Socialist Classics: György Lukács, ‘History and Class Consciousness’

A great if flawed work of Marxist theory, argued Maeve Connaughton in Issue 23 (November 2005).

This collection of essays written between 1919 and 1922 is one of the best fruits of the re-flowering of Marxist thought brought forth by the capitulation of reformism in the first world war and the Russian revolution of 1917. Lukács notably highlighted the “reification” inherent in capitalist society—the way relations between human beings are turned into abstract things—and thus reclaimed a forgotten dimension of Marxism. Nowadays no one can get away with denying or dismissing Marx’s critique of alienation, and this aspect of Lukács’s work doesn’t seem quite so groundbreaking. But there is plenty more besides in History and Class Consciousness that is well worth thinking about.

Lukács rejects both ‘common-sense’ empiricism and academic detachment: Marxism “is inseparable from the ‘practical and critical’ activity of the proletariat… to adopt it leads directly into the thick of the struggle of the proletariat” (History and Class Consciousness, London 1971, p 20-1). This is because a true understanding of society coincides with the interests of the working class, whose fight for liberation entails the end of all oppression. Recognising this connected social totality is what gives a deeper meaning to everyday battles (p 22, 71):

the ultimate goal is not a ‘state of the future’ awaiting the proletariat independent of the movement and the path leading up to it. It is not a condition which can be happily forgotten in the stress of daily life and recalled only in Sunday sermons… The ultimate goal is rather that relation to the totality (to the whole of society seen as a process) through which every aspect acquires its revolutionary significance.… Only when the immediate interests are integrated into a total view and related to the final goal of the process do they become revolutionary, pointing concretely and consciously beyond the confines of capitalist society.

Capitalism always seeks to split the world up into separate ‘issues’ with little or no relation to one another. Even its opponents often go along with this approach, each choosing to fight their own corner. What capitalism dreads above all is a determination to oppose all its various injustices in a unified way, to raise these disparate struggles to a higher level that challenges the foundations of the capitalist way of life itself. Bridging that gap, relating every individual battle to the war as a whole, has to be a constant imperative for socialists. Each individual brick has to be handled carefully and laid correctly, but unless it is properly connected to the other bricks to form a building, its purpose is severely limited.

It is all about class consciousness, how far the working class understands its own real interests and the role it can play in bringing about a new society. For all its contradictions and crises, capitalism will not decay of its own accord: unless the working class believes in itself and its capacities, and acts on that belief, there is no other way of putting an end to the system.

The proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simul­taneously abolishing class society as such. For that reasons its consciousness, the last class consciousness in the history of mankind, must both lay bare the nature of society and achieve an increasingly inward fusion of theory and practice. ‘Ideology’ for the proletariat is no banner to follow into battle, nor is it a cover for its true objectives: it is the objective and the weapon itself. Every non-principled or unprincipled use of tactics on the part of the proletariat debases historical materialism to the level of mere ‘ideology’ and forces the proletariat to use bourgeois (or petty bourgeois) tactics. It thereby robs it of its greatest strength…

p 70

Their class consciousness is the workers’ greatest strength because it embodies the crucial conviction that they can indeed overthrow capitalism and live a different kind of life. “Even in the very midst of the death throes of capitalism broad sections of the proletarian masses still feel that the state, the laws and the economy of the bourgeoisie are the only possible environment for them to exist in” (p 262). Anyone brought up in capitalist society has it almost wired into our brain that this is the way things are and the way things have to be. Things can be modified here and there, the government can be replaced with another government, but the basic framework more or less stays as is. Very few workers are over the moon with capitalist society, but likewise, very few really feel there is any other way of running things that would work. To break out of this and realise that it’s all a lie, that the world can run in a different groove altogether, is a big step. Even many who think they have taken that step have in reality gone no further than a more radical version of reformism.

The inertia generated by acceptance of the capitalist ground rules is more powerful than all the armies the system can muster (p 262):

the strength of every society is in the last resort a spiritual strength. And from this we can only be liberated by knowledge. This knowledge cannot be of the abstract kind that remains in one’s head—many ‘socialists’ have possessed that sort of knowledge. It must be knowledge that has become flesh of one’s flesh and blood of one’s blood; to use Marx’s phrase, it must be “practical critical activity”.

This activity, properly understood, teaches and proves the potential of the working class: “that it can be transformed and liberated only by its own actions” (p 208).

Lukács’s masterly treatment of the socialist attitude to the law—a treatment relevant to discussions on direct action in our own day—illustrates this. For him, the use of legal or illegal methods is “a mere question of tactics”. If the right thing to do is illegal, it should be done anyway; if it happens to be legal, that doesn’t make it any the less revolutionary. The attitude that illegality is a virtuous thing in itself, that the law should be broken for its own sake, “suggests that the law has preserved its authority—admittedly in an inverted form—that it is still in a position inwardly to influence one’s actions”. Instead of either obeying the law purely because it is the law, or disobeying the law purely because it is the law, we should deal with it “In the same way a yachtsman must take exact note of the direction of the wind without letting the wind determine his course; on the contrary, he defies and exploits it in order to hold fast to his original course” (p 262-4).

The job of a socialist party is to stand up for the class conscious­ness of the workers, even when that consciousness is clear to only a minority of them. It has to prove that the attitudes and actions it proposes coincide with the interests of the working class, to persuade workers that it is only a vehicle for what they need (p 42):

The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses whom economic conditions have forced into revolt. It is nourished by the feeling that the party is the objectification of their own will (obscure though that may be to themselves), that it is the visible and organised incarnation of their class consciousness. Only when the party has fought for this trust and earned it can it become the leader of the revolution. For only then will the masses spontaneously and instinctively press forward with all their energies towards the party and towards their own class consciousness.

So it is not a question of setting up your party and then calling workers over to it, but a process of socialists developing towards a position where their aspirations become those of the working class in general: “the organisation is much more likely to be the effect than the cause of the revolutionary process” (p 41).

Lukács praises Rosa Luxemburg for recognising this, but goes on to criticise her organisational attitudes. She should have split from the social democrats earlier, he writes, setting up a clear-cut revolutionary organisation like the Bolsheviks did in Russia. The same case has been made many times since, but it remains a doubtful one.

As Lukács notes himself, “in comparison to the western nations the situation in Russia was relatively simple” (p 312). Capitalism, being less rooted, had taken less of a grip on workers’ consciousness, and the Tsarist regime left little if any room for reformism to take hold. In Germany, on the other hand, capitalism was well established, and the Social Democratic Party occupied an overriding place in the political culture of the working class. Luxemburg and her comrades being part of a recognised left wing within that party gave them political access to workers that they would never have had outside the party. That left wing broke away from the party as significant sections of the German working class were beginning to see the need for such a break. Whether a more ‘Russian’ approach would have brought better results is far from probable, and attempts to implement such an approach in Germany after her death brought little success.

Unforgivable, though, is Lukács’s attack on Luxemburg’s criticisms of Bolshevik policy in Russia. Where she insists that the working class needs full freedom to build a new world, he maintains (p 292) that

it must not allow itself to be pinned down on the whole complex issue of freedom.… Freedom cannot represent a value in itself… Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round.

Lukács here manages the feat of getting the truth absolutely back to front. The working class takes power exclusively in order to liquidate capitalism and pave the way for a society where freedom is indeed an end in itself. If freedom is only a means to some other end, a tactic to be used and discarded at will, then this temporary workers’ rule turns into its opposite. Such a process was underway in Russia as Lukács was putting the book together, and he was already fitting himself to bow down before it. A desire to bring about socialism, he writes, “must entail the renun­ciation of individual freedom. It implies the conscious subordination of the self to that collective will that is destined to bring real freedom”, and of course—surprise, surprise—“This conscious collective will is the Communist Party” (p 315). All this proto-Stalinist drivel did not flow from the genuine political insights Lukács had revealed, which is why the powers that were in Russia demanded that he renounce History and Class Consciousness. He obliged, and blunted for decades an intellect that had the potential to offer powerful contributions to the international workers’ movement. Reclaiming his major work, and freeing it of the outlook that contradicts its central thrust, can help make such a contribution today.

Nervous dispositions and vestigial knowledge: The 1970 arms crisis

In Issue 12 (March 2002) Maeve Connaughton drew lessons from a pivotal moment in modern Irish history.

When the arms trial opened in Dublin on 22 September 1970 one juror was excused on the very first day due to being of “a nervous disposition”. He wasn’t the only one, and recent revelations of official cover-up and minis­terial sleight of hand must have put the wind up some of the protagonists. Most of them have since gone to the great Bridewell in the sky, but beneath all the hints and allegations lies a story still relevant to today’s political struggles.

The arms crisis was only part of a far wider political crisis that swept Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement for civil rights in the north was gaining strength and meeting with increasingly fierce repression from the state. The armed forces of that state were complemented by paramilitary loyalism, with a considerable overlap between the two. Nationalist areas were no match militarily for such a combination and, for the most part, came off worst in the confrontations, with huge numbers of Catholics driven from their homes, injured or killed.

There was a fightback, as people resisted heroically with stones, petrol bombs, even the odd old gun that could be dug up. In Derry’s Bogside they effectively kept the state out altogether and ran their own community. Elsewhere in Ireland there was a wave of sympathy for the victims of the attacks, and a determination not to let it happen again, especially when the situation reached a height in August 1969.

The fallout of the crisis landed heavily in two political quarters: the republican movement, and Fianna Fáil.

Since its latest military campaign had petered out in 1962 a rethink had been going on in the IRA. The old notion of gathering guns and sympathy with an eye to the next round of sallying forth across the border wasn’t getting anywhere. A new strategy of getting involved in social and political agitation was adopted, and republicans began to take a central part in campaigns for decent housing, for national ownership of rivers and lakes, in the trade union movement. The idea was that IRA military action would only enter the picture at a later stage, to enforce an uprising of the working people for an Irish socialist republic.

The northern axis of the new departure centred on the demand for civil rights. Instead of bemoaning partition, republicans would build a broad coalition against the systematic discrimination against the Catholic popula­tion in voting, housing and employment. The intention was not to overthrow the northern state but to unite Protestants and Catholics in democratising it. That achieved, the north would hopefully unite peacefully with the south, but raising the spectre of fighting for a united Ireland was ruled out.

But what if civil rights proved to be more than the state could stand? What if it just couldn’t be reformed? What if the majority of Protestants opposed the demand for equality instead of supporting it? When precisely this came to pass, the republican line came under severe strain. Rather than modify their approach to meet the new reality, the IRA leadership main­tained that Stormont was an Irish parliament and abolishing it would mean less democracy; that armed defence of nationalist communities equalled sectarian battles of Irishmen against Irishmen; that partition was not on the agenda. Despite all their best-laid plans collapsing around them, they stuck to their guns.

Or rather, their lack of guns. Not surprisingly, the IRA was the first port of call for those looking for weapons to defend northern nationalists. But much of its arsenal had been got rid of (sold to the Free Wales Army, by all accounts) and the chief of staff was nowhere to be found when the August crisis broke (he was up in the Dublin mountains doing a TV interview). For many who had traditionally sympathised with the IRA, its failure to defend them against loyalist and state attack totally discredited it. Graffiti in west Belfast claimed that IRA stood for “I Ran Away”.

It was this that lay at the bottom of the split in the republican movement in 1969/70. While the issue was fought around the corner—on the question of whether republicans should take seats in parliaments—what was actually at stake was whether to support a continuation of the leadership strategy or not. It wasn’t its designation of Leinster House as a usurping assembly that caused the Provisional IRA to grow, but the fact that it was prepared to defend nationalists and fight against the northern state.

The stereotyped portrayal of militaristic right-wing Provos breaking from sophisticated left-wing Officials holds little water. While those inter­ested in nothing more than war with Britain did go with the Provisionals, so did a fair few left-wing republicans who had been heavily involved in social and economic struggle. Provisional Sinn Féin’s founding statement even declared for a democratic socialist republic (far more explicitly than its present descendants do). The socialism rejected in the split was a ‘socialism’ that was trying to force a popular revolt back into a reformist mould.

The crisis in the north caused not a little alarm for Fianna Fáil. They had held power for all but six of the previous 37 years, and the June 1969 election had just ushered in their thirteenth consecutive year at the helm; but they had their problems. Long and bitter strikes were becoming a frequent occurrence as Ireland topped the international league for industrial disputes. Fights for better housing and other political campaigns were growing, with the republican movement in the thick of them for good measure. The inter­national atmosphere of radicalism following the revolutionary annus mirabilis of 1968 still gave the ruling class nightmares. All this led Fianna Fáil to resort to red scare tactics on the hustings, and even refined politi­cians with intellectual reputations were warning of the danger of subversion.

People booting out the state and taking control of their own destinies always makes capitalist politicians uneasy, so the example of Free Derry was not to Fianna Fáil’s liking. Southern solidarity with the oppressed in the north also put them in a corner. After half a century of talk about the nation­alists’ plight, they were now faced with calls for action. Unless they did something, their own legitimacy would be undermined as elements beyond their control challenged their monopoly of armed force by arming communities under siege.

