The recent Revolutionary Internationalist Socialist and Environmentalist (RISE) and People Before Profit (PBP) merger attracted media attention. People Before Profit now has four TDs, one Member of Legislative Assembly at Stormont, and eleven councillors, concentrated mainly in Dublin and Belfast. This places People Before Profit as the highest-profile Left formation in Ireland.
Given this, a section of youth, the working class and middle class will ask if PBP is the way forward to building the Left. This is in the context of many commentators predicting that Sinn Fein will emerge as the largest party in the next general elections, and People Before Profit’s call on Sinn Fein to form a ‘Left government’.
These are important issues for socialists to discuss. For Militant Left, the need to build a new mass party of the working class with strong roots in the working class and a socialist programme with the aim of fundamentally changing society is an urgent task. The need for such a party of the working class – one that is prepared to struggle for socialist change – is posed ever more urgently as immense class battles loom coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the course of developments towards the creation of a viable party of the working class, Militant Left will continue to work with others on the Left, including PBP activists, as well as with working class militants and youth activists on various issues. There can be many campaigns, collaborations and alliances on the Left and wider afield, involving community, trade union, student, anti-racist and environmental and other activists. Militant Left will aim to engage in these processes, always calling for fully democratic decision making, while openly presenting our ideas and programme.
In general, Militant Left welcomes the opportunity Dáil seats give to mount a challenge to the right wing parties and the ills of the system of capitalism. PBP TDs have been active in high profile campaigns against the injustices of capitalism and in solidarity with the disadvantaged. However, the need to build and consolidate even deeper roots in the working class, in all areas of the country, involving militant trade union, community and youth activists is key to determining the success of the Left in Ireland.
The PBP website lists policies on various issues, such as housing, education, health and imperialism. PBP activists have campaigned energetically on these issues and Militant Left agree with many of the day to day demands put forward. However, the PBP policies cannot be considered a socialist manifesto or programme. For the Militant Left, it is essential to put forward a ‘transitional programme’. This entails Marxists advocating day-to-day demands, put forward in a manner and language which can be understood by workers and youth, which is always linked to the need for fundamental socialist change. This vital task, linking current demands with the need for socialism, PBP fail to carry out.
For example, nowhere on the PBP site is there a proper explanation of the need to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a socialist society. The goal of a workers’ state, where the commanding heights of the economy are put under democratic workers’ control and management, and a democratic planned economy is organised, is not posed. The PBP policies amount to a series of Left radical or Left reformist demands that fall way short of the programme needed to make lasting reforms and to transform society.
The weaknesses and reformist character of the PBP platform is clearly illustrated by its approach on the economy as outlined in the policy paper on their website from 2018. They develop a critique of neoliberal Irish capitalism and its reliance on being a tax haven to encourage foreign direct investment. Nowhere in this detailed paper on economic policy do they argue for a break with capitalism. Socialism gets one mention in the whole document, as an add-on at the end. They do not make a case for the big majority of the economy to be brought into public ownership, including the multinationals, under democratic working class control and management. This is required in order to draw up a socialist plan of production to create jobs and for massive investment into healthcare, housing and public services. This is the policy that Militant Left fights for.
The furthest PBP go is to advocate elements of “state control” existing alongside private ownership. For example, they call for the creation of a state run pharmaceutical company, a state-run bank, and a state-run construction company. PBP also advocates for the “Norwegian” model of taking into public control the oil and gas sector. In none of these examples of limited public ownership do they make a case for workers’ control and management.
It is difficult not to conclude that PBP are really just making the case for a form of state directed capitalism within which the public sector would play a bigger role than at present. As they comment: “We can no longer rely overwhelmingly on the market to meet our economic needs.” The addition of the word “overwhelmingly” is quite deliberate and revealing. It opens the door to advocating not a decisive rupture with capitalism but of a larger strategic role for the state within the existing capitalist economy.
As they go on to say: “With the political will, the state could immediately begin to address the legacy of decades of underinvestment in our physical, social and industrial infrastructure. This type of state investment will involve greater involvement and control by its workforce.”
We would ask PBP, what type of state are we talking about here? Will it be a “state” where the majority of the economy is privately owned and controlled? Are they advocating the German or Danish model of state companies where workers have a role – a minority one – on the boards, helping ‘running’ the companies? Would Irish and global capitalists still overwhelmingly control the economy under their proposals? A genuine socialist approach would be to call for the majority of the economy to be brought into public ownership under workers’ control and management, and for the drawing up of a socialist plan for the economy. Nowhere does PBP put forward such a policy.
