some thoughts on this year’s “marxism” in London

The IBT had me come over to London for the SWP’s “Marxism” event – to speak at an IBT fringe meeting on the situation in Ireland and to help out with the IBT general interventions and literature table.

My overall impression was that it seemed larger than previously and that the atmosphere was less sectarian towards the far-left (although the new venue meant that there was no real area for the far-left lit tables and there seemed less far-left present than usual). The SWP seem to be posing a bit more to the left than I remember from when I was living in London.

Their session on Ireland, with a presentation by Brian O’Boyle, was quite instructive in terms of how they view their priorities here. Brian didn’t even mention the ULA at all in his presentation and when a young Irish SWP comrade did refer to them from the floor it was to say it was only one area they were intervening in. I picked up on this when I spoke saying the non-aligned in the ULA were worried over whether the SWP was really committed to the project. Richard Boyd-Barrett replied directly to this point when he spoke and confirmed that they will be giving at least as much priority to campaigns outside the ULA as to the ULA itself.

Another small thing in Brian’s presentation was when he presented the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes as an SWP initiative, supported by some individuals. I took time in my intervention to point out that the SP and WSM had played something of a role as well. Why they feel the need to lie in this way is beyond me.

My notes for my presentation at the IBT fringe meeting are below. I didn’t read them verbatim but I stuck fairly close to the outline and points made so they are a pretty good reflection of my presentation.

The discussion in the meeting was quite interesting, helped by the presence of a visiting LRP comrade who asked some searching questions, and even the Sparts kept more-or-less to the point.


Context of international economic crisis and specific Irish problem of property bubble and associated unsustainable debts. Here are a few key facts about Ireland to give people an idea of the depth of the crisis and related austerity being imposed.

  • Official unemployment is just under 15%
  • 1,000 per week, mostly young, are leaving the country for work
  • House prices have decreased by over 50% since height of property bubble in 2007. Huge numbers of people are caught in a negative equity trap. 15% of mortgages are defined as “at risk” – being either in arrears or restructured.
  • The top 1% of the Irish population held 20% of the wealth, the top 2% controlled 30% and the top 5% disposed of 40% of private assets. Excluding the value of housing, the concentration of wealth mounts up to 1% controlling 34% of all wealth – the wealth of that top 1% being estimated at 130 billion.
  • Ireland is the world’s most profitable country for US corporations, according to analysis by US tax journal Tax Notes – the combined net profit of US corporations in Ireland doubled between 1999 and 2002 from $13.4bn to $26.8bn and was $48bn in Ireland in 2005
  • Irish corporation tax 12.5% but with various tax-write-offs and incentive schemes most multinationals actually only pay between 4 and 7%
  • Multinationals account for around 90% of exports and well over 70% of total production. As exports account for over 90% of GDP we can see that the Irish economy is completely dependent on multinationals. A large proportion of local companies either provide support and services, or are part of the supply-chain, for those multinationals.
  • 42% of MNCs are US based, 19% British, 18% rest of Europe, 13% Irish owned, 8% rest of world.
    2007 study

The Irish banks suffered a major liquidity crisis in 2008. In November of that year the government guaranteed 440 billion of deposits in the main Irish banks. Between 2009 & 2011 the government poured money into the banks in an effort to recapitalise them enough to get credit flowing and make them profitable and all the major Irish banks are now fully or partially nationalised – though they operate as completely commercial entities and the government claims it cannot intervene in their day-to-day workings. The government has essentially turned the private bank debt into a public sovereign debt – and we know who will shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for paying that. The recently announced restructuring of debt so that banks will receive bailouts separate from funds for sovereign debt is therefore largely irrelevant in the Irish context as all the banks are effectively nationalised anyway.

Ireland has already witnessed more than 20 billion in ‘fiscal adjustment’ (spending cuts and tax increases), what leading Irish economist Karl Whelan described as “the largest budgetary adjustments seen anywhere in the advanced economic world in modern times”. The budget in December 2012 will see further spending cuts and tax hikes of 3.8 billion, with more to come in subsequent years.

In November 2010 the government had to seek support from the IMF/ECB/EU to the tune of 85 billion at only just below market rates. This loan from “the troika” does not come without strings and we have now had 4 austerity budgets as the government cuts back on state expenditure.

But this isn’t just about these big numbers and the macro economic realities – this has had a real impact on working people. I am far from the worst affected as I still have a job but I have gone from being comfortable to only just having my head above water.

As a worker in the state sector I have had a direct pay cut of 15% and while my nominal income tax rate has not changed the new “Universal Social Charge” has seen the amount of my real tax paid increase by just over 5%. The government had also introduced a recruitment freeze so those of us in work are being forced to do more – my own experience is of an IT department of 6 reduced to 4.

