February 2017        

The left must reclaim national sovereignty

Graham Harrington

With the rise of the far right in Europe and elsewhere, the left faces a stiff challenge. The former base areas of Labour and Socialist Parties are now seeing increased votes for parties such as the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Austrian Freedom Party. The election of Donald Trump in the United States has also galvanised the far right.
     It is clear that, despite the different environments in which far-right forces are emerging, there is a pattern. While the continuing crisis of capitalism plays a significant role, perhaps the main reason is the failure of the left to organise sufficiently to provide an alternative.
     First of all, what is the “left”? It is a term often used but nowadays is less understood.
     Historically, the “left” refers to the organised movement of those who labour for a living, economically organised in trade unions and politically organised in socialist or labour parties. The left has been, by its nature, anti-capitalist and broadly socialist, favouring the public ownership of natural resources and the main industries. It has stood for job security, high wages, and social equality between male and female workers.
     Ideologically the left has stood for collective values and for struggle as the main method of social progress, as well as for human rights and self-determination. In various countries the left has had strong communist involvement, with the main difference between communists and the social-democratic left being that the former favour a socialist transformation of society through workers taking control of the state apparatus, as happened in Russia in 1917, while social democrats favour a gradual improvement of life for workers under a supposed better and fairer capitalism.
     In the past few decades the left has, by and large, abandoned these core concepts. It supported the creation of a “social Europe,” believing that the emergence of European political and economic union would put manners on the various capitalist governments. It fell for the myth that the European Union protected workers’ rights, ignoring the Laval and Viking cases as well as the high levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, throughout the euro zone.
     The EU has been a pioneer of the policies that have led to the rise of the “precariat”—a name given to the growing number of primarily young people forced to earn a precarious living from casual employment, with poor wages, little job security, and no pension.
     While this argument is very important, it is also necessary to stress the anti-democratic nature of the European Union, with the unelected Commission in Brussels, and the again unelected mandarins in the EU Central Bank, deciding a one-size-fits-all policy for the people of the member-states, which, of course, all have very different economies and cultures.
     While the left has attempted to organise against the austerity policies of the EU and national governments, it has become largely toothless through its accommodation with the EU. The misunderstanding of the uneven development of capitalism means that the contradictions between the EU’s core and periphery go unchallenged. This has led to revolt by working-class people, largely in the shape of the votes for populist parties, including the far right in some countries, which have increased in popularity merely by adopting formerly social-democratic demands from the 1970s and 80s and by opposing the EU.
     Most dramatically, these revolts led to Brexit. However, rather than understand the reasons for Brexit the left—with notable exceptions—has still not broken from its support for the EU. Instead those who voted to leave the EU are regarded as lumpen, deranged, misled, and racists. By continuing with this narrative the left is only further disconnecting itself from those who are being led astray by the far right.
     Working-class politics is about far more than academic debates: it is about the needs and desires of our class, which in this age include the demand for national sovereignty against the further concentration of capital.
     The example of what can be done when national sovereignty is asserted can be seen in Iceland—not a member of the EU. Iceland reclaimed its sovereignty by repudiating its bankers’ debt rather than requesting a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund, as the Irish state did. It has now recovered from its crisis and is showing high growth rates as a result of the capital controls its government has adopted. Meanwhile in Ireland we face a worsening homelessness crisis brought about by the state and its housing policy, in accordance with EU diktat, a worsening health crisis, in accordance with EU diktat, and potential privatisation of water—surprise, surprise, in accordance with EU diktat.
     We have little ability to change EU policy, with the 26 counties having only 1 per cent of the vote on the EU Council. However, the way the Irish compradors have conducted themselves has shown the importance of the nation-state as an entity. The EU could not pass through these policies without the willingness of national governments to follow through on them. For this reason the left in Ireland has a chance to redeem itself, by pledging to reclaim national sovereignty and democracy at the national level, but only if it is willing to challenge the EU at its core.
     The EU is growing increasingly militarised, with armed police and even soldiers on the streets of many European cities, with operations such as “Strade Secure” (safe streets) in Italy meaning that there is in effect a sort of subtle martial law.
     The expressed desire of the southern state in Ireland is to work closely with the other EU states on military partnership, with EU officials openly supporting calls for a united European army, almost certainly within NATO.
     The left in Ireland can counter this by supporting the call from the likes of Shannon Watch to remove the use of Shannon Airport as a de facto US military base. However, the left must go further and show that this is part of a broader American strategy within the EU, with Poland and Latvia also being used for militarist purposes.
     Largely, the attitude of the Irish left to the national question is that it is to be ignored, lest it rock the boat; the national question has been settled since the Belfast Agreement and the end of the armed conflict. The recent collapse of the northern Assembly shows that the northern statelet is in perpetual crisis. As the CPI and others have maintained, the southern and northern states have both failed to meet the needs of the people. The answer does not lie in a Stormont for all or a Leinster House for all: what is needed is a united, independent and socialist republic. This has been the basic position since the founding of Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896.
     Despite this, some elements on the Irish left support the presence in Ireland of British political parties, ostensibly on the left. This ignores the words of Connolly, in his famous dispute with the “labour unionist” William Walker, when he declared that
the banner under which it seeks to rally us is not the sacred banner of true International ism, but is instead the shamefaced flag of a bastard Imperialism! . . .
     Given the formation of a United Socialist Party in Ireland, and, guided and helped by such a Party, a Labour Party on Irish soil, controlled from within Ireland, thus the necessary and inevitable incidents of the electoral struggles of such a Party against the Irish political capitalist parties will teach Socialism and Internationalism to the Irish workers better than a million speeches.
      With Brexit, the prospect of a united Ireland is on the agenda, with even some southern government ministers mentioning it. Here also lies a vital strategic prospect for the left, for the demand must not be for a united Ireland run by the same landlords and within the EU but for an independent republic. Ireland was united before, but under the British empire!

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