Oct 15 2020


E&L is posting our  Irish coverage from 2002 to 2021 to promote a wider socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ alliance




From Grey to Red Granite – Allan Armstrong, RCN

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2020/10/10/from-grey-to-red-granite-viewing-the-left-the-scottish-question-and-the-nature-of-the-uk-state-through-the-lens-of-neil-davidsons-writings-and-political-work/ and https://allanarmstrong831930095.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/from-grey-to-red-granite-7.pdf


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Jan 21 2015




Photo of RCN banner – Patricia Kirk & John Lannigan


A) The emergence and clash of Left British unionism and Left Scottish nationalism

B) The politics of the Scottish independence referendum campaign

C) How the Left responded to the demand for greater national self-determination in Scotland

D) Carrying over lessons learned from the SSP experience

           i)   the need for political platforms

           ii)  the need for a revolutionary pole of attraction

           iii) the need for political balance sheets to avoid repeating earlier mistakes

E) Promoting socialist republicanism and ‘internationalism from below’

           i) The political legacy of the Republican Socialist Conventions and the Global Commune events

           ii) Debating with other socialists during the Scottish independence referendum campaign

           iii) promoting socialist republicanism and ‘internationalism from below’ in RIC

           iv) the debate over secularism

           v) the debate over Ireland

F) Debates and differences within the RCN

          i) in the lead up and during the referendum campaign

          ii) since the September 18th referendum

          iii) the future for RIC, the all-islands Republican Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Left Project






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Nov 07 2011

A new review of ‘From Davitt to Connolly’ by Tara O’Sullivan

Celtic Soul Brothers

Tara O’Sullivan (from Red Banner, issue no. 45)

A review of From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire 1879-95, by Allan Armstrong

Earlier in the year we witnessed much discussion of relationships between Ireland and Britain. Some was of interest, but the worst of it was that the debate was occasioned by the visit of a certain over-privileged woman with a big house in London, and accompanied by moronic assertion that acquiescing in such a parasitic presence was some sign of maturity. But the histories and destinies of these two islands are linked in plenty of ways infinitely more relevant than the backslapping banqueting of the rich and their retinues.

Allan Armstrong’s book examines such a part of our history, a history of combined efforts to break such power and privilege and end the injustices that working people laboured under. The official take on the period covered here focuses on the Westminster cattle trading between Parnell and Gladstone, the vagaries of the Liberal/Home Rule alliance up to the point where it notoriously ended in tears. Here, however, we see what could have been the makings of a very different kind of alliance, aiming for real political democracy and radical change in social and economic relations.

The book opens as the land war does, a sustained militant movement to overthrow landlordism in Ireland, which inevitably fused with the attempt to win greater national independence. As outlined here, Michael Davitt personally had higher ambitions than others in leading positions: he wanted the land nationalised, not just taken from the landlords, and an Irish republic rather than home rule within the British empire. But this point of view was only one minority strand within the movement, and one which was continually subordinated to more moderate aspirations. The author puts his finger on “Davitt’s main political weakness—his overriding concern to maintain public unity” (p 58). Again and again we read of Davitt agreeing to hush up his more radical demands, so as to prevent a common front to the enemy. The unity of the land war was firmly based on this low common denominator. In view of this, the following characterisation of Parnell’s position seems to miss the point (p 42):

“A different strategy was already forming in his mind—a slower transition to peasant proprietorship and to Irish Home Rule. He was planning his own ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’—the ‘revolution’ being “The Fall of Feudalism”, or the breaking of landlord power; the ‘counter-revolution’ being the cementing of bourgeois political, economic and social power in Ireland, with the backing of the larger tenant farmers.”

The Land League’s stated aim was to win ownership of the land for tenant farmers instead of landlords, while the Home Rule party had the explicit object of an Irish parliament subordinate to Westminster. Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground, extended the revolution further—and it was their failure to organise openly and independently for that which deserves blame for it not happening, not Parnell doing what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.

A particular quality of the period is well highlighted, drawing a lesson that needs reiterating today, on both sides of the Irish Sea (p 24):

“Migrant labour played a key role. The constant changes in the class composition of the ‘lower orders’, leading to the fall or rise of certain categories of labour, initially made working class organisation more difficult, as employers deliberately promoted ethnic or sectarian divisions amongst their workforces. However, migrant labour also brought its ready-made traditions of struggle, imported by workers from other nations and regions. These traditions were drawn upon and modified in the course of struggle. They contributed to the political awareness and fighting capability of a new ethnically mixed working class.”

The existence of such a contribution has been noted before, of course. Anyone who ever read a history of trade unions in England knows that if you removed all the Celtic names you would have precious little left. Armstrong doesn’t present this as just a pleasant multicultural curiosity, however, but recognises it as a powerful dynamic in the making and renewal of the working class, a dynamic which should be evident in struggles of our own day.

But is it the case that “From the early 1880s an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, of Irish social republicans and Scottish, Welsh and English Radicals, was created” (p 25)? Though a deal of evidence is presented here, it doesn’t back up such a sweeping claim. We read repeatedly of links made from time to time between struggles of working people in those four countries, but nothing that constitutes anything as strong or as lasting as an alliance.

In fact, a strange construction has sometimes to be placed on the material to make it fit this interpretation. In 1886 Davitt addressed Welsh miners and condemned the exploitation they faced. This is portrayed as “further strengthening the link between land and labour” across national boundaries (p 82). But he was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland—hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.

This leads to wondering why—apart from the intrinsic interest of the events themselves—the period 1879-95 is chosen. Sympathies and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain, encompassing Irish independence and social justice, were evident in earlier periods, after all. Left-wing Chartists and left-wing Young Irelanders stood together in 1848. In the 1860s and 70s radical Fenians and the International Working Men’s Association made common cause. So why 1879-95 specifically?

Armstrong explicitly argues here and elsewhere (see ‘The need for internationalism from below’, Red Banner 33, for instance) for a mutual internationalist alliance of socialists in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, in answer to the concerted efforts of those who rule these countries. While myself and Allan have had a friendly disagreement around whether Britain and Ireland should form an especial framework of activity for socialists (see our letters in Red Banner 34 and 36), it is a noble aim which socialists here in the western reaches of Europe can only welcome.

There is something problematic, however, about reading this perspective back into history. The concept of an “internationalism from below” alliance is entirely the author’s own, not one that ever emerged in the actual struggles of the time. Solidarity with Irish struggles was widespread, but more often on an all-British basis than consciously Scottish,Welsh or English. The emergence of these national questions was more prominent in 1879-95 than before—which presumably explains the book’s focus on the period—but Britain, even the United Kingdom, still formed the dominant terms of reference.

This is evident among Marxist thinkers of the time too, who Armstrong either criticises or claims as supporters—but the proof for their support is weak. He presents Friedrich Engels in 1891 being “in support of a federal republic for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales… He now advocated a federal republic for the four nations” (p 131-2). In reality Engels had written (in a well-known critique of a German socialist programme) that such a republic “would be a step forward” compared to the UK, while still advocating a decentralised unitary republic for Britain and elsewhere. Similarly, “Connolly pursued a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’” (p 21). But while of course insisting on Irish independence, Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales, or separate socialist organisations in Britain’s three countries (despite th option of establishing a Scottish Socialist Labour Party being wide open to him around 1903).

Again, the argument is more concerned with the early 21st century than the late nineteenth. The author makes no bones about this, as in his characterisation of many British Marxist responses to the issues (p 17):

“They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion from the ‘real struggle’, or begin by giving their support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK. When the ‘National Question’ refuses to go away, some ‘Marxist Radicals’ end up tailing the more liberal sections of the British ruling class, when they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK.… They hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’… take their political lead over the UK constitution from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes from the Nationalist parties…”

There is much here that we can regrettably recognise, left-wingers who would prefer if questions of political democracy would conveniently go away and leave them to the bread and butter they know best. Not alone do such issues refuse to go away, however: we shouldn’t want them to. Demands for political democracy are an integral part of our work, often powerful elements in undermining the system we oppose and developing the desire for an alternative.

But is their demand for less than full Scottish and Welsh independence the problem? Take the case of Wales. The only trouble with demanding an independent Welsh republic is that few of the people living there want one. At the moment, most of Wales wants a certain level of self-government—more than it has at present—without breaking away from England completely. This can change, of course, and any decent socialist will fight for Wales’s right to separate as soon as it wants to. But until such a time, our job is to support the Welsh people’s right to vary, weaken, or sever that link as they see fit, to determine their own national future. Socialists support the right to divorce absolutely, but leave it up to people themselves whether they want to break up or not.

This doesn’t amount to defending the UK or a reformed version of it. The grave of the United Kingdom is one every socialist should want to dance on. This forced union, presided over by acres of feudal mummery, belongs in the museum, with its Union Jack torn up for dishrags. But does it have to be replaced by discrete Scottish, Welsh and English workers’ republics, or could a socialist Britain with full autonomy and the right to separate not do the job? The oppression of Ireland has always been greater, and its partition inherently sectarian and anti-democratic, but there are a host of reasons—geographic, economic, cultural and others—why the nations which inhabit Britain might want to share a workers’ republic which accommodated their diverse needs.

If we look to mainland Europe and further afield, it is hard to find many state boundaries that don’t perpetuate some kind of injustice. The map is dotted with nations, nationalities, ethnic and cultural groups whose existence is denied and marginalised by undemocratic capitalist states. Socialism—both as a future society and as a movement aiming for it—will have to come up with various ways to respect their rights, and independent statehood is only one solution among many. Proposing it as the only or primary solution fails to do so, especially in cases where it isn’t wanted by the peoples involved themselves. For instance, a socialist England or Britain should go out of its way to facilitate as autonomous a relationship as Cornwall wants and to support the use of the Cornish language—but proclaiming an independent Cornish republic that hardly any Cornish people want would only be dodging the difficulties involved.

From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today. It is clearly written, not by someone bestowing his private enlightenment upon lesser mortals, but a socialist concerned above all to build a movement of equals that can take capitalism on in these islands and beyond. It deserves to be met in the same spirit.

Looking For A Political Soul Sister

Allan Armstrong replies to Tara O’Sullivan’s Celtic Soul Brothers in Red Banner, no. 45

Once again, Tara O’Sullivan is to be congratulated for her contribution to the continuing debate on the relationship between Socialists in the different nations and states comprising these islands 1. Tara raises some interesting and challenging questions in her critical review of my book, From Davitt to Connolly – ‘Internationalism for Below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire from 1879-95.

