Some dangerous ideas you won’t hear talked about at the Socialist Party conference this weekend

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”.


4 Responses to “Some dangerous ideas you won’t hear talked about at the Socialist Party conference this weekend”

  1. October 16, 2016 at 15:18

    Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    Good post by Alan Gibson in Cork against the Parliamentary road to socialism illusions fostered by the Socialist Party in Ireland.

  2. 2 Hank
    October 21, 2016 at 18:55

    Lol have you never read “Left Communism?” If you are going to lambaste the SPI’s perspectives at least do so honestly. The reason why a call for worker’s councils is laughable is not because we disagree with the concept of workers councils, but that there is a question of epochs vs. moments. In this epoch, yes we need workers councils to replace the parliamentary system. But does that mean that the subjective forces of revolutionary socialism are capable of building this at this particular moment when the wider masses are only in the last five years beginning to raise their heads against the domination of capital? We can’t build the whole revolution by ourselves, we can only point the way forward, walking one step ahead of the masses.

    Sure you can take two quotes by Peter Taffe out of context(which I’m not sure are accurately quoted but lets just for the sake of convenience suppose they are) but that doesn’t mean that the position of the organization is somehow against workers councils or having illusions that the dictatorship of the proletariat or socialism will be achieved through the bourgeoisie. When you are having a public meeting full of newly radicalizing youth, is it better to talk about the abstract concept of workers councils or is it better to talk about the struggles and issues relevant this year, and then recruiting them to a leninist party and later explaining the need to break from bourgeoisie institutions. When you are actually organizing youth and workers in struggle you realize the need for principled but flexible tactics. Why would we bother reading State and Revolution (which is obviously one of our main texts for new members) if we didn’t agree with the ideas put forward by Lenin?

    • October 24, 2016 at 14:11

      Thanks for the comment Hank.

      Yes I have read Lenin’s “Left-wing Communism” though I am unsure what it has to do with what I wrote. The left-wing communists Lenin is arguing against had it as a matter of principle that communists should never participate in capitalist elections. That is not my criticism.

      Both quotes by Taaffe are a matter of public record. They are available on the CWI’s own web sites – http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/html_article/2006-446-militant and http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/7687. Is that “convenient” enough for you?

      I have been factually accurate in my criticisms and it seems our real political difference is over your comment that the job of revolutionaries is to “walk one step ahead of the masses”.

      It is true that the agitational demands put forward need to as best possible engage with the current consciousness of the working class but that is not the same thing as having some kind of “revealed truth”, one step at a time, approach to the overall programme presented to our fellow workers.

      Certainly it was not the approach of Leon Trotsky who the CWI claims to stand in the political tradition of:

      “We have repeated many times that the scientific character of our activity consists in the fact that we adapt our program not to political conjunctures or the thought or mood of the masses as this mood is today, but we adapt our program to the objective situation as it is represented by the economic class structure of society. The mentality can be backward; then the political task of the party is to bring the mentality into harmony with the objective facts, to make the workers understand the objective task. But we cannot adapt the program to the backward mentality of the workers, the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor — the prime factor is the objective situation. That is why we have heard these criticisms or these appreciations that some parts of the program do not conform to the situation.”
      (‘Discussions With Trotsky: On the Transitional Program’, 7 June 1938)

      “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules of the Fourth International.”
      Transitional Program

      The immediate demands communists raise that engage with the current consciousness of the working class also need to be consistent with the final project.

      It is my contention that the emphasis on the parliamentary road to overthrowing capitalism through reforms (as outlined in the two Taaffe quotes and SPI major documents like their alternative budget statements) and proposing “community control” of the existing capitalist state apparatus are not consistent with the core ideas outlined in Lenin’s “State and Revolution” – rather they are a reformist alternative that stands in direct contradiction to those revolutionary ideas.

      I am not calling for the immediate creation of fully formed workers’ councils. You correctly point out that the political conditions for them do not yet exist. But I believe it is the job of revolutionary Marxists to try to get that idea across in the current class struggle.

      My own experience in the anti-household/water charges movement (in Cobh and the wider Cork region) shows that it is quite possible to get across the idea of building organisational forms that point in the direction of workers councils – not just in abstract but in very practical terms. The SPI showed no interest at all in facilitating and encouraging these real-life developments of workers’ democracy and instead built another model designed solely for standing in the capitalist elections.

      I’d be interested to know what you would make of the following attempt to get across the idea of workers’ councils (produced in the current British context). Is it the kind of thing that should be being presented to “the masses” right now or would you say it would be an example of left-wing communism to do so?

      “A genuine socialist government would not be dictatorial. On the contrary, it would extend and deepen democracy enormously. This would be much more far-reaching than the parliamentary democracies of capitalism where we simply get to vote every few years for MPs who do whatever they like once elected. Instead, everyone would get to take part in deciding how society and the economy would be run.

      “Nationally, regionally and locally – at every level – elected representatives would be accountable and subject to instant recall. Therefore, if the people who had elected them did not like what their representative did, they could make them stand for immediate re-election and, if they wished, replace them with someone else.”

      “There is another crucial sense in which democracy would be far fuller in a socialist society. Under capitalism most of the important decisions are not taken in Westminster or local council chambers, they are taken in the boardrooms of the big corporations. By contrast, a socialist government would bring major industry into democratic public ownership.

      “It would be necessary to draw up a plan, involving the whole of society, on what industry needed to produce. At every level, in communities and workplaces, committees would be set up and would elect representatives to regional and national government – again on the basis of recall at anytime if they disagreed with their decisions. Everybody would be able to participate in real decision-making about how best to run society.

      “Many people will argue that this is utopian, that people would not be bothered to participate in such bodies. Yet in every mass struggle – from the Paris Commune of 1871 onwards – the embryos of this type of structure have come into existence. In Britain during the struggle to defeat the poll tax, when 18 million refused to pay the iniquitous tax, hundreds of thousands of people took part in meetings to plan the campaign. While the anti-poll tax unions were only temporary bodies, organised to fight against a single Tory attack, they nonetheless give a glimpse of working people’s capacity to organise.

      “Even today, thousands of working-class people attend their tenants’ associations and other community meetings. And organisations in a workers’ state would be completely different to the toothless bodies that working-class people are currently allowed to take part in – the committees would actually have the power to say how the economy and society is organised.”

  3. October 25, 2016 at 10:13

    Also – you say “Why would we bother reading State and Revolution (which is obviously one of our main texts for new members) if we didn’t agree with the ideas put forward by Lenin?”

    Well people can have all kinds of strange disconnects between what they internally believe they agree with and what they actually do in practice. For instance I attended a study group run by the Connolly Youth Movement (Youth group of the Communist Party of Ireland) which discussed various Marxist texts. The participants seemed to sincerely believe they were implementing those ideas despite what I am sure you would agree is a political practice which is at best a “Marxism” that is highly distorted by their Stalinism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: