The Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) is holding a public conference “Dangerous Ideas – A weekend of anti-capitalist debate” in Dublin on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th October.
Unfortunately I am not able to attend the event but here are a couple of key points I would have been trying to get across if I had been able to be present.
The SPI explicitly places itself in the political tradition of revolutionary Marxism and the ideas of the leaders of the Russian Revolution such as Lenin and Trotsky.
One of the best expressions of the core of those revolutionary Marxist ideas is contained in Lenin’s pamphlet “State and Revolution”. There are two key ideas developed in that pamphlet which make it a truly dangerous document – dangerous in the eyes of our capitalist rulers at least.
Firstly there is the need to overthrow, or “smash” as the most common translations of Lenin have it, the existing capitalist state power and replace it with a new state power of a special sort which will, as working class power is consolidated, the capitalists expropriated, and the alienation of bourgeois consciousness being transcended, begin to wither away and become less and less of a controlling influence over people’s lives and on its way to becoming merely a non-coercive administrative body. This new form of state power will be based on, and directly linked to, the manifestation of the second truly dangerous idea contained in Lenin’s pamphlet.
That is the self-organisation of working people in workers’ councils based on what would commonly be understood today as direct participatory democracy. Organisations that find their initial expression in the more militant forms of class struggle within capitalism – such as we have seen in embryo in Ireland with the network of community groups in the anti-household/water charges movements. Working class organisations that are separate from, and in political opposition to, the capitalist’s limited, passive, and ultimately fake, parliamentary democracy form of societal governance.
A new kind of societal governance where social ownership of the means of production means no longer will so many decisions affecting our lives be made behind the capitalist veil of “commercial secrecy”. Where immediate right of recall of delegates means no more election time “promises” that are really just lies to get candidates elected before they get on with the real job of governing in the interests of the capitalists for the next 4 or 5 years.
So why won’t these two key ideas of revolutionary Marxism be being talked about at the SPI’s conference?
Regarding the question of the state it is because the SPI have an openly reformist position. Instead of replacing (smashing) the capitalist state apparatus they propose simply bringing that existing capitalist state apparatus, such as the Gardai, under “community control” – presumably in the process the class nature of this apparatus being magically transformed from bourgeois to proletarian:
The Socialist Party believes that the Gardai, instead of being accountable to a Commissioner appointed by the Government, should be democratically controlled and held to account by working class communities through elected policing committees. The police should play no role in policing peaceful, community and legitimate protest. Gardai who manhandle or abuse peaceful citizens should be removed from the force.
We need a police force that should be answerable to working class people and communities not the political masters acting on behalf of wealthy vested interests.
The Facebook event page for the SPI’s conference includes a video of a recent Channel 4 discussion involving Peter Taaffe (one of the headline speakers at the conference and central leader of the Committee for a Workers’ International which the SPI is part of) and Neale Colman (chief advisor to Owen Smith’s – the unsuccessful Blairite challenger to Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the British Labour Party).
In this discussion Taaffe puts forward an explicitly reformist view of a parliamentary road to socialism:
Coleman: Peter, unlike me, doesn’t believe in a parliamentary road to socialism.
Taaffe: That’s not true.
Coleman: He believes in a Bolshevik type party that will take power for a revolution.
Interviewer: OK, do you [Taaffe] support taking power through the parliamentary..?
Taaffe: Of course. We stand for the election of a socialist and Labour government that would introduce measures in parliament to take hold of the 100 monopolies that control 80/85% of the economy.
This articulation of parliamentary socialism by Taaffe is merely the most recent example of the CWI’s consistent presentation of this non-revolutionary version of socialism. For instance in a 2006 interview with BBC Radio 4’s Shaun Ley:
Ley: You still think the revolution will come?
Taaffe: Well, what do you mean by revolution?
Ley: The overthrow of capitalism.
Taaffe: Well yes, a change in society, established through winning a majority in elections, backed up by a mass movement to prevent the capitalists from overthrowing a socialist government and fighting, not to take over every small shop, every betting shop or every street corner shop — in any case, they are disappearing because of the rise of the supermarkets — and so on, or every small factory, but to nationalise a handful of monopolies, transnationals now, that control 80 to 85% of the economy.
This social democratic fantasy about a parliamentary road to socialism only serves to politically disorientate working people. The SPI claim to be Trotskyists and yet have no explanation for why Trotsky explicitly warned against the perspective outlined by Taaffe:
‘[H]eroic promises to hurl thunderbolts of resistance if the Conservatives should “dare,” etc., are not worth a single bad penny. It is futile to lull the masses to sleep from day to day with prattling about peaceful, painless, parliamentary, democratic transitions to socialism and then, at the first serious punch delivered at one’s nose, to call upon the masses for armed resistance. This is the best method for facilitating the destruction of the proletariat by the powers of reaction. In order to be capable of offering revolutionary resistance, the masses must be prepared for such action mentally, materially and by organization. They must understand the inevitability of a more and more savage class struggle, and its transformation, at a certain stage, into civil war.’
(Where Is Britain Going?, 1925)
Any active participant in the anti-household/water charges movement in Ireland will know that despite the occasional rhetorical nod in the direction of working class self-organisation the SPI made no attempt to concretely build organisations that pointed in the direction of workers’ councils (I remember at one public meeting Paul Murphy bursting into laughter when I described the anti-household charges organisation in Cork as being the embryo of workers’ councils – clearly the basic revolutionary Marxist idea of wanting to build towards workers’ councils was absurd to him). Instead their intervention into this militant mass working class movement was to create an organisation (the Anti-Austerity Alliance) primarily designed to be an electoral machine in the capitalist shell game of parliamentary democracy.
So the reason I can confidently predict that the really dangerous ideas of revolutionary Marxism – on smashing the existing capitalist state and building workers’ councils as the basis for a new form of state power – won’t be talked about much, if at all, at the SPI conference is that they are an organisation with a political programme that is in direct contradiction to these key ideas of revolutionary Marxism that were a central component of the programme that led to the successful Russian Revolution.
I continually meet SPI youth who sincerely believe that they are revolutionary Marxists and are in an organisation with a programme capable of being an active part of the vanguard in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. I hope any of those youth who read this blog post are able to find the time to think carefully and seriously about why their organisation presents a political perspective to the Irish working class that diverges so far from the perspective outlined in Lenin’s “State and Revolution”.