Within Fianna Fáil itself an ill-concealed power struggle was being waged. Jack Lynch’s assumption of the leadership in 1966 had only papered over the cracks: scheming in the wings were Neil Blaney, party organisation man par excellence, and Charles Haughey, epitome of the new breed of arrogant money-grubbing Fianna Fáilers. Bellicose nationalism had always been a string to Blaney’s bow as he lamented the predicament of “our people” in the north—“our people” not including any Protestants, of course. Haughey had no republican pedigree—had gleefully interned IRA men in his time as minister for justice, in fact—and seems merely to have seen a chance and grabbed it. They presented themselves as champions of the beleaguered northerners, and got themselves on to a cabinet subcommittee with £100,000 to spend on the relief of distress following the August attacks.

This money was used to buy and import guns for the defence of nation­alist areas. As well as taking some of the heat off the government, the aim was to ensure that if there was to be gun-running, it would be under the auspices of the southern state—albeit unofficially. But there was also an attempt to kill two birds with the one stone. The guns were to go only to those who disagreed with the IRA leadership’s policy. That way, the threat to the 26-county state posed by republican involvement in left-wing activism could be lessened.

Contrary to Official republican mythology, this does not mean that the Provisional IRA was the bastard child of Fianna Fáil. Undoubtedly, Fianna Fáil preferred a republican movement that confined its activities to the north and left them in full control down south, and they did their level best to get one. But the split arose from the divergent responses to the August debacle: if there wasn’t a penny or a bullet forthcoming from Fianna Fáil, something like what happened would have happened anyway. Seeing that there was, the Provisionals saw no harm in getting their hands on some of it—nor, for that matter, did the Officials, whose chief of staff got £2,500 out of Haughey.

While others in the government had an idea of what was going on—and the latest evidence points more and more in that direction—the exact nature of Blaney’s and Haughey’s operations was kept from Lynch and his faction. By pushing a more belligerent policy than Lynch’s, they hoped to embarrass him and force him from the party leadership, leaving a vacuum for them­selves to fill.

The proverbial hit the fan in May 1970 when news of the state-sponsored gun-running began to leak out. Lynch sacked Blaney and Haughey from the government; both were charged with illegal arms importation along with three others, including a military intelligence officer. The case against Blaney was thrown out for lack of evidence; after a tense trial that had to be abandoned and restarted, the others were acquitted.

Unlike the other defendants who stood over their actions, claiming that the state knew and approved of them, Haughey’s defence was to play dumb, saying that he didn’t know there were any guns in the cargo he tried to speed through customs. Nevertheless, he emerged from the court speaking “On behalf of myself and my fellow-patriots…” He called on Lynch to do the decent thing, as did Blaney, in the name of a more vigorous northern policy. With Lynch out of the country on a diplomatic mission, the stage looked set for a palace coup.

But Lynch was met at Dublin airport, not by his political obituary, but by the serried ranks of his ministers and party grandees. He saw off his opponents in votes of confidence as the soldiers of destiny rallied around their chief. Blaney brought his local political machine out of the party with him. Haughey spent the rest of the decade in the political wilderness, but a very comfortable wilderness, as evidenced by recent tribunals.

The ruling class closed ranks rather than risk being split down the middle. Just as unsettled by the northern upheavals as their counterparts in London and Belfast, they made sure to consolidate their own rule before all else. The decades of rhetorical anti-partitionism were all as sound and fury signifying nothing. Defence minister Jim Gibbons claimed at the trial that his awareness of the arms smuggling amounted only to “vestigial knowledge”. The dictionary definition confirms that the same description could apply to the southern state’s aspiration to national unity:

vestigial adj. 1 forming a very small remnant of something that was once greater or more noticeable. 2 Biology (of an organ or part of the body) degenerate, rudimentary, or atrophied, having become func­tionless in the course of evolution.

The Free State was not born in the fires of the GPO in 1916, or in a Tipperary hillside ambush in 1920: it was born in the rubble of the Four Courts bombarded in 1922, and the scattered flesh of prisoners tied to a landmine in Kerry in 1923. From the word go, it was a state committed to maintaining its grip on what it had. Keening after the fourth green field was useful to that end, but it was quite happy to be Three Quarters of a Nation Once Again. If 26-county patriotism was baptised in the civil war, it had its confirmation in the arms crisis 47 years later.

The accepted wisdom of the nationalist consensus was now clearly ‘unity by consent’: a united Ireland, but only when the unionists agreed to it. This apparently profound concept, tortuously adumbrated in the keynote addresses of Taoisigh and Nobel prize-winning nationalists, actually boils down to the old evasion ‘Live, horse, and you’ll get grass’. In its pure form it gives what it calls the unionist tradition a complete veto for as long as it likes. Its modified, Good-Friday-Agreement version promotes a demo­graphic race where nationalists and unionists do whatever it takes to out­weigh each other in the scales of sectarianism.

The events surrounding the arms crisis are instructive for those who still look to a more hopeful future for the working people of this island. Firstly, socialists need to unconditionally defend the rights of the oppressed in the north—opposing Orange parades, loyalist attacks, and discrimination now as then. Secondly, the very existence of a separate state carved out for communal convenience is a standing monument to sectarianism, whether that takes the naked form it did then or the respectable form it does now. Thirdly, the southern state is just as much an obstacle to achieving justice in Ireland, and needs to join its northern oppo on the scrapheap. Fourthly, the object of the struggle has to clearly be a socialist Ireland, a society in the hands of the workers: a goal that has the potential to lead northern Protestant workers to reject the dead end of unionism, and instead enrich a fight against exploitation.

At the time of the arms crisis, these ideas could often be heard, but usually in isolation. What is needed is a movement that can unite all these aspects into an integrated challenge to capitalism as it operates in Ireland. That difficult task faces socialists today, and drawing the lessons of thirty years ago can help us carry it out.

Across the roar of guns

In Issue 60 (June 2015) Maeve Connaughton reviewed a selection of voices raised against the first world war.

Not Our War: Writings against the First World War. Edited by A W Zurbrugg (Merlin Press)

This is a timely anthology as the imperialist slaughter of a century ago continues to bask in a wave of posthumous glorification, all the better to soften us up for its modern-day equivalents. The voices to be heard here range from fleeting comments, almost captions flashing across a screen, to lengthy extracts—and we could maybe have done without Lenin’s seven-page harangue of anti-war socialists who just weren’t his particular kind of anti-war socialists. But many of them will be new to us, some new to all of us, and the whole sheds valuable light on the breadth of opposition to the slaughter.

Rosa Luxemburg’s characterisation of it all can hardly be bettered:

Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth—there stands bourgeois society. This is it. Not all spick and span and moral, with pretence to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law—but the ravening beast, the witches’ Sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. In the midst of this witches’ Sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social-democracy has capitulated.

It is impossible to separate the outbreak of the war from the collapse of the socialist movement, because they didn’t just accompany each other but caused each other. Only something as big as the war could have brought the European left of that time to its knees, and without such a surrender the war could hardly have gone ahead, at least on as overwhelming a scale.

Genuine socialists were literally horrified at the prospect, and James Connolly’s reaction conjures up the cruel reality of decades of hope dying a painful death in a mayhem of hypocrisy:

When the socialist pressed into the army of the Austrian Kaiser sticks a long, cruel bayonet-knife into the stomach of the socialist conscript in the army of the Russian Tsar, and gives it a twist so that when pulled out it will pull the entrails out along with it, will the terrible act lose any of its fiendish cruelty by the fact of their common theoretical adherence to an anti-war propaganda in times of peace?

Russian socialist Alexander Shlyapnikov writes of being “stupefied” by it all. Italian socialist Angelica Balabanoff recalls socialist leaders who “looked at me as if they thought I were crazy”.

And yet, as is noted here, 750,000 demonstrated in Germany against the war only a week before it broke out. Such a rapid decline and fall of such strong principles has few precedents. English socialist Fred Bower captures part of the reason as no more or less than going with the flow: “It is not too hard to be a parrot, and repeat what your masters and pastors tell you”.

Zurbrugg points to structural factors behind it: “Organisation had a momentum of its own; it became a way of life.” The socialist parties of Europe with their allied organisations constituted a vast bureaucracy concerned to preserve and protect itself, with the means swallowing the end whole. For many of their officials, “it has been a matter of salary, of the commonest sort of economic determinism”, as German socialist Franz Mehring commented (although his opinions appear as those of his interviewer here). It was more than their job was worth to go against the stream and imperil the party machine they depended on.

Another strong pull factor lay in the exponential growth of the state during wartime. Much of the contemporary left had seen state expansion as a positive phenomenon, something which came as near to socialism as made no difference. The understanding that “Social­ism is not based upon national ownership, but upon the strength, the might of the proletariat”, as Dutch socialist Anton Pannekoek puts it here, had been all but lost. The prospect of playing even a supporting role to a state stretching its tentacles into more and more sectors of economic and social life was one which appealed to the social-democratic mindset.

The betrayal of the leaders comes as less of a surprise than the way thousands of rank-and-file socialists meekly followed their example. But these were, as Pannekoek observes, “accustomed to do only what the party ordered”. With good reason, we remember the left wing of the Second International and their stand for socialism, but their presence and arguments shouldn’t blind us to the fact that such parties were in large part built on a deadeningly passive membership. Initiative from below rarely went much further than choosing which leader from above should be cheered loudest. A left resting on members who don’t think and act for themselves is helpless when the leaders it blindly trusts go off the rails—a lesson as necessary to learn today as it was then.

Pannekoek concludes that these organisations were victims of their times. Growing up in a period when reforms could be conceded by an expanding capitalist system, they had settled into a routine of operating within the confines of that system. Such parties were in no fit state to suddenly shift to a situation where they would work in all-out active opposition to it: “the party’s structure, as it was formed in an earlier period, was not up to the job of taking on new respon­sibilities. It had to be submerged.” In a sense, social democracy going under in the war can be seen as a cruel necessity, a bloody clearing of the decks.

For those socialists who remained true to the cause, working up opposition to the war was hard work. Many reported that their arguments fell flat in the early years, when the hold of jingoism on the popular mind was still strong. Even when workers started to question the war, it was often from a sectional viewpoint, as in an engineers’ song which insisted that their union card should exempt skilled workers from fighting: “Take all the bloody labourers, / But for God’s sake don’t take me!”

“For the first time in my life I was ashamed of my class”, wrote Wilf McCartney (described here as a “British Anarchist”, although he was born in Ireland). American socialist Frank Bohn believed that ten thousand German socialists could have stopped the war if they were prepared to face jail or the firing squad, but then again, that could have been the state’s easiest method of getting rid of them. Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta seems more realistic in outlining the left’s duty “if they are materially powerless to act efficaciously for their own cause, at least to refuse any voluntary help to the cause of the enemy, and stand aside to save at least their principles—which means to save the future”. Merely preserving your political integrity intact was an achievement when so many were lining up to kiss the beast.

A remarkable example of this is the reaction of Serbian socialists in 1914. The threats and ultimate invasion unleashed upon Serbia by Austria-Hungary were a clear enough case of an imperialist power oppressing a weak neighbour, and they could have been forgiven for going along with their own state—as many others did in response to German war crimes in Belgium. “However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Austria and Serbia was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal European war,” wrote Dušan Popovic, “and this latter, we were profoundly convinced, could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character.” To see beyond their own particular situation and take in the overall context of the war, and act accordingly, took a lot of real inter­nationalist spirit.

The immediate response of Britain’s Independent Labour Party to the war also stands out:

We are told that International Socialism is dead, that all our hopes and ideals are wrecked by the fire and pestilence of European war. It is not true. Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greetings to the German Socialists.

Eventually the reality of the war began to seep through. In between the two revolutions of 1917, a tired and muddy Russian soldier brings the demands of his comrades “from the place where men are digging their graves and calling them trenches!” Similar sentiments begin to appear in all the warring armies sooner or later.

While the British army was no exception, it was one of the slowest to move. Widespread unrest did take hold there, but at the end of the war, and as a protest against delays in letting soldiers go home. A nice story here tells of a Welsh miner’s son who, having taken part in the firing squad that executed Connolly, goes to apologise to his widow, who tells him Connolly would forgive him as “only a working-class boy”. It’s only a shame that this is an obvious myth. The idea of a soldier, a fortnight after the Easter rising, finding out where the family of a notorious rebel leader were staying, and then strolling through the streets of Dublin, then occupied by his army, to pay his respects there is far easier to reconcile with romantic wishful thinking than with the facts as we know them.

Interesting examples of anti-war poetry and song are on display here. The dark humour of an American industrial unionist refusing to enlist—

I love my flag, I do, I do, which floats upon the breeze.
I also love my arms and legs, and neck and nose and knees.

—contrasts with a powerful and disturbing anonymous poem from England, portraying a devastated and devastating panorama:

Paint two vast heaps of mildewed human skulls
In pyramidal shape, with top depressed…
In distant background let fat vultures tear
Dead flesh from bones that seem from earth to spring,
And let your masterpiece this title bear
In letters deadly black — God save the King!

The editor insists on a simple but all-important truth: “Ultimately the war ended when soldiers refused to go on fighting.” It was not military victory or diplomatic negotiation which brought the fighting to a conclusion, but mutinies and rebellions and revolutions which denied the warmongers the cannon fodder without which they are powerless. The story of the opposition which was thus vindicated is an inspiring one, and we would do well to draw upon it as we face up to the wars which curse our own century.

Socialist Classics: Leon Trotsky, ‘Results and Prospects’

75 years after Trotsky’s assassination Maeve Connaughton examined one of his lasting contributions to revolutionary thought in March 2015 (Issue 59).

