Class, colonialism and economy in Palestine

Colm Breathnach explored the class dynamics of Palestinian society in Issue 16 (July 2003).

With the American victory in the Iraq War, world attention has again turned to Palestine. There is no doubt that this was a war for oil, but it also put in place another piece in the great jigsaw called global dominance. ‘Stability’ in the Middle East is absolutely essential for the continued and enhanced hegemony of US imperialism in the region. This hegemony translates in practical terms as a compliant government in Iraq, control of all oil re­sources in the region, regime change or compliance in Syria and a final and comprehensive ‘peace’ agreement in Palestine. This settlement must guarantee the security of the Israeli state and effectively ensure the pacific­ation of the Palestinians and their confinement to an emasculated statelet ruled by compliant stooges.

While there has been much discussion on the left about the question of Palestine it has tended, not without good reason, to concentrate on the bigger picture. This has left little space to discuss the internal dynamics of Palestinian society or for that matter, the internal contradictions of Israeli society. The purpose of this article is to look at these internal dynamics and how they relate to Israeli colonialism.

The nature of Israeli colonialism

It is to the essence of this imperialist-backed local colonialism that we must first turn. To try to understand the internal dynamics of Palestinian society as if it can be extricated from the all-encompassing effects of Israeli colon­ialism is a spurious exercise. It would be akin to the well worn character­isation of Palestinian society by rightist commentators as ‘naturally’ extremist, breeding and training hordes of crazy suicide bombers, rather than seeing the origin of individual acts of terror and growth of the fundamentalist organisations in the crushing weight of occupation.

The nature of this Israeli state cannot be considered in isolation from the general question of the role of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East nor from the history of European nationalism and fascism. Three separate but interlinked developments caused the creation of Israel: the desire of British imperialism to create a secure ‘European’ bridgehead on the Eastern Mediterranean coast as a counter to the rising Arab nationalism; the desire of both Zionist Jews and anti-semitic forces to solve the so-called Jewish question by ‘ridding’ Europe of Jews or creating a Jewish homeland outside Europe; and, of course, the unprecedented genocide of the Holocaust.

The nature of the current Israeli state is a complex one with contra­dictory elements: a client state of US imperialism subsidised to the tune of $1.8 billion per annum in military subvention and $500m per annum in private funding (mainly from the Jewish community in the US), an apartheid entity grounded on confessionalism, the legal exclusion of the Palestinian minority and its creation in a monstrous orgy of ethnic cleansing. Perhaps its most significant characteristic is the highly militarised nature of a society increas­ingly dominated by a politico-military elite intent on further increasing this militarisation of society. This would account for developments such as the repression of the refuseniks (Israelis who refuse to serve in the army) and the transformation of a primarily intensive agricultural economy into a high-tech industry-centred economy, with the arms industry at its core. Yet inherent in this bizarre structure are major contradictions of class, ethnicity and religion, even within the ‘Jewish’ majority. The direction of recent policies regarding the Palestinians seem to be largely based on a desire of a section of the elite to bind the diverse Jewish populations of Israel in a siege mentality and to complete the War of 1948 by the final conquest of all of historic Palestine, solving the ‘Arab Question’ by gradual ‘voluntary’ transfer and the creation of isolated and impotent Bantustans.

The occupation as settler colonialism

The process occurring in Occupied Palestine is straightforward settler colonisation displaying all the classic characteristics of such a process: political and legal domination over an alien population, relations of econ­omic dependence and exploitation between the indigenous population and the colonisers, compounded by racial/cultural inequality on a grand scale. One sight of the manicured and sprinkled lawns or the azure blue swimming pools of a settlement perched above the parched brown of a Palestinian village is evidence enough of this.

It is no coincidence that the Israeli occupation reeks of past colonial enterprises such as the Plantation of Ulster, the American frontier in the late nineteenth century, or apartheid South Africa. The location of settlements on strategic hilltops, the militarised nature of settler society, the politico-religious justifications, the total complicity and support of the Israeli army, the widespread disregard by both settlers and army for the rule of (Israeli) law, the impunity of settlers in their criminal actions towards the Arab population, the grand-scale resource exploitation of continuous land grabbing and water diversion, the gradual confinement of the ‘native’ population into smaller and smaller zones are resonant of past colonialism. Nor are such resource-robbing peripheral settler colonies unique to this region as exemplified in the current situation in West Papua, Western Sahara, Tibet and Sin kiang. All these colonies serve in some way as strategic buffers for the metropolitan elite, as protection against rival powers/states and as a rich source of wealth for local or multinational capital. Hence the Israeli settlements serve a key military and strategic pur­pose, ensuring the continued subjugation of the Palestinian population, acting as a buffer against the ‘Arab Sea’, making the creation of a viable Palestinian state extremely difficult and of course strengthening Israel’s position as the key forward position of American imperialism in the region.

But what of the role of Jewish religious fundamentalists in the settle­ment process? Theirs is essentially that of ideological justifiers of a crude form of colonial annexation. They provide the ideological fig leaf for the illegal expropriation of another people’s land; they are the 21st century advocates of modern manifest destiny. Yet even settler society is not without its contradictions. The major division of settler society is between the economic, mainly new immigrant settlers (mostly from the former Soviet Union, from where approximately 750,000 immigrants arrived in the 1990s) who are attracted to the settlements by social and economic incen­tives, and the ideological settlers (many from the USA) who simply regard this land as theirs by right of divine grant. This division is reflected spatially, with the bulk of economic settlers occupying the settlements around Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the bulk of ideological settlers in the smaller outlying settlements, the four heavily guarded Al Khalil (Hebron) city settlements being the epitome of these. As to the contention that they are too entrenched to be removed, it seems from recent opinion polls that the large majority of settlers would move back to Israel if granted compen­sation, adequate rehousing, etc, and that only a very small minority would need to be forcibly removed.

Palestinian society

No society is unitary: all but the most primitive are divided by class, gender and a range of other divisions. Even in a colonial framework, where the class divisions and other social structures of the colonised may be muted or hidden by the overarching reality of colonial domination and appropriation, these structures remain, albeit distorted by the primary forces of exploitation.