Although the government claims that the recruitment freeze will not affect “front-line” services the reality is of course that the whole public service is under great stress.

Many private companies are also taking advantage of the general downturn to freeze or even cut wages. Putting workers on short weeks being another common tactic to decrease wage costs. For instance my wife Anne, who many of you will know, has been on a 4-day week, although her workload remains virtually the same, for well over a year. She is of course also liable for the USC.

Another difference with Britain is the number of extra costs for working people. Looking just at health – 100 for A&E. 50-60 for each doctor visit & no subsidy on prescriptions (although maximum of 170 per month if join special govt scheme).  Pay for many other things – like 195 for my recent MRI scan. If you have to stay in a public hospital it is 75 per day or 175 per week for long stay. So many people have tended to opt for private health insurance but as that can cost an average family of four in the region of 2000-3000 per year for a mid-range package but they are now dropping out at a rate of well over 1,000 a week as that is becoming unaffordable.

The most crazy example of these direct charges for services I was used to getting for free at the point of delivery when I lived in Britain is the fire brigade where having a fire engine attend a fire at your house can cost anywhere up to a couple of hundred euros depending on where you live.

There are many of these indirect flat-rate taxes and charges which fall more unequally on working people given our smaller disposable incomes.

However it is around one of these flat-rate that the biggest resistance to the government’s austerity drive has occurred. This is the Household Charge. Nominally to pay for local services – though of course it is really to fund the bank bail-out with the govt having cut local council funding by the amount they expect to be collected and thus throwing the responsibility for collection on to the local councils. Although the household charge is fairly modest at only 100 euros per residential property it is important for the government because part of the process involves self-registration which is an important part of developing a database of properties for the much more significant (500-800 for average workers’ home) property tax planned for next year along with water metering and direct charges (probably around 500 for an average family) in 2014.

In response to this the organised far-left initiated a united-front campaign in opposition to this. The Campaign Against Household & Water Charges has been very successful so far with over 50% of liable households not registering for, or paying any of, the charge. More importantly the campaign has been committed to building a network of local campaign groups who funnel up to regional and national bodies through a delegate structure. The reality of course is that structure works better in some areas than others and the two main left groups (SP & SWP) still largely control things but that is being challenged as the reality of this semi-mass campaign becomes more real on the ground. The next test for the campaign will be the direct challenge of the state as they seek to prosecute non-payers, likely in the Autumn. Then there will be the installation of water meters presumed to start later this year. And the much higher property tax that they plan for 2013 – An interesting thing about the anti-household tax campaign is the age demographic. The vast majority of activists being well over 40 with only a handful in their 20s and 30s. I can only attribute this to an entire generation of Irish working people having lost even a rudimentary class consciousness as a result of the class collaborationist betrayal of the trade union leaders in a world where “class” and “socialism” are dirty words following the collapse of the Soviet Union .The answer to problems for this layer tends to be seen much more in emigration rather than militant class struggle. How to involve young people is a strategic issue for the anti-household tax campaign and indeed the workers’ movement in a general sense.

Related to this is another important difference about politics in Ireland from Britain. That is the role of bourgeois populism. The Irish Labour Party does not play the same social role as its British counter-part and historically. Much of that social role has actually been played by Fianna Fail, the establishment bourgeois party which since the formation of its first government in 1932 has been in power for 61 of the last 80 years. Although Fianna Fail suffered a catastrophic electoral collapse in the last election (71 to 20 seats) it has been the smaller bourgeois populist party, Sinn Fein, that has been the main beneficiary especially as the LP went into the popular front government, as the junior partner with Fine Gael, which is carrying out the vicious austerity attacks.

The attitude of Sinn Fein towards the household taxes has been interesting. They have projected themselves as part of the campaign of opposition while in reality refusing to participate because of a position of not calling on people not to pay or register. There are some isolated cases of Sinn Fein members participating, as in my local group in Cobh, but they do so as conscious rebels and are the exception not the rule.

Given the general political strength of bourgeois populism in Irish society the danger of popular frontism (ie, leftists getting involved in a strategic alliance with bourgeois forces limited by the bounds of bourgeois legality) taking root in the anti-household tax campaign is a very real one and if Sinn Fein chose to participate that would become a major political problem.

Over recent months, Sinn Fein has been concentrating on leading the campaign for a No vote in the referendum on the EU Austerity Treaty. This was the right way to vote – the referendum polarised society, becoming a choice for or against austerity (or “stability” as the government called it). However, Sinn Fein’s approach was to argue that Ireland would be better off outside the EU without otherwise making any fundamental change to the basic political structures. As I described earlier, much of the Irish economy is owned by imperialist multi-nationals (EU and non-EU). Unless Sinn Fein are planning to expropriate them, which it is clearly not, little would change in the dire situation of Irish workers. And the Irish bourgeoisie is equally keen to move the cost of Ireland’s financial problems to the workers.