Tara wonders why I have chosen this particular period and points to earlier examples of  “sympathy and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain.” My book is an elaboration of a single chapter from a much larger four volume work I have been writing, entitled Internationalism from Below 2. In this work ‘internationalism from below’ is considered first in relation to the development of nation-states and nationalism; then in relation to other oppositional strategies adopted as mercantile and industrial capitalism developed along with their particular forms of imperialism.

These strategies have included – ‘universalism from above’ and ‘below’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’; support for ‘historic nations’ against ‘non-historic peoples’; and social imperialism against the ideas of Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and the Austro-Marxists. Tara will be pleased to note that, in volume 2, I do take up all the other examples she gives, whilst, in volume 1, I also deal with the first ‘internationalism from below’ alliance of the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen, the London Corresponding Society and their other international allies.

The Introduction in From Davitt to Connolly highlights one of the main reasons I have chosen this particular period. It was written in the context of challenging British Left unionist and Scottish Left nationalist currents, particularly in the Scottish Socialist Party. However, chapter 1 is almost like a second introduction and points to the impact of the break-up of the UK, beginning in 1922, on Socialist and Labour historians’ reading of events in relation to class struggle in these islands. Therefore, I hope that, even if people still have doubts about my full-blown ‘internationalism from below’ interpretation, they will appreciate this aspect of the book. I particularly welcome Tara’s words of encouragement in this regard.

Tara’s first criticism of my book is that “the concept of an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance is entirely my own.” In reply, I would argue that my own particular contribution only amounts to the use of the label ‘internationalism from below’ to describe the strategy utilised by the alliance of social republicans, Radicals and Socialists that developed in the period I wrote about.

By way of an analogy, the term ‘capitalism’ was not used at the time to describe the system which tenant farmers, artisans, the new working class and others were up against when they first fought against capitalist encroachment. Thomas Hodgskin was the first to use this term in 1825 in his Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital. However, Marxists and others have also been quite happy to apply the term ‘capitalism’ to describe its mercantile and early industrial forms long before this word was actually in use. Similarly, I think the phrase ‘internationalism from below’ helps us to understand what was at stake in the struggles I describe, particularly when set against the ‘internationalism from above’ alliance of the Gladstone’s Liberals and Parnell’s Irish National League (INL).

Tara also suggests the word ‘alliance’ is too strong a word to describe the international cooperation she recognises did exist. Whilst there certainly was no signed and sealed formal agreement between the various participants, I do think the book demonstrates that many of those struggling in the various Land Leagues, in the Scottish Land and Labour League (SLLL) (as the Socialist League was called in Scotland), the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) and Scottish Socialist Federation (SSF), were aware of the imperial nature of the UK state and the potential for an alliance of national democratic challenges from below. People will just have to read it to see for themselves!

Tara criticises my own characterisation of Parnell’s suppression of the Irish Land League after the Kilmainham Treaty as a ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’. She states that, “Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), and not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground… Parnell {did} what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.”

Tara is quite correct in stating that Parnell’s class objectives did not change. However, what she misses out is the impact of the struggle itself. Davitt, and other leaders in the Land War, more closely involved on the ground than Parnell, saw the much greater potential that the mass Land League struggle opened up. This led them to raise new demands, to extend the fight beyond Ireland, and to advocate  continued mass action. This meant prioritising the Land League’s mass campaign over the earlier Home Rule League parliamentary and the Fenian Brotherhood military strategies. The mass action aspect of the Land League’s campaign was subordinated, both in the minds of Parnell and the Fenians, to their own preferred strategies – parliamentarianism and physical force respectively. This resulted in the emergence of the INL and the Invincibles. Both contributed to the undermining of the mass action.

However, Parnell’s success in diverting this struggle into purely constitutional channels was far from uncontested, and was not that easy for him to achieve. Precisely because of the mass struggle, initiated by the Land League, Parnell was unable to move seamlessly from his initial public support for mass action (whilst distancing himself from what he saw as it excesses) to the purely constitutional politics, which he probably always really wanted. Parnell’s attitude to growing women’s involvement in the action, demonstrated by his determination to shut down the Ladies Land League (much to the consternation of his sister, Anna), is just one example of the problems he faced in getting his way as a result of the huge impact of the struggle itself . Thus, it can be argued that the launch of the Land War opened up a period of revolutionary change in the social relations found in Irish agriculture; but that Parnell, and his bourgeois and large tenant farmer backers, severely reined in the wider potential, bringing about, in effect, a ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’.

Tara agrees with the criticisms I make of  “Davitt’s main political weakness – his overriding concern to maintain public unity” with Parnell. However, she thinks I place a “strange construction… on the material to make it fit {an ‘internationalism from below’} interpretation”. In particular, she cites my reference to “Davitt address{ing} the Welsh miners and condemning the exploitation they faced.”  Tara protests, reminding readers of the context. Davitt “was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland — hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.”

I think though, that my book highlights the growing contradiction between many of those involved in the unfolding class struggles, which demanded a higher form of politics, socialist republicanism, and the inherited politics held by these people. The two dominant ways of thinking on the Left in Davitt’s day were Radicalism (mainly in Britain) and social republicanism (mainly in Ireland). Davitt was very much influenced by both of these ways of thinking, given his Irish birth and his upbringing in industrial Lancashire.

In retrospect, it is relatively easy for us today to see the need back then for a new specifically socialist republican politics, and to understand the political shortcomings of those who were unable to make that transition. The book shows how Davitt, along with others, was very much on the cusp of such a transition, but they were often dragged back by their adherence to now outdated politics.  Yet, they still made significant contributions to the struggle.

Perhaps, we can get a better appreciation of what was happening, if we consider today, how hard it is to get self-declared Socialists to break from the old social democratic shibboleths, outdated strategies (e.g. neo-Keynesianism) and misplaced party loyalties, even when throwing themselves into ongoing struggles, for example, against austerity and cuts.

We have the example of John McDonnell, possibly the last socialist Labour MP in the UK. He is still involved in the official machinery of the British Labour Party and the UK state. Yet, he is often prepared to offer his support for real class struggles on the ground. Davitt, whilst using his 1886 tour of Britain to garner support for the Liberal-INL Home Rule electoral alliance, also used the opportunity to try to bring the miners into struggle, on the basis of opposing mining royalties. I think this provides another example of such contradictory behaviour.  Engels appears to have appreciated Davitt’s contribution, even as late as the period of ‘New (Trade) Unionism’, as I show in the book.

Of course, there will always be some tension between those to whom the political limitations of others (such as Davitt in the past) and the needs of the current movement at the time are stark; and those who still remember the earlier contributions made by such people, but who now hold things back. Despite the growing evidence of Davitt’s political failings, particularly during and after the Kitty O’Shea Scandal, I still find Davitt a sympathetic character, especially when you examine his life of struggle and the changing problems he confronted.

My book ends just before James Connolly left Edinburgh in 1896 for Dublin. Keir Hardie provided Connolly with some money, thinking he was going to set up a branch of the Independent Labour Party in Ireland. Instead he chose to set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party.  In this he was very much influenced by John Leslie’s (fellow SSF and later SDF member in Edinburgh) interpretation of Michael Davitt and the Land League legacy. This led to Connolly rejecting the all-UK strategy of British Socialists at the time. He took Davitt’s social republican and Radical-Liberal alliance on to higher plane by arguing for a new Irish Socialist Republican and British Social Democratic/Socialist alliance, effectively on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’.

Tara points out that “Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales.” In this she is quite correct.  However, the book shows how the challenge of the promising SLLL, SSF and SLP (all of which Connolly joined after he moved back to Scotland), had been contained by the British ruling class by 1895. This contributed to the tacit adoption of a ‘British road to socialism’ by the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party.  So although, as Tara points out, it was mainly Scottish members of the SDF who broke away to form the de-Leonite Socialist Labour Party, they did not form a specifically Scottish party in 1903.

It was not until 1919, that the Scottish SDF member, John Maclean, switched from its ‘British road to socialism’ course and adopted Connolly’s strategy of the ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire’. Maclean specifically added Scotland to the fault line in the UK state set-up, which he could clearly see in Ireland after his visit to Dublin that year, shortly after the Limerick Soviet. I have dealt with these developments elsewhere 3, but I also intend to write a follow up book, From Connolly to Maclean – ‘Internationalism from Below’ and the Challenge to the UK state and British Empire from 1896-1923, to develop these ideas.

Tara argues that it is not necessary for Socialists to advocate the break-up of particular states, provided that they champion “the right to separate”. There are considerable problems with the ‘right of self-determination’ both as used by Kautsky and Lenin. I have also addressed these problems elsewhere  (4) and would need a lot more space to do so here. Indeed one of the purposes in writing my longer Internationalism from Below is to show the profound ambiguities in this formulation and how, along with Luxemburg’s and the Austro-Marxist alternatives, they undermined the full potential of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave.

Tara, who lives in a state that has already broken away from the UK (if not from its wider economic stranglehold, as the banking crisis demonstrated), appears to take this (partly thwarted) revolutionary action as having been almost inevitable. This seems to follow from her quite valid comment that “the oppression of Ireland has always been greater”. However, Tara rather underestimates the initially isolated position of that great revolutionary, James Connolly, when he first advocated the break-up of the UK, and his considerable contribution to bringing about revolutionary change.

The vast majority of the Irish working class at the time gave its support to Home Rule parties. They did not advocate the break-up of the UK or British Empire. This was highlighted by their role in recruiting Irish workers and small farmers in the First World War. Even the early Sinn Fein looked to an Austro-Hungarian-style ‘dual monarchy’ solution (Britain and Ireland) to the National Question. It was only in the context of the horrors of the First World War that the majority of Irish workers began to move towards the break-up of the UK strategy, which Connolly and a few others had long being arguing, but from a minority position.

There is probably greater support for specifically socialist republican politics in Scotland today (albeit still far too small) than in Ireland in the days of Connolly’s ISRP.  There is even greater support in Scotland for Home Rule (now termed Devolution) than in the days of the Irish Home Rulers. Scotland’s own ‘dual monarchy’ party, the SNP, also enjoys much wider support than the early Sinn Fein. Mercifully, the ultra-Unionist, including Loyalist forces, whilst real enough, are also smaller.

What this shows is that not only is the National Question very relevant in the UK today but, as in the period before the First World War in Ireland, it is dominated by bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces. Connolly didn’t start from an opinion poll showing the extent of support for Irish independence, but from an analysis of the role of British imperialism and the contradictions it led to, and the possibilities this opened up for Socialists.  This is the approach I advocate today, when the US/UK imperial alliance, fronting corporate capital, is the dominant imperial force in the world.

The future for the working class, and indeed for wider humanity, is pretty bleak as the current capitalist crisis envelops us all. We need to find an effective strategy to challenge this. Only we cannot afford to wait for a new inter-imperialist war to win majority support!  The National Question, which Tara recognises as constituting a vital issue of “political democracy”, still acts as a fault line through UK and Irish politics. This should not be left to the Nationalist parties, which are all prepared to make their own accommodation with corporate capital and imperialism.

Connolly’s proposed alliance of Irish Socialist Republicans and British Social Democrats turned out to be problematic, especially when it came to getting British support for the 1916 Rising. The British Left remains a problem today. I have argued that, in some respects, their hard-wired sectarianism mirrors their adaptation to the UK state.  This is why we have to take Connolly’s version of ‘internationalism from below’ on to a new higher plane through a specifically socialist republican alliance of organisations in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Indeed, some of the lessons to be learned from the negative experience of the ‘British Left’ – the SWP and IS (CWI), both London centred – in helping to sabotage the promising Scottish Socialist Party are probably of considerable relevance in Ireland. Here these organisations’ ‘colonial offshoots’ look set to repeat their divisive roles in relation to the promising United Left Alliance. Although the CWI and SWP constitute their own sectarian ‘internationalism from above’ alliances, they have no strategy to deal with the British and Irish ruling classes’ own ‘internationalism from above’ alliance promoted through the ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’, nor their promotion of ‘social partnerships’.

I particularly welcome Tara’s conclusion, which acknowledges that “From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today.”

1. See our previous debates on ‘Internationalism from Below’ in Red Banner, issues no. 33, 34 and 36.

2. All these volumes will be published, as they become available for free, on an internet site. In the meantime volumes 1 and 2 are completed and can be obtained in pdf format on request by e-mailing:- intfrobel@hotmail.co.uk

3/4 These can also be obtained by e-mailing intfrobel@hotmail.co.uk

Also see:-

A Review of From Davitt to Connolly by Chris Gray, and Book Launch: From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from Below’ by Angela Gorrie, in the current Emancipation & Liberation, issue no. 20 and internationalism from below book launch//a>

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Jul 10 2009

The Need for Socialist Unity

A contribution from Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network. This is immediately followed by a supplement analysing the European election results, which assesses the current balance of political forces in the EU.

In Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales the main lesson of the 2009 European elections is clear – we need Socialist unity. In Ireland, this is needed to take some of the impressive gains just made to an altogether higher level – especially those of the Socialist Party (SP), but also by People before Profit (SWP) and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG).

This will not be easy, given past political sectarian divisions, the continued pull towards Left populism, and the usually unacknowledged political significance of the partition of Ireland, which both the SP and the SWP downplay. Thus, for example, despite the electoral successes in ‘The 26 Counties’, Socialists vacated the electoral terrain altogether in ‘The Six Counties’.

There are independent Socialist groups beyond the SP and SWP in Ireland, such as the Irish Socialist Network, as well as journals to promote debate between Socialists and with Republicans – Red Banner and Fourthwrite. They may find some difficulty being heard in the face of the likely triumphalist clamour coming from the SP and SWP after their recent electoral successes. Nevertheless, the job of promoting principled unity needs to be undertaken now, even if it does not bear fruit until sometime later.

Very soon, the Irish ruling class is likely to want to organise a rerun of the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Given that Eurosceptic Libertas leader, Declan Ganley, seems to have thrown in the towel, after failing to win a Euro-seat in North West Ireland, the responsibility for opposing this neo-liberal treaty falls much more squarely upon Socialists. The reactions of Sinn Fein (previously opposed to the Treaty) and Labour (previously supportive) will be interesting. This could provide Socialists with real opportunities to make their mark on Irish national politics.

However, this will mean striving for real Socialist unity, if the whole of Ireland, not just Dublin, is to be covered properly. The ability of the WUAG to organise effectively in small town Ireland (in County Tipperary) shows the possibilities. Furthermore, it is to be hoped that Irish Socialists can take a leaf out of the French NPA, and organise an internationalist campaign against the neo-liberal Lisbon Treaty.

In England, Respect, which provided the main Socialist Euro-election challenge in England in 2004, albeit in Left populist colours, had already split and then dropped out , before the 2009 Euro-election. There is also a warning here for the SWP’s ‘People before Profit’ in Ireland, which is still following the Left populist strategy now abandoned by their comrades in Britain, at least for elections, after the fiasco involving Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets, and the tail-ending of George Galloway.

Furthermore, in the context of more direct action by workers and communities facing draconian service cuts (e.g. the Glasgow Save Our Schools campaign), there is an increasing possibility that the Mainstream parties, holding council office, will victimise Socialist councillors, who identify strongly with such actions. The SSP has already had this experience with Jim Bollan, suspended for nine months by SNP-controlled West Dumbarton Council. So the pressures on Socialist councillors (and trade union activists) will be considerable.

The demise of a once more united Respect allowed their now vacated 2004 electoral space to be contested by others in the recent Euro-election. Scargill’s SLP made a pitch for the Left celebrity vote, whilst the openly Europhobic, Left nationalist and populist No2EU, tried to appeal to some of the same chauvinist sentiments as the Right populists.

Wales Forward provided the main Socialist challenge in Wales in 2004; the Left unionist, Respect came a poor second. Both presented themselves in Left populist colours. There was debate in Wales Forward over how Socialists should address the national issue. After Wales Forward’s demise, members split between its Left nationalist component, most going into Plaid Cymru, and its Left unionist, mainly former Labour component. The two Socialist slates in the 2009 Euro-election in Wales, the SLP and No2EU, had nothing to say on the Welsh national issue, and confined their appeals to largely English-speaking South Wales.

The resurgence of British Right nationalism, represented by the Conservatives becoming the first party in Wales, UKIP taking their first seat, and the BNP taking their largest % increase in the vote, highlights the need for Welsh Socialists to unite to more effectively to counter British chauvinism. The recent production of a Celyn, a magazine emulating Scottish Left Review, and involving debate between Welsh Socialists from different backgrounds and in different political organisations, represents a tentative first step.

Unfortunately, the current dire political situation, throughout the UK, could well lead to a further retreat into Left populism amongst the existing divided Socialists here. The SWP looks as if it wants to draw others into another Left unity campaign against the BNP, shifting the focus away from the Mainstream parties. However, it is these parties, especially New Labour, which have largely been responsible for creating the economic and social crisis that has allowed the Fascists to emerge into the limelight in the first place.

In the late 1970’s, the old Anti-Nazi League (ANL) adopted this same Left populist approach, invoking Second World War, British opposition to the German Nazi menace. Whilst making some contribution to the demise of the National Front (NF), the ANL completely failed to mobilise to defend those Irish victims of the very British, Union Jack-waving Fascism of the loyalist paramilitaries and their ‘mainland’ supporters. Furthermore, this very British Fascism had the behind-the-scenes support of the British state. Irish Republicanism then represented a real threat to the British ruling class.

The ANL also failed to offer any political challenge to the sitting Callaghan Labour government, which had inflicted pay restraints and cuts under the Social Contract, thus creating the situation in which the Fascist NF could thrive. It was the Thatcher’s incoming Conservative government that finally halted the rise of the NF, after she resorted to Right populist, racist rhetoric about being “swamped by people of a different culture”. The prospect of rolling back the current BNP electoral advance, by means of another Conservative, or a returned New Labour (unlikely it is true) government, is hardly a very reassuring prospect.

The Socialist Party (SP) in England and Wales, and its International Socialist (IS) outrider inside Solidarity in Scotland, offer another road to Left unity, which also needs to be questioned. They do want to build a political alternative to New Labour, but by further developing the bureaucratic, Left British nationalist, European electoral front, No2EU. They want to merge it with the SP’s own Campaign for a New Workers Party to form a new party based on the existing undemocratic, bureaucrat-dominated trade unions – in other words, an Old Labour Party mark 2. They also hope to win over whatever sections of the Labour Left still show any life. This is the current French Left Front and the German Die Linke approach. Rifondazione Comunista and Left Unity in Spain have already made similar attempts, with predictable results.

There may be critical analyses going on amongst members inside the bureaucratically centralised SWP and SP. How has the SWP become so marginalised and how did the Socialist Party end up inside the politically suspect No2EU project? These parties’ internal regimes do not encourage much independent thinking. Nevertheless, there is also a good number of Socialists outside the two largest British Socialist organisations, some of whom gathered last September as the Convention of the Left. So, it is to be hoped that together with any critical voices there may be inside the SWP and SP, independent voices advocating principled Socialist Unity can yet emerge. Any ‘red’ shoots need to be encouraged.

The need for Socialist unity is most starkly demonstrated in Scotland, where the Socialist vote fell from 5.2% in 2004 to 3.8% (on the most optimistic interpretation, which includes the SLP vote) or 1.8% (if the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity votes alone are considered).

Furthermore, despite the SSP’s considerable achievement in winning Socialist unity in Scotland in 2003, attempts to recreate this unity today may prove very hard, given the impact of the past, and likely future court case (involving Tommy Sheridan, and both SSP and Solidarity members) and the acrimonious split.

The political decline of Solidarity was demonstrated, by a section of its members’ involvement in the Left British nationalist bureaucratic, Europhobic, No2EU campaign (with its ill-fitting, Left Scottish nationalist, Sheridan bolt-on). However, it is a good sign that sections of the Solidarity membership refused to go along with this. Socialist unity was discussed at Solidarity’s first post Euro-election Scottish Council meeting. It remains to be seen how much this mirrors the political manoeuvrings of the SWP and SP HQs in England, and how much this represents genuine new thinking.

The SSP still remains divided between a more outward looking wing, which wants to get involved at all levels of politics, and understands the need for wider Socialist unity, involving other political groups; and those, mainly, but not exclusively from Glasgow, who are still suffering from the traumas of the previous court case and the split. They believe that the SSP can ignore other political groups, particularly Solidarity, and build itself as the dominant force in Scotland, mainly by working in local campaigns. Some appear to see the SSP as little more than a political and social network for Socialists in Scotland, with most of their contributions made on the electronic media – a sort of virtual party.

Therefore, when the decision was finally, if belatedly, taken, to stand in the 2009 Euro-election, in the face of this internal opposition, this represented a real advance for the SSP. Even better was the fact that, despite the differences between those for and against standing, this debate was conducted in a comradely manner in all public party arenas (let’s leave aside website discussions dominated by the virtual Socialists!).

Furthermore, the biggest gain, agreed by Conference, after the decision to stand was won, was the unanimous vote to campaign as part of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance. This motion was presented by the RCN and backed by Frontline, who also invited a French NPA speaker, Virginia de la Siega, to address Conference. During the Euro-election campaign itself, the SSP then brought over another NPA speaker, Joaquin Reymond, to address public meetings in Dundee and Edinburgh and Glasgow.

However, Left populism also surfaced during the SSP’s election campaign. This came about due to the decision, taken after the Conference, to launch a ‘Make Greed History’ campaign. Originally conceived as a way to attack the bankers and others responsible for the economic crisis, this perhaps had greater purchase when the Westminster MPs’ expenses scandal broke out. However, the essentially populist nature of this slogan was highlighted when even Gordon Brown and David Cameron (hypocritically) promised to deal with their own greedy MPs.

The overall focus of the SSP election campaign, should have been the ‘Make the Bosses Pay for Their Crisis’, put forward by our alliance partners, the French NPA. It could then have been supplemented by the much more specific, ‘A Workers’ MEP on a Workers Wage’, once the expenses scandal broke. Given that our former SSP MSPs actually implemented this policy, when they were in the devolved Holyrood parliament between 1999 and 2007, this could have made a lot more impact.

The SSP’s back up materials and meetings should have drawn potential supporters to our full politics, summed up by, ‘Make Capitalism History, Make Socialism the Future’. However, one problem here is that there is no unified understanding within the SSP of what constitutes socialism, or even capitalism for that matter! Developing our theory and furthering this debate is a no. 1 priority. The RCN, for example, is beginning this very necessary work, hoping to work with others, such as The Commune group, which has members in England and Wales.

Now, although 10,404 people do not represent many votes, they do represent a lot of Socialists whom the SSP needs to actively draw to the party. Unlike the SLP or Solidarity, the SSP still has meaningful regularly meeting organisation on the ground, a vibrant website, and a paper to build for the future. The main task is to create a new generation of committed, knowledgeable and engaged Socialists, who can show the way through this serious and developing, economic, social and political crisis. This means an ability to highlight, not only the dead end represented by neo-liberalism, but that other weapon in capitalism’s armoury – neo-Keynesianism. The current crisis is likely to deepen, even when governments are reluctantly forced to make further interventions in the economy. We should be preparing now for this eventuality, so that Socialists can make real advances in the future.

The ‘Make Greed History’ campaign might only have been a temporary feature of the Euro-election, but it appears to have taken on new legs. It seems to have provided a definite Left populist focus inside the party. This would appear to go along with a totally dismissive attitude towards everyone in Solidarity. This is not helpful when key sections of the wider working class appreciate the need for Socialist unity.

The SSP needs to welcome moves made by others to promote greater Socialist unity, even if some of these people have sometimes previously promoted disunity. People can learn from their mistakes. Each unity initiative needs to properly discussed and assessed. We need to show patience and diplomacy, whilst also ensuring that any Socialist unity is established on a principled basis. This unity does not mean an unprincipled stitch-up, pretending that nothing has happened in the past.

Dire though the consequences of the split have been, there have been important lessons we have learned. First, Socialists can only make permanent gains by abandoning celebrity politics. The evidence for this comes, not only from the attempted promotion of Solidarity as the Tommy Sheridan Party, but of Respect as the George Galloway Party and the SLP as the Arthur Scargill Party. Any united socialist organisation needs to be thoroughly democratic and treat all members as equals.

Future Socialist unity must be thoroughly internationalist, offering support to all workers (or would-be workers) living here – not just those deemed to be ‘subjects of the Crown’. International working class unity is central to principled Socialist unity at this time. This means opposing both Left British and Left Scottish nationalism. The SSPhas become increasingly Scottish internationalist and republican socialist in its politics. These gains also need to be defended in a wider political context.

When it comes to proposals for joint action, we should avoid being panicked by the SWP into pretended threats of a Fascist takeover. There will be no BNP ‘March on London’, far less Edinburgh or Glasgow. Those at the sharp end of BNP/loyalist attacks will mainly be individual migrant workers. This is why it was so important to oppose No2EU, with its thinly disguised racist opposition to ‘social dumping’. Support for ‘No One Is Illegal’ allows us to come to the help of all those migrant workers, legal or illegal, who face either BNP attacks or state persecution.

Furthermore, there could be a rise in loyalist sectarian/racist attacks in Scotland, in the future, following recent attacks in Northern Ireland, and the new Mainstream political alliance on the Conservative and Unionist Right. The SWP’s equation of Fascism with German Nazism, and the SP/IS ‘a plague on both your camps’ stances, are not the ways to confront this particular prospect. The loyalist paramilitaries are very British Fascists. They are the active upholders of the British state and promoters of racism and sectarianism. Their victims need defended and any non-sectarian Republican opposition supported.

Socialists do need to make more active links with trade unions, but unlike the SP/IS, this does not mean making concessions to union bureaucrats, no matter how Left-talking. Alongside a ‘Workers’ MP on a Workers’ Wage’, we also need to see ‘Trade Union Representatives on a Workers’ Wage’, and subject to regular election. Just as important is the building of a new rank and file movement in the unions that sees sovereignty lying amongst the members in their workplaces, not in the bureaucrat-controlled head offices, or Broad Left-dominated Executives. Workers need to be able to take independent action whenever needed, with the aim of building enough support to defy the anti-democratic anti-trade union laws.

Given the difficulties of uniting Socialists within each of their respective nations – Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland – we face considerable difficulties uniting Socialists from all these countries. Yet, the British and Irish ruling classes are united in promoting the interests of corporate capital in these islands. Their agreed political strategy involves the continued promotion of the ‘Peace Process’ in ‘The Six Counties’, closer cooperation between the UK and Irish governments, and developing ‘Devolution-all-round’, all to create the optimum conditions for capitalist profitability. It also involves them giving open (British government) and tacit (Irish government) support for continued US imperialist war drives.

Nor, is it surprising that much of this strategy has the open or tacit support of the British, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh trade union bureaucrats, through ‘social partnerships’. These have rendered trade unions almost completely ineffective as a means to defend their members. Trade union leaders now ask, as a way to counter the current economic crisis, that bosses accept their share of the pain too, in return for workers being prepared to accept massive job losses, pay cuts and reduced social spending. No wonder the bosses are ‘laughing all the way to the banks’ (now, of course, protected at our expense, by their political friends in government).

The British and Irish ruling class strategy can not be opposed successfully by means of the organisational model – one state/one party – supported by the parties of the British Left (and their Irish satellites) – the SP, SWP, CPB, CPGB and AWL, etc.. Although in Britain this usually means forgetting that the UK state does not consist solely of Britain, but also includes ‘The Six Counties’ of Ireland.

Clearly this model is useless, when the nation itself is divided, as in the case of Ireland. This tends to lead to the acceptance of partitionist politics, which plays into the hands of both the British and Irish ruling classes. Furthermore, even in its attenuated ‘one British state’ version, one-state/one party advocates have been unable to consistently counter British chauvinism, or to appreciate the democratic aspect of the emergence of national movements in Scotland and Wales.

Both the CWI affiliated SP, and the SWP, formally exist as a single party in Ireland but, in practice, follow partitionist politics, especially in their accommodation to continued British rule in ‘The Six Counties’. The CWI in Britain has provided different degrees of autonomy for their members in Scotland (Scottish Militant Labour, the International Socialist Movement – which then left the CWI – then the International Socialists-Scotland), but nothing equivalent in Wales. The SWP appears to have no autonomous organisation in Scotland, merely expecting its resident members to implement the British line. The CPGB has flirted with the notion of constituting itself as the CPUK to cover Northern Ireland. It is also prepared to contemplate repartition of ‘The Six Counties’. The AWL share similar pro-British ideas, but as yet have not suggested reorganising themselves on an all-UK basis.

This organisational problem is merely an aspect of a wider political problem. This can be seen by the British and Irish SPs’ inability to offer a coordinated strategy to confront both the shared British and Irish ruling class political strategy for these islands. These two SPs have a record of adapting to local circumstances in a way that produces glaring contradictions. Thus in Britain, they support an ‘independent socialist Scotland’, but merely a Welsh Assembly with more powers. In Ireland, they virtually ignore partition in their everyday politics and election material in ‘The 26 Counties’, whilst in ‘The Six Counties’ they have flirted with working class loyalists. The SWP also have no overall strategy to confront the British and Irish ruling class alliance.

Neither, though, is the largely ‘go-it-alone’ Left nationalism, which emerged in sections of both the SSP and Solidarity, the answer. Any democratic and republican advance in Scotland can only be secured by similar advances in Ireland, Wales and England; just as a future socialism needs to spread internationally, if it is to survive.

The SSP made the first small steps towards an alternative ‘internationalism from below’ approach, when it organised the Republican Socialist Convention last November. This involved socialists from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. The SSP will need to vigorously defend this ‘internationalism from below’ principle in any future, wider, Socialist unity discussions, both against any Left Scottish nationalist isolationists in our own (and Solidarity’s) ranks and, against the Left British nationalists who also figure prominently in Solidarity, especially the SWP and SP. These two organisations have already brought about so much disunity with their top down bureaucratic attempts at imposing ‘unity’, which just mirror the methods of the British state. The UK remains an imperial state, albeit a junior partner with the USA. There can be no ‘British road to socialism’, only a ‘break-up of the UK state and British Empire road to communism’.

However, genuine communism, following from an international socialist transition, means not total state control, but the end of wage slavery, in a society based on the principle of from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs and where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.


The 2009 European Elections – a political assessment.

The European elections provide us with a snapshot view of the current state of politics. The following analysis looks at the election results in Europe, the UK & Ireland and, in a bit more detail, in Scotland, in order to identify some significant political trends.

A) Europe

1) The Mainstream

a) Mainstream Right

Despite the ongoing unresolved economic crisis, following the ‘Credit Crunch’, the main beneficiaries in the Euro-election have been those Mainstream Right parties belonging to the wider European Peoples Party (EPP).

Right Centrists have traditionally been pro-business, drawing their support from the middle class, and upholding conservative values. At times, in the past, these parties have accepted pragmatic state intervention in the economy and social welfare measures. This phase of Right Centre politics was most associated with overlapping Butskellite Conservative/Labour and Christian Democratic/Social Democratic support for social market or mixed economy policies, from the late 1940’s to the mid 1970’s in the UK, and later in mainland Europe.