It needs to be repeated that the occupation has had a catastrophic effect on the whole Palestinian economic and social structure. One cannot view a colonised society independent of the effects of colonisation. The immiseration of Palestinian society by the ferocious oppression of the occupiers, especially since the start of the second intifada, has affected all classes, but the poor have paid the highest price. Locked into the tiny cells of a dissected prison, the poor of the villages and camps have little to fall back on but their family networks and charity. By mid-2001 64% of Palestinian households were living below the poverty line and 53% were in receipt of some sort of humanitarian aid.

Two simple examples illustrate this mass immiseration. Firstly, take electricity. Most Palestinian households are dependent on electricity bought from the Israel Electric Company by the municipalities. Some towns try to generate their own electricity from small power plants or generators, but these are frequent targets for Israeli attacks. Many municipalities are now heavily in debt to the IEC, since most people have no regular income with which to pay their bills. In many areas electricity is only available at certain times.

The vital resource of water presents an even starker example. The Israeli water authority, Mekorot, controls all water supplies with the result that 79% of the renewable water resources of Occupied Palestine are used by Israelis, either within Israel itself or by settlers in the West Bank or Gaza. Some 215,000 Palestinians now live in villages that are not connected to the water network, depending on springs, rainfall cisterns and water tankers. Israeli troops constantly puncture the water tanks during punitive raids, in a deliberate policy of depriving people of this essential resource. The army frequently deprives villages of water for days on end by preventing access of water trucks, which in any case are exorbitantly expensive. Mekorot power has been used to prevent Palestinians from digging deeper wells despite the fact that the boring of deep wells by the settlers has lowered the water table. The outcome has been predictably disastrous: of the 750 Palestinian wells functioning in 1967 less than half are now functioning. These policies amount to environmental warfare aimed at the civilian population.

It is difficult to accurately describe the complex class structure of Palestinian society given the differing interplay of class structures in different areas. To add to the confusion there is the ambiguous class position of many Palestinians in rural areas, where an individual might own a small farm, run a small shop or work as a teacher or an electrician all at the same time. On top of all this there is the reassertion of traditional extended family structures brought about by the destruction of the proto­structures of the stillborn Palestinian Authority state, so that it is impossible to treat a person’s class position in isolation. This reassertion has manifested itself in increasing recourse to family elders to settle individual disputes or a reliance by all extended family members on those still involved in economic activity as a basic ‘welfare net’. So it is at the risk of simplification that one attempts to identify and characterise the main social classes or class fragments in Palestinian society.

At the bottom of the social structure in terms of both wealth and power is the manual working class: labourers and the unemployed, impoverished not only by the direct effects of occupation but also by the closure of Israel to migrant Palestinian labour. Up until the start of the second intifada, 23% of the Palestinian labour force worked in Israel, possibly something in the order of 140,000 workers. This process increased the proletarianisation of rural Palestinians and to a certain extent loosened the ties of traditional village society. The Palestinian labourers mainly worked in the construction and agricultural industries, many working illegally without work permits, providing a rich source of cheap labour for Israeli capital. They have now been replaced by equally cheap labour from Eastern Europe and the Far East. Most of this class are now largely dependent on charity in the villages or UN assistance in the camps. Although hard to estimate accurately, unemployment now stands at more than 30% in Occupied Palestine. In 2000 wage workers accounted for 66% of the Palestinian labour force, although this figure includes the skilled working class and salaried middle class as well as manual labourers.

The blurring of class boundaries is epitomised by the small farmer class who form a large element in the rural areas. They often supplement their meagre agricultural income with shop ownership or skilled working class positions. Almost all farms are small family-based units producing fruits and vegetables with regional variations such as olive growing in the north of the West Bank and livestock in the south. The wealthy also often own parcels of land and are frequently accused of selling it to the settlers surreptitiously, though in reality most land is simply seized directly by the settlers or initially by the army and passed on quickly afterwards. Employ­ment in agriculture fluctuates radically according to season, with the majority of those engaged in this seasonal labour being women.

The middle class, based mainly on working in public services, especially as teachers, is quite influential. In fact 35% of the labour force worked in services in 2000. There is also a greater participation rate of women in this sector. The public sector accounted for 16% of the total labour force in 2000 and was the major generator of new employment until the beginning of this intifada. Again many middle class families in rural areas supplement their income with land ownership or small business. At the upper limits of this class stand the professionals, engineers, doctors, lawyers etc. The tourism sector which employed a significant number has completely collapsed. This has particularly affected the Christian middle class of the Bethlehem region.

To talk about a capitalist class in Palestine is somewhat of a misnomer. The private sector is massively dominated by small family-owned and run businesses, staffed largely by unpaid family participation. 92% of all private sector establishments employ 1 to 4 people. Over half of these Palestinian enterprises belong to the wholesale, retail, trade and repairs sector, so we are effectively talking about a self-employed petit bourgeoisie. Yet even to call the top layer of the business class a bourgeoisie in the classic Marxist sense of the word is somewhat inaccurate. The source of some of their wealth and whatever power they maintain in the overall scheme of things is mainly due to either their collaboration with the occupiers, their former connection with the corrupt PA structures or their diaspora-based wealth. These are in essence a crony class, dependent for their position on external forces.

Class politics

Of course this is of necessity a simplified division, as class divisions are never as neat or clear, as Marx displayed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte with his description of multiple class fragments and the political implications of such fragmentation. Nevertheless, without falling into the trap of falsely trying to identify a ‘class politics’ that does not exist just because it would fit the theoretical model more closely, it is possible to tentatively sketch some possible connections. There is certainly some correlation between degrees of resistance, political affiliation and class, though these interconnect strongly with other factors such as locality and generation.

The strongest militant resistance comes from the poor of the camps, fighting in the mixed formations of the ‘shebab’ (the boys), the heart of the military resistance. On the other hand the core of Fatah’s grassroots is the middle class, though many are now deeply wary of Arafat and the crony class that surround him. The most sophisticated politically are the generation of the first intifada, often of a more leftist or at least secular bent, men in their thirties, often from the camps, militant but far more politically savvy than the younger generation. These men seem at least in some places to be the organisers of the alternative civil society structures. The wealthier elements of the middle class and the crony class are strong on rhetoric and weak on action. To continue their business, what passes for a bourgeoisie needed to maintain a precarious balance between holding their position in Palestinian society, accumulating capital, and collaborating tacitly or actively with the occupiers.