In 1905 Leon Trotsky was a leader of the St Petersburg Council of Workers’ Deputies, the most extraordinary phenomenon thrown up by the revolution Russia went through that year. As the Tsarist regime began to regain the upper hand against the revolutionaries, it moved to arrest leading members of that council, or soviet as it was called in Russian. There is a photograph of Trotsky in his prison cell in 1906 as he awaited the trial where he would speak in defence of the soviet. He sits on a chair and looks away from the camera awkwardly, self-consciously, as if making an effort to do so. Just behind him the cell door frames the jailers’ spy-hole, supposedly all-seeing but unable to prevent a camera being smuggled in to capture this image. No more could the regime imprison the minds of its captives, and Trotsky was spending his time behind bars profitably, drawing lessons from the revolutionary events in the hope of assisting future efforts in the same line.

The outstanding work of that period is Results and Prospects, similarly smuggled out and published before Trotsky and his com­rades were hauled off to Siberia after the inevitable verdict. It bears the imprint of the revolution on its pages, invoking “growing social conflicts, uprisings of new sections of the masses, unceasing attacks by the proletariat upon the economic and political privileges of the ruling classes”, the kind of period which “gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month”.

The book addressed a major debate on the Russian left about what kind of revolution they were involved in. Most socialists were agreed that it was a bourgeois revolution, which could at most get rid of Tsarism, clear the way for capitalist development, and leave the working class a clearer field to begin its own fight for socialism. Where they differed was over who would lead this bourgeois revolution. The Mensheviks insisted that the capitalists would stand at the front of their own revolution, with the workers pressurising them to keep up the fight against the regime. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had no faith in the capitalists, and thought the workers should take power alongside the peasantry in order to push the bourgeois revolution as far as it could go within the limits of capitalism. The uniqueness of Trotsky’s position lay in his argument that the working class could not just take power but, instead of stopping at the overthrow of Tsarism, could move towards ending capitalism itself.

This idea was rooted in an analysis of Russia’s economic develop­ment. Coming to capitalism later than western Europe, it could assimilate the technologies and processes of its predecessors. As a result, a political system based on a more or less feudal autocracy oversaw the introduction of a thoroughly modern capitalism. This inevitably entailed the creation of a working class with its hands at the levers of this new economic power, the secret of “the dis­proportionately large political role played by the Russian proletariat”. On the other side of the equation a capitalist class grew, but instead of boldly asserting its political interests against Tsarism, it preferred the protection of the regime to the threatening power of the workers.

Trotsky only applied his conclusions to the Russian situation, and it would be another twenty years before he saw them having a wider application. Nevertheless, his arguments about Russia’s prospective development entail a general conception of Marxism which goes against the grain of how it is commonly understood. To counter the claim that Russia and its working class were insufficiently developed for socialism to come on the agenda, he had to examine what the necessary conditions for socialist revolution are.

First of all, socialism cannot be a realistic prospect unless it provides a better way of producing and distributing humanity’s resources. But Trotsky argues that, in this sense, “sufficient technical prerequisites for collective production have already existed for a hundred or two hundred years”. There could scarcely have been any time when the great industrial advances introduced under capitalism would not have worked better in a hypothetical socialist economy.

It is not possible to draw an equals sign between a society’s economic position and its politics: “Between the productive forces of a country and the political strength of its classes there cut across at any given time various social and political factors of a national and international character, and these displace and even sometimes completely alter the political expression of economic relations.” A complex interaction of objective and subjective causes is at play here:

the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and finally, upon a number of sub­jective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.… Politics is the plane upon which the ob­jective prerequisites of socialism are intersected by the subjective ones.

All the economic development in the world will not bring about socialism unless the working class understands the need for it and is prepared to fight accordingly. Such class consciousness on the part of the workers is an indispensable prerequisite. But that doesn’t mean the physical establishment of a new world has to wait until workers mentally inhabit it beforehand:

One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology. The latter presupposes the absence of egotistical motives in economic life; whereas the striving towards socialism and the struggle for it arise from the class psychology of the proletariat. However many points of contact there may be between the class psychology of the proletariat and classless socialist psychology, nevertheless a deep chasm divides them.

Fighting against capitalism does give rise to “splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice”, but Trotsky is right to say that these get smothered by capitalism at every turn. Living a life of selfless altruism in a society based on selfish individualism is impossible: even the most committed socialist could hardly afford to pass up a job because someone else might be in greater need of it.

However, he undermines his argument when summing it up thus: “Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a prerequisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a prerequisite to socialist psychology.” The attitudes engendered in the fight for socialism are a precursor of the attitudes which a socialist society itself would engender, attitudes which would be moulded in struggles to bring about such a society. The “points of contact” Trotsky noted get forgotten here, as material conditions are simply presented as cause and consciousness as effect, when a more dialectical relation would be evident in reality.

Such a relation can be seen where Trotsky discusses the interface between economic development and political awareness: “these processes take place simultaneously, and not only give an impetus to each other, but also retard and limit each other”. If they grow out of proportion, with one aspect failing to keep pace with others, this can throw up problems. Socialist organisations can increase their vote and membership without increasing their value to the class struggle:

the work of agitation and organisation among the ranks of the proletariat has an internal inertia. The European Socialist Parties, particularly the largest of then, the German Social Democratic Party, have developed their conservatism in proportion as the great masses have embraced socialism… the propagandist socialist conservatism of the proletarian parties may at a certain moment hold back the direct struggle of the proletariat for power.

Not the least service of the revolution in Russia had been to shake up this inertia on the European left.

The conclusion from Trotsky’s analysis was that “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.” The implication of this global conclusion for his own country was also clear: “the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers”.

This clearly distanced Trotsky from the Mensheviks’ idea that the working class couldn’t and shouldn’t aim at taking charge. But he was no less opposed to the Bolshevik plan for workers taking a share of power in a revolutionary government which would pull up short before the prospect of socialism. To imagine that socialists could enter such a government and introduce radical reforms with workers’ support but then “leave the edifice they have constructed so as to make way for the bourgeois parties” was utopian. On the contrary, such a government would be forced “by the very logic of its position” to move in a socialist direction.

Trotsky cites a very practical example. One of the measures a revolutionary government would introduce was the eight-hour day, a basic demand of workers in Russia and elsewhere, a reform which didn’t threaten the capitalist system itself but would make life under it more tolerable. The capitalists would resist it, however, and likely close down their factories, locking out workers until they agreed to return for ten or eleven hours a day. How would the government respond? As Trotsky says, “it is quite obvious that the representatives of the workers in the government cannot reply to the demands of un­employed workers with arguments about the bourgeois character of the revolution”. They would have no alternative but to take over those factories, for those workers to take control of them. The very fact of socialists being in power to genuinely fight for the cause of the working class “places collectivism on the order of the day”.

A workers’ government in Russia would of course have to bring about basic political changes in Russian society, to abolish the Tsarist dictatorship and enshrine democratic rights. But it would also have to face up to the questions at issue between workers and capitalists. Rather than avoiding or postponing them, it would have to deepen the revolution, to make it socialist:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy.

A major objection to this notion was the fact that the urban working class made up only a minority of Russia’s population. Trotsky’s reply—that this minority was concentrated in the decisive areas of the economy—was true, but still, the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked in agriculture. This was why the Bolsheviks insisted on a revolutionary government “of the proletariat and peasantry”. Trotsky agreed that representatives of the peasantry should absolutely be part of a revolutionary government alongside the workers. But who would direct such a government? Which class would play the leading role in it? “When we speak of a workers’ government”, he wrote, “we have in view a government in which the working-class representatives dominate and lead.”

“Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role”, he insisted. While this sounds harsh, it holds true. The scattered nature of small farming as a way of life, both geographically and economically, has always left farmers playing a supporting role to the main urban classes—an important one, but not an independent one. Because of the unstable intermediate social situation in which they find themselves, their politics has a tendency to be “indefinite, unformed, full of possibilities and therefore full of surprises”.

The working class would have to “carry the class struggle into the villages”, supporting poor farmers and above all agricultural workers against rich farmers, encouraging such class antagonism in order to “destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits”. It would promote socialised agriculture on large units, but expropriating small holdings “in no way enters into the plans of the socialist proletariat”.

Trotsky foresees a very defined relationship between the two classes:

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it. …nothing remains for the peasantry to do but to rally to the regime of workers’ democracy. It will not matter much even if the peasantry does this with a degree of consciousness not larger than that with which it usually rallies to the bourgeois regime.

The peasants would support the working class in the constituent assembly, but this would be “nothing else than a democratic dress for the rule of the proletariat”.

In passages like these, Trotsky is clearly going too far, consigning Russia’s peasantry to an utterly subordinate role as passive camp followers, unthinking objects of whichever political force happens to bestow benefits upon them from the heights of power. On the contrary, workers would have to go out of their way to win over small farmers, to persuade them of the benefits of a socialist order, repeatedly and continuously. For the working class, hegemony is not a cynical politicians’ game but a process of active political engagement with its allies, taking their concerns on board and incorporating them into the work of socialist transformation. If the peasantry were as devoid of initiative as Trotsky paints them here, it would be difficult to envisage the practicalities of abolishing landlordism and moving towards socialist agriculture, if only because there would be hardly anyone on the ground to carry it out.

The claim that the workers of Russia could begin to assault the very foundations of capitalism was an audacious one, but if they could begin that job, Trotsky never claimed that they could finish it. Their position at the helm of Russia would be “cast into the scales of the class struggle of the entire capitalist world”. The workers of more economically advanced countries would have to follow their example and take power themselves: “Without the direct state support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power”. On their own, Russian workers would go down to inevitable defeat, but if their revolution became just one link in a chain of revolutions, an international foundation could be laid on which socialism could develop.

Our friends in the north

In Issue 48 (June 2012) Maeve Connaughton looked at the state of unionism in the midst of many of its anniversaries.

The urban geography of Belfast has long presented the outsider with a bewildering patchwork of cheek-by-jowl contradictions, inexplicable outside of the sectarian conflict which has defined the city as much as Venice is defined by its canals. While the violent outpouring of that conflict has lessened of late, the lines of division remain clear on the ground. The aftermath has brought a fresh innovation to Belfast, however, as areas of the city designate themselves as ‘quarters’ of one sort or another, with a breezy disregard for the laws of conventional mathematics insisting that quarters are limited to four.

One such is the ‘Titanic Quarter’, spearheading the bright tourist future of the city through the faded glories of its industrial past, and simultaneously hoping to mimic the notorious dockland speculation of other cities. Belfast’s historic contribution to shipbuilding is impressive, without a doubt, but cannot escape its contribution to bigotry. The shipyards in which marvels of human ingenuity were produced also saw callous, devious, vicious means contrived to systematically exclude workers of one religious persuasion from the work. It could be history’s revenge that all of this is commemorated, not by the many ships which majestically ploughed the seas, but by the one which failed with tragic consequences.

But Protestant Ulster has more to celebrate than the centenary of a sinking ship. 1912 saw the more successful launch of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant to resist the introduction of Home Rule to Ireland. Thousands of Ulstermen signed up to oppose a law being constitutionally enacted by the United Kingdom parliament, and soon backed up their opposition with the Ulster Volunteer Force and well-laid plans for a provisional government to deny London’s right to rule their province.

It isn’t just in unionist mythology that this period features as Ulster’s finest hour. To many others it proves—along with other phases of unionism before and since—that the north’s Protestants are a people who will stand for what they believe in, and are entitled to get it. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” is a pithy and belligerent way of putting it, but the principle has widespread acceptance. It is now generally believed that we are dealing with a community, or a tradition, or a people, or even a nation, who have every right to maintain their own identity up to and including a state separate from the rest of this island. The political expression of this is given equal validity with Irish nationalism, just as legitimate (or illegitimate, according to taste) and as worthy of vindication.

The problems with this analysis start coming thick and fast as soon as you take the rare step of asking what exactly this identity is based on, what it is that separates those in question from other inhabitants of Ulster and Ireland. The claim of British nationality has never been entertained by anyone in Britain itself, much as unionists want them to. Protestant Belfast does have a true right to boast of two sporting geniuses in George Best and Alex Higgins, but both discovered on moving to Manchester that no one regarded them as anything but Irish, and that Britain’s Irish community took them to its heart especially. (Indeed, whether the consequent elements of identity crisis contributed to the well-documented squandering of their talents is a fair question.) Even the legal formalities of British imperialism, never known to understate their claims, have never attempted the sleight of hand which drains the Straits of Moyle to subsume north-eastern Ireland into Britain.

An Ulster identity, perhaps? The first snag is that about a third of Ulster isn’t included, those counties which found themselves west or south of the border imposed in 1921. And even in the other six, plenty of Ulster attributes are firmly excluded from unionist self-definition: the province’s history of particularly stubborn resistance to English monarchs, for instance, or its attachment to a vociferous brand of football and hurling. Only some of Ulster’s traditions and people are allowed in. And that goes to the heart of why Ulster unionism or the north’s Protestants cannot with justice be seen as a community with rights to a separate political existence. Unionism is based on denying democratic rights rather than upholding them, trying to maintain a superiority over others rather than establishing equality with them.

