participatory amateur sport is worth defending from the cash nexus. In Ireland, the community-based GAA clubs, amateur soccer, amateur rugby, basketball, athletics and other sports provide good examples of real participatory sport, and socialists should defend amateur sport against the onslaught from profit-hungry capital.

Reflections on the anti-war movement

In the aftermath of the allied invasion of Iraq, this article by Paul Moloney was one of several in Issue 16 (July 2003) which analysed the movement which opposed it.

Before making a number of personal observations on the activities of the anti-war movement in Ireland, I think it is necessary to take the opportunity to analyse some general aspects of opposition to the war in an international context.

In the war that has just ended—well, at least the televised/reported part of it—the left was severely tested by the warmongers. They cut across the terrain of the left by encouraging ordinary people to question the motives of the left, and indeed all who opposed the war. These forces, they claimed, oppose the overthrow of regimes who are a threat to ‘western civilisation’ (whatever that is) and in fact were supportive of cruel tyrants. Moreover, there, in some ways, lies the current dilemma for the left. Because certain elements of the left are to a certain extent guilty. Such lefts advocate the defeat of the US empire, not by supporting the struggles of peoples for liberation from imperialism, but by supporting reactionary regimes that socialists had opposed for years. There is a need to look at this anew. To be against Saddam or any other despot is not a betrayal: in fact, it is a cornerstone of a socialist outlook.

What does amount to a betrayal is failure to assert that imperialism, even in its new ‘humanitarian’ guise, is equally as bad if not subtly worse. These new ‘humanitarian’ wars will not be sold to the western public as what they really are: wars that further the interests of transnational corporations. They will not be sold as wars for American global dominance. They will be sold as wars for the removal of weapons of mass destruction, for the removal of evil dictators, for the defeat of international terrorism. ‘Humanitarian imper­ialism’ is a clever tool. It asks the world: which you would prefer, a life similar to the ‘free and democratic’ citizens of the USA, or the ‘im­poverished, backward, fundamentalist dupes of the dictator’.

It is hard not to be swayed by the influence of this picture of a clean, homogenous western society. The ordinary person is constantly drip fed by corporate media to ensure that they develop just the right fear of the next great threat to humankind. We can be sure that, in many cases, the monsters that provide the Darth Vader of the show are former acolytes of Washington who happen to be out of favour with their former masters. The propaganda is relentless and unceasingly one-sided. This does not negate the fact that horrendous deeds are carried out by certain regimes or that their leaders are cruel tyrants, but at no time do the disseminators of disinformation take time to navel-gaze at the shortcomings of their own masters and their own regimes. We also need to remind ourselves that Hugo Chavez is not Kim Jong Il, that many of those movements which oppose US imperialism are progressive and rightly demand our active solidarity.

Under this relentless pressure, many working class people are won over to the concept of support for whatever action ‘needs to be taken’ to remove the ‘current threat’ to this mythical western way of life. The role of the left is to counter this propaganda and to win the mass of people over to actively opposing the new imperialism, as well as clarifying the connection between it and capitalism as it operates in their own country. With this in mind, let us turn to analysing the success or otherwise of the anti-war campaign in Ireland.

The writer of this article was co-opted onto the steering committee of the Irish Anti-War Movement in October 2002. Despite the commendable initiative taken and sustained by the founders of the IAWM, there were some weaknesses apparent from the beginning. A more democratic mode of organisation could have been arrived at, a different name might have been more suitable (socialists do not oppose the concept of the ‘class war’, or a ‘war on poverty’). The organisation was largely Dublin-centred rather than a national movement, and there did not seem to be space for all opinions opposed to this war. The glaring omission was the autonomous left, the more libertarian sections of the movement, those who prioritised direct action. From early on, it became obvious that certain components some­times saw the IAWM simply as a vehicle to build their own organis­ation and further their own programme as opposed to finding the best way to oppose this war.

There were early signs of this on 12 October at a mass protest in Shannon. Sections of the anti-war movement proposed a mass trespass, which would cause embarrassment to those allowing a civilian airport to be used as a key military installation in Bush’s war. It was obvious that a key task of the anti-war movement was to increase awareness of this despicable act that flew in the face of Bertie Ahern’s Chamberlain-like announcement of ‘neutrality in our time’, which was instrumental in winning the second Nice Treaty referendum. Yet on that date, the authoritarian nature of a strand of what was to become a very large movement became evident, as they attempted through loudhailers to police what was going on because they feared losing control. One can only regret that the trespass had not been bigger and that it had not been better organised.

It would be petty not to credit the IAWM for its preparation for the massive 15 February demonstration in Dublin. The work of the organisation was the key factor in bringing such large numbers out on the streets. To ignore this would be sectarian in the extreme. Of course, other objective factors also contributed to this turnout. These included fairly favourable media coverage (prior to Day X, when the war broke out) and the opportun­istic involvement of the Labour Party, which not long before had supported a treaty which furthers the process of establishing a competing European imperialist force. On 15 February it looked like we might make a real impact, with the government hesitating and even Fine Gael taking a supposedly anti-war position. In fact, an opportunity was largely lost because the movement fell into the trap of setting out its stall too early. This manifested itself in overdoing the important tactic of mass demonstrations. This simply led to ‘march fatigue’, as there were only so many times people were going to listen to the same speeches from more or less the same speakers telling those who did not need reminding why they were there. What was necessary was, not to abandon this tactic, but for it to be com­bined with a less schematic approach. It is the most basic rule of struggle that tactics should be adapted to the terrain of the struggle at any given time.

15 February was the highpoint of the campaign. Around 150,000 people took to the streets of the capital city in tandem with millions throughout the world. That this worldwide demonstration was unable to stop the war did not demean the exercise: it only points to the disregard with which the US ruling elite view the wishes of the mass of ordinary people, and the com­plicity of Ireland’s homegrown elite as represented in this instance by the Fianna Fáil/PD government.

A low point, however, was reached with the antics that went on around the 1 March demonstration in Shannon, which at times descended into farce. There was open demonisation of the planned direct action by the few who were intent on maintaining control of the ‘leadership of the move­ment’. Whatever about the precise actions proposed, there was a need to use the tactic of ‘direct action’ to expose the surrender of a civilian airport to the needs of the US war machine. It would have been better if this had have been through the actions of airport workers and the people of Shannon, but in light of the fact that little was done by anyone to advance this option, besides talking it up, other options should have been considered. From then on, the movement was on the back foot because of the lack of unity, which exposed the lack of democratisation within the movement. The state smelt blood and reacted with an arrogant lack of respect for the public mood. The heavy-handed action of the riot squad outside Dáil Éireann on 2 April was one display of this disregard, as was the over-the-top policing of the last protest at Shannon.

The purpose of this short, personal history is not to have a pop at political opponents or to criticise for the sake of criticism. There is nothing worse than being lectured by those who play no active role in a struggle just as that struggle reaches a turning point. Simply put, lessons must be learnt, because without doubt this is not the end of the implementation of the imperialist ‘project for a new American century’. The movement needs to move beyond being the organisers of well-attended demos and assemblies, important as these events are in themselves. There is a need to democratise the movement fully as a national movement, with space for all those opposed to imperialism, whether in its US or European guise. In particular, a serious attempt has to be made to raise consciousness around the issues of the use of Shannon Airport, the linkage between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, and opposition to the newly emerging European rival imperial­ism. For this to happen there needs to be an open and democratic debate about structure, tactics and aims in the whole anti-war movement sooner rather than later.