July 2012        

Who’s writing the script?

On Sunday 13 May—Connolly Sunday—two commemorations took place in Arbour Hill to honour James Connolly and the other leaders of the 1916 Rising. The afternoon event, organised by the Communist Party of Ireland and the Connolly Youth Movement, was addressed by Rob Griffiths, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, and Eddie Glackin, member of the National Executive Committee of the CPI. The morning event, organised by the Labour Party, was addressed by Jack O’Connor, general president of SIPTU.
     All three speakers took as their theme the relevance of James Connolly to the present crisis; but there, I’m afraid, the commonality ceased between the a.m. and the p.m. events.
     Jack O’Connor is generally well respected—if not always agreed with—by the serious left in this country as a thoughtful, honest trade unionist with strong working-class roots and values. In fact he stands apart from many of our contemporary trade union “leaders” for those reasons.
     It is therefore more than disappointing, actually shameful, to see him trundled out at Arbour Hill, this sacred place, to give credibility to and provide excuses for the Labour Party’s dreadful role in government. And this was not done as an individual member of the Labour Party but as general president of the largest union in Ireland.
     Jack has never been flavour of the month with the leadership of the Labour Party, or indeed with many in the ICTU, yet over the past month or two he is being quoted approvingly by those elements and put forward as a spokesperson—for two reasons: to justify the role of the Labour party in the coalition government, and to provide some cover within the labour movement for the Yes campaign in the last referendum.
     Both these roles came together at Arbour Hill.
     James Connolly, as O’Connor acknowledges, “was arguably the greatest intellect of his generation.” Born in extreme poverty in Edinburgh, he was a boy soldier in the British army, a labourer, cobbler, journalist, trade union organiser and leader, committed socialist and patriot, self-taught intellectual, writer, historian, and military tactician. He has left the Irish working class an enormous legacy in his writings and in his political practice, his anti-sectarianism, and his determination to build alliances with other progressive forces. He has left an indelible mark on the labour movement not just in Ireland but also in Scotland and in the United States. He is honoured internationally as an important Marxist writer on the relationship between the struggles for independence and for socialism.
     Central to Connolly’s political life was precisely his belief in the role of the working class as “the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.” In fairness, this was acknowledged by O’Connor early in his address. Having first of all put in the health warning that “we cannot blindly accept all that Connolly wrote as gospel” (where have we heard that before?), he then said: “We would be well advised to stick with the principles he gave us. One of those is an unwavering belief that the working class was the one class that never betrayed Ireland, for the simple reason that it would be betraying itself.”
     It is tempting at this point to lash in a few quotations. But the point about Connolly (only Oscar Wilde is quoted and misquoted more frequently than him—often for equally dubious reasons) is not just to engage in the type of “battle of quotations” beloved by the ultra-left but to read and study him.
     Central to Connolly’s politics was that it was based on a class analysis. Connolly was a revolutionary Marxist and, notwithstanding his role in the foundation of what became the Irish Labour Party, could not be remotely construed as a social democrat in the modern sense. He had earlier been involved in the founding of Ireland’s first Marxist party, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, and subsequently the Socialist Party of Ireland, forerunner of the CPI. Of course he was also an outstanding leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and founder of the Irish Citizen Army.
     For many years Connolly’s principal writings were publicly available to ordinary workers only because they were published in pamphlet form by the Irish Workers’ Party and subsequently the CPI. Generations of left activists in this country were politically weaned on Labour in Irish History, Labour, Nationality and Religion, The Reconquest of Ireland, etc., which they got from the party’s bookshop in Dublin or Belfast. The Labour Party, the “party of Connolly,” did not consider the making of Connolly’s writings available to workers a task worthy or important enough for them. The truth of Connolly’s legacy to the workers of Ireland was deliberately hidden from the people for decades, and the Labour Party did nothing to change that situation.
     Connolly attached a huge importance to political education and the study of Marxist theory. It was this that led him to an understanding of imperialism and its role in Ireland and in the world. In this he was far ahead of all his contemporaries in Ireland and also of many in the international socialist movement of the time. This was starkly shown with the outbreak of war in 1914, when most of the European socialist parties, despite being pledged to oppose the coming war and refuse to lead workers to slaughter each other for the benefit of their masters, supported “their” governments in the ensuing imperial slaughter. Connolly—like Lenin in Russia—was with the minority who determined to turn the imperialist war against imperialism, in Ireland’s case by striking a blow for independence.
     In his address Jack O’Connor referred to this time in rather strange terms, which can be construed only as an attempt to undermine or minimise the role of the revolutionary left (which subsequently became the communist movement after the split in the Socialist International) in opposing the war or, conversely, to boost the anti-imperial, anti-war credentials of the reformist majority. He said: “We tend to think of opposition to that war today purely in terms of the stance taken by the Bolsheviks. But the Socialist International in 1914 was much broader than the Bolsheviks. Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, Jean Jaurès in France and George Lansbury in England were also among those who took a principled stand against the blood lust of Europe’s competing imperialisms. Indeed Jaurès, Liebknecht and Luxemburg would pay with their lives for their principles.”
     As the next couple of years are going to see a veritable orgy of historical revisionism—for example, the First World War was actually a noble endeavour, because Irish Protestants and Catholics were equally slaughtering and being slaughtered by workers of other countries, and sure didn’t they all do it for the best of reasons—this rather selective and inaccurate reference needs to be corrected.
