Back in 2012, Russia Today’s celebrity economist Max Keiser, an iconoclastic and caustic wit, commented on Ireland’s economic plight. He described the Irish people as “good peasants who prefer to starve rather than refuse to pay their landlords’ rent . . .”
At a time when the coalition government was meeting little resistance in its efforts to accommodate the Troika’s demand that workers pay for bankers’ and speculators’ greed, his quip had some validity. Before long, though, the situation changed.
Starting with a campaign against household charges, a very significant mobilisation of people began throughout the Republic. Thereafter the struggle against water charges energised tens of thousands of citizens, and the follow-on Right2Change initiative, in spite of difficulties, offered the vision of a possible path to progress. All of which confounded the cynical coalition partners, who tried to convince themselves that Irish working people were passive, subservient, and unwilling to protest.
The Right2Change movement alone made a meaningful impact on the political landscape of the Republic over the last few months. Elected representatives and community activists were brought together, and for the first time in many years important trade unions have become involved in the leadership of a mass social movement. The group has launched huge street demonstrations and encouraged local communities to organise at the grass roots. It has laid out an agreed set of principles, arguing for an economy more conducive to the needs of working people than the neo-liberal programme now in place. The old 2½-party system that existed since the 1920s has been undermined, and where once there was political rigidity we now find an encouraging degree of fluidity.
Nevertheless, while there is undoubtedly a large degree of fluctuation throughout the political landscape, there is ambivalence about the direction in which the popular movement is going. In the absence of a clear and stated determination to fundamentally restructure the economy, there is a distinct possibility that the status quo will emerge relatively unchanged. New personalities may enter the political arena and some parties gain greater strength, but, unless challenged meaningfully, market economics, with the inevitable consequences for workers, will prevail.
Let’s not forget that there have been large protest movements in the past, only for them to dissolve as energy drained away and momentum was lost. These failures often came after activists found themselves drawn into debilitating, not to say divisive, struggles to gain a parliamentary presence. This is not to say that popular movements should not contest elections, but it is necessary to remember the limitations of a one-dimensional parliamentary strategy.
While there is always a temptation to try building a new political movement rapidly in the midst of turbulent social conditions, this often leads to confusion and disillusionment. Lessons about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure can be applied to politics as well as matrimony—or, as Michael McGahey, vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984–85 miners’ strike in Britain, once cautioned his friends, “Don’t mistake a mass meeting for a mass movement.”
In spite of the undeniable progress made in developing the type of progressive mass movement necessary to deliver change, the general election results have revealed problems. As is often the case with broadly based alliances brought together on single issues, differences cannot be concealed indefinitely and will come eventually to the surface. This is now beginning to affect the broad popular movement against austerity.
There are, of course, the expected disagreements over tactics and strategy. Ultimately, though, the real differences centre on political analysis and how groups relate to and deal with the crucial issues of class, capitalism, and imperialism. Certain issues cannot be fudged, such as how a movement or party relates to the European Union, to NATO, or the IMF. Some believe, for example, that the EU can be reformed and democratised, thinking that there exists the possibility of a kinder, gentler form of capitalism, apparently unaware that the EU Council of Ministers acts as a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole European ruling class.
These are vital issues that determine how a political movement will deal with matters of vital interest to working people. Left unresolved, they will inevitably produce the type of debacle and setback brought about by SYRIZA last year as it went from posturing to capitulation in a matter of days.
In the final analysis, creating the type of coherent and unified movement capable of bringing about a fundamental change in society requires time and effort. A consensus has to be built up among the participating activists on an agreed programme and thereafter the need for an accord on tactics and strategy. Moreover, and just as important, there has to be a continuous engagement with working people—firstly to highlight and expose inadequacies in the existing system and secondly to convince a critical proportion of the population that not only is the status quo incapable of reform but that a viable alternative exists.
There is little new in this observation. It is only necessary, for example, to reflect on the gestation of the revolutionary period in the Ireland of the early twentieth century. The events of the decade 1913–1923 did not spring from a void or happen overnight. Diverse political, social, economic and cultural currents with their origins in the previous decades converged to create the environment that give rise to the revolutionary events. More ominously, the failure or inability of the organised working class to take the lead during that period led to the installation of a series of deeply conservative governments ever since.
Whatever difficulties exist in relation to the development of a popular movement dedicated to building a workers’ republic, there remains encouraging evidence of a desire to do so. Several candidates from different parties endorsed the need for such a movement before and during the election campaign. The sizeable street protests and refusal to pay water taxes indicate the potential support for a new departure. What has to take place now is the extensive and intensive round of discussion and debate that will produce a clear programme and a consensus about how to achieve it.
The Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum offers one such model for how a constructive round of discussion might occur. The Forum doesn’t claim a monopoly over discussion or debate, or indeed claim possession of a unique key for progress: it does, nevertheless, illustrate a path forward and simultaneously challenges socialists and republicans to either engage or demonstrate an alternative.
There always comes a time to halt the drift and pull together; and with current developments, that time is undoubtedly now.