In response to capitalism’s crisis of profitability in the mid-1970’s, Mainstream Right parties, beginning with the British Conservatives, have moved to the neo-liberal economic policies aggressively pushed by corporate capital, sometimes supplemented by Right populist appeals to social conservatism, defending ‘family values’ and ‘national traditions’.

The parties of the EPP, which made the biggest electoral gains in the Euro-election, currently hold office, either with other Mainstream Right parties or, in Merkel’s case, in a coalition with the Social Democrats. They gained 20 seats overall (1). Today, the dominant politics of this grouping stretches from the Right Centrism of parties like Merkel’s CDU/CSU to the Right populism of Berlusconi’s PdL. In between lies Sarkozy’s (2) UDM.

Until the ‘Credit Crunch’, these Mainstream Right governments were avidly pushing neo-liberal measures to further deregulate their economies and to roll back their own state’s social-market welfare provisions.

Nevertheless, despite a strongly shared commitment to the European Union and further political integration, coupled to neo-liberal economic measures, these Mainstream Right-led governments quickly took action in breach of EU rules and neo-liberal orthodoxy. As Sarkozy shamelessly argued, The idea that markets were always right was mad… Laissez-faire is finished. The all-powerful market that always knows best is finished (EU Observer, 26.9.08). It is difficult to imagine Brown, Darling or Mandelson being able to come out with such words.

Thus, faced with the possibility that the unfolding ‘Credit Crunch’ could undermine capitalism itself, Mainstream Right governing parties moved quickly to protect their countries’ perceived immediate national interests. They reassured domestic voters that they were prepared to intervene in the economy to ward off the economic chaos brought about by the previous deregulated ‘free market’ they had recently advocated.

Government intervention by such Mainstream Right parties is largely seen as a pragmatic response to the current economic crisis. It does not raise any unwanted spectres of creeping state control in business circles. So most Mainstream Right-led governments have been able to make their economic policy adjustments in response to the economic crisis relatively easily, without having to look over their shoulders. Thus, for all those voters, especially the majority of the middle class still in reasonably secure jobs (for the present), but with some nagging doubts (for the future), a vote for this pragmatic Mainstream Right appeared to be a safe option.

Berlusconi’s PdL and Sarkozy’s UDM made substantial gains in this Euro-election – 16 and 11 seats respectively. Merkel’s CDU/CSU did lose 7 seats (its Social Democratic government coalition partners managed to hold on to theirs), but 5 of these were picked up by the pro-business FDP. Whilst currently benefiting from being in opposition, the FDP has often formed a coalition partner with the other Mainstream parties in the past.

However, a further deepening of the economic crisis could undermine the current complacency of the middle class, which, at present, leads them to look to minimal changes and for a ‘safe pair of hands on the tiller’. Italy provides us with an example of the likely trajectory of the Right, if the Right Centrist policies, currently being pursued by Merkel and others, are unable to hold the line.

Despite, the poor economic situation in Italy, Berlusconi’s Right populist PdL-led government has extended its hold, both in the 2008 Italian general election and the 2009 Euro-election. It has done this by increasing the big business hold on the state (most obviously by Berlusconi’s media companies), and by a barrage of public attacks on migrants. Berlusconi’s Right populist allies, the anti-migrant (and anti-Southern Italian) Northern League also made big gains in the election (+5 seats). Together, these parties have created a political climate that allows physical attacks (including murders), particularly upon Roma and African immigrants to occur, without much official challenge.

In this particular election, Italy has gone further Right than any other western European country, eliminating not only any official Communist/Socialist Left (3) opposition but also any independent Social Democratic and Green electoral presence in the European Parliament. The corporate capitalist ‘Americanisation’ of politics, (where the Republicans and Democrats form two wings of the ‘Business Party’) is now quite far advanced in Italy.

b) Social Democratic/Labour Centre

Many commentators thought that Social Democrat/Labour parties should do well in this first post-‘Credit Crunch’ election, now that neo-liberalism is discredited. A return to the pre-1980’s mixed economy, based on the Keynesian economics, very much associated with earlier Social Democratic/Labour parties, and maybe even a recommitment to social welfare, was briefly touted. The neo-Keynesian (i.e. capitalist) case for government intervention in the economy is so widely acknowledged (4), that it has even been adopted in the USA – first, very shame-facedly by Bush’s Republican government, now with more enthusiasm by Obama’s new Democrat government.

However, both the new US Democrat government, and the long standing British Labour government, have been quick to claim that those nationalisations, which they have reluctantly been forced to adopt, are merely temporary expedients. Those new nationalised companies have been left under their previous bosses’ control, with promises to reprivatise later, no doubt on very favourable terms. Most bosses can hardly believe their luck, and are rapidly returning to awarding themselves big bonus payments and other perks.

The fact that the traditionally pro-business Mainstream Right was the main beneficiary in the European election will probably reinforce most sitting Social Democrat/Labour governments in seeing neo-Keynesian measures as being short lived. The enforced nationalisations are very definitely not being used to provide greater economic security for their workforce in the ongoing economic crisis. Their workforces are being subjected to redundancies, short-time working, pay, conditions and pension cuts for their workers, so these companies can be returned to private hands in a more profitable state (e.g. Chrysler in the USA and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK). Nor have these governments given any thought to using these nationalised companies’ existing production facilities and workforces to helping meet social needs in environmentally sustainable ways.

If, as is very likely, the current economic recession further deepens, governments may be forced to resort to much more comprehensive neo-Keynesian measures. However, any final abandonment of neo-liberalism, and more general acceptance of neo-Keynesianism, does not represent creeping socialism, as some Socialists still seem to believe. In today’s competitive global economy, such a strategy can only mean the state taking on even greater responsibility for implementing austerity measures, increased beggar-thy-neighbour protectionist policies and preparations for war – in other words not socialism – but state capitalism.

Ironically, Social Democratic/Labour governments have found it more difficult than the continental Mainstream Right to respond to the current economic crisis. Social Democratic/Labour leaders are now more cautious about moving away from neo-liberal non-interventionism. They fear the ending of their recently won big business and media backing, if seen to pursue neo-Keynesian interventionist policies too keenly. These leaders have also gained much better access to the spoils of office, as well as to very lucrative business patronage.

Furthermore, Social Democratic/Labour politicians not only call upon the working class to pay for ‘our share’ of the costs of the crisis, but actively pursue measures to ensure this happens. They use their links with the compliant trade unions to help them, e.g. through social partnerships in the UK and Ireland. In contrast, any pleas these same politicians make, which suggest that bosses should shoulder some share of the costs of the crisis, remain pious calls not backed by any effective measures of enforcement. Therefore, it is not surprising that many previous Social Democratic/Labour working class voters now think these parties have little to offer in the current crisis. So they either abstain or look elsewhere to register their protest.

Meanwhile, sensing the unpopularity of existing Social Democratic/Labour governments, and realising their decreased ability to deliver a ‘bound and gagged’ working class, big business backers are turning back to the Mainstream Right parties, which appear to hold more immediate electoral promise.

However, even when existing Social Democratic/Labour parties are ousted from office, big business will still continue to exert pressure on them to defend their interests, when called upon later. The neo-liberal Right wing of Social Democracy will regroup and not just disappear, as many on the Labour Left hope. The advantages to business of achieving an ‘Americanisation’ of politics are too great (5). Thus, despite the biggest crisis seen in the British Labour Party for 80 years, it is still the Right that calls the shots, with Lord Mandelson firmly in control. His programme for fighting the next general election is stepped-up ‘reform of the public sector’, i.e. further attacks on workers’ pay, pensions and conditions, further widening in the quality of provision in education, health, etc, and more privatisations (6). The parliamentary Left has been virtually silent over the current crisis in the party.

Thus, a striking trend in this Euro-election has been the very poor performance of Social Democratic and Labour Parties. Overall, the European Socialist Party (ESP) lost 35 members. Compared with the successes of incumbent Right governments in Italy and France, sitting Social Democratic/Labour governments (whether alone, or in coalition) fared particularly badly, losing seats in Austria (-3 seats), Belgium (-2 seats), Estonia (-2 seats), Hungary (-5 seats), Netherlands (-4 seats), Portugal (-5 seats), Slovenia (-1 seat), Spain (-3 seats) and the UK (-6 seats).

Social Democratic parties also did badly in Denmark (-1 seat) Finland (-1 seat), Poland (-1 seat), where they don’t hold office, but are also committed to neo-liberal policies. Two examples of Social Democratic parties doing spectacularly badly, despite not being in office, are to be found in France (-9 seats) and in Italy (7) (-12 seats). Again, these particular parties remain committed to the neo-liberalism, which has hit their own working class voters hardest. In Italy, the majority Social Democrats no longer even stand independently, but form part of the liberal Democratic Party (DP).

c) Liberal Centre

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) (which includes the British Liberal Democrats) also fell back 5 seats in the European Parliament (despite 5 gains by the affiliated oppositional FDP in Germany). Such parties often form parts of wider coalitions, and hence, with little different to offer, they have suffered electorally from a combined incumbency/irrelevancy factor during the current economic crisis. Most Liberal parties have largely abandoned their earlier social liberalism for neo-liberalism.

In Ireland, Fianna Fail also now forms part of ALDE. It leads the West European government responsible for the biggest attacks so far on workers in response to the current crisis. Although, it only lost 1 seat, this is significant, for it no longer has a Euro-seat in Dublin (Fine Gael 1, Labour Party, 1, Socialist Party 1).

2) Beyond the Mainstream Centre

For those most badly affected by the current economic crisis, the Euro-election provided an opportunity to show their disapproval. Many of the most disillusioned just abstained. This European election had the lowest overall turnout ever, down from 45.5% in 2004 to 43.1% in 2009 (8). The overall participation rate continued to decline in the majority of EU member countries. However, the striking feature of this election was the relatively limited political scope of the shifts in electoral choices made by most of those who did vote for non-Mainstream parties.

a) Nationalist parties

Indeed, in the case of Catalunya, Euskadi, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it could be argued that votes given to the following nationalist parties – CiU, PNV, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein – are now, in effect, being awarded to alternative but specific local Mainstream parties. All these parties are now well established in the machinery of their particular states, forming the leaderships of, or joining coalitions in devolved administrations (9). These parties all accept, either enthusiastically or pragmatically, the existing corporate capitalist order, whatever limited constitutional and social reforms they might put forward, which continue to upset the Mainstream unionist governments and parties in their particular states – Spain and the UK.