The strength of the leftist organisations is more obviously linked to class and generation. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine seems largely confined to the thirties and forties generation of camp dwellers who came of age politically during the first intifada or earlier during the heydays of the revolutionary left. Under pressure of the adverse conditions their base has shrunk and they seem to lack any real influence on the youth, though they command respect. Their politics also seems to have degenerated under the ferocious pressure of the occupation to a romantic revolutionary nationalism entirely uncritical of the Islamicist organisations whom they seem to coat-tail with a simplistic ‘national unity’ policy. Any trace of a Marxist analysis seems to have disappeared.

The People’s Party, as the former Communists are now known, is also a rather contradictory formation. Its membership is small, consisting mainly of professionals and intellectuals as well as workers. Its programme is openly reformist (it does not even mention socialism any more) and it was a supporter of the Oslo Agreement. In contrast, however, it has been to the fore in the development of a stronger civil society in Palestine, playing a progressive role in developing alternative types of mass resistance to the occupation, in contrast to the failed strategies of both the Islamicists and the nationalists. The People’s Party has widespread respect across all sectors for its work in NGOs—in particular the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees—a respect that does not translate into membership or support. They have correctly identified that the emergence of such a civil society would allow for progressive politics to develop in Palestine, though it is doubtful, given their reformism, whether they would be the ones to energise a workers’ movement from below.

It is more difficult to characterise the class nature of the Islamicist organisations. At this stage their support seems to cross class boundaries. One fact is clear, however: they have strong and growing support amongst the poorer classes, especially in the refugee camps. This growth in support is not primarily due to a surge in fundamentalism. Its origins lie in three factors. Firstly, there is the provision of social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, prisoners’ dependents payments, charitable activities by the well-financed Hamas movement. In effect they have erected a sort of alternative welfare state at a time when huge numbers of ordinary Palestin­ians are in dire need. Secondly, the Islamicists are seen as incorrupt, in contrast to the endemic corruption of the top echelons of Fatah. Finally, they are seen to be leading the military resistance, not only through the constant use of suicide bombings but also through the actions of their armed wing in defensive operations. Their Achilles heel is that most Palestinians recognise that they have no serious political programme for the future social and economic development of Palestine. All but the most medievalist know from what has happened in Iran and elsewhere that the imposition of sharia law, which is what passes for a Hamas programme, simply does not put bread on the table.


It is not the purpose of this article to pose a socialist solution to the Pales­tine question. However, one assertion regarding a solution seems to be self-evident as the disastrous Oslo Agreement clearly revealed: the ending of the occupation will not be brought about by imposition from above but by struggle from below. Imperialism’s latest bag of tricks, the so-called Road Map peace plan, is nothing more than another Bantustan plan, designed to pacify the Palestinians and secure the Israeli state in its current form. Palestinians have been here before, when the former Israeli prime minister Barak made his famous ‘best offer’ of a state without control of water or the skies above, with its capital in a village outside Jerusalem, the main settlements annexed to Israel and refugees who make up more than half the total Palestinian population having to accept that there will be no justice for them at all, ever. It is a road map to nowhere, designed to hoodwink world opinion into believing that the USA wishes to engineer a just solution in the region. Whatever form the liberation of Palestine takes, it will not be as a gift granted from above by George W Bush or his ilk, but will be achieved by the mass resistance of the Palestinian people with the support and solidarity of ordinary people throughout the world.

Palestine: Two elections and a funeral

In July 2006 (Issue 25) Colm Breathnach assessed how the struggle against the occupation stood.

On Saturday 19 May, the whole Aman family left their home and went for a drive through Gaza City in their newly purchased car. Unbeknownst to them, at the same time Mohammed Dahduh, a member of the military wing of the Islamic Jihad organisation, was also driving through Gaza City. Unbeknownst to any of them, an Israeli Air Force jet tasked with the extra-judicial murder (“targeted assassination” to those who like their language filleted) of Dahduh was on its way towards the skies above Gaza. At approximately 6 pm, the jet fired its missiles and killed Dahduh. The ‘target’ had been ‘taken out’ in a clean calculated strike. Well, not quite. You see, as one would expect on a busy road in a crowded city, Dahduh’s car was not the only one in the vicinity. Next to him were the Aman family, proudly packed into their new car. Muhand, aged seven, died instantly, as did his mother, Naima, aged 27, and his grand­mother Hanan, 46. His sister Mariya, aged three, was seriously injured, as was his uncle Nahed, aged 33. Both face lifelong paralysis.

So three entirely innocent, non-combatant, civilian victims were blown to kingdom come, yet no state threatened to boycott Israel until they renounced terrorism. The US and the EU did not impose sanctions on this state that sponsors terror and murders civilians on a regular basis. Nobody urged the international community to bring to justice the terrorist who flew the plane, or the bigger terrorist who ordered the action. Nobody threatened Israel with punitive action for sponsoring terror. I am sure that there were no diplomats or international politicians at the funeral of these innocents, and that their burial did not feature on Fox News or CNN.

I am equally sure of the waves of despair and rage that swept through the crowd at their funeral. Despair at their total abandon­ment by the world and rage at those who kill, maim, rob and bully them every day. Only in understanding that rage and despair can we understand the crisis of Palestine today. Because what drives their continual defiance and their refusal to meekly accept their fate is that endless everyday oppression. One day a family blown to pieces in their car… another day a schoolgirl shot through the head… the next day a house razed to the ground… a farmer’s fields confiscated… a village surrounded by impassable roadblocks… So what is sur­prising is not that so many Palestinians voted for Hamas, but that there were even more Palestinians who did not! It is in the context of looming outrage at the occupation that we must view everything that happens in Israel and Palestine. Like a radioactive dump it contaminates everything around it, and nothing escapes its toxic embrace.

Elections are isolated snapshots, indicating the mood of people on a given day within all the constraints of bourgeois democracy (or in Israel, military-colonial democracy, if such an oxymoron makes any sense). We get a feel for the cleavages that animate politics in a society, a sense of the immediate socio-political situation, though not a detailed picture of a socio-economic system. In essence, we often catch a glimpse of the popular mood and the balance of class forces. So in looking at the recent elections in Israel and Palestine, we can only try to read these glimpses of the respective societies and the current relationship between them.