For that reason it constitutes a very different kettle of fish to Irish nationalism. While nationalist ideology has always been used to justify certain varieties of oppression, the essential content of nationalism as a political movement has been a striving to weaken and break the grip of British imperialism on Ireland. Within Irish nationalism, sectarian­ism is far more the exception than the rule in a philosophy which espouses (often in a naive way) a common future for all the country’s inhabitants. On the other hand, sectarianism is concreted right into the foundations of unionism, as it asserts exclusive rights for one section of the country’s population at the expense of the rest.

There is no comparison between a movement broadly aiming to overthrow oppression and one clearly aiming to perpetuate it. The corresponding political instincts are evident in their international sympathies. Republicanism always identified with the struggle against apartheid, but loyalism had more than a soft spot for those upholding it. Palestinian flags are often in evidence on the Falls Road, while the odd Israeli flag puts in an appearance on the Shankill.

Unionist claims to be motivated by injustice in the southern state display a brass neck riveted on as securely as anything that ever came out of Harland and Wolff’s. To begin with, it is a bit rich for people to complain of that state’s Catholic preponderance after they helped deprive it of a substantial non-Catholic population. The privileged position of the Catholic church in the 26 counties repressed and brutalised working people from a Catholic background more than the state’s Protestant population, who had the compensation of being economically better off on average. Even at its exclusionary worst, discrimination faced by southern Protestants was never in the same league as the Orange state’s systematic mistreatment of northern Catholics.

Another important difference is that, while it has of course sought inspiration and assistance from abroad, the movement for Irish in­dependence has stood on its own two feet, basing itself on a popular desire to move away from British control. Unionism, however, has never achieved anything by its own efforts. The resistance that got underway a century ago was spectacularly successful, partitioning the country and carving out a state of its own—but it would never have got anywhere without the active support of a huge swathe of the British establishment, from a Tory party inciting rebellion against the constitution to army officers mutinying rather than bring illegal loyalists to book.

The same reality features in every chapter of unionist success. The defeat of Home Rule in the 1880s relied on British Tory solidarity. The years of unionist state discrimination in the north needed the studied acquiescence of British governments. The last great unionist victory, the Ulster Workers Council strike that brought down power sharing in 1974, depended on a crucial part of the British army top brass letting it be known that they would refuse to move against it. It is increasingly clear that loyalist murder campaigns against Catholics right up to the 1990s rested on intelligence and weaponry channelled through the British state. Unionism has succeeded when it has served as a prop for British imperialism, but when left to its own devices has proved to be a paper tiger. It brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets and into the voting booths in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, but that came to nothing when Britain faced it down.

What concerns socialists most of all is unionist ideology within the working class. How far can a unionist consciousness co-exist with a class consciousness? Can a specifically working-class unionism help to develop class politics in the north?

Unionism encourages Protestant workers to identify with one community, to see Catholic workers as belonging to another community, and to work at keeping that community down. It puts social and economic problems down to that ‘other side’ getting more than it should. This whole approach can have nothing in common with a politics that identifies workers of all backgrounds as a class with a united interest as against the capitalist class.

Working-class unionism has a long tradition, often of the forelock-tugging variety, Orange workers submissively following their ‘natural betters’. But the Ulster Workers Council heralded a brand of loyalism that wore a plebeian heart on its sleeve, whose paramilitary links have often alienated it from respectable unionism (though not always, and the two repeatedly shade into each other). By the 1990s parties explicitly espousing a working-class unionism emerged.

This politics has never succeeded in getting that far off the ground, though. Its organisations have proved to be chronically fissiparous, the splits often taking murderous forms. The veneer of honest politics peels away very easily, allowing the same old sideburns and sunglasses to peep through. Even at their most articulate, when policy papers take precedence over sectarian venom, they rarely reach higher than resentment at the subordinate position allotted to the lower orders in the unionist scheme of things. The best answer they come up with for the deprivation faced by Protestant workers is to divert resources from Catholic workers.

Working-class unionism bangs up against a contradiction at its root: you cannot address problems facing the working class with an ideology that preaches suspicion of workers on the other side of town. A worker who curses the bosses is good, but will get nowhere while simultaneously cursing workers of a different religion, race, gender or whatever. The Protestant working class can be attracted either to its class or to its community, or it can hover between them as a politically inert element.

The existence of unionism in the Protestant working class has a material basis. This has sometimes been presented in terms of privileges enjoyed by Protestant workers, but that is to put it too strongly. Any look at the history of the north will show that Protestant workers were never in a position to click their fingers and be granted a soft job in the shipyards. If they were, they would never have endured living and working conditions considerably worse than those of British workers—however much they may have wanted to be British. Whatever else Protestant workers have been, a privileged caste is not it.

It is more a case of differential disadvantage. By more or less any yardstick you care to mention, workers in the north suffered, but Protestant workers suffered that bit less, were cushioned by a small but real extent from the very worst of it. Compared to what they could have enjoyed as part of a united and militant working class it was nothing, of course, but twopence ha’penny looking down on twopence can be a significant difference, one that people will fight their fellow workers for. “Here, the Orange working class are slaves in spirit”, wrote Connolly, “because they have been reared up among a people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own.”

But isn’t all that just history by now, with civil rights and fair employment legislation evening out the chronic discrimination once visited upon Catholics? This is a crucial question because, if there is no difference to defend, unionism no longer has a material base in the working class. The division would be a remembrance of things past, a hangover likely to be dissipated by reality, leaving at most a harmless rivalry such as exists between Cork and Kerry people. Without some real differentiation in power, sectarianism would just be a nasty habit floating in the ether.

The statistics show that discrimination against Catholics is nothing as great as it used to be, but that it still exists. December’s Northern Ireland Labour Force Survey gave an unemployment rate of 6 per cent for the north’s Protestants, and 9 per cent for Catholics. So if the boss is looking to make someone redundant next week, coming from a Catholic background makes you one a half times as likely, on average, to be the one for the chop. For the Protestant worker statistically more likely to dodge the bullet for now, that can be reason enough to stick with the unionist tradition.

There is nothing unique in this, because the working class is bedevilled everywhere by such divisions. Just as the civil rights movement in the north only cleared away the most blatant oppression faced by Catholics, ameliorating it without removing it, similar move­ments have done the same for women, black people, and others. The persistence of differential disadvantage has meant that divisive ideologies like racism and sexism have persisted too within the working class, posing a real dilemma for socialists.

Long and painful years of struggle and argument have taught that workers’ unity can only be achieved on the basis of the rights of the most oppressed workers. No one on the left now disagrees that we have to stand with women workers against the specific oppression they face, not with sexist male workers. At least in theory, the left supports black workers and opposes racist prejudices among white workers. Anything less is fake unity, built on sand and set to collapse the next time the tide of division washes in.

A worker who looks down on his black neighbour or resents the fact that a female bus driver drives him to work is not the stuff of which revolutions are made, and no more is a Protestant worker who regards Catholic workers with suspicion or fear. Workers’ unity is not just an external face shown to other classes, but an internal solidarity among workers themselves, standing shoulder to shoulder un­reservedly, without wanting to erect barriers against each other. A Protestant worker who has a problem living amidst a majority of workers from a Catholic background has a problem with the unity of the working class.

Working-class politics in the north has to recognise the reality of the specific oppression of Catholic workers, present as well as past, and accept the demand for equality even when it goes as far as an end to partition, the pinnacle of that oppression incarnated in state form. “Therefore, we declare to the Orange workers of Belfast that we stand for the right of the people in Ireland to rule as well as to own Ireland, and cannot conceive of a separation of the two ideas”, as Connolly put it.

But plenty of people do indeed try to separate the two ideas, to unite workers across the divide on an economic basis while leaving the big political issue to one side. This approach is not devoid of results, because the north has an impressive record of strikes and campaigns over ‘bread and butter issues’, with recent public sector strikes proving that it hasn’t gone away. These strikes have inevitably brought workers from both traditions together on the picket line.

But economic, trade union unity only ever goes so far—and the nature of northern society means that it doesn’t even go as far as usual here. The ongoing legacy of discrimination means that some work­forces have been overwhelmingly Protestant, with union activity following to a large extent. A segregated education system is mirrored by teachers organising in separate unions. In Belfast, workers collecting Protestant bins join one union while those collecting Catholic bins join another. And in the north the big issues—the parts that conventional trade unionism doesn’t reach—pop up in a quicker and more pervasive way than usual. The simplest local issue can soon throw up the old sectarianism that has set the parameters of northern politics. Trying to paper over these cracks will always end in tears sooner or later.

Does this mean ignoring the objections of Protestant workers to a united Ireland? It means addressing these objections, doing everything possible to overcome them, but at the end of the day not allowing them to veto progress towards achieving an all-Ireland workers’ republic. On 23 April 1918 a general strike across Ireland helped to ward off the British government’s threat to conscript Irish people to fight its war. It was clear early on, however, that Protestant work­places in the north east would refuse to take part in the strike. (They also worked through the British general strike in 1926, but that’s another story.) Rather than allowing a minority to stymie the action, the Irish workers’ movement wisely decided to press on with the vast majority to strike as effectively as possible.

The idea of northern Protestants accepting majority will on the island—“coercing Ulster”, to translate the concept into unionist terminology—often fills people with horror. If we were talking about forcing them to submit to a Catholic state where their rights would be trampled upon, that horror would be well founded, but not when a democratic republic is being proposed, and least of all a socialist one. It should be remembered that every democratic advance in the north for generations has ignored the objections of the unionist community: fairer elections, fairer housing, fairer employment, abolishing the B Specials, reforming the UDR and RUC, and more besides. The advance of equal rights has ridden roughshod over the venerated traditions of unionist Ulster, and rightly so, just as it had to ride roughshod over the venerated traditions of southern states of the USA.

Allowing a unionist veto would have perpetuated sectarianism. Allowing one on the existence of partition does the same. Once the claim is accepted that the north’s Protestants are entitled to self-determination, then even if a majority in the six counties voted for a united Ireland, unionism would have a right to claim three or four counties for another state of its own. After all, shifting the goalposts, gerrymandering the boundaries, was precisely how such a state was established and maintained all along. In such a scenario, well-meaning talk of respecting the island’s distinct traditions could end up laying the ground for something that doesn’t bear thinking about.

It would be foolish to somehow present Protestant workers with a demand that they sign up to the 32-county workers’ republic here and now. Political developments for twenty years have resulted in the notorious ‘national question’ being pushed on to the back burner, by all sides. Socialists have no choice but to take the workers’ movement from its actual starting point, which at present tacitly lets the sleeping dog of partition lie. That question does influence everyday politics, though, and will at some stage demand an answer. We would do well to have an answer worked out, rather than sitting on the fence until the sleepy dog jumps up and bites us.

Socialism in Ireland cannot sit cross-legged waiting for unionist workers to agree, but it has to work hard to win over as many of them as humanly possible. This means refusing to situate the socialist project within a nationalist or Catholic or even republican camp, even by implication, but as a distinct movement to bring Ireland into the hands of its working people. That is a project which has as much to offer a northern worker raised Protestant as a southern worker raised Catholic, and there is no good reason why socialists shouldn’t come out and say so to them.

At various points in history that argument has appealed to the best of the Protestant working class in the north, and there are some reasons to believe that such a possibility can arise again. The all-class unionist alliance has never been as monolithic as it would like, with fissures repeatedly appearing from time to time. Many of the old certainties it built upon have crumbled since the 1960s, leaving behind anyone longing for the old days of Orange domination. It’s not impossible that unionism could recreate itself for the modern age, of course, especially if the north’s Catholics decide to join them rather than beat them. But the attempt to square so may circles could as easily raise a storm beyond its control, not for the first time.

And there is the overarching fact of economic crisis so deep that it shows all the signs of a prolonged period of instability where former rules don’t necessarily apply. Protestant workers in the north may prefer to retreat into the old unionist tradition, but it has less and less to offer. Some may become open to the idea of creating a different type of society in solidarity with their fellow workers north and south. In common with every other challenge the left faces, much depends on how ready, willing and able we are to go beyond a mere partial break with the status quo to place such an option on the table.

Revolutionary Lives: John Maclean

Issue 5 (November 1999) featured a discussion of the great Scottish socialist by Maeve Connaughton.

John Maclean was born on 24 August 1879 in Pollokshaws, not far from Glasgow. His father, a potter, died less than nine years later, leaving his mother to struggle at a variety of jobs in order to rear four children. Thanks to her sacrifices John was able to stay on at school, and eventually train as a teacher.

His involvement with the socialist movement began in late 1902 or early 1903 when he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), being already a convinced Marxist. He soon became a central figure in Glasgow socialism, throwing himself into speaking at street meetings and writing for the left-wing press. He also began a class in Marxist economics which drew large numbers of workers, and socialist education remained a con­stant concern for Maclean. The capitalists had colleges and universities to turn out the type of human being their system required; the working class, he said,  needed “such education as will make revolutionists”.

Marxism was never a matter of repeating formulas, as far as Maclean was concerned, but of engaging with and understanding the world: “Marxians do not fall back upon what Marx said here or there, but apply his principles to each set of circumstances as it arises. ‘Thus spake Marx’ is not the Marxian but the anti-Marxian method.” Not that Marx’s words were unimportant, as he stressed at the end of one particular talk:

I want you to go home and read the works of Karl Marx. If you read one or two good books they will do more good for your head and heart than a library of rubbish. What we want in this country today is an edu­cated working class. The millennium, if it is to come, must come from an educated working class. Today you can be swayed by speeches and pamphlets. But the person who has studied Marx and applied him to literature, to life in all its phases, can see things as they really are.