A resurgent Right British nationalism has been a strong feature of this election in Wales and Northern Ireland (see later UK and Ireland section). Something similar can be seen in Spain, where the ultra-unionist Union for Progress and Democracy (10), drawing support from both the Right and Left, has gained a seat. They want to abolish all the devolved national and regional administrations in Spain.

Whilst the long standing up-and-down political battles between unionism and nationalism in Wales and Euskadi may explain these particular resurgences of unionism, there is also perhaps a fear amongst many voters that solutions to deal with the ongoing economic crisis can not be met at a small nation level.

b) Populism

Populism is a politics that appeals to the more economically and politically marginalised, without situating itself firmly on the grounds of class. At one time this meant populism drew its main support from the petit-bourgeoisie – small farmers, small business owners (e.g. shopkeepers) and artisans, etc. However, where effective working class organisation has fallen apart, leaving many workers atomised and feeling unable to alter the course of events by their own actions, populism has been able to make inroads here too.

Thus, populism has both Right and Left variants. To its Right, populism merges with Fascism based on the petty bourgeoisie, the economically threatened sections of the middle class, and the atomised sections of the working class. To its Left it merges with Socialist (or Labour Left) politics based on the organised (or would-be organised) working class.

Populism has been the main overall winner of the votes of those wishing to express their political discontent with the Mainstream Centre in the current economic crisis. Many disenchanted people were prepared to vote for the populists’ eye-catching political, economic and social proposals, despite these being essentially minimalist or dangerously diversionary.

c) Right populism

In most cases, it has been Right populism that has benefited in these elections. It has already been pointed out that, despite being an Italian Mainstream party, and a constituent of the largely Centre Right EPP, Berlusconi’s PdL and its Northern League ally, have successfully made Right populist, anti-migrant appeals to the Italian electorate.

Another big electoral winner was the Right populist and national chauvinist UKIP in Britain (11) (+2 seats). UKIP emerged in this election with the second biggest number of votes after the Tories. UKIP’s electoral advance was all the more remarkable given the early defection of its most well known spokesperson, Kilroy-Silk, and the jailing of one of its first MEPs for corruption, after the 2004 Euro-election. In Austria (+2 seats), Finland (+1 seat), Greece (+1 seat), and particularly in the Netherlands (+4 seats), anti-migrant Right populists have all made considerable gains.

d) Fascist/Right populist alliances

However, to these constitutional Right populist parties, it is also necessary to add the votes and seats won by those former Fascist and those still Fascist parties, which have now either fully adopted Right populist politics (e.g. Fini’s National Alliance component of the PdL), or which use such politics to mask their own continuing support for a full-blown fascist project (e.g. the BNP). This is because where these parties have been electorally successful, it has been by making Right populist, and not openly Fascist appeals.

Ironically, the political compromises, which have led some Fascist organisations to adopt Right populist clothing (and an acceptance of constitutionalism), have produced parallel tensions amongst the Fascists, to those found amongst Socialists, where the pull of Left populism is just as strong.

One hallmark of a fully developed Socialist organisation is its readiness to use mass democratic action in defiance of the existing anti-democratic constitutional order to advance its aims. In today’s non-revolutionary situation, still largely marked by a continuing Capitalist Offensive, the Socialists can only to aspire to such levels of opposition and organisation. Instead, we try to build for such future action by promoting, for example, independent (‘unofficial’) strikes or occupations.

In the meantime, though, many on the Left get drawn into the central running of bodies, which by their very nature are involved in the day-to-day running of capitalism, e.g. trade unions, quangos, etc. This can lead many to accept gradualist Reformism and/or a resort to Left populism.

In comparison, the hallmark of fully developed Fascist organisations is the use of goon squads and/or paramilitary forces to win control of the streets, and to deny any political (or public) space for Socialists and others (e.g. ethnic minorities, gays, etc.). However, present day Fascists do not currently enjoy the support of their ruling classes, so such activities, when exposed, can lead to spells in jail. Therefore recently, such parties have tried to downplay this particular characteristic and appear ‘respectable’.

In the absence of concerted working class resistance, European ruling classes can still bring about the counter-reforms they need, by resort to legal attacks on workers’ livelihoods, rights and organisations (e.g, anti-trade union laws), with the help of the existing Mainstream parties. These all try to meet the needs of the existing corporate capitalist order, whatever other policy differences may divide them. Therefore, the extra-legal services of the Fascists are not yet required.In the meantime, Fascists get drawn into working on community and local councils, and parliaments. Some mellow in the process, becoming subordinate partners in wider Broad Right alliances, and pushing constitutional Right populist politics.

This means that those Fascists not just satisfied with just moving Mainstream politics further to the Right (which could lead to their co-option or marginalisation in the future), want to maintain their hardcore cadre through attacks on migrants, gays and others (these attacks can still be publicly disowned by the official leadership).

For these Fascists, new anti-migrant laws are not ends in themselves, but a means to create a wider climate of racism and chauvinism in which the Fascists can move ‘like fish in water’. Today, attacks on individuals, or upon small marginalised groups, particularly in areas where Fascists have some electoral support, are the main type of activity giving the initial training they require, for a time in the future, when they may yet be called upon by sections of the ruling class and the employers to physically crush workers’ organisations.

In the current political situation, Italy shows us the most likely political impact of the rise of Fascist and other xenophobic Far Right forces on the politics of other western European countries. There is not going to be any immediate ‘March on Rome’. Fascists have been able to move the Mainstream parties to the Right, by promoting anti-migrant and anti-sexual liberation policies. These help to keep the working class divided.

In the past, Thatcher contributed to the demise of the National Front by adopting some of their racist rhetoric, and Sarkozy has tried the same in France. Berlusconi’s Italy is also instructive. The Right populist PdL has absorbed two former fascist organisations, Fini’s National Alliance and Alessandra Mussolini’s Social Action.

Germany, like Italy, has its own fascist past. However, in marked contrast to the Italian Fascists, most present day German Fascists remain full-blooded Fascists, i.e. anti-Semitic Nazis, when most others have switched their hatred to Moslems or Roma (tacitly encouraged by many official state policies and the tabloid press). Consequently German Nazis have been unable to make any breakthrough into national politics (whilst still remaining a grave physical threat to migrant workers, particularly in the many of the depressed parts of former East Germany).

Parties spanning the Fascist/Right populist spectrum did well in Eastern Europe, where nearly all the Mainstream parties are to the right of their western equivalents, reflecting their continuing reaction to the legacy of Russian ‘Communist’ domination (12). In Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, seats have been won by the violently chauvinist, anti-Roma, anti-gay, Jobbik (+ 3 seats), Greater Romania (+ 3 seats) and Attak (+2 seats) parties. The current economic crisis has hit Eastern Europe particularly hard, and Socialism (at least in its genuine internationalist form) is still associated in many minds with old-style Stalinism, so the political situation here is looking increasingly grim.

e) Left populism and Socialism

The Greens are the best example of a populist politics that makes most (but not all of) of its appeal to left of centre voters. The Greens made small, but nevertheless significant advances in Belgium (+1 seat), Denmark (+1 seat), Finland (+1 seat), Germany (+1 seat) (where they have been out of coalition governments for long enough that many people have forgotten their past record in office). Overall, they gained 13 seats in the European Parliament, only losing seats in Italy and the Netherlands, where Right populism made significant advances. Elsewhere, the Greens increased their vote, except in Portugal (where they are in the same party – the CDU – as the official Communists) – and in Ireland, where they have paid the cost of being in an unpopular governmental coalition with Fianna Fail.

Furthermore, Greens have made serious inroads into the voting base of certain Socialist groups (whether ex-official Communist or Left Social Democrat/Labour), which also adopt Left populist politics. These inroads are apparent in the election results, for example, of France, Britain (including Scotland), but perhaps most spectacularly in Denmark, where the 2 MEPs of the Socialist Peoples Party (SPP) (+1 seat) now sit as observers in the Green Euro-group.

France has seen some of the biggest class struggles in Europe in recent years, with massive strikes and resistance by migrant workers. This has resulted in a willingness to vote left of the Mainstream Centre in the Euro-election. The Fascist/Right populist National Front lost 3 seats showing how class struggle can shift the terms of political debate.

However, despite some favourable opinion polls, the Trotskyist, LCR-initiated, New Anti-Capitalist Party, a very recent Socialist formation, just failed to get MEPs elected. This was partly because a major push was made by the French establishment to marginalise this latest challenge (just as it did, when the National Front’s Le Pen emerged as the main alternative when the Right Centrist Chirac in the 2007 French Presidential election).

Thus the Greens (13) in France were seen to be a relatively safe alternative, and they managed to corral the majority of the left of Centre protest votes. They won another 8 seats bringing them up to 14 (3 more than the British Labour Party!)

Furthermore, the Left Front, consisting of the French Communist Party (PCF), the Left Party (a breakaway from the French Socialist Party, which hopes to emulate Germany’s Die Linke) and the Unitarian Left (a rightist breakaway from the Trotskyist LCR, which did not join the NPA) formed another Left populist electoral alliance, united around Left nationalist politics (14).

The Left Front managed to gain 2 more seats (albeit on less than a 1% increase in the vote for the 2004 PCF-led Euro-slate). Therefore, although they contributed to just stopping the NPA from winning any seats, the overall 6.5% vote gained for this Left Front populist slate merely disguised the continued downward spiral of its main component, the PCF. It also highlighted the lack of support for those Left Social Democratic forces that joined them, whom the PCF and others have long sought to woo.

In Germany, as in France, most of the protest vote went not to the right but to the left, albeit more weakly, with one new seat won by the Greens and one by Die Linke (15) (which was expected to do better). Die Linke is an alliance of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) (successor to the Socialist Unity Party, the former official Communist Party in East Germany) and the Labour and Social Justice Electoral Campaign (WASG), Lafontaine’s Left breakaway from the German Social Democratic Party.

Where it holds offices in the local administrations (in the former East Germany), the SED behaves like other Social Democratic Parties, implementing cuts. The western-based WASG has opposed this course so far. However, the new Die Linke leadership supported the bail-out of German banks in the Reichstag, and tacitly supported Israel in its Gaza invasion, so, in the longer term, Die Linke looks fated to follow a similar path to Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and the United Left in Spain, where working class support slumped after these parties gave their support to cuts-implementing Social Democratic governments.

f) The long term decline of official Communism and the EUL/NGL

Any examination of the official Communist-led EUL/NGL Euro-group shows that, despite the current economic crisis, it is a largely declining force, mainly due to the Communist parties’ one-time links with the failed USSR, but also to their member parties’ willingness to join, or prop up Social Democratic Centre governments administering cuts or promoting imperial wars. Overall the EUL/NGL lost 5 of the Euro-seats that it held in 2004. In Italy, Rifondazione Comunista representation in the European Parliament was wiped out (following a similar setback in the Italian general election in 2008).