There is no mystery to the Hamas victory. It’s the occupation, stupid! Those who were seen as the best and most consistent fighters against the occupation were rewarded. Those who provided the best protection against the destruction of the social infrastructure, those who provided the schools and the health clinics, who looked after the prisoners’ families, who fed the destitute, were rewarded. A movement that the greatest enemies of the Palestinian people sitting in the imperial capitals of Washington and London classified as terrorist, thereby boosting its standing immeasurably. It mattered little to many Palestinians whether this organisation was partially funded by the execrable Saudi regime or advocated reactionary policies regarding individual freedom and women’s rights or had organised suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, because all these factors faded into the background when weighed against the on­going horror of the occupation.

And what was the alternative? A Fatah party whose hold over the Palestinian Authority had been characterised by widespread corruption and inefficiency. A party whose old leader, who for all his flaws had still symbolised their hard-won recognition as a nation, was now dead. A disunited movement riven by factional struggles whose most promising and admired new leader, Marwan Barghouti, was languishing in an Israeli jail. When we consider these factors, what is surprising is not that Hamas won the election, but that they did not do better.

What many commentators failed to notice is that, although Hamas won a majority of seats in the 132-member Legislative Council, it did not win a majority of the popular vote. Hamas received 44.4 per cent of the vote, while their rivals Fatah received 41.4 per cent. When you add the votes of the other secular parties, the total secular vote comes to 53.6 per cent in total. Even if one was to accept that all Hamas voters are fundamentalist—patently false to even the most superficial observer—a clear majority of Palestinians, despite all the provocation and oppression, are unwilling to vote for the Islamicists.

In fact, a more detailed look at the voting patterns also reveals a more complicated political tapestry. Half the seats in the Legislative Council, that is 66 seats, were filled by a countrywide vote for single party or alliance lists, while the other half were elected from sixteen electoral districts. In the national contest Fatah and Hamas were almost equal, with Fatah at 28 seats and Hamas at 29, and the remaining nine seats won by smaller secular parties. Yet in the electoral district contest Hamas was far ahead of Fatah, with 74 seats to 45 (the remaining four district seats being won by independents). This seems to indicate that, on an ideological level, the secular parties still hold the allegiance of a clear majority and Fatah and Hamas are neck and neck, but that when it came to a competition between local candidates, Hamas’s record of work and resistance on the ground swept all before it. In other words, for the mass of impoverished and oppressed Palestinians, it was this record that encouraged them to vote for Hamas, not its political programme.

The spatial pattern of the Fatah versus Hamas contest, as shown in the electoral district results, is also significant. While Hamas did well in places where one would expect them to—Gaza, Hebron, Nablus etc.—Fatah’s patchy showing was somewhat unpredictable. It’s quite obvious that the large Christian community in Bethlehem accounts for Fatah’s dominance there (and for a reasonable showing by the left nationalists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), but what accounts for Fatah’s success in Jenin, Qualqilya and Rafah? These are places whose populations have felt the brunt of the brute force of the occupation and where military resistance has been strong. Perhaps the answer lies in that fact: where Fatah has been led by militants rather than corrupt yes-men, or where Fatah in the guise of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have led the fight against the occupation, they have held their own against the Hamas tide.

And what of the Palestinian left? The secular parties won a total of nine seats, but two of these were won by the Third Way list led by Hanan Ashrawi, representing the liberal intelligentsia. Undoubtedly, the left’s disunity contributed to their poor showing and to the widely-held view that Hamas offered the only worthwhile alter­native to Fatah’s corrupt and ineffective rule. Despite the efforts of some groups, especially the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, three separate left lists contested the election, all standing on programmes that were fairly similar: national unity, anti-corruption, more democracy and attention to social and economic issues. Of these, the PFLP did best, gaining 4.2 per cent of the vote and three seats, reflecting deeper roots in certain urban areas and a record of struggle that is widely respected. The Alternative List of the DFLP, People’s Party (former communist party) and left independents gained 2.9 per cent and two seats, and the Indepen­dent Palestine list of Dr Mustapha Barghouti also won two seats with 2.4 per cent of the vote. Barghouti, a former communist leader who had built up a network of supporters in community organis­ations and NGOs, had done well in the presidential election against Abbas in January, but now his support was swept away by Hamas.

It is easy to castigate the Palestinian left from the safety of our un-bulldozed homes for not being pure enough or for not demanding socialism now (ending the occupation would be a good start, thank you very much!) but Palestinian observers have commented on the fact that the disunity of the left rendered them impotent, crushed between the rock of Fatah and the hard place of Hamas. A stronger united left openly advocating a class perspective could have won support from many disillusioned voters, but it is easy to be prescriptive from afar. How to build left unity, how to resist the occupiers, how to fight for both national liberation and socialism while trying to stay alive is a challenge even some of the great revolutionary experts of London, Dublin etc. might find it difficult to rise to.

This analysis of the voting patterns does reveal the relative strength of the various political factions, but in some ways the whole electoral process was a just a sideshow—though a very democratic sideshow, given that it was possibly the freest and fairest election ever held in any state in the Middle East. The fact is that it was an election to a parliament presiding over a phantom state. There is no Palestine, outside of the fervent wishes of the struggling people: there is only Occupied Palestine. The Israeli military and their settler auxiliaries control every inch of Occupied Palestine, including border-choked, sky-blasted, sea-jammed Gaza. Regardless of who is ‘in power’, the Israeli state is the only real power, and the most important question is how can this occupation be overthrown.

One way it won’t be overthrown is by some benign act of emancipation by the new Israeli government. Olmert and his ‘Likud Lite’ of Kadima, backed by his supine Labour allies, have set out their stall clearly from the start: unilaterally drawing the final boundaries of the Israeli state to include all of the major settlement blocks, the Jordan valley and Jerusalem, with the full backing of the empire, never known to fail its Spartan bridgehead. In other words, an extended apartheid state surrounding the three bantustans of Gaza and the northern and southern West Bank. In this, Olmert has the crucial support of the security apparatus. This is not to argue that we should dismiss the Israeli working class as just so many colonials that deserve to pack their bags and head for… where? A small ray of hope was the fact that social issues played a greater role in this election than in previous campaigns, but this is only a tiny premonition of what might be rather than what is.