Theory, though, had to develop in close connection with practice: “Fighting leads to new facts, thus to our new theory and thence to revolution.”

Maclean shared many of the shortcomings of the contemporary socialist movement, however. He tended to downplay strikes, seeing them as justi­fied defensive actions but with no part to play in achieving socialism. This changed after he visited Belfast at Jim Larkin’s invitation in 1907. The strikes there were a radical movement of unskilled workers, a far cry from the staid trade unionism of skilled tradesmen that he was used to in Glas­gow. When the British version of Larkinism spread a few years later in the ‘great unrest’ that preceded the world war, Maclean was fully involved.

One of the biggest faults of the socialism of this period, internationally as well as in Britain, was its misunderstanding of the state, a misunder­standing that Maclean too was guilty of. He accused those who said social­ism would come about by direct seizure of workplaces of denying “the naturalness of the state”; the state’s responsibilities had progressively ex­panded, and the job of socialists was “to carry forward this growth of the duties of the state until the social revolution has been accomplished”. He claimed that “the various states were the supreme representatives of associ­ated mankind.… these states must be captured by the workers.” There is nothing in the least natural about the existence of parliaments, police, prisons and the rest, of course; but it wasn’t until the Russian revolution that Maclean—and others—would grasp that such states had to be got rid of, not taken over.

Waging the class war

When war broke out in 1914, Maclean and his family were on holiday in the Highlands: his initial response was to write anti-war graffiti on any available wall. Back in Glasgow he began regular meetings in the city centre, arguing that the war was a crime born of capitalism’s desire for profit, and that British workers should stand together with German work­ers instead of going out to kill them. Many other socialists went to ground and retreated from their regular round of meetings, but Maclean always managed to draw a crowd and get a hearing.

Such a stand was not only extremely brave at the start of the war, but also extremely rare. Like most of its counterparts in Europe the leadership of the British Socialist Party (the BSP, as the SDF had become in 1911) capitulated, arguing that the war effort should be supported to defeat the evil of German militarism. “Our first business is to hate the British capital­ist system”, replied Maclean. Amidst all the patriotic slaughter, he wrote, “it is our business as socialists to develop ‘class patriotism’, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. The real enemies of German militarism were the German socialists, and the defence of capital­ist profit should be left to the capitalist class themselves.

The class war at home broke out in earnest in 1915. Attempts to raise rents in Glasgow led to a rent strike across the city; when munitions work­ers threatened to strike in support, the government restricted all rents to pre-war levels. In the munitions factories themselves workers faced a con­certed attack: unskilled workers were introduced, workers faced the pros­pect of conscription, and it was made illegal to strike or even to move to another factory. As government, employers and even union officials lined up in the attempt to smash militant trade unionism in Glasgow, the rank and file organised independently, and the Clyde Workers’ Committee was born.

In this situation revolutionary socialism got a ready audience, and Maclean steadily pushed the revolt of the Clydeside workers. The fight, he argued, should broaden out to involve all sections of the working class, and should take on the wider issues: opposition to the war, and to capitalism itself. “The only war that is worth waging is the Class War,” he wrote, “the workers against the world exploiters, until we have obtained industrial freedom.”

The authorities were not about to let such activity go unchecked. At the end of 1915 Maclean received five days’ imprisonment for making state­ments likely to prejudice recruiting, and was sacked from his job. He was arrested again the following February as the government moved to break the Clyde Workers’ Committee. This time the courts were not so lenient, and he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. In prison he wasn’t allowed to read, write, or associate with others, and the harsh criminal reg­ime began to affect his health.

But the stand of Convict 2652 was drawing international attention. In Zürich Lenin instanced Maclean as a representative of the trend that had remained loyal to socialism. In June 1917 the first All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, following the overthrow of Tsarism, sent greetings and solidarity to the political prisoner. In Britain a working-class campaign for Maclean’s release was gathering momentum. When the prime minister Lloyd George visited Glasgow to receive the freedom of the city, he was met by huge crowds, not to welcome him but to demand free­dom for John Maclean. The government backed down and let him go after serving just over a year.

He took up where he left off, never neglecting the task of socialist edu­cation: over 500 Glasgow workers enrolled for the classes he organised. The October revolution in Russia vindicated the revolutionary opponents of the war, and recognised Maclean’s own contribution. He was elected among the honorary presidents of the Congress of Soviets, and appointed consul for Soviet Russia in Glasgow. The important thing now was to emulate the Russian revolution in Britain—not to wait, like some social­ists, for capitalism to ‘inevitably’ fall apart: he insisted that “if capitalism is to be ‘sent west’ it will only be the result of the delivery of the greatest knock-out blow ever given, and that this blow must be given by a united, revolutionary working class”.

Maclean’s activity was again interrupted in April 1918 when he was arrested on a charge of sedition. He turned his trial the following month into a propaganda platform. When informed of his right to object to any of the respectable Glaswegians on the jury, he replied: “I object to the whole of them!” In his speech from the dock he proclaimed that no government would prevent him speaking and protesting. “I am not here, then, as the accused: I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.” In conclusion he threw down the gauntlet:

I am a Socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my con­duct.… I have nothing to retract. I have nothing to be ashamed of. …my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and only they, can bring about the time when the whole world will be one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.

The jury didn’t even bother to retire before finding Maclean guilty on all counts, and the judge condemned him to five years’ penal servitude. As he was led away to the cells Maclean turned to his comrades in the public gallery and shouted: “Keep it going, boys! Keep it going!”

They did keep it going: demonstrations in Glasgow demanded Maclean’s release, and he was nominated as a candidate in the forth­coming general election. He refused to take prison food and was force-fed by the authorities. Following the end of the war the government found, for the second time, that he was more dangerous in prison than out, and rel­eased him in December. His ill-health left him unable to play a big part in his election campaign, but what campaigning he did focussed not on catching votes but on the class struggles that would follow the war. 7,000 voters agreed with him.

The Irish situation

At the same election Ireland voted for independence, and John Maclean supported the demand wholeheartedly. On a visit to Dublin in July 1919, however, he showed his ignorance. He was not the first or last British soc­ialist who needed putting right when he referred to Britain as ‘the main­land’. While correctly pointing out that “Irish Labour would not be free under a Sinn Fein Republic, but only under a Socialist, Workers’ Repub­lic”, at this stage he saw the fight for Irish independence as subordinate to the struggles of British workers—soldiers included: “I urged that Ireland alone could never gain her freedom, that her Republic depended on the re­volt and success of British Labour, and that therefore the Irish workers ought not to antagonise the soldiers of occupation in Ireland, but should try to win them over to the Irish point of view”.

He later came to understand that a defeat for the British in Ireland would mean “the beginning of the end of the British empire… British lab­our will consequently have an easier task in seizing political power”. He saw the Irish working class overtaking the British: indeed, he was unfortu­nately optimistic in his hope that they would “before the republic has really been started convert it into a socialist republic”.

Overcoming its apathy as regards British rule in Ireland was therefore paramount for the British working class. “This is more important than pro­testing against higher rents or the high cost of living. It is acquiescing and participating in the murder of a race rightly protesting its own right to rule itself.” Socialists who failed to recognise this much were no revolutionaries as far as Maclean was concerned:

The Irish situation, obviously, is the most revolutionary that has ever arisen in British history, but unfortunately lads who fancy themselves the only revolutionaries are too stupid or too obsessed with some little crotchet to see with sufficient clarity the tight corner the Irish are plac­ing Britain in.
The Irish Sinn Feiners, who make no profession of Socialism or Communism, and who are at best non-Socialists, are doing more to help Russia and the Revolution than all we professed Marxian Bolshe­viks in Britain…

He called for a general strike to force a British withdrawal from Ireland.

Marxism in Britain

In the aftermath of the war British socialists were busy trying to bring the various groups on the left together into a united revolutionary party able to organise for socialist revolution. But the process was flawed from the beg­inning. As in much of Europe, revolutionaries were in too much of a hurry to separate themselves, and were inspired more by the Russian example than by the workers’ movement in their own country.

With his Marxist training, his stand against the war, and his opposition to reformism, no one was better qualified than John Maclean to play a leading role in a revolutionary party in Britain. Instead an assortment of recent converts and simple fly-by-nights came to assume leadership posi­tions. Maclean insisted that the best help British workers could give the Russian revolution was to develop a revolution of their own. The BSP lead­ership wanted a single-issue Hands Off Russia campaign, with Maclean abandoning all his other agitation to be the campaign’s paid full-timer. In­stead of winning unity on an honest theoretical and practical basis, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was, to a large extent, characterised by organisational manoeuvre and liberal use of Russian subsidies. Maclean was effectively expelled from the BSP in 1920, and thus excluded from the Communist Party being formed.

Maclean was determined to put together a revolutionary organisation with its roots in the British working class, not an outfit operating on a Russian franchise. “We stand for the Marxian method applied to British conditions. The less Russians interfere in the internal affairs of other coun­tries at this juncture, the better for the cause of Revolution in those coun­tries.” For all his admiration for the Bolsheviks, he recognised that the tactics that proved successful in Russia couldn’t just be transferred to diff­erent situations: “I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow. The Communist Party has sold itself to Moscow, with disastrous results both to Russia and the British Revolutionary Movement.” Instead of getting to grips with the situation in Britain, “the Socialists are discussing whether Lenin can wink as well with the right eye as the left eye”.

A Scottish workers’ republic

Maclean gathered a small group of socialists who brought out a paper and engaged on a tireless round of campaigning, drawing hundreds of workers to their meetings. They called for a separate Scottish communist party to be formed, to fight for an independent Scottish workers’ republic.

Firstly, Maclean argued, breaking up the British empire could only help socialism: “Scottish separation is part of the process of England’s imperial disintegration and is a help towards the ultimate triumph of the workers of the world.” An independent Scotland would frustrate the war plans of the English ruling class. Secondly, he claimed that Scottish workers were more socialist than English workers: “The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England.” Thirdly, the demand for a Scottish republic could help in “utilising our latent Highland and Scottish sentiments and traditions” in the cause of socialism: “The Communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis.” And fourthly, “an entente between the Celts of Scotland and the Celts of Ireland” would be established, and Irish workers in Scotland would rally to the Scottish workers’ republic.

Maclean wildly overestimated the sense of Celtic solidarity between Irish and Scottish workers, and was to complain a couple of years later that Glasgow’s Irish community voted against him en masse. While Maclean’s work for socialism in the Highlands was outstanding, the clans’ common ownership of land was barely even a memory by this stage. While Clyde­side workers had indeed scaled heights of militancy during and after the war, any idea that Scotland as a whole was more ripe for revolution than the rest of Britain was untrue. Separation from England would, of course, have helped break up the British empire—but Scottish workers showed no inclination to go any further than home rule within Britain. Although it should have gone without saying that all socialists should uphold Scot­land’s right to separate from England if it so desired, Maclean was mis­taken to put separation forward as his central demand.

Espousing a Scottish road to socialism was a completely new departure for Maclean. Until now he had always insisted on the working class fight­ing together in an all-British context. Before the war he had gone so far as to describe the proposal for a Scottish parliament as “a retrograde step”. And even now, while advocating a separate organisation for Scottish soc­ialists, he still advocated a single organisation for all of Britain’s trade unionists.

The change in direction was undoubtedly influenced by Ireland. Maclean’s solidarity with the fight for Irish independence led him to attempt a Scottish imitation. His call for a Scottish communist party explic­itly cited the Irish precedent: “We in Scotland must not let ourselves play second fiddle to any organisation with headquarters in London, no more than we would ask Dublin to bend to the will of London.” The Scot­tish situation was very different from the Irish, however: any disadvantages that Scotland suffered within Britain paled beside the British imperial opp­ression of Ireland.

The main motivation for Maclean’s new policy must have been an attempt to break new ground after being pushed out of the embryonic CPGB. He quoted “The corruption of the London communists” as one just­ification for a separate Scottish party. His new-found, albeit deeply-felt, support for a Scottish socialist republic has to be seen in this context. Est­ablishing Scotland as a new theatre for revolutionary practice (an idea that other Scottish socialists were considering) would allow him to take part in establishing a real socialist party—revolutionary and in full sympathy with the Bolsheviks, but free of the sectarianism and Russophilia of the CPGB.

Maclean’s shift was never a retreat to Caledonian parochialism, how­ever, but an attempt to find a new path towards the internationalist vision he still remained loyal to:

When all empires are broken up and the workers by political control start to make land and wealth-producing property common property, when of the wealth produced all get sufficient to give them life abun­dantly with leisure and pleasure and education added thereunto, then all the independent workers’ republics will come together into one great League or Parliament of Communist Peoples, as a stage towards the time in the future when inter-marriage will wipe out all national differ­ences and the world will become one.

Bolshevik, communist, revolutionary, Marxist

Maclean and his supporters were to the fore in organising Glasgow’s un­employed—work which again attracted the authorities’ attention in April 1921 when Maclean was arrested for inciting sedition. At his trial the following month he denied that the revolution he called for meant uncon­trolled bloodshed. When the prosecutor asked him what exactly he did mean by revolution, Maclean held out one hand above the other, saying that they represented the two classes in society. Then he turned them around so that the lower hand was now on top. That, he said, was revolu­tion. He was sentenced to another three months in prison.