But back to the household taxes. Why build a campaign on just one issue? Practical reasons, in that the charges are not taken direct from wages and people have to register. Because it is an issue that potentially affects the entire Irish working class, and that is strongly felt. But it also gives the campaign clarity and focus. A victory or partial victory would provide a springboard for fights to come.Whether the CAHWT will be strong enough to defeat these attacks is unknown but even in defeat valuable lessons can be learnt that could prove essential in rebuilding militancy and class consciousness in a working class that has been atomised by 20 years of Social Partnership betrayal by the trade unions combined with a few crumbs from the so-called “Celtic Tiger” that made billions for the multinationals and the Irish capitalists.

To give an example of one of these lessons  – I argue within the CAHWT that we should be committed to defending nonpayers from state retaliation by both legal and extra-legal means. The government will soon begin sending out threatening letters, and this is likely to escalate to targeting of particular individuals and activists. We need to  organise legal and financial assistance as well as planning for direct mass action against attempts by the Sheriff and bailiffs to seize property. In the near future we will also need effective tactics to prevent the installation of water meters – perhaps by denying installation teams access to estates. This kind of direct action overlaps with defence against property seizures and house repossessions by credit card companies and banks. We can expect that any serious mobilisation of the collective power of workers, whether in non-payment campaigns, militant mass demonstrations, or strikes and work-place occupations will be met by furious resistance from all branches of the state apparatus (bureaucracy, judiciary, military and the Gardaí) to defend the wealth of the capitalist parasites.

In response, working people will need to create effective bodies for self-defence – not only of our homes and possessions, but also our demonstrations, strikes and occupations. The creation of such bodies – by projecting working class power and self-reliance – points in the direction of a potentially radical reconstruction of the entire social order: the expropriation of capitalist property and the replacement of their state by one composed of democratically elected bodies, with representatives from workplaces and working-class communities, committed to establishing a more just and egalitarian social order in which production is governed by the principle of meeting human need, not maximising profit.

Most groups that claim to be socialist are refusing to pose the crucial question of how to go about organising effective working-class self defence. Without some serious consideration of how to respond to the inevitable capitalist counterattack, all talk of resistance to the capitalist offensive is little more than empty blather.

There are discussions and differences in the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes on these issues and the recent first national conference passed a motion calling for the campaign to stop campaigning on a single issue and transform itself into a general anti-austerity campaign with a Charter of Objectives.

I think this is a mistake because a “Charter of Objectives” against all austerity is really the programme of a political party not a united front campaign.

Too often the left confuses these two types of organisation. In this concrete case it could result in an anti-austerity campaign that adopts a programme that others in the current anti-household tax campaign do not agree with and would wreck the fragile unity that the campaign has achieved so far.

A long statement of “anti-austerity objectives” is not necessary to fight the immediate battles while at the same time almost certainly being completely inadequate as a programme for solving the underlying reasons for the austerity.

But on the other hand it is also true that it this motion to the anti-household tax conference does represent a good impulse to generalise the response to the government’s attacks and hopefully it will develop in a healthy direction of technical co-ordination between united front campaigns However any anti-austerity initiative that pretends to be more than just a basis for collaboration on the immediate effects of austerity and debate over the strategic answers to the root of the problem is just the fake unity of what the IBT tradition calls a propaganda bloc.

Of course the reality is that if we really want to defeat the attacks then the kind of principled co-ordination I refer to will just be the first step and we will actually need to go much further by building working class organisations that can confront the bosses and their government in a mass way. It will be essential to use the power of the unions, which means breaking with the collaborationist “Social Partnership” politics of the union leaders, in favour of a militant class-struggle programme. Rather than the fake unity of an anti-austerity propaganda bloc an essential part of this will be the creation of a revolutionary party able to win leadership of the movement from the centrists, reformists and, in the Irish context, bourgeois populists. A leadership that can ultimately result in the working class seizing power from the capitalist state and bring into being the rule of workers’ councils – a workers’ state.

And that is not just a project for people like me living in Ireland. The Irish revolution remains completely intertwined with the development of the British, and wider European, working class movements as the domination of Ireland by the multinationals and the integration of the Irish economy into the British and European economies clearly indicates. There is also the issue of the remaining British military presence and the need to rebuild a British Troops Out of Ireland movement over here.

Internationalism is not a luxury for the Irish workers’ movement and we will need close co-operation with the British and European workers’ movement at all levels including in terms of the revolutionary party.

I therefore look forward to working with all of you in this room, to varying degrees depending on our level of common political understanding of course, in that project – for an Irish Workers’ Republic within a Socialist Federation of Europe.



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