So the dream of a secular democratic state stretching from the Jordan to the Mediterranean seems more remote than ever. Yet it is at the lowest points in a struggle that we sometimes see the first signs of hope. In the village of Bi’lin, one of the settlements worst affected by Israel’s apartheid wall, a constant struggle has been waged by Palestinian farmers and workers to hold on to their land. Week in, week out, there are demonstrations, sit-ins, direct actions and the inevitably violent response by the occupying army. Yet the resistance in Bi’lin, and many other Palestinian towns and villages along the route of the wall, continues unabated, resistance supported by the presence of international and Israeli activists. Despite the international boycott of the Hamas government, the looming danger of a Palestinian civil war and the juggernaut of a unilateral Israeli-imposed ‘settlement’, maybe, just maybe, the future starts at Bi’lin.

Theory and class

In Issue 23 (November 2005) Colm Breathnach examined Marx’s theory of class.

The concept of class is of fundamental importance to revolutionary socialists. It is, or at least should be, central to our understanding and analysis of how social systems work, and to our efforts to transform society. Since the opening salvoes fired by Marx and Engels, the significance and meaning of class has generated a huge debate amongst socialists and their opponents. It would be impossible to do justice to the whole gamut of debate, even within the confines of the Marxist tradition, so this article will be confined to a limited discussion of the Marxist theory of class.

The best way of approaching class is by looking at it in a dialectical manner, starting with the abstract class structure viewed in a relational manner, then looking at how this is experienced in the lives of real people, returning to modify the abstract model if necessary. At the risk of oversimplifying, Marxists start with the premise that class is a social relation that arises out of the appropriation of surplus labour from the exploited by the exploiter, who sells the product of this labour to make a profit. It is important to state at the outset that Marx did not see class as an isolated statistical category. Classes only make sense in two relational contexts: the initially determining preconditions in social relations arising out of the mode of production and the subsequent relations between classes, or as H J Sherman put it in his book Reinventing Marxism, “A class is not defined by more or less of some set of characteristics, but by its relation to another class in the mode of production”. It may be useful to identify abstract classes (bundles of occupations) as an analytical tool that can lead to the identification of real classes, but Marx (though not all his successors) clearly saw class as a relational, qualitative and historical concept which cannot be reduced to the quantitative, ahistorical or gradational.

Though class is central to all of Marx’s work, he never dealt with it in a systematic manner, probably because his whole work was infused with class, in the sense that he was describing the workings of a system that is based on the exploitation of one class by another. In the absence of a major theoretical statement, we must glean his under­standing of class from his various works. If we start with the famous phrase from the Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, we note immediately that class is understood as a social and historical dynamic, not a static category. The subsequent description of the rise of the two major classes in nineteenth century European capitalist societies continues in this vein of class having true existence only in the interaction of real humans. Even within the confines of what was, after all, an agitational pamphlet, not a book of high theory, the key point here is that an attempt was being made “to express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes”. The identification of the great struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the beginning of a Marxist analysis, not its end. Marx never claimed to be a prophet; he tried to outline how society works, not what the exact outcome of these workings would be. Those who claim to derive inspiration from Marx should be able to ask the right questions, not automatically provide the correct answers!

Classes may sometimes appear as living organisms with collective wills in Marx, but he was keenly aware of the fact that class is about relations between human beings. In a passage in The German Ideology, he locates the individual in the material reality of historical development: “The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or others people’s imagination, but as they really are, i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under material limits, presuppositions, and conditions independent of their will”. Social structures are seen, not as huge anonymous scaffolding, but as arising out of the action of individuals, constrained or enabled by material conditions, specifically their role in production. The emphasis, it should be noted, is on actions of individuals, not static, abstract constructions: “As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists”.

Some critics accuse Marx of reducing class in capitalist society to a simple deterministic binary structure, ignoring the nuanced, complex analysis to be found in his journalistic and historical writings such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In a famous passage he states: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”, firmly countering theories of history based on the supremacy of individual will, but equally refusing to see people as powerless puppets of the laws of economics.

In a description of the French peasantry Marx gives as concise a definition of class as a real historical phenomenon as can be found anywhere in his works: “In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter they form a class”, but this is then built on with the notion that a class does not exist in any real sense unless embodied in the collective thought and actions of the individuals who constitute that class: “In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these smallholding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class”.A ‘class-in-itself’ becomes a ‘class-for-itself’, not solely by uniting behind a common organisation, but also by recognising a common identity that transcends spatial and social boundaries. Class is seen as the outcome of the commonality of material circumstances of individuals. So when it comes to analysing the specific historical events covered by The Eighteenth Brumaire (the seizure of power by Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III, in 1851), we are not treated to a simplistic two-class reading of these events; in fact we find reference to multiple classes/class fragments, and also a sophisticated analysis of the relationship between political developments and social base.

Even when discussing the classic industrial capitalist society of England, Marx noted the complexity of class structure, acknowledging that “even here the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form. Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere”, though he denies that this has any implications for the general model of wage-labour versus capital. Elsewhere, Marx explicitly states that he has disregarded “the real constitution of society, which by no means consists only of the class of workers and the class of industrial capitalists” when constructing a preliminary analysis of economic crises, and his description of British political parties portrays a much more complex view than critics credit him with of the class system and political superstructure, as does his criticism of Ricardo for overlooking the growth of the middle class (in a modern sense of the word). In effect Marx presents us with a theoretical model of how a capitalist society operates that works out in practice in a very complex way. This neither invalidates the overall applicability of the model, nor does the centrality of capital versus labour imply a reduction of the class structure of a given society to that central nexus alone.

A useful take on class is provided by the Marxist historian E P Thompson, whose groundbreaking work The Making of the English Working Class proved to be a classic in the genre of historical descriptions of class formation. He defined class, like Marx, as an active historical phenomenon, a relationship not a category. He set class firmly in its historical setting:

If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.