People Before Profit also reinforce illusions in how wealth taxes alone could fundamentally transform society. People Before Profit claim that their tax proposals would “eradicate poverty, deprivation and economic insecurity. Meanwhile, those at the top would still have extremely comfortable lives.” This is a completely wrong approach for socialists to take. Militant Left also support increased taxes on big business and the rich. But we point out that the ruling class would seek to avoid and evade increased taxes, including by threatening to disinvest and move their wealth abroad. In order to counter these threats from the bourgeoisie, it is incumbent on socialists to argue for the nationalisation of the banks and big business, and for a socialist Left government to impose capital controls to prevent wealth from being moved, and to introduce a state-monopoly of foreign trade. On all this, the PBP is silent.
As it is, People Before Profit’s tax proposals represent a fundamental retreat from socialist positions. They call for Ireland’s current corporation tax rate, the lowest in the EU, to remain at 12.5 percent but for the loopholes to be closed to force the foreign multinationals to pay their full tax bill. Vaguely, PBP says on corporation tax that the 12.5% tax rate could “increase over time”.
The corporate tax rate in the Republic of Ireland is central to the state’s neoliberal economic model. The rate of 12.5 percent is substantially lower than that north of the border and the Southern state is widely recognised as a global tax haven. It should be noted that Sinn Féin no longer espouse lowering corporate taxes in the North to the rates in the South but have returned to their former ‘harmonise’ tax rates position. Even the current Tory chancellor in Britain has just announced UK corporation tax will be going up to 25% – double the Irish rate – in 2023.
Members of the Socialist Workers Network (formerly SWP), which initiated PBP and remain a strong influence within it, may argue that PBP is a broad political alliance, not a revolutionary socialist organisation. However, what stops the SWN putting forward its own “revolutionary socialist” policies within PBP and to the electorate, as Militant Left’s counterparts in England and Wales do as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), and in Scotland as part of Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition? In reality, the SWP/SWN is buried within the broad Left, reformist PBP.
Our view is that the RISE/PBP merger constitutes an abandonment of the goal of building a revolutionary socialist party by RISE in favour of a broader but reformist political formation. The leadership of RISE, who departed from the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), have set out their critique of democratic centralism (that is, the working class method of democratic decision making in a revolutionary socialist organisation) and of the revolutionary party itself. We fundamentally disagree with this ideological and organisational retreat. We believe that building a revolutionary socialist force, with deep roots in the working class and with a tested and committed leadership, remains crucial, as the history of revolutions and counter revolutions attests. The need for a revolutionary party to enable the working class to successfully take and consolidate power was emphasised by Lenin and Trotsky, particularly drawing on the lessons of the bloody defeat of the heroic 1871 Paris Commune (which the CWI has extensively commemorated and analysed on its 150th anniversary). It is also necessary in this period to do all we can to help create a mass party of the working class. These are the ‘dual tasks’ to which Militant Left is committed.
The ideological retreat by RISE is also expressed in its watering down of programme and demands, and by the use of general Left phraseology and Left populist slogans. RISE and now PBP TD Paul Murphy routinely uses vague terms like “eco-socialist” and “people power”, which take precedence over a class-based analysis and socialist programme that clearly advocates the working class as the key social force that can overthrow capitalism and usher in a socialist society.
‘Eco-Socialism’ was a key goal of RISE and is now a stated foundational political principle for post-merger PBP. While we understand that this term may have a place if used on some occasions to attract youth radicalised over the environmental crisis, for a party of the Left to make it one of its central slogans and goals and to continually highlight use of the formulation can only serve to confuse matters.
For Marxists, a programme for socialist change is inherently ‘eco-friendly’ and includes specific demands and proposals regarding the environment. Militant Left and the CWI have put forward a detailed programme on the environmental crisis, particularly during big protest movements on issues like climate change.
Securing the conditions for an environmentally sustainable future is a political priority for the working class in the 21st century. Mass struggles can wrest some reforms from capitalism regarding the environment, and in the interests of the self-preservation of their system capitalist governments can take action regarding climate change, albeit not enough by a very long distance. But a fundamental resolution of the environmental crisis will only be possible through the socialist transformation of society. However, by phrasing the struggle humanity now faces against capitalism as a struggle for ‘eco-socialism’ could pose the question in the minds of many workers if there is a difference between ‘eco-socialism’ and ‘socialism’. We recognise that the use of ‘eco-socialism’ may attract an important layer who have been and are being politicised by the accelerating climate crisis, perhaps used in a specific campaign but this should be done as a way to try to win over radical youth to the need for a full socialist programme, without any qualifications or prefixes. The balance between maintaining and improving living standards while developing processes of greater sustainability are key, and only ‘planned green growth’ as part of a workers’ democratically-run and managed socialist economy, encompasses that dynamic. For Militant Left it is essential to emphasize that there can be no incremental way of ending the environmental crisis under capitalism. It is a truly global problem and only a socialist solution on a world scale will resolve the crisis.
Another indication of their shift towards radical Left/reformist politics is PBP and Paul Murphy’s strong support for the ‘Zero Covid’ strategy. While making some demands with which Militant Left agree with, the ‘Zero Covid’ campaign fails to pose the way to tackle the pandemic crisis in clear and consistent class terms, by proposing that the organised working class take the lead in ensuring workplace and community health care and safety.