He was only out a couple of months before he was arrested again, for telling the unemployed to take food rather than starve. While in jail he stood as a revolutionary candidate in a local election, and easily beat the Labour candidate into third place. At his trial he was once again sent to prison, this time for twelve months. Yet again he was nominated for elec­tion while a prisoner, and doubled his vote. In the 1922 parliamentary election he stood, according to his election address, “as a Bolshevik, alias a Communist, alias a Revolutionist, alias a Marxian”. The 4,000 votes he got were obviously not due to watering down his politics!

In February 1923 Maclean formed the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, an organisation which made up for its smallness by its activism. But at this stage his personal situation was desperate. Since being dismissed as a teacher he had lived on whatever was collected at his meetings, but now most of his listeners were unemployed and had nothing to give. He was subsisting on a diet of porridge, and the fact that he had spent half of the last seven years in prison had taken a terrible toll on his health.

That winter he stood in the general election, calling on the working class to end capitalist robbery by a revolution that would transfer the means of production to the community. But he didn’t live until polling day: he had to be carried from an election platform, and on 30 November 1923 John Maclean died of double pneumonia aged only 44. Three days later 10,000 people attended his funeral, remembering a life that was dedicated to the freedom of the working class in Scotland, in Britain, in all the world.

Cutting both ways

Maeve Connaughton reviewed an attempt to understand and oppose the austerity agenda in Issue 56 (June 2014).

Kieran Allen with Brian O’Boyle, Austerity Ireland: The Failure of Irish Capitalism (Pluto Press)

Socialists are notorious for taking a keen interest in the process of production, and the same should go for the books we read. When two authors appear on a cover, one of them writing “with” the other, the usual assumption is that the second has been ghostwriting for the first. Or at least, that the latter has been assembling facts and statistics to fill the holes in the former’s argument. A possible division of labour is suggested by the difference between the reference-heavy Chapters 1-7 of this book and the rest, which is noticeably lighter in that regard. The fact that only one author is mentioned in the back cover blurb tells us that the other’s billing was added at the last moment, but the phrase “Copyright © Kieran Allen” in amongst the front matter shows who was boss.

How and ever, the result is a book which marshals a welter of facts on what the recession has done to us. It is useful to bring together even familiar stories in one place, and every reader is likely to encounter interesting things for the first time here. Plenty of raw material for getting our heads around our present predicament is to be found within these covers.

How big capital in Ireland gets out of paying tax is expounded, as well as official facilitation of it, and (p 100-1)

it begs the question why does the Irish state connive in allowing a gigantic multinational to avoid its already low corporate tax rate?… Why, it must surely be asked, must its own population suffer so much in order to show immense tax generosity to global corporations?

It surely must, and the same could be asked of the entire range of state actions which serve the interests of the rich at the expense of everyone else. A socialist answer would go some way to explaining that the state doesn’t in fact belong to us, that it is ultimately an instrument of that capitalist class, that its nature is to advance their interests, for much the same reason that cats chase mice. The authors’ answers fall a good bit short of that mark, however. They tell us that an “attitude of deference to the corporate elite runs deep in official Ireland”, detect a “policy bias of the Irish state towards neo­liberalism”, and go so far as to claim that “the political elite were intimately linked to the big corporations” (p 4, 30, 5). An attitude, a bias, even an intimate link don’t come close to the sheer class essence of what we are up against politically.

This reluctance to brand the state leads to confusion around its involvement in the economy. “Nationalisation is often thought of as a left-wing policy”, Allen and/or O’Boyle write, but when Irish banks were nationalised it “was about taking control of debt—not assets… There was no talk of sharing the profits with society” (p 7). So presumably, if the banks had a healthier balance sheet, and Brian Lenihan had spread that around a bit, then nationalising them would have been left-wing? The two “radical left” approaches to the question are defined (p 147): “Some favour ownership by the existing state while others link it to a demand for workers control.” So on the one hand the capitalist state can just nationalise something, or then again it might give the workers a say in it: not unlike choosing whether to spread jam or marmalade on your toast. Later they explain that “workers’ control” means “genuine workers’ involvement—and, indeed, self-management” (p 161). Nowhere to be seen in this picture is the idea that the workers need to take over rather than just take part, depriving the capitalists of their economic domination rather than settling for a share in administering it.

“The stark reality behind the Irish story is that austerity is not working”, claims the book’s central argument (p 23). Half a decade of cutting to the bone, tightening belts, and mixing other metaphors has significantly reduced the living standards of most people in Ireland, with nothing to show for it all (p 37): “With investment declining, household consumption reducing and cuts in government spending increasing, it is difficult to see how the Irish economy can fully recover.” Widespread as the argument is, it misses some points which don’t bear missing.

Austerity has never been about generating some mythical rising tide to lift all boats, but about shifting wealth from the working class to capitalists. Recovery in a capitalist economy means no more and no less than a recovery of profit on capital: nothing else matters to such an economy. Allen and O’Boyle recognise that recessions allow some capitalists to swallow the business of their failed competitors, and even that profits in Ireland had got back around pre-recession levels by 2011, but they all but rule out the possibility that this could grow: “there is little evidence to show that” (p 36). They go on to quote figures illustrating a decline in the amount and rate of investment, down to €16 billion and 8 per cent in 2011. However, those figures themselves show the decline starting to slow down, which should have counselled caution. Subsequent figures show just how previous they are: investment was up to €17 billion and 8.8 per cent in 2012, €18 billion and 10 per cent the year after.

A bizarre variety of wishful thinking on the left assumes that the decline of capitalism will take care of itself, that every recession can be confidently hailed as the final countdown. But if capitalism can successfully utilise a recession to extract a greater surplus from the wealth workers create, then they have a chance of getting their show back on the road—even if the revival looks a bit bockety compared to its glory days. Capitalists impose austerity on us for a reason. If we don’t understand that, we can only see them as evil geniuses sadistically getting off on the hardship of others. In the movies, such beautiful wickedness melts upon accidental contact with water, but a much harder rain will have to fall on capitalism before it departs the stage.

The authors point to the loaded dice handed to those who question austerity, forcing them to explain where the money will come from to plug the holes: “they have to give an answer to a problem caused by the system without questioning the nature of the system itself”, and all within the confines of a soundbite (p 30-1). Fortunately, no such constraints hold them back here, as Pluto Press have given them 180-odd pages to question the hell out of the system. They want “to challenge capitalism rather than manage it and this means looking to Marx rather than Keynes” (p 156). But for all the space and the radical boasts, the alternatives they propose don’t challenge the basis of capitalism at all.

They rightly call low corporation tax “the great sacred cow of Irish politics” (p 91), but just can’t bring themselves to slaughter it. When they get round to concrete proposals (p 159) they only call for 12.5 per cent to be the effective rate rather than the headline rate. This would at most double it, leaving workers on the average wage still paying income tax at a higher rate—although they coyly refer to the possibility of unspecified “further increases where necessary”. Other proposals look for employers to pay more, but don’t say how much more. Their demand for “a Robin Hood tax on all financial speculation” doesn’t put a figure on it either, but we can safely assume it would be nothing like the 100 per cent which Robin Hood himself reputedly levied on the rich.

Where they do go into specifics, their prescriptions tend to be alarmingly weak. Rather than let the bondholders go whistle for their payments, Allen and O’Boyle want us to “write down these debts to a pre-crash level” (p 157). However, the return on government bonds is now lower than it was before the 2008 crash, and has been since late 2012, so putting it back to pre-crash levels would actually make bondholders richer.

Likewise, their solution to penal mortgage debt is to “write down house values to 2003 levels for those in financial need” (p 158). The latest figures from the Department of the Environment show a new house costing €231,011 on average and a second-hand house €257,462. At the end of 2003 the new house was €235,688 and the second-hand house €277,818. So turning the clock back to 2003 values would actually leave things a bit worse. In 2003 house prices were at ridiculous levels, forcing thousands of workers to beggar themselves and get saddled with ball-and-chain mortgages on un­suitable houses. Socialists used to wear themselves out pointing out the unfairness of it all back then, but how quickly some people forget! The important thing for socialists must be to argue that housing is a social need which should be provided collectively, not left to the mercy of the market.

Worst of all is their suggestion that people employed on a public works programme be “paid at just over the minimum wage” (p 158). This would represent a severe cut in the going rate for construction and infrastructural work, worse than anything employers have been able to impose in the recession, and on a par with the compulsory labour schemes now being forced on the unemployed. There is something very distasteful about two academics—a breed not noted for material self-denial—expecting other people to spill their sweat at hard physical labour for €9 or €10 an hour.

Lenin had a point when he said that politics is a concentrated form of economics. When people see capitalism as a system too weak to preserve itself, they underestimate the work needed against it. It makes sense for them to try and bring the capitalist state to look after the people’s interests, primarily through taking a bigger role in the economy. It is logical, then, that their political agitation would focus on reforms which “challenge” capitalism into being a fairer version of itself.

The big difference from social democracy in its heyday is that Allen and O’Boyle actually set their sights lower. The accusation they level at Sinn Féin that “Repeatedly in Irish history, Irish republicans have employed a left rhetoric to win a popular base and then used positions won to manage capitalism” (p 146) is fair enough, but they forget that the very same could be said of self-proclaimed socialists, even Marxists. They usually get a bit further up the electoral ladder before quietly leaving aside talk of ending capitalism—but then, many things end up getting cut in a recession.

The book concludes with a call for building “a large and substantial Left in Ireland. The conditions for doing so have never been more opportune” (p 165). Given that at least one of the authors has been whistling that same tune in vain for decades now, it is fair to ask why it should be correct this time round. It is admitted here that “Ireland’s radical left” is “historically insignificant, and its ideas have barely penetrated the workers’ movement in any substantial way” (p 129). It is a refreshingly frank confession of failure, and contains in itself part of the explanation. As long as socialist ideas are held separate to the movements of the working class, something external over here trying to “penetrate” those movements over there, they are destined to remain the precepts of cliques. The first step from that is to realise that socialism is no more than the generalised expression of the working class as it has fought to vindicate its right to a human existence, that socialists have no agenda of their own to insert into the movement, only lessons to draw from the historical and contemporary experience of workers themselves. That experience belies the conventional quest to reconstitute capitalism on a fairer basis, and suggests that an escape from austerity could not hold back from ideas and actions which would necessarily end up pointing to a society beyond capitalism.

From here to austerity

Maeve Connaughton reviewed a book on the background to Ireland’s economic crash in Issue 46, in December 2011.

Conor McCabe, Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (History Press)

30 September 2008: a date which will live in infamy. The Irish ruling class launched its own Pearl Harbor on us, pledging everything the state had or could take from us to stand between the banks and all harm. That bank guarantee, together with the bailout it entailed, figures here like the body in the swimming pool at the start of Sunset Boulevard, the book going back to the start to explore how the fatal deed came about.

A frighteningly large aspect of the crisis is the difficulty thousands have in keeping a roof over their heads, and McCabe’s opening chapter on the subject is little short of masterly. Right from the foundation of the Free State, public housing policy bent over backwards to undermine public housing, providing houses not so much for people to live in as for builders and speculators to buy and sell and get rich quick from. Local authorities renting out accommodation ended up as “the housing of last resort” (p 31). Even when they did build houses, they often did so to sell rather than rent, with much of their rental stock subsequently sold off: “What had been paid for collectively had been sold off individually. The de facto privatisation of Irish housing” (p 32).

Long before the boom that just bust, housing in Ireland was a subject of naked exploitation, the price of a place to live being pushed up by state encouragement and refusal to provide an alternative. When saddling yourself with a mortgage was the only way to get a secure home, little wonder that people were desperate to do just that. The harsh and unfair realities explain this, not something innate in the Irish character. The author shows that, contrary to the accepted ignorance, the level of house ownership in Ireland is around the EU average or even a little lower. “The myths which saturate the subject of housing in Ireland, the false histories and pop psychologies, the sheer laziness of analysis which is brought to bear on the topic” (p 55) are well and truly debunked.

The next chapter doesn’t scale such heights, being a fairly derivative look at the development of Irish agriculture. Farming remained firmly based on the interests of the ranchers and the British economy, with small farmers last and definitely least. But attempts at left analysis of this area of Irish society and economy are painfully backward, and it is annoying to see this one break off in the 1950s as the state moved to more openly embrace multinational capital. The half-century since contains a plentiful furrow of agricultural injustice to be ploughed and a lot more myths to be uprooted.

Livestock farming is presented as the conduit for British influence: “although the Irish Free State gained partial independence in 1922, its economy, via the cattle industry, remained intertwined with that of the UK” (p 11). That word “intertwined”, with its suggestion of mutual connection, is laughably inaccurate, unless prisoners are intertwined with their jailers. The Free State’s economy was under the thumb of British imperialism, and there was far more to it than the terms of cattle trade. Time-honoured methods of imperial power were there to back up the sheer weight of market dominance, up to and including military force. While Sins of the Father deservedly excoriates those in government in Dublin over the years, the British rulers breathing down Ireland’s neck, and the constraints that imposed, are all but absent. After all, the sins of the grandfather must bear some of the blame.