He did not, however dismiss the usefulness of class as an “analytical category to organise historical evidence”, though he sometimes downplayed it in response to the deterministic excesses of more orthodox Marxists, and later those of the arch-structuralist Althusser and his followers (many of whom, ironically, went on as ‘post-modernists’ to reject the notion of class altogether). The key point here is that while it is useful and necessary to study class in an abstract, statistical way, you can’t stop there. The next step is to see how this works out in real life. This is not a matter of divorcing class fromproductive relations, or reducing class to the status of caste: a group defined by cultural characteristics not economic functions. What Thompson does is to stress the social dynamic, and reject static, over-theorised, understandings of class. His typically colourful ‘time machine’ metaphor aptly illustrates this critique:

Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine-room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class.… Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion—not this and that interest, but the friction of interests—the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise.

On the other hand, in practice, if not clearly in theory, Thompson does not disallow the notion of pausing occasionally to describe class as a structure, so we are presented with a dialectic based on the interaction of class as structure and class as experience.

Building on these foundations, Thompson put great emphasis on the active real experiences of working people. There can be no class, or at least no class that has an empirical existence, without class struggle understood in the broader sense. Class, in the real historical sense, arises out of class struggle, or more precisely class experience, not vice versa. The process unfolds as “people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways… they experience exploitation… they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence to struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes”, so that the end result is a class consciousness arising out of, to use Thompson’s own term, both individual and collective class experience. The nature of class consciousness and how people arrive at full consciousness of their class position is a huge area of controversy that has fomented debate and polemic amongst Marxists, including famously Lenin and Luxemburg, to this day. The purpose of this article is not to tackle the question of class consciousness, so suffice to say that there is a huge space between structure and consciousness that we would do well to study before we start prescribing how consciousness should be ‘brought’ to the working class.

The manner in which the various components of the left deal with class today is quite problematic. First of all, many on the left engage in what could be called ‘slippery’ applications of the term ‘working class’. Sometimes the term is used in the current popular sense of the word, meaning manual workers living in ‘working class’ areas. This can quickly degenerate to a ‘Joe Duffy’ definition: if you have a strong Dublin (Cork, Belfast etc.) accent and you were brought up in a council house, then you are working class; if you weren’t, you’re not! This is essentially a culturalist reading of class, which has its place in understanding how class works out in cultural terms, but is certainly contrary to a Marxist analysis that firmly grounds class in the social relations that arise out of the mode of production.

The irony is that many who use the term in this sense when it comes to propaganda and practical activity abandon it in theoretical discussions, in favour of a much broader meaning that includes all those who live primarily by their labour, all those who are wage workers. Effectively this includes what’s commonly now called the middle class (white collar workers and wage earning ‘professionals’) as part of an undifferentiated working class. The latter definition can end up in an oversimplification which lumps almost everyone into one undifferentiated über-proletariat, while the former presents us with an excessively narrow, almost nineteenth century, definition of working class.

The main problem here seems to be where to locate those who regard themselves as middle class but work for a wage: teachers, civil servants, those working in new technology etc. This is not a new problem: Gramsci commented on the fact that the meaning of the term ‘middle class’ varies from country to country, and illustrated this by pointing out that in Italy the term simultaneously meant those who were not workers or peasants and a more positive definition of those who belonged to certain strata such as intellectuals, professionals and public employees, who were neither part of the ruling class nor what he called the subaltern classes. This problem is compounded nowadays by the fact that sections of this ‘middle class’ are now contract workers, own shares or have a great deal of power over other workers, complicating their relationship to the capitalist class. The American Marxist sociologist Eric Olin Wright has tried to explain the position of some these elements of the ‘new middle class’ by claiming that they receive some of the appropriated surplus from the capitalist class as a ‘loyalty rent’, in the case of managers for maintaining discipline in the workplace, or in the case of highly skilled workers because the skills they possess are rare (he argues this second case less convincingly in my opinion, drifting towards Weber’s idea of class as market position).

Another problem is the attempt by some Marxists to squash everyone in under the headings of capitalist and proletarian. In response to such attempts, Ben Fine, the author of Marx’s Capital, wrote: “Marx’s political economy does not reduce the class structure to that of capital and labour. On the contrary, other classes are located in relation to capital and labour whether as an essential or contingent part of the capitalist mode of production”. The key here is to do just that: to assess where people are located in relation to this central aspect of the capitalist derived class structure, not to fit everyone into one or other of these classes. This inevitably leads us to a more complex reading of the class structure, where there are different strata and fragments within larger classes, and individuals and groups who have unclear or contradictory relations to the central dynamic.

Of course, one way out of this messy discussion is to simply abandon class as a useful concept altogether, or to relegate it the status of just another ‘identity’. This goes down well in the halls of academia, though it so patently fails to conform to reality that we end up with the deeply ironic situation that some rightist commentators see the nature and importance of class more clearly than the liberal lefts obsessed with ‘identity politics’. This rejection of the centrality of class by many academic leftists should itself be seen in the socio-political context: in some ways it is born out of the series of defeats of the working class in the 1980s and the fallout of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. These led to profound pessimism amongst a section of the intellectual class which had previously thrown their lot in with the workers. Some, wishing to maintain an aura of radicalism, embraced ‘post-modernism’, privileging any social struggle that does not contain an overt class content, and reducing all human activity to a question of language or, to use the fashionable term, ‘discourse’. Others advocate a form of theoretical Blairism, which portrays the practitioners of class politics as dinosaurs, and go over to the camp of capital in the name of modernisation. They have become the theorists of degenerated social democracy.

While the study of class and class structure may seem to be an academic game to some, we cannot seriously claim to advocate ‘class politics’ without some understanding of what the concept means. So we return to the assertion that such an understanding equips us with the ability to ask the right questions and grapple with a host of questions related to class. How do we unite the disparate elements of the modern working class? What is the relationship between the class structure and imperialism? What is the role of intellectuals and political organisations in the class struggle? What do we mean by class consciousness and how does this relate to class struggle? How does class relate to other structures such as gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity? For serious activists, coming to grips with class at a theoretical level is only a first step in applying theory in a fruitful way to our political practice.

Socialists and the Scottish independence referendum

In the run-up to the vote on independence, Colm Breathnach reported from Scotland in Issue 55 (March 2014).