In Spain, the CP-led United Left also lost a seat. Even in Greece, despite the recent massive upheavals, the local Communist Party, the KKE, still lost a seat. The SYRIZA alliance, its newly formed rival, also fell back on the % vote won by its largest constituent organisation, Synaspismos, in the 2004 Euro-election (as well as that it gained in the 2007 Greek general election). In Greece, against the grain, the Social Democratic PASOK vote held up and emerged as the main winner in the Euro-election. This is probably due to a combination of being in opposition, and a longstanding ability to adopt Left populist (and Left nationalist) rhetoric when necessary.

Only in Cyprus has the local Communist Party, AKEL, really held its own, retaining its 2 seats. Uniquely for the EU, a Communist Party forms the elected government in Cyprus. However, this is more due to it being seen as the best bet for reuniting a country, still partly occupied by Turkish armed forces. Much of AKEL’s appeal is Cypriot nationalist.

In both Sweden and Denmark, Left nationalism is the declared principle of the two the Left populist EUL/NGL affiliates in these particular countries – the anti-EU Left Party and the Peoples Movement Against the EU, respectively. Both of these parties include former official Communists, now that their parties have dissolved.

The Left Party lost a seat in Sweden, where the party leading the current government, the Centre Right Moderate Party, and the libertarian populist Pirate Party, made the biggest advances. In Denmark, the parties forming the sitting Liberal/Right Centre/Right populist government all advanced, whilst the Social Democrats fell back sharply. The EUL/NGL affiliated Peoples Movement against the EU (principally backed by the Red Green Alliance in Denmark) was able to substantially increase its vote in these propitious circumstances, but without gaining an extra seat (16). A much bigger proportion of the Left vote in Denmark went to the non-EUL/NGL Socialist Peoples Party, which did gain an extra seat.

In the Czech Republic, the local Communist Party, KSCM, lost 2 seats. Here however, in one of the few exceptions to the trouncing of Social Democrats, the Czech SD party gained 5 seats. This was partly due to the continued decline of the KSCM, once of course, the ruling party in the whole of Czechslovakia. The KSCM is the last official Communist Party from Eastern Europe with European Parliament representation to remain in the EUL/NGL (17).

So, although in France and Denmark, official CP backed, Left populist alliances – the Left Front and the Peoples Movement against the EU – both increased their votes, as part of a general Left populist swing in these countries, in these countries other Left populist parties did better – the Greens and the SPP respectively.

g) An emerging Socialist alternative to official CP Left populism?

The two countries where local EUL/NGL affiliates did best are the Netherlands and Portugal. In the Netherlands, the Socialist Party’s vote largely held up, and it retained its 2 Euro-seats, despite the unnerving slide by most protesting voters to anti-migrant, anti-Islamic Right populists. However, the Socialist Party does not come from the official Communist tradition. It comes from a Maoist background, although now long abandoned, and stands on an openly Socialist platform, based on working class politics.

The Left Bloc’s results in results in Portugal were remarkable. The Left Bloc, like the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, has Maoist roots, which it has abandoned. However, it has opened itself to other Socialist forces, and unlike the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, it also forms part of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance (EACL). Nor is the Left Bloc the only EUL/NGL affiliate in Portugal. There is also the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), the permanent Left populist alliance between the official Communists and the Greens, which stand together under this name in European, national and local elections.

In a situation where the incumbent Portuguese Socialist Party (Social Democratic) government lost spectacularly in the Euro-elections, most of the non-Mainstream vote went left. However, it was not the initially better placed CDU, which gained. Its vote fell back slightly, whilst retaining its 2 Euro-seats. It was the Left Bloc that hugely increased its vote and won 2 more seats. Thus, the Portuguese Left Bloc has picked up the lead baton for Socialists in Europe.

The failure of the NPA in France to win any Euro-seats is hopefully a temporary setback in the formation of an alternative, more clearly working class-based, Socialist alliance in Europe. Relating to the rising level of class struggle, the NPA stood on the basis of clear class politics – ‘Make the Bosses Pay for Their Crisis’. That is the way to give a political lead to workers involved in current class struggles, where the official trade union leaders and Social Democratic parties try to limit the purpose of any action to ‘sharing’ the costs around – i.e. workers should accept some cuts as an example for the bosses to follow!

It will be interesting to see the political direction taken another Socialist – Joe Higgins of the CWI-affiliated Socialist Party. He won the Dublin seat previously held by the Irish EUL/NGL affiliate, Sinn Fein (18). Will Higgins take an active part in the European Anti-Capitalist Left (EACL), and help contribute to the formation of a distinct international Socialist Left group within the EUL/NGL? Or, will he behave like another Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvriere from France, which won 3 seats in the 1999 Euro-election (with another 2 going to its then electoral allies, the LCR), but then proceeded to try and advance its own group’s interests above those of the wider international socialist movement? It lost all of its seats in the 2004 Euro-election.

Many Socialists may be critical of the politically ambiguous names of the NPA or the Left Bloc. Nevertheless, so long as they remain democratic organisations, positively engaged in the class struggles in their countries, with an unwavering commitment to internationalism, those Socialists in these countries, who really want to influence events, should be participating, whilst Socialists elsewhere in Europe should be helping to build the EACL.


1. Until recently the EPP grouping also included Cameron’s British Conservatives, so the defection of their 26 MEPs, underestimates the real gains made by the Centre Right, since the 2004 Euro-election.

2. Sarkozy has a Right populist anti-migrant past, but more recently, after major social revolts, has been forced to adopt a more Right Centrist public position

3. Italy is a country where the CP was once a considerable force in politics. Furthermore, as in Spain, most of the Socialist Left worked inside the CP.

4. Unlike those on the Left who equate capitalism with anti-state economic interventionist neo-liberalism, genuine Socialists/Communists have long understood that capitalism is always prepared to resort to a more statist model, when in difficulty, without changing its essential nature. The essence of capitalism is not the promotion of unfettered market relations – neo-liberalism – but the promotion and defence of wage slavery by both economic and political means.

5. One indication that this pattern has been firmly established, will be when we hear of companies which fund both Conservatives and New Labour, just as some US businesses fund both Republicans and Democrats.

6. The next stage of Royal Mail privatisation has only been temporarily shelved.

7. Wikipedia lists 12 of the 25 MEPs in the Christian Democrat/Liberal/Social Democrat (including former Communists)/Green 2004 Olive Tree alliance as sitting with the Social Democratic ESP. After the 2009 election, it lists all 21 MEPs from its Democratic Party successor, as forming an independent Euro-group.

8. This can not just be put down by the accession of Bulgaria (39% turnout) and Romania (28% turnout), two new member states from eastern Europe, where there has been traditionally been a low turn-out rate.

9. The PNV recently lost control of the devolved Euskadi administration, after being in control for more than 2 decades.

10. An equivalent party in Scotland/UK might unite Tam Dayell and Michael Forsyth.

11. Despite its name, UKIP does not stand for elections in Northern Ireland, although the UUP would share quite a few of this party’s characteristics. However, in a not widely understood move by Cameron, the Conservatives have already linked up with the more genteely sectarian UUP (as opposed to the more openly sectarian DUP), as well as with Right populists from Poland and the Czech Republic to form a new Eurosceptic alliance in the European Parliament.

12. One example of this is the Social Democratic Party in Slovakia, which has even been thrown out of the ‘Socialist International’, because it formed a government coalition with an anti-Roma, hard Right party!

13. The Greens Left populist (and Left nationalist) credentials were helped by the participation of Jose Bove, a popular figure from the Anti-Globalisation Movement.

14. In many ways the Left Front is like the wider British electoral alliance, No2EU, hoped to create, being based on populist politics.Although in the case of the No2EU, it accommodated further right, ditching not only the word ‘Socialist’ but even the word ‘Left’ to dish the BNP.

15. Unlike the NPA, Die Linke is not opposed to joining coalitions with Social Democrats. Nevertheless, most of the political forces supporting the European Anti-Capitalist Left in Germany have joined Die Linke as distinct tendencies, just as many previously joined Rifondazione Comunista, in its earlier left-posing days.

16. However, in this case the actual MEP elected belongs to the Trotskyist. USFI. The Red Green Alliance was formed by members of the former official Communists, the USFI affiliated Trotskyists, former Maoists, and a section of the Left Social Democrats (most of whom went to the Socialist Peoples Party, however). Danish USFI supporters appear to be on the USFI’s more Left populist wing, compared with say those in the NPA in France. The Red Green Alliance has faced similar controversy in Denmark over alliances with Muslim politicians to that caused by Respect in the UK.

17. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the traditional Communist parties have reformed themselves into Social Democratic parties, joining the ‘Socialist International’. They are all very much on the ‘modernising’, ‘market reform’ accepting wing of European Social Democracy.

18. Sinn Fein, currently the only EUL/NGL affiliate in Ireland, is rather the odd party out in this Euro-group. It has no other past or present official or dissident Communist affiliations. Its connection dates from the time Sinn Fein was more keen to be seen as part of the international anti-imperialist movement, where association with official Communists brought about valuable links, e.g. with South Africa. Sinn Fein’s has maintained its seat in Northern Ireland, where politics is dominated by constitutionally enforced sectarian allegiances. Here, Sinn Fein has cornered the Catholic nationalist market.

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Mar 20 2009

Latinos: The US Election And The Immigrant Rights Struggle

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 3:59 pm

Dave Moore, a socialist in the US, reports on what an Obama administration means for immigrants’ rights. This is an updated version of an article Dave wrote for Red Banner.

In the spring of 2006, immigrant uprisings swept across the United States, sparked by a vicious bill to criminalize undocumented workers. In city after city, protesters held a sea of placards; one message recurred: ‘Today we march, Tomorrow we vote’.

On November 4th, that promise was kept – and it proved decisive.

Fast-changing demographics and massive voter mobilisation allowed Latinos to impact the US election as never before. Exit polls indicated that 3 million more Latinos took part than in 2004 – a leap from 7.6 to 10.5 million. Battleground states Colorado, Nevada, Florida and New Mexico were carried for Barack Obama by a surge of Latino votes; prominent anti-immigrant legislators were dumped.