As the author lays bare a fascinating story of state-sponsored profiteering, an even more conspicuous absentee is the role the labour movement often played in reinforcing injustices it should by rights have been combating. Yes, the generation leading up to the present crash was one of brass-neck speculation with little tax and less regulation, but it was also a generation where the leadership of the unions openly ranged itself on the same side as the capitalists and governments responsible. Social partnership is not so much as mentioned here at all, despite the fact that the one-sided nature of the game is in large part down to the way that our team was shooting into its own goal. The book’s digs at the Green Party for promoting what it claimed to be stopping are accurate, but why kick a dead dog when a live one is still whimpering away?

For instance, when you read of policy premised on “providing ‘affordable’ housing for those in secure employment with relatively high wages” (p 22) you think you’re in the 2000s rather than the 1920s. When the rampant house prices of the Celtic Tiger got beyond the means of workers on or a bit above average earnings, the logical conclusion would have been to expand social housing to provide a far wider proportion of the working class with decent homes to rent. But this would have meant ‘respectable’ workers (a category which unfailingly seems to include teachers, nurses and gardaí) having to take their place in the queue with poorer workers. For all its hand-wringing over ‘social exclusion’, the trade union movement took official umbrage at this, and the concept of ‘affordable housing’ was conjured up, yet another tier of housing provision—a separate, more respectable tier. It did little to ease the problem, but much to under­line the weakness of a labour movement that pursues the narrowly understood interests of its members above the need to tackle injustice faced by the working class as a whole. But despite being a glaring example of what this book is about, the debacle of affordable housing doesn’t make its pages.

The author presents a more uncomplicated, apparently simpler enemy: “an indigenous moneyed class based around cattle, construc­tion and banking. These sectional interests were able to control successive government policy, much to the detriment of the rest of the economy” while “indigenous exporters” got no help from the state (p 10). McCabe sees the bank guarantee as a stick beating us all, not just the working class but also “the majority of Irish businesses” (p 153). This is to draw a fault-line, not between those of us who have to work for a living and the capitalists we have to work for, but between good innovative productive capitalists and bad speculating financial capitalists.

The idea of shifting the emphasis of government policy towards promoting indigenous capital is repeatedly lauded in the book. This is so even when the idea is advocated in reports by management consultants, one of which apparently “offered viable solutions to help the Irish economy grow on a solid, sustainable level” (p 124).

But how viable would it have been for Ireland to have developed a strong industrial capitalism in the twentieth century? Imperialism had already divided up most of the spoils. Economies with the advantage of size and population could give it a shot, as well as ex-colonies that were far away from their former masters. But the misfortune of geography compounded Ireland’s position as an integral and sub­ordinate minor part of the British economy, with partition cutting the 26 counties off from an industrial heartland. Finding an equal place for themselves in world capitalism was a less likely option for budding Irish capitalists than slotting in “as an interface between foreign capital and the Irish State” (p 114).

Likewise, the turn from the production of actual commodities to financial gambling is far more than a policy choice in Merrion Street. It is a shift that capitalism has undergone globally, driven by the system’s inherent tendency to diminish its own rate of profit. Ireland bucking that trend, within capitalism, was hardly on the cards.

While every page of this book turns up more reasons to kick Irish capitalism to the kerb, it approvingly quotes a good few people who would run the proverbial million miles from such an intention. Shane Ross comes out most favourably of all, someone who has done some good in the muckraking line but who would do serious damage if let loose on economic policy. Economists who opposed NAMA are given great prominence—with the name, rank and academic serial number of each tiresomely enunciated in a footnote that takes up half of page 213—even though they envisage nothing in the way of left-wing policies.

But the author’s own sympathies appear to lie with an approach put forward by a group of left-of-centre economists last year (p 188-9):

it set out to explain why the government’s deflationary policies were counterproductive, and what the government could do to help, rather than hinder, growth.… Borrowings should be used to enhance and modernise the country’s infrastructure, as such investments lower business costs for all in the long term, and they stimulate growth… ‘Embedding investment, rather than debt, into the economy,’ they said, ‘while restructuring taxation and expenditure in a progressive and expansionary manner to ensure a job-rich recovery—this, and not the current deflationary strategy, is the road to success.’

It is an approach that seems to have become hegemonic on the left as its tries to respond to the crisis. But this attempted Keynesian reboot of capitalism amounts to trading in old myths for a new one. Capitalist economies grow by exploiting workers to the maximum, not satisfying their needs, by cutting jobs to the bone, not providing employment. Calling for increased social provision is right and necessary, but makes no sense when it is presented in the interests of ‘the economy’ in the abstract, rather than the interests of flesh-and-blood people. In truth, the very fact that there exists such a thing as an economy separate from flesh-and-blood people is the root of the problem.

Another fatal flaw in the reflationary strategy is that it is to be carried out by the state, the very same state which McCabe’s book repeatedly points up as an inherently capitalist entity. From the “private sector that needed public money in order to deliver an ‘efficient’ service” in the 1920s (p 17) to the state “being a lodger in its own country” in the 1960s, grant-aiding the construction of offices it then rented (p 100) to the government that “put up the entire Irish State as collateral” for the banks in 2008 (p 169), this state has been an indispensable component at the heart of Irish capitalism. It is so much part of the problem, and so not part of the solution. The state is not a car that anyone can get into and drive in whatever direction they choose, because the steering is stuck permanently to the right. It needs to be replaced by another type of vehicle entirely—a special purpose vehicle of the working class, to coin a phrase—that can attack capitalism at source.

Sins of the Father is one of the best books you could read to find out how venal capitalism is in Ireland, how the hardships it is currently inflicting are cut from the same cloth it has always traded in. But this historic and contemporary reality is so rotten that hoping for some kind of good capitalism to take its place is forlorn. When it is literally being brought home to people just how bad the system really is, advocating a clean break and a fresh start makes more sense than a reshuffling of the pack. As the author says, “it falls on us to make different choices” (p 195), and it falls on socialists to put the choice of total transformation front and centre.

A false economy

Maeve Connaughton reviewed two attempts at a socialist response to the economic crisis in Issue 39 (December 2010).

Kieran Allen, Ireland’s Economic Crash: A Radical Agenda for Change (Liffey Press)
An Economy for the Common Good: Strategy for a new direction (Communist Party of Ireland, €4.50)

Kieran Allen’s book appears, as he writes, “At a time when the living standards of PAYE workers are being severely reduced” (p 177). All the more reason, then, that they shouldn’t be charged €17 to read all about it. Does he not know there’s a recession on? In all seriousness, times like these call for socialists to take real account of the afford­ability, and hence accessibility, of their arguments.

Both these publications give a solid and useful account of the way the economy has gone belly-up in Ireland and globally, and the painful social consequences that have followed. An Economy for the Common Good features an admirable analysis of Irish economic history to illustrate the peculiar weaknesses of capitalism here. Allen, on the other hand, refers only to “many complex historic reasons” for this (p 14), without telling us what they are: his history only really starts in the 1990s.

Both analyses agree, however, in locating the source of capitalist crisis primarily in the sphere of consumption. The system’s problem, according to Allen, is that capitalists hold down wages, and hence “workers cannot buy the goods that have been produced… the more they succeed, the more they reduce the buying power of workers and feed into the problem” (p 95, 97). An Economy for the Common Good sings from a similar hymn sheet, asking “if production is increased while the wages of the workers—who are also the majority of the final consumers—are held down, how can the rising volume of goods be sold” (p 41)?

Strange, then, if low wages are the cause of capitalism’s woes, that the capitalist class always and everywhere strives to reduce wages as much as it can get away with. A vast sector of the economy doesn’t produce consumption goods for workers at all, but machinery and technology for other companies: how would higher wages help to sell those? Crisis originates, not from workers’ decreasing consumption, but from their decreasing role in produc­tion: the tendency for their labour to become a proportionally smaller part compared to other inputs, and therefore for the surplus value they produce to reduce in relation to overall investment. If capitalism gets out of its current predicament, it will be by extracting more profit from workers and paying them less in return, not more.

Focussing on the capitalist labour process like this points logically to the need for a whole new economic system. The under­consumption argument, how­ever, logically leads to the conclusion that stimulating consumer demand can revive the economy. Allen calls government stimulus packages “a form of ‘Keynesian­ism from above’” (p 80), as if the theories of John Maynard Keynes were ever based on something other than state inter­vention. His call for a large-scale public works programme is classically Keynes­ian, even if he hopes for this Keynesianism to come from below. Of course, we should be building more schools, better hospitals, decent houses, but purely for the benefit of the working class, not as a measure to revive the fortunes of the capitalist economy.

Understanding the recession “entails returning to the ideas of the greatest critic of the system, Karl Marx” (Allen, p 84). Indeed, reading Marx’s analysis of capitalism is one of the most profitable things you could be doing at the moment. But you can only return somewhere once you’ve been there in the first place. Both public­ations ignore Marx’s insistence that exploitation is rooted in produc­tion rather than consumption, that while capitalism systematically fails to meet human needs, its growth was never based on meeting them and neither can its collapse arise from failing to meet them. He was quite clear about it in Book Two of Capital:

It is a pure tautology to say that crises are provoked by a lack of effective demand or effective consumption. The capitalist system does not recognize any form of consumer other than those who can pay, if we exclude the consumption of paupers and swindlers. The fact that commodities are unsaleable means no more than that no effective buyers have been found for them, i.e. no consumers… If the attempt is made to give this tautology the semblance of greater profundity by the statement that the working class receives too small a share of its own product, and that the evil would be remedied if it received a bigger share, i.e. if its wages rose, we need only note that crises are always prepared by a period in which wages generally rise…

The cavalier attitude that so many self-proclaimed Marxists have towards Marx’s economics is on prominent display here. “Karl Marx, in his study of capitalism,” according to An Economy for the Common Good (p 11), “explained the tendency for individual capital units to become bigger and in so doing to oust the smaller capitalists, to stop the distribution of surplus value among smaller capitalists by price-fixing and by limiting the supply of material to them.” He did explain such a tendency, but not by such underhand means: while price fixing and other fiddles undoubtedly take place, the concen­tration of capital in fewer hands proceeds apace when the system operates entirely legally and above board. Allen quotes from Capital repeatedly, but if you follow his references, the text he cites usually doesn’t match up with the edition he refers to (p 90-1, 94-5, 117). Evidently he has lifted his quotations from someone else’s book but cobbled together footnotes that give the impression of having read Capital. It is a little disturbing to come across such an old student trick from such a leading academic personage.

More disturbing is the nationalistic framework that An Economy for the Common Good argues from. It sees the sovereignty of national capitalist states as some kind of bulwark against capitalism, but worse still, displays an unmistakably negative attitude to migration (p 39):

The “free movement of labour” is anything but free… whole families are split and communities wrecked so that the most able can go to another country and earn money, often in conditions of extreme exploitation, while local workers are unemployed… In such circumstances, policies of economic protection are the only method available to a national parliament answerable to the people with which to protect the population within its legal framework. Each country, in the face of ruthless trading, must do what it can to protect itself and its people.

This amounts to a sophisticated version of the claim that foreigners are taking jobs from “local workers” and that Ireland needs to ‘look after our own’. The exploitation of immigrant workers becomes a reason, not to combat that racist exploitation, but to restrict the entry of its victims. When a rich country closes its borders to poor immigrants, it is never out of concern for their families or communities, but an attempt to encourage prejudice against scape­goats. The duty of labour movements in such countries is to wel­come and organise them as equals, to defend their rights as tenaciously as any “local workers”. This responsibility should be greater than ever now in Ireland, as the recession is disproportion­ately attacking the jobs, conditions and entitlements of workers from other countries.

Both publications put forward similar demands to alleviate the current situation, demands that are becoming fairly common currency on the left: a state bank, nationalisation of oil and gas reserves, a public pension you could comfortably live on, and more besides that contains much merit. But is all this to reform capitalism or replace it?

An Economy for the Common Good is explicit here (p 2):

These proposals are not in them­selves revolutionary; they will not “smash capital”. The overthrow of capitalism requires that the working class and its allies refuse to be governed in the old way and that the ruling class is unable to rule in the old way. These circum­stances have not yet arrived.

Consequently it calls for “a profound democratisation of the role of the state, moving it away from being an instrument for imposing policies and protecting the interests of the powerful minority to being an instrument for ensuring that the will of the majority—of working people—is primary”, with parliaments being “forced to administer the state in favour of all the people” (p 51).

Of course we are not on the brink of revolution, but neither are we a million miles across an impassable chasm from it. The ruling class’s way of ruling has been severely upset lately, and many workers are a good bit less amenable to how they are being ruled. In these circumstances, socialists can put the idea of smashing capital up for serious discussion, rather than putting it into dismissive quotation marks. But that would require a recognition that capital’s state needs smashing and replacing too, instead of trying to remodel it into something it can never become.

Allen is better here: “we need to question the very fundamentals of the system… step beyond the parameters set by a for-profit economy”. His proposals are meant to be “Bridging mechanisms” that combine “a vision of what a different society might look like with certain policies which can be fought for now”. But while he wants a different state “which represents an entirely different class interest to the present one”, his demands could all be met within the boundaries of the capitalist system. So there is more here than the “certain ambiguity” he admits to: reform and revolution are blurred, with a new society stumbling into existence out of frustrated attempts to remould the old one, with no clear demarcation between the two (p viii, 84, 157-9).