In November 2013, the Radical Independence Conference, based on a grassroots left-wing campaign for a Yes vote in 2014’s Scottish in­dependence referendum, brought together over a thousand delegates. When you strip away the paid lackeys and lobbyists, there are few political organisations in Britain which could muster such a number. So why has a conference and campaign centred on Scottish indepen­dence brought together almost the whole of the Scottish radical left, as well as hundreds of people who don’t belong to left organis­ations? Why are local RIC sections beginning to shape up as real campaigning groups where activists are working together in a non-sectarian way? Primarily because there is a consensus that in­dependence could mean much more for Scotland’s people than a saltire replacing the Union Jack and that it will have major implications for the future of the British state.

Independence: a beginning not an end

A socialist approach to self-determination is based on two principles: the democratic right of a population who identify with a certain national identity (since nations, of course, are social/cultural constructs, not essential/racial ones) to decide on the political struc­ture that they wish to reside in. This does not mean that socialists always support the creation of independent states, autonomous regions, etc. but they do support the right of people to democratically decide on this. However, a second principle comes into play because, while socialists support the right to self-determination, they must balance this with the interests of the working class. So questions must be asked about how this will affect the immediate interests of the working class and the terrain on which the struggle for the emancipation of that class occurs.

So how would a victory for the Yes side advance the interests of the working class? Of course, the day after a Yes vote we would still have the same exploitative, patriarchal capitalist society that we had the day before. What’s more, we would find ourselves in what Allan Armstrong has accurately called the Scottish Free State: tied to the UK by the monarchy, sterling and NATO membership. However, no one on the pro-independence left claims that we will immediately enter some Scottish socialist nirvana, but simply that the tilt of the field of struggle will be more to the advantage of the working class.

Firstly the political terrain would be profoundly different. Two slightly social democratic parties, Labour and the Scottish National Party, would be competing, in a state where the popular pole of gravity is well to the left of the ‘Rest of the UK’, to be more ‘welfarist’ than the other, especially if they were battered by pressure from below. Anyone who doubts the impact of the political culture on Scottish politics should simply look at the difference between the SNP and Westminster parties on immigration and refugees. The SNP openly advocates greater immigration to Scotland, while Labour and the Tories compete to be seen as ‘tough on’ immigration. Scotland is not immune to racism, but the dominant political culture renders such right-wing populism less effective. The steady moves to privatise the NHS in England have not been mirrored in Scotland, again largely because of the SNP’s need to appear to be a party of the welfare state and thereby sometimes having to act as such.

Independence would also deprive the establishment politicians of the ability to squeal: “It wasnae me, it was the big man frae London” as an excuse for implementing neo-liberal policies. In addition there would no longer be the prospect of major right-wing projects being imposed from London, and the ability to do so from Edinburgh would be restrained by the electoral challenges posed for those who wished to do so. The prospects of the creation of a serious radical left force would have a much bigger impact in an independent state, forcing the big two to go further than they would like to. The electoral system will guarantee that any half-decent left force will have significant representation in parliament, but more importantly, such a movement will have far more weight in an independent state. So the battle to defend and advance the immediate interests of the working class would face much more conducive circumstances.

Secondly, the future institutional structure of the new state would immediately become a key battleground for both defending and advancing the interests of the working class. Regardless of Salmond’s assurances that all will remain as is, a struggle over the shape of the institutions of the independent state will immediately open up. A written constitution will differentiate the new state from the UK, and all the anti-democratic laws and traditions of the British state will be up for grabs. Of course, a more democratic state will not be less capitalist than the centralised, overly bureaucratic, monarcho-parliamentary UK, but it will provide more room for manoeuvre in the class struggle. It’s quite easy, for example, to envisage that the highly restrictive trade union laws of the Thatcher era could be un­done. Revolutionary socialists have always been to the forefront in fighting for democratic rights and institutions, even within the confines of bourgeois democracy, because such gains, though quite compatible with capitalism, give the workers much greater room for manoeuvre in their struggle to overthrow capitalism. This is not a case of postponing the struggle for socialism until you have moved through a succession of stages, but taking the opportunity to shape the terrain as you engage in the struggle for socialism.

Freed from the overwhelming power of the British state, fighting now on the firmer ground of an independent democratic state, the prospects of a radical socialist transformation would be enhanced in the context of regional and international developments. Even in the short term, the goal of a socialist republic would begin to look far less fanciful: major battles for the public and democratic control of Scotland’s energy resources, including not only oil and gas but also renewables, would no longer be hamstrung by the direct intervention of the British state. Socialists could now be in a much better position to challenge the retreat into simply defending the welfare state that has been the hallmark of much of the British left, as ‘welfarism’ would define the political consensus. There would be no excuse for failing to strike out and fight for workers’ control, for democratic planning, for real equality for all regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

The class politics of the referendum should alert us to the radical potential of independence. A small section of the capitalist class in Scotland favour independence on the basis that it will increase profitability for this nascent national bourgeoisie, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of capitalists favour the No side and have poured money into the unionist Better Together campaign is proof enough of where the interests of that class lie. The working class are the key to winning a victory in the referendum. Opinion polls have consistently shown that those lower down the socio-economic ladder (and the younger) are more likely to favour independence. The question is, can this trend be strengthened? Here is where RIC could play a decisive role. During summer 2013 RIC began a voter registration campaign in some of the poorer urban working class communities where voter turnout is traditionally low, but the polls show that people are more likely to vote Yes if they do turn out. Such communities do not, however, constitute the majority of the working class, and RIC will have to connect with a broader layer of the class via the trade union movement, the struggles of public sector workers, etc.

International implications

Despite the half-hearted nature of Salmond’s version of indepen­dence, it would spell the beginning of the end of the British state and open up new possibilities for social transformation throughout these islands. This has serious implications for the north of Ireland. Given the strong ties of the Protestant working class in the north with Scotland, it could contribute to a significant change in that section of the class. It is possible that Scottish independence would precipitate a crisis of identity amongst northern Protestants. This is all the more likely given a process of unravelling in the ‘Rest of the UK’ entity. How long before the Welsh Assembly demands more powers or the Welsh people begin to baulk at their subordinate position? What about the impact on the north of England if people see the last remnants of the welfare state being dismantled while, in close proximity, Scotland heads in a different direction? Such a process could lead to a breakdown in traditional allegiances amongst Protestant workers, leading to a greater receptivity for socialist ideas in that community and the development of an orientation towards an all-Ireland perspective.