Nor do PBP call for the bringing into public ownership the major pharmaceutical companies, instead limiting themselves to the demands for a state-run drugs company. They call for the big corporations to be made to provide vaccines, at cost price, for the population. But how is this to be done without nationalisation of the drugs making giants? In the context of a global pandemic, the PBP policy leaves the vast majority of the vaccine production in the private hands of the profit-hungry vultures that control it today.
Militant Left and the CWI have from day one made the case that the Covid crisis exposes not just capitalism but also proves the case for socialist planning of society. People Before Profit makes no such clear connection. Instead they conclude in their Zero Covid strategy: “But most of all, we will need to clearly articulate a vision for an alternative to the destructive instability of capitalism – a Transformative Left Government would reorganise the economy under democratic control, as part of an ambitious Just Transition.” A transition to what? Socialism does not get a mention. But it is essential that with a platform, including TDs, that a Left organisation uses its positions to advocate clearly for socialism and, moreover, explains what socialism is.
Despite claims to the contrary, there is nothing novel or ground-breaking about the ideas RISE has put forward. Unfortunately, the path taken by these former CWI members leads straight into the political marsh. Twenty years ago, former members of the CWI in Scotland, who had won important support amongst the working class in struggles, such as over the poll tax, helped establish the broad-based Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP won six seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2003. But they failed to maintain a strong Marxist current in the SSP and adapted to populist and opportunist sloganeering (not unlike RISE, PBP and Solidarity/SP in Ireland today).
The terrain of bourgeois elections is always difficult for the Left but that is an eventuality for which Marxists prepare. This rightward political adaptation by the SSP leadership led to a crisis in the party, a split, and the loss of all its seats by 2007, and the state resources that went with them. Militant Left’s sister party, Socialist Party Scotland, however, continues the struggle to win a strong base of support for Marxism amongst workers and youth.
Electoral and parliamentary activity is an important arena for socialists. But the experience of SYRIZA (The Coalition of the Radical Left – Progressive Alliance) in Greece and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain show that big business will not hesitate to mobilise its extra-parliamentary power to defeat or prevent Left governments, regardless of any electoral mandate such a government achieves. A revolutionary perspective, which is honest with the working class about the severe limits of parliamentary and electoral activity, has not, in any way, diminished in importance. In fact, given the multiple deep systemic crises of capitalism – the Covid pandemic, climate change, unprecedented income inequality coupled with the still unresolved 2008 financial crisis – the revolutionary perspective and party remains the only route for the working class to end the nightmare of capitalism.
For Militant Left, it is vital that any new mass party of the working class, which will inevitably involve wider layers and different political forces, has a strong organised Marxist spine. History is littered with examples of radical and even ‘revolutionary’ Left parties around the world that came to power but under the immense pressure of the ruling class failed to carry through a bold socialist programme and mobilise the mass of the working class to fundamentally change society. SYRIZA in Greece was catapulted to power in 2015 during that country’s extreme Euro and austerity crisis. But in the absence of a strong Marxist current and leadership putting forward a programme of defiance and breaking with capitalism, and which would have appealed to the Greek and global working class to mobilise in support, SYRIZA capitulated to the dictates of the bosses’ EU and carried out swingeing cuts against the working class.
While PBP has managed to partially fill the vacuum on the Left created by the shift to the right by the Labour Party that started decades ago, and by the depth of the current capitalist crisis, Sinn Féin is, at present, by far the main beneficiary of the growing anger against the establishment parties and the capitalist system in Ireland.
Mass party of the working class
This poses more sharply the role of the Left, as class inequalities grow and more and more working class people look for a radical alternative. The need for the working class to have a party of their own with socialist policies is a question that assumes an urgency. All told, the Left opposition in the Dáil is still a minor force at this stage. Sinking deeper roots within communities and particularly within the trade unions, remains the precondition for a Left political advance.
As the working class in Ireland faces the second capitalist onslaught in less than 15 years, creating a political vehicle for its needs and demands is vital. We do not believe People Before Profit are or can become the mass party of the working class that is needed, though they and other Left forces can potentially play a role in steps towards such a mass party. The main forces that will create a new mass party of the working class will come from fresh layers that move into struggle.
A party based on trade unions, Left forces and workers and youth moving into struggle, with a socialist programme, will be attractive to and politically activate layers of workers alienated from ‘business as usual’ politics. Militant Left will struggle for such a party and would seek to participate as a revolutionary Marxist tendency. The victorious mass anti-water charges campaign between 2014-16 gave a glimpse of the power of the working class. The years ahead will see attacks on our class which will demand a political and organisational response. Today’s Left in Ireland can potentially play a role in developing a mass party. Such a party is crucial to advance the interests of the working class, particularly in the context of a still small but consolidating far right and fascist threat.