An Economy for the Common Good is frankly nostalgic for the good old days of the USSR where the economy was apparently based on “providing for all citizens, not merely a privileged few” (p 13). This may come as a surprise to people who worked in that economy to fund superior lifestyles for their economic and political bosses. Allen has no such attachment to Stalinist economy, but surprisingly his chief objection to it is technical: the lack of “genuine transparency or accountability” in economic administration (p 210). His ideas for a workers’ economy are strikingly weak (p 184, 209):

In a socialist society, there would be monthly meetings organ­ised, on a non-hierarchical basis, where staff are allowed to propose changes in the organisation of the service.… Workers should periodically discuss how to run their enterprises. They should be free to discuss better ways to raise productivity…

This differs little from modern techniques of capitalist management that endlessly interact with staff, valuing their feedback and wel­coming their suggestions. In a truly socialist workplace, workers would not just be allowed a consultative role but would run the show themselves. And the same principle would apply to the political direction of society—an aspect on which Allen is mute.

Who exactly is going to turn the situation around? The answer is annoyingly vague: “people power” for Allen (p 207), “a politically organised people’s movement” for An Economy for the Common Good (p 50). But the ‘people’ is anyone and everyone, Tom, Dick, Harry, and whoever you’re having yourself: it’s a word that mystifies rather than clarifies. Marxist socialism, in contrast, is nothing if not clear that the working class and its struggles have to be in the saddle if capitalism is to be genuinely overcome. Allen, to give him his due, does speak of “the workers’ movement, the key agency in modern society which has the power to reorganise society” (p 158)—but socialism and “people power” are two separate and parallel tracks for him. With all these wheels within wheels, it looks as though the socialists are to emerge from the belly of populism when the time is right, like Greeks from a Trojan horse.

While the economic crisis hasn’t been as catastrophic as feared, it has shaken up a lot of things in society. It has obviously given some socialists the impetus to start talking about how the economy works or doesn’t work. What it hasn’t yet done is emboldened many of them to stand up openly for an absolute clean break with capitalism and all it crawls for. Too often, the left’s alternative comes across as a radical reconditioning of the vehicle that’s breaking down on us, when what we need is a scrappage scheme. The idea that we have to skirt around the notion of socialist transformation, smuggling it into the conversation as only a little thing after all, is a false economy, a dead end rather than a short cut. A bold advocacy of a complete social and economic overhaul can begin to create a real pole of political attraction for people seeking credible answers. We could surprise ourselves, because now is a time for socialists to come out with their ideas fighting. If not now, when?

Economical with the truth

As the recession dragged on, Maeve Connaughton offered this analysis of it in Issue 36 (June 2009).

I’ve seen the future, I can’t afford it
Tell you the truth sir, someone just bought it

Fry/White, ‘How to Be a Millionaire’

All that is solid melts into air, like the man said, and even more so if it wasn’t as solid as it looked. Economists are now crying into their cocktails over the Irish economy’s prospects, but it wasn’t always so. For an awful long time, there was an underlying trend for econ­omists to big up the Irish economy come what may. It had far less to do with economic analysis than with the ideological self-image of Irish capital. For the first time in its history, Irish capitalism seemed to be on the pig’s back, booming for all it was worth and sweeping all before it. Given its pathetic past, it couldn’t quite believe it itself.

A cute cattle dealer who sells a heifer for a tenner more than she’s worth can’t help boasting about it to everyone at the fair, even if it means spending his windfall twice over in the pub. Piling up profit is the heart of capitalism, of course, but it’s not enough. It also wants and needs to project itself as a good and necessary system—indeed the only one that in any way fits the nature of human beings, a permanent fact of life. It obviously has great difficulty doing so in times of economic collapse, when it can’t even do what it says on the tin. When a boom does come along, it reaches a fever pitch in making hay while the sun shines—ideological hay as well as economic.

And this is where the economists came in, the biggest majority of them being what Marx called “hired prize-fighters” rather than genuine investigators of economic reality. As economic forecasters, their collective record is poor. The move towards an unprecedented boom in the mid-1990s was the greatest shift in the history of Irish capitalism since it began to sink real roots during the Famine—and yet, the economists didn’t see it coming until it landed in their laps. They were all wise after the event, attributing it to this or that cause, but at the time they knew no more than the rest of us. Faced with a Celtic Tiger in the front room, most of them were at a loss as to what to make of it, never having beheld such an exotic beast before. But one or two of the fly boys saw the writing on the wall, and resolved to ride this wave. They crowned themselves the kings of wishful thinking, and consistently said that these good things that were happening were going to carry on happening. But just as they didn’t see it coming, they didn’t see it shuddering to a halt either until wiping the egg off their faces.

Not that us socialists have much to say for ourselves: our economic record could be a lot better. Our initial reaction to the Celtic Tiger was usually to deny its existence. When that was no longer tenable, we told each other that it wasn’t a real boom but an artificial one: nice try, but again, no cigar. Later we tended to say that there was a boom but that its benefits were being distributed unequally: true, but capitalism never has had and never can have an egalitarian boom.

The problem with short-term or even medium-term economic forecasting is taking so many different and interacting variables into account. If you throw a tennis ball into the air, it would be possible to scientifically establish where it will land. You would have to know the precise size, shape and weight of the ball and your hand, as well as the prevailing temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and a few other things—but you could work it out. Now imagine an armful of fifty tennis balls all thrown in the air at once. Trying to make out the trajectory of each of them, including those that bounce off each other, is a hopeless task that would drive anyone to drink. Short-term micro-economic ball-gazing—trying to predict when a boom or a slump is going to happen—is a mug’s game. Back in the 1850s, early in his economic studies, Marx used to often play this game: in 1851 he’d tell people the crisis was coming in 1852, in 1852 that it would come in 1853, and so on. One of his comrades, Wilhelm Wolff, even started a sweepstake on it, taking bets on what year Marx would finally get it right. Marx must have seen the funny side, because he dedicated Book One of Capital to Wolff.

What we can do, and what Marx succeeded in doing better than anyone, is understand the general workings of the capitalist economy. We can get to grips with how employers wring surplus value from workers. We can follow the way they increase their individual profitability by replacing workers with technology. We can see how, because that proportionally lessens the input of human labour-power which is the ultimate source of all profit, it depresses the overall profitability of the economy and brings about a tendency for the profit rate to go down over time. That investigation confirms that capitalism lives on a cycle of booms and slumps, but doesn’t help in the guessing game as to when and where boom becomes slump becomes boom again. But such an understanding can help us draw a few provisional conclusions about the type of economic crisis we are now in.

Not a few socialists are currently experiencing a Pavlovian reaction to events, salivating at the thought of a juicy big depression. An eighties revival is underway in left imagery, with downward-spiralling graphs featuring prominently. Socialists gleefully rubbing their hands while listening to doom-laden speeches presaging a return to the 1930s should think on, however. A knee-jerk rush to the most pessimistic judgement can end up playing into the hands of employers and politicians who are consciously spinning doomsday scenarios to soften workers up for more sacrifice. But anyway, hopes that capitalism is in its death throes are still very previous.

The crisis that is currently dogging the system is a financial crisis. Credit plays a crucial role in greasing the wheels of capitalism. Rather than companies waiting for last year’s profits to invest this year, banks advance them credit in the expectation of those profits turning up later. So there is always some kind of disconnect between the actual capital of the real economy and the fictitious capital circulating through financial institutions. But this necessary gap widened into a gaping chasm as they were allowed to lend like there was no tomorrow, and even lend the loans on to others. When the chickens came home to roost, the chasm could only be narrowed by writing off millions and a few major institutions going to the wall, in a process that is still painfully unfolding.

But that financial crisis has not yet grown over into a general slump in the real economy. While inability to access credit is starting to wipe out a whole layer of small business, the biggest corporations have a far greater capacity to keep the show on the road. Profits are clearly down, and very badly down in some cases, but the overall profitability of big business is not going through any catastrophic collapse. The capitalist economy as a whole has not sunk into depression. While finance capitalists may be getting familiar with the window ledges of their offices, productive capitalists won’t be jumping just yet.

The financial crisis could develop into a comprehensive econ­omic depression, as happened in the 1930s—but it won’t necessarily do so. Talk of ‘green shoots of recovery’ is more often than not a case of whistling past the graveyard, and the light they claim to see at the end of the tunnel could always be an oncoming train. Finance capital has become a much bigger and more integral component of capital in general, and its problems leak out further. But it is conceivable that capitalism could start recovering after a few bad years, with the recession performing its classical function of taking out the small fry of business for the big fish to gobble up. There won’t be any return to the boom years or anything like them, but the system could struggle through.

However, if we are not witnessing the last days of the capitalist empire, the outlook for Irish capitalism is very grim. The economic strategies that paved the way for the Celtic Tiger were based on encouraging growth in three main areas: finance, construction, and multinational investment. The crisis of finance capital is the very eye of the current storm. Construction was reliant on financial specul­ation, and the entire sector has crumpled along with that house of cards. Multinational corporations pulling in their horns are cutting or closing their operations here. In the boom years it looked as if Irish capital had backed all the right horses—now it looks as if they have all fallen on top of one another at Becher’s Brook and are headed straight for the glue factory.

So even if capitalism globally can manage to restrict the crisis and ride the storm, in the best case scenario, capitalism in Ireland will still suffer disproportionately. Small firms, along with the com­panies that are and will be biting the dust—financial institutions, building firms, branches of multinational outfits—are just where workers here are predominantly employed. This is why the rise in unemployment has been so sharp and so sudden. The extra demand this places on public services coincides with the emptying of the state coffers as a result of the pathetically low taxation of Celtic Tiger profits. We could well face a situation, not for the first time in our history, where any international recovery might still leave the Irish economy a good way behind.

One factor in the system’s last major failure, around 1973-4, was the high level of fight in the workers’ movement. The legacy of the radical sixties made it more difficult for capital to impose its traditional crisis remedy of intensifying the exploitation of workers. Today’s labour movement—certainly in capitalism’s traditional heartlands—doesn’t possess the same consciousness or combativity, and is led by people who seem willing to facilitate that traditional remedy if invited. They agree that all of us should pay our share for the sins of our bankers, as long as they can have a say in a fairer schedule of punishment. For all its nightmares, the capitalist class will sleep sounder unless and until workers can bypass such leaders.

When opposing cuts in wages or social welfare, labour leaders often do so on the basis that such cuts are not in the interest of capitalism itself. Reducing workers’ ability to purchase goods will worsen the situation, they say, and instead the state should be stim­ulating personal expenditure. Elements of this ‘underconsumption­ist’ explanation are also widespread amongst socialists, because it seems to make common sense—but in reality, it fails either to explain the crisis or inform a response to it.

For a start, a huge swathe of the economy produces machinery and materials intended for capitalist production rather than workers’ consumption. Whatever wage rises we might win, none of us will be buying aeronautical engines, for instance. If increased wages meant increased profits, bosses would be falling over themselves to con­cede them, instead of resisting them tooth and nail every chance they get. The state can introduce an artificial stimulus by throwing extra money into the economy, but such reflation can only be a one-off. A currency is only as good as the quantity of commodities it can buy, and speculators would rapidly devalue money that had nothing real behind it. Consumption did play a substantial part in fuelling the Celtic Tiger, but much of it was senseless and unsustainable, funded by the very credit bubble that has now burst. If economic recovery depends on us once again shelling out money we don’t have on things we don’t need for lifestyles we can’t bear, then we’re better off without it.

Socialists shouldn’t be wasting their time finding solutions on capitalism’s own terms. That system lives by taking wealth from working people, and will only revive if it can do that more effectively. An alternative approach that pushes the needs of work­ing people to the forefront cannot do other than break the command­ments of the capitalist bible.

Instead of being bailed out, banks that fail should be cheered to their doom like demolished blocks of slum flats. Not one of them is worth sacrificing a single special needs teacher for, a single cancer vaccination or a single children’s allowance. Our only concern should be to safeguard workers who have jobs, pensions or savings with them. Rather than heaping their losses on to the backs of working-class taxpayers, a new state bank could channel resources according to social need. It could fund workers to take over enterprises when their bosses make a hames of them. The money could come from taxing to the hilt all incomes over a sum in the low six figures. Specific demands should emerge in the course of con­crete struggles, but the crucial thing is refusing to be bound by the hallowed ground rules of capitalist economics. Rather than pander to the whims of the ‘international financial community’—a tiny clique who speculate on human destinies as if gambling on two flies climbing a wall—it is high time we had a bit of democracy in the running of our economic affairs.

Far more important than any analysis of economic statistics is how the working class react to it all. A whole generation has grown up that has never known a recession, and their response in particular is all to play for. Capitalism proving unable to provide what they have come to expect could be a catalyst for revolt. Trotsky once observed that the most auspicious time for workers to fight back is when the economy recovers somewhat from a recession that followed a boom, and such a period, if it materialises, would seem more favourable than the atmosphere of shock and awe that currently prevails. On the other hand, workers could well dive the wrong way. If there’s anywhere to go, we may just emigrate like we did in the 1980s and 1950s. Of course, if we’re particularly stupid we may, to the immense satisfaction of our enemies, try to blame the immigrants and kick them out. Or we may hang on for dear life to what little we have and be thankful it’s not less.

A battle of ideas is beginning to kick off about the big dilemmas we all face. Under severe attack, significant numbers of workers could draw the conclusion that the system attacking them should go. Whether they draw that conclusion, and whether they do what is necessary to translate it into effective action, depends on a lot of things—but the one that should concern us most is how far socialists are doing their job amongst them.