     It is true that some individuals and groupings within the Socialist International, to their credit, took principled positions against the war hysteria; but the vast majority supported “their” governments, and this was the main reason for the split between the reformist and revolutionary wings in the International.
     Lansbury did oppose the war; but what did the British Labour Party do? Jaurès was assassinated at the outbreak of the war by a French supporter of war against Germany; but what did the French Socialist Party do? And how can Luxemburg and Liebknecht—who left the Socialist International to become founders of the German Communist Party and were subsequently murdered by agents of the post-war German government, which included the Social Democrats—be held up as exemplars of the Socialist International?
     The lesson for social democrats, socialists and communists of all hues to learn from the First World War is about the nature and role of imperialism. According to the latter-day ideologues of social democracy—devotees of a better, fairer capitalism—imperialism seems to have disappeared unnoticed somewhere along the road in the second half of the twentieth century. Understanding imperialism was never a strong point of the Labour Party, right from the early days of the Free State, which imposed the imperialist settlement on Ireland. Labour saw it as a squabble between contending groups of nationalists, not understanding either the class forces involved or the role of the imperial puppet-masters.
     And so it remains today. The Labour Party, eschewing the type of class analysis that inspired Connolly and underpinned all his policies and actions, cannot see how modern imperialism—state monopoly capitalism—functions as a system. Because they don’t see armies marauding backwards and forwards across Europe, obviously there is no more imperialism (unless you’re in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria; but of course that’s “humanitarian,” isn’t it?).
     The socialist and social-democratic parties throughout Europe, when in office, have shown themselves to be staunch defenders of the status quo. The British Labour Party has never needed lessons from the Tories on how to be arch-imperialists. When in opposition they tut-tut at some excesses of the Right but never present a fundamental challenge to the rotten system of capitalism and imperialism, preferring instead to wait their turn at the trough. Who formed the British government that joined Bush’s invasion of Iraq?
     The chosen instrument of contemporary capitalism is the European Union. This is not some benign social-democratic Eurodisney theme park where we are all partners together. The myth that the Common Market, EEC, European Community or now EU exists to promote the greater well-being of the people of Europe is precisely that: a myth. There is a narrative, echoed in Jack O’Connor’s speech at Arbour Hill, that everything was grand back in the days of those great socialists Mitterand and Delors until the nasty neo-liberals came along and spoiled it with deregulation etc. What about the free movement of capital? Has that nothing to do with the present mess? Or the free movement of labour, which is designed to shunt cheap labour around Europe to the area of greatest need (for the employers)?
     This wholly uncritical view of the EU by the Labour Party has been a disaster for the movement in this country. When there is a need for a party of the working class to stand up and shout “Enough!” to organise the working people to fight back, the Labour Party is not to be found. Its leaders sit snugly in the corridors of power, repeating the economically illiterate banalities of the “pundits” who have been so spectacularly wrong on every major economic question over the last half-century. They have become active builders of the internal Troika (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour Party), which sees its task as being gatekeepers for the external Troika (EU, ECB, IMF) of international capital, especially the major German and French banks, to whom they are in thrall and to whom this country and its children unborn are in hock.
     Jack O’Connor lauds the Labour Party’s “courageous decision to go into Government in the very worst of times, when staying out would have been much easier.” This is turning reality on its head. Of course Labour got thrown a few crumbs for its role in government; don’t they always? The question is, how does this contribute to building the type of movement that can break the power of the monopolies, defeat capitalism, and build the type of society Connolly fought and died for? Does Labour’s role as handmaiden to Fine Gael not actively postpone the day when such a movement can be built?
     We have to build a movement that can see in the day-to-day struggles the necessity for a vision of the future. Short-termism, and misguided short-termism at that, will never build that movement.
     A final point. Alone among the labour movements of Europe, the ICTU did not call for opposition to the noxious “Fiscal Stability” Treaty. Even the ETUC, arch-defenders of all things “European,” opposed it; but it was a bridge too far for the ICTU and, shockingly, for SIPTU, Connolly’s union. Thankfully, some unions—TEEU, Mandate, CPSU, and Unite—maintained the honour of our movement by actively campaigning for a No vote.
     One can only conclude that the SIPTU-ICTU position was to avoid embarrassing the lamentable Labour Party. It was a wrong call. The present (and previous) leadership of the Labour Party set out a couple of years ago, à la “New Labour” in Britain, to sever its organic links with the trade union movement, the movement that actually established the party in Clonmel a hundred years ago (a recent centenary that couldn’t be celebrated, for “security reasons”!). The idea was that this would make Labour more attractive to the chattering classes and Dublin 4 brigade and therefore “more electable.”
     That is exactly the level of principle and type of reciprocal “loyalty” the trade union movement can expect from the Labour Party as it stands. And it is exactly the type of political approach that is rapidly making the Labour Party and mainstream social democracy in this country nothing but a “Fine Gael Lite,” as is consistently demonstrated by the plummeting levels of support for Labour in working-class constituencies.
     Imperialism doesn’t send gunboats up the Liffey any more, because it doesn’t need to. The finance houses of “Europe” control us just as surely as the British Empire did in James Connolly’s time.
     As Connolly might have said, “Whoop it up for liberty!”

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