A Yes vote will also have serious global implications. It will greatly reduce the power of the British state as the USA’s key ally and as an international ‘player’. What will be the status of the rump UK in the UN? Will it maintain its Security Council membership? Will it be able to play the key role it did in imperialist adventures such as the Iraq war? One thing for certain is that independence will contribute to the reduction of influence. As a bonus card, it will also pose a threat to another key state in the EU, Spain, whose right-wing prime minister has strongly hinted at blocking an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, fearful that a Yes victory will give added impetus to Catalan and Basque demands for independence, with a similar referendum in the offing in Catalonia.

The consequences of a No vote

At the moment opinion polls consistently point to a commanding lead for the No side. Not surprising, given that almost all the mainstream media, the majority of the capitalist class and the trade union bureaucracy have sided with the No campaign, leading to a constant stream of well-funded propaganda washing over the public. Now all this could change overnight, and the Yes campaign seems to be stronger on the ground, but it is important to consider the con­sequences of a No victory.

While the No side has targeted voters’ fear of the unknown, one thing is certain: a No victory will not simply mean maintenance of the status quo. The attacks on workers’ wages and conditions, the dismantling of the welfare state, the increasing militarisation/ securitisation of society and the constant pandering to anti-immigrant racism will accelerate as the ConDem Government in London act with the confidence that the most proximate threat to the British state has been seen off. They will quickly go in for the kill to reduce the funding available for Scotland and to impose further cuts. And tragically, the greatest security threat to the population of Scotland, the nuclear weapons base at Faslane, will now be confirmed rather than removed. A defeat will also strengthen Scottish Labour’s shift to the right, from the traditional thuggish but vaguely social democratic boss politics that has dominated for long to a more technocratic but also more rightist direction, encapsulated by the ineffectual leadership of Johann Lamont, who recently echoed vicious Tory rhetoric with her very own Thatcherite reference to “something for nothing” culture in Scotland.

Yes, Yes Plus, and beyond

The official Yes campaign is dominated by the SNP and based on the ‘nothing will change’ principle. It argues for a Scotland that keeps the monarchy and sterling, combined with vague assertions that this will be combined with Norwegian oil-based social democracy. The tight link with the SNP only helps to confuse the issue: it leads many floating voters to see a Yes vote as a vote for Salmond and his party. The mistaken strategy of some socialists which, initially confining themselves to this official campaign, was largely based on a selfish calculation that this seal of approval would give them advantage over the rest of the left, has now been quietly dropped as they have seen the growth and energy of the Radical Independence Campaign. The failure of that ‘embedded socialists’ strategy has been highlighted by the success of the RIC in uniting a broad layer of socialist, green and social movement activists in support of a more radical vision of in­dependent Scotland. RIC has not operated in direct opposition to the Yes campaign, and indeed has co-operated on practical measures, but it has effectively become the Yes Plus campaign, with increasing signs that it is making a serious impact in the referendum debate. RIC is important because it takes the campaign for independence out of the SNP’s control, it raises questions and poses solutions that are far to the left of the official campaign, and it unites a wide swathe of activists in a campaign that could play a key role in the emergence of a new left movement post-referendum.

Yet it’s important to keep this development in perspective. RIC is a not a socialist movement, still less a revolutionary one, although many of those involved fit those categories. Revolutionary socialists are joined by a variety of left reformists, including members of the Green Party, current and former SNPers, and even a scattering of ex-Labour Party members. The politics advocated by the majority are certainly well to the left of anything else on offer in Scotland, but it is fair to characterise much of it as broadly social democratic in the old sense of that word: you will hear a lot of talk about protecting and advancing the welfare state and public ownership, but not much about workers’ control! This poses a challenge for revolutionary socialists in RIC. There is a balance between insisting that a broad campaign adopt a revolutionary socialist programme, thereby reducing it to a bickering bag of mini-groups, and the opposite mistake of socialists hiding their light under a bushel so as not to frighten the children. The key point with RIC is that, despite certain organisational problems, in comparison to other broad campaigns it has been an open forum for debate and discussion as well as a vehicle for action, so that socialists have been able to articulate the arguments for a socialist Scotland and influence the shape of the campaign. It is not a revolutionary campaign, but it is a campaign where revolution­aries can have a decisive impact and argue their case openly.

It should not be forgotten that a few short years ago the left in Scotland was hopelessly divided and weakened by the bitter split in the Scottish Socialist Party caused by the spectacular fall of self-indulgent sexist Tommy Sheridan and his travelling circus of opportunistic camp-followers and misguided fans. This one-man-induced freefall was unfortunately compounded by the failure of many of Sheridan’s opponents to face up to the lessons of this terrible setback: failure to face up to the perennial reliance on ‘charismatic’ leaders, failure to understand that this was the price of prioritising short-term electoral gain, failure to face up to sexism not in theory but when practised by leading members. Yet the Sheridan split has all but faded, with the culprit himself and his diminishing band of followers playing no role in RIC. Most of his leading opponents, to their credit, have done what so many socialists fail to do: put the interests of the working class before their own or their organisations’ interests by taking a low-profile but positive role in the campaign. In fact, many of those who are at the heart of the campaign are young people who were too young to play any significant part in the Sheridan affair or not involved in any central way. This is not to idealise RIC—there are still problems—but the situation is fluid, and most of the problems are ‘growing pains’ rather than deliberate manipulation.

Contrary to the view expressed by some on the left, the referendum is not just an inter-capitalist dispute that we can ignore while we wait for the magical millennium when the pure armies of labour and capital line up and fight to the death on the day of judgement. Socialists who refuse to enter combat, waiting to line up on the perfect battlefield, usually find that the real messy battles of life have passed them by. Revolutionaries can have no illusions when fighting on democratic questions: they do not deliver the eman­cipation of the working class, nor are they stages which must be passed through while ‘labour must wait’. Rather, they are part of the long and complex process of emancipation, a process that we must engage in at every twist and turn, unapologetically raising the banner of the liberation of the class while we engage in those struggles. It is with that banner firmly raised that we enter the fray in the struggle for the independence of Scotland.

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.