This article traces the immigrant rights struggle from the marches to the ballot box and sketches the challenges it faces under the new administration.

From marching to voting

Latinos – interchangeably called Hispanics – represent the largest minority group in the United States at 46 million (15.4% of the population). History belies the stereotype: the border divided many Latinos following the seizure of huge tracts of Mexican territory by nineteenth century imperial war. Unwanted from the outset, Latino experience has long been one of persecution and expulsion.

Today, 60% of US Latinos are native-born citizens (a status conferred automatically to those born of immigrant parents). The rest, immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and other countries of Central and Latin America, mainly have legal status as naturalised citizens or permanent residents. Of an estimated undocumented populace of 12 million, Latinos comprise 9.6 million – approximately one fifth of all Hispanics. Their numbers expanded markedly through the economic dislocation wrought by NAFTA – increasing by more than 40% since 2000.

Two additional trends fuel the fires of the anti-immigrant right – internal migration and higher birth rates. Latino populations have been dispersing markedly from their historic focus in the southwest and major urban centres, reaching smaller cities and towns across the nation; they also now contribute more than half of all US population growth, the majority from births rather than migration.

Latinos are no homogeneous group, but the experience for most has been bitter in the post-9/11 era. Recast as a ‘national security’ threat, undocumented workers were soon faced with a sharp increase in raids and deportations. States and localities began enacting experimental laws designed to squeeze those without papers. Nativist groups grew in numbers and vehemence. All Latinos felt the chill.

Many Republicans saw electoral advantage in stirring the pot. Others, more strategically, saw opportunity to fundamentally reshape immigration law to better suit capitalist profit. They looked to a cross-party compromise that would include large scale legalization: 2005’s McCain-Kennedy Bill. While it floundered in the Senate, anti-immigrant Republicans in the House rallied behind a very different plan. It would criminalize not just the undocumented but anyone deemed to be assisting their presence in the United States. Menacing, if deeply unrealistic, it threatened capital with massive dislocation. Yet, at the year’s end, the bill passed – and it sparked fully-fledged Latino revolt: huge marches in Washington DC, then Chicago, Milwaukee, Phoenix, next a million on the streets of Los Angeles, on and on, city after city; by April 10th, a National Day of Action spanned over 100 cities; for May 1st, another immense wave of marches. International Workers Day – all but moribund in the US – was spectacularly revived as the ‘Great American Boycott’ – no work, no school, no sales and no buying.

It was an unprecedented high point for immigrant struggles, yet the upsurge was already faltering. April had brought a new Senate bill, far less punitive, that rehashed a clumsy mix of increased border enforcement, a temporary worker programme and, for those resident over 5 years, a protracted path to legalisation. Corporate to its core, the evolving bill addressed some of the movement’s demands and spurred hopes, debate and division. DC policy groups, national organisations and key union figures clutched at a fragile compromise – and feared an escalating movement would jeopardise it. They saw those building for May 1st more as threats than allies with their unequivocal demand for amnesty and rejection of the temporary worker programme. Thus, even as bolder action was being built, leaders tried to stand it down with a competing message of caution. The grass-roots response was still dramatic and widely halted production, but it was greatly blunted. The moment was quickly lost; legislation stalled and mobilisations waned. Raids and deportations increased, while the outgoing Congress pledged billions to militarising the Mexican border.

These events bolstered a voter mobilisation strategy for November’s mid-term elections across the movement, spurred on by foundations willing to fund efforts to raise historically low Latino civic participation and citizenship rates. Thus, groups immersed themselves in registering and turning out new voters, scrupulously non-partisan efforts that nevertheless impacted several key House and Senate races and contributed to the return of a Democrat inclined Congress.

Fresh offensive

Within days came a fresh government offensive: massive raids on meatpacking plants across six states, with over 1,200 workers arrested. In a new move, 270 were slapped with criminal charges. The message was designed for Democrats as much as the movement.

As the new Congress began, President Bush urged a renewed reform effort, calling for a ‘Grand Bargain’ that embraced business demands for an expanded temporary worker program. The resulting bill required yet more border militarisation, and offered only highly punitive and costly legalisation. On top, it demanded 600,000 annual ‘guest worker’ visas. These would establish large-scale indentured servitude: immigrant workers tied firmly to a single employer, on non-renewable visas, with no hope of permanent status and ripe for grotesque abuse. Amid the shifting sands of negotiations, sweeteners were added and some Democrats attempted to remove or blunt guest worker provisions. The mass marches were renewed on May 1st, smaller but still powerful. Amid fevered lobbying, the bill progressively worsened. Two months later, it was dead.

Many states and cities responded with a renewed push to legislate their own anti-immigrant measures.

Meanwhile, the Administration ramped up its attrition: more workplace raids and new schemes to force employers to purge workers with ‘flagged’ Social Security numbers; pursuit of individuals with unexecuted deportation orders became de facto community sweeps. Despite the rhetoric, none of the tactics could reduce the undocumented population, nor did they seriously strive to. Instead, they aimed to further marginalise and subordinate immigrant workers, appease anti-immigrant voters and keep Democrats marshalled behind a strong ‘enforcement’ agenda.

Such was the backdrop as the lengthy presidential race began. Immigration ranked as a consistent ‘top three’ concern for voters. Yet, by the time Barack Obama was confirmed to contest John McCain, it had become the elephant in the room, all but exiled from the campaign trail. As a past sponsor of immigration reform, McCain was the one Republican with a coating of palatability for Latinos and, despite a platform dragged rightwards for the party’s nativist base, he rejected using immigration as a weapon. This owed little to principle and much to the electoral map. In crucial contests, McCain needed significant Latino votes. Instead, they rejected him emphatically.

Obama carried Latinos more than two to one; amongst immigrant voters, he polled 78%.

But while Democrats reaped the dividends, they owed much to a vast array of Latino and immigrant groups who again worked tirelessly to register voters, mobilise turnout and encourage legal residents to pursue citizenship. It was a massive, year-long effort powerfully backed by Spanish language media. Even against 2006, the pool of potential voters had increased dramatically: hundreds of thousands of young Latinos, many with immigrant parents, were now of voting age, while pro-active campaigns, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the prospect of a large fee hike had combined to spur a record number of naturalisations.

Yet even while the movement celebrated success, the all-consuming pursuit of these new voters, with its exclusive focus on citizens, drained many immigrant rights groups, pushing them to neglect their base or give it an ancillary role.

Immigration reform and the ‘First Hundred Days’

When communities are terrorised by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it.

Barack Obama speaking to a pro-immigrant audience, July 2008

With the election concluded, and the Obama-era looming, the movement needed a rapid change of gear. Its first response was a mis-step. A coalition of national groups announced a march in Washington DC for the day after inauguration, aiming to draw 100,000 to the capital to remind Obama of his fine words and demand a moratorium on raids. This was rapidly scaled back and then diffused to small local actions, part caution, part logistics as the scale of attendance for the inauguration event became clear. Nevertheless, a strong humanitarian appeal to end raids has continued as the movement’s overriding theme, drawing considerable support from faith-based groups.

Yet this moral outrage squares off against a truly corporate monster. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is located at the very heart of the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush regime’s post 9/11 battering ram for a far-reaching assault on civil liberties and a domestic war on immigrants. It has constructed a massive immigration-industrial complex within its domain, recruiting thousands of well-paid, well-armed shock-troops to visit new forms of terror on immigrant communities; it received almost limitless budgets for immigration prisons and border fortifications, feeding obscene billions to Halliburton, Boeing and Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison provider. Over a five-year period, CCA was handed federal largesse to detain almost a million people in deportation, rising to 33,000 beds per day, while moves to press criminal, not civil, charges against many detainees had begun to offer even higher profits from longer, more lucrative incarcerations. On the eve of Obama’s victory, Virginia investors planned a new $21 million private prison to reap burgeoning federal contracts. Clearly they did not expect the trough to run dry.

Thus, while Obama quickly pledged to empty Guantanamo on taking office, those who hoped for boldness on raids and detentions were disappointed. Incoming head of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, predictably ordered a departmental review. Early indications suggest it may bring a heightened focus on apprehending ‘criminal aliens’ (i.e. those with felony convictions), possibly relieving some pressure on the mass of the undocumented. Detention centres, the source of a growing catalogue of horrors and deaths, will be told to clean up their act. Tough gestures can also be expected, including the bolstering of some areas of enforcement. In short, the engine will be re-tuned, yet it may lose little of its familiar hum.

A similar outcome may await a second Bush legacy, E-Verify, an electronic system to check new hires and reject supposedly undocumented workers. Already in use in tens of thousands of workplaces, its ‘voluntary’ roll-out to businesses was increasingly turned into compulsion by both federal contracts and state laws. In February, Republicans demanded that businesses be required to adopt it as a condition for receiving funds from the stimulus package. Democrats rebuffed the attempt. But while the system is deeply flawed and notoriously metes out ‘collateral damage’ to many legal residents, it is far from clear that Democrats will halt funding for the pilot programme, due for renewal in March. Napolitano declares as a ‘strong supporter’ and well-organised anti-immigrant forces will mobilise their base to lobby Democrats, many of whom already believe it can be ‘improved’. Although union, civil rights and many business groups will join immigrant organisations in pressing for it to be scrapped, they will need to make a good fight.

Securing comprehensive immigration reform – including a path to legalisation for undocumented workers – remains the big goal of the immigrant movement. Before the economic crisis unfolded, Obama pledged a new attempt at major legislation during his first year in office. Immigrant advocates lobbying the administration believe that still holds good and hope for movement between September and March. They will contend that reform is inextricable from recovery and keep the administration mindful of the Latino vote. Although rising domestic job losses will disarm champions of a ‘guest worker’ programme, any emerging bill would likely be cut from similar cloth to past bi-partisan formulas and be deeply problematic for the movement.

More imminently, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act – the election payback sought by the US labour movement – would dramatically enhance immigrant rights, cutting loose a wave of new organising better shielded from union-busting attacks. Immigrant and Latino workers, already central to many recent union victories, would be both prominent leaders and major beneficiaries, while the push could also help re-energise the immigrant rights struggle at a crucial time. The bill’s champions include Obama’s pick for Labour Secretary, Hilda Solis, herself the daughter of Latino immigrants. However, at the time of writing, business interests were mobilising efforts to block her appointment – an opening shot in their determined fight against EFCA.

Obama’s ‘First Hundred Days’ end on May 1st. By then, the immigrant rights movement may have little to celebrate, but its activists are sure to be back, proud and determined, on streets